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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible What is This? Provides accessible, authoritative coverage for all major topics pertaining to the study of the Books of the Bible.

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The English name of the book of Psalms comes from the Latin Vulgate's Liber Psalmorum, which is based on the Septuagint's title Psalmoi, “songs to be accompanied by a stringed instrument” (psalterion). The alternative English name for the book, “the Psalter,” is based on the title given to the book in the fifth-century C.E. manuscript of the Septuagint (LXX) called Codex Alexandrinus, Psalterion. The Hebrew name of the book is tĕhillîm, “Praises.” The unusual masculine plural noun may be compared in form to qînîm, “dirges,” in Ezekiel 2:10, and could be construed as an abstract noun, “praise” (cf. šîr ʿaăgābîm in Ezek 33:32). Praise, however, is only one of the many genres in the book (see below).

Position in the Canon.

Psalms occupies the first position in the division of the Hebrew Bible called the Ketuvim (Writings), which in the Jewish tradition is the third section of the Bible. In the Christian tradition, based on the LXX, Psalms is part of the second division of the canon, often called the poetical and wisdom books, which comes before the prophetic books. Older Jewish traditions, preserved in the Talmud and in some manuscripts, indicate that Psalms was sometimes preceded in the Writings by Ruth and, occasionally Chronicles, perhaps because both books reinforce the claim of Davidic authorship of many psalms, since Ruth ends with the genealogy of David, and 1 Chronicles recounts the establishment by him of the guilds of Temple singers, some of whom, like David himself, are presented as authors of psalms. The primacy of the book of Psalms within the Writings is reflected by the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible mentioned in Luke 24:44 (“the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms”), as well as by other ancient sources.


The view that David composed the entire book of Psalms is found only late, in rabbinic literature (Midr. Ps. on 1:2; B. Bat. 14b, 15a; Pesaḥ. 117a), and overlooks the fact that only 73 of the 150 canonical psalms are specifically ascribed to David (though more are attributed to him in the LXX). Thirteen psalms have historical rubrics that connect them with supposed events in David's career. The Davidic connection may stem from older traditions, which present David as a musician at the court of Saul, and as the “sweet singer of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1 [RSV]; cf. Amos 6:5). Certainly relevant is the Chronicler's portrayal of David as patron of Temple worship, and, especially, as the one who established the guilds of Levitical Temple musicians (1 Chr 15–16).

The superscription to David in Hebrew, lĕdāwîd, however, is ambiguous. It may mean “by David,” but normal usage of the preposition suggests rather “for David,” that is, belonging to David in a larger


King David Playing the Bells.

Seventy-three of the 150 canonical psalms are ascribed to David. Illustration from a thirteenth-century psalter, MS 368, fol. 66.


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sense as a psalm written for him or dedicated to him (or perhaps the Davidic king in general). The same dual possibility also applies to the use of with “the sons of Korah,” “the sons of Asaph,” and the other ascriptions in Psalms (see below). Certainly, lĕ is likely to mean “for, on behalf of, for the use of” in the heading to Psalm 102 le‘ānî, “for the afflicted.” Although the Davidic connection goes back at least as far as Chronicles (probably late fourth or early third century B.C.E.), it must been seen as an aspect of the later Jewish tendency to give all books a known author, a tendency manifested already in some books of the Writings, such as Proverbs, Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), and the Song of Songs, all assigned to Solomon (cf. also the heading to Ps 72; the Dead Sea scroll 11QPsa claims David wrote 3,600 psalms).

In contrast, most modern scholars have tended to attribute most of the canonical psalms to the kinds of guilds of singers and musicians said to have been established by David according to 1 Chronicles 15–16. It is unclear, however, whether such guilds reflect only the Second Temple, or whether they existed in the First Temple period. Hypotheses concerning authorship of this sort are plagued by a general lack of knowledge concerning the processes involved in the composition, compilation, and canonization of the Psalter, not to mention assessment of purported nonbiblical parallels pertaining to such guilds and singers elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Also involved are theories about the nature and role of literary genres in the book of Psalms. In addition, theories of authorship are influenced by the perceived role and placement of the Psalter in Israelite religion and, inevitably, by the history of scholarship on the book itself. In sum, the problems of authorship, composition, and interpretation are extraordinarily complex with regard to the book of Psalms. The best place to begin discussion is with the structure of the book. Then one can proceed to a description of its contents and literary forms, especially the supposed genres, and from there to the larger issues of authorship, intent, and overall meaning.

Structure and Compilation of the Book.

The book of Psalms comprises 150 chapters in the Hebrew Bible. The LXX contains the same number but combines Psalms 9 and 10 and Psalms 114 and 115, and divides Psalms 116 and 147 into two psalms. This results in some inconsistencies in numbering between Jewish and Christian traditions, although most translations now follow the numbering of the Masoretic Text. 11QPsa adds a 151st psalm, as well as Psalms 154 and 155, known also from the Syriac tradition. The Masoretic tradition divides the book of Psalms into five smaller “books”: Book One (Pss 1–41), Book Two (Pss 42–72), Book Three (Pss 73–89), Book Four (Pss 90–106), and Book Five (Pss 107–150). Books One through Four end with a clearly liturgical formula. Book Five has no such formula, but it is possible that Psalm 150 may be intended to fill that role; or perhaps the final group of psalms, Psalms 145–150 (the Hallelujah Psalms), function in this way.

It is generally agreed that some of these intra-Psalmic “books” may represent originally separate collections. This is especially true of Books One through Three, which contain evidence of two discrete groupings of psalms demarcated by the usage of the divine names Yahweh (“the LORD”) and Elohim (“God”). In Book One (Pss 1–41), Yahweh is the preferred term for the deity, as also in Psalms 84–150. In these psalms the ratio of Yahweh to Elohim is roughly 6:1 (586:94). In Psalms 42–83 the ratio is reversed, favoring Elohim over Yahweh by roughly 1:5 (45:210). Scholars therefore generally view Psalms 1–41 as a “J” or Yahwistic collection (“J” from the German equivalent to Yahweh) and Psalms 42–83 as an “E” or Elohistic collection, the latter now split between Book Two and Three. Because there are a few psalms that are repeated with the appropriate replacement of Yahweh by Elohim (see especially Psalms 14 and 53), it seems likely that the original core of the book of Psalms was the Yahwistic collection of Book One, Psalms 3–41 (on Psalms 1 and 2, see discussion below), to which was added the Elohistic collection of Psalms 42–83. Almost all the psalms in the Yahwistic collection have a Davidic attribution. The exceptions are Psalm 10, which is joined to Psalm 9 in the LXX and forms a single acrostic, and Psalm 33, which has a Davidic heading in the LXX that may have been lost in the Hebrew.

The Elohistic collection of Book Two (Pss 42–72) contains a core of Davidic psalms (Pss 51–65, 68–70), and it may have been the presence of these Davidic psalms in the collection that led to its being attached to Book One. But Book Two also contains a collection of psalms attributed to the Korahite Temple guild of singers, Psalms 42–49 (Psalm 43 has no rubric, but its refrain shows that it is a unit with Psalm 42), and one (Psalm 50) by another Temple guild, Asaph. Despite the fact that Psalm 72 is ascribed to Solomon, and a few psalms are unattributed, the Davidic core sufficed for an editor to place a rubric at the end of Psalm 72 stating that “the prayers of David son of Jesse are ended” (Ps 72:20).

The next stage was the addition of Book Three, Psalms 73–89, which contains only one Davidic psalm (Ps 86) and is basically a collection of psalms by the Levitical guilds whose names appear in Book Two: Asaph (Pss 73–83, which are all Elohistic), Korah (Pss 84–85, 87–88), plus Psalms 88 and 89, attributed to two other guilds, Heman and Ethan, respectively.

Books Four and Five seem to have been added later, and the break between them, demarcated by the liturgical ending of Psalm 106, may be secondary, in order to make the book of Psalms into a “Pentateuch” (see further below). These books seem to consist of runs of psalms that share some common feature of title or content. Most clearly united by title are Psalms 120–134, the “Songs of Ascents” (which may mean that they are to be viewed as pilgrimage songs sung during the journey up to Jerusalem), and the Hallelujah psalms (the term occurs only in Books Four and Five): Psalms 111–118 (Ps 114 probably belongs together with 113, and Ps 118 with the very short Ps 117). Also seeming to form a discrete collection determined loosely by content are the so-called enthronement psalms (Pss 93, 96–100), which describe the LORD as king over all creation. A Davidic run seems to be formed by Psalms 108–110 and a longer one by Psalms 138–145 (the only other psalm ascribed to David in these books is 101). Psalms 105–110 comprise a historical series, and Psalms 135–136 are doxologies characterized by the refrain “for (God's) loyalty endures forever!” and are also Hallelujah psalms. Psalms 146–150 form an additional and final Hallelujah section, intended to end Book Five with a liturgy, like Books One through Four, though longer, because it also ends the entire book of Psalms. Books Four and Five are marked by a strong liturgical emphasis in general, of which the Hallelujah sections are the clearest examples. Another feature of these books is the strong presence of wisdom themes, in Psalms 90 (the “Prayer of Moses”) 92, 94, 139, and especially 119. The combination of liturgical and wisdom emphases, along with indications of later language and poetic form, especially in many of the “Songs of Ascents,” has led most scholars to view Books Four and Five as the last additions to the book of Psalms, perhaps as a single book that was even later divided after Psalm 106 into two books to complete the pentateuchal pattern.

