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LAW AND RITUAL IN THE PSALMS
J. M. POWIS SMITH
University of Chicago
The Psalter, being a hymnbook, is representative of the thought and feeling of
the common people of Judaism. The legal priestly elements were the permanent
features of Judaism; prophecy was transitory. The Psalter developed under strongly
Babylonian influence amid a rich expression of ritualistic religion and was profoundly
affected thereby. The Psalms show that the people who wrote and sang them loved
the law and the temple ritual. The Psalms were written in large part for use in
connection with sacrifice; they were a rhythmization of ritual. This love for ritual
did not exclude genuine piety, but intensified it. It is the mystical and spiritual
tone of the Psalms that commends them to modern minds. The original makers and
singers of these songs cannot have had a merely materialistic or formal type of religion.
It is a common charge that the Judaism of the postexilic
age was a mechanical, formal, and unspiritual type of religion.
It is supposed that true religion died with the prophets and
was buried with them, not to come to life again till the appear-
ance of John the Baptist and Jesus. The picture of the
Pharisees presented in the Gospels is carried back through the
centuries and made to do service as a description of postexilic
religion. Critical scholarship, however, has discovered the
injustice of this interpretation and has sought to reinstate
early Judaism in its proper place. From this point of view
the present article proceeds.
The Psalter is appropriately called "The Hymn Book of
the Second Temple." This covers the fact that most of the
Psalms were written in exilic and postexilic times and the
further fact that they were sung by the choirs of the temple
for the edification of the worshiping multitudes. It is a well-
known fact that hymn books are not available as instruments
of publicity for new ideas. They must meet the demands of
the masses who use them. We do not find in them our best
poetry, our best thought, nor our purest ethics as a rule.
LAW AND RITUAL IN THE PSALMS 59
The hymn book rather presents the point of view of the
average man than that of the genius or the saint. The
Psalter was not exempt from this requirement and as a matter
of fact when compared in any one of these aspects with certain
other portions of the Old Testament it must take second place.
The problem of suffering is thought out far more thoroughly
in Job than in the Psalter. The idea of a worthful life after
death finds no sure expression in the Psalter. These spheres
of thought were too new and unfamiliar to find place in this
book of hymns. Consequently when we read the Psalms we
are following the mind of the masses, or at least of the great
middle class, and not that of the pioneers of religion and
ethics. 1 The ritual of a religion is always one of its most
conservative elements and law is never radical. The Psalter
was a part of the ritual and makes its attitude to law indisput-
ably clear. Hence in studying its testimony as to the religious
value of law and ritual, we shall be getting close to the heart
of the religion of the psalmists.
The prophets have captured the imagination and interest
of modern interpreters of the Old Testament. Indeed, one
of the greatest achievements of modern historical interpreta-
tion is the fact that it has brought out the significance and
value of prophecy in such a way as to have made the prophet
the religious hero of the Hebrew people. This is a recognition
of his real worth that has been long due the prophet. But,
while granting the prophet his full rights and extending to
him our heart-felt gratitude for his contribution to human
welfare, we must not make the mistake of minimizing the
work or value of other religious agencies in Israel. After
all, prophecy was only a temporary phenomenon in Hebrew
life. The whole period covered by the prophetic movement
was but about six hundred years, and the classical and crea-
tive portion of that period includes only about three hundred
years. The priest, however, with his law and ceremonial,
1 See chapter i of my forthcoming Religion of the Psalms.
60 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
was on the stage of life from the very beginning to the very
end. He preceded the prophet and he outlived him. Proph-
ecy was a transient ebullition of the religious spirit in Israel;
law and ritual were a permanent and steady current in that
life. Not only so, but the appeal of the prophet found its
effective response only in the hearts and minds of a compara-
tively small number of people, the idealists of the day; the
work of the priest was familiar to and appreciated by the
masses of the nation as a whole. The priest with his ritual
spoke a language that was "understanded of the people."
