The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology

O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2015. pp. xxiii + 302. $21.99, cloth.

The current trend in psalms research focuses on the so-called “shape” and “shaping” of the book of psalms. Whereas the previous generation of psalms scholarship was more focused upon the literary genre (Gattung) and usage (Sitz-im-leben) of any given psalm, current interests reflect more upon the editorial arrangement of the 150 psalms and the final form of the biblical psalter. According to this “shape and shaping” school, the book of Psalms should not be read as a random collection of individual poems. Rather, the canonical location of each psalm was intentionally positioned by a post-exilic editor/compiler.

Dr. O. Palmer Robertson, in his monograph The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, has made a handsome contribution to that area of psalms studies. According to Dr. Robertson, there is a clear flow within the psalter that demonstrates the significance of the messianic kingship promise made to David (2 Sam. 7). He suggests that the psalms focus on the promise of a dynasty and a dwellingplace. Regarding dynasty, the Lord promised David that his sons will be preserved from the threats and challenges of their enemies throughout the history of salvation and thus preserve a perpetual line of kings. Regarding dwellingplace, the Lord will establish His temple-throne in the city of Jerusalem on Mount Zion. However, this will be done in such a way that merges His divine throne with the throne of David, thus establishing the Covenant Lord not only as the Creator-King of the heavens, but as the Messianic Son of David over all the earth.

After opening with preliminary comments on introductory matters (chapter 1), basic structural elements in the psalms (chapter 2), and the significance of the kingship promise (chapter 3), he proceeds to develop his thesis. He follows the ancient five book subdivision of the psalter, where Book I (Pss. 1-41) focuses upon the theme of “confrontation,” Book II (Pss. 42-72) on “communication,” Book III (Pss. 73-89) on devastation, Book IV (Pss. 90-106) on “maturation,” and Book V (Pss. 107-150) on “consummation.” A quick examination of his comments shows that his arguments vary in strength and persuasiveness.

Regarding Book I (Pss. 1-41), he makes several observations regarding the structure. For example, he states that this section has a high quantity of psalms of lament. He also suggests that Pss. 1-2, a Torah and royal psalm respectively, functions as a thematic introduction to the psalter as a whole. This pairing of Torah/royal psalms, according to Robertson, occurs in other places in the psalter for structural reasons. Within Book I, it occurs in Pss. 18-19, where royal psalm 18 anticipates the theme of kingship in Pss. 20-24, and Torah psalm 19 anticipates Ps. 25. Pss. 26-32 develops the second royal promise of dwellingplace, then Pss. 33-38 on the suffering of the psalmist that uses acrostic psalms (Pss. 34, 37) and quasi-acrostics (Pss. 33, 38) to establish the outer parameters of this sub-group.

The observations summarized above raises certain questions. First, what about Pss. 3-17? Dr. Robertson makes very precise comments about the intentional placement of Pss. 18-38, but offers nothing in regards to Pss. 3-17. Second, whereas Pss. 33-37 are bracketed by the acrostic psalms 34, 37 and quasi-acrostics 33, 38, no literary devices are used for Pss. 38-41. Third, and more significantly, if the theme of Book I is “confrontation,” then how does this proposed structure highlight that message? In other words, how does the intentional placement of the dual Torah-royal psalms 18-19 develop the theme of “confrontation”? Fourth, outside of Ps. 25, there is no real “flow” of Torah themes in Book I. Overall, the quantity of laments in Book I does reinforce images of “confrontation,” but this seems unrelated with the alleged Torah/royal interplay.

Regarding Book II (Pss. 42-72), the tone is strikingly different than Book I. Whereas Book I records the struggle of David as he attempts to establish the kingdom of God, Book II portrays this persecuted king in “communication” with the foreign nations around him. This international sense is captured in the two-large collection of psalms, namely the “sons of Korah” Psalms 42-49, the Davidic Psalms 51-71 and in the intentional repetition of the name “Elohim.” According to Robertson, Book II opens with introductory Psalsm 42/43 and 44. This leads to four kingship Psalms 45-48, where Ps. 45 focuses on the messiah and Pss. 46-48 on “Elohim” as king. Pss. 49-52 opens with two summonses followed by two respondents. Ps. 53 revisits atheism (cf. Ps. 18), immediately followed by seven psalms (Pss. 54-60), each focusing on specific enemies of David. This leads to Pss. 61-68 where the first four is a cry of David and the final four a response by the royal Elohim. Pss. 69-71 focus on ongoing struggles. Ps. 72 climaxes Book II with a triumphant celebration of the messiah’s rule.

