The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception

By Peter W. Flint; Patrick D. Miller Jr. | Go to book overview
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PSALMS AND THE LITERATURE OF EXILE:
PSALMS 137,44, 69, AND 78

ADELE BERLIN

The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylonia left its mark on much of biblical literature, including the book of Psalms. Indeed, the extent to which these events figure in the psalms is rarely appreciated. It is not only a question of dating psalms to the postdestruction period, the period increasingly favored by scholars for the dating of much of biblical literature, but of the importance of the theme of destruction and exile in many of the psalms. In this essay I will consider four psalms whose main theme relates to the fall of Jerusalem or to the exilic condition. Each presents a different “take” on the theme; each approaches the theme from a different perspective, with a different goal in mind. They all address the problem of exile in stereotypical language and style, and they share certain theological assumptions; yet each has its own thesis, its own particular concern about an aspect of the exilic experience.

The first psalm to be discussed, Psalm 137, has long been recognized as a lament for Jerusalem. I will focus on what it says about the phenomenon of lamenting Jerusalem, which is part of the larger question of worshipping God in exile. “Exile” does not necessarily mean living outside of the former Kingdom of Judah. People living in the Land of Israel after 538 BCE also felt that they were in exile as long as the Temple was not rebuilt and even afterwards, as long as they were under the rule of a foreign power. Exile is not only a geographic place, it is a religious state of mind.

The other psalms, 44, 69, and 78, have, in my view, been misunderstood wholly or in part, even by those who date them to the exilic or postexilic period so I will endeavor to show how they relate to the literature of exile. Psalm 44 is an argument for why the exile should come to an end. Psalm 69 presents the perspective of a mourner for Zion. Psalm 78, not usually considered under the rubric of exile, presents its interpretation of history as a proof that the Temple will be rebuilt and the Davidic line will continue.

Other psalms besides the four I have singled out invoke the theme of destruction and exile or its permutations, including the hope for the restoration of Zion or the return of the exiles, or an acknowledgement

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