What is the significance of the sanctuary motif for the shape and overall message of the Book of Psalms?
The Sanctuary and the Introduction to the Psalter
Psalms placed in certain positions within the Psalter take on special importance. This applies particularly to the psalms placed at the beginning and end of the five books of the Psalter. There is wide agreement in modern scholarship that Psalms 1 and 2 function as an introduction to the Psalter and underscore certain key themes that resonate throughout the whole book. These two psalms are intentionally separated from the rest in Book I by not being designated “A Psalm of David,” as the others are (except Psalms 10 and 33). Do Psalms 1 and 2 underscore the sanctuary theme as one of the key themes of the Psalter?
The Sanctuary in Psalm 1
However, Psalm 1:3 seems to point to more than that; it seems to picture the righteous as abiding in the sanctuary. This interpretation is suggested by parallels with several other Old Testament texts, including several other examples in the Psalter, which repeat the motifs of the river and the tree found in Psalm 1 and place them in the sanctuary context.
Parallels between Psalm 1:3 and other related Old Testament texts. Psalm 1:3 displays strong connections with a number of Old Testament texts. Psalm 1:3 and Jeremiah 17:7 and 8 share common wording and imagery: “‘But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit’” (Jer. 17:7, 8, italics supplied).
What is particularly interesting is that the three images in Jeremiah 17:8 are placed in the sanctuary context, in the context of the living waters that are associated with God’s throne in His holy sanctuary: “‘A glorious throne, exalted from the beginning, is the place of our sanctuary. . . . The spring of living water’” (vss. 12, 13).
Interestingly, the tree image in Ezekiel 47:12 is placed in the sanctuary context: “Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.” Ezekiel 40 to 47 focuses on the sanctuary. The river that gives life to everything that it waters, including the fruit trees that grow on the river banks, has its source in the sanctuary (47:1–12).
Additional evidence that Psalm 1 involves the sanctuary scene is the word translated as “streams” in Psalm 1:3, a word selected perhaps because of its presence in various texts where the waters of the holy mountain and its temple are described (Isa. 30:25; Ps. 46:4). Psalm 46:4 depicts the streams that make glad the city of God. In Psalm 65:9, the streams of water signify the Lord’s power experienced on Zion. Isaiah 30:25 and 32:2 associate the term with the waters of paradise. Isaiah 33:20, 21 envisions Zion and Jerusalem as a tent (designating here the sanctuary) that will not be moved and as the place of broad rivers and streams. Psalm 36:7 and 8 relates the sanctuary to the river motif. It speaks of the abundance in God’s house, which includes drinking from God’s river of delight.
Ezekiel 31:3 to 14 may be seen as additional support to the idea that Old Testament writers used the images of trees and the streams of water to describe the righteous in the sanctuary, though it does not display the textual similarities with Psalm 1:3 as Ezekiel 47:12 does. The association of waters with paradise and the sanctuary has wide biblical support (Gen. 2:10–14; 1 Kings 7:23–29, 44; Isa. 8:6, 7).
The image of the righteous being planted in Psalm 1:3 is also found in Exodus 15:17, where the author describes the exodus experience and the beginnings of Israel as the nation, saying, “You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance—the place, O Lord, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established” (italics supplied). The sanctuary is designated here as the place where the righteous are planted.
The imagery of a tree is undoubtedly prominent among sanctuary images. The tree motif lies in the background of the two pillars that flanked the vestibule of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:21; 2 Kings 25:16, 17; 2 Chron. 3:15–17). “The twin pillars of the Solomonic temple, in addition to marking the boundary between the profane and the holy, represented the ‘paradisiacal life‑giving aspect of the sanctuary.’”6 Some objects and walls of the temple were decorated with tree images (Ex. 37:17–22; Eze. 40:16, 22). “Iconographically and architecturally, the temple reflected the garden of God.”7
Creach rightly contends that “the writer of Psalm 1:3 transforms the simile of the tree (as it appears in Jer. 17:8) into a comparison of the righteous to trees planted in the temple precincts” as given in Ezekiel 47:12.8 This conclusion leads to a relevant question: What is the meaning of the inclusion of the sanctuary in Psalm 1?
Parallels between Psalm 1:3 and other related texts in the Psalter. Psalm 52:8 and Psalms 92:12 to 14 speak of the righteous as trees planted in the temple of God. In Psalm 52:8, the righteous one is “like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God.” Contrary to this image of prosperity and security, the wicked ones are destined to be uprooted from the land of the living and destroyed.
The linguistic parallels between Psalms 1 and 92 may be demonstrated in several key examples from each. The key words in Psalm 1:3 used to describe the righteous one as the flourishing tree (“planted, deeply rooted” and “to bear fruit, be fruitful, flourishing”) are used again in Psalm 92:13 to describe the prosperous trees “planted in the house of the Lord,” which “flourish in the courts of our God” (italics supplied). Not only is the destiny of the righteous described with the same terms in Psalms 1 and 92, but also the destiny of the enemies or the wicked ones. The wicked, who are depicted with the same Hebrew term (1:4; 92:8), are destined to perish (1:6; 92:9).
