The Psalms in Israel's Worship - Vol. 1

By Sigmund Mowinckel; D. R. Ap-Thomas | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
The Method of the Cultic Interpretation

1

It follows from what has been said in Chap. I that a cultic interpretation -- and a real understanding -- of the psalms means setting each one of them in relation to the definite cultic act -- or the cultic acts -- to which it belonged.

All scientific research demands a proper arrangement of material, a classifying and a grouping, so that the things which belong together may be seen in their mutual connexions and illuminate one another. But the principles and criteria of classification must be derived from the material itself, not from disparate fields or modern interests and points of view. Not seldom the 'catchwords' for classification have been taken from the loci of Christian dogmatics, e.g. from the different divine attributes. But the ancient Israelites did not shape their thoughts to the pattern of Christian dogmas and morals. Nor can a classification according to the religious ideas represented in the different psalms be considered satisfactory: we cannot be sure that the idea which to us seems most prominent was so for the poet. It is quite unsystematic to group together 'nature psalms', 'creation psalms', 'psalms on the majesty of God', with 'prayer psalms' 'thanksgiving psalms', 'penitential psalms', etc. 1 The creation and the majesty of God, etc., may well be mentioned both in a 'prayer psalm' and a 'thanksgiving psalm'; the question is: why, and with what aim? There is no psalm which does not accept God's majesty and his power to intervene everywhere and all the time, or which does not acknowledge him as creator; the question is: why does, e.g., this special psalm speak at greater length and in more detail about creation than is usual in the psalms? It is misleading to speak of a 'nature psalm', because 'Nature' - this modern conception -- plays no independent part in the psalms at all, but only occurs as an example of God's creative work. But why do certain psalms call 'heaven and earth, mountains and oceans, trees and fields, beasts and birds', etc., to praise the Lord, whilst the regular call to praise in the psalms is directed to the congregation of Israel, or the like?

All this modern grouping only leads us to ask the poets about things which interest us, but to which they often have no answer; instead of trying to see things from their point of view, and asking what is in their mind, e.g. when they appeal to God's omniscience, or call upon nature to praise

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1
See Additional Note III.

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