The amazing work we call “The Book of Psalms” represents the product of a long and complex process of inspiration, worship, composition, collection, and editing, a process of which we are poorly informed. Some clues do surface in the anthology, but many questions remain.
For instance, the present compilation clearly incorporates earlier smaller collections. Four collections of psalms of David, which may originally have been a single “Davidic psalter,” presently stand in the Psalter: Pss 3-41 (possibly excluding Ps 33), the major Davidic psalter, along with Pss 51-70 (excluding 66-67), Pss 108-10, and 136-45. Only seven Davidic psalms stand outside these groups (Pss 86, 101, 103, 122, 124, 131, 133). Ps 72:20 reads, “This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse,” and shows awareness of such Davidic collections, calling these psalms “prayers.”
Two collections of the psalms of Korah appear, Pss 42-49 (perhaps except Ps 43) and 84-88 (excluding Ps 86). The psalms of Asaph now stand as Pss 73-83. Beyond these collections grouped by authorship or archival attribution, the Songs of Ascent (Pss 120-34) form an obvious set, apparently related to pilgrimage or procession. Finally two Hallel collections, the “Egyptian Hallel” (Pss 113-18), traditionally associated with Passover observance, and Pss 146-50 take their name from the exhortation “Hallelujah,” i.e., “Praise Yahweh,” which figures prominently in both. This rubric opens or closes Pss 113-18 (excluding Ps 114), and both opens and closes the final five songs of the psalter.
These smaller collections along with other psalms are now compiled in five “books”: Book 1, 1-41; Book 2, 42-72; Book 3, 73-89; Book 4, 90-106; and Book 5, 107-50. Books 1-4 each conclude with a doxology, 41:13 (MT v.14); 72:19; 89:52 (MT v. 53); and 106:48, e.g.,
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Let all the people say, “Amen!” 106:48
The final Hallel forms the climactic doxology for Book 5 and the entire collection.
Repeated psalms and psalms composed by combining other works in the Psalter give additional clues to the growth of the Psalter. Ps 14 is nearly identical to Ps 53, except Ps 53 has been edited to increase the use of the divine name Elohim and reduce the occurrence of the name Yahweh. Ps 40:13-17 appears again as Ps 70. Pss 57:7-11 and 60:5-12 are combined to produce Ps 108. In these cases originally independent psalms found their way into collections now joined in the Psalter, and/or material from previous collections has been edited for inclusion in still another.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of editorial activity in the Psalms is the thoroughgoing revision of Pss 42-83 to reduce use of the divine name Yahweh, replacing it with Elohim, as noted regarding Pss 14 and 53 above. In Book 1 the name Yahweh occurs 272 times and Elohim 15 times (standing alone). In Books 4 and 5 again the name Yahweh predominates. But Pss 41-72 and 73-83 show just the reverse preference, with occurrences of Elohim outnumbering Yahweh 200 to 43, or 5 to 1! These data suggest the deliberate formation of an “Elohistic psalter,” perhaps edited in a period when public or perhaps even private use of the name Yahweh was unacceptable, or where Elohim was at least preferred (cf. Chronicles). Such a revision, it seems, would have followed the gathering of Davidic psalms (51-65, 68-70) and those of Korah (42-49) and Asaph (50, 73-83) but may have preceded the formation of Books 2 and 3 whose boundary that revision now spans. There is obviously much concerning all this and the rest of the process about which we simply do not have adequate information. At some point the materials were given their final shape, with the whole collection given the design we now have before us.
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