Interestingly, both psalms open with the three actions that characterize the righteous, followed by the same Hebrew preposition that introduces the reasons that the three actions mentioned are performed. In Psalm 1:1 and 2, the righteous one “does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord” (italics supplied). In Psalm 92:1 to 4, the righteous one wants “to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love. . . . For you make me glad by your deeds” (italics supplied). The linguistic parallels between Psalm 1 and 92, which clearly displays the sanctuary scenery, strongly suggest thematic parallels between the two psalms and allow the tree imagery in Psalm 1 to be interpreted as referring to the sanctuary. The fruitful tree imageries are later found in the Psalter in Psalm 128:3 and 144:12, again in the context of blessings coming from Zion.
The development of the image of the tree in the Psalter sheds new light on the tree image in Psalm 1 and contributes to making a stronger connection between this psalm and the sanctuary, and also points to a possible narrative revolving around the sanctuary.
Similar conclusions seem to be implied by the Hebrew word translated as “happy,” which opens Psalm 1:1 and is found at the end of Psalm 2. This Hebrew word is closely related to the verb translated “to walk straight,” and it may point to the way in which a believer seeks happiness, that is, he must come to Zion (65:5; 84:5), where refuge is to be found (2:12; 84:12), and where sins are forgiven (32:1, 2).
The Hebrew word for “happy,” which opens the Psalter (1:1; 2:12), is later missing from the first two books of the Psalms with the exception of the last psalm in each group; it occurs in the psalms that conclude sections I (41:2), III (89:16), and IV (106:3), and finally appears quite often in the last book (eight times). This seems to suggest that the journey toward happiness culminates in the last book of the Psalter, in praises to God in the sanctuary.
The Sanctuary in Psalm 2
The Sanctuary in Psalms 1 and 2 and the Shaping of the Psalter
The themes of the conflict between the wicked and the righteous and of the sanctuary as the firm shelter and place of help that are presented in Psalms 1 and 2 are revisited elsewhere in the Psalms (3:4; 18:6). Jacobson asserts that the confession of the Lord’s faithfulness in Psalms 1 and 2 “led Israel to develop a set of expectations about what the Lord’s fidelity would or ought to look like.”9 The crisis of faith occurs when the world does not seem to be in harmony with what Psalms 1 and 2 claim. Brueggemann explains that because the world of Psalm 1 is not universally true—that obedience is not always rewarded with prosperity—the psalmists face a crisis with only one solution and that is “to depart from the safe world of Psalm 1 and plunge into the middle of the Psalter where one will find a world enraged with suffering.”10
Brueggemann contends that the psalmists’ journey of faith in the Psalter follows a progression from “doubted” to “trusted,” that is, from questioning God’s loving kindness to trusting it fully. He bases his argument on the conviction that “Psalms 1 and 150 provide special framing for the collection” and “assert the issues that should inform one’s reading and singing the Psalms.”11 Brueggemann contends that the entire Psalter lives between the confident boundaries of obedience (Psalm 1) and praise (Psalm 150).
The relationship between Psalms 1 and 2 and Psalms 73 and 74. Psalm 73 resumes and develops the conclusions of the first and second psalm, that the righteous will certainly find blessing from God and the wicked will certainly perish. Furthermore, Psalms 73 and 74 seem to parallel Psalms 1 and 2, as they deal with the problem of understanding of the reversal of what is claimed in Psalms 1 and 2. Psalms 73 and 74 deal with the problem of the prosperity of evil. Though Psalm 73 deals with this as a personal dilemma, as suggested by the use of the first person singular (73:2, 13, 17, 22), Psalm 74 deals with it as a national dilemma, as supported by the use of the plural to denote those in whose name the psalm has been composed (74:1, 4, 8). Psalm 73 demonstrates close parallels with Psalm 1. Psalm 74 seems to be closely related to Psalm 2.
Psalm 73 seems to wonder at the reversal of what is claimed in Psalm 1. Psalm 1 claims that the righteous prosper (vs. 3) and the wicked perish (vss. 4–6). In Psalm 73, however, the psalmist ponders the harsh reality that seems to imply the opposite. The psalmist claims that he saw “the prosperity of the wicked” (vs. 3) and the righteous being pure in vain (vs. 13).
