The Royal Psalms: An Interview with David L.

David L. is currently working on his dissertion at University of St. Andrews in Biblical Studies under the direction of Dr. James Davila. David graciously agreed to be interviewed about his dissertation research.

David and I recently had a great exchange on how to interpret ancient biblical temple practices in relation to modern LDS temple rites. That exchange stands independent from some of the research that David is pursuing here and we thought our readers would like to learn more about it.

TT: David, I understand that you are working on Kingship and the Psalms. Tell us a little about the Psalms and what they have do with kingship? In short, what are you arguing for in your research?

David: Thank you, TT, for this opportunity to discuss my research on FPR. You are correct that my research involves the Psalms and themes pertaining to Israel’s royal cult. It also involves looking at similar themes in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, the idea for my research objective began with my study of apocalyptic/mystical texts (which often depict “heavenly ascents” and enthronement in heaven) and my exposure to a growing body of research that tries to analyze these texts in the context of actual religious experience. To be short, a number of scholars believe that behind certain written texts we can sometimes perceive connections or allusions to actual religious practices — rituals, liturgies, ecstatic visions, etc. This was an intriguing idea to me and I eventually decided to study some of the Dead Sea Scrolls that are described as being particularly “liturgical” in nature, such as the Hodayot (Thanksgiving Hymns) or the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (a series of hymns to be sung on successive Sabbaths that basically describe a tour of the heavenly temple) in light of this type of theory. Along the way, I came across the idea that the biblical Psalms had for a long time been studied following a “cult-functional” approach — that attempts had been made to connect them to rituals performed in/around the Jerusalem Temple. I decided that this topic warranted further investigation.

To provide a bit of background for this approach to the Psalms, I would note that Hermann Gunkel, in his groundbreaking research in the early 20th century, developed a methodology for looking at the biblical texts called “form criticism.” Many of you are likely familiar with this approach, but to sum up, Gunkel believed that the biblical text could be analyzed according to identifiable literary types or “forms.” In his research on the Psalms, he divided the Psalter up into a number of different literary forms that he identified using set criteria. Among the Psalms were some that didn’t fit into any of the other categories, but were grouped together because they all involved, or made mention of, the Israelite king. Another similar category involved psalms that made reference to the enthronement of Yahweh as king. Gunkel theorized that these types of psalms were most likely used in ritual/liturgical settings in the Jerusalem cult. Later scholars would further speculate on how these psalms may have been used liturgically and how they related to the kingship ideology of ancient Israel.

To pick a couple of straightforward examples, Gunkel believed that the most likely “life setting” for Psalm 2 was “an enthronement festival of the Davidic king” (Gunkel and Begrich, Introduction to the Psalms, 102). Gunkel argued that the speaker in the psalm was most likely the king himself throughout, referring to himself in both the third and first persons. Therefore, we can imagine (at least Gunkel does) that the psalm would have been sung by the king at his own enthronement. The king announces that God has set him up as ruler and has given him a decree declaring him to be God’s son (Psalm 2:6-7). Psalm 110, according to Gunkel, arguably shares a similar enthronement setting. Gunkel saw a situation “when the poet proclaims the divine selection of the ruler and the ruler’s priesthood” (Ibid.). We get in both of these psalms references to actual physical (ritual?) acts, such as anointing (Psalm 2:2, reference to God’s “anointed”), kissing the ruler’s feet (Ps. 2:12, RSV) and drinking from the spring (Ps. 110:7). There are several other psalms that were identified as referring to kingship and Gunkel and subsequent scholars have speculated on how these may have been used in a liturgical setting.

In my studies of the more liturgical Qumran texts and the biblical “royal/enthronement” psalms, I have noticed some surprising parallels between them that are impossible to ignore. The core themes that are repeated in many of these psalms are also found in the Qumran texts. Not that these texts are simply citing the psalms, nor are they obviously making interpretive commentary on them, but they seem to be re-using the theological themes for their own purposes. While the biblical psalms were arguably used in a liturgical setting that involved kingship or enthronement, the Qumran texts must have been used in some other setting, although it is clear that many were used liturgically as can be understood from the liturgical instructions given in the texts themselves. The Qumran community didn’t have kings, so why were they using kingship-related material liturgically? This question is among many that I am trying to answer in my research.

TT: David, this research sounds fascinating. I have already lots of questions! First, can you provide a list of the “enthronement psalms” for those who might want to read some of them?

David: Hermann Gunkel highlighted the following as “royal” and “enthronement” psalms, although subsequent scholars would later expand on these lists to varying degrees.

