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Psalms

Speech forms are recurring ways of speaking that can be identified and traced back to typical settings
within the experience of the Israelites. Gunkel traced many of the psalmic speech forms back to the
worship experiences of the Israelites. Learning to recognize the conventional language of the Psalms
will help us appreciate the range of the Psalter's modes of speaking to and about God.

An invocation gets God's attention. It usually presupposes a problem the psalmist needs solved.
(5:2)
Complaint language, also called lament, describes the psalmist's or the community's difficulty and
often expresses feelings of abandonment. The language is narrative in form rather than imperative.
A petition calls upon God to do something, perhaps intervene and give aid, or forgive. Petition
usually contains an imperative (and an exclamation point).
Praise language announces the greatness of God. Praise can be generalized language affirming the
character of God, or it can be thanks for some specific act for which the psalmist is grateful. As we
will see, this distinction is significant.
A call to praise enlists fellow worshipers in acclaiming the wonders of God.
A vow of praise promises to credit God with the yet-to-be experienced deliverance.

These are just some of the many modes of speech that can be found in the Psalter. Specific modes of
speech combine in various ways in the psalms, often with metaphoric language, to construct larger
patterns. These speech form combinations, or psalm genres, will now be identified.

Complaint
The largest number of psalms in the Psalter fall under the heading lament. Perhaps the term
complaint communicates more immediately what this type of psalm expresses. The heart of a
complaint psalm is a description of the suffering of the psalmist and a plea for deliverance. Many
complaint psalms also contain petitions and vows of praise. Frequently there is also a statement of
confidence that God will come to the rescue. There are two subcategories of this psalm type, divided
on the basis of whether an individual or a group is speaking.
An individual complaint can also be called an individual psalm of lament. About one-third of the
psalms in the Psalter are of this type. Often included in this category are: 3-7, 13, 17, 22, 25-28, 31,
35, 38-43, 69-71, 77, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, and 139-143.
Psalm 22 is a well-formed representative of the individual complaint psalm type, especially notable
within the Christian community because it was quoted by Jesus of Nazareth as he was being crucified.
The psalmist begins with a complaint addressed to God (2-11). Verse 12 is a petition pleading for
God to make his presence known. Next the psalmist moves to a vivid description of the trouble he
experiences (13-19). Notice the highly metaphoric language he uses to describe his enemies and his
own problems. After another petition for God's help (20-22), the writer offers an expression of
confidence (23-26). The psalm ends by encouraging everyone to praise God (27-32).

The psalm moves from personal complaint to anticipation of salvation. The change comes when the
psalmist makes a vow to give God the credit for helping him once his problem is overcome (23). He
will let everyone know that God is the one who made deliverance possible. The remarkable feature of
this psalm, and ones like it, is the psalmist's firm confidence that God will come to the rescue. In
expressing this confidence, the complaint psalm actually becomes a psalm of thanksgiving in advance.
Thanksgiving
The psalm of thanksgiving is the flip-side of the psalm of complaint. Thanksgiving psalms are
expressions of gratitude. Whereas the psalm of complaint anticipated God's deliverance, the psalm of
thanksgiving was written after deliverance had been experienced. In it the psalmist thanks God for
salvation.
The category of thanksgiving should be distinguished from the category of hymn, detailed later. A
thanksgiving psalm expresses gratitude for an act of divine intervention in the life of the psalmist,
whereas a hymn uses descriptive language to praise something about the character of God.
Westermann (1981) calls thanksgivings "psalms of declarative praise," and calls hymns "psalms of
descriptive praise." Thanksgiving psalms function to give public testimony to the caring nature of
Yahweh and his will to save his people. In the thanksgiving psalm the psalmist makes good on his
vow to praise God now that deliverance has come. Generally included in this category are: 9-10, 11,
16, 30, 32, 34, 92, 116, and 138.
Not many psalms of this type found their way into the Psalter, perhaps because it was assembled in
the postexilic period. By this time Israel no longer existed as a nation-state, so no longer experienced
saving deeds of national scope. Communal psalms of thanksgiving became less relevant to their
experience.

Hymn
A hymn is a song in praise of God or in praise of something about God. It contains generalized praise
language. It is not so much praise for what God has done to save (as in psalms of thanksgiving), as
praise for who God is. Often included in this category are: 33, 103, 104, 113, 117, 134-136, and 145-
147. In addition to hymns of general praise, more specific sub-types can be identified, depending on
what it is about Yahweh that is deemed worthy of praise.
A creation hymn finds reason to praise God for the wonder and magnificence of the natural world.
Usually included in this category are: 8, 19, 104, 139, and 148. Among creation hymns, Psalm 19 is
notable for the way it joins the revelation of God's glory through creation with the revelation of God's
will through Torah. The first half of this Psalm (1-6) deals with nature.

A hymn of Yahweh's kingship celebrates the rule of Yahweh. Included in this category are: 47, 93,
and 96-99. Some of these psalms begin with the shout "Yahweh is king!" alternately translated,
"Yahweh reigns!" Another feature held in common by this group is the affirmation that Yahweh rules
over the entire world. Psalm 93 is typical of this category.

