Daily Office: Psalms

I’m now heading into the Office section of the Prayer Book Spirituality Project. I’m wrestling a bit with the organization… In particular, I’m trying to decide if the Psalms should receive their own chapter or if Psalms stuff should be folded into a more integrated discussion of the Office. I haven’t decided.

That hasn’t stopped me from writing, though…

So—here’s a section that will go *somewhere,* I just don’t know where yet.


At the heart of the historic discipline of the Office is the Psalms. Recitation of the psalms has always been a central part of the practice and, not only that, many of the other elements in the Office are either borrowed from or directly inspired by the Psalms. As a result, it’s worth taking a closer look at them.

The Psalms (capitalized) refers to a book of the Old Testament containing 150 chapters. These chapters are, for the most part, discrete poems or songs known as psalms (not capitalized) that involve the relationship between God and his people, whether individually or corporately. What makes them unusual, given our typical perspective on the Bible, is their direction. That is, we ordinarily consider the Bible to be God’s self-revelation to humanity—God’s Word, revealing himself to us. The Psalms, though, are a set of prayers from humanity to God noteworthy for their emotional vulnerability and self-disclosure—feeling often more like humanity’s self-revelation to God!  Thus, the Psalms are a paradox of sorts: divine revelation laying bare the soul of humanity.

Having noted this unusual state of affairs, I now wish to turn to the question of authorship—who wrote the psalms, and how and why does that matter in our reading of them? One view, deriving from modern biblical scholarship, asserts that we don’t know who wrote the psalms—they are largely an anonymous collection. Another view, the traditional view handed down by the early and medieval Church, asserts that King David was the author of the psalms. Yet a third perspective is given by the psalms themselves that help us nuance and appreciate the importance of both perspectives.

By looking at language in relation to dialect shift over centuries, their possible original settings, relationship to other scriptural texts, and parallel material from the Ancient Near East, modern academic scholarship of the Bible sees the Psalms as a collection of material spanning several centuries from a diverse set of sources. Some psalms give a pretty clear indication that they were connected with worship in the Temple; others don’t have a temple anywhere near them. Some are connected to court life; others are written in the voice of the poor pleading for justice against rich oppressors. Some connect the king and Temple worship in ways that require a setting in Solomon’s Temple before its destruction by Babylonian armies in 587 B.C.; others reflect upon that act of destruction and one famously records the lament of those taken exile into Babylon and taunted to sing the songs of their homeland for their captors. Some are gems of theological complexity and subtlety; others reflect a more simplistic conception of God and the human-divine relationship. Some are placed in the voice of the king, yet others (like Psalm 131) are heard more easily in the voice of a young mother.

So what meaning do we take from this? For me, this breadth of the collection, the diversity of the voices, the anonymity of the writers gives me the sense of being in contact with a whole people of God at prayer. This anonymous collective is part of the great cloud of witnesses just as I am—just as I will be when twenty-five centuries have covered my own tomb with dust. From this perspective, the authors who wrote the psalms may be nameless and faceless but are by no means either voiceless or soul-less. Indeed, that is what gaps the chasms of time between then and now: an earnest cry—whether it be joy, or devotion or fear—that I recognize within my own breast as well. Thus, the diversity of the collection and the anonymity of its myriad authors and editors binds us to our heritage of the sons and daughters of God moving through time.

On the other hand, the tradition has insisted upon the person of King David as a centerpoint around whom the psalms are hung. While modern scholarship agrees that at least a few of the psalms contain linguistic and conceptual markers consistent with David’s time and place—and that therefore could conceivable be by him—it rejects the notion of Davidic authorship of the full Psalter as inconsistent with internal evidence from the psalms themselves. Whether it’s historical or not, there is some spiritual value for us in seeing the psalms in relation to David, so it’s worth looking more closely at why this attribution was so important to the Church through the ages.