Royal: Psalms 2; 18; 20; 21; 45; 72; 101; 110; 132; 144:1-11; possibly 89:47-52

Enthronement: Pss. 47, 93, 95-99

TT: Second, I think that your guiding question about how the Qumran community is interpreting the Psalms sounds very interesting and I’d like to get more thoughts on the liturgical uses in a moment. For now, I’m thinking of the obvious uses of the Psalms in the NT as speaking prophetically about Jesus as how the interpretive tradition of the Psalms is developing in the Greek and Roman periods. Are there comparable non-liturgical uses of the Psalms at Qumran? How else are they being read by those at Qumran?

David: Unfortunately, I have not yet reached the point in my research in which I am seriously considering how the Psalms themselves were interpreted at Qumran in the way that you mention. We know that they had a significant interest in the Psalms — nearly 40 manuscripts containing Psalters/psalms. Interestingly, the Qumran Psalters (collections of psalms), vary significantly regarding which psalms they contain and in what order. While we can’t know for sure why these differences exist, the reason why I mention it is because some have speculated that at Qumran they deliberately ordered the Psalms differently from the Jerusalem mainstream in order to emphasize their differences in belief. There is a Pesher Psalms Scroll (4Q471) that interprets the psalms following an unorthodox order, but I have not yet had the opportunity to study much about it.

The above ideas demonstrate that, at least for the Qumran community (and perhaps for larger bodies of Jews), the canonical Psalter had not yet been completely fixed. The Qumran collections also include a number of psalms and other compositions that are not a part of our canon. One interesting piece that is added to some of the collections is called “David’s Compositions”, which tells about how King David composed over 4000 psalms to be used in Israel’s worship, and that these were all composed through prophecy, revealed by the Most High.

From what I’ve been able to understand, the Qumran community seemed very adept at taking themes in the Psalms and combining them into new compositions that applied more specifically to themselves. For example, in the Hodayot, as I’ve mentioned, there are many themes that most likely originally were associated with a royal figure (and that Christians would see as Messianic) in the Psalms, but in the Hodayot seem to be applied to a leader of the Qumran community. We can see that in some of the original psalm compositions that appear in Qumran Psalters (e.g. Tehillah of the Man of God, 4Q381), they seem to deliberately remove royal references when they utilize some of the different “royal” psalms. Of course, by this time the Davidic dynasty was long gone and the Priesthood had provided the principal leadership for the people.

As far as speculation regarding the Messiah, the topic seems to be a bit messy at Qumran. There are a number of different figures that we would likely see as “Messianic” described in different texts. As with the figure of Jesus, at Qumran these figures go far beyond simply the notion of an anointed king or priest — there are divine mediator figures, principal angels who fight in the eschatological battle, etc. Melchizedek is among these — It is hard to tell if they are working solely with the couple of biblical references we have (including Ps. 110) or if they had other sources, but the Melchizedek texts found at Qumran seem to consider Melchizedek to have been a human who was made divine, similar to Jesus. Various Qumran texts indicate a belief in two Messiahs — either one of Davidic and one of priestly origin, or sometimes one of Aaron and one of Israel (the latter pair may refer to the same as the former). Where there are both kingly and priestly Messiahs described, sometimes the priestly Messiah seems to be more highly esteemed than the kingly. I think this reflects sentiments in Judaism at the time, where the role of king had been diminished and the role of the High Priest exalted.

Overall, I think that we can see a pattern of the Qumran community taking the Psalms and applying them (even creating new Psalms) to their own exclusive community, and that their interpretation reflects both their beliefs as a sect and what was going on at the time in the broader Judahite community.

TT: What are some of the ritual or liturgical uses of the Psalms by the Qumran community? It sounds like they were reading and interpreting the Psalms in lots of different ways.

David: Most of the material we have seems to indicate that the liturgical practices at Qumran were generally the same as those commonly known for Judaism at the time. They focus on prayers at specific times, ritual purifications, covenant making and renewal, etc. They were likely using the Psalms in ways similar to other “Jews” at the time. However, what my research currently focuses on is liturgical texts that use themes from the Psalms, as I’ve described above. We don’t know exactly how some of these texts were used liturgically, but there are occasional ritual instructions given to the leader or to the congregation. For example, in Column V of 1QHa (Hodayot), we get the following directions: “Chant for the Instructor to fall down before God” in the context of passages that describe viewing God’s creation, joining the heavenly hosts, and being in the “assembly of the holy ones.” Although such instructions are few and brief, we get the idea that at some point these texts were used liturgically. Likewise, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice are meant to be recited/performed on successive Sabbath commemorations, yet they describe a journey through the various regions of heaven, ascending to the throne of God. How were these things performed liturgically? Were they simply read? Were they acted out in some way? We don’t know. However, it is apparent, in my view, that they had this material that basically described (among other things) an ascent to heaven and enthronement there, and they were using it for ritual performances.