The predominant designation of the wicked in Psalms 1 and 73 is translated as “wicked” (1:1, 4, 5, 6; 73:3, 12). The predominant designation of the wicked in Psalms 2 and 74 is “enemies,” “nations,” “rulers,” and “kings,” terms that can be understood synonymously to depict nations in war against Israel and her king (2:1, 2, 8, 10; 74:3, 10, 18, 22). The clamor of enemies in Psalm 74 seems to echo the uproar of the nations in Psalm 2. Though Psalms 1 and 73 deal with the question of prosperity, Psalms 2 and 74 deal with the nations conspiring (Psalm 2) and finally going to war against the king of Israel (Psalm 74). The parallels between Psalms 2 and 74 are highlighted by the common reference to the king of Israel. In both Psalms 2 and 74, the interest and prosperity of Israel is embodied in the king who dwells on Zion (2:6; 74:12).
Another parallel points further to the reversal of fate in Psalms 2 and 74. Psalm 2 shows how the Lord laughs, scoffs, and rebukes the rebellious nations (vss. 4, 5). In Psalm 74 the enemies mock and revile the Lord’s name (vss. 10, 11, 22). In Psalm 2 the Lord rises up and speaks (vss. 6–9). In Psalm 74, the Lord is mute, and Israel calls to her God to rise and act (vss. 1, 10, 11, 19–22). The parallels between Psalms 2 and 74 require further analysis, but the analysis offered here seems to suffice for the intention of relating the two psalms together.
The sanctuary experience in Psalms 73 and 74. In both Psalms 73 and 74, the sanctuary emerges as the place where the conflict and the solution reach their peak (73:17; 74:3–8). While some take verse 17 to be the turning point in Psalm 73, others rightly see verse 15 as the pivot of the psalm. In verse 15, the psalmist realizes that if he keeps on pointing to the seeming inconsistencies of God’s justice, he would be unfaithful to his people and might cause them to go astray. It is remarkable that it is the psalmist’s sense of belonging to his community of faith that led him closer to God and to the sanctuary, where the genuine transformation took place (vs. 17). What kind of experience in the sanctuary marked the transformation of the psalmist in both psalms?
The New Jerusalem Bible takes the word translated “the sanctuaries of God” in verse 17 to refer to the ruined pagan sanctuaries (because of the plural in Hebrew) and not to the sanctuary in Jerusalem. Thus when the psalmists entered the ruined pagan sanctuaries, they perceived them as a tangible proof of God’s judgment over the wicked. Similarly, Birkeland interprets the phrase to refer to the ruined illegitimate sanctuaries in Israel.12
These interpretations do not seem adequate for at least two reasons. First, the holy places in verse 17 are not described as ruined. Verses 18 and 19 speak of God ruining the wicked rather than their temples. Second, verse 17 pictures the psalmist entering the holy place and receiving a revelation there. In the sanctuary the psalmist gains a new sense of God’s presence: “Yet I am always with you” (vs. 23); “but as for me, it is good to be near God” (vs. 28). It seems very unlikely that the sight of the destroyed pagan or illegitimate Hebrew sanctuaries could have provoked such strong feelings of the closeness of God that are found in the latter part of the psalm. This experience is more aptly related to God’s sanctuary than to ruined pagan temples.
Mays nicely remarks that on entering the sanctuary, the psalmist entered the sphere of the powerful presence of God and “the certainty he was given was not merely belief in the doctrine that the wicked perish; it was more certainty of God as his God.”15 Worship in the temple during the festivals revived the memories of God’s great acts in the past. However, Allen rightly observes that in Psalm 73 “there is a ‘personal’ application of Yahweh’s ancient threat and execution of judgment to the contemporary situation of moral and religious chaos.”16
Psalm 74 seems to mark a significant shift in the Psalter, since it pictures the sanctuary in Jerusalem lying in ruins. Brueggemann rightly asserts that Psalm 74 “does not concern simply a historical invasion and the loss of a building,” but “it speaks about the violation of the sacral key to all reality, the glue that holds the world together.”19
The Significance of the Enthronement Psalms and the Psalms of Ascent
Psalms 73 and 74 open Book III of the Psalter, which engages in the challenge to acknowledge and embrace the negativity that causes disorientation. Book III depicts how “the disoriented psalmists desperately look to reorient their theology by appealing to Temple, land, and Davidic covenant.”20 The psalmists turn to God’s temple with acknowledgment that it is a lovely place, a place of security and blessings (Psalm 84). The psalmists turn to the land, which prospers under God’s blessing (85:12). The psalmists tie their hopes to Zion, the city of God (Psalm 87). They turn to the Davidic king for help (Psalm 89).
Wallace contends that “with an exilic setting providing a hermeneutic lens through which to read the psalm, Psalm 84 becomes an ironic expression of hopelessness and longing.”22 This conclusion about the nature of Psalm 84 can probably be applied to Book III as a whole. The book opens with the scene of injustice (Psalm 73) and the destruction of the temple and the land (Psalm 74), and closes with the failure of the Davidic covenant (Psalm 89).
