A View Of The Institutional Framework Of The Composition And Publication Of The Psalms

In our intensely individualistic age, anyone with an opinion, some kind of keyboard or keypad, and an internet connection can share their opinions and thoughts and feelings with anyone who is inclined to read them. Whether we are sharing our own personal creations on the world wide web, or whether we are praising or criticizing the creations of others, we are used to viewing ourselves as public figures even if we have no institutional backing whatsoever. At times, companies are so aware of this individualistic bias that they even allow or encourage, or even direct, their artists to engage in what appear to be individualistic efforts as a way of gaining credibility with an audience that views corporate products with institutional support with a high degree of criticism and skepticism. Yet if we are sensitive at all to historical realities, we must come to realize that the composition and publication of the Psalms does not coincide with our own intensely individualistic idea of singer-songwriters.

We should note, after all, that the Psalms are often viewed as the subject of intensely personal reflection [1], although that is not the context in which they were originally written. In order to understand the institutional legitimacy of the authors of the Psalms (at least those we know about), let us examine several aspects of the Psalms. First, let us look at the authors of the psalms, to see what sort of people wrote the psalms that ended up being recorded in the Bible. Second, let us look, as much as we can, at the notes that the Psalms themselves give about their composition. Third, let us look at the process the Bible itself shows for the context of the publishing and recording of Psalms. Once we have laid this groundwork, we can better understand the role of institutional legitimacy in providing a framework for the psalms as we know them, which tends to counter the individualistic use we make of the psalms today.

First, let us examine the authors of the Psalms. Based on the superscriptions provided to the Psalms themselves, here is the exhaustive list of the authors of the Psalms. To that list we may add Miriam (who composed part of the victory song of Exodus 15), Hannah (who composed a poem in 1 Samuel 2 [2]), and Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ [3], as well as several of the prophets in whose books there are poetic forms (like Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah). Yet, as we will see, even these additions to the following list will only confirm the general patterns of institutional legitimacy:

David (Psalm 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 68, 69, 70, 86, 101, 103, 108, 109, 110, 124, 133, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145)
The Sons of Korah (42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85, 87, 88)
Asaph (50, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83)
Solomon (72, 127)
Heman The Ezrahite (one of the sons of Korah; 88)
Ethan The Ezrahite (89)
Moses (90)
An afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Eternal (102)
Unknown (the rest)

With the possible exception of the unknown afflicted person, those psalms which have an author ascribed to them, and those aforementioned psalms which appear elsewhere in scripture come from people who have legitimate offices granted by God. Some of the people named were civil rulers (Moses, David, and Solomon), some were prophets (the author of Lamentations, and the prophets like Habbakuk [4], and the others (including Moses and Habbakuk, as well as Heman, Ethan, Asaph, and the Sons of Korah, as well as Hannah) were a part of the Levite religious establishment. Even Mary, as the mother of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, would fit into the “civil ruler” category. In short, we do not find the psalms being composed by people who have no connection with the offices of Israel, but rather we find that the psalms came from people who had some sort of institutional legitimacy either through their ordination by God or their position as a recognized official of church or state. As might be imagined, this legitimacy gave their creation a weight that simply cannot be matched by those of us who write without that kind of institutional office.

Second, let us note what clues the psalms themselves give about their composition. Given the large number of psalms that exist, and the fact that many are silent about details, it is not possible to be exhaustive, but there is sufficient information given about the patterns of how psalms were composed and published that we can understand the process from the information that is possessed in the often ignored superscriptions to the psalms. Some psalms, like Psalm 100, have a purpose for the psalm stated (“For giving grateful praise”). Psalm 67 is a psalm that provides a good bit of information, including who it was submitted to by David (“The director of music”), what sort of instrumentation the psalm had (“with stringed instruments”) and the fact that the psalm was specifically a song. Some psalms, like Psalm 62 (dedicated to Jeduthan, another name for Ethan the Ezrahite), give either a personal dedication or a note for a soloist who was originally written into the song. Other psalms, like Psalm 63, and most famously, Psalm 51, give a story of the context in which the psalm was written (Psalm 63 says it was written by David when he was in the desert of Judah, and Psalm 51 says that David wrote the psalm when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba). Other psalms, like Psalms 56, 57, and 59, give the pre-existing music the lyrics of the psalms are set to (“A Dove On Distant Oaks, and “Do Not Destroy” for the latter two of those psalms). These notes again provide a context not of individualistic psalmists writing for themselves, but rather people who are writing psalms and following a particular process, involving public worship as well as a consistent body of Levite musicians who were responsible for performing the songs (with choruses sung by the people) as part of the tabernacle and temple worship.

This process, which is already clear enough when one looks at the psalms themselves, is even more clear when we look at what biblical evidence exists about the process by which psalms were submitted and performed in scripture. In 1 Chronicles 16:4-7 [5], we read the behavior of the public performance of a psalm when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. As might be imagined, it was a choreographed affair with the institutional backing of church and state: “He [David] appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Eternal, to extol, thank, and praise the Eternal, the God of Israel: Asaph was the chief, and next to him in rank were Zechariah, then Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattihiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeil. They were to play the lyres and harps, Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow the trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God. That day David first appointed Asaph and his associates to give praise to the Eternal in this manner.” After this comes a version of Psalm 105. We see here that the psalms were not seen as private devotional material, but rather as public worship material that included the institutional support of church and state.

Although in our present age we see the psalms in a largely individualistic light, that was not always so even in Western culture. A major, if unrecognized, aspect of the Protestant Reformation was the appropriation of the psalms for reformating into metrical psalms in four-part harmony that were used in the corporate worship of God in churches. Indeed, this tradition (itself at least partly based on scripture) survives in at least some churches to this day, including my own particular denomination. Seeing the public nature of the use of the psalms, and the way in which they were recorded in thematic sets, with a sense of larger structure and with the purpose of public worship by an institutional body of official musicians and singers, we can be struck by the tension between this institutional legitimacy as well as the intense personal nature of some of the psalms. To be sure, the psalms were probably written (as most writing occurs) in some solitude, but that individual composition was certainly done in the context of public proclamation, after some delay of time, where the personal praise or lament of the psalmist was transformed into an act of public devotion by which people were able to participate in that worship and also come to understand the complicated nature of mankind’s relationship with God and others. Far from leading to a great deal of praise and attention for the psalmist themselves, the psalms became a way for the building of a sense of community within the institutions of the tabernacle, temple, and church. Let us not forget to appreciate this purpose even in our much less communitarian age, so that we too may find the psalms of God bringing us together with other believers in giving the praise and glory to God that is due, and not using our God-given creative abilities merely to bring glory to ourselves.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/an-introduction-to-the-psalms-commentary-project/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/an-introduction-to-the-sons-of-korah-project/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/1-samuel-2-1-10-hannahs-song/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/luke-1-46-55-my-soul-magnifies-the-lord/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/habakkuk-a-bible-study/

[5] For a fuller account, see the following:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/1-chronicles-15-1-29-the-sons-of-korah-sing-at-the-placement-of-the-ark-of-the-covenant-in-the-tabernacle-part-one/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/1-chronicles-16-1-6-37-43-the-sons-of-korah-sing-at-the-placement-of-the-ark-of-the-covenant-in-the-tabernacle-part-two/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Music History, Musings, Psalms, Sons of Korah and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A View Of The Institutional Framework Of The Composition And Publication Of The Psalms

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