TT: You mentioned that some are actually removing or editing the “royal Psalms,” but also noted earlier that other texts indicate that the Qumran community was using these texts in rituals. How do you interpret these conflicts over these Psalms, or perhaps the “royal Psalms” specifically, and what do you make of the meaning of the ritual adaptations of them in a community that lacked a temple?

David: Yes, apparently there was some motivation to remove the “royal” references from the Psalms in some cases. When they use the themes from the royal psalms in other texts, references to the king are likewise absent. Contexts that were originally applied to the king are now apparently democratized to fit the Qumran community. It is not the king that (ritually) suffers pain and humiliation — now it is the leader of the sectarian community. It is not the king who is enthroned, it is the priestly instructor of the sect. I see these adaptations as comparable to what others were doing at the time, although perhaps more especially to be expected by a group which has separated itself from its peers in Jerusalem. Judah had lost its monarchy long before and their society now depended on the priesthood for leadership. Those reading and interpreting texts that contained royal references would understandably feel the need to move beyond the royal application and relate the message to their own situation. The lack of a physical temple didn’t seem to be much of a problem, as focus shifted to the paradigm of the spiritual/celestial temple, which was the ideal.

  • Chris H.

    As the non-Bible scholar at FPR, I will just say thank you for sharing here at our blog. I look forward to us having further interaction.

  • BHodges

    Thanks fellas.

    What are some of the best evidences which would encourage people to interpret the Psalms as the description or written formula (for lack of a better term) of enacted ritual? It seems they describe enthronement, they mention specific acts (like the anointing, etc.). Are there any actual meta-records of sorts which indicate the Psalms were used in ritual?

  • David Larsen

    Thanks, Chris and Blair, for your comments.
    As far as indications that the psalms were used in rituals, we have many. Form-criticism emphasizes the fact that most psalms contain few/no historical references and were likely intended to be repeated in ritual situations generation after generation. Many feature characteristic patterns that are recognizable as forms/styles used in religious poetry throughout the Ancient Near East. In examples from other cultures, these writings often contain rubrics/instructions for what ritual actions should accompany them.
    In the Bible itself, psalms are sometimes used in association with rituals/ceremonies. For example, when Solomon dedicates the newly built temple, he quotes from Psalm 132 (2 Chron. 6:41). When David leads the procession of the Ark (which I have argued was or became a liturgical tradition), Psalm 96 is sung (1 Chron. 16:23-33). I’m sure there are other examples.
    We know from later Jewish tradition that the Psalms were used liturgically in the temple service. The Talmud tells us that the Levites recited a specific psalm for each day’s morning and evening rituals at the temple (Tamid service). The singing of psalms accompanied sacrifices. We are told that the Levites (likely together with pilgrims coming to the temple) sang certain psalms (Songs of Ascent/Degrees) during the Feast of Tabernacles, in association with the ritual drawing of water. Certain psalms are specified as being sung at New Year (Rosh Hashanah), Passover, and other festivals/holy days.
    It seems by this time the original reasons that these Psalms were recited on these occasions was, for the most part, lost, but we see that the tradition remained that certain psalms were associated with specific festivals and rituals.

  • jupiterschild


    Welcome, and thanks for sharing! I’ve got a few questions, feel free to answer them generally and not individually. These questions are offered in the spirit of a fellow inquirer, not as personal challenges.

    I am certainly one who would love to see Psalms giving us insight as to what went on in Temples, etc. Part of the problem, as you know, is that we have tantalizingly little to go on from texts themselves that (probably) date to the First Temple Period. My question now is over what *you* find to be a convincing methodology for determining liturgy. You rightly begin with Gunkel, and have recognized others elsewhere, but how does their method hold up? How does one isolate a form? And, most important, even if we are correct in isolating forms, what, if anything does that tell us about historical use? Is isolating a form useful at all in historical placement? (These are all honest questions that I continue to grapple with. How does one argue that language is liturgical? Because it mentions anointing?)

