The Plot of the Psalms

The Psalms have a plot.

Which might seem like a revolutionary statement, or the most obvious one in the world. The Bible is a carefully crafted book. All of the elements of all of the books of scripture teach us—the Holy Spirit is a masterful editor and has written the grand story everywhere in carefully nuanced ways.

I stumbled across this when asking what I thought was an innocuous question. Why are the Psalms organised into five books?  

It’s the sort of detail you might have noticed last time you read through the Psalms, but it also might have easily escaped your notice. There are five little heading that give us the book number, but nothing more than that.

These are original titles, too—though they might look like just another organising apparatus like verse or chapter numbers, these ones have the benefit of being part of the scriptures. If you crack open a few commentaries a surprising number will chalk this up to ‘Torah piety’, which amounts to saying that the editors who put the Psalms in their final collected form liked the Torah so much that as an act of devotion they collected the Psalms into five books.

Though, these books are of seemingly wildly different lengths, which ought to at least raise the question of why they grouped them as they did.

Beyond that, we should be more curious in our Bible reading. If there is a numbered feature in the Biblical text, like the five books of the Psalms, it is reasonable to ask why they have been grouped as they have. If we truly believe that the final editor of the scriptures was the Holy Spirit, then we should never assume that details are arbitrary.

So, I started to explore. Turns out a number of scholars have written in detail on the topic, and that the Psalms have a discernable plot. There is plenty of disagreement about the more intricate details, but we rest sure in this at least: each Psalm tells a story, and its placement by the editor tells another story. The first is primary, but the second is meaningful and can often shed some light on the Psalm’s text as it stands.

What are you reading?

Unfortunately, this is not a fully referenced paper interacting with the relevant Psalms in English and Hebrew—partly because I don’t currently have the capacity, mostly because I think that would stretch to a short book.

Instead, this is a short introduction to a topic well-trodden by scholars and a sketch of an idea—at some points you’ll notice I suggest a direction of thought that I won’t flesh out, that’s simply because I haven’t got that thought further than that along the track. I have not clearly referenced my sources, suffice to say that my work is mostly a harmony of the best of those scholars I’ve read: I have provided a bibliography of the most useful sources. This is where these ideas come from.  The only thoughts here which could be referenced as ‘mine’ are those in the section on the shape of the Temple and the connections to our story as modern Christians.

Why do we think the Psalms have a plot?

This might all sound a bit mad, or galaxy-brained, but there are features that make us suspect that something is going on in the editing of the Psalms into these five books. For example, we find in the first two books a series of 72 Psalms of David—especially if we understand those in between Psalms epigraphed as being from David to be by David as well—that end with a declaration that we have come to the end of David’s Psalms at the end of Psalm 72. Then there are a further 18 Psalms of David, which is surprising to say the least.

Books 1 and 2 predate 3-5 and were the original Psalter, so some of this is explained by the history, but it still leaves us with hanging questions.

Or maybe we notice the wildly different lengths of the books and wonder why a random arrangement wouldn’t have wrought even lengths.

Or perhaps we notice the parallels, the messianic Psalm paired with the law Psalm (1 & 2, 18 & 19, 118 & 119), or the way that in book 1 an acrostic Psalm is always preceded by a Psalm about creation.

Methodology

I have two methodological strategies.

Firstly, I align with the method of G. K. Beale for reading the Bible generally, which is to pay attention to the ‘bookends’. We read the whole story in the light of Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22, but we can helpfully read each book of the Psalms in light of its first and last Psalm. I go a little further than Beale in suggesting that these are chiasms, and we should pay as much attention to the central ‘tentpole’ or hinge of the chiasm—the death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit by Jesus in the case of the whole Biblical story—though identifying these in the books of the Psalms is typically more speculative.

Secondly, I read the Psalms as though they were all about Christ, because they are. This is the witness of the Church Fathers, but more importantly, we should take Jesus seriously in his lesson on Bible reading on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24): all of the scriptures are about him as well as all the other things they’re about.

The Plot

Introduction: 1-2WISDOM
Book 1: 1-41 (3-41)THE KING SUFFERS
Book 2: 42-72THE KING REIGNS
Book 3: 73-89WAITING
Book 4: 90-106REPENTANCE
Book 5: 107-150 (107-145)RESTORATION
The Hallel (Conclusion): 146-150PRAISE

I’ll now proceed through each book of the Psalms to make some brief comments on its plotting.

Introduction: Psalms 1 & 2

WISDOM

These two Psalms are widely considered the introduction to the Psalter as a whole—considering Psalm 1 as an introduction is an almost universal opinion and there are lots of reasons for connecting the two Psalms together. They share vocabulary enough to think they’ve been selected as an introduction—maybe even written to be one. Psalm 2 ends as Psalm 1 began, which is an indication that we should take them as a pair, and they both end in the same way.