At the final stage Psalms 1 and 2 were placed at the beginning of the book, as a general introduction. Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm—specifically, a Torah psalm (see below)—and is probably intended to present the book of Psalms, or perhaps the whole of the Writings, as a form of Torah, to be contemplated and discussed like the Law of Moses (cf. Ps 1:2). Psalm 2 is probably an introduction to the Davidic collection, intended to place the following psalms in a royal—and, probably, eschatological—messianic light. That Psalms 1 and 2 form a separate unit by themselves is indicated by the use of similar language in the first words of Psalm 1:1 and the last words of Psalm 2:12. Perhaps it was at this final stage that the liturgical Hallelujah psalms (Pss 146–150) were appended to the end of the book, presenting the work as not only one of Torah and eschatology but also of praise, from which it then received its Hebrew name, tĕhillîm, “Praises.” It is fairly certain that the book as a whole received its basic contours by the second century B.C.E., as reflected in the Hebrew behind the LXX and the Qumran scrolls (Sanders 1967).

In light of the above, the compositional history of the book of Psalms, though complex, is relatively clear in its basic outlines compared with that of many biblical books. The real problems lie not in the process of the book's compilation as a whole but in the perplexing issues involved in the original composition and use of the individual psalms. There is often a wide discrepancy between the date of the probable composition of a psalm and the date of its inclusion in the Psalter. For example, Psalm 110, a “royal psalm” (see discussion below), is almost certainly old, yet it is in what is probably the latest compiled part of the Psalter, Book Five. Psalm 132 is one of the “Songs of Ascent,” most of which seem to be late, yet it is also one of the “royal psalms,” and, like those latter, its language and contents seem to be relatively early. The many problems involved in discussing the dating, form, and function of the original individual psalms will be treated in some detail below.

Rubrics and Technical Terms Used in the Book.

All but twenty-four psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a rubric, or heading, consisting of one or more terms: Psalms 1, 2 (probably forming a single unit; see above), 10 (to be joined to 9 by the acrostic form) 33, 43 (to be joined to 42 by the refrain), 71, 91, 93–97, 99, 104–107, 114 (probably forming a unit with Psalm 113), 115–119, and 137. Some of these, like Psalms 33 and 91, have a heading in the LXX, which may or may not be original. Some psalms (Pss 111–113, 135, 146–150) have only hallelujah as a heading. Psalm 114 is probably to be joined to Psalms 113 and 136 may receive its rubric from the end of Psalm 135. The headings fall into several categories:

Authorial or Pseudepigraphical Headings.

+ proper name, which may indicate supposed authorship or dedication (see discussion above). The ascriptions are to David (73 psalms), the sons of Korah (11 psalms), and Asaph (12 psalms). Two psalms are assigned to Solomon: 72 and 127. One psalm each is assigned to Heman, Ethan, and Moses. Psalm 88 has a double ascription, to Ethan and the Korahites. Psalms 39, 62, and 77 are assigned to Jeduthun, but the fact that the first two are also Davidic and the third assigned to Asaph may indicate that Jeduthun is not to be taken as a name, but as a musical instrument or in some other way. To be sure, Jeduthun appears as a Levitical singer in 1 Chronicles 16:41 and 2 Chronicles 5:12, but this may be a later extrapolation from the headings to the psalms in question. Asaph, Ethan, and Heman appear as Levitical musicians and singers in 1 Chronicles 15–16. Ethan and Heman are also mentioned in 1 Kings 4:31 [Heb. 5:11] as famous wise men. There Ethan is termed “the Ezrahite,” as he is also described in the heading to Psalm 89 and as Heman is in the heading to Psalm 88. The term may mean “native, autochthonous,” perhaps indicating that the clans or guilds they represent were ritual functionaries descended from Canaanites, like the Gibeonites (see Josh 9). The “sons of Korah” are to be related to the rebellious Korah of Numbers 16, or, specifically to his children, who escaped their father's fate (Num 26:11). Their Levitical function of praising God is otherwise mentioned only in relation to Jehoshaphat's ceremony in 2 Chronicles 20:19. Korahites are mentioned also in 1 Chronicles 9:19, and Asaphite singers are among those who returned from exile with Ezra (Ezra 2:41; Neh 7:44; cf. also Ezra 2:65, 70 on the singers who returned with Zerubbabel).

Historical Headings.

Thirteen of the Davidic psalms have headings that associate the psalm with an event recounted from David's life in 1 and 2 Samuel (e.g., Ps 3 refers to 2 Sam 15, Ps 34 refers to 2 Sam 21:14). Usually the connection is general and vague. Psalm 18 is basically identical with 2 Samuel 22 and therefore belongs both with the psalms outside of the Psalter and those within it.

Genre Headings.

The headings of many psalms use terms that seem to refer to the genre of the piece. The most common term is mizmôr, “song to be sung to a musical instrument, hymn,” which appears as the title of fifty-seven psalms, always associated with a proper name, most commonly David (except in Ps 98, though the LXX also has “to David”). The verbal stem zammēr appears in the body of some psalms (e.g., Pss 21:14; 27:6; Ps 98:5). The Greek translation of the term is specifically psalmos, and since many more psalms fall into this category than have the heading, the reason for its limitation to fifty-seven psalms is unknown. The term may have a liturgical significance, of a song played and sung in a rite. Also fairly common is šîr, which in the Bible may be used of any type of song, secular or religious. The term occurs as the heading of 30 psalms (the feminine šîrâ occurs only in Ps 18:1). In five psalms it appears before mizmôr, in seven psalms it appears after that term. The phrase šîr hamaʿălôt, “song of ascents (or steps)” occurs before Psalms 120–134, though its precise meaning is uncertain (see above). Since the psalms it heads are of different literary genres, it most likely refers to an aspect of their setting or use. Often they are regarded as pilgrimage songs, a setting that may be observed most clearly in Psalms 121–122. According to rabbinic tradition, they were recited on the fifteen steps going up from the Court of the Israelites to the Women's Court, on which, according to the Mishnah, the Levites would sing during the annual ceremony of water drawing on Sukkot (Sukkah 5:4). The term nĕgînôt, which occurs six times (Pss 4, 6, 54, 55, 67, 76) clearly refers to accompaniment by a type of stringed instrument, such as the lyre. Less clear is the term maśkîl, which occurs thirteen times, always in conjunction with a proper name (Pss 32, 42, 44–45, 52–55, 74, 78, 88–89, 142; cf. Ps 47:8). The general sense of the term is “instructed, intelligent, capable,” but whether it refers to the performer or to the composition is uncertain. Note that in Psalm 45, where maśkîl appears in the heading, the psalmist compares his tongue to the pen of a skillful scribe (sôpēr māhîr), which may indicate the wisdom nature of the term, although the psalms it heads are not wisdom psalms. Also uncertain is the sense of miktām, which heads six psalms (Pss 16, 56–60), all also with lĕdāwîd. The LXX translates it as stēlographia (inscribed stele), and it is probably related to the term miktāb, “inscription,” used in Isaiah 38:9 of the psalm of thanksgiving of King Hezekiah. It has been connected to the practice of writing votive inscriptions of thanks for divine help, attested in the ancient Near East, and is an important clue to the original function of the psalms of petition and thanksgiving (see discussion below). Also clearly generic is the term tĕpillâ, “prayer, petition,” which heads five psalms (Pss 17, 86, 90, 102, 142). The term also occurs at the end of Book 2 (Ps 72:20), where it describes the contents of the entire first two books of the Psalter. The term tĕhillâ (“praise”) heads only one psalm, Psalm 145, despite the fact that the entire book of Psalms receives its Hebrew name from the plural tĕhillîm. In fact, petition and praise are the main genres in the book as a whole, and their appearance in the headings of only a few psalms indicates the rather loose and haphazard nature of the psalms headings in general with regard to the content of the psalms they head. A striking exception is šîr yĕdîdôt, “love song,” which is entirely appropriate for the royal marriage psalm it heads, Psalm 45. Also perhaps in this category is šiggāyôn (Ps 7; cf. Hab 3:1), which may be related to Akkadian šegû, “lamentation, dirge.”

Headings for Liturgical Occasions.

Only three psalms contain headings indicating the ritual occasion on which they are to be sung: Psalm 92: the Sabbath; Psalm 100: the sacrifice of thanksgiving (tôdâ, see below); and Psalm 30: the dedication of the house, presumably the Temple, but the reference is uncertain. The LXX states that Psalms 24, 48, 94, and 93 were to be recited on the first, second, fourth, and sixth days of the week, respectively, and adds liturgical occasions to several other psalms.

