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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

History of Interpretation.


Over the centuries the way Christians have used, studied, and interpreted the Psalms has changed.

2. Prophecy.

The first Christians regarded the Psalms as prophecy, and searched for phrases and verses which foretold events in the life of Jesus. This can be seen in the NT itself. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the passion narrative has been moulded by reference particularly to Ps 22 and 69 . In the second century Justin Martyr argued for the truth of the Christian faith on the grounds that the Messiah had been foretold many centuries before the time of Jesus, and this interpretation persisted up to modern times. It is reflected in the description of several Psalms as ‘messianic’ (e.g. Ps 2; 101; 110 ).

3. Allegory and Typology.

A somewhat modified form of this view of the relation between the OT and the NT is found in allegorical interpretations and typology. Allegory need not be totally uncontrolled, and rules were developed about the various levels of meaning of the text: literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical (see PS 114). Often the Psalms retained their spiritual value for those Christians who sang them because they were allegorized. Typology became another method for relating the Testaments, and again, OT figures and ideas were perceived as types of later Christian characters and thought.

4. Historical Interpretation.

These approaches existed alongside historical interpretations, and one of the ‘senses’ which Scripture was believed to possess was the historical, even when greater value was placed upon the other interpretations. Attempts at providing historical occasions for the creation of the psalms, often in the life of David, can be seen in the headings of many of them. It is probable that these are not original but were added later (the LXX contains headings which are absent from the Heb., or additions to headings, in some forty-four psalms: e.g. Ps 70 (MT 71): ‘Of (by) David, of the sons of Jonadab, and of the first who were taken captive’, and Ps 143 (MT 144): ‘Of (by) David, concerning Goliath’). Some of the traditions found in these titles are echoed in the Mishnah (e.g. M. Tamid 7.4 sets out the seven psalms which ‘the levites used to sing in the Temple’ on each of the days of the week: Ps 24 (LXX ‘A psalm of (by) David on the first day of the week’); 48 (LXX ‘on the second day of the week’); 82; 94 (LXX ‘on the fourth day of the week’); 81 (the Old Latin has ‘fifth day of the week’); 93 (LXX ‘on the day before the sabbath when the earth was inhabited; praise of a song of David’); 92, where the MT has ‘A Song for the Sabbath Day’, showing that they are genuinely Jewish and not peculiar to the Old Greek version. When, according to Mark, Jesus quoted Ps 110 (Mk 12:36 ), both he and his hearers accepted that David had written the psalm and that its meaning was to be found in that context. The historical interpretation came to the forefront of psalm study from the time of the Enlightenment, and much modern study has been devoted to determining the date and authorship of individual psalms. Conservative scholars presented arguments for Davidic authorship, while liberal ones proposed a wide range of datings, some as late as the second century BCE.

5. Form Criticism.

It is now generally agreed that it is possible to determine the historical origin of very few of the psalms because of the lack of evidence—who, after all, would be able to discover when and by whom a nineteenth-century hymn was written simply from the hymn itself? A new approach was needed, and a decisive step in the study of the psalms came with the work of Hermann Gunkel (Gunkel and Begrich 1933 ), who is generally regarded as the father of form criticism. First classifying the psalms according to their type or genre, he then looked for the ways the various types of psalm were used in ancient Israel (see E below for the main types of psalm). Gunkel argued that the original psalms were hymns that were sung in Israelite worship, although he regarded the psalms in the OTas written by poets in imitation of these earlier psalms. Later scholars have tended to limit their attention to the formal structure of the psalms, but Gunkel himself had a sensitive appreciation of Hebrew literature and paid attention to such features as mood and content as well.

6. The Cult.

The next important stage in the interpretation of the psalms was taken by Sigmund Mowinckel (1921–4 ), who argued that the OT psalms were in fact cultic hymns, and on this basis set out to reconstruct the festivals at which they were sung. But as with the earlier approaches, the evidence has proved insufficient for this to be carried through convincingly. It is highly probable that many, perhaps most, of the psalms belong to Israelite worship rather than being compositions of individual ‘romantic’ poets, but the rubrics are lacking, and the other books of the OT provide few glimpses of how they were used. The historical books might be thought to favour a historical interpretation (see e.g. 2 Sam 22 , where Ps 18 has been inserted into the text, and the catena of psalm quotations in 1 Chr 16 ). On this view the titles provide a context within which the psalms can be read, while the psalms offer personal responses by David that can be taken into the narratives, somewhat like the speeches that Greek historians inserted into their narratives.

7. Literary Approaches.

In the light of the failure of these attempts to interpret the psalms within historical Israel, it is no surprise that some scholars today, influenced by movements in general literary studies, have virtually abandoned the quest and have treated each individual psalm as a literary artefact in its own right. The particular interpretation varies, whether structuralism, rhetorical criticism, reader-response criticism, deconstruction, or other methods that have become fashionable. Emphasis has been placed upon the structure and wording of the psalms, and often little attention is paid to the cultural context of ancient Israel. Jonathan Magonet (1994 ) has pointed out that such an approach has antecedents in rabbinic study. (For a study of Ps 18 which incorporates textual, form-critical, rhetorical, and reader-oriented approaches see Berry (1993 ); cf. Mays's similar exposition of Ps 3 (Mays, Petersen, and Richards 1995: 147–56).)