Psalm 1 is our guide to reading the Psalter, and to some extent the Bible. It is worthy of careful study. The Psalm introduces the wisdom theme that continues through the Psalms—this is wisdom literature as well as ‘a book of songs’. There is a connection between wisdom and singing.

We have placed front and centre an individual’s relationship to God. The tree symbolism links us to the start, middle, and end of the Bible—to every significant encounter that God has with people and to the Temple. This text is a frame for the whole Bible.

Then in Psalm 2 we escalate from the wicked people of Psalm 1 to wicked nations, and we narrow the righteous everyman to the figure of the King. In other words it particularises the theology of Ps 1, and it grounds it in the narrative of Scripture. It turns wisdom to story.

Between the two we have the first hints of God’s grand plan in history to install his son over the earth. This is a summary of the Psalms, and of the whole Bible. Tom Schreiner summarises the introduction as “Those who submit to Yhwh’s kingship keep the Torah, and they also place themselves under the reign of the Lord’s anointed king.” Greg Beale points to the theme as “eschatological kingship throughout all creation and judgement … is the heartbeat of the whole Psalter.”

If that’s our entry point, that should define how we read and sing and pray the rest of the Psalms—our twin themes are Wisdom and the King.

Book 1

THE KING SUFFERS

Book 1 is the book of David—especially his attempt to become king. These Psalms can be situated in the early part of his story as related in 1 Samuel.  

It begins with the introductory Psalms of 1 and 2 as we’ve just explored, though in Psalm 2 we see the covenant David made with Yahweh. The book ends in Psalm 41, where David rests secure in those same promises. 41 is a prayer of triumph over the enemies that the King has wrestled with from Psalm 3 onwards.

The book travels through the tentpoles of 8 and 9, a messianic Psalm that is a meditation on the Adamic commission of the king and a Psalm devoted to the law, to the central pillar of Psalm 22. This sits in the middle of a poetic pyramid of Psalms (20-24, a common feature of the Psalter), and the collection turns on the King in suffering, struggling for victory. It pivots on the cross—book 1 is the book of the cross.

Most of Psalms 3-41 are laments. If we siphon off the introduction as its own thing and treat Psalms 3 and 41 as the bookends of book 1—which may not be a reasonable move, this isn’t how Psalms presents itself—then we see that despite treachery to the king (in 3 from his own son, in 41 from his closest friend), God still gives the king triumph over his enemies.

In a way Book 1 serves as an introduction to the rest of the Psalter as well, we have the king and judgement, we have Adam’s expansive reign, and we have a longing for a messianic fulfilment even as David’s life is narrated. This is our strongest early hint that the Psalms are really a book of Christ, pivoting on the cross, ending on his betrayal by Judas.

One of the major themes of book 1 is the question that dominates Psalm 24: who can stand in the holy place? This is one of the core themes of the Old Testament, introduced at the end of Exodus, expounded on in Leviticus and then complicated, challenged and partially fulfilled under we arrive at Christ. Of course the surprising answer of the Bible, by the time we reach the end of Revelation, is not simply that the anointed king—the Christ—can, but that his bride the church can too.

The book sets up the conflict, the drama, of the story. We meet the two seeds (of God and the Snake), we see the presence of foes surrounding the king, and we see a struggle to establish a kingdom.

Book 2

THE KING REIGNS

Book 2 continues David’s story, though now he is the king triumphant and reigning.

The book opens with Psalm 42, closely linked to 41 and continuing the same story—David’s life is still in distress. We travel to closing in Psalm 72, with the promises passed to David’s descendants. 72 is a Psalm of Solomon, the Old Testament’s majestic description of kingship.

For all Solomon’s reign, and the Solomonic kingdom, are the high water mark of Yahweh’s kingdom on earth before Pentecost, this Psalm steps beyond that into eschatological description. In a song meditating on the Prince of Peace (Solomon) we find allusions to Isaiah 11 (which may flow the other way around) with a messianic royal figure (the Prince of Peace—Christ) and a reiteration of the promise (e.g. verses 8, 17, 19) that the final king will succeed in Adam’s commission. We also have a set of allusions to Psalm 1 (flourishing, fertility, water) that look like allusions to Genesis 1.

We’re supposed to be seeing that in this Davidic and Solomonic king is the fulfilment of everything that the Psalms have been shaping and singing of. This is where the first version of the Psalms ended—we have a few archaeological examples of this early Psalter—a book meditating on what godly kingship could be like. After book two closes our references to David get a lot less literal and are instead to a paradigmatic David representing either the house of David or the messianic son of David (or most often, both).