Furthermore, the preservation of the religious and ethical
values wrought out in Hebrew experience, whether they were
the product of priest or prophet, was due in the last resort to
the preservative and solidifying labors of the priest and his
law. It was in defense of the right to live according to the
law that the Maccabean patriots fought and died. It was
loyalty to the law and its institutions that held Judaism
together and kept it from surrendering to either the blandish-
ments or the threats of paganism.
As prophecy diminished in vitality and finally was trans-
formed into apocalypticism, law and ritual took on new life
and came into a controlling place in the religious thought and
daily routine of Judaism. This expansion, intensification, and
purification of the legal and ritual life began among the
Babylonian exiles and to the last found its chief supporters
and promoters in the Babylonian community. Ezekiel's
idealistic and imaginary code (Ezekiel, chaps. 40-48) certainly
was inspired by the Babylonian environment and experience
of his people, and it is probable that the Holiness Code
(Leviticus, chaps. 17-26, etc.) is a Babylonian revision of
older legislation. The Jewish tradition itself connects the
later stage of the legal development represented by Ezra's law
with the Babylonian Jews. This increased activity in the
realm of law and ritual was due to two main influences. On
the one hand, the experiences of exile bit deeply into the soul
LAW AND RITUAL IN TEE PSALMS 61
of Israel. The only possible religious explanation that the
exiles could understand was that Yahweh was angry with them
for their sins. Hence it was inevitable that they should try
to propitiate him and make their life conform to his will.
The revision of the ritual and the law in such a way as to
embody in them much of the teaching of the great prophets
was one of these means of propitiation or atonement. The
plan of it all was to guard every avenue of approach to Jewish
life and the expressions of that life in such a way as to ward off
the entrance of sin into the community. If the people of
Yahweh could but be kept from evil, the blessing of prosperity
and restoration must assuredly rest upon them. Hence the
imposition upon themselves of a mass of detailed legislation
that to less zealous people would have been crushing. There
is no more pathetic movement in history than this effort of
Judaism to commend itself to its God by its works. On the
other hand, the Jews in Babylonia were in constant contact
with the rituals of the various Babylonian temples. These
temples had at their disposal a body of priests and a fund of
wealth that was wholly beyond the reach of the poverty-
stricken peasants of hilly Judah. Nevertheless, the exiles
learned much from it and were inspired to greater effort by
the sight of it. As suggestive of the extent of Babylonian
influence upon Hebrew ritual, we may cite two facts out of
the abundance. We read in Ezek. 8:14 that the women
of Jerusalem in his day were in the habit of "weeping for
Tammuz." This is evidence that the old Sumero-Babylonian
festival of Tammuz had found recognition in Israel, at least
in the religious life of the populace. Again, the Babylonian
New Year's festival was closely copied by the Jews. Speak-
ing of this feast, Professor Jastrow says,
The festival lasted for eleven days, and on the concluding day, as it
would appear, the fates decreed by the gods were definitely sealed. A
special interest attaches to this New Year's festival, because it served
as the pattern for both the New Year and the Day of Atonement of
62 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
the Jews. The popular Jewish tradition represents God as sitting in
judgment during the first ten days of the year, surrounded by his court
of angels, who inscribe in the book of fate the names of all persons with
what is to be their destiny for the coming year. To this day the New
Year's greeting among Jews is, "May you be inscribed for a good year."
The nine days intervening between the New Year's Day and the Day
of Atonement are days of probation, but at the close of the tenth day
the book of fate for the year is sealed, and the wish of this day there-
fore is, "May you be sealed for a good year." 1
The Jewish Psalter was developing amidst all this Babylo-
nian influence, not merely in the days of the Exile proper, but
for long afterward. Indeed it is altogether probable that
Babylonian hymnology, which was extensively developed and
was not in its higher reaches wholly unworthy of comparison
with the best Hebrew psalms, was not without its direct
influence upon the origin and growth of the Hebrew Psalter.
