A Prayer of Moses the man of God.
1 Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
3 Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
4 For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
5 Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
6 In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
7 For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
8 Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
9 For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
13 Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
14 O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
16 Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
17 And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.
Form Criticism and the Psalms
“Form criticism” (the English translation for the German Formgeschichte) is a relatively new method of Biblical study, pioneered by the 20th 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 to 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 or 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 a 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. For 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 or 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 (Ex 15:1-18; Ps 100; 145).
—– Thanksgiving psalms express gratitude to God for his actions (Ps 32; 107; Jon 2:2-9).
Songs of Zion celebrate Zion as the “type,” or representation of the kingdom of God (Ps 48).
Royal psalms focus on some aspect of Israelite kingship.
—– The coronation psalm is a prayer for the success of the king’s reign (Ps 72).
—– The royal wedding song celebrates the king’s wedding and anticipates the Messianic kingdom (Ps 45).
—– The royal votive psalm records the king’s vow to execute justice (Ps 101).
Wisdom and Torah psalms contrast a life lived wisely under the law with one lived foolishly. These psalms are often contemplative or address the reader directly, as though a teacher were speaking to a disciple (e.g., Ps 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 Sam 2:1-10; Ps 3; 12; 22; 77; 90; Lam 50). Psalms of lament may be sung by the individual (Ps 13) or an entire congregation (Ps 74).
Songs of trust express confident in God (e.g., Ps 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 one individual.
This psalm opens with an assertion that God is Israel’s refuge as the basis for an appeal for mercy (vv 1-2).
It laments the mortality and sinfulness of humans (vv 3-11).
It includes a short appeal for wisdom (v 12), recalling the wisdom psalms.
It closes with an appeal for God’s compassion (vv 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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