Musical Headings.

Some headings seem to refer to technical aspects of the performance of the psalm, such as the type of instrument to accompany the recitation, or the melody to be followed. The instructions were presumably to Temple singers and musicians of the Levitical guilds of the Second Temple. ʿal haggittît, “on the Gittite” (Pss 8, 81, 84), probably refers to a type of instrument from the town of Gath; ʿal haššĕmînît, “on the eighth” (Pss 6, 12; cf. 1 Chr 15:21),


Coins with Musical Instruments.

Lyres and trumpets, such as those depicted on these coins from 134–135 C.E., may have been used in Temple ceremonies. Photograph by Zev Radovan.


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where it occurs with kinnôr, “lyre”) to an eight-stringed harp or lyre; and bē/ʿal hannēgînôt, “for the instrument” (Pss 4, 6, 54–55, 61, 67, 76; cf. Hab 3:19), to some unspecified stringed instrument. The heading ʿalʾayyelet haššaḥar, “to the hind of the dawn” (Ps 22), may refer to a tune meant to accompany the psalm. The same may be the case also with the very puzzling ʿal yônat ʾēlem rĕḥŏqîm, “on the silent dove of distances,” or, with emendation, “dove of the distant terebinths,” or “dove of the distant gods” (Ps 56). Also very uncertain is the heading ʿal māḥălat (Pss 53, 88), perhaps “on the dance,” or “sickness,” or, with emendation to mĕḥōlōt, “on the pipes.” The heading ʿal ʿălāmôt, “on the maidens” (Ps 46; cf. 1 Chr 15:20), may refer to a type of voice, such as a soprano. The last words of Psalm 48:15, ʿal mût, “to death,” may actually be part of the heading to Psalm 49 and be emended to ʿălāmôt as well. Perhaps also connected is the heading of Psalm 9, ʿal mût labēn, “on the death of the son,” emended to ʿal ʿălāmôt. All of these headings are very obscure.

Instructional Headings.

Some headings seem to be instructional. Of these the most common is lamnaṣṣēaḥ, which heads 55 psalms (also Hab 3:19). Elsewhere the verbal form means “to inspect, oversee” or the like (Ezr 3:8; 1 Chr 23:4; 2 Chr 2:1–17). The traditional interpretation, “to the choir/music director”) understands the term to be a reference to the Levitical musicians or leaders. General instructional headings are lĕlammēd, “to teach” (Ps 60; cf. Deut 31:19 and 2 Sam 1:18); lĕʿannôt, “to humble, afflict” (Ps 88), perhaps referring to the penitential nature of the psalm (alternatively, “to sing, respond,” cf. Exod 15:21; 32:18); and lĕhazkîr, “to make known, praise, utter (a name)” (Pss 38, 70; cf. 1 Chr 16:4), which may have a general sense or be specifically linked to the incense offering (see Lev 2:2; 24:7). A negative instruction seems to be ʾal tašḥēt, “do not destroy” (Pss 57–59), accompanied three times by miktām, which may refer to an inscribed psalm (see above).


Ten psalms begin with this term (Pss 106, 111–113, 135, 146–150), which also can occur in the body of the psalm. Rather than a heading, it is an invocation to praise, “Praise Yah(weh)!” Hebrew hallēl is probably related to Akkadian alalu, “(work) song,” cf. alala in Akkadian (and Greek), “war shout.” These words are perhaps of onomatopoetic origin, like English “howl” and “ululate,” used of animal sounds.

Technical Terms inside Psalms.

The main term appearing inside a psalm is selâ, the sense of which is unknown. It appears seventy times, mainly in “Elohistic” psalms, and also in the “psalm” of Habakkuk (Hab 3:3, 9, 13). It usually appears at the end of a verse, or an entire psalm, occasionally in the middle of a verse, but never at the beginning. The usual view is that it represents some division marker or instruction to singers or musicians. Its Masoretic vocalization is uncertain, as is its root and form. As it stands, it may be a byform of the standard Hebrew root sll, “raise up”. The imperative sōllû occurs in Psalm 68:5 parallel to šîrû, “sing,” and zammĕrû, “hymn.” But whether the musicians or singers are being instructed to raise their pitch or volume is unknown, and it is very possible that the term had quite another meaning. The LXX's translation diapsalma, which may mean “musical interlude,” is probably a guess. Other suggestions, such as that it is an abbreviation, are even more speculative. The term higgāyôn appears together with selâ in Psalm 9:17. The term means “utterance” or the like. In Psalm 92:4 it appears in connection with the lyre, and may refer to some musical instruction.

Literary History.

In the case of Psalms, literary history is best discussed vis-à-vis the history of the study of the book. After Hermann Gunkel's pioneering work, scholarly study of the psalms mainly focused not on the relationship between individual psalms in their sequence in the canonical Psalter but rather on the relationship of psalms of the same literary type, or genre, to each other, and to their hypothetical function in ancient Israel's ritual. The book as a collection offers little help in this regard. It contains only scattered information, in the various headings and technical terms placed mainly at the head of many psalms, about the function and meaning of the psalms. As we saw above, this information is spotty, ambiguous, or obscure. The information regarding authorship, especially David's, reflects the pseudepigraphical tendencies of the postexilic period, starting at least with Chronicles, which assigned practically all biblical texts an “author.” The references to the Levitical Temple guilds are probably more significant. But did they also write psalms, as well as sing and play them? Little useful information is provided about the genres and uses of the psalms, and, in general, reconstruction of the preexilic form and function of psalms is uncertain and unavoidably speculative. The major scholarly views are based on what little biblical evidence may be gleaned, or inferred, on comparative evidence, mainly from Mesopotamia and Ugarit, and on interpretative models derived from other disciplines, mainly anthropology and comparative religion. We shall begin with a brief outline of Gunkel's approach to form criticism of the psalms and then discuss the main later developments of the interpretation of the Psalter in the late twentieth century, which have tended to move away from a strictly form-critical approach. From the study of the forms and content of the book, as interpreted by scholarship, one may then proceed to a discussion of the meaning of the book as a cultural and religious document.

Gunkel's approach reflected considerable subtlety, but also some serious internal contradiction. Later psalms scholarship generally reflected more of the contradiction than the subtlety. As mentioned above, Gunkel rejected a canonical, sequential approach to the book of Psalms. Rather, it was the link between psalms of the same formal type or genre (Gattung) that was crucial. The genres were to be isolated and examined by means of form-critical analysis, a method already well established in the analysis of the Gospels. Gunkel listed three major criteria that were necessary to establish a genre of psalms. The first was that the psalms in question must belong “to a specific occasion in the worship service, or at least derive from one. We must present this cultic occasion as precisely as possible” (Gunkel 1998, p. 16). The “cultic occasion” was the function of the psalm in Israel's religious culture, its Sitz im Leben (“life setting” or “setting-in-life”). The second requirement was “a common treasury of thoughts and moods. These are the ones which were provided by their life setting or which could be easily attached to it” (Gunkel 1998, p. 16). The third requirement is “common ‘language related to the form.’ Here is the place where the researcher cannot manage without certain aesthetic considerations” (Gunkel 1998, p. 16).

Problems emerge from these criteria. The third criterion involves an ambiguity in what is meant by “literary analysis.” Does it consist mainly of formal analysis of language (the “common treasury of language”), or, as Gunkel says, must the aesthetic aspect of interpretation also play a key role? Gunkel himself understood the term “literary” to mean both aspects—attention to detailed formal linguistic analysis and also openness to emotional, aesthetic penetration of psalms as individual poems. He felt that these two aspects of the literary focus, the formal and the aesthetic, reinforce each other, but it is clear that they can also be in tension. The formal aspect is essentially descriptive and open to the methods of scholarship. The emotional, aesthetic aspect is by nature individualistic. Later form-critical study of the psalms tended to abandon the aesthetic aspect of Gunkel's approach and confine itself to formal analysis. But there are also tensions, even contradictions, in Gunkel's other criteria for a genre. The second criterion is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to standardize; for example, how does one establish a “common treasury of thought,” and, especially, “moods”?

Perhaps the most troublesome problems proved to be those involving the concept of “setting-in-life.” This was the societal aspect of Gunkel's approach, and the core of his contribution. He held that the psalms, like all ancient literature, were rooted in functions in the life of the people. He surmised that the Psalms thus reflected the religious occasions for which they were composed. The psalms must then be viewed not as individual expressions of a particular author but rather in terms of the occasion they reflect; since the psalms are liturgical, this occasion must involve the public rituals of the Temple. In other words, the psalms are communal expressions. An Israelite poet was not at liberty to compose a psalm freely, but was bound by the conventions of the genre and the setting-in-life to which it was tied. Yet, as Gunkel himself notes, although one finds an “abundance of clues” to the “worship setting” of many psalms,

"“There are…other songs (they even form the majority in the psalter) which provide nothing, or almost nothing, in the way of such clues. By and large, they are of a more personal nature and stem from the religious life of the pious individual. It would appear to us to be a grave mistake if one were to overlook all this purely personal material and to explain the psalms wholesale as ‘cult songs’ ” (Gunkel 1998, 13; emphasis added)."

