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Form Critical Approaches to the Psalms Post Gunkel

13th January 2007

There have been many modifications and refinements of the form critical method since Gunkel (for a summary of Gunkel’s approach to the Psalms, see my previous post A Form-Critical Classification of the Psalms according to Hermann Gunkel).

Many problems still remain with the form critical approach to the psalms. Recent literature has definitely exhibited more caution about the specific social and cultic settings proposed for the psalms. While earlier form-critical work has continued to be useful — if not essential — to recent psalms scholarship, its usefulness is found in the literary and stylistic features that it highlights, as well as its broad suggestions about situations in life.

Wisdom in the Psalms?

The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.
The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip (Ps 37:30-31).

A persistent problem that has continually dogged the form-critical approach to the psalms is the lack of agreement on certain forms. No where is this disagreement felt more than with the wisdom psalms (although Royal psalms would be a close second). Norman Whybray has even refered to the task of identifying wisdom psalms as “making bricks without straw.” While Gunkel’s (Introduction to Psalms; Buy from or characterization of wisdom psalms as having a didactic intent and personal and individual expressions of experience has generally been accepted by scholars, as well as his identification of Psalms 1, 34, 37, 49, 78, 105, 106, 111, 112, and 127 as wisdom psalms, no two scholars are in agreement that these are the only criterion and even on what psalms are wisdom psalms! Other criterion include: learned authorship, specific stylistic features (such as “better than” sayings, numerical sayings, adress to sons, alphabetic compositions, extensive use of metaphors, etc.), common motifs, a mood of private devotion and piety, and a concern for order. This has led some scholars, such as Norman Whybray and Roland Murphy, to identify many more wisdom psalms in the Psalter. In contrast, James Crenshaw (The Psalms: An Introduction [Eerdmans, 2001], 87-95; Buy from or questions the very category of wisdom psalms. He notes:

I do not see any profit in attributing such psalms to the sages when we know so little about the authors and their social contexts. Perhaps we should limit ourselves to what can definitely be affirmed: some psalms resemble wisdom literature in stressing the importance of learning, struggling to ascertain life’s meaning, and employing proverbial lore. Their authorship and provenance matter less than the accuracy and profundity of what they say (p. 94).

Here is a listing of wisdom psalms according to some recent scholars:

Gunkel/Begrich: Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, 91, 112, 127, 128, 133.
Murphy: Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128 (and wisdom influence in Psalms 25, 31, 39, 40, 62, 92, and 94).
Kuntz: Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128, 133.
Whybray: Psalms 8, 14, 25, 34, 39, 49, 73, 90, 112, 127, 131, 139.

Laments Post Gunkel

As noted above, there have been many refinements of Gunkel’s approach to the psalms and the laments — as the most popular type of psalm found in the book of Psalms — has received its fair share of attention. Some of the most significant changes in the interpretation of the individual laments since Gunkel have centred both on his description of their structure (Formensprache), as well as his reconstruction of their putative setting in life (Sitz im Leben).

By and large, Gunkel’s formal treatment of individual laments has been accepted by most scholars with only minor changes, most of which consisted of refinements or elaborations of the various components that make up the lament. For instance, Westermann, in his Praise and Lament in the Psalms, fleshed out the “lament proper� in lament psalms by identifying its three main constituents which varied in importance at different times:

  • the complaint against God,
  • the psalmist’s lament over personal suffering, and
  • the complaint against those who oppose him, i.e., the enemy.

A more extensive refinement on Gunkel’s classification has been offered by Craig Broyles in his Conflict of Faith and Experience in the Psalms. He has suggested a further division of the individual laments into complaints (psalms where Yahweh is accused of wrongdoing on behalf of the psalmist) and pleas (psalms where the Yahweh is not responsible but is appealed to for help). While this distinction is helpful, at times the distinction between the two categories is ambiguous. It does highlight, however, an important question about the primary nature of the lament and related issues of nomenclature (e.g., should the genre be labeled laments or complaints, etc.; see my post on Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?).