The threat to Yahweh's power is the primeval waters. Compare the mythological background to the
Priestly story of creation (see Chapter 1). Yahweh triumphed at creation over the waters of chaos and
demonstrated thereby his supremacy, here celebrated in hymnic praise.

New Years Festival. Mesopotamian documents attest a Babylonian new year festival when Marduk
was ritually enthroned. On the basis of this evidence some authorities have attempted to reconstruct a
festival of Yahweh's enthronement as king, yearly celebrated as the autumn new year observance
(Mowinckel 1962). On this theory the "YHWH reigns!" psalms were used in Israel's ritual of
Yahweh's enthronement. However, direct evidence within the Hebrew Bible for an Israelite festival
which parallels the Babylonian new year festival does not exist.
In Jewish traditions, the kingship of Yahweh psalms are messianic and forward-looking in
anticipation of the decisive historical realization of the kingdom of God. In Christian traditions, they
are eschatological and prefigure the coming of the messiah.
Mount Zion was the location within Jerusalem of Yahweh's temple. As Yahweh's residence, it
naturally became the object of hymnic praise in a song of Zion. Generally included in this category are
46, 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122. Psalm 48 praises Zion with obvious hyperbole.

In the ancient world, mountains were the dwelling places of high gods: Zeus on Mount Olympus,
Baal on Mount Zaphon, Marduk on the ziggurat, and Yahweh on Mount Sinai. As the Hebrew people
moved from the Sinai to Canaan, the residence of their God moved to Mount Zion within Jerusalem.
Although geographically not overwhelming, Zion took on the mythic dimensions of divine mountain
dwellings. It became a symbol of the presence and power of Israel's God, and consequently Israel's
absolute security.
A hymn to Israel's king, sometimes called a royal psalm, praises Israel's earthly king as the
representatives of God. Generally included in this category are 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, and 110.
Although Israel never divinized its kings, still the kings were considered to be divinely appointed and
stood in a special relationship to God. The dominant theology of Israel's monarchy, the Davidic
covenant, was articulated in the Deuteronomistic History. The Davidic covenant, as laid out in
Nathan's oracle in 2 Samuel 7, is the object of praise in Psalm 89.

As part of the hymnbook of Israel, used especially in the postexilic period, royal psalms perpetuated
the messianic ideal, namely, Israel's hope in the Davidic line to provide national leadership and
resurrect an independent nation.

Minor Types

The following minor psalm types do not easily fit within the three main categories of complaint,
thanksgiving, and hymn.
Torah psalms, including 1, 19:7-14, and 119, are hymns in praise of God's revelation in Torah.

Generally included in the category of wisdom psalms are 8, 36, 37, 49, 73, 111, 112, 127, 128, and
133. They offer practical advice for living. Also, they operate with a black-and-white contrast between
the wicked and the righteous. They hold these traits in common with the wisdom tradition of the book
of Proverbs (see Part 3.2 for wisdom literature in general and Chapter 15.1 for Proverbs).

A liturgy is a standardized format used in public worship or in a ritual. Liturgy psalms have
survived for entering the temple (15, 24), temple celebration (68), priestly blessing (134), covenant
renewal (50, 81), and ritualized condemnation of foreign gods (82, 115). Liturgies are those psalms
that most obviously involved public performance, even if the exact shape of that performance remains
unknown. Psalm 15 was a liturgy used for admission to the temple. The first verse was spoken by a
priest or other official, the reply given by the pilgrim seeking entry.

Songs of trust, also called songs of confidence, are found in both individual and community forms.
Songs of trust are generalized expressions of faith in God, without having a specific backdrop of
adversity. Generally included in this category are 11, 16, 23, 62, 63, 91, 121, and 131. Psalm 23 is the
Brueggemann (1984) classifies the basic psalm types according to their function within the life of
faith. Complaints are psalms of disorientation. They express the experience of oppression and loss.
Thanksgivings are psalms of reorientation. They affirm a world of justice and order after the
experience of restoration. Hymns are psalms of orientation. They direct attention away from the
human experiences of loss and recovery to the secure world of blessing, wisdom, torah, and divine
kingship.

B.C.E. Period Context Sub-category Psalms


950- First Temple Davidic monarchy Royal psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72,
587 89, 89, 132, 144
Solomonic temple Songs of Zion 46, 48, 76, 87, 122
Liturgies 15, 24
Borrowed 29, 68
Canaanite hymns
Nation and land Community 65, 66, 67, 118
psalms
Individual psalms 7, 12, 23, 30, 40, 41,
51, 61, 140, 141
Psalms with prophetic 50, 75, 81, 82, 95
oracles
587- Babylonian No monarchy Yahweh's 47, 93-99
520 Exile kingship
Creation hymns 19A, 104
No temple Zion laments 74, 77, 79, 137
No nation Community 44, 60, 123, 126
laments
Individual 13, 17, 22, 31, 35,
laments 42-43, 54, 55, etc.
Prophetic Salvation history 78, 105, 107
520- Second Theocracy, adaptation of
323 ? Temple royal and divine kingship
psalms
Second temple Individual temple 25, 84, 116, 138
songs
Hymns of praise 8, 33, 100, 103, 117,
135, 136, 145-150
Decline of prophecy Wisdom psalms 1, 36, 37, 49, 73,
111, 112, 127, 128,
129
Torah psalms 1, 19B, 119