PC: The Psalms and the Old Testament

One of the big arguments I’m making in Psalming Christ about how the Church Fathers prayed the psalms and what we can learn from them is the basic concept that the single best way to get better at reading Scripture is to read more Scripture. Since I’m also approaching this from the standpoint of modern biblical scholarship and how and why it reinforces the patristic wisdom, I’m spending some time talking about the relationship between the Psalms at the Old Testament in order to build the case that you be able to pray the Psalms better the better you know the Old Testament. In service of that, here’s a discussion of the relationship between the Psalms and the Old Testament as we know it.

I realize that I’m covering a lot of ground fairly quickly in this section. What are parts that don’t make sense or connections that don’t click?

When I learned the faith as I was growing up, I inherited a fairly simple model of understanding how the Bible came together. As it’s laid out, it moves in roughly chronological order: Genesis talks about the beginning of things, Revelation talks about the ending of things and everything more or less falls in line from there. The main historical thread moves through the first seven books (the Heptateuch) which gets the Israelites into the Promised Land and up to the point of having kings, then the books of Samuel & Kings take up the thread until the Exile in 587 BC, then Ezra and Nehemiah take over with the apocryphal Maccabees as the bridge between the Old Testament and New.

My general unconscious assumption was that the order that was followed was more or less the order that things were written in.

I didn’t worry much about the question of authorship. I had been told that Moses wrote the Torah—the first five books—on the strength of Deuteronomy (“When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end…” Deut 31:24). I assumed that the prophets had written their prophetic books, and that was that.

As I got older, though, a thought occurred to me. I knew that the Israelites were a group of nomadic herdsmen; I couldn’t see them carrying libraries of books lashed onto the backs of donkeys as they moved from one pasture ground to another. As I started exploring and learned more about cultures, technologies, and the development of the Bible, I realized that my simplistic model need to be revisited and revised.

In the Ancient Near East (and most other places too!) the technology of writing is tied to two other technologies: agriculture and the monarchy. It makes perfect sense if you think about it—herdsmen can count their cattle just fine, but once you start having crops that are stored and a governmental structure that requires formal taxation, you need to be able to keep written records. Once you start using writing to keep track of who owes what when, it makes sense to start writing down other things too, gathering the collective wisdom of what works and what doesn’t so you are not constantly reinventing the wheel (whether metaphorically or literally!).

The historically plausible way to understand the composition of the Bible takes the social and technological factors into account and connects them with clues in the biblical account itself. King Solomon’s reputation for wisdom makes a lot more sense when you recognize that the biblical account itself identifies him as responsible for a wave of technological, engineering, and social innovations learned from Israel’s neighbors. Modern scholarship suggests that a scribal school established at Solomon’s court was likely the beginning of formal record-keeping and literacy in ancient Israel. Hence, the wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs may be some of the earliest biblical material committed to writing. Once the Temple was constructed—under Solomon—material regarding temple policies and sacrificial practices were likely written down as well. We know that historical records were kept from this point too: there are scattered references to some texts that were incorporated into the Samuel-Kings accounts like “the book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41) and, once the kingdom split into two after the death of Solomon, “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19) and “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:29).

Thus, the beginning of the writing of what would become our modern Bible likely started in the reign of Solomon (960-930 BC?) with some of the wisdom literature, some of what would become legal material, and the start of the histories. What makes this even more complicated is that we know there was a significant amount of oral tradition being handed down as well in parallel. After all, that’s how nomadic herdsmen actually do carry their collective memory around—through stories and songs, not bookshelves perched on donkeys! The stories of the patriarchs and the judges would have been told and memorized around campfires. Legal practices and community norms would likewise have been handed down verbally. Last but certainly not least for our purposes, songs would have been composed and transmitted that combined many of these different things together. It’s no accident that the lost books that describe historical events before the reign of Solomon—the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14) and the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13)—are poetic; every time they are cited, they give a snippet of a song.

By the time of the prophets (the 8th through the 6th centuries BC), some of the legal material was written, but some of it was still oral. When they reflected on the “law of God” and on God’s covenant, it was likely this mix they were referring to. That’s the irony here—some of the prophetic reflection on the Law likely pre-dates certain portions of it actually being written down! We know that these traditions were documented more fully as time went on; Proverbs refers to “the officials of King Hezekiah” (Prov 25:1) which reflects some active scribal work during his rule (715-687 BC), and the “Book of the Law” found in the temple at the time of Josiah (640-609 BC) strongly parallels sections of Deuteronomy.

Most scholars see the Exile in Babylon (597-538 BC) as an incredibly formative time for the written Old Testament as we know it. This is likely when the oral traditions were captured and written down lest they be forgotten forever, and the scattered written accounts were collected and edited into something more like the books we have today. We get a sense of everything coming together in the Book of Nehemiah. After the return from Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple, Ezra gathers the people together and reads to the whole populace the “book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (Neh 8:1-8). We then get a prayer to seal the renewed covenant from Ezra that summarizes the contents of the book in Nehemiah 9:6-38. The narrative begins with creation and continues through the prophets and the Exile down to their present day (444 BC). At this point we can say that most of the Old Testament was in the form that we know it.

Ok—so what does all of this have to do with the Psalms and how we pray them? A couple of points.

First, the psalms are poems. Poetry is capable of being passed down a long time before it is committed to writing. When a poem or psalm was composed and when it was written down may be two very different dates.

Second, David is thoroughly connected with poetry, singing and the psalms, both in the text of the Psalter in its final edited form and in the historical books which refer to him as musician (1 Samuel 16:14-23) and a divinely-inspired poet (2 Sam 23:1-2). We know that some compositions attributed to him were preserved in the lost Book of Jashar (2 Samuel 1:18). This suggests that a collection of his songs were likely written down in Solomon’s time in that first flourishing of Hebrew literacy. (This is probably the source of the “Songs of David” collection that form the core of the first parts of the Psalter.)

Third, many of the psalms are connected to the Temple in some way. Because the Levites were in charge of singing psalms during the sacrifices there had to be a body of material for them to sing. Furthermore, other psalms were composed in or for the Temple: some are probably the written accounts of vows of thanksgiving promised to God if he would get their author out of a tight spot; this seems to be the impetus for Psalms 66 and 116, telling of God’s deeds that accompanied a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Fourth, it’s entirely possible that some of the psalms reflect religious oral traditions that were captured first
in their psalm form before they found written expression in the Law or the histories or other places. The prophets—many of whom were both priests and poets (like Isaiah and Ezekiel)—may have been more influenced by the psalms which they had and knew rather than the form of the Law and Histories as we know them which were written after their time.

The bottom line is this: the Psalms are a collection of religious poetry that contains all of the same genres to the Old Testament does—legal material, wisdom material, prophetic material, historical material. We should think of the psalms as being composed in a dynamic relationship with the emerging books of the Old Testament. Some of the later psalms are riffing off of written material; some of the earlier psalms pre-date the finished books that we know. (This is obviously the case with Psalm 18 which is incorporated completely in 2 Samuel 2-51!) The psalms contain unsystematic crystallizations of bits of the religious tradition that stretch from the beginning of the Temple and written Hebrew culture in the days of Solomon down to the return from Exile and the building of the new Temple a span of roughly 600 years. Just as there are both relationships and tensions between certain biblical genres (sometimes the prophets enforce the Law; sometimes they appear to critique it) so the psalms contain some of these relationships and tensions between one another and with the larger biblical material.

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