Form criticism and the Psalms (Psalm 90)

Bilderesultat for psalm 90

Illustration: Psalm 90:12 illustrated

“Form criticism” is a relatively new method of Biblical study, pioneered by the twentieth century German scholar Herman Gunkel. This method originally had three purposes:

  • To discover the original setting of a psalm. Was it sung by an individual or as part of congregational worship? Was it a lamentation or a song of praise? Was the psalm used in a temple setting or engaged by an individual in private?
  • To discover oral traditions behind the text. Are there vestiges of oral tradition the psalmist incorporated into the composition?
  • To discover the structure of a psalm. What is the psalm’s basic outline? Do other psalms of the same genre have similar structure?

Some of this slicing and dicing is of dubious value. For example, it is difficult to prove that an oral tradition lies behind a particular portion of a psalm. Also, some scholars have made claims about the original setting of certain psalms that are impossible to verify. Fpr example, some have suggested that specific psalms were part of a New Year’s festival, but there is little evidence to support this premise. In reality, we can frequently only infer the circumstances behind individual psalms.

Still, some psalms do present fairly clear life settings (e.g. an individual is calling on God for deliverance from his enemies). Also, psalms of the same type often do have features in common (e.g. psalms in which someone is calling out for help from his enemies often use similar vocabulary and have a similar structure).

Even though form criticism as originally developed by Gunkel has only limited value, the method is important in that it has forced us to reckon with the fact that the Bible contains a variety of different types of psalms. To begin with, it is helpful to ask certain basic questions of a psalm. For example:

  • Is it a prayer that addresses God or an instruction for the reader?
  • Does it thank and praise God ot\r call upon Him for help?
  • Does it focus on special themes, such as Zion, the king or the law?

By asking these and other questions and carefully reading the psalms, we can quickly discern that there are a number of types and subtypes, a few of which follow:

  • Hymns are congregational songs that praise God
  • Praise psalms extol God for His character (Exodus 15:1-18, Psalm 100, 145).
  • Thanksgiving psalms express gratitude to God for His actions (Psalm 32, 107, John 2:2-9).
  • Songs of Zion celebrate Zion as the “type”, or representation, of the kingdom of God (Psalm 48)
  • The Royal psalms focus on some aspect of  Israelite kingship.
  • The coronation psalm is a prayer for the success of the king’s reign (Psalm 72).
  • The royal wedding song celebrates the king’s wedding and anticipates the Messianic kingdom (Psalm 45).
  • The royal votive psalm records the king’s vow to execute justice (Psalm 101).
  • Wisdom and Torah psalm contrast a life lived wisely under the law with one lived foolishly. These psalms are often contemplative or addresses the reader directly, as though a teacher were speaking to a disciple (e.g. Psalms 1, 19, 37, 119).
  • Lament psalms, the most abundant psalm-type, express the anguish of worshippers due to sin, famine, enemies, etc. In these psalms a petitioner pleads with God to remove the source of his distress, often accompanied by a vow to praise God (e.g. 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Psalms 3, 12, 77, 90, Lamentations 5).
  • Songs of trust express confidence in God (e.g. Psalms 11, 23, 121), not cries for help.

Psalm 90 illustrates the pattern of a lament. It is congregational in nature in that it speaks to the situation of all people, not to that of any individual.

  • This psalm opens with an assertion that God is Israel’s refuge as the basis for an appeal for mercy (90:1-2).
  • It laments the mortality and sinfulness of humans (90:3-11).
  • It includes a short appeal for wisdom (90:12), recalling the wisdom psalms.
  • It closes with an appeal for God’s compassion (90:13-17).

By understanding the type of psalm we are engaging, we are in a better position to interpret and use it appropriately.


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