The Religious Experience in the Book of Psalms

by Shamai Gelander (Author)
©2016 Monographs 250 Pages


This book deals with the world of the psalms, in order to reveal the elements of faith as expressed in the various prayers. It includes an encompassing study of the variety of experiences: How can an individual in distress experience a situation which contrasts his actual reality altogether? What causes an individual to believe that God wants him to live and does not want him to die? What are the individual’s sources of confidence in justice as ruling over the universe, and his confidence that the harmony of the universe leaves no room for evil? Virtually all books of the Old Testament express the world view and opinions of their authors, with a didactic purpose on mind. Not so the Book of Psalms: Here we can find an expression of the pious individual’s world and his beliefs. The psalms are what the authors sought to place in the mouth of the worshippers, thinking that they would aptly express what was on their mind. Anybody who seeks to understand how faith and thoughtfulness join together with the individual’s emotions through a wonderful creative shaping, is invited to read this book.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. On the Methods of Ancient Commentaries
  • 1.1 On contemporary interpretations
  • 1.2 Guiding approach and investigative method
  • 1.3 On the essence of the experience
  • 2. Transitions & Transformations
  • 2.1 The transformation experience: from the actual to the desired (per Ps. 23)
  • 2.2 From doubt and crisis to renewed faith (per Ps. 5)
  • 2.3 From despair to hope, from pleading to thanksgiving
  • Interim Summary
  • 2.4 Praise and thanksgiving
  • Psalms 9–10
  • 2.5 Summary
  • 3. The Experience of Closeness to God
  • 3.1 “In the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge”
  • 3.2 Close – to the point of merger
  • 4. The Experience of Harmony: Justice and World Order
  • 4.1 Psalm 39
  • 4.2 Psalm 147
  • 5. The Ceremonial Experience
  • 5.1 The procession or rally
  • 5.2 Raising sacrifices as a ceremonial experience
  • 6. The Promised Life Experience
  • 6.1 Confidence in salvation in the communal prayers
  • 7. Every Man a King
  • 7.1 Psalm 20
  • 7.2 Psalm 132
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Abbreviations
  • Series index

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The central aim of this book is to explore the unique qualities of the Book of Psalms. Other books in the biblical canon express the outlooks and views of the religious “authorities” – the priests/legislators, or prophets – or in general, the spiritual leaderships overseeing the biblical compositions, or the word of God as understood by His representatives on earth. By contrast, the Psalms give a voice to any person of faith who wants to put his case before their God, while showing how their plights and joys, and feelings of depression or elation, are linked to their faith.1 There are other books in the “wisdom literature” – such as Job and Ecclesiastes – in which the authors give vent to the anguish of their doubts and express the crisis that has befallen their faith in the face of conflict between conventional wisdom and the lessons of their own life experience. But while those books require scholarly introspection, the psalms in the Book of Psalms – including those attributed to the biblical “wisdom literature” – are, first and foremost, about an emotional and cognitive experience that brings about a rapid transformation in the worshipper, who as a result is mentally transported, to some degree or another, to his desired circumstances, to the point that he is oblivious to, the sensations arising from his actual situation. These transitions involve not only a change from hardship to salvation, from despair to hope, and from supplication to praise and gratitude, but also a sense of belonging to a clearly defined congregation, to total solidarity with the crowd of celebrants, and total rejection of “opponents” – i.e., anyone who is not part of that group. ← 7 | 8 →

In other words, the transformation is evident in the worshipper’s ability to experience the desired situation both cognitively and emotionally. Objective reality is blotted out. The basic mechanism behind such a transformation relies on sets of expressions that come pre-charged with symbolic meanings: some representing the graphic essence of an idea, others in the guise of various formulaic expressions, but all designed to secure some purchase on the desired reality. Some – such as mentions of frequent visits to the house of God – are verbal constructions that are so evocative in the worshipper’s mind, their very enunciation can banish his present predicament to place him, in his mind, in the position he would like to be. In effect, they encapsulate the worshipper’s ideological demand for divine protection by virtue of his proclaimed innocence and blamelessness. The various descriptions and wordings used for this purpose illustrate the various nuances of the experiences involved.

At the heart of this inquiry is the question: what is the worshipper experiencing – that is to say, what is the meaning of the words that the author puts in his mouth? To answer this, we must go beyond a simple reading of the text, beyond the literal meaning of words and idioms, and occasionally even beyond the usual use of figurative language.2 This is necessary because, over the centuries, psalms have become an integral part of the rites of worship and a staple of prayers, both on a daily basis and on festive occasions, as well as a means of individual expression of innermost thoughts and desires, in private or in public settings. From analysis of the psalms it is clear from the outset that the author was not limiting himself to any given historical situation, but imagined what they might represent to someone far removed from it in time and space. Accordingly, many of the expressions in the psalms should be regarded as metonymic in nature, i.e. as metaphorical or symbolic. To reveal the particular or historical situation behind any ← 8 | 9 → given psalm, therefore, we must take care not to stray too far away from a simple reading toward the metaphorical and allegoristic. While the historical backdrops and dating of certain psalms are not the focus of this book, being able to discern the unique aspects of a given situation based on the constituent expressions in its description will help us avoid sliding towards free and inappropriate associations.