    A more minor question, but still related, concerns your use of Chronicles. These are, as you know, *very* late texts, comparatively, and also *very* concerned with the Temple, retrojecting second temple practice, conflating temple and tabernacle, etc. How do you know that Chronicles isn’t simply interpreting in the texts you cite? Putting the few Psalms that seem to narrate a historical event with the few textual indications of such event? (I.e., the Chronicler did what any middle-schooler today could, right?) Same goes for the proliferation of “heavenly ascent” texts–is it possible that what we find in the First Temple is a series of texts that, by virtue of their unusual quality, garner much attention and actually give rise to a genre, rather than being an expression thereof?

  • David Larsen


    These are all very good questions that I grapple with myself, as well.

    I certainly agree with your points concerning Chronicles, that they are late and we can’t expect them to give us a clear picture of First Temple theology and practice. If you go back over my recent discussions on FPR and M*, you will see that I use this argument many times. I cited Chron. in response to BHodhes because I see those passages as demonstrating that there was a tradition of associating certain psalms with temple liturgy. I don’t believe that the Chronicler was simply matching up themes in the psalms with the historical events they seem to describe. I can give you a few reasons why:
    1) Chronicles is not the only text that makes this connection. We hear of the singing of psalms or “praises” in Sirach 50, 1 Mac. 4:54, the Talmud, the Mishna, and other early Jewish texts. I know that these are all late, and I suppose one could argue that the Chronicler got this whole tradition going, but I think it is more plausible to assume that they were all aware of a well-established tradition of the connection between the psalms and the liturgy.

    2) The structure of many of the psalms indicates that they were composed with the intent that they were to be sung antiphonally or responsorially. Look at Psalm 118, for example. It starts off:
    Psalm 118:1-4 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!
    2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures for ever.”
    3 Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures for ever.”
    4 Let those who fear the LORD say, “His steadfast love endures for ever.”
    (Compare this with the similar structure of Psalm 136)

    So we get the idea that there are different roles being played in this liturgy — there is a leader and respondents, etc., and this is a liturgical performance of some sort.
    The narration goes on to describe some concrete images of events:
    Psalm 118:19-20 19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. 20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
    Psalm 118:26-27 26 Blessed be he who enters in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. 27 The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!

    These descriptions would be rather odd to include in the hymn if they weren’t describing, or at least referring to some kind of ritual action (perhaps a procession through the temple gates and then a ritual involving binding something to the horns of the temple altar).

    If we are to seriously study this Psalm and attempt to uncover what it’s original use may have been, we need to seriously consider these details and not dismiss them, arguing that we can’t possibly know what they’re referring to.

    3) Most (but not all) Psalms scholars would admit that at least some of the Psalms should be attributed to the time of the pre-exilic monarchy. While certainly not an exact science, I believe that attempting to place a given psalm’s Sitz im Leben is an important and worthwhile endeavor. For example, what possible occasion would require the singing of Psalm 2 or Psalm 110? The most plausible “life situation” would be at the coronation of the king. Of course this is assuming that these psalms were used liturgically. If not composed for such an occasion, for what would it have been used? If we take what we know of Israelite kingship ideology, biblical descriptions of coronations, parallels with the rites of surrounding ANE cultures, etc., we begin to piece together a picture that demonstrates quite well that the psalm seems to be narrating/accompanying what is going on in an actual coronation ritual.

    There are many references in the Psalms to going to the temple or being in the temple and worshiping there, offering sacrifices, etc. I agree with you that a mere mention of an “anointed one” or “anointing” in a general sense does not prove that an anointing is being performed. However, there are often descriptions that seem to more concretely put the singer of the psalm doing things in a cultic setting. Take, for example, Psalm 63:
    Psalm 63:2 2 So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory.

    It is apparent that at some point the singer was in the temple and “looked upon” God.

    Perhaps you think I am taking these references too literally and that they are meant to be symbolic or metaphorical. However, if you look at how this type of religious poetry is used in other parts of the ANE, there is ample evidence that Israel’s neighbors used their “psalms” in association with festivals, rituals, ceremonies, etc. There are instructions given for what/when ritual actions are to be performed. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the same was happening in Israel.

    Quickly, regarding your example of the “heavenly ascent” texts. I agree that yours is the most popular assumption in the field today — that the later texts spring up from later speculation on some of the more peculiar or exciting biblical texts, such as Ezekiel’s visions. I would say, briefly, that I believe this understanding stems from the tendency to focus on the texts too much as simply literary creations and not as a physical remnant of a past people that lived and breathed and had actual religious experiences. I see religious texts as, in many cases, perpetuating actual beliefs, practices, and experiences and not simply borrowing ideas from earlier texts (although I think styles, expressions, literary patterns, etc., are often re-used). Anyways, I don’t have time to go into this in detail at the moment. I’m sorry my comments are rather jumbled here, but I’m just trying to provide you with a decent response in the short time I have available today.
    Your questions are certainly valid, JC, and I appreciate you taking the time to ask them.

