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On-line version ISSN 2305-445X
Print version ISSN 0254-1807

Scriptura vol.116  Stellenbosch  2017 



Psalm 132 and its compositional context(s)



Dirk J. Human

University of Pretoria




Psalm 132 can be interpreted from various compositional contexts. In every new compositional context different nuances add value to the significance of the text. Psalm 132 can be interpreted as a single psalm, and as part of the Sire Hama 'alót psalms in smaller (130-134) or larger (120-134) collections. Finally the psalm can be understood as part of the theology and coherence of Book V (107-150) of the Psalter. The combination of Psalmen- and Psalterexegese therefore does not exclude each other, but they function complementarily. Both enrich the exegetical process and together they unveil the multiple theological perspectives connected to the different compositional contexts of a psalm.

Key words: Psalm 132; Pilgrimage Songs; David/Davidic; Sirê Hama 'alót; Compositional Context; Literary Context




'Complex, dramatic and well-crafted' seems to be an appropriate description for this most unusual psalm among the fifteen Pilgrimage songs (Ps. 120-134). Among these short and concise Sirê Hama'alót poems (Ps. 120-134), Psalm 132 distinguishes itself as the longest and densest reflective theological text.

The connection between the Davidic dynasty and its everlasting kingship with traditions of the Ark of the Covenant, Zion and the royal ideology belongs to the psalm's most prominent theological features.

1In addition, in a dramatic way the poem reflects several changing and alternating voices of different cultic participants when enacted in a liturgy or other festive ritual. Focus is placed foremost on Zion and the temple as spaces of God's presence. With a twofold structure and interplay between earthly and heavenly oaths the psalm grasps its participants and guides them with a didactic aim towards communion with and trust in Yahweh.

Like other poems from the Pilgrimage songs (Ps. 120-134) Ps. 132 most probably ori-ginnated and functioned in its first phases of development as a single text. Gradually it became part of the so-called Sirê Hama'alót psalms (Ps. 120-134), which can be subdivided and arranged into smaller sections. To understand Ps. 132 in its different compositional context(s) therefore means that the exegete should engage with both Psalmenexgese and Psalterexegese. This psalm can thus be interpreted and exposed, first as a single text; then as a concatenated or related text with a smaller group of songs within the group of Pilgrimage songs; furthermore it has taken up its literary place (Sitz in der Literatur) within the Sirê Hama 'alót collection as a whole, which ultimately forms part of Book V of the Psalter (Ps. 107-150).

To provide a few perspectives on Ps. 132 in its varied compositional contexts a short interpretative outline on the following text group(s) renders different nuances: Book V (107-150); the Sirê Hama 'alót psalms 120-134 (130-134); and Ps. 132 as a single text.


Book V - Psalms 107-150

Book V is the most extensive section of the five-part divisions in the Psalter. Several scholars have contributed to contemplating the composition and theological perspectives of Book V of the Psalter (Ps. 107-150).2 Despite a variety of compositional possibilities a few theological characteristics of this section in the Psalter are evident.

With the final doxology (146-150), the Egyptian Hallel (113-118), some hymnic twin psalms (111-112; 135-136) and numerous Hallelujah exclamations, Book V portrays a strong hymnic character3The liturgical collections 113-118 and 120-134 bound by Psalm 119 underscore how the central part of Book V is liturgically orientated towards the annual festivals, namely Pesah (113-118), Sabüot (119) and Sükkot (120-134). In this sequence of celebrations the salvation-historical stations of the Egyptian exodus, the Torah at Sinai and the arrival in Jerusalem at Zion are commemorated theologically.

With an inclusion Book V is framed by hymnic praise and wisdom perspectives (107:42-3; 145:19-21): Yahweh's universal reign and providence for all creation are hailed. A challenge to all creation and creatures follows this praise of the gracious and loving Yahweh: the wise should react with insight to Yahweh and his deeds. The final Hallel (Ps. 146-150) is a crescendo that perpetuates the theme of praising Yahweh, by the individual (146), by the community (147) and by the whole of creation (148, 150).4 In addition to the outside frame, an inside frame puts the emphasis on David (Ps. 108-110; 111-112 and 138-144).5 With a concluding wisdom perspective this people of Yahweh is blessed (Ps. 144:15). Without doubt the theology of Book V is embedded in a universal perspective or awareness, which includes all creation and creatures (145:10; 150:6).6