The first reason is because the biblical narratives about David frequently connect him with music. According to 1 Samuel 16:14-23 even before the episode with Goliath, David was taken into Saul’s service precisely because his music soothed the king. Even after rising to high rank commanding the king’s armies, David still played daily for the him—indeed these music sessions twice became opportunities when the increasingly deranged Saul attempted to kill David lest he usurp the throne (1 Sam 18:5-12; 1 Sam 19:9-10)! Three songs ostensibly from the hand of David appear in 2 Samuel: the first his lament at the death of Jonathan and Saul (2 Sam 1:17-27), then an adaptation of Psalm 18 (2 Sam 22), and finally a song before his death (2 Sam 23:2-7) that names him “the sweet psalmist of Israel.”

Later biblical materials build on this aspect of David’s legacy. Chronicles portrays David as setting up all of the details of the Temple’s worship even though the structure wouldn’t be built until the reign of his son Solomon. Even later still, the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus honors his musical achievements as much as his military ones saying,

In all that [David] did he gave thanks to the Holy One, the Most High, proclaiming his glory; he sang praise with all his heart, and he loved his Maker. He placed singers before the altar, to make sweet melody with their voices. He gave beauty to the festivals, and arranged their times throughout the year, while they praised God’s holy name, and the sanctuary resounded from early morning. (Ecclus 47:8-10)

A more profound reason why the Psalms are connected with David is due to the fullness of the picture that we get of him in the Samuel-Kings material. While the pages of Scripture are filled with memorable people, few are drawn with great emotional depth. Two characters of the Old Testament stand out as fleshed-out emotional beings: Job and David. The view we get of Job is one-sided, though. Due to the purpose of the book, we see Job in various stages of lament and despair. In David, however, we see a man at full-stretch: the passionate lover, the exuberant warrior, the reverent monarch, the penitential father. We see him at his best and worst, in his highs and in his lows; he experiences the complete emotional range that the Psalter explores. In him we can make this anonymous collection personal and individual. We can see how events in his life might have prompted the cries of despair or the calls of joy, and find the parallels in our own.

A final reason why the early and medieval Church emphasized so strongly the Davidic authorship of the psalms is because they saw the psalms as deeply prophetic. They understood David to be uttering divinely inspired praises. But, even more particularly, they saw him engaging in an act of divinely-facilitated clairaudience reaching across the centuries: he was writing in the tenth century B.C. what his descendant Jesus—Son of David—would be feeling in the first century AD. In insisting upon the Davidic authorship of the Psalms, the Church could assert that they gave a unique perspective into the interior life of Jesus. The gospels tell of his deeds and allude to how he felt; having established the genetic connection, the psalms lay bare his own prayers and tribulations.

As modern people, it’s harder for us to embrace this perspective whole-heartedly than it was for our ancestors. Nevertheless, the Christological reading of the psalms has an important place in our spirituality. Granted—it does require some rather creative interpretive gymnastics to explain how some psalms show the psychology of Jesus! However, despite these problematic bits, the Church is saying something profound in attributing the emotional range and depth of the psalms to Jesus. It is another way to explore and ponder the full humanity of Jesus. Only a Jesus who feels deeply, passionately, fully, is a completely human (while completely divine) Redeemer. Indeed, this perspective brings us full circle to the paradox of revelation with which we began—how are human prayers to God part of God’s self-revelation to us? Seeing them in and through Jesus’ own self-communication to the Father clarifies how the revelation of the depths of our own humanity connects to divine self-revelation.

Having looked, now, at the modern idea of corporate anonymous authorship alongside the early and medieval understanding of Davidic authorship, I’d like to wrap up by adding in a body of scriptural material that can serve as a mediating, uniting, term between the two. The psalms in the prayer book are lacking one contextualizing piece that you’ll find when you look up the psalms in a Bible: the superscriptions. These are brief headers that appear at the start of most of the psalms—only 24 lack them in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. These headers aren’t original to the psalms but have been added in the process of compiling and editing them together. Therefore, they likely tell us less about history and more about interpretation. Often, these superscriptions give instructions to the choirmaster or give a tune name. (The tunes themselves have been long since forgotten.) Some superscriptions, however, attribute the psalm to either individuals or groups.

