Some of our forefathers believed in reading/singing the psalms in order. Today, when the psalms are even used at all, they tend to be used randomly, though sometimes tied to a church calendar or to the pastor’s sermon. The Bible does not bind us to any particular practice, but there is a good reason to consider the order of the psalms as God had them placed in the Psalter. That order is itself part of the canon, an aspect of the Divine Word of Holy Scripture.
My purpose in this brief essay is to consider the narrative progression in the fifth book of the Psalter, Psalms 107-150. We shall see that there is a very good reason why the psalms fall in the order they do, and from this we can uncover the overall story and message of the fifth book of the psalms.
In brief, the order is this: God delivers us, and we praise Him. Then He gives us His law. We respond by going up to Jerusalem for praise. But then we find we are in exile. How can we praise Him in exile, when we can no longer ascend to Jerusalem? The wonderful answer is given, and then we praise Him even more, bringing the book to a close.
I. Exodus (Psalm 107).
Psalm 107 provides a general picture of God’s gathering His people from all over the world and from many circumstances. It is a greater, more comprehensive exodus than the one from Egypt that is displayed.
First, God delivers from the east (vv. 4-9), from the wilderness where the people wander. This alludes to the original exodus.
Second, God delivers from the west (vv. 10-16), from bondage and iron, gloom and chains. This alludes to the Philistine bondage, and to Samson.
Third, God delivers from the north (vv. 17-22), from those near death. I submit that this probably refers to the return from Assyrian and Babylonian exile.
Fourth, God delivers from the sea (vv. 23-32) — not, n.b., from the south. The reference is to gentiles, and the allusion is to the book of Jonah.
These four exoduses allude to the four periods of Biblical history: the Moses/Ox period, the Kingdom/Lion period, the Restoration/Eagle period, and the New Covenant/Man period.
The psalm concludes with a statement that after exodus comes settlement, judgment, and restoration.
(Note: The hallelujah at the end of Psalm 106 probably should be at the beginning of Psalm 107, so that the fifth book of the psalter both begins and ends with this exclamation. There are, besides 107, fifteen hallelujah psalms in the fifth book.)
II. Conquest, Judgment, and Restoration (Psalms 108-110).
The next three psalms are taken from those written by David. Psalm 108 celebrates the notion of conquest, as those delivered from “Egypt” conquer and settle God’s land. Psalm 109 picks up the next theme from the last part of Psalm 107, and is a prayer for God to deliver from oppression. Finally, Psalm 110 celebrates God’s gift of a messianic king over the people, the restoration from judgment.
Psalm 72:20 says that the psalms of David are completed at that point. This indicates that originally these later Davidic psalms were part of an earlier collection. They were removed to this place under Divine guidance to form part of the narrative of the fifth book of psalms.
III. Praise for Deliverance (Psalms 111-118).
Liturgically, a season of praise comes after our sins are declared forgiven and we are declared members of the kingdom of God. In the same way, we next find eight psalms of praise, which reflect thematically on the exodus, conquest, and enthronement. Structurally, the first four psalms (111-114) begin with Hallelu-Yah, while the last four (115-118) end with it. (In some versions, the hallelujah of Psalm 114 has been moved to the end of 113.)
Psalms 111-112 are set apart from the other six hallelujah psalms in that they are both alphabetical acrostic psalms: Each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in succession, forming two 22-line alphabets of praise.
Psalm 118 ends with a call to come to the Temple and worship, a call that is answered in Psalms 120 and following. But first we have a celebration of the law.
IV. The Law (Psalm 119).
Delivered from Egypt, we have praised God at the Red Sea after seeing our enemies overthrown. Now we arrive at Mount Sinai, where God graciously give us His wonderful law. Psalm 119 is an alphabet of praise for the law, the Word of God. Each of the 22 sections consists of sixteen lines in eight pairs, and in each section each pair begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, following the alphabet in order. We have already seen this, and here it is again.
Full abecedarian, or alphabetically acrostic psalms are only found in the fifth book of psalms. Psalms 25, 34, & 37 are abecedarian, but with slight irregularities, while Psalm 9-10 has an abecedarian outline, but with large breaks.