In radical contrast to the lifeless idols (115) Yahweh is portrayed in Book V as Creator, Saviour, Deliverer, Provider and the One who is omnipresent. The fate and circumstances of human beings is sketched in antithetic fashion. Apart from descriptions of their righteousness and love (112; 133), fidelity to the Torah (119), praise and trust, as well as pure, unqualified faith (131), people are also depicted with their sufferings and distress (107, 108, 116, 123, 129, 137, 138), experiences of injustice (109, 120, 137:7-8, 139:19-24, 140-142, 149), or sinfulness and need for forgiveness (130. 143).7

Both Books IV and V of the Psalter compensate for the shattered hope caused by the Babylonian exile, by focusing on God's reign over all powers of destruction and on the importance of righteous conduct in the present.8 Book V as literary unit offers a meditative pilgrimage through the Israelite history where the afflicted servant of Yahweh travels from a position of distress in the exile through the (second) exodus, guided by careful instruction of the Sinai Torah on the way to Zion. At mount Zion Yahweh is actively present as universal King.9 There He waits to bless the god-fearing pilgrim who praises him in the company of the whole of creation, as his wise servant.10


SirëHama'alot collection (Pss. 120-134)

Psalm research accepts the so-called Sirë Hama'alot (120-134) collection as a "single, interrelated collection" for special use in the post-exilic Israelite community.11 Like the Egyptian Hallel (113-118) the Sirê Hama'alot psalms are thought to be composed as a liturgy or its composition is considered to have been inspired by a liturgy.12 The single psalms probably had their own origins and development, but they grew into a unit with its own profile mainly during the Second Temple period.13

The collection reflects an artistic literary composition, consisting of three parts with five psalms each: 120-124, 125-129, 130-134.14 Each part contributes to the coherent theological concept of a royal and Zion theology, in which Zion is celebrated as place of blessing and salvation. Emphases on Jerusalem (122), the temple (127) and David (132) are evident. Zion draws focal attention, since this collection reflects a pilgrimage from their position in exile (120) to Zion, place of Yahweh's election. Zion is His abode where He is present and from where His blessings emanate (134).15

Three theological concepts arise from the focus on Zion in the Pilgrimage songs: firstly Yahweh's blessing that goes out from Zion, secondly Yahweh who is at work on Zion and thirdly Zion as a paradigm of trust.16 Furthermore, the spatial story of the Sirë Hama'alót moves from a 'place' of distress and danger 'below' and ascends to somewhere 'above' to be close to Yahweh on Zion in order to experience life, wholeness, peace, protection and blessedness.17

The hymnic twin Psalms 135-136 were probably a redactional addition to the existing collection and can be read as response to Psalm 134, which proclaims a call to praise Yahweh. These two psalms conclude the group of psalms starting from Ps. 120-136 and express the praise for Yahweh on Zion as universal king.18 As a later postscript to this collection (120-136), Psalm 137 sets the context of the (Babylonian) 'exile' on which the Sirê Hama 'alót psalms find special reflection.

In Book V reflection on the Israelite history commences with Israel's pilgrimage starting at the Egyptian exodus (113-118); then they sojourn at Sinai to receive the Torah (119) after which they arrive at Zion (120-134), where Yahweh is hailed as world ruler and king (135-136). Yahweh's deeds of redemption and deliverance as well as His covenant promises throughout the Israelite history function to revive hope for the future, especially in distressful and life-endangering (post-exilic) contexts where life is threatened by danger and death.

The final redactional composition of the Sirë Hama 'alót psalms as a unit represents a specific Sitz in der Literatur, most probably during the post-exilic period. The origin, development and clustering of every individual psalm into smaller groups. presuppose a variety of different historical Sitze im Leben behind every psalm. But, apart from this history of text development and growth the incorporation of this liturgical unit into the larger corpus of texts, such as the Egyptian Hallel (113-118), the Torah psalm (119), and the liturgical frame (111-112; 135-136) gives Book V a 'post-cultic' character.19

In very late post-exilic times, when it was impossible for every person to pay a visit to the Jerusalem temple, Yahweh-believers undertook a 'meditative pilgrimage' through their salvation history by means of reading or contemplating the Sirê Hama 'alót psalms. This meditation or reading of these songs (or Book V at large) substituted the real physical pilgrimage experience, and was replacing it with a 'meditative' pilgrimage. 20

A variety of means contribute to the multiple perspectives which determine the significance and meaning of every single psalm. This includes the heading of the Psalter (Thillim), where every psalm can be interpreted as a hymn (or song of praise); or with the five-part division of the Psalter, where every psalm can be understood as part of the Torah of David.21 Apart from these factors which determine the psalms' significance, there are also various world(s) behind a single psalm, which determine its meaning. This includes the multiple historical context(s) of the single text as well as the larger collections to which it belongs. The challenge is now set to provide some perspectives on the different literary contexts of Ps. 132. The psalm represents the first compositional context as a single text.