Although there does seem to be “flow” from the general struggle of David in Book I to the broader universal affliction in Book II, the sub-groups as observed by Dr. Robertson lack the same cohesion and “flow.” In fact, it still remains unclear from the psalms what precisely it is that the messianic king is “communicating” to the nations. The most meaningful analysis is found in Dr. Robertson’s comments regarding Pss. 45-48, where the messianic Son in Ps. 45 is called “Elohim,” which makes the connection with the Elohim Psalms 46-48 truly wondrous. The message, therefore, is clear: this Messianic Son is to be identified as Elohim. Thus, “David’s bringing up the ark to Mount Zion indicated his intent to have God’s throne merge with his own messianic throne. God’s rule would be united with the rule of himself and his son-successors” (89-90).

Regarding Book III (Pss. 73-89), “devastation” is the dominant motif. The large collections in this section are the psalms of “Asap” (Pss. 73-83) and the psalms of the “Sons of Korah” (Pss. 84-89, 86 being Davidic). After establishing the tone of Book III with an individual and corporate lament (Pss. 73-74) and reaffirming the rule of Elohim (Pss. 75-76), seven psalms follow that depict the destruction of the northern and southern kingdoms (Pss. 77-83) with Ps. 80 at its center that portrays a suffering messiah of Joseph. Pss. 84-87, then, describe a positive outcome in the Lord’s dealings with the nations. Book III comes to an end as it began with two graphic depictions of devastation (Pss. 88-89).

The theme of “devastation” is indeed prominent in Book III. Three general comments are noteworthy. First, 35% of the psalms in Book III (six of the seventeen) provide positive descriptions of divine rule. How these psalms fit within a literary context of destruction was not clear. Second, the introductory Psalm 73 is the cry of an innocent sufferer. However, the devastation depicted in Book III is that of the exile, which was the result of Israel’s sins, not her innocence. Therefore, the notion of Ps. 73 as an introduction (Ps. 74 also since it does not explicitly state the sins of Israel nor the need for repentance) seems at odds with the reality of the exile. Third, very little is stated regarding Ps. 89, which has led many to conclude the Lord rejected His promise to David. Dr. Robertson’s comments on this significant psalm would have been invaluable, particularly vv.38-51.

That being said, a progression can be sensed from the general portrayal of universal conflict in Book II to allusions to specific nations in Book III. Dr. Robertson’s comments on Pss. 77-83 are persuasive. However, there are two sets of positive psalms that are separated from each other (Pss. 75-76, 84-87) without an explanation for their separation. In other words, how does separating these psalms contribute to the overall theme of Book III? No explanation is given. Dr. Robertson does say that Pss. 75-76 provide a reaffirmation of “God’s kingship over earthly kings despite the devastation they can bring” (124). Such a comment, however, only seems needed because intentional ordering is presumed. If one does not presume intentionality, then no explanation is needed.

Regarding Book IV (Pss. 90-106), the overarching theme is “maturation,” meaning the Lord reigns and will show mercy to His people even in the midst of the destruction of exile. Pss. 90-91 are Mosaic and return the reader to a pre-Davidic era when the Lord ruled over Israel. This is further developed in Pss. 92-100, the “Yahweh Malak” (“The Lord reigns”) psalms. Not forgetting the Davidic monarchy, Pss. 101-103 immediately follow. This correlation between the Lord’s rule with David’s rule is further emphasized by the historical event alluded in Book IV, namely the time when the ark was brought into the Jerusalem (cf. 1 Chr. 16). Book IV ends with the “Hallelu-Yah” Pss. 104-106, which anticipates the finale of the psalter (cf. Pss. 146-150).

Dr. Robertson makes a strong case for the structure and flow of Book IV. He reminds us of the post-exilic date as the time of the final compilation of the book of psalms. This historical setting is important as the post-exile Judeans begin to reanalyze their pre-exilic history and begin to “mature” in their comprehension of the promises the Lord made to David—the figure of the Lord and the messianic son of David are much closely connected than their forefathers knew.

