Some people, I suspect, think of writing as a spontaneous outflow of creativity, as if one just had to wait for the inspiration to strike. It’s true that some writing periods are more energetic and effortless than others. But for the most part, good writing — whether poetry or prose, a novel or a screenplay, words or music — isn’t freeform. There is creativity, yes, but also discipline and design. You don’t just write: you edit and rewrite, sometimes logging hours of screen time to craft one paragraph you want to keep.
And even that paragraph may eventually end up in the recycle bin, even if you worked on it all day.
Something similar might be said of the Psalms. We know nothing, of course, of the actual process by which they were written. But we should take care not to read them through the interpretive lenses of a world saturated with social media, where words are ubiquitous and personally expressive. Psalms of lament aren’t spontaneous outbursts of anger or sorrow; praise is not simply putting emotions to words. The Psalms are not entries stolen from the journals or private musings of David or anyone else. We would do best, I think, to read them as compositions — works intentionally composed with the worship life of the covenant community in mind.
Furthermore, this is true not only of individual psalms, but of the collection as a whole. We can’t read the minds of those who pulled the collection together. We don’t have the luxury of asking why this or that psalm was placed here rather than there. But when we look closely at the language and context of certain psalms, it seems clear that they were placed with a definite design in mind.
As realtors are fond of saying, it’s location, location, location.
I’m thinking here of one of the greatest examples of praise in the entire Psalter: Psalm 145. Even its heading marks it as unique. Translations as different as the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard both render the heading simply and directly: “Praise. Of David.” That may not seem particularly remarkable; after all, aren’t there many psalms of praise attributed to David? Of course. But in Hebrew, for every other composition labeled “psalm,” the word is mizmor; here, the word translated as “praise” is tehillah. Psalm 145 is the only psalm labeled this way. The plural of tehillah, moreover, is tehillim — the name given in Hebrew to the entire collection, which we call “(the book of) Psalms.”
Further still, tehillah stems from the verb halal, meaning “to praise” — as in the Hebrew hallelujah, or “praise the LORD” in English. None of the remaining psalms, 146 through 150, have headings. But every single one of them both begins and ends with hallelujah, and the themes raised in Psalm 145 will be echoed in these other psalms as well.
Psalm 145, then, isn’t just another example of praise. The fifth and final book of the Psalms, as we have seen, compared to the other books, already leans much more heavily in the direction of praise. The last five psalms in the collection sound a repeated, ringing Hallelujah! And Psalm 145 functions like a musical introduction to this final chorus of praise. As the last psalm with a heading, the last psalm attributed to David, and the only psalm that essentially bears the same name as the collection as a whole, it seems a fitting way to help bring the collection to a close.
All of this, I believe, is by design. The placement of Psalm 145 helps guide the worshiping community’s imagination into the praise to which the people are called. But it’s not only about location: it’s about locution, about the what and how of the words and not just the where. And here too Psalm 145 has much to teach us about praise, which we’ll begin to explore in the next post.