Such psalms he termed “spiritual poems,” the product of personal piety, even though the originals may have been composed in connection with religious ritual.

Gunkel's Basic Categories.

The implications of these contradictions will be discussed below, but Gunkel's basic categories have stood the test of time in their general outline, and they still form the basis of scholarly study of the Psalter, although they have been modified and supplemented by other methods and approaches. The main types established by Gunkel were, briefly, the following:

The hymn, to which Gunkel assigned about 25 psalms (e.g., Pss 8, 19, 29), and parts of many others belonging to other types. The Hebrew term seems to be tĕhillâ, which heads only Psalm 145 but which gave its name to the whole book, tĕhillîm (see above). Some of the major formal elements of the hymn include an opening invocation to praise God (e.g., “sing to Yahweh”) or a declaration of praise (“I shall sing”) and the extensive use of attributives and participles (“the one who…”). Gunkel's treatment of the themes of hymns was later developed and sharpened by Westermann (1981), who distinguished between “descriptive” praise of God, which dealt with his acts of creation and relationship to the world as a whole (cf. Pss 104 and 148), and “declarative” praise, which described his historical acts on behalf of Israel (cf. Pss 105–106; 135–136). The hymns in former category are similar in style and content to ancient near Eastern hymns in general. The declarative, historical type is unique to the Bible. The setting-in-life of hymns was worship, festivals, and occasions of pilgrimage. Gunkel listed two subcategories of hymns: the Zion Psalms (Pss 46–48), which describe the sanctity of Jerusalem, its impregnability as a place of refuge, and other themes that seem to have their setting-in-life in the Temple rituals. Related are the Enthronement Psalms (Pss 47, 93, 96–99), ecstatic hymns of rejoicing. In these poems, Yahweh is praised as king and is said to be coming to judge the earth, which here means to provide beneficently for its needs, so that all of nature and all peoples are thrown into paroxysms of joy. The setting-in-life may be that posited by Mowinckel (see below) or some other ritual. In older scholarship these psalms were regarded as “eschatological psalms,” reflecting prophetic messianism, especially the prophecy of Second Isaiah (cf. the statement that “Yahweh is king”: in Pss 47:8; 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; and 99:1; and Isa 52:7, and the reference to a “new song” in Pss 96:1 and 98:1; and Isa 42:10, among many other parallels, many of them verbatim). However, the direction and nature of the relationship between these psalms and Second Isaiah is still open (see below).

The communal complaint or communal lament, to which Gunkel assigned Psalms 44, 74, 79, 80, 83 and parts of other psalms, such as Psalm 89:39–52. In these psalms, which use the first person plural, the community complains of such disasters as war, exile, pestilence, drought, famine, locusts, and the like. The setting-in-life included times of fasting and other group penitential occasions in the Temple.

The royal psalms (Pss 2, 20–21, 45, 72, 110, 132) are prayers on behalf of a sitting Davidic king. Their setting-in-life was court ceremonies, when kings were enthroned, or in times of war (Pss 2, 20, 21), royal marriage (Ps 45), or other royal occasions. This genre is very similar to hymns on behalf of kings from Mesopotamia, especially with regard to themes like the wish of long life to the ruler (cf. Ps 21:5). Although these psalms were later reinterpreted in terms of eschatological messianism, their basic content is generally agreed to have a good claim on antiquity, since it is unlikely anyone would compose a hymn in praise of the king after the destruction of the Judean monarchy in 586 B.C.E.

Individual complaints or individual laments, now often called psalms of petition, form the largest single category of psalms, 39 in Gunkel's counting (e.g., Pss 3, 5–7, 13, 17, 22), although they also form part of psalms of other “mixed” categories. They are closely related to another genre, which Gunkel termed individual thanksgiving songs (see below). This is the genre that has engendered the most scholarly debate, and that is still at the core of basic issues with regard to the form, content, and function of the psalms in general. The Hebrew term for this genre seems to be tĕpillâ, which heads only five psalms but which is used as the colophon at the end of Book Two (Ps 72:20), seeming to describe their contents, though they contain psalms of different genres. Gunkel listed the main features of the individual lament genre as (1) an introductory call upon God, such as “I call upon Your name”; (2) a complaint, of varying length; and (3) a petition, also of different lengths, usually asking God to “see,” “hear,” “arise,” “help,” etc. These elements may be repeated and are quite varied in content. In general, the complaint is put in general terms of distress, which at times seems to be bodily pain, perhaps indicating sickness, and at other times mental anguish, shame, confusion, or despair. In only rare cases is a statement of a very specific trouble mentioned, such as in Psalm 69:3. Otherwise, the main cause of the psalmist's distress seems to be persecution by enemies who lie, deceive, hope for his fall, torment him, and so on. Striking is the fact that their major crimes often seem to involve verbal actions, such as mockery of God and the psalmist. Frequently there is an imprecation against these foes. Occasionally there is a penitential confession of sin on the part of the psalmist, as in Psalm 51:7 and 69:5 [Heb. 69:6]. In all but a few cases, such as Psalm 88, the psalm typically contains, usually at the end, (4) a statement of trust and confidence, using such terms as “I wait for you,” “I trust in you,” and “you will surely hear my prayer,” as in Psalms 3:8; 6:9 [Heb. 6:10]; 16:10. Gunkel termed this element the “certainty of being heard” (Gewissheit der Erhörung). It has played a large role in the discussion of the psalms (see below). Finally, there is often (5) a vow of praise. After his rescue by God, the psalmist will declare God's greatness in an assembly, which often seems to be held in connection with a thanksgiving sacrifice (tôdâ); for example, Psalms 22:25–26; 66:13–15. Gunkel noted the close similarity between these psalms and Babylonian parallels, often headed by the rubric šiptu, “incantation,” which indicated that they were associated with a ritual, although there is usually no sign of that in the contents of the prayer. They similarly consist of a hymnic invocation of a deity, a statement of complaint over troubles, a petition, and end with thanks and blessings. Later examples tend to be penitential, containing confessions of sin. In the first millennium B.C.E., collections of such prayers were made, forming a kind of prayer book of sorts (Falkenstein and von Soden 1953, pp. 46–47). Related to the genre of complaint or petition is a small one that Gunkel termed the psalm of confidence, in which elements like the enemies are absent or downplayed in favor of statements of trust (Pss 4, 23).

This is even clearer in the genre of individual thanksgiving songs, of which Gunkel found twenty examples (e.g., Pss 18, 30, 32, 34; including Pss 100 and 107, which contain plural forms, thus making them communal iterations), in addition to pieces of thanksgiving that are included in other genres. The setting-in-life of this genre, as also of the genre of individual petition, is “the cultic thanksgiving sacrifice” (tôdâ) and its declaration of praise, which may have involved written inscriptions of the sort attested for Hezekiah in Isaiah 38, which is termed a miktāb, “writing, inscription” (see above). In fact, Gunkel pointed out that the psalms of petition and thanksgiving differ mainly in that the distress of the psalmist is current in the former, whereas it is in the past in the latter. The psalm of individual thanksgiving consists of an opening declaration of thanks to God (“I thank you,” “I praise you”), followed by a narrative of what God has done for the psalmist. This usually contains a description of past distress—usually persecution by the same kind of foes that occur in the psalms of petition. Rarely, there is a confession of sin (see, e.g., Ps 32:5). Then follows the statement of thanks to God, usually in the company of the psalmist's friends, who may be referred to as “the righteous,” “the pious,” “the afflicted,” or other terms. Sometimes there is mention of a sacrificial meal of thanks (tôdâ), often in fulfillment of a vow, at which God's help to the psalmist will be acknowledged (the literal sense of hôdâ; see, e.g., Pss 56:12; 61:8; 116:12–19). Gunkel reconstructed the setting-in-life in some detail: perhaps at the annual ritual in which the community fulfilled its yearly vows, the psalmist and a group of family and friends gathered outside the Temple, stopped at the gates, proceeded through them, offered the sacrifice, ate the sacrificial meal, and heard the psalmist's declaration of divine help, thereby fulfilling the vow. All this is a reasonable extrapolation from the texts. Originally, Gunkel held that the psalms of thanksgiving would have been composed by religious officials, perhaps even Levites. Gunkel argued later that, like other psalmic genres, the thanksgiving was “freed” from formal ritual and became a “spiritual song” unconnected to a specific occasion, though it probably preserved its ritual linkage longer than the related psalms of complaint. The genres of complaint and thanksgiving go together, as Gunkel said, “like the two shells of a mussel,” and the setting-in-life reconstructed for both is less speculative than that of some other genres.

A Puzzling Problem.