Predictably, 73 of the psalms are attributed directly to David, 14 of which are connected with specific incidents in his life. However, several other names also appear: one is attributed to Moses, two to Solomon, three to Jeduthun (this one’s unclear—this could be a person’s name…or an instrument), then groups identified in Kings and Chronicles with Temple Levites, eleven to Asaph, and twelve to the Sons of Korah of whom Heman and Ethan get explicit shout-outs.

Religious traditions hate a vacuum, though—so in the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek that occurred in Alexandria sometime around the second century B.C., superscriptions were added onto twenty-two of the psalms lacking them, leaving only Psalms 1 and 2 without them. Significantly, Psalms 146 to 148 are attributed to Haggai and Zechariah, writers and leaders of the post-exilic period!

In essence, therefore, the interpretative tradition reflected in the superscriptions enable us to have it both ways… On one hand, they explicitly refer to a wide range of people all of whom were involved in the creation, editing, and compiling of the Psalter. They give enough names to confirm our sense of the Psalms as a communal document in process over a long period of time. Also, they forestall simplistic attempts to pigeonhole the psalms as strictly Davidic. On the other hand, they solidly connect the psalms to a significant, emblematic figure of history—David—who stands forth not only as a heroic figure, an anointed leader, and a cultic pioneer, but also as a thoroughly flawed human being who, nevertheless, was a “man after God’s own heart.”

14 thoughts on “Daily Office: Psalms

  1. William R. MacKaye

    This is excellent stuff, Derek. I do have some thoughts, though, that you may want to consider.

    First, the Psalms selected for use in Tenebrae, which is after all an office if only an occasional one, read as a meditation on the closing days and hours of Jesus’s ministry before his death. His self appears to radiate from them even though they were composed long before he was born. You might want to add something about this in the section concerning images of Jesus found in the Psalms by some users.

    Second, you mention the Septuagint as being a second-century translation from the Hebrew. It dates in fact from the second century B.C. (or B.C.E. if you prefer), and it would be clearer if you were specific about this.

    Third, I think you should acknowledge that the number of the Psalms is not firmly fixed. Greek Orthodox Bibles, I believe, contain 151 Psalms, and if I’m not mistaken, some Oriental Orthodox churches acknowledge even more than that.

    Those of us who recite the Psalms on a regular basis wrestle with what to do about the imprecatory verses, and the Book of Common Prayer allows for their omission. Should we go along with this nice-nellyism? Or should we continue to dash the little ones against the stones? How does this kind of omission differ from the attempt of the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem a few years back to omit from its BCP every Psalm that mentioned Zion? Perhaps there should be some discussion of this.

  2. Derek Olsen

    Thanks, William! I did make the change on the Septuagint,

    Part of what’s missing here reflects my own indecision about how much to say here. I wanted to focus this around authorship. There’s still much to be said about how we find meaning in the psalms, particularly in dealing with the imprecatory ones. Chances are some of that material will be adapted from this piece from the SCP Conference last year.

    Too, I did have a section I’d drafted in my head about the “cry of dereliction” from the cross and its citation of Ps 22 and how that draws us into inter-related concepts around the interior life of Jesus, the compositional work of the gospel writers, and how the psalms formed a lens for the remembrance of Jesus in the early Church. But then, I only have some much space to work with too…

    Definitely a work in progress…

  3. RFSJ+

    Derek – this is quite good. What I wonder a lot (and may be delving into this in my dissertaton, who knows) is why the Psalms *started out* as the basis for daily Christian prayer? Yes, they are from the Hebrew Scriptures, but the Desert Forebears apparently decided that they would recite the Psalms, and not the Proverbs, and not the Gospels (at least some of which they had) or something else as the regular core of their daily prayer. We may of course never know. and I have grown to love the appointed Psalmody of the day. But in good Prot fashion, when I first began reciting the Office, I really sort of skipped through the Psalmody so I could get to the Scriptures. Now I find myself lingering more and more on these texts that we repeat seven times a year, more than any other text of the entire Scriptures. Even now, I am highly annoyed that Daily Prayer fro All Seasons essentially rejects the Psalmodic tradition. There is deep value here, that I am not able to fully or even partially articulate. I wonder – if the Desert Folk had picked one of the Passion Narratives as their core text, (as an example) how would, well everything, have been different?

