Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Cole, R. L. Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter (HBM, 37; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013). Pp. 192. Hardcover. US$40.00. ISBN 978-1-907534-30-0.

This monograph, a much expanded version of an earlier paper, is an important lexical and textual work on the way the first two psalms serve to introduce the key themes in the entire Hebrew Psalter.[1]

The introduction, of some forty pages, makes Cole's premise clear from the outset: Hermann Gunkel's form-critical assessment of the Psalms has been a negative influence on current psalmic studies, because its “micro” view of individual psalms fails to recognize the fact that the canonical shaping of the Psalter was a careful and even ingenious editorial process.[2] As far as Pss 1 and 2 are concerned, Gunkel's form-critical analysis of the first psalm (a “Torah/wisdom” psalm) and the second (a “royal” psalm) assumed that the two psalms had little in common; Ps 1 merely served as a final addition to the Psalter as a whole. Some might argue this negative view of Gunkel's legacy, with which many of us work often unconsciously as we read a particular psalm, is somewhat harsh; but Cole undoubtedly has a point, for Gunkel's refusal to see any overall arrangement in the Psalter has indeed raised several questions for contemporary psalmic studies.

To demonstrate the unity of these two psalms Cole offers a brief “reception history” of early commentaries and references which assume, contra Gunkel, that they are one work. He cites texts such as Acts 13:33 and 4QFlor, as well as extracts from Diodore of Tarsus, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, arguing that in antiquity these psalms were understand as one unit, not two.[3] Cole's appeal to nineteenth-century commentators yields the same results: several scholars argued then that these two psalms, each without a superscription, were closely related. (Again, there are, of course, many other commentators who have a different view.) After Gunkel, however, most commentators subscribe to a form-critical classification of the psalms and so recognize the differences between the first two psalms. For example, those who link Ps 1 with Ps 119 as enclosing a proto-Psalter, and Ps 2 with Ps 89 as suggesting a catena about the rise and fall of the Davidic dynasty (for example, C. Westermann), are overly dependent on Gunkel's classification of Torah/royal psalms and so fail to recognize the holistic arrangement of the Psalter as a whole, with Pss 1 and 2 as the Prologue.[4] So for Cole even the seminal works by G. Wilson, F. L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger, M. Millard, J. -M. Auwers, J. C. McCann, J. Høgenhaven, K. Seybold, G. Barbiero, and R. Rendtorff are in part deficient because they still subscribe to form-critical categories and so affirm the differences between these first two psalms; they fail to see throughout the Psalter a continuous lexical and thematic narration based upon the first two psalms.[5]

There is a good deal here which is bold and assertive, and it is interesting to read these other scholars in a different light. Cole concludes: “Consequently, until scholarship is willing to acknowledge the fundamental and irreconcilable opposition that exists between a serious grappling with the canonical shape and Gunkel's explicit rejection of it, the arrangement and resulting purpose and message of the Psalter's final designer will be resisted and obscured” (p. 44). It is the reference to the “Psalter's final designer” which this reviewer found difficult. It is unclear at this stage whether Cole understands the intentional unity as the result of one single composer creating both psalms as one continuous whole or a “designer” (or redactor) bringing different psalms together and editing each in the light of the other.

By the time one reaches the end of chapter 2, on Ps 1, it is apparent that Cole affirms the second option. Although there are occasional references to shared linguistic and thematic similarities with Ps 2, his focus here is very clearly on the first psalm. The chapter begins with the observation that “the first psalm is a unity” (p. 46). Cole demonstrates this in admirable detail, with expanded references to the ʾālep initial in the אשׁרי at the beginning of the psalm and the tāw initial in the תאבד at the end of the psalm, offering many lexographical observations about the complex unity of the psalm as a whole. He highlights, for example, the lexical repetition in v. 1 (רשעים ובדרך חטאיםלא) and in vv. 5–6 (בדרךחטאיםרשעיםלא). The psalm, he argues, consists of two stanzas, the first starting with the blessed man contrasted with the wicked (vv. 1–2) and ending with a simile of the blessed man like a fruit-bearing tree (v. 3), and the second stanza starting with the simile of the wicked like driven chaff (v. 4) and ending with the contrast of the wicked with the righteous (vv. 5–6). The most provocative assertion is that, rather than the “blessed man” in vv. 1–2 being a typical individual (“everyone”), he is described as one specific individual in royal and sacral terms (Cole interprets v. 3, with its reference to the tree and the waters, as alluding to a type of Edenic temple). So the “blessed man” is the ideal Davidic king in his temple, who, following Josh 1:8 and Deut 17:20 is bound to read and keep the law. This reading creates obvious parallels with the second psalm: Ps 1:1–3 corresponds with the references to the king and Mount Zion in Ps 2:6. In turn, this means that Ps 1:5–6, which speaks of the judgment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous, corresponds with the same themes at the beginning and end of Ps 2. None of this is made explicit in this first psalm: Ps 2 develops what is implied in Ps 1.

