Have you ever thought about how to read the Psalms? Do you read them individually or as a whole book? Do the Psalms as a whole tell us about God’s attitude to the nations or is that overly optimistic?
Basically, for the last century everyone’s been following Gunkel. He read the Psalter as a collection of individual psalms and came up with seven categories for them: hymns (communal praise), individual thanksgiving, community laments, individual laments, royal psalms, and ‘other’ (miscellaneous). People have played around with his categories but pretty much accepted his assumption that the Psalter is a collection of random psalms in random order.
In the 80s, all that changed with a guy called Gerald Wilson who argued that there was shaping to the book of Psalms. He argued that you can read the Psalter as a whole: Psalm 1 sets up the main themes and in the cascading praise of Psalms 146-150, the book reaches its conclusion. People have different theories about where the climax of the book is.
This idea of reading a book as a whole, a ‘canonical approach’, is pretty standard in scholarship on most other books of the Bible (thanks in large part to a guy called Brevard Childs), but pretty new for the Psalms so it’s an area that still needs a lot of work. That seems strange to me. After all, Wilson wrote in the 80s – why has it taken my whole lifetime for his ideas to catch on? I asked my lecturer. He thought the 80s weren’t such a long time ago!
I think the canonical approach makes sense. There’s good evidence that the Psalter has been carefully edited, not just that all the psalms were chucked in in random order. There’s still room for looking carefully at individual psalms, but we can add the dimension of trying to trace a theme across the book as well.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.