Under these circumstances it is clear that the Jewish interest
in law and ritual was greatly stimulated and influenced
by Babylonian institutions and practices. The Psalter cannot
have escaped this influence and having arisen in a ritualistic
and legalistic age must reflect the cultural and spiritual forces
that played upon the minds and hearts of its authors.
When we turn to the reading of the Psalms in order to dis-
cover their attitude toward law and ritual, our attention is
arrested by the fact that there is apparently little of that
sort of thing present. By actual count, there are less than
twenty psalms that concern themselves directly with those
subjects, and in some of these the reference is confined to a
verse or two and is little more than incidental. 2 Not only so,
but in some of the psalms, ritual in particular is either directly
1 M. Jastrow, Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria
(1911), pp. 341 f.
2 Of course, it will be noted that this may be due to the lyrical character of the
poetry which concerns itself rather with spirit and sentiment than with concrete facts
and institutions. The hymnals of the Catholic and Anglican churches are not marked
by excessive reference to ritual.
LAW AND RITUAL IN THE PSALMS 63
or indirectly made apparently subordinate to ethical and
spiritual interests. For example, Ps. 24:3-5:
Who shall go up into the hill of Yahweh ?
And who shall stand in His holy place ?
He that has clean hands and a pure heart;
Who has not taken My name in vain,
And has not sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive a blessing from Yahweh,
And vindication from the God of his salvation.
And again, Ps. 51:16, 17:
For thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it;
Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.
Such utterances as these show the influence upon the psalmists
of the prophets' attitude toward ritual and their interpreta-
tion of religion. But the priest and the lawmaker are like-
wise represented in the Psalms. Some of the psalms reflect
an ardent love for the law and its ritual. Hear the psalmist
utter his appreciation of the temple and its worship in Ps. 122:
I was glad when they said to me,
"Let us go up to the house of Yahweh."
Our feet are standing
In thy gates, O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem that is built like a city
Which is compact together,
Whither the tribes go up,
The tribes of Yah,
A testimony for Israel,
To praise the name of Yahweh.
For there are set thrones of judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.
Send greetings to Jerusalem.
May they prosper that love thee.
Peace be within thy rampart,
64 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
And prosperity within thy palaces.
For the sake of my brethren and my friends,
I will say, Peace be unto thee!
For the sake of the house of Yahweh, our God,
I will seek thy good.
But the outstanding effort in commendation and praise of the
law is the long 119th Psalm. In almost every one of its 176
verses some word connoting the law appears. One section
will be sufficient to illustrate its spirit and attitude:
Oh, how I love Thy law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Thy commandment makes me wiser than my foes,
For it is forever mine.
I am wiser than all my teachers,
For Thy testimony is my meditation.
I have better understanding than the elders,
For I have kept Thy precepts.
I have restrained my feet from every wicked way,
That I might observe Thy word.
From Thy judgments I have not strayed,
For Thou hast taught me.
How sweet to my palate are Thy words,
Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth.
From Thy precepts I get discernment;
Therefore I hate every false way [119:97-104].
If such words as these mean anything, it is that the writers
of such psalms as these and the people who treasured such
utterances did not find the requirements of the law and its
ritual an intolerable burden. It was not to their minds a
necessary means to a more desirable and important end. It
was distinctly an end in itself that was of incommensurable
value. These men delighted in the law of Yahweh; they
sought to keep it with the whole heart; they rejoiced in the
testimonies of Yahweh "as much as in all riches."
Even though princes sit and talk to me,
Thy servant doth meditate in Thy statutes.
LAW AND RITUAL IN THE PSALMS 65
In view of the devotion to the law and ritual so strongly
manifested in a few psalms, we are justified in entertaining an
expectation that further search will discover other evidence
of legalistic or ritualistic interest in the Psalter. A very-
illuminating type of evidence is that furnished by the vocabu-
lary and phraseology of the Psalms. It is very significant that
much of this reveals the closest familiarity with the ritualistic
usage. The language of the Psalter is full of terminology
derived from the law and the temple ceremony. The Psalms
are saturated with consciousness of the ritual and unconsciously
reflect a sincere devotion to the law and all its requirements.