The psalms were designed to give a voice to any individual, and invoke a sense of solidarity with one’s congregation or fellow celebrants.3 Our basic premise is that the language of the psalms was fully intelligible to everyone when they were first composed, but over time, when Hebrew ceased to be the spoken language of daily life, the words and descriptions took on metaphorical and allegoristic meanings. Although this change, in essence, is what psalmic interpretative tradition is all about, I do not believe it is possible to accurately trace the various stages of this evolution. We lack the necessary tools to do so, nor is it the main purpose of our study.4 That said, we can gain some sense of how this process unfolded in ancient commentaries, such as these two passages from the Talmud:

Rabbi Meir says: All praises said in the Book of Psalms are quotes of David – as it is said: “Here end [the] prayers of David son of Jesse” (Psalms 72: 20): Do not read it as “Here end,” (kálu), but rather “These were” (kol élu).

(Pesahim 117: 72).

And who wrote them? Moses wrote his book, the story of Bil’am, and [the Book of] Job; Joshua wrote his book and [the Books of] Judges and Ruth; David wrote the Book of Psalms with the help of ten elders: Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Jeduthun, Asaf, and the three sons of Korah…

(Bava Batra 14: 72).

The words “Do not read it” in the first of these two excerpts is indicative of an interpretive reading – since that, after all, is the meaning ← 9 | 10 → of the phrase5 – in a tacit admission of the difficulty of attributing all psalms to David, since historically this is implausible.6 The second of the two excerpts greatly qualifies that extreme generalization by attributing the composition of Psalms to the “help of” ten elders, effectively presenting it as a supra-temporal act, that begins with ancestral Adam and ends in the days of the Levites. Be that as it may, we find that the words of the psalms transcend individual and specific historical situations, and that their significance, like the manner in which they were composed, is supra-temporal, and the situations they describe are highly emblematic.

1 Hence the prevailing view in contemporary research – in contrast to the past – that attribute all the psalms to David (such as the statement at the end of the Psalms scroll discovered in Cave #11 at Qumran – 11Q XXVII – that David had composed all 4050 psalms). We shall revisit the question ofattribution to David further below, and in Chap. 6.

2 For the purposes of the current discussion, I use the term “figurative language” in its broader sense of departing from the conventional lexical meaning in the use of words and expressions – as opposed to Rivlin’s definition of “Graphic language, figurative language” in A Glossary of Literature, Tel-Aviv 1978, p. 30 (Hebrew).

3 For a more extensive discussion of this topic, see chapter 4.

4 See A. Rofé’s discussion on this point, especially with regard to the approach of ancient commentators – and translators – to the psalm titles: A. Rofé, Introduction to Psalmic Poetry and Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem 2004, pp. 33–37 (Hebrew).

5 See Maimonides, Moreh Nevukhim (“Guide to the Perplexed”) (trans. M. Schwartz), 3: 43. See also “‘Read [it] not [as]’ – Dialects of the Talmud and Jewish Writings,” Daat, Jewish Enclopaedia (Hebrew). See also: ibid. “Talmudic expressions, phrases, sayings and legislator idioms” (Hebrew).

6 Conversely, see: N. M. Sarna (“Tehilim,” Encyclopaedia Biblica, vol. 8, Jerusalem 1984, pp. 444–445 (Hebrew), who argues that the Sages did indeed attribute the psalms to David – on the grounds that the word leDavid (“to David”) in the title of many psalms denoted the author, and because the colophon The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended (Ps. 72: 20) indicates that the editor was unaware of another eighteen psalms attributed to David.

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1.  On the Methods of Ancient Commentaries

The notion that the psalms are prayers of allegorical significance is the conclusion of a prolonged and extensive interpretive process, but for the purposes of this introduction I shall sum up its chief highlights through the work of A. Simon.

