Friday, July 10, 2009

Psalms 65-72: Psalms by Numbers

Last week, I was kind of flirting with classifying the Psalms into different types -- I mentioned "Sanctuary Psalms," for instance, and "Celebratory Psalms." The problem with that idea is that, as I have mentioned numerous times, most Psalms don't cleave to a single topic. Like a lot of songs, they are filled with sudden mood swings and changes of topic.

In looking at today's set of Psalms, I decided to try to ennumerate out some of the key themes and see what proportion of the text they occupy. We've seen a lot of fretting about enemies in the Psalms, for instance, and calls for God to punish these enemies. This theme SEEMS super-prominent, but that's partially just because it's so jarring; I guessed that in terms of raw volume, it would be somewhat less impressive, and that seems to be more or less true.


  • If fifty people read the Psalms and enumerated out the main themes, you would very possibly have fifty different versions of what constitutes "the main themes." Nothing special about MY version.
  • Even if you thought my themes were the definitive set, we would probably argue from time to time about which category an individual verse belongs to. Categorizing stuff is always a messy exercise.
  • Doing this at the verse level obfuscates that there are some Psalms that are relatively thematic, some that split into two or three coherent themes, and some that ramble around all over the place. (In this set, #s 67, 65, and 68 are prime examples). The first three Psalms in this set are all reletively celebratory in nature, and so the set as a whole is probably more celebratory than your "average" ten Psalms, whichever those ones are.
  • Occasionally, there are verses that go right over my head. See below.

I meant to just tally up the next ten Psalms, 65-74, but predictably there were complications. One complication is Psalm 72, which is unlike anything I've seen previously; it's all about how great the king is and how things are going to be wonderful because of him. It is bracketed with a request for God to bless the king, but as (it says) a work by Solomon, it seems not a little self-serving. It is also a breakpoint, the end of the "prayers of David." The next several Psalms are all "of Asaph." Who? I don't remember an Asaph, but then I've read an AWFUL lot of names in this book.

So, anyway, the numbers here are just for the seven Psalms 65-71. The plan is, I'll come back next time and see if I can use the same breakdown for Psalms 73-82. K? K. With no further ado:

Celebratory Psalms

In this category, I place anything that amounts to pure praise: ecstatic professions of faith or devotion, as well as statements of intent to praise, give sacrifice, and so on. These kinds of verses are sometimes addressed to God in second person and sometimes about God in third person; I didn't distinguish these in my counting.


65:1 Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled.

66:17-20 I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.
Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!

In this sample, these made up a whopping 37% of the Psalmic real estate by verse.

Psalms of Sanctuary

The second most prevalent category of Psalm was the appeal to God for physical shelter and protection.

71:2-4 Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil and cruel men.

These verses made up 14% of the sample.

Psalms of Despair

You can not escape the depressive streak that runs through the Psalms, as so often they address God with a catalog of profound miseries.

69: 1-3 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.

At 10%, these were the third most common kind of verse in this batch.

Other Categories

The other categories I've come up with so far are

  1. the related Complaints Against Enemies and Calls to Smite Enemies. At 4% and 7% of the same, you would say that they constitute 11% in an "Enemies" category and outweigh "Despair." Although there is some overlap between "Enemies" and "Despair," too. THIS IS JUST A LEARNING EXERCISE. IT ISN'T SCIENCE!!!
  2. Characterizations of God as Powerful (10%)
  3. Characterizations of God as a Bringer of Abundance (7%)
  4. References to Past Trials and Punishments Endured by the Israelites (2%)
  5. Discussion of The Wicked (1%) and The Righteous (1%)
  6. Mystical Visions (3%)
  7. Self-Accusation (1%)
  8. ?!???!!! (4%)

I'll talk more about some of these categories next time if they still seem to be meaningful. But if you are wondering what "?!???!!!" is all about, that would be those verses that I'm unable to make much sense out of. The main stumbling block this time was Psalm 68: 11-16, which goes like this:

11 The Lord announced the word, and great was the company of those who proclaimed it:
12 "Kings and armies flee in haste; in the camps men divide the plunder.
13 Even while you sleep among the campfires, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold."
14 When the Almighty scattered the kings in the land, it was like snow fallen on Zalmon.
15 The mountains of Bashan are majestic mountains; rugged are the mountains of Bashan.
16 Why gaze in envy, O rugged mountains, at the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the LORD himself will dwell forever?
It probably belongs under "mystical visions," but it's so quirky that I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Which of course makes me rather fond of it.

NEXT TIME: Psalms 73-82 -- the Breakdown.

This Week's Text: Psalms 65-72


Serendipity said...

Gosh, I hope all those disclaimers about how people could disagree about the categorizations of different verses weren't on my account!

On a totally different subject, would it be possible for you to publish the spreadsheet of the verses and how you categorized each one? :-)

(Very interesting! I like messy exercises. I look forward to-- I was going to say "I look forward to your breakdown next week," but that might come across wrong--your analysis next week.)

Anonymous said...

Great work, Michael!

As for the riddle from Psalm 68:11-16:

Read from the NLT:

11 "There your people finally settled, and with a bountiful harvest, O God, you provided for your needy people.

12 The Lord announces victory, and throngs of women shout the happy news.

13 Enemy kings and their armies flee, while the women of Israel divide the plunder.

14 Though they lived among the sheepfolds, now they are covered with silver and gold, as a dove is covered by its wings.

15 The Almighty scattered the enemy kings like a blowing snowstorm on Mount Zalmon.

16 The majestic mountains of Bashan stretch high into the sky.

17 Why do you look with envy, O rugged mountains, at Mount Zion, where God has chosen to live, where the LORD himself will live forever?"

"For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the giants.* Indeed his bedstead was an iron bedstead. (Is it not in Rabbah of the people of Ammon?) Nine cubits is its length and four cubits its width, according to the standard cubit." (DEU 3:11)

The Prophets often used mountains, horns, ceders, etc, to describe the kings of yore.

The nephilim and raphaim were the remnant of giants left over after The Flood. These hybrid offspring of the "sons of god" and "daughters of men" (GEN 6:1) were huge (majestic) and violent (rugged).

The mountain Bashan envies, the one in which God reigns in, is perhaps Israel.

Bashan attacked Israel in the wilderness... and Israel laid waste of them. To add insult to injury, Israelite women divided the spoil of these violent giants. Israel also divided their lands after annihilating them.

KJV, NKJV, NLT, ESV, NASB, ASV, etc all agree that women divided the spoils of Bashan.

"Though they lived among the sheepfolds", seems to indicate Israel's "dirty" slave status in Egypt. " they are covered with silver and gold, as a dove is covered by its wings..." probably indicates their value in God's eyes(silver and gold) and purity (white feathers).

Note the blowing snow and dove's feathers are white. The soiled nation/dark mountain becomes clean and/or attains sanctification.

When you get to the books of the Prophets, pay attention to the entire context of sentences that contain words such as "stars", "ceders", "mountains"...

And I CAN NOT WAIT for you to begin Proverbs - there's so much symbolism - words within words.

Great Job so far, Michael!