The four major types of psalms (community hymns, thanksgiving hymns of individuals, laments of both individual and community), four minor types (royal, creation, wisdom, and enthronement), and poetic idioms (Hebrew acrostic and parallelism) are clearly introduced through representative passages. Helpful as this introduction is, it is the flow and history of an ever-changing relationship to God that rivets the reader to the book. Getting a taste of how traditions unfolded in the original storytelling sessions and how later retellings move beyond the original intentions of the writers toward the needs of the later editor’s community often surprise us, and beg the question if these psalms have a current life in our context.
The historical background helps to see how the profoundly existential questions of life with Yahweh could lead to doubt, faith, praise and trust. During the exile and post-exilic periods Yahweh’s people struggled not only with whether God was powerful enough to deliver them but whether he was indeed trustable. After all, the covenant to David and his descendants, thought to be unilateral and perpetual, was withdrawn leaving them seemingly abandoned in the hands of their enemies who, as far as they were concerned, were wicked. Why do the wicked prosper? How could God let this happen? Most importantly, did God back out of his Davidic promises?
The answer according to this reading of Psalms is that Yahweh was not fickle, the exile was caused through Israel’s (especially their kings') foolish sinfulness and neglect of the poor. God would deliver in a new way, singing a new song of deliverance in a new key, sans monarchy. The psalms worked on the collective and individual memory of a blessed and accompanied life during the exodus wanderings. Revisiting these memories Israel was reminded that obedience to God as the ultimate sovereign was essential to her spiritual vibrancy and security.
The shape of the Psalms in the structure of the so-called Five Books (One: 1 - 41; Two 42 - 72; Three 73 - 89; Four 90 - 106; Five 107 - 150) recounts the journey from Davidic tensions, temple worship, exile and on to post-exilic challenges. It is helpful to be shown that the frequency of the psalm types change as history proceeds from the monarchial, exilic and post-exilic periods, and become ever more praise and thanksgiving oriented as the theology shifts and Israel adjusts to her new situation: restored to her land – yet without a monarch. Nancy deClaissé-Walford produces the statistic that in Book One 59% are laments whereas in Book Five only 23% are laments. Hard proof that mourning was turned to rejoicing in the Psalms.
Some sections of this introduction required the concentration of furrowed-brow reading, but on the whole when the Psalms connected with history and with my own personal life, I experienced both sorrow and joy and a new understanding of how personal and mysteriously dynamic a life with Yahweh can be. When I read each of the five Psalms Book summaries, I read the actual Psalms aloud and let them sink into myself before pondering the excellent commentary deClaissé-Walford provided. The Psalms must be sung one way or another.