One component of the individual lament that has received a fair amount of attention is the “certainty of hearing� that often occurs near the end of lament psalms (though not necessarily). What has attracted the attention is the sudden change in mood from despair to confidence. For example, in the ending of Psalm 6, the psalmist declares (seemingly) out of nowhere that Yahweh has heard his supplication:

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame (Ps 6:8-10).

The most common explanation of this sudden shift is related to seeing a cultic setting behind the psalm in which a priest delivers an oracle of salvation that promises Yahweh’s response between the lament proper and the words of confidence. This view was advanced and solidified by Bergrich, who drew a number of parallel expressions between the lament psalms and the salvation oracles in Second Isaiah, and attempted to reconstruct what the oracle of salvation would of looked like. The biggest weakness with this view is that there are no extant salvation oracles in any lament psalms, and if this was the common practice, the reasons for omitting the oracle are not clear. Others have tried to explain the phenomenon by appealing to an inward psychological process whereby during his prayer the psalmist either recalls God’s past faithfulness or comes to grip with his situation and moves on, or recalls his faith in God the divine warrior. While there may be some vestiges of a cultic action behind the shift in tone, the notion of recollection of Yahweh’s past deeds or some similar faith-oriented explanation is just as if not more likely.

Since Gunkel’s time there is also a new appreciation for the individuality of each psalm (though it should be noted that as is often the case, it was Gunkel’s students, and not Gunkel himself who applied form-criticism too rigidly). Because form-critical descriptions tended to focus on what is generic and not what is specific, earlier form criticism often resulted in a psalm’s individuality to be glossed over. This new concern is due in part to the renewed interest in Hebrew poetry, and in part to dissatisfaction with the large collection of psalms that didn’t fit neatly into any one genre. What is clear, however, is that a psalm’s internal poetic structure needs to be determinative in breaking down a psalm into stanzas, etc., rather than a predetermined generic mold.

Most of the debate since Gunkel has focused on the Sitz im Leben of the lament psalms, and, on a more theoretical level, on the relationship of Sitz im Leben to form. To a large extent, the discussion of the setting revolved around the identity of the “I� and the enemy in the laments. The debate surrounding the identity of the “I� in the psalms has its roots before Gunkel with the work of Smend, who argued that the “I� in many psalms is not an individual but a personification of the community. Gunkel, and Balla in accord with him, argued that this may be the case when a connection is made explicit (e.g., Ps 129; though I understand the liturgical reference to Israel in the first verse as redactional), and appealed to “Jeremiah’s confessions� and the psalms that seem to make a distinction between the psalmist and other Israelites (e.g., Ps 35) to support the view that the “I� is an individual.

A modified version of Smend’s view has been resurrected in the last century with the work of Birkeland (a student of Mowinkel). He argued in two publications that since the enemies are clearly foreign nations in communal laments, and the enemies in individual laments are describe with similar terms, and are even at times explicitly identified as foreign nations (see Ps 9), then the only logical conclusion is to maintain that the enemies in individual laments are also foreign nations. This view presupposes that the “I� in virtually every individual lament (Birkeland has been rightly criticized for his unequivocal statements) is a representative of the nation, likely the king, which would make them royal psalms. Mowinckel, who had originally maintained (in his Psalmenstudien) that the Sitz im Leben of the individual laments was a healing ritual in which the psalmist would go before the priest in the temple and ask for healing (This view was based on Mowinckel’s understanding of the enemy as the “worker of evil�, i.e., a sorcerer who is responsible for the psalmist’s illness), was partially convinced by Birkeland. Mowinckel’s modified view, as found in his The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, distinguished between personal psalms of lamentation with sorcery and a healing ritual as their setting, and national psalms of lamentation in the “I-form.� The notion that the “I� is the king representative of the nation has also been argued recently by John Eaton (Kingship and the Psalms [SCM, 1975]; Buy from or and Steven Croft (The Identify of the Individual in the Psalms [Sheffield, 1987]; Buy from or, though neither of them are as dogmatic or extreme as Birkeland.