The mind of the psalmist is constantly turning toward Jerusa-
lem and his longing is ever for the holy temple. The terms
"Zion," "Jerusalem," "holy mountain," and "city of God"
occur about sixty times in the Psalter, and references to the
temple, sanctuary, house of God, and the like, appear an equal
number of times. When to these allusions there are added the
many occurrences of "law," "statute," "ordinances," "sacri-
fices," "congregation," "drink-offering," "incense," "vows,"
"fasting," "musical instruments," "clean," "altar," "priest,"
"anointing oil," and the like, it becomes certain that the
writers of the Psalms lived and moved and had their being
in a ritualistic environment to which they responded with
their whole soul. They speak of these things not as indifferent
or hostile observers, but rather as enthusiastic and devoted
The relation of the Psalter to the ritual was closer even
than may be inferred from the fact that the psalmists were
devoted adherents and admirers of the temple and its ritual.
In II Chron. 29:25 ff. we find a narrative regarding certain
sacrifices offered by King Hezekiah which is, in any case,
adequate testimony as to the nature of the sacrificial worship
in the chronicler's own day, i.e., about the third century, b.c.
That narrative is so informing regarding the use of the Psalms
in the temple ritual that we give it in full:
66 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
And he [i.e. Hezekiah] set the Levites in the house of Yahweh with
cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the command-
ment of David, and of Gad the King's seer, and of Nathan the prophet,
for through Yahweh was the commandment through his prophets.
And the Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests
with the trumpets. And Hezekiah commanded to offer the burnt-
offering upon the altar. And when the burnt-offering began, the song
of Yahweh began also, and the trumpets, together with the instruments
of David, King of Israel. And all the congregation worshipped, and
the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this until the burnt-
offering was finished. And when they had made an end of offering, the
King and all that were present with him bowed down and worshipped.
Moreover Hezekiah the King and the princes commanded the Levites
to sing praises to Yahweh with the words of David, and of Asaph the
seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads
This passage shows that the singing of the Psalms to
the accompaniment of instrumental music was carried on
simultaneously with the offering of the sacrifices. 1
This was a musical rhytbmization of the acts of the ritual,
even as the musical parts of the mass in the Roman Catholic
ritual serve to rhythmize tne ritualistic acts. This intimate
relation of the Psalms to the ritual is reflected in the text of
some of them. In Ps. 26:6, 7 we read:
I will wash my hands in innocency,
And will encompass Thine altar, O Yahweh,
That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving,
And recount all Thy wondrous works.
This plainly associates the singing of Yahweh's praises
with the ceremonies at the altar. In Ps. 27:6 the poet
associates sacrifice with music:
I will offer in His tabernacle sacrifices with trumpet sound,
I will sing, and praise Yahweh in song.
1 The Mishna, Tamid, VII, 3, likewise tells us that the libation of wine at the
altar was accompanied by music and the Songs of the Levites.
LAW AND RITUAL IN THE PSALMS 67
The law itself calls for a musical accompaniment to the
act of sacrifice. Witness Num. 10: 10:
Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and
in your new moons, ye shall blow with trumpets over your burnt-
offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall
be to you for a memorial before your God.
Again in Ps. 43:4 the same association of ideas appears:
Then will I go unto the altar of God,
And praise Thee upon the harp.
Also in Ps. 107:22:
Offer the sacrifices of thanksgiving,
And declare His works with song.
The poet of Ps. 68:24 ff- describes the processions of singers
and worshipers in the temple:
They saw Thy goings, O God,
The goings of my God, my King, in the sanctuary.
Before went the singers; behind, players on stringed instruments,
In the midst of damsels playing upon timbrels.
Bless ye God in full assemblies,
Even Yahweh, ye that are from the fountain of Israel.