Regarding Book V (Pss. 107-150), the focus is upon “consummation,” where the Lord is enthroned in Jerusalem and gathers His people to Him. At the center of Book V is the pivotal coupling of Torah-royal psalms, Pss. 118-119. After opening with Ps. 107 (which continues several themes from the end of Book IV), Book V continues with Pss. 108-117, which is composed of three Davidic psalms 108-110, then the first of two collections of “Hallelu-Yah” psalms, Pss. 111-117. This leads to the Torah-royal psalms 118-119. The “Songs of Ascent” follow (Pss. 120-134), which places the Lord’s enthronement in the seat of David in Jerusalem, thus reinforcing Dr. Robertson’s primary thesis that the psalms celebrate the merger of Yahweh’s rule with David’s rule. This is also coupled with allusions to the Aaron blessing from Num. 6, which adds a priestly element to this collection. Immediately following the Songs of Ascent is a collection of historical psalms (Pss. 135-137), followed by another David collection (Pss. 138-145). The final “Hallelu-Yah” Psalms 146-150 brings a climactic close to Book V and the psalter as a whole.

Dr. Robertson makes a strong case for the intentional location of the individual psalms within the Songs of Ascent, but I am perplexed on how the Torah-royal Pss. 118-119 serve a “pivotal” role in Book V, especially when the focus is predominantly upon the merging of the throne of the Lord and David.

My overall comments are in three areas, which parallel the title of the book, namely the flow of the psalms, specific its structure and theology. First, I begin by focusing on the strength of this book, namely comments on theology. Dr. Robertson has made a convincing case that the overarching theology of the psalter concerns the promise of a dynasty and dwellingplace to David. He says that the relocation of the ark to the city of Jerusalem merged the throne of the Lord and the throne of David. No better place is this message expressed than Dr. Robertson’s comments on Pss. 20-24, 45-48, the Songs of Ascent (Pss. 120-134), and his overall comments in Book IV. At the time of the exile, the Lord did not reject the promises made to David, as many editorial critics suggest. Rather, during the post-exilic era, those promises were strengthened in psalter. This message is significant as it anticipates the coming of Jesus Christ in whom is the union of both the divine and Davidic king.

Second, regarding structure, I found it difficult to observe a genuine flow. This conclusion may not be surprising, given my comments above. For example, in Book V, Dr. Robertson states, “With this framework in mind, we may consider the various segments of Book V” (italics mine). Notice the word “framework.” I would agree. This is a frame, but not a flow. I found this to be the case throughout the monograph. His comments regarding the structure (and thus form) of the psalter are compelling, at times even convincing. However, we are often (not always) left with a mere catalog of sub-groups that do not clearly contribute to the overall message.

This leads to my final overall comment: the two themes of structure and theology seem mutually exclusive, again lacking a flow. The proposed structure does not contribute to the theological message. For example, Dr. Robertson stresses within the structure of the psalter there is a pivotal role for the Torah-royal psalms (Pss. 1-2, 18-19, 118-119). If Torah is so prevalent, then why is there little about it within the psalter? What is the relation between Torah and kingship in the psalter? The more important question is how does this pivotal positioning further enlighten the message of a united divine-earthly monarchy? That there is intentional structure to the psalter is clear enough, and Dr. Robertson makes a strong case for it. However, how this intended structure enhances the theological message is not always clear.

Yet, if we take a broad panoramic view of the psalter without examining the narrow question of the strategic location of any given psalm, a flow does arise. According to Dr. Robertson,

“Beginning with David’s struggle against personal enemies opposed to his establishment as the Covenant Lord’s reigning messiah, the psalter moves through repeated confrontations [Book I] that eventually included international enemies [Book II], climaxing with assaults by world conquerors Assyria and Babylonia [Book III]. Throughout these developments, the psalter envisions the full merger of the Davidic messianic kingdom with the rule of Israel’s Covenant Lord [Book IV]. Built on his foundation of God’s Lordship manifested in creation and throughout his providential ordering of the world, God’s covenant with David and his sons will eventually consummate in his messianic kingship that comes to realization through conflict [Book V]. In the end, the psalter summons peoples of all nations along with inanimate creation to offer united praise to the Covenant Lord with a resounding Hallely-YAH!” (238)

I could not agree more.


Peter Y. Lee
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.