“Psalms: A Cantata about the Davidic Covenant” by John H. Walton

In hermeneutics, context is king. We understand the meaning of the text in light of the context in which we find it. This principle enables the reader to distinguish between literal meanings and figures of speech, ironic and sarcastic statements, rhetorical questions and jeers. Yet, for most Christians, the hermeneutical principle of context does not apply to the Psalter. Should it?

Walton brings this question to light on account of a dissertation project by Gerald Wilson. According to Walton, Wilson argued by comparison to other Ancient Near Eastern hymnody that psalms were frequently grouped by genre or kind. Pick up nearly any modern hymnal, and you will find the same is true today. The Hebrew Psalter, however, seems to defy classification. Any theory put forth is easily deconstructed by the number of exceptions to the rule.

Walton tries yet another angle. Can there be one rule, one genre, which overarches the entire Psalter, or each of its parts, and yet accounts for the dissenting psalms? The concept he puts forth is that 1) the Psalter is to be directly associated to the Davidic Covenant, 2) each book of the Psalter be associated with a certain aspect of the covenant, and 3) each psalm in the book be associated with each aspect of the covenant. He then attempts to rationalize each psalm according to the schema.

Why the term cantata? He chose the term cantata as an analogy to the editorial arrangement of the Psalter. Cantatas involve several parts, all which contribute to the work as a whole. Yet, when examined closely, one may find disjunctures between the parts. In the past, the unifying theme was sought via the titles given to the psalms. If a psalm had no title, then it was part of the preceding psalm. When the titles are evaluated, however, too much disjunction occurs so as to be a useful method. Walton suggests that each psalm contains a topic, even if not the main topic, that the editor used to tie them all together.

Walton concludes that his experiement yields inconclusive evidence. It is not convincing as such. Nonetheless, he finds merit in the exercise of considering the possibility of an overarching structure—a structure that may lend to a better understanding of the Psalms.