  4. Derek Olsen

    Actually, I delve into the question of the Psalms and desert practice in the next section—stay tuned! The short answer is: take a look at Athanasius’ Letter on the Psalms to Marcellinus which is often bundled with his On the Incarnation.

  5. Derek Olsen

    Good question. It seems to be a break for a musical interlude. Certainly that’s how the translators of the Septuagint understood it.

  6. Barbara (bls)

    Derek, can you recommend any books or other sources where I can read more about the “third perspective” you mention above – the possible history of various Psalms, “best guesses” about their provenance, language analysis, and so forth, that is? I’ve always been extremely interested in this topic, but I have no idea where to look.

    Also: do you have any idea whether or not it’s likely that people might discover more about the Psalms in the future? How might that happen, if it’s possible?

    It’s such a mysterious topic….

  7. Derek Olsen

    Hi Barbara,

    The two books I had next to me while writing this section were S. E. Gillingham’s The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible and John Day’s Psalms from the Old Testament Guides series. Both of these are what I’d consider fairly (but not uber) academic and assume an understanding of the basics of modern biblical criticism. A good introductory work that I’ve used when teaching OT to first-year seminary students is Patrick Miller’s Interpreting the Psalms. Of course, that was nearly fifteen years ago now (!), I’m sure there are some more recent things out there.

    And, yes, we continue to learn more about these texts as new methods give us new angles of interpretation. However—no matter what the latest trends in scholarship are—the single best source for learning the psalms is the psalms themselves.

  8. Barbara (bls)

    Thanks. I am just endlessly curious about certain things; dying to know, for instance, how “The Songs of Ascents” actually were used liturgically.

    Now that I think of it, though, it might be better to have a variety of thoughts on something like that; conjecture might actually be more interesting and imaginative. The mystery may be part of the attraction itself; perhaps I’d be disappointed if I actually got any hard answers!

  9. Derek Olsen

    This in particular:

    “Nowhere is more perfect teaching of virtue to be found than in the Lord’s own life. Forebearance, love of men, goodness, courage, mercy, righteousness, all are found in Him; and in the same way no virtue will be lacking in him who contemplates this human life of Christ. It was as knowing this that Saint Paul said, ‘Be ye imitators of me, even as I myself am of Christ.’ The Greek legislators had indeed a great command of language; but the Lord, the true Lord of all, Who cares for all His works, did not only lay down precepts but also gave himself as model of how they should be carried out, for all who would to know and imitate. And therefore, before He came among us, He sketched the likeness of this perfect life for us in words, in this same book of Psalms; in order that, just as he revealed himself in flesh to be the perfect, heavenly Man, so in the Psalms also men of good-will might see the pattern life portrayed, and find therein the healing and correction of their own.”

    From this patristic perspective, then, the alternative between the gospels and the Psalms is a false dichotomy: it’s all Jesus!

  10. The Rev'd. Susan Creighton

    Thank you, Derek, for this great work on the Psalms. You have inspired me to begin to post some of my own work on praying the psalms. (see http://holydwelling.com/blog/) I am presently taking a different approach than what I’ve been familiar with in the BCP, etc., by rearranging the distribution of the psalter according to stages of the mystical path as developed in the early patristic teachings. Somehow, it works for me, praying as I do in solitude. I’d be very interested to learn from you or others about any other efforts or traditions to distribute the psalms thematically rather in the (more or less) numerical order most lectionaries seem to use.

    And keep up the great work! If our prayer is to transform us into the image and likeness of God, it must constantly be made alive.

  11. Rdr. James Morgan

    Unfortunately, it is also a small town in Washington state, just north of Yakima!

  12. Rdr. James Morgan

    Not sure if this is relevant, but I always find this book helpful:
    The English Psalter with a devotional commentary, by George D. Carleton
    Mowbrays, London 1953

  13. Derek Olsen

    Thanks, Susan! In terms of thematic distributions, I’d point you also to Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus. He spends quite a bit of time there sorting the psalms into categories and themes for prayer.

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