Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Wallace, Robert E., The Narrative Effect of Book IV of the Hebrew Psalter (Studies in Biblical Literature, 112; New York: Peter Lang, 2007). Pp. x + 132. Hardcover. US$60.95. ISBN 978-1-4331-0092-5.

Canonical readings of the book of Psalms are here to stay, though much work remains to flesh out the details. In this published version of his 2006 Baylor doctoral dissertation under W. H. Bellinger, Jr., Robert Wallace addresses the most elusive section for canonical considerations of the Psalter, Pss 90–106. Playing off of Robert Alter's comments on the narrative impulse of poetry and building on Gerald Wilson and Nancy deClaissé-Walford's works on the shaping of the Psalter, he asks what impact Book IV has on the narrative arc of the Psalter's final shape.[1]

The work is divided into six chapters followed by endnotes, bibliography, and Scripture and subject indexes. An author index would have been welcome; one may likewise regret the omission from the present work of two figures included in the dissertation, which bring out the difference in Wilson's concept of a Mosaic frame vs. Wallace's argument for Mosaic permeation of Book IV.

Chapter one, “The Context for the Study,” provides a synopsis of work on Psalms from Hermann Gunkel to Jerome Creach, as well as an outline of Wallace's methodology. Samson Raphael Hirsch (d. 1888), though belonging to the previous generation, is highlighted for a psalm-by-psalm commentary approach focusing on David that stood over against Gunkel's form-critical project at the end of the nineteenth century. A shift toward redaction- and canonical-critical concerns is traced through Westermann, Brennan, and especially Childs, and on to the major players in recent canonical reflection on the Psalter. For his methodology, Wallace is concerned not with the Sitz im Leben so much as what he later calls the Sitz im Buch (p. 87), the literary setting of individual psalms, asking “Is it profitable to consider the Psalter as a narrative whole?” (p. 11). Taking the answer for granted, his aim is to “articulate the narrative crafted by the whole of Book IV, and explore how that narrative functions within the story the whole book of Psalms suggests” (p. 11). One significant weakness of the work is that, though he sketches some possibilities others have put forward and draws some of his own connections, e.g., to Books III and V, Wallace does not lay out comprehensively for the reader his operating understanding of the story told by the Psalter.

The heart of the project, chs. 2–5, comprises a psalm-by-psalm examination of Book IV. Chapter 2 focuses on Pss 90–92, drawing out the thematic unity of the movement from instruction to blessing and obedience to praise. Wallace draws numerous potential connections to Deut 32–33, both lexical and thematic (pp. 19–20, 23–25, 29–30). While some of the connections appear strained (e.g., the use of the phrase דר ודר in both Ps 90:1 and Deut 32:7 [p. 20]—a phrase which occurs 30 times in the Hebrew Bible, including 18 times in the Psalter alone), the objective value of connecting the fate of Israel to the curses of Deuteronomy as a way of enjoining a return to faithful obedience appears sound. “Moses' message in the Psalter was to remind the people that it was not the Davidic monarchy in which they place their trust, but something long before the Davidic monarchy” (p. 30).

Chapter 3 examines Pss 93–100 and the unifying theme יהוה מלך. Wallace argues for “a recurring emphasis on Moses and the Torah” (p. 50). Connections are drawn once again with Deut 32–33, as well as with Exod 15. The theme of יהוה מלך is an assertion of Yahweh's kingship over against human kings, including the line of David. The mention of Samuel in Ps 99 is related to this by way of his opposition to a human king in 1 Sam 8 (p. 47). Psalms 93–100 cover Yahweh's eternal dominion over both creation and the nations. “For the psalmist, however, YHWH has just now become king, and for the first time in Book IV, the psalmist is able to say that ‘YHWH is good’ (Ps 100:5)” (p. 50).[2]

The fourth chapter deals with Pss 101–103, two of which are psalms of David. Wallace views Ps 101 as a lament of David that “brings the reader back to Ps 89” (p. 56). Psalm 102 is not a psalm of David, and though it has clear royal allusions, “the most explicit royal allusions in the psalm are not associated with the psalmist; they are associated with YHWH” (p. 59). The psalm emphasizes the frail and transient nature of humanity in a way not found outside of Book IV (p. 60). The pair “mirrors” Pss 89–90: “Psalm 101 demonstrates a king of noble character who is an עני by Ps 102. … The progeny of David were not faithful, and now Zion has no one to take pity on her” (p. 62). Psalm 103, then, places a remembrance of the Mosaic covenant into the mouth of David, looking back to the Golden Calf incident of Exod 34. Significantly, “David places himself below Moses, and venerates Mosaic Covenant” (p. 66). The “Davidic sanction of Moses' primacy” begs the question of whether David remains a royal figure in and beyond Book IV (p. 68).

Chapter 5 considers Pss 104–106 and includes a thumbnail sketch of Book V. Psalm 104 should be understood as a reminder of Yahweh as king to follow up the renewed focus on the Mosaic covenant in Ps 103 (p. 76), and Wallace follows Anderson in understanding the “disjunctive and imprecatory ending…as a statement for the preservation of the covenant” (p. 75).[3] Psalm 105 shifts focus to Yahweh's creation of his people, discussing Abraham for the first time in the Psalter and referring both to Abraham and Moses as Yahweh's servant (cf. Ps 78:70; pp. 77–78). The emphasis is not laid on the patriarchs as such, but rather on the effect Yahweh's covenant faithfulness should have (following Kraus; p. 80).[4] Psalm 106 focuses on the other side of the coin, rehearsing the disobedience and unfaithfulness of the people and ending Book IV on a low note that emphasizes the importance of Yahweh's faithfulness and the people's adherence to Torah (p. 83).

Book IV is widely accepted as the hinge on which the Psalter turns; the difficulty is in understanding how these psalms answer the questions of Book III. Wallace has done a great service to Psalms studies in detailing the way Moses and Sinai permeate rather than merely frame the answer Book IV presents, though in my opinion he is too uncritical in accepting the assertions of Wilson, DeClaissé-Walford, and others on the implications of Ps 89 for the Davidic covenant. The “narrative impulse” of the Psalter is key to interpreting both the parts and the whole, and Wallace has fruitfully extended his work already back into Book III and forward into Book V.[5] I look forward to his continued contributions.

Anthony R. Pyles, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Gerald H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (SBLDS, 76; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1985); Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading From the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997). reference

[2] Although Wallace is correct that this is the first time in Book IV, contra what is asserted on p. 92 this is not the first time in the Psalter; cf. Ps 34:8. reference

[3] Cf. A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms (2 vols.; NCB; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 725. reference

[4] Cf. Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60–150 (trans. H. C. Oswald; CC; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1993), 312. reference

[5] Cf. Robert E. Wallace, “The Narrative Effect of Psalms 84–89,” JHS 11 (2011), article 10. Online:; idem, “Gerald Wilson & the Characterization of David in Book V of the Psalter” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the SBL. San Francisco, CA, November 2011), which is to appear in a forthcoming volume paying tribute to Gerald Wilson. In the latter Wallace critiques Wilson's presentation of David in Book V, departing somewhat from his own views in the reviewed dissertation. I wish to extend my thanks to Dr. Wallace for providing me with a copy of the paper. reference