AND THE SHAPE OF HUMAN HAPPINESS
J. CLINTON MCCANN, JR.
One of the few things that Psalms scholars of all backgrounds and methodological persuasions seem to agree upon is that Psalm 1 was placed intentionally at the beginning of the collection as a preface or introduction.1 Of course, the next question is “Why?” or “What is the intended effect of Psalm 1?” And at this point, the consensus collapses. We need not review all the options. Suffice it to say that for the purposes of this essay, I assume that James L. Mays' conclusion is a sound one; and I shall take his conclusion as a starting point for the following investigation. Mays states concerning Psalm 1, and more specifically concerning the beatitude that begins Psalm 1:
This opening beatitude … serves as an introduction to the book. Its loca-
tion as the first psalm is not accidental; the psalm is there to invite us to
read and use the entire book as a guide to a blessed life.2
In other words, in some sense at least, all the rest of the Psalms are about what constitutes blessedness or happiness. This being the case, it makes sense that subsequent beatitudes would play a crucial role in the book of Psalms. Thus, it also makes good sense to investigate whether those subsequent beatitudes serve any discernable role either in the shaping of the Psalter, or parts thereof, or in communicating what may be the, or at least, a fundamental message of the book.
Such is the primary purpose of this essay. There are seven more beatitudes in Book I and seventeen more in Books II-V: that is, a total of 25, just over three times more than in the book of Proverbs (see Table 1). I shall begin with and focus primarily on Book I but shall extend the investigation briefly to Books II-V. I shall conclude with a consideration of how the Psalter's message about the shape of human
1 For a recent review of contemporary Psalms study, see David M. Howard,
Jr., “Recent Trends in Psalms Study,” in D. W. Baker and B. T. Arnold (eds.), The
Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1999) 329-68.
2 James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching
and Preaching; Louisville: John Knox, 1994) 40.