Other settings that have been proposed for the individual laments include a juridical setting in which the psalmist, who had been unjustly accused, would flee to the temple to undergo a trial in order to clear his name (e.g., Beyerlin). He would then pray the psalm to encourage Yahweh to adjudicate a fair judgment. Along a similar vein, Delekat proposed that the laments were originally inscriptions left in the temple by those seeking refuge. Attempts have also been made to understand the enemies in light of socio-economic conditions within Israelite society. Gerstenberger has argued that the context for the laments may be the postexilic family clan, rather than the temple, and that the enemies may often be from within the clan (see his Psalms: Part 1: With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry [Eerdmans, 1988; Buy from or The laments, then, would be used in a ritual to restore harmony to the clan and rehabilitate the individual. The late Gerald Sheppard takes a similar view, arguing that that laments were read aloud in the temple and were meant to be overheard by the enemies (members of the ruling class?), thereby exposing them to the community and perhaps leading them to repentance.

All these proposed settings for the individual laments have some merit, though it seems more likely that a multiplicity of situations lie behind the laments. There are a number of psalms in which the setting appears to be one of illness (though Mowinckel’s understanding of the “doer of evil� as a sorcerer was clearly overstated, as he himself eventually admitted). Ps 6 has already been mentioned, and there are many other psalms that make reference to the psalmist’s pain and wounds (e.g., Pss 13; 38). But there are also psalms in which there appears to be a juridical setting where the psalmist is pleading his innocence, e.g., Pss 4, 5 (what the specific setting is, however, can only be answered with speculation). There are also psalms in which the enemies do seem to be equated with foreign nations (though it is not clear to me that this means that the “I� in the psalms therefore needs to be a king or ruler), and others where the enemies appear to be from within the same group. And finally, there are also many laments (the majority?) in which the enemy appears to be a personal enemy of the psalmist who poses a real (or perceived; cf. Keel) threat to the poet.

The point that I’m making is that it is not necessary — or even desirable — to try to find “the� Sitz im Leben of the laments. And even if there was one original setting for them, I think that it is unlikely that we could determine it with any certainty. This is because of the stereotypical and formulaic nature of much of the descriptions in the laments. The situation of the psalmist and the nature of his trouble is never specified and can often fit a variety of contexts. Therefore to try to limit the setting of the laments moves against the direction in the psalms themselves. From a slightly different angle, modern folklore studies have also underscored the fact that the interaction between the performer, his material, and his audience is often quite complex and cannot be understood in simple one-to-one terms. The notion that a genre has a one-to-one connection with a single setting is not born out by the evidence. Even a genre like a hymn, which most would place in the cult, is equally at home in a variety of contexts as history and usage has proven (e.g., Gerstenberger, who places many in the context of synagogal worship). Moreover, while there is likely an original oral (and cultic) background to the lament psalm, at some time they were written down and transmitted throughout the community and used again and again by different people in different contexts. Quite opposite to the notion that something was lost by writing it down, the stereotypical character of the laments (and the psalms in general) allowed for diverse and rich usage. Some laments may even have been composed in such a general way so that they could be used in a number of different personal situations.

This is a perspective that Patrick Miller has done a lot to advance, and I think that he is essentially correct (see his Interpreting the Psalms [Fortress, 1986; Buy from or The open-endedness of the laments make them fruitful quarry for theological reflection. As Miller has argued, this open-endedness allows the laments to be appropriated by people in all sorts of different situations within and without the community of faith. This, however, does not mean that one should not attempt to determine some of the possible settings of the laments. Some knowledge of their setting helps us contextualize our theological reflection and ground it in human experience.

For more thought on Lament psalms and their place in the church, see my post, The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church.

One Response to “Form Critical Approaches to the Psalms Post Gunkel”

  1. J B Hood Says:


    I’d love to know if you have any thoughts on laments and the shape of the canonical psalter; several folks have been doing work on this, and it seems fruitful to me (I’ve preached Ps 111, 112 together, for instance; 105, 106 in juxtaposition is strong, B interprets A, so to speak). is Jamie Grant’s The King as Exemplar, his dissertation on canonical shaping and interpretation. (Jamie is OT guy at Highland Theological College, where Mike Bird is NT.)