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The Editing of the Book of Psalms: A Tribute to Gerald H. Wilson

1st March 2006

GWilson.jpgI was shocked and saddened to read of Dr. Gerald H. Wilson‘s passing in today’s up-date to the SBL Forum (I was also surprised that it took so long to hear the news since he died in November; but perhaps it was a consequence of not attending the SBL Annual Meeting). While I did not know Gerald really well, we did have lunch together on a number of occasions at SBL meetings to talk shop and interacted via email on a number of topics surrounding the study of the book of Psalms. He was an able scholar, a man of integrity, and a great guy — and he will be sorely missed.

Here is an excerpt from the obituary posted in the SBL forum:

Dr. Gerald Wilson, Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University since fall 1999, died on 11 November 2005, immediately after suffering a heart attack. He was deeply respected by his students and colleagues. In 2002 he was awarded the Faculty Outstanding Scholarship Achievement Award.

Professor Wilson was a graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Afterwards he took an M.Div. and an M.A. from Fuller Theological Seminary. There he was inspired in the study of biblical Hebrew by Prof. William S. LaSor. He continued his studies at Yale University, under the direction of Professors Robert R. Wilson and Brevard S. Childs. There he earned an M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. On the basis of his work at Yale, he established himself as a pioneering scholar in the study of the Psalms as he undertook examination of the canonical shape of the Psalter.

Wilson’s Pioneering Work on the Psalms

Professor Wilson was truly a “pioneering scholar” in the study of the Psalter. Some of the most exciting — and theologically fruitful — work being done on the Psalter in the last quarter-century has been by those employing “canonical” or “synchronic” methods — and Wilson’s ground-breaking study of the editing of the book of Psalms led the way. In fact, his 1981 Yale thesis, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (SBLDS 76; Scholars Press, 1985; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) was one of the first comprehensive English-language works on the shape of the book of Psalms. This volume, as well as Wilson’s numerous articles and essays (see bibliography below), have served as the foundation for much of the research done in this area.

ShapePsalterChart.jpgUsing a number of ancient collections of hymnic material as a comparative “control group,” Wilson sought to demonstrate that the Hebrew Psalter has an overall shape or structure that was brought about by purposeful editorial activity. From his study of the comparative material and the book of Psalms itself, Wilson isolated a number of indicators that helped identify the editorial pattern behind the canonical form of the book of Psalms. Indicators such as author and genre categories from the psalm headings; thematic grouping of psalms; the placement of previous collections; the function of the first psalm as an introduction to the Psalter as a whole; and the Psalter’s fivefold division were understood by Wilson to have editorial significance (Click on the image to the right to see a handout I developed that graphically displays Wilson’s understanding of the editorial structure of the Psalter).

Because of the different methods used in putting together psalms in Books I-III and IV-V, Wilson suggested that the Psalter underwent two (likely distinct) editings, one for Psalms 1-89 and another for Psalms 90-150. The first segment (Psalms 1-89) is organized principally by author and genre distinctions, with royal psalms used as buffers between the collections (e.g., Psalms 2, 72, 89). According to Wilson, these royal psalms give the collection a Davidic framework that traces the events of the Davidic monarchy from its inception (Psalm 2) to its failure and exile (Psalm 89). The second grouping (Psalms 90-150) is dominated by smaller collections organized by common themes or catchwords. In particular, book four (Psalms 90-106) functions as the editorial centre of the book of Psalms and answers the lament over the demise of the monarchy expressed in Psalm 89. Wilson argues that these psalms point back to the Mosaic era (cf. the heading to Psalm 90) when Yahweh alone served as Israel’s king and refuge, and promise that Yahweh will continue to be such in the future. Book five (Psalms 107-150), like book four, answers the lament of the first three books by encouraging Israel to trust in Yahweh alone through obedience to the Torah (cf. the overwhelming effect of the placement of Psalm 119). Finally, Wilson argues the placement of Psalm 1 at the beginning of the Psalter indicates that “the Psalter is a book to be read rather than be performed; to be meditated over rather than to be recited from.” For Wilson, the message that the shape of the book of Psalms declares implicitly is that kingship and the Davidic monarchy are false hopes. Yahweh is the only true king and refuge for Israel, and in him alone should they trust.

Wilson_Psalms1.jpgIn the years following the publication of his thesis, Wilson produced a whole series of articles that refined his views (see below). His most significant publication since his thesis, however, is clearly his Psalms Volume 1 (The NIV Application Commentary; Zondervan, 2002; Buy from Amazon.ca or Buy from Amazon.com. This commentary on Psalms 1-72 is written for a more popular audience in mind, yet is based on a careful analysis of the Hebrew text. What is more, Wilson does not just deal with the psalms individually, but explores the connections between the psalms in a way that is both academically sound and theologically relevant. I highly recommend it for all students of the Bible.