The combination of praise and complaint in the psalms of petition, which the Babylonian parallels also display, does not make them into “mixed” psalms but rather follows from the logic of the genre. Praise puts the deity in a mood to heed one's petition and answer favorably. It is certainly the case that most psalms of complaint contain elements of praise. However, there is a problem with regard to the individual petition. The expression of trust in God that most of them have, usually at the end, expresses what Gunkel described as an abrupt “change in mood.” After statements of complaint and petition, the psalmist suddenly goes over to statements of trust and thanks, with no transition. The expression of confidence often takes the form of an apparent statement about the past, using a verb in the perfect tense, as if referring to a deliverance by God that is not in future time but that has already occurred: “you have helped me” rather than “I trust that you will help me” (see, e.g., Pss 3:8; 6:10; 13:6). Gunkel viewed this element of the form, the “certainty of being heard,” as a major expression of the individual nature of these psalms and of the attitude of faith and trust in God that they represent. Nevertheless, the exact meaning of this striking element remains unclear. The Babylonian petitions also end in praise, but there the tense is not past but instead present-future or precative (Meyer 1976)—that is, deliverance of the god is expected or requested, not stated as having already occurred. So the move from lament to praise remains the key problem and is connected to the often obscure system of Hebrew tenses in the Psalter.

Two main types of solutions have been offered. The first was already noted by Gunkel and was developed more fully later by Begrich. It involves a genre shift, expressive of an implied setting-in-life: after the psalmist stated his complaint and petition, he received an oracle, delivered either by a ritual prophet or a priest, that his petition would be answered (cf. 1 Sam 1). The oracle is enough for the psalmist to state that his prayer has already been answered, and to use the past tense. The parallels come from prophetic literature, in exhortations to Israel like “Do not fear!”—mainly in Second Isaiah (Isa 41:10, 14; 43:1, 5; 44:2; 51:7). But the oracle itself is never presented explicitly in any psalm using such terms as “thus says the LORD” or the like (the closest is Ps 35:3; cf. also 12:5). There is therefore some suspicion that this solution to the problem of the tenses may involve a serious systemic problem of form criticism—namely, the problem of establishing a hypothetical setting-in-life for a specific literary form, a problem that will be discussed below.

The other type of solution is linguistic. Older scholarship viewed past-tense verbs that referred to future events as a “prophetic perfect,” reflecting some sort of inner certitude, in which a prophet (or psalmist) is so certain that an event will occur that he describes it as if it had already happened. But most examples of this supposed phenomenon, like Isaiah 9:2–3 [Heb. 9:1–2], can equally well refer to past events, and the “prophetic perfect” must be viewed with suspicion. A more recent view is that the use of the perfect tense in the psalms in question may be related to an ancient function of that form as an optative mood, to express wishes or desires. This seems to be the origin of the consecutive perfect of the Hebrew system of tenses, which is now recognized as going back to Canaanite. The expressions of confidence would therefore likely be wishes, hopes, and desires rather than statements of fact: “may God help me,” rather than “God has helped me” (so Dahood 1966, p. xxxix). Further support comes from the fact that many examples of this phenomenon occur after imperatives or jussives. It would explain why the perfect forms in question can be followed by petitions, seeming to indicate that the seemingly past deliverance is really a hope or desire, as, for example in Psalms 85 and 126. The problem with this solution is that the optative use it posits seems to be restricted to the psalms and a few prophetic passages. Moreover, it is also possible that the Hebrew past tense is a kind of “gnomic perfect,” expressing a timeless, generally true statement that in English can be translated as present: “you (always) hear prayer” and the like. Such statements are really expressions of praise. The issue remains open, and it is one of the main problems in the interpretation of the psalms of petition, and of the religion of the Psalter as a whole (see the discussion below).

Gunkel also categorized several genres as “lesser.” Among these are the “victory psalm” and “the blessing,” marked by the use of “blessed” (bârûk) and “fortunate, happy” (ʾašrê). He also cited biblical religious and literary traditions, elements of which exerted influence on many disparate types of psalms. But should such psalms be considered genres in their own right? Some have called Psalms 51 and 81, which use prophetic forms, “prophetic psalms.” Sometimes psalms that use language and themes of the wisdom tradition have been termed “wisdom psalms,” but there has been wide disagreement about their number and the criteria that should be used in establishing them as a separate genre. Some scholars view as many as fourteen psalms as “wisdom psalms,” others as few as five or six. The same applies to “Torah psalms,” which seem to reflect later Torah piety.

Post-Gunkel Approaches.

The development of form criticism after Gunkel revealed some of the inner tensions and contradictions of the approach, some of which were noted above in the discussion of his three criteria for a genre. Gunkel saw that, in fact, many (perhaps the majority) of psalms do not correspond exactly to the purely formal common features listed above, which reflect the “ideal” of the genre in all its parts. Rather, most psalms are “mixed,” containing features of two or more genres, often in a very loose way. Despite a cultural prejudice against mixed genres, Gunkel accepted the lack of generic “purity” in most psalms. He had a nuanced view of the literary history of the book. The original genres, rooted in religious institutions, were indeed the models of the existing psalms, but only in a general way. Rather, the psalms we have are “spiritual poems” reflecting the piety of their authors, and so essentially individual productions. In this way the communal aspect of the psalms exists only as a kind of Platonic idea, a “form” in that abstract sense. Perhaps in an earlier period poems used in ritual did reflect the formal genres exactly, but the existing psalms reflect the personal, individual piety of the later period and are no longer directly connected to any ritual setting-in-life. But if most psalms are of mixed type, and if the criteria for establishing the genres themselves are so fraught with contradiction and arbitrariness, some have asked if there is any value at all to the concept of genre applied to the psalms.

Most later form critics have been less sensitive than Gunkel was to the interplay of genre and individuality in the psalms. Much scholarship subsequent to Gunkel has multiplied the number of genres and elaborated on their contents and, especially, on their relationship to their hypothesized setting-in-life in public worship. Already in Gunkel's day the dangers of a narrow, form-critical approach started to become apparent in the work of Sigmund Mowinckel (1961, 1962). He used comparative evidence to construct a picture of ancient Israel's public worship that looked very much like the religious systems of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially Mesopotamia. Specifically, Mowinckel noted the correspondences in basic themes between the Babylonian New Year Festival, the akitu, and the later Jewish New Year holiday, Rosh Hashanah, as described in the Mishnah and other Jewish texts. Both festivals centered on the theme of divine creation and kingship. In Babylon, Marduk was proclaimed king over the other gods, reenacting his election by them to fight Tiamat, the sea dragon of chaos. His victory resulted in the creation of the world, the confirmation of his kingship, and the proclamation of his fifty great names. In the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, God is praised as king over creation, the anniversary of which is the New Year (though it is in the seventh month of Tishri). The missing link between these two New Year festivals is, of course, the biblical evidence. The Hebrew Bible states only that the first day of the seventh month is to be a day of “the remembrance of the (trumpet) blast” (Lev 23:24). There is no New Year festival mentioned at all, an absence that would make Israel practically unique among ancient cultures. But the Hebrew Bible does have references, mainly in poetic texts, to a battle between God and a sea monster, variously called Sea (yam), River (nāhār) or Rivers, dragon (tannîn), Leviathan, Rahab, and Snake (nâḥâš, perhaps also bāšān). The context is often that of the primeval period of creation (see, e.g., Pss 74:12–15; 89:10–11; Isa 51:9–10). A similar battle is attested from the Ugaritic texts between Baal and Yamm (“Sea”), though the relationship to creation is not as clear. Moreover, the Psalter contains a number of psalms that openly declare God to be king over creation—the so-called enthronement Psalms (Pss 47, 93, 96–99). The phrase yahweh mālak, which occurs in these psalms, may be taken in two ways: as “Yahweh is king,” a statement of an unchanging condition, or, more dynamically as “Yahweh has become king”—perhaps just now, in the ritual enactment. Form criticism requires that all psalms have a setting-in-life, and it was not too great a leap for Mowinckel to posit that the psalms in question were rooted in a New Year festival quite like the Babylonian model, in which the victory of God over chaos was proclaimed, and perhaps reenacted ritually. To this point, the hypothesis is relatively modest. But Mowinckel then proceeded to attach more and more psalms—up to a third of them—to the supposed festival, which then necessitated more and more hypothetical aspects of the holiday. For example, Psalm 24, which demands “Ancient gates, lift up your heads, so that the King of Glory may come in!” was taken to refer to a stage in the annual New Year festival in which the ark was removed from the Holiest Place of the Temple, taken outside, and then caused to reenter the shrine in a ritual reenactment of God's original victory. A setting-in-life could thereby be assigned to Psalm 24, as the form-critical method requires, despite the fact that the main evidence for this particular rite lay in comparative evidence from other ancient cultures, and that the main compulsion for finding such evidence came from the form-critical method itself. By such circular reasoning Mowinckel developed an interpretation of the psalms and of Israelite religion as a whole that was quite comprehensive but almost entirely speculative. The “myth and ritual school,” popular in the middle of the twentieth century, similarly forced biblical religion into the pattern of ancient Near Eastern ritual, especially with regard to the role of “sacral kingship,” in the light of which many texts, especially the royal psalms, were interpreted. So, for example, Psalms 50 and 81, which contain elements related to covenant, have been claimed to have their setting-in-life in a covenant renewal festival.