A detailed examination of four different approaches to the Book of Psalms7 reveals, I believe, what they have in common. Whether we see the psalms, as Ibn Gikatilla did, as prayers and non-prophetic songs, or as sacred prophetic poetry, like Ibn Ezra, or side with Saadia Gaon in his polemic against the Karaite view,8 the notion that the Psalms are allegorical is a repeated theme. Thus, Saadia Gaon thought the Book of Psalms was a supra-temporal manual – a “Second Torah,” as it were – and hence, too, his objection to the use of psalms to serve the fleeting needs of internal conflict.9 Simon also notes that the Karaites, by viewing the Psalmic literature as prophetic, and its authors as prophets of consolation, were presenting biblical prayer as superior to its rabbinical counterpart.10 In the case of Gikatilla, his reading of the Psalms as allegory is clear from his interpretation of the title of Ps. 30: “A Psalm and Song at the dedication of the House of David.” This psalm is problematic for two reasons: one is the anachronistic reference to the dedication of the Temple, the other is the discrepancy between the title and the body of the psalm, which is praise for recovery from illness. In his own commentary, Ibn Ezra begins by citing various previous commentators, who resolved the former difficulty by suggesting that David composed the psalm in honor of the dedication of the first, second, or third Temple, and the second difficulty by taking ← 11 | 12 → a metaphorical approach, that is, that “time spent in exile is analogous to being ill.” He then proposes his own solution, namely that the psalm is referring not to the house of God, but to David’s personal palace, which was dedicated when he recovered from illness. Finally, Ibn Ezra cites Gikatilla’s interpretation, who resolves both difficulties by invoking an extreme metaphor: David’s illness was not a physical affliction, but a mental one, brought on by his bitter disappointment when Nathan the Prophet told him he would not build the house of God because of his bloody past (per Chronicles 28: 3) – but when he learns that his son Solomon will build the Temple, his sorrow turns to joy, and he sings a song of praise for having the permission to “dedicate” the Temple.11 Ibn Ezra then goes on to cite Gikatilla’s interpretation of the anachronism in Ps. 122: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord” – namely, that this psalm was written by David to be recited once the Temple was built.12 As we shall see later, the psalms may be said to be “prophetic” – not necessarily because they foretell future events, but because in their final stages of composition,13 a metaphorical or allegoristic14 dimension was added to actual historical events (e.g., “when he fled from Absalom his son” [Ps. 3: 1]), to allow the worshipper to identify with David’s life story, or even with the symbolic sense of the idea of “king” in its wider sense.15 Ibn Ezra ← 12 | 13 → himself took a similar approach, in principle, by attempting to prove the sanctity of psalms based on various biblical passages (I Chron. 9: 22; II Chron. 5: 12) in which David, Ahiman, Asaph and Jedutun are given prophetic titles.16 In our inquiry, therefore, the notion of “divine inspiration” might be interpreted to mean that the psalms are indeed of a supra-temporal nature, experiential expressions that are not limited to specific historical episodes, and the prophetic titles are an attempt to bridge between the psalms’ titles and their general message and wider meaning.17

The same is true for the approach taken by the Karaite commentaries, where the recital of the psalms in the Temple is perceived as a secondary (repeated) prophecy. Solomon Ben-Yeruham thought the very act of writing down the psalms was a kind of pious act18 – while Yefet Ben-Ali noted that allusions to the psalms being proclaimed to be “in the holy spirit” are references to “performer poets,” with whom the holy spirit dwelt in the days of the later kings as well, rather than the “composer-poets,” whom the holy spirit abandoned with the death of King Solomon.19 The allegoristic significance is also apparent in how Yefet Ben-Ali interprets David’s personal enemies, and in his method of classification based on the number of enemies of Israel addressed in each case.20

In a way, Ben-Ali’s approach is similar, in principle, to my argument that any worshipper might see the psalms as an expression of their innermost feelings and faith, if we understand the medieval ← 13 | 14 → commentators’ definitions of “prophecies” or “commandments” in the looser and more symbolic sense of anticipating salvation as given (as Ibn Ezra did), rather than as prayers (as Gikatilla argued). Such an explanation would also be consistent with my interpretation of psalms that feature seemingly “abrupt” transitions from supplication to gratitude: the religious experience in these psalms lies in the worshipper’s ability to be transported in his mind from his current plight to his desired state of redemption as if it has already been achieved in reality.21 Such observations underline how much the expressions of religious experience defy formal classification of the psalms into distinct genres.22 Despite the allegoristic meanings in his commentary, Ibn Ezra, like Gikatilla, thinks that a simple reading is the most important,23 and the tension between the allegoristic meaning and the simple reading, can support the approach that we have described, and clarify it.

1.1  On contemporary interpretations

In my review of more recent research – from the nineteenth century onwards – I shall also limit my inquiry to the aspects relevant to our discussion, which focus on the religious experience in the psalms, namely the emotions and world view of the individual revealing his innermost thoughts to his God. To this end, I rely largely on A. Rofé’s ← 14 | 15 → extensive survey of the key findings of research and interpretation in the modern era.24


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Psalm Faith Prayer God Old Testament
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Shamai Gelander (Author)

Shamai Gelander (*1931, Vienna) graduated of the Hebrew University and the University of Tel Aviv and holds a PhD in biblical studies. He served as a senior lecturer of biblical studies at the Haifa University and of jewish studies at the University of Tel Aviv. He was a visiting professor in Oxford and served as chairman of the department of biblical studies and academic director of the college «Oranim».


Title: The Religious Experience in the Book of Psalms