The Psalms in Israel's Worship - Vol. 1

By Sigmund Mowinckel; D. R. Ap-Thomas | Go to book overview
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National Psalms of Lamentation

Just as the hymn pre-eminently belongs to the great fixed festivals, as an expression of joy and gratitude and praise, so does the national lament or congregational psalm1 belong to the days of humiliation and prayer, which were 'proclaimed' on special occasions of crisis, and might be called the 'casual' or ad hoc cultic festivals.


When war, defeat, imprisonment, epidemics, drought, famine, locusts, and similar public disasters occurred or threatened, 2 a public fast-day would be 'proclaimed'. 3 The whole people, great and small, would assemble at the sanctuary. Through different ceremonies the congregation would consecrate themselves; in particular they had to abstain from certain things during the time of humiliation: food and drink, anointing with oil, sexual intercourse and other manifestations of normal life. Humiliation and mourning imply a state of impurity, because disaster, 'curse' has befallen the soul of the person concerned. People would rend their clothes, smite upon their breasts and hips, cut their skins with knives, shave or pluck off hair and beard, put on sackcloth, put dust and ashes on their heads, roll in the dust, fall on their knees or prostrate themselves on the ground, raise their hands in prayer towards the heavens. 4

The disaster proves that the wrath of Yahweh has been roused because of some sin in the people or their leading men, or at least that Yahweh has not yet roused himself to come to the rescue of his people, now that evil powers or enemies have overtaken them. All these penitential rites, originally intended perhaps for the purpose of averting the disaster or protecting against it, and atoning for and cleansing from impurity, in Yahwism became a token of penitence and 'self-humiliation' before Yahweh in order to temper his wrath and rouse his compassion. Other cultic rites belonging to the fast-day have the same purpose: sacrifices and the 'pouring out of water before Yahweh' (offering of libation), burning

Cf. Gunkel-Begrich, Einl., pp. 177ff.; Widengren, Accad. and Hebr. Pss. of Lamentation; Birkeland, Feinde d. Indiv.
Deut. 9. 18; Josh. 7.6; Jdg. 20.23, 26ff.;1 Sam. 7.6;1 Kgs. 8.33ff.; Jer. 2.27; 14.2; Hos. 7.14; Joel 1.13f.; 2 Chron. 20.9.
qārā 1 Kgs. 21.9, 12; Jer. 36.9; Joel 1.14.
Details about rites of penance and fasting with references to sources, in Gunkel-Begrich, Einl., pp. 117-119.


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