By the 1970s the problems of the narrow and dogmatic use of form criticism, especially with regard to the supposed setting-in-life of forms, were recognized, and a counter-reaction set in. The most influential commentary in this period was that of Hans-Joachim Kraus. In its earlier four editions, it followed, as Kraus himself confessed, a standard form-critical model. In the introduction to the fifth edition, Kraus admitted the inherent problems involved in the idea of genre, particularly with regard to the link between a psalm and its hypothetical ritual setting. He promised a new “openness and lack of prejudice” with reference to the ritual setting of the psalms: “It will never be taken for granted that all psalms occupy a cultic Sitz im Leben” (Kraus 1993, p. 42). Kraus suggested recognizing as genres mainly those for which the Hebrew Bible seemed to have an actual term, such as “praise” (tĕhillâ), “petition” (tĕpillâ), “royal psalms” (maʿăśê hammelek, cf. Ps 45:1 [Heb. 45:1]); Zion songs (šîr ṣiyôn, cf. Ps 137:3); “didactic or wisdom psalms” (cf. the terms māšāl and ḥîdâ in Ps 49:4 [Heb. 49:5]); “liturgies” or “festival psalms”; “individual thanksgiving song” (tôdâ); and “community prayers” (tĕpillat ʿam, cf. Ps 80:4 [Heb. 80:5]) (Kraus 1993, pp. 40–41). Yet Kraus's comments on specific psalms continue to offer hypothetical contexts and rituals as the setting-in-life of the psalms in question. For example, he states categorically that the occasion of Psalm 8 is a “festival at night, in the course of which the song of praise (i.e., Ps 8) was recited antiphonally” (Kraus 1993, p. 179). The main evidence for a night ritual is apparently that in verse 3 the psalmist refers only to the moon and the stars and not also the sun. In Kraus's general practice, a specific setting-in-life is assigned to nearly every psalm. Reduction in the number of genres was also suggested by Westermann (1965), who executed the task more effectively; he posited two basic types, praise (tĕhillâ) and petition (tĕpillâ), which could find expression either individually or collectively.

The inherent problems of defining and delimiting genres and of assigning them to a setting-in-life in a nonarbitrary way was one of the factors that has led recent psalms study to avoid the issue altogether by turning to other methods and aspects of the psalms. The growth of a more literary (in the sense of structuralist and aesthetic) approach to the Bible as a whole led to detailed formal analyses of individual psalms as poems in their own right, aside from strict generic and functional considerations. Gunkel's “aesthetic aspect” found expression in detailed interpretation of linguistic structure and formal devices like merism, chiasmus, and inclusio, but also more subtle features like irony, allusion, and intertextuality. Attention has also been paid to poetic diction and prosodic structure, as well as the ubiquitous device of parallelism, especially in relation to Ugaritic literature and the Canaanite poetic tradition.

The other main development has been the growth of canonical criticism, which examines the Bible from the point of view of its final form, in relation to the religious community that accepted it as scripture. The problem of the original form of a psalm and its setting-in-life could be deemphasized, if not ignored, in favor of examination of its place in the liturgy and religious faith of a later community—for example, Judaism of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, in which the book was being compiled and canonized—and its later use in Judaism and Christianity. The focus now fell on precisely the aspect that Gunkel said was irrelevant: namely, the structure of the book as a whole and the relationship of individual psalms to each other in sequence and not only to others of the same genre (Whybray 1996). The recent commentary of Hossfeld and Zenger (2005), while including form-critical analysis as an aspect of exegesis, emphasizes the connectedness of the psalms to each other, the message that emerges from their sequence, and the internal references they make to each other. Zenger has spoken of the focus turning from exegesis of psalms to exegesis of the Psalter. In truth, the period of the composition of individual psalms overlaps with the period of canonization, because some late psalms probably were contemporaneous with the beginnings at least of canonization, and many psalms contain passages that show evidence of later reinterpretation (though this itself is frequently a matter of debate). For both the literary and the canonical approach, form criticism and genre are not irrelevant, but they are only one of the pieces of evidence that a scholar uses to interpret a psalm. They are no longer the dominant tool in determining the process of analysis or its results.


Who wrote the original psalms, and for whom, and in what kind of cultural and religious context? What kind of evidence is there for deciding such matters? As we have seen, form criticism, which post-Gunkel scholarship took as the key to the literary history of the book of Psalms, looks like a much less certain guide than before, particularly with regard to the link of literary form and setting-in-life. In fact, there are very few places in the Bible in which a psalm composition is explicitly tied to a public ritual of the sort that form criticism claims is true of almost all psalms; indeed, the two most important examples are not in the book of Psalms at all. As noted above, in Isaiah 38 the “inscription” (miktāb) of Hezekiah claims to be an individual thanksgiving composed by the king upon recovery from illness and, as the title implies, was purportedly written down by him, possibly for public display in the Temple as an inscription on a stele, as is paralleled in ancient Near Eastern materials. But the LXX uses the more common heading miktām, and so the relationship of Hezekiah's prayer to an actual ritual is uncertain. The other main example is the elaborate description in 1 Chronicles 16 of the rites performed when David brought the ark to Jerusalem and placed it in the tent he had set up. The Levites are said to have played various musical instruments, while David himself is said to have offered praise “through the Sons of Asaph.” The cited composition is, with some textual variations, a pastiche of the canonical Psalm 106, a hymn of “declarative praise”; the last psalm of Book Four, including its liturgical ending; and parts of Psalms 29 and 96, which are “enthronement” psalms. So the relationship between rite and text in this case, too, is quite uncertain.

The truth is that there is no empirical evidence that automatically answers the questions of authorship, audience, and context for the psalms. Rather, as in other aspects of interpreting ancient cultures, one must establish a set of facts agreed to by a consensus of scholars who work in the field, and then attempt to construct from them a hypothesis that represents a reasonable pattern of literary, cultural, and religious development, a configuration into which the book of Psalms fits reasonably comfortably. The following is such an attempt.

The starting point is the working hypothesis of much critical biblical scholarship for two centuries, and especially since Wellhausen, that the religion of the Hebrew Bible/biblical religion does not accurately represent the actual religions of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah between the tenth and seventh centuries B.C.E., but rather is the product of a reform or revolutionary movement of a relatively small group of people, whom Morton Smith called the “Yahweh only” party (Smith 1971). Despite attempts of the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann to overturn this distinction, and that of the “archaeological school” of the 1930s through the 1960s to blur it, the distinction still remains the cornerstone of most historical scholarship. Recent archaeological work has tended to reinforce the argument that the actual religions of Israel and Judah were quite different from that portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. Though Yahweh was certainly the national deity in both states, public worship was at best monolatrous and may have had room for a consort, perhaps Asherah. There is also a consensus that the actual process of canonizing the Hebrew Bible was a long process that began in the fifth century and lasted until the first century B.C.E., and, in the case of some of the Writings, maybe a century later. In the case of the book of Psalms, though it had probably received its present basic contours by the second century B.C.E., the writing of some later psalms may have overlapped the process of canonization of the book, as the presence of a Psalm 151 in both the LXX and the Qumran Psalms shows.

So there are two relatively certain chronological stages at least: the tenth through the seventh centuries for the religions of Israel and Judah and the seventh or perhaps eighth centuries B.C.E, for canonical, biblical religion. The basic problem is that there is an overlap of at least a century or two between the two stages. The religious movement that led to biblical religion may have begun in the Northern Kingdom of Israel as early as the ninth century, in the opposition of the Yahwistic prophets Elijah and Elisha to the attempt of Jezebel to introduce the worship of Tyrian Baal. Perhaps as early as the reign of Hezekiah in the late eighth century, but certainly by the end of the seventh, in the Deuteronomic “reforms” of Josiah, biblical religion established itself as a potent force. But it was probably only in the exile of the sixth century that the major texts of biblical religion, the prophets and the Pentateuch, began to take shape, and the leading religious traditions of biblical religion, the Deuteronomic covenantal traditions and the priestly ritual traditions, received something like their final shape. In the period of canonization, from the fifth century on, the three parts of the canon were completed, more or less in the order of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. But some important works of biblical religion, especially belonging to the wisdom tradition like Job and Qoheleth, were still being composed into the “canonical period.”

Where does the Psalter fit into this reconstructed pattern? Can one date its contents on any empirical basis? Liturgical texts are notoriously liable to reinterpretation by a community, even while the same words are recited. Moreover, many psalms are in effect palimpsests, like Psalm 2. Its original form was certainly a royal psalm, but in its present position it is the introduction to the Davidic section of the Psalter, in a context that may be eschatological and reflect prophecy. Finally, the last verse that contains the term ʾašrê, “fortunate,” which is associated mainly with wisdom texts, also opens Psalm 1, probably indicating that these two psalms are to be taken as a kind of unified introduction to the book as a whole, and perhaps even to the Writings.