Psalm 132


Due to its length, theme and content Ps. 132 is an unusual, complex poem among the corpus of Sirê Hama 'alót psalms. The Hebrew text of the song is intelligible and needs no major text-critical emendation or alterations.

The psalm is artistically well-composed and comprises a variety of style figures, which includes inter alia inclusion (David - 1, 10; Mighty One of Jacob - 2, 5), parallelism (2), ballast variant (4), hendiadys (12), repetition, chiasm (1b, 10), anacrusis (6), ellipsis (4), synecdoche (7 rgl for Yahweh), delayed identification (ark in 7-8), semantic sonant chiasm22 (3-4, 15-16), antithetic parallelism (18). Ten words (eg. oath, anointed one, turn away, sit, throne, priests, faithful, son) occur twice in the poem, while two words (clothe -9, 16, 18; shout for joy - 9, 16 [twice]) occur three times. The name of David appears four times at strategic locations in the text (1, 10, 11, 17) and has strategic significance. Seven times the temple is depicted with synonymous terms. Unusual phrases similarly appear and include 'abirja'akob (2, 5), senat (4), zo (12a) and poh (14).

The text and translation read as follows:

Text and Translation




The poem mirrors a two-fold structure. This structure is determined by the two oaths described in it, namely the oath of David (1b-10) and the oath of Yahweh (11-18). A structural analysis reveals how these two parts correspond in a symmetrical way with each other.23 A form of dialogue is apparent between these two textual parts. The two Yahweh oracles in the second part (11-12; 13-18) seem to provide a response and answer to the plea that Yahweh should 'remember' David, and not turn the face of his anointed one away (1, 10). In its large frame Ps. 132 thus confirms that the election of the Davidic dynasty (11-18) is the direct result of David's establishment of the ark-cult in Jerusalem (1-10).24 The two divine oracles provide promises of everlasting descendants on the throne, active reign and prosperous blessings from Zion for the community, the cultic officials and the Davidic dynasty.

The two stanzas (1-10; 11-18) can be divided into four strophes, namely A (2-5); B (69); C (11-12) and D (13-18).

In the first stanza (1-10) Psalm 132 commences with an opening prayer for David (1b), which introduces David's vow (2-5), followed by the self-presentation of a follower (we) group (6-7) and a communal prayer (8-9). The stanza concludes again with a prayer for David (10).

Verses 1b and 10 provide a frame for the first stanza with an inclusion by means of a prayer for David. Not only the name 'David', but also the chiastic-patterned-petition25characterizes the first and last verse lines of this stanza. Yahweh is requested to 'remember' David and not to 'turn away the face of your anointed one' (10b). Both phrases remind of the language of lament. Descriptions like the 'hardships' (1b) or 'his burden' which David endured as well as the notion of 'his enemies' (18), all contribute to a possible scenario where it seems as if this 'David' and his followers experienced hardship and affliction. To 'remember' means not only 'to recall' specific positive deeds, but it expresses an urge for Yahweh to intervene in a situation of distress (Ps. 25:6ff; 74:2, 18, 20; 89:48, 51; 137:7 ea).

Nonetheless, David made a vow to the 'Mighty One of Jacob' (Gn. 49:24; Is 49:26; 60:16). This patriarchal divine title 'Mighty One of Jacob' not only creates an inclusion for the strophe (2-5), but it confirms that the God of the patriarchs and the God whom David addresses, is the same deity, namely Yahweh. In the first person David undertakes that he will neither go into his tent home, nor go up to his couch bed, and not allow his eyes sleep and his eyelids slumber (Prov. 6:4), until he has found a place/habitation for Yahweh, i.e. a permanent dwelling place for the ark of Yahweh.

Verses 2-5 portray an imaginative, poetic picture of events which are also described in 2 Samuel 6-7. The relationship between these two texts shows a disparate character with significant differences between them.26 These differences underscore the own theological emphases of the poet of Ps. 132, namely to depict the relationship between the establishment of the cult in Zion and the election of the Davidic dynasty.

Verse 6 introduces the second strophe with an anacrusis, while the first person singular speaker (2-5) simultaneously changes to the first person plural (6-7). These latter verses allude to historical narratives, where the ark was returned from Philistine territory to Kirjat Je'arim (1 Sm 6-7:1) and later taken to Jerusalem (2 Sm 6:1-19). Here a group of Davidic followers initiated a 'we' discourse and processional chant. In a cultic enactment of the poem these voices would probably have been dramatized by a choir.27 This servant-group relates strongly with events that connected them to Ephrathah28 and the fields of Jaar.29 But, the description of the object they 'heard of and 'found' in these two locations is oblique and t