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Psalms in Israel’s Worship

Looking northeast into the synagogue in Capernaum. This large limestone basilica was constructed in the late 4th or 5th century C.E.
Ruins of Capernaum synagogue

The psalms are rich and varied in their kind, content, origins, and use. Many of the psalms were used in the great liturgies of the temple in Jerusalem. In the later context of the second temple, groups of singers performed and also generated many of the psalms (see Asaph in Ps 73-83 and Korah in Ps 42-49); such guilds are credited with creating psalms that were performed in the temple (1Chr 6:33-37, 1Chr 15:19).

The temple liturgy acclaimed the “kingship of Yahweh” as a part of festival celebrations (see Ps 47, Ps 93, Ps 96-99), asserting that Yahweh is creator and king among the gods. This liturgical claim stands behind the many exuberant hymns of praise. Zion, the site of the temple, was celebrated in the “songs of Zion” (Ps 46, Ps 48, Ps 76, Ps 84). As a counterpoint, psalms that seem to focus on the city of Jerusalem (Ps 74, Ps 79) probably come from a time after its fall. The “royal psalms” concern the legitimacy and authority of the Davidic dynasty (Ps 2, Ps 18, Ps 20-21, Ps 45, Ps 72, Ps 89, Ps 101, Ps 110, Ps 144). Ps 89, in its two parts, first affirms city and king (verses Ps 89:1-37) and then grieves over their failures (verses Ps 89:38-51).    

Many psalms reflect a different, narrower matrix than that of the temple: namely, the clan or family. Many of the laments, for example, probably functioned in what we might call “rituals of rehabilitation” wherein an intimate, face-to-face community followed a pattern of speech (and perhaps gesture) in restoring members to well-being through healing, forgiveness, or reconciliation. Such restoration countered many forms of “death,” including not only sickness but also imprisonment, social isolation, and shame. For good reason many of the laments end in praise and thanksgiving, all of which is ritually enacted.

The psalms are scripted to be sung and recited repeatedly. With each occurrence, they imagine again the daily life of Israel—whether in the grand drama of the temple or in the more ordinary circumstance of daily life—as an arena in which the presence, power, and purpose of Yahweh is decisive and in which the community (and its members) lives under the rule, guidance, and protection of Yahweh. For all that it borrowed from a broader cultural context, Israel’s worship and its use of the psalms are distinctive because of the distinctiveness attributed to Yahweh as a figure in the psalms. They situate the memory, life, and hope of Israel (and eventually of the world) as life given by Yahweh and lived back to Yahweh. That liturgical imagination, in all of its various venues, was rendered with creative artistry even as it was linked to the real life of Israel.

  • Walter Brueggemann

    Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. He has recently authored The Practice of Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 2012), Journey to the Common Good (Westminster John Knox, 2010), and Truth-Telling as Subversive Obedience (Wipf & Stock, 2011).