Can any psalms confidently be assigned to the religions of Israel and Judah? It is generally agreed that archaism of language and themes point to the early date of a few psalms, such as Psalms 29, 68, and 110, which are close to the Ugaritic-Canaanite poetic tradition and which contain religious themes that seem to be archaic. There are also parts of other psalms that contain similar archaisms or which refer to themes, like the battle between God and the dragon, that are known to be rooted in ancient mythology (e.g., Ps 74:12–15). Also likely candidates for relative antiquity are the royal psalms, minus sections that point clearly to later, eschatological reinterpretation or other uses, such as Psalm 89:1–38. Psalm 61, a short psalm of petition, also contains a prayer for the king, and for that reason is likely to be preexilic. The overall list is short, and one must reckon with later reuse of these psalms and also with the possibility of deliberate archaizing. At the other end of the spectrum, some psalms are generally agreed to be late both in language and ideas, and to reflect at least the earlier stages of canonization, especially the “Torah psalms,” such as the long acrostic of Psalm 119. Perhaps the list should include also the Songs of Ascent (Pss 120–134), which contain later linguistic forms and types of “step parallelism” that depart from the form used in earlier (biblical and Canaanite) patterns.

Almost all the remaining psalms might reasonably be held to reflect various traditions of biblical religion, as those known from other parts of the Hebrew Bible. To be sure, since the ritual setting-in-life of the psalms linked to the vow and thanksgiving ceremony is certainly old, one might expect that at least some examples of psalms of petition and thanksgiving might reflect the religions of Israel and Judah. But unless they contain obvious archaisms or late terms, these psalms, like much of the Hebrew Bible, cannot be dated securely in terms of language alone. Isolating older examples of the psalms in question may mean accepting criteria based on standard form-critical principles (e.g., that simple examples of a genre are likely to be older than mixed ones). On this basis, Psalm 30 might be taken as reflecting the religions of Israel and Judah. But many, if not most, psalms are mixed, and in any case the criterion itself is open to question. The earlier tendency to date psalms on the basis of references to specific historical events, typically read into or imposed upon them, has long been discredited, because the same criteria could often be used to place psalms in the putative period of the Judges, before 1000 B.C.E. or in the Maccabean age, a thousand years later. If the majority of psalms are undatable in the light of current levels of knowledge, how can we tell if most of them belong to the stage of biblical religion, rather than the religions of Israel and Judah or the canonical stage?

The safest procedure is to take a broad view of essential features, such as content and themes. The main aspect of biblical religion that differentiates it from later canonical stages is that it is a congeries of disparate traditions that are often directly in conflict with each other in a manner quite different from the struggles between sects in later Judaism and Christianity. Simply put, the basic dichotomies had not yet been worked out, and different religious orientations and traditions are placed side by side. The Pentateuch contains two main traditions, the Deuteronomic-covenantal and the priestly ritual, with little attempt to synthesize them, just as, for example, in Genesis 1–3 two disparate creation accounts are simply juxtaposed. Two accounts of the founding of the monarchy, pro and con, are similarly left to compete with each other in the book of Samuel. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are widely different in almost all their viewpoints. The Writings, much of which reflects the different streams of the wisdom tradition, is a collection of radically incongruent works. Job and Proverbs are unlikely ever to be fit into one coherent theology.

The book of Psalms displays a similar wealth of traditions. It contains practically all the disparate religious viewpoints of biblical religion, sometimes juxtaposed to each other in a single psalm. For example, Psalm 19 begins as a nature hymn, then without explanation goes into a Torah doxology, and ends as an individual psalm of petition. The mixture is, in a nutshell, the kind of mixture one finds in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Some psalms represent the historical focus of covenant religion, especially Psalm 78 and the psalms of “declarative” praise, such as Psalms 105–106 and 135–136, which describe God's wondrous deeds of covenantal loyalty (ḥesed) on behalf of Israel. Wisdom is reflected in all its major streams, from the nature poetry of Psalm 104 and the retribution piety of Psalm 37 to the Torah psalms, such as Psalms 1 and 119. The view of humanity in Psalm 8, probably a wisdom psalm, is close to that of the priestly author of Genesis 1. In truth, the reason most psalms are mixed may not be because they have departed from some ideal, “pure” pattern, but because they are reflecting the complex stage of religious development in which they were composed, the mélange of conflicting and mutually challenging traditions that characterized the main period of biblical religion, the late seventh through fifth centuries, especially the furnace of the exile, where these traditions were refined and forged into written forms. This exilic dating best explains the relationship between the “enthronement psalms” and Second Isaiah. One need not be directly dependent on the other; rather, both may be wrestling with a similar attempt to reconceptualize preexilic royal imagery, which was originally rooted in ritual hymns, in terms of late prophetic eschatology. Similarly, polemic against idolatry is reflected in both the Psalter (Ps 115) and Second Isaiah (Isa 44:9–20). One may also note that criticism of public ritual itself occurs in some psalms (Pss 50 and 51), in a manner that also seems to reflect prophetic viewpoints (see, e.g., Isa 1:10–15; Mic 6:6–8).

Perhaps the major argument for seeing most of the psalms, with the exceptions noted above, as reflecting this period lies in the dominant genres of the book: the psalms of individual petition and its partner, the psalm of individual thanksgiving. These psalms may be viewed primarily as texts reflecting the struggle to refine the new concept of absolute monotheism and its concomitant idea of total faith in the one God. It was at this specific time that biblical religion developed the concept of the religious individual in a new way, as one totally devoted, “with all your heart, life-force, totally” (Deut 6:4, author's translation) to the one God. It is therefore inevitable that these individual genres of psalms reflect individual struggle. Psalm 139 is an especially clear expression of the new individual relationship to the deity, even internally, in the mind. In effect, biblical religion is working out its new brand of monotheistic piety by experimenting with received liturgical genres and composing new ones, such as the historical, covenantal psalms. As noted earlier, there are very few examples either of petition or praise that completely reflect the ideal, “pure” genre that form criticism posited lay behind them. Almost all of the psalms play variations on the themes, mix in language and ideas from other traditions, and even make use of irony.

Two aspects of these psalms are especially significant in this regard. The first is the very general nature of the complaints in the psalms of petition. This is often ascribed to the fact that they were composed by Temple personnel for public use and therefore had to be as widely applicable as possible. To be sure, this is true of most liturgical compositions. At some point, the supplicant could personalize the psalms by slipping in his or her name, or some private prayer in the prose tradition (see Greenberg 1983 on the latter). However, it was noted above that the main focus in the psalms is on undefined “enemies” who persecute the psalmist, and that in many cases the nature of their action is described in terms of verbal abuse, taunts to the psalmist's trust in God, denial of divine providence (Ps 14:1:“There is no God!”), and so forth. The reason may be that the real trouble of the afflicted is not material distress, perhaps not even physical suffering, but rather mental and spiritual anguish caused by challenges to faith. In other words, the theme of theodicy, a central concern of exilic religion, lies at the heart of many, and perhaps most, of these psalms, even if only a few psalms, such as Psalm 73, mention it explicitly. The old forms are being used as vessels for the expression of the new concerns. To be sure, theodicy was an issue much earlier in the wisdom traditions in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but only in a monotheistic faith could it represent the central religious challenge. The book of Psalms confronts the reader directly with God. Intermediaries, even angels, have been banned as protectors (only in Ps 91:11 do they have this role). The general nature of the complaint in the psalms in question, therefore, seems to arise from the fact that they are all dealing with the same basic theological issue, rather than from their actual use in a Temple liturgy. The “certainty of being heard,” the statement of trust at the end of many psalms of petition, also becomes especially meaningful as an expression of this new concept of absolute faith in the deity. As such, the specific nuance of use of the past tense (see above) is most likely that of the “gnomic perfect,” a statement of timeless truths: God always listens to prayer and rescues the righteous, no matter what the specific sufferings of the psalmist might be.