If the Psalter ended with Book III, no hope would be left for Israel. The new orientation or reorientation of faith, however, begins with Book IV and continues with Book V. It seems remarkable that Books IV and V appear to provide answers to the major concerns that caused disorientation in Book III. The predominant scenes in the opening psalms of Book IV are the scenes of the heavenly sanctuary and the divine King. Psalms 90 to 93 deal with the problem of the destroyed sanctuary and point the believers toward a better sanctuary, the heavenly sanctuary (93:2, 5; 96:6, 9; 99:1, 5, 9). Psalms 93 and 95 to 99 focus on a better king—the divine King. Psalm 94 deals with the land and reassures the believers that the Lord “will never forsake his inheritance” (vs. 14). Further, He will build up Jerusalem (147:2).
By bringing to attention the importance of the two concepts of justice and righteousness for the structure of the Psalter, McCann appears to provide new ways of showing the importance of the sanctuary in the Psalter as these Hebrew roots are among the key terms for sanctuary theology. In Leviticus 19:15 and Deuteronomy 1:16; 4:8; and 16:18, for example, the roots appear together. The sanctuary was designated as the place of divine judgment as indicated by the judgment of Urim (Num. 27:21) and by the breastplate of judgment of the high priest (Ex. 28:15, 29, 30). The cultic decrees are called “righteous judgments” (Deut. 4:8). Accordingly, many psalms depict God as the one who sits enthroned ready to judge the world and relates this imagery closely to the sanctuary (Ps. 9:4, 7, 8, 19; 96:6, 10, 13).
The purpose of the cultic acts was to restore the worshiper’s righteousness as indicated by the name of “sacrifices of righteousness” (Deut. 33:19; Ps. 4:5). Not surprisingly, therefore, McCann finds the two key concepts of God’s justice and righteousness in Psalm 93 and Psalms 95 to 99, which portray God ruling in or from His sanctuary (93:5; 96:6, 9; 99:7, 9).
Mays argues that the enthronement psalms might have been used in some temple festival to celebrate the enthronement of the Lord, but in the final form of the Psalter they function eschatologically. “They no longer refer only to what happened in the cult, but as well as to what was promised in the prophecy.”24
The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120–134) seem to reinforce further the sanctuary motif by inviting the worshipers to ascent to Zion (the sanctuary) and receive the blessing from the Lord, who reigns in Zion (Ps. 128:5). As the Psalter reaches the Songs of Ascents, it seems that the theme of Zion and of the sanctuary is ever‑present from that point to the end of the Psalter. Zion is mentioned in a great number of psalms that follow the Ascent Psalms (135:21; 138:2; 147:12; 150:1). The Psalter seems to lead the worshiper finally to Zion and the time when God will reign from Zion forever (148:10).
The Sanctuary in the Concluding Psalms of the Psalter
The concluding psalms of the Psalter seem to revisit the major concerns expressed by Psalms 1, 2, 73, and 74. The righteous in Psalms 1 and the final psalms of the Psalter engage in similar activities. The righteous in Psalm 1:2 delight in the law of the Lord. The righteous in Psalm 149:2 rejoice in the Lord. Since the righteous in Psalm 1:2 delight in the law of the Lord, the Lord delights in His people in Psalm 149:4. The righteous in Psalm 1:2 meditate on the law of God. The righteous in Psalm 145:5 meditate on God’s wonderful works. The law of God is a prominent part of the identity of the righteous in both Psalm 1 and the final psalms (1:2; 147:19, 20).
The psalmist in Psalm 73:28 acknowledges that “it is good to be near God.” Psalm 145:18 says that “the Lord is near to all who call on him.” Psalm 148:14 depicts Israel as “the people close to [God’s] heart.”
In Psalm 2:6, Zion stands as the unshakable guarantee of the prosperity of Israel. In Psalm 74:3, and 4, Zion lies in ruins as the symbol of the utter destruction of Israel by her enemies. However, Psalm 147:2 expresses new hope in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and of the temple, and reaffirms the promises of Psalm 2:6. The glorious prospects of the king ruling over his enemies from Zion in Psalm 2:6 are severely questioned by the rule of enemies in Psalm 74 verses 4 to 8 and 18 to 23.
However, Psalm 146:10 reaffirms that “The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.” Psalm 149:2 gives hope that the people of Zion will be glad in their king. The Lord is subject to shame in Psalm 74:18–23, but He is exalted forever in Psalms 146 to 150. In Psalm 2:6 and 7, the Lord’s son is honored as the king on Zion. In Psalm 149:2 and 4, the Lord honors the people of Zion.
The introductory psalms (1 and 2), the psalms found in the middle of the Psalter (73 and 74) and the final psalms of the Psalter (145–150) may be brought together by their common concerns for the law of God, the king, Zion and the people of God. The concluding psalms of the Psalter restore the faith in the proclamation of Psalms 1 and