Psalm 72 points to a coming future, with justice and nature renewed, which climaxes in verse 17 with the Abrahamic promise being revealed to him.

We see a widening kingdom, which is why we end on Solomon, where enemies are now welcomed and included, think of how other nations choose to place themselves under the vassalhood of Solomon’s empire, the King who never fought a battle but his kingdom kept growing.

Book 3

WAITING

Bruce Waltke calls book 3 ‘the dark book’ which seems fitting. We ended book 2 on a high but something terrible has happened—Israel is in exile, the king is cast down, where is the fulfilment of the promise?

We open in Psalm 73 with a sharp change in tone. This is a wisdom Psalm that promises that justice will one day come on the wicked who seem to prosper, and offers an individual perspective.

We close in Psalm 89 with parallels to Psalm 2 and 72—in a way book 3 is a loop and books 1-3 are a loop. But 89 ends on a questioning note. There is anxiety over the lack of fulfilment of everything that was promised before, accompanied with a decision to trust in the God who seems to have forgotten his promises. The Psalm reminds us that the covenant stands despite David’s sons (and with the eyes of the NT, because of David’s Son) but ends in bitter lament. Its grand theology is contradicted by the stark reality of the writer’s present, when chaos reigns.

The kings have failed. The covenant is in the dim and distant past and seems fractured. The people of God are discouraged and questioning whether Yahweh will fulfil his promises. Their perspective is understandable, they sit in exile looking back to a kingdom unfulfilled, a failed and empty covenant. There is a sense in some of the Psalms of some hope for the king to come, and in others simply bitter pain that it has all fallen apart.

The hope that is present has shifted from the previous books, now instead the context of the hope for a king is the new creation, which was previously hinted at and now more clearly seen. Intriguingly the first Davidic Psalm after the books of David is Psalm 86, our clearest first introduction to David’s Son: he suffers, he’s a servant, he prays for forgiveness, but that forgiveness is for all the nations.

Book 3 is full of prayers for the between times, full of the rawest emotions in the Psalms and unanswered questions. It is a book of despair and a book of hope, but the pendulum swings to despair—it is a book of waiting. We live in Book 3, it is the Advent book.

Book 4

REPENTANCE

After the wreckage of book 3, without a king, Israel looks back to Moses—mentioned seven times—and then beyond to their eternal king Yahweh. His kingdom comes. The book closes with the request of return.

We open in Psalm 90 living apart from God’s blessing under judgement and a hope that God will return. They remember the first generation of Israelites who didn’t enter the land. These are the Psalms of an Israel in exile and of the remnant who returned without the blessings they were expecting. Just as that exile ended, so will this one.

We close in Psalm 106 where a later generation bewails that it is as sinful as the first generation in the desert and has suffered the same judgement. But yet, God will save them still, there is hope for rescue.

Like book 3 this is still a book of despair and hope, but the pendulum is swinging more towards hope. There is a stronger belief that Yahweh will fulfil his promises. This is the beginning of a response to the crisis of book 3. Clinton McCann finds that captured in the Psalms’ ‘theological heart’, the run of enthronement Psalms (92-100) where we begin to discover that God is the King of Israel.

We have themes of corporate despair over sin and of hope for rescue. There is no emphasis on kingship, instead we focus on the people. If you’ll allow the analogy to extend, this is Lent. The church lives here too.

Book 4 presents a wider and more ‘mature’ view of God’s sovereignty than we’ve seen before, he rules not just Israel but all the nations.

Book 5

RESTORATION

The story we’ve been charting—Israel’s story, our story—finds its conclusion. The return is now a fact, the exile is overcome, and the King is on his way.

We open in Psalm 107 with an answer to the cry for deliverance in Book 4. It celebrates the return from exile with allusions to Genesis 1.28—the return positions Israel to fulfil Adam’s mandate. This is a bigger and grander vision for the return than what we might expect from the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah, the new creation is coming.

We close in Psalm 150 with a thirteen-fold praise of God, but Psalms 146-150 form the conclusion to the whole Psalter and so are dealt with below.

Most of the Psalms of David outside books 1 and 2 are here in book 5. David is now again an example to the exiled and returned people, and is a theme of messianic hope. Where will this salvation much hoped for come from? It will come from a new David.

The book pivots around 118 & 119 (pointing back to Ps 1 & 2) a Psalm of the king and the law, sitting between the Passover story of the Egyptian Hallel of 113-117 and the Psalms of Ascents or Pilgrimage of 120-134. So, they both find their focal point with the King and the Law.

This is instructive to us: We remember the Passover and we travel our Pilgrimage—both by following the King and his Wisdom. The exile did end, and our exile will end.

