Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Psalms (ca. 900 B.c.)

At the literary height of the Israelite empire, the compiling of 150 psalms (hymns) preserved lyrical praises, war hymns, call and response, antipho- nal doxologies, communal and personal laments, ritual marches and worship processionals of the royal house of Judah, messianic encomia, righteous testimonials, penitential songs and meditations, and thanksgiving anthems sung to the music of flute and string and percussion instruments. Collected by King David (ca. 1037-967 B.c.) and subsequent hymnographers in the style of Hindu collectors of the VEDAS (1700-1400 B.c.), the psalms address the nature of godhood and kingship. Specific lines confirm the monarch's role as guardian of justice and the royal duty to divinity with themes of terror, panic, vengeance, bondage, mercy, majesty, and victory. A theocratic psalm pairs wisdom with godliness as the pillars of rule: “Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:10-11). A similar admonition emphasizes the difference between pagan warriors and the armies of Yahweh: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7).

The psalter, some of which appears in 39 sheets of the DEAD SEA SCROLLS, attests to the expansionism of Israel under god's regent, who reigns in Jerusalem. Psalms 72:8 and 89:25 foresee David's empire spreading to the ends of the earth. As explained by the German theologian Hans- Joachim Kraus, a ruler perches on the juncture of two domains: “The emperor stands at the center of a universal view of the world. He finds himself at the intersection of sacral enthronement and mythical cosmology” (Kraus 1992, 121). A specific assault on Israel in its postempire years occurs in Psalm 74 with the desecration of the cult shrine at Bethel 10 miles from Jerusalem in the Northern Kingdom. During a Persian raid, “They break down the carved wood thereof at once with axes and hammers. They have cast fire into thy sanctuary” (Psalm 74:6-7), an unconscionable defilement of the holy of holies.

The Psalms continue to console, uplift, and encourage readers and to inspire art, drama, cinema, and poetry. Antiphonal readings undergird liturgical music and dance. During the late A.D. second century, the Carthaginian polemist TERTULLIAN cited David's verse in De spectaculis (Of public shows, ca. A.D. 201). He used Psalm 1 as a rebuke against brutal gladiatorial events and as a testimony of Hebrew pacifism, piety, and humility. Lines from the Psalms appear in the films David and Bathsheba (1951), Solomon and Sheba (1959), two versions of A Story of David (1960, 1976), King David (1985), and David (1997).


Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Theology of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Psalms. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986, 819-920.

Saebo, Magne. On the Way to Canon: Creative Tradition History in the Old Testament. New York: Continuum International, 1998.