Psalm 90 – The Eternal God and Mortal Men (of Moses; probably the oldest Psalm) & Form Criticism and the Psalms

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

Christian Theologian and New Testament Historian Rudolf Bultmann says,
“Theological thinkers must go through – not around.”

Form criticism is a method of biblical criticism that classifies units of scripture by literary pattern and that attempts to trace each type to its period of oral transmission.

Form criticism seeks to determine a unit’s original form and the historical context of the literary tradition.

Hermann Gunkel originally developed form criticism to analyze the Hebrew Bible.

It has since been used to supplement the documentary hypothesis explaining the origin of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) and to study the Christian New Testament.

Jesus of History, Christ of Faith: Does the Historical Jesus Matter?

If, as many scholars believe, many gospel descriptions of the life and death of Jesus were fictionalized, should that matter to the modern Christian?

Does the modern Christian have to believe that Jesus performed miracles, claimed to be the Messiah, and rose triumphantly from the dead?

Not according to a giant of Christian theology, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).

Bultmann accepted that the early Church labored to make Jesus intelligible to audiences in different situations and that it is no longer possible to recover Jesus as he actually was–the words used to describe his life were filtered through forty to sixty years of theological experience.

He contended that it is not a legitimate goal of theologians to try to prove the Resurrection (or any other specific aspect of the life of Jesus) was an historical event.

Bultmann particularly objected to the use of miracles as a means of proving the validity of faith.

Bultmann argued instead that the Resurrection is not a matter that can be proven, but a form of myth that can be used in accordance with faith.

Resurrection, as Bultmann saw it, was easily suggested to the earliest Christians because of its place in Jewish apocalypticism.

If Jesus’ disciples had been Platonists, they more likely would not have used the word “resurrection,” but rather a phrase such as “immortality of the soul.”

Bultmann argued that Jesus was not fully the Messiah prior to the cross.

The disciples of Jesus were able to experience redemption through the crucifixion because they wore–in effect–contact lenses with Jesus on them.

In Bultmann’s view, each Christian must struggle to find for himself or herself the redemptive significance of the cross.

The saved individual, according to Bultmann, is one who has transcended reason, emotion, and the materialism of the world.

To lead an authentic life, a person must choose a life, not live one merely shaped by the world.

Conservative critics of Bultmann claim that his repudiation of miracles and the historical truth of the passion story allows modern man to assign Christ his place in the world and thus causes faith to lose its saving power.

A Form-Critical Classification of the Psalms according to Hermann Gunkel
“Genre research in Psalms is nonnegotiable, not something one can execute or ignore according to preference.

Rather it is the foundational work with which there can be no certainty in the remainder.

It is the firm ground from which everything else must ascend” – Hermann Gunkel.

Perhaps no scholar has influenced the modern study of the book of Psalms as much as Hermann Gunkel.

His pioneering form-critical work on the psalms sought to provide a new and meaningful context in which to interpret individual psalms — not by looking at their historical background or their literary context within the Psalter (which he didn’t see as significant), but by bringing together psalms of the same genre (Gattung) from throughout the Psalter.

Even though Psalms scholarship has refined and critiqued his approach and have moved on to different approaches, Gunkel’s form-critical legacy remains firmly entrenched in modern scholarship and is the default starting point for most studies of the Psalter.

The Genres of the Psalms

According to Gunkel, for psalms to be considered as part of the same genre (Gattung) three conditions had to be met:

1. The psalms had to have a similar setting in life (Sitz im Leben), basis in worship, a common cultic setting, or at least originally derive from one;

2. They had to be characterized by common thoughts, feelings, and moods; and

3. They required a shared diction, style, and structure — a language related to form (Formensprache). This feature provides the signals of the particular genre.

Working with these criteria, Gunkel isolated a number of different genres or types of psalms. In his earlier work he highlighted four primary types of psalms (hymns, community laments, individual thanksgiving psalms, and individual laments), with various subcategories, as well as several mixed forms.

In his later work, completed by Joachim Begrich, he identified six major types (hymns, enthronement psalms, communal complaints, royal psalms, individual complaints, and individual thanksgiving psalms) and a number of smaller genres and mixed types.

I have tended to follow the later classification, with modifications as noted.

Also note that some psalms are found in more than one category.

This is especially the case with sub-genres since Gunkel wasn’t consistent in how he dealt with them.

“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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