The second aspect of the psalms of individual petition and thanksgiving that seems especially understandable in the exile, or close to it, is the longing some of them express for direct contact with God. Some psalms speak of hoping to have a vision of God (Pss 17:15; 63:2) or of “remaining in God's house forever” (Pss 23:6; 27:4; cf. 16:11). The former phrase may be a reformulation of the standard biblical idiom for making a pilgrimage to the shrine “to see God,” later generally rephrased as “to be seen [niphal] by God.” But the use of the term for prophetic vision (ḥāzâ) clearly points to a prophetic formulation—to a vision of the divine. While it is possible that the expression comes from an actual preexilic setting-in-life in terms of an expectation of a divine vision as the goal of the pilgrimage, it is more likely that the phrase is an aspect of prophetic influence on the psalms (Tournay 1991), which was already described by Gunkel (1998, pp. 251–292). The interpenetration of prophecy and psalmody may also be reflected in the use of “to prophesy” in connection with the musical activities of the Levites (1 Chr 25:1–3). Note also that Psalm 17:15, “May I see your form in a waking state,” seems to echo what is said of Moses as a prophet in Numbers 12:8. Similarly, the expression of a desire to remain in God's house forever may have its setting-in-life in the early institution of refuge, but it has clearly been generalized and extended to be an expression of desire for spiritual closeness to the deity. Both themes just discussed express a longing for the shrine that makes good sense anytime after the centralization of worship in 621 B.C.E., and especially so in the exile. The piety of the book of Psalms is focused on the Temple (Kugel 1986), without having to do specifically with ritual. In the Second Temple period, some psalms came to be used in the liturgy of the shrine, and perhaps even of the nascent synagogue, as expressions of personal piety, perhaps to prepare one spiritually for pilgrimage, real or imaginary, to the Temple, similar to turning toward the place of the shrine in Jewish prayer. After the destruction of the Second Temple, further reinterpretation of these themes occurred in rabbinic Judaism and in Christianity.

To sum up, Gunkel's sophisticated, flexible, and nuanced approach to the psalms may be the most productive in the current state of our knowledge. Most psalms are not directly linked to the public ritual but use old ritual forms in a free manner to express new religious ideas of the individual's and community's relationship to. However, rather than referring to both as “spiritual poems,” as Gunkel did, one may recognize that they reflect the situation of the period in which they were composed, especially the exile, in which there was only a longing for the Temple but no actual worship. In brief, the psalms seem to have developed through the following three main stages, which correspond substantially to the pattern proposed by Gunkel:

  • (1) From Israelite and Judean religions (probably the latter especially, though Pss 29 and 68 have elements that seem to place them in the north) there are a few psalms connected to actual ritual—namely, old hymns, the core royal psalms, and probably some individual psalms, like Psalms 30 and 61. For these few psalms the setting-in-life may be more or less the ritual ones posited by classical form criticism.
  • (2) In the later preexilic, exilic, and early postexilic periods, psalmists influenced by one or more circles of developing biblical religion used the forms of the old liturgical genres to express their continuing devotion to the destroyed Temple and their hopes for its restoration, but also, and primarily, as a devotional focus for issues of developing theology, especially the problem of suffering and theodicy. Most of the psalms are wrestling with new ideas in an attempt to provide models of direct, unmediated prayer to God in a monotheistic mode. If these psalms, the core of the Psalter, ever had a formal setting-in-life, it might have been in the informal, nonreligious assemblies of exiles, like the elders who visited Ezekiel (Ezek 8:1; 20:1) or, later, those of returned exiles, in the period from 586–515 B.C.E., before the Temple was rebuilt.
  • (3) In the period of compilation and canonization, psalms continued to be written, and many of the existing psalms were used in the Temple liturgy itself, sung and played by Levites. Some psalms were no doubt composed by Levites as well, especially the Hallelujah psalms at the end of the Psalter. The royal elements were now interpreted in terms of later eschatology, and the whole book was compiled, probably in the stages of gradual accretion listed above, and presented as a liturgical Torah in five “books”—David's Torah, as it were, a complement to the five books of the Pentateuch. This fulfilled a basic need of canonical religion, because the Pentateuch itself provides only a few examples of prayer. Some psalms were accepted into the liturgy of the Second Temple, others into that of the nascent synagogue, for which some of the later psalms may actually have been written. While this is speculative, the hymnic texts from the Qumran community, admittedly a special case, offer some support: these contain not only versions of the canonical psalms, sometimes with apocryphal additions, but also new psalm-like compositions, like the Hodayot. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the development of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, the canonical Psalter became one of the pillars of prayer.



  • Allen, Leslie C. Psalms 101–150. Rev. ed. Word Biblical Commentary 21. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002. A thorough commentary with a conservative viewpoint. See also the sister volumes by Craigie and Tate.
  • Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. New York: Norton, 2007. Intended for the general reader.
  • Craigie, Peter C. Psalms 1–50. 2d ed. Word Biblical Commentary 19. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
  • Dahood, Mitchell. Psalms I. 1–50, Psalms II. 51–100, Psalms III. 101–150. Anchor Bible. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966–1970. This commentary interprets the psalms linguistically and in almost all other respects narrowly in terms of a hypothetical relationship to Ugaritic literature. It should be used mainly by scholars.
  • Day, J. Psalms. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992. A small but useful handbook to scholarship on the Psalter.
  • Falkenstein, A., and W. von Soden. Sumerische und akkadische Hymnen und Gebete [Sumerian and Akkadian Hymns and Prayers]. Zurich, Switzerland, and Stuttgart, Germany: Artemus-Verlag, 1953. The standard collection in German of the major examples of Mesopotamian hymns and prayers, with an introduction. See also the collection by Foster.
  • Flint, Peter W. The Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls and the Book of Psalms. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 17. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.
  • Foster, Benjamin R. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. 3d ed. Bethesda, Md.: CDL, 2005. The third edition of the major collection in English of Akkadian literature. The section on prayers is pp. 583–767.
  • Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Psalms: Part 1 with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry. Forms of Old Testament Literature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988. An analysis of Psalms 1–60 from a form-critical viewpoint, with a useful introduction and glossary of terms.
  • Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Psalms: Part 2 and Lamentations. Forms of Old Testament Literature. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Greenberg, Moshe. Biblical Prose Prayer: As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
  • Gunkel, Hermann. Die Psalmen übersetzt und erklärt. Handkommentar zum Alten Testament 2. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1926. Gunkel's great one-volume commentary on the Psalter, still untranslated.
  • Gunkel, Hermann, and J. Begrich. Introduction to Psalms: The Genres and the Religious Lyric of Israel. Translated by James D. Nogalski. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998. English translation of Einleitung in die Psalmen: Die Gattungen der religiösen Lyrik Israels, first published in 1933. Gunkel's great compendium and analysis of genres and the most influential work in modern psalms scholarship.
  • Hossfeld, Frank-Lothar, and Erich Zenger. Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51–100. Edited by Klaus Baltzer. Translated by Linda Maloney. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005. English translation of Psalmen 51–100, first published in 2000. Published in the Hermeneia series, this is the first in English of a massive three-volume German commentary. It includes the newer types of literary and canonical analysis of the Psalter as a book, as well as detailed text and form-critical analyses of the individual psalms.
  • Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Theology of the Psalms. Translated by Keith Crim. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992. English translation of Theologie der Psalmen, first published in 1979. A study of the religious concepts of the book of Psalms based on the author's two-volume commentary.
  • Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms 1–59 and Psalms 60–150. Translated by Hilton C. Oswald. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. English translation of Psalmen 1–59 and Psalmen 60–150, first published in 1961. Kraus's two-volume commentary, along with his volume on the theology of the psalms, was a standard commentary of the last fifty years. The English translation is from the fifth German edition of 1978.
  • Kugel, James. “Topics in the History of the Spirituality of the Psalms.” In World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest. Vol. 13, Jewish Spirituality from the Bible through the Middle Ages, edited by Arthur Green, 113–144. New York: Crossroad, 1986. An analysis of the piety of psalms as “Temple-focused.”
  • Mayer, Werner. Untersuchungen zur Formensprache der babylonischen Gebetsbeschwörungen [Investigations into the Language of Form of the Babylonian Prayer-Incantations]. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1976. A detailed analysis of the forms and language of the Mesopotamian prayers.
  • Miller, Patrick D., Jr. Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986. Excellent introductory work.
  • Mowinckel, S. Psalmenstudien I–II, III–VI. Amsterdam: P. Schippers, 1961.
  • Mowinckel, S. The Psalms in Israel's Worship. Translated by D. R. Ap-Thomas. New York: Abingdon, 1962.
  • Sanders, James A. The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.
  • Sanders, James A., ed. The Psalms Scroll of Qumran Cave 11 (11QPsa). Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan 4. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.
  • Sarna, Nahum M. Songs of the Heart. An Introduction to the Book of Psalms. New York: Schocken, 1993. A short and useful introduction and an exegesis of a few important psalms.
  • Seybold, Klaus. Introducing the Psalms. Translated by R. Graeme Dunphy. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990. English translation of Die Psalmen: Eine Einführung, first published in 1986. An excellent introduction making use of modern approaches to form criticism.
  • Smith, Morton. Palestinian Parties and Politics That Shaped the Old Testament. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
  • Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51–100. Word Biblical Commentary 20. Dallas: Word Books, 1990.
  • Tournay, Raymond Jacques. Seeing and Hearing God in the Psalms: The Prophetic Liturgy of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Translated by J. Edward Crowley. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
  • Ulrich, Eugene, et al., eds. Qumran Cave 4. Vol. 11, Psalms to Chronicles. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert 16. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.
  • Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen. Atlanta: John Knox, 1981.
  • Whybray, Norman. Reading the Psalms as a Book. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 222. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. A canonical reading of the psalter as a connected work.

Stephen A. Geller

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