Possibly Ps. 118:27 refers to similar processional features of
Deck the festal procession with branches,
Even to the horns of the altar. 1
Such facts as these show that the original use of the Psalms
was largely in the interests of ritual and that they are to be
thought of as to a great extent lyrical interpretations of the
acts of worship. The evidence of the superscriptions, later
additions though they are, is to the effect that the Psalms were
sung to musical accompaniments, and some of them are
'The meaning of this verse is very obscure. The English Versions render,
"Bind the sacrifice with cords, etc." But this is contrary to all known practice.
The rendering above follows closely that of the new Jewish translation. The verb
regularly means "bind," but that seems wholly unfitting here.
68 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
definitely assigned to ceremonial functions (e.g., Ps. 30:1;
92 : 1) or are ascribed to priestly authors, to-wit, the sons of
Korah and Asaph. The text of the Psalms themselves makes
references to the use of music and musical instruments in the
worship of Yahweh (Pss. 33:2; 92:4; 144:9). The Psalter
was the expression of the devotional spirit of all the people.
But as we have noted the worship of the common people in
Judah always was inseparably associated with forms and
ceremonies. Indeed, even today a ceremonial appeals power-
fully to the masses of the people and exercises an influence
in the direction of inspiring an attitude of worship that the
ordinary bare and cold worship of Protestant churches fails
to call forth even with the aid of the most eloquent preaching.
It is the priest rather than the prophet that keeps in touch
with the heart of the public.
The practice of ritual is, of course, not inconsistent with
nor hostile to the development of a genuinely spiritual piety.
If ritual be observed with devout mind and with whole heart it
stimulates and intensifies piety; but if regarded as mere form,
it degenerates into mechanism and kills all true piety. The
beauty of the religion of the Psalms lies in the combination
of a sincere and enthusiastic attitude toward ritual with a true
sense of ethical values and spiritual ideals. Such a genuinely
spiritual song as Pss. 42 and 43 gives expression to the long-
ing of the poet's soul in the familiar words:
As the hart panteth after the water brooks,
So panteth my soul after Thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God:
When shall I come and see the face of God ?
And yet this intensely spiritual sentiment is coupled with a
longing for the temple and its ritual:
O send out Thy light and Thy truth, let them lead me;
Let them bring me unto Thy holy hill, and to Thy dwelling place;
Then will I go to the altar of God, unto God, my exceeding joy;
And praise Thee upon the harp, O God, my God.
LAW AND RITUAL IN THE PSALMS 69
The beautiful Shepherd Psalm can think of no higher joy than
that of dwelling "in the house of Yahweh forever." Psalm
15 demands the strictest moral purity as a prerequisite to
entrance into and sojourn in the sanctuary. 1
In most of the great spiritual leaders of mankind there has
been a marked mystical strain. In relatively modern times
it is noteworthy how many genuine "saints" have appeared
in highly ritualistic communions. The Roman Catholic church
and the Anglican church, particularly in the High Church sec-
tion, have been distinguished by the number of mystics they
have included. Ritual lends itself readily to mystical inter-
pretation and easily becomes a handmaid of mystic commun-
ion. It is this mystical element in the religion of the Psalms
that renders their appeal so powerful to the spiritual mind.
In estimating the significance of the Psalms for our under-
standing of Jewish religious life, we must remember not only
that the select spirits of postexilic Israel produced most of the
Psalter, but also, a fact of perhaps even more significance, the
common people of that period appreciated the Psalms and pre-
served them from falling into innocuous desuetude. We
cannot think lightly of a people who treasured such songs
as Psalms 90, 91, and 103 and kept them alive by constant
use. The Judaism of the Psalms was not a dull, formal, and
lifeless ceremony, but an intensely vigorous and profoundly
1 A Greek inscription at Epidauros likewise requires purity of heart and clean
hands of all who enter the temple there. Candidates for initiation into the Eleusinian
mysteries were required to be pure of heart and clean of hands before entering the
assembly of novitiates. Any not so qualifying were expelled. The Emperor Nero
desired admission to the Mysteries but feared to enter the Assembly lest he might be
ejected. After this first test as to moral purity, a ritual purification in the sea was