When all is said and done, Gerald Wilson’s research on editing of the book of Psalms has been an inspiration — whether directly or indirectly — to countless scholars. And with his passing, biblical scholarship has lost an able scholar. I extend my condolences to his family, friends, and students.

A Bibliography of Gerald Wilson’s Work on the Psalter

  • Wilson, Gerald H. “The Qumran Psalms Manuscripts and Consecutive Arrangement of Psalms in the Hebrew Psalter.” CBQ 45 (1983): 377-88.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “Editiorial Divisions in the Hebrew Psalter.” VT 34 (1984): 337-52.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, SBLDS 76. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1985.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “The Qumran Psalms Scroll Reconsidered: Analysis of the Debate.” CBQ 47 (1985): 624-42.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “The Use of ‘Untitled’ Psalms in the Hebrew Psalter.” ZAW 97 (1985): 404-13.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “The Use of Royal Psalms at the ‘Seams’ of the Hebrew Psalter.” JSOT 35 (1986): 85-94.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “A First Century C.E. Date for the Closing of the Hebrew Psalter?” In Haim M. I. Gevarjahu Memorial Volume. English-French-German Section, edited by J. J. Adler, 136-43. Jerusalem: World Jewish Bible Center, 1990.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “The Shape of the Book of Psalms.” Interpretation 46 (1992): 129-42.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “Shaping the Psalter: A Consideration of Editorial Linkage in the Book of Psalms.” In The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, edited by J. Clinton McCann, 72-82. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “Understanding the Purposeful Arrangement of Psalms in the Psalter: Pitfalls and Promise.” In The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, edited by J. Clinton McCann, 42-51. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “The Qumran Psalms Scroll (11QPsa) and the Canonical Psalter: Comparison of Editorial Shaping.” CBQ 59 (1997): 448-64.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “A First Century C.E. Date for the Closing of the Hebrew Psalter?” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 28 (2000): 102-10.
    Wilson, Gerald H. Psalms Volume 1, NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
  • Wilson, Gerald H. “King, Messiah, and the Reign of God: Revisiting the Royal Psalms and the Shape of the Psalter.” In The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception, edited by Peter W. Flint and Patrick D. Miller, 391-406. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

9 Responses to “The Editing of the Book of Psalms: A Tribute to Gerald H. Wilson”

  1. dave beldman Says:

    Thank you for this fitting tribute to Gerald Wilson. I agree that his work on the shape of the Psalter is groundbreaking, and it continues to bear fruit in Psalm studies.

  2. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    This is a real loss to scholarship as well as to his family. I haven’t looked at the more scholarly works, but his Psalms 1-72 commentary is one of my favorites.

    I wonder how far he was into the other work he was planning to do. Hendricksen told me his NIBC on Job commentary was supposed to be out this year sometime, so I imagine that will be his last published work, perhaps with someone else finishing it up if necessary. I suspect Psalms 73-150 will have to be reassigned.

  3. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    I hadn’t read the SBL note. I guess the Job commentary will be published. Since it didn’t mention Psalms 73-150, I’m assuming that enough wasn’t done on that, or they haven’t made a decision whether to use what work he did manage to complete.

  4. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    I imagine that he didn’t have a chance to make much progress on the second psalms volume since he was also working on the Job commentary. It’ll be interesting to see who they may assign to the second volume since they would probably want continuity.

  5. Jeremy Pierce Says:

    I’m not sure if that’s their main concern at this point. Their publication schedule has been set back, and they may be interested in whoever will do a good job who will get it done quickly. The first person to come to my mind along those lines is Tremper Longman, who has a lot forthcoming but mostly with deadlines in the next year or so, and he seems to produce commentaries very quickly while still earning high enough marks from reviewers. I imagine someone like that might be more appealing to the publisher than a lesser-known student of Wilson’s who would continue in the same vein as Wilson’s volume 1 but take longer and not have the name recognition. Longman does have previous work on the psalms as well, and he did do a NIVAC volume for Zondervan previously, so I imagine they’re likely at least to consider asking him.

  6. Melinda Monte Says:

    I was on of Gerald Wilson’s students last semester when he died. I believe he told us he was about half way done with his second volume on the Psalms. I do not know if the publisher will use what he has completed or not.

  7. littlewing Says:

    is the phrase “a fundamental attitude toward god that leads to wise behaviour and the advoidance of every form of evil” contained in any of gerald wilson’s books

  8. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » The Book of Psalms for Beginners Says:

    [...] practical. I highly recommend his first volume and look forward to the others. The commentary by the late Gerald Wilson is also an excellent commentary that is both accessible and theologically [...]

  9. jim orlowski Says:

    Does anyone know where we are at with getting a Psalms volume II? Was the task ever taken up or not?