The third chapter, on Ps 2, is less tightly argued because this psalm is very different in syntax and structure, itself a reason to conclude that the two psalms can hardly be from the same hand. Cole also makes this clear: “…the two were (not) of one piece in antiquity…Psalm 1 [is] a separate poem…Psalm 2 also has its own distinctive and unifying literary features” (p. 79). Psalm 2 has four stanzas in two parts: the first part concerns the kings of the earth rebelling against the Lord and his messiah (vv. 1–3) followed by the response of the Lord and his king (vv. 4–6), whilst the second part mirrors vv. 4–6 in its portrayal of the relationship between the Lord and his son (vv. 7–9), whereas vv. 10–12 mirror vv. 1–3 in admonishing the kings of the earth to submit to the Lord and the son (vv. 10–12). An account of 12 verbal links between the first and second psalms (p. 87) forms the key focus of this chapter; much of this is a development and expansion of what has been written in the many other papers on this issue. Psalms 1 and 2 are contrasted with Pss 148 and 149 and 40 and 41, and the interpretation of both psalms is found in the (so-called) royal psalms such as 72, 89, and 110. Cole's original contribution here is his identification of the royal figure in Ps 2: the blessed man who is the idealized king in Ps 1:2, priest in Ps 1:3, and conqueror in Ps 1:5–6 is the priest-king in Ps 2:6, son of God and heir in Ps 2:7–8, and conqueror in Ps 2:9–12. It is only a small leap, by an additional reference to Ps 110:1, to see that the one seated in the heavens in Ps 2:4 is the same anointed messianic figure in Ps 2:2, who in turn is the Blessed Man (priest-king) himself (pp. 102 and 111). Previously, it was the Law of the Lord (which Cole interprets as “teaching” or “instruction”) which was the focus of his royal meditation in order to ward off the wicked; now it is the Decree of the Lord (Ps 2:7) which wards off the enemies of the nation. Previously his establishment as priest-king was a promise for the future (Ps 1:3); now he is established as priest-king in heaven executing justice upon earth (p. 140).

Such a reading is unusual, to say the least. A key question, given Cole's assertion that these two psalms introduce the key themes of the Psalter as a whole, is whether this theme is really dominant throughout the Psalter, not least given the paucity of (quasi-apocalyptic) references to a messianic figure (rather than Yahweh himself) reigning in heaven. Furthermore, conflating both psalms into one narrative ignores the possibility of a different message in each, and this in turn creates a danger of conflating the multi-layered theology of the Psalter into one theme whilst it seems to reflect many. Then there is the question of the “final designer”: if the two psalms are discrete units, did the redactor who placed them together simply let each stand so that each echoed the other, or were parts added to bring them into closer proximity (for example, the end of Ps 2 which echoes the beginning of Ps 1). And how do we know that what is so implicit in Ps 1 was really what the redactor intended? Does this even matter? Cole makes little of the process by which such an extraordinary linkage might happen; he simply takes the “compositional signals at every level of the poetry” (p. 141) as a means of reading these two psalms in this way.

In the final chapter these issues continue, because here Cole tests the possibility that this cohesiveness extends to Ps 3 and beyond it (p. 142). As Cole notes, Ps 3 has a superscription, and this refers to David and problematic events in the life of that particular king; this is entirely different from the flawless idealized king and son of God apparent in Pss 1 and 2. But Cole also finds some nine lexical similarities between Pss 1, 2, and 3 (p. 144). He argues that these, as well as the exclamatory introduction to each psalm, the references to the king and God's “holy hill,” and the conclusion pronouncing blessing on God's people, all suggest some intended correspondences. Here (and in the psalms to follow) the king is petitioning for what has already been established in the first two psalms.

This is another intriguing interpretation, but it also raises questions about the relationship between the superscriptions and the actual contents of the psalms which follow—i.e., whether the Davidic figure is intended to be central in Ps 3, or whether this is really a psalm for “everyone,” using David's piety as a paradigm. Whether, in practice, this “royal reading” can be carried on beyond Ps 3 remains to be demonstrated—not only from the Hebrew, which is crucial for Cole, but in the Greek and Latin translations as well. Nevertheless, Cole does have ancient tradition on his side: “lectio continua” was an important mode of reading and praying the Psalter in monastic and rabbinic tradition in antiquity. Although some of Cole's assertions went some way beyond how this reviewer understood these first three psalms, the method itself is a fascinating one, thoroughly argued and resisting boldly the legacy of Gunkel which results in our seeing the Psalter as a collection of random parts.

Susan Gillingham, Worcester College, Oxford

[1] R. L. Cole, “An Integrated Reading of Psalms 1 and 2,” JSOT 98 (2002), 75–88. reference

[2] “In der Sammlung des Psalters steht jedes Lied für such allein,” H. Gunkel, Reden und Aufsätze (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913), 93; cited on p. 156 of Cole's book. reference

[3] This is of course a selective witness. Many other Jewish and Christian sources from this period testify to the psalms being two different but complementary units, as I argue in A Journey of Two Psalms: The Reception of Psalms 1 and 2 in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 38–61. reference

[4] C. Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (trans. K. Crim and R. N. Soulen; Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 251–52. reference

[5] G. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (SBLDS, 76; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1985); F. L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger, Die Psalmen. I. Psalm 1–50 (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2003); M. Millard, Die Komposition des Psalters (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1994); J -M. Auwers, La composition littéraire du Psautier: un état de la question (CahRB, 46; Paris: J. Gabalda, 2000); J. C. McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms” in L. E. Keck et al (eds.), The New Interpreter's Bible (12 vols; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 4:639–1280; J. Høgenhaven, “The Opening of the Psalter: A Study in Jewish Theology,” SJOT 15 (2001), 169–80; K. Seybold, Introducing the Psalms (trans. R. G. Dunphy; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990); G. Barbiero, Das erste Psalmenbuch als Einheit: Eine synchrone Analyse von Psalm 1–41 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999); R. Rendtorff, The Old Testament: An Introduction (trans. J. Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986). reference