I submit that an alphabetical acrostic implies a celebration of the Word of God, or a full word of response to that Word. When we get to Psalm 138, I shall suggest why we find such complete abecedarian psalms in the Book 5.
V. Offertory (Psalms 120-136).
In the liturgy, renewed praise and self-offering come after the Word and sermon, and so it is here as well.
These seventeen psalms are often called the Great Hallel. The first fifteen are the Psalms of Ascent, which recount and celebrate our journey up to the Temple for worship. Psalms 135 and 136 are two hallelujah psalms, both of which begin with Hallelu-Yah. (The hallelujah at the beginning of Psalm 136 is sometimes printed at the end of 135.)
We recall that after God gave His law to Israel in Exodus 20-24, He then established the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system in Exodus 25-40 and the book of Leviticus. So here, after Psalm 119 we ascent to the Temple, and then join in praise. The climax of the Great Hallel(ujah) is Psalm 136, with its refrain, “For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”
VI. Crisis (Psalm 137).
But how can we sing Yahweh’s hallels (praises) in a strange land? That is the question posed by Psalm 137, a psalm of exile. Everything in Book 5 of the psalter has led to this question, and here is the turning point. We are no longer able to make the ascent to Jerusalem, so how can we sing the Psalms of Ascents and the Great Hallel?
The answer is implied by the psalm, in that the psalm itself is a hymn to God. Yet there is more to the answer than Psalm 137 by itself provides.
VII. David Resolves the Crisis (Psalms 138-145).
Psalm 138 resolves the crisis by going back to David. We are reminded that even in David’s day the Temple was not the full reality of God’s presence. God always magnified His Word above His Name. Solomon had pointed out when the Temple was built that God dwells in the heavens, and that only His Name was dwelling in the Temple (1 Kings 8). In exile and dispersion, the people still have God’s Word. He will hear them and He will save them.
The Word! Here is, I believe, the reason why we find full alphabetical psalms in Book 5 of the psalter. Indeed, the last of these Davidic consolations, Psalm 145, is another abecedarian psalm. The stress on Alphabet in Psalm 145 matches the stress on Word in Psalm 138.
Psalm 139 also resolves the crisis by again going back to David. We are reminded that David knew that, Temple or no Temple, there is no place we can go where God is not present. He watches over us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
These two Davidic psalms are followed by six more, all lifted out of their original context for application to the exiles. If we read these with the exile in mind, we shall see how they fit that situation, just as they originally fit situations in David’s own life.
VIII. Final Hallelujah (Psalms 145-150).
Ferocious praise breaks out as the fifth book of the psalter, and the whole psalter itself, comes to an end. Each psalm both begins and ends with Hallelu-Yah. The story is over, and all that remains is praise.
It is likely that Book 5 of the Psalter was put together during or after the exile. Whoever did it (Ezekiel? Ezra) probably also organized the entire canonical psalter as God intended it to be in its final form. The editor pulled some psalms of David from the earlier collection and placed them strategically in Book 5. Other psalms, such as the Psalms of Ascent, were also removed from the earlier collection for placement here. Possibly the only new, exilic psalm was Psalm 137, though Psalm 107 is probably post-exilic as well.
David comes on the scene to remind the exiles that he also had been in exile. They are encouraged to have the same faith he had. Indeed, David is the Teacher in Book 5. He leads the people in reflections on what it means to be delivered from exile (Psalms 108-110). He provides four of the Psalms of Ascent (122, 124, 131, 133). He teaches the people how to pray while in exile (Psalms 138-145). In all of this, of course, David is the Messiah.
In all three cases, the liturgical response is praise, hallelujah (111-118, 135-136, 146-150). None of the hallelujah psalms are by David. Thus, there is a dialogue between David’s encouragements and the congregation’s praise.
Understanding the exilic context of Book 5 puts a new perspective on Psalm 127, which is by Solomon, and which is the central psalm of the Psalms of Ascent. The psalm is an encouragement to the exiles to trust God and not to strive and worry. While they sleep God will rebuild His house (the Temple), His city, and his people (the children).
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.