8. Canonical Criticism.

In stark contrast to the atomistic approach of much literary analysis of the psalms, some scholars have emphasized that the only reason why the OT has been preserved and is still read and studied is because it is canonical Scripture. No interpretation, therefore, is valid which does not take this into account. The emphasis is placed upon the completed book of Psalms and their use in other parts of the Bible, including the NT. Indeed, the key to the interpretation of any passage is found in this ‘final form’ of the writing. Brevard S. Childs (1979: 504–23) stresses this. He argues that the placing of Ps 1 as the introduction to the Psalter leads to the psalms, which originally were human songs and prayers, being taken as God's word itself. The compilation of psalms (e.g. in Ps 108 ) is a factor in their movement from a cultic setting towards their apprehension as sacred Scripture. Similarly the fact that the royal psalms are scattered throughout the Psalter, with special prominence given to Ps 2 , is a transformation of cultic psalms into messianic ones, and the increased eschatological emphasis in many of the psalms is another mark of this changing theology. Most interestingly, he finds in the relating of thirteen psalms to specific incidents in the life of David a shift of emphasis from the original cultic function to understanding the king as a human being who has the same troubles and joys as ordinary people, thus enabling all kinds of people to relate to them. (For an assessment of Childs's work see Noble 1995 .)


Each of these stages has importance for an appreciation of the psalms.

10. Prophecy.

While most Christians outside the conservative evangelical, pentecostal, and charismatic groups no longer accept that the truth of their religion is confirmed by OT predictions of incidents in the life of Jesus, they accept that the God of the NT is the same God as that of the OT. It might be expected, therefore, that there will be a certain congruence between the Testaments. This is what lies behind typology. Moreover, whenever Christians spiritualize such features of the psalms as the condemnation of enemies or the calls for support in war, features which have now become morally unacceptable, this is akin to the earlier allegorizing, though now no longer with an explicit raison d'être. It might even be argued that without such spiritualizing it would be impossible to continue to use the psalms within Christian worship. Many of the hymns of Watts and the Wesleys explicitly reinterpret the psalms in a Christian sense, as, for example, Charles Wesley's fine hymn based on Ps 45 , ‘My heart is full of Christ, and longs ǀ Its glorious matter to declare’.

11. Cultural Setting.

Everyone today is strongly influenced by the historical awareness which is one of the major gifts of the Enlightenment. Today it is often claimed that the meaning of a historical text cannot be limited to the meaning which its author intended and some would go further and argue that the author's intentions are both impossible to discover and irrelevant to the meaning. While the author's meaning may seem central to the understanding of some kinds of literature, with the psalms authorship is of less importance, and it is no devastating loss if we are unable to identify the writers. What is important is that the cultural setting is recognized. Here historical criticism and form criticism meet. Both direct the reader's attention to the original setting of the psalms, although travelling to that point by different routes. It is now fully recognized that simply to repeat words in a different historical situation (and twenty-first century Europe or North America is far removed from ancient Israel) is to say something vastly different from the psalmist's original meaning. The modern congregation comes to the Psalter with its own presuppositions, attitudes, memories, and emotions, and the psalm, sung to Anglican or Gregorian chant, in the Gelineau version or as a metrical psalm, will resonate in very different ways from those which the Israelite attending worship at the Jerusalem temple experienced. Historical criticism, therefore, is vital, not because it alone provides the key to the ‘real’ meaning of the text, but because it provides another way of reading the psalms and enables modern readers to move to and fro between the world of ancient Israel and the culture of today, expanding their vision of God.

12. Modern Translations.

Modern, and modernizing, translations of the Psalms become a hindrance here, for they give the impression to the reader that the words of the psalms are immediately related to present Western society. The removal of much masculine-oriented language from NRSV tends to obscure the fact that ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, and the paraphrasing interpretation of GNB destroys much of the poetic imagery. These translations may be more accessible to the hearers, but they imprison them in a twenty-first-century world, when what the Psalms (and indeed all Scripture) should be doing, among other things, is to open up spiritual and moral dimensions of life which the modern world has crippled or destroyed.

13. Literary Approaches.

What then of literary criticism? The presence of eight acrostic psalms within the Psalter (E.14) is an indication that some, perhaps all, of the psalms are self-conscious poetic creations. Certainly an awareness of the skill of the poet will add to our appreciation of the psalms. There is, nevertheless, a danger that modern conventions and fashions will misrepresent the intentions and art of the poet. Once again we are faced with the ‘then’ and the ‘now’, and every literary approach needs to be tempered with a sense of the historical.


It will be seen that the demands made upon the commentary writer are immense. Certainly it is quite impossible to include all the methods that have been outlined. No single approach applied to all the psalms will be attempted here, although some emphasis will be placed upon genre and setting, since only if we know what kind of text we are reading can we grasp its meaning. In this commentary each psalm will be discussed on its own, using whatever approach appears to offer the greatest insight into its meaning, but always with an awareness that we are reading poetry written in a foreign language and coming from an alien culture and a distant time.

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