The Psalms of Ascents show us that the reason to return from exile is to hear the Torah and worship the Lord. They’re a poetic pyramid (as is the Egyptian Hallel) that pivots on Psalm 127, a Solomonic Psalm playing with key terms from Psalms (build/house/son—which all sound similar in Hebrew). We see both the House of God that Solomon built and the House of David that God built, both of which have developing eschatological import.

After the Ascents we return to the laments of 135-137, if we’re following the drama it feels like lament has the final word. It often feels like that to us. But then we have a final run of Davidic Psalms, 138-144 is an answer to the lament, concluding in the acrostic of 145 where David calls for all flesh to praise Yahweh.

Book five declares that God is King. The hints of book 4 are shown in their full glory. The human king and Yahweh as king merge into one cry of praise towards the Messiah—he has led us out of exile and so now, Psalm 145, all flesh must praise him.

Ps 146-150: The Hallel

PRAISE

The fivefold Hallel (praise, i.e. Hallelujah, Praise you Yahweh) picks out all the themes of the Psalms in praise to God. This is a masterful and beautifully crafted set of writings.

Notably, there is no mention at all of the Davidic king—Ps 145 is the last Psalm of David and focuses on God’s general deeds rather than what God has done through David as king, but David also calls all flesh to worship God. These final five Psalms are the worship of all flesh directed to Yahweh the King.

This of course is the point. God is king—and in a wonderful twist of fate befitting the most carefully plotted storyteller, God is the Davidic king.

We might ask where is the great king we were introduced to at the beginning in Psalm 2, in Psalm 149 it’s parallel at the end we find out that God is king, and his vocation is given to the people. Compare, for example, Psalm 2.8-9 with Psalm 149.7-9. The issue at hand is justice, which if we hang the end of book 3, Psalm 89, in the middle of them we see that God’s agents are subject to justice too.

Then we end on Psalm 150 a parallel to Psalm 1. Those who love the Torah will worship. Wisdom turns to song, Word and Spirit together. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said “All creatures, after the disunion and disorder caused by sin have been removed, are harmoniously united for one choral dance.”

We end in praise, because the King is coming.

The number of Psalms

There are 150 Psalms, broken into five books, with an introduction (1-2) and a conclusion (146-150). I initially was reading only Ps 1 as the introduction to the Psalter, which intriguingly left 144 (12 x 12) Psalms in between the introduction and the conclusion—which felt deliberate. I have been persuaded that Psalms 1 and 2 are the introduction, which is the opinion of most scholars I’ve read, because they introduce the twin themes of the individual living according to the Law and the more corporate story that focuses on the individual of the king.

Intriguingly some of the Psalms are thought to have originally been one song broken into two, and if we combine all of those back together again, there are 144 Psalms. I am however a big proponent of the final form of scripture being the divine word—in other words there are 150 Psalms.

Shaped like the Temple

To risk some original thought for a moment—or at least ideas I’ve not read elsewhere: we enter the Psalms through Psalm 1 and 2, which give us the shape of the rest of the book. They act a little like the two pillars of the Temple, Jachin and Boaz. You might think that’s not a reasonable parallel, but remember that Jachin represents the High Priest, and Boaz the King. Psalm 1 is the Law and Psalm 2 the King—it isn’t such a stretch.

So, if that’s a reasonable parallel perhaps the rest of the Psalms are shaped like the Temple too? Certainly in the central two Psalms of book 5 (118 & 119, King & Law) we have in Psalm 118 a journey from the outskirts of Jerusalem to the Temple gates and in to see the Altar—a journey charted by Jesus in the last week of his life, and a Psalm sung to him on Palm Sunday and by him at the Last Supper—I wonder if the whole of the Psalms are the same. Could they be a journey from the pillars of Psalm 1 and 2 to the Holy of Holies of Psalm 146-150? A journey from wisdom to praise via King Jesus? I think they might be, but this is a proposal I would have to do some further work on as ideally I’d want it verified by other features of the Psalms structure mapping onto the Temple.

Christians in the Psalms

Books 1-2 narrative the events of the past, of David and Solomon’s establishing of Israel, but also of Christ’s life, his death, and resurrection.

Books 3-5 continue to tell the story of Christ, but are also the Church’s story to a greater degree. This is where we live—in despair, in repentance, in hope, in praise. They are our story, they are Christ’s story.

So shall we commit to praying them? To singing them? To deliberately living this story, and finding ourselves in it?

Eugene Peterson summarises St. Athanasius’ argument in his Letter to Marcellinus on the Meaning of the Psalms—the earliest Christian writing we have on the Psalms—like this: “most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us.”

Bibliography

O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms

Phil Moore, Straight to the Heart of Psalms

Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, Psalms 73-150

Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology

J. Clinton McCann Jr, ‘Psalms’ in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.) Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament

Thomas Schreiner, The King in his Beauty

G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology

Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash