Does the book of Psalms have a “design”? Until recently scholars despaired of discerning the editorial design of the Psalter, if indeed it was arranged according to a plan. The repeated suggestion that the five “books” of the Psalter were intended to correlate with or somehow reflect the five books of Moses simply fails for lack of convincing evidence and the need to force what evidence there is to fit the desired patterns. The designation of the Psalter as “Israel's Hymnbook” conjured the idea of a work from which one picks and chooses, without much thought to overall design.
Recent Psalms research has called attention to two phenomena that hold promise for answering the puzzle. First, the introduction (Ps 1) and centerpiece (Ps 119) of the Psalms transform the entire work into a resource for individual piety, specifically “Torah piety” (Mays, 4, 12). Placed without superscription at the outset, Ps 1 places the following psalms in the category of Torah in which the righteous person delights and meditates day and night (1:2). By this a person is distinguished from the ungodly and opens the door to the blessing of Yahweh 1:1, 3-6). By its sheer size and unusual design, Ps 119 stands as the pillar of the collection, dominating especially the concluding books. It gathers from a wide spectrum of previous biblical teaching forms and sources and presses them all into the service of a prayer for the salvation of the one who loves and lives Torah, not just the Law of Moses, but all the “way of the Lord.” So the psalms as we have them are not simply songs to be sung or recited in worship, though they have continued to be that in both the synagogue and in early Christian worship (Mk 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). They are profound resources of prayer, meditation, and reflection on the full set of agendas raised by the Psalter regarding the Lord, his will, his world, and his people.
This transformation of the Psalms from a collection of liturgical pieces to a Torah anthology correlates well with the omission of extensive liturgical notes from these poems. Regardless of the source of scattered individual poems, the psalms have obviously come to us through the worshiping community by way of the temple archives (note “For the director of music” on 55 psalms). That we have the few remnants of that liturgical history catalogued in the superscriptions above (see Ps. 0:5-Ps. 0:8) is not remarkable. That we do not have more is the striking thing, as is the fact that what remains has been transmitted in ways totally useless for liturgical direction, already obscure to the translators of the LXX, Jews living centuries before Christ. Such an introduction, centerpiece, and editing policy hint at design.
Second, Gerald Wilson (The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, particularly 139-228) has, in this writer's opinion, demonstrated that the final editors of the Psalter used the superscriptions, especially the author and genre notation (as well as the lack of superscription) together with thematic considerations, to group materials according to an overall editorial plan. In addition to the fact that the whole corpus is put before the reader as a resource of Torah piety with its introductory frame and pillar, the editors have tackled the OT community's most staggering question and provided an answer applicable to all persons of all times, “Our God reigns!”
The theological problem driving the Psalter's design appears to be kingship, the issue raised by Ps 2. In fact, it is possible that Ps 2 should be thought of as linked with Ps 1 as part of the introduction (Pss 1 and 2 both seem to be set apart from Book 1 by lack of superscription and are perhaps intended to be at least loosely tied together by the inclusio of blessing, 1:1; 2:11.) The Psalter's first unit, after Ps 1, opens with the “proclamation of [Yahweh's] special covenant with his king in Ps 2” and closes with “David's assurance of God's continued preservation in the presence of [Yahweh]” (Wilson, 210), a theme extended through Book 2. Book 3 with its startling conclusion (Ps 89) turns to the crushing problem inherent in the history of Israel's kingship—the failure of the eternal covenant with David.
You have rejected . . .
You have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant . ..
You have broken through all his walls . . .
You have exalted the right hand of his foes . . .
You have turned back the edge of his sword . . .
To this staggering loss and agony of the Exile and Restoration communities, Books 4 and 5 give answer. Pss 90-106, in Wilson's opinion, “function as the editorial ‘center’” of the present Psalter, the heart of the answer to the problem posed in Ps 89 (Wilson, 215). Elaborated throughout Books 4 and 5, these psalms present a four-pronged answer to the Exile and Restoration community's plight: (1) Yahweh's kingship, (2) his ancient and enduring faithfulness to Israel, (3) the faith that he will continue as their refuge now, and (4) the blessing of those who trust Yahweh (Wilson, 215). Now the Psalter develops the splendor and universal scope of Yahweh's eternal kingship, concluding in a symphony of praise (Pss 145-50) to this One who reigns forever (Ps 146:10). The design of the Psalter was produced by arranging groups of material and juxtaposing individual songs and previous collections with various themes and emphases. Such a work cannot proceed with the precise and economic logic of a theological essay like Romans. But the movement and design appear to be there nevertheless, and they yield to those who “meditate in it day and night.”
In it all an astounding transformation has taken place under the inspiration of God's Spirit. In spite of the fact that we often read the Psalter as though we were reading the ancient temple or synagogue's full book of liturgy, it is not so. We have no such documents. We do have words that in many, if not most, cases originated in the cult or passed through the cult. They are prayers, praises, and doxologies—the words of worshipers to their God. But these poems no longer stand in a primarily liturgical collection, a simple anthology of psalms. They are “The Psalms,” standing in Scripture as God's holy Word. Indeed, “Israel's words of response to her God have now become the Word of God to Israel”—and to God's people of all times and places (Wilson, 206).