  • Clark

    Great interview.

  • Clark

    David, quick question I thought of last night. Are there any other texts you see as being ritualistic originally outside of the Psalms?

  • David Larsen

    You know, Clark, I haven’t really been able to extend my interest in “ritualistic” texts much beyond the scope of what I’m researching for my PhD at this point. However, I’m convinced that many other narratives and descriptions in the Bible derive from, describe, or are otherwise related to ritual.

    As my supervisor Jim Davila has said in his Eerdmans commentary on the liturgical works in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is important to see the Bible “not only as theologically authoritative text or as great literature, but also as a repository of ritual and liturgical traditions” (Liturgical Works, p. 2).

    A book that you could look at for methods of finding ritual texts in the Bible would be Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible. He has an appendix where he lists all kinds of texts from the Pentateuch that he sees as “ritual texts.” Some of them (chosen randomly) include:

    – Noah constructing an altar (Gen. 8:18-22)
    – Abraham offering food to the angels (Gen. 18:4-8)
    – Covenant meal between Isaac and Abimelech (Gen. 26:30-31)
    – Jacob sets up pillar of stone (Gen. 35:14)
    – Divine order for preparation for covenant consecration (Exod. 19:10-13)
    – Covenant-rupture ritual (Exod. 32:19-20)
    – Priestly ordination ritual (Lev. 8:1-36)
    – Aaron makes atonement for people (Num. 16:41-50)

    He lists dozens more. While many of these are obviously/explicitly related to ritual, there are many that are not so much so.

    Another book that looks at not-so-obvious rituals behind the New Testament text is Richard E. DeMaris, The New Testament in Its Ritual World.

    John Welch has written a great book called The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple, which looks at the likelihood that Jesus’ famous sermon was structured in light of recognizable temple themes and practices.

    Also, David Bokovoy recently published a paper in the Maxwell Institute’s new journal, Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, entitled “From the Hand of Jacob: A Ritual Analysis of Genesis 27″.

    I’m sorry if you were looking for a list from me regarding which texts I see as ritualistic. I could speculate on some, but I really haven’t put any concerted effort into researching texts (outside of the Psalms) on my own. But if you are personally interested in the topic, perhaps some of the above titles will be of help.

  • BHodges

    Thanks for #3 David.

  • David Larsen

    I know this post is old news now, but I just wanted to amend my last comment now that I’ve been studying the Book of Isaiah quite intensely over the past couple of weeks.
    I find Isaiah to be full of possible allusions to ritual. These can be seen throughout the book, but perhaps even more especially in the so-called books of Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah. Take, for example (because I’ve just read it this morning), Isaiah 62:10-12:

    RSV 10 Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples. 11 Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” 12 And they shall be called The holy people, The redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought out, a city not forsaken.

    We see that there is reference to physical actions — going out through the gates, preparing the “highway”, etc. While these actions seem to be applied here to the gathering of peoples into Jerusalem when the city is restored by the Lord, this imagery is clearly related to many such descriptions in the Psalms — passages that describe the ritual procession of pilgrims into the city for religious festivals. The ancient Feast of Tabernacles was the Feast of Yahweh, which celebrated the manifestation of God’s kingship and deliverance of Zion. This is precisely what we seem to have described in Isaiah 62. We also have parallels to these traditions (sacred processions, building up/clearing processional paths) throughout the Ancient Near East.

    So, if I were to suggest (and I have suggested this elsewhere) another book besides the Psalms that I feel would give us an insight into ancient Israelite ritual tradition, I would say have a look at Isaiah.

  • Allen

    A classic study of the Sitz im Leben of the psalms can be found in the Nahum Sarna volume of the JPS Scholars of Distinction series. Sarna discusses the superscriptions of the psalms, and their association with priestly and levitical musician guilds.

  • http://None Raymond M. Perkins, Jr.

    Thanks for this interview. I have often wondered about these psalms.
    I did my Ph.D. (Th.D.) dissertation on the Hebrew Kingship as a Religious Institution, completed in 1960 and found so little research being done at the time. (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, Texas, USA.) I have wondered if serious studies in the area have been made over the decades, since I have done little more than muse about my subject since then. I went into local church work for a couple of decades then into medical ministry at the College of Medicine, University of Oklahoma. I retired from that position several years ago. I would be interested in dialogue with David L. or perhaps reading his dissertation, especially regarding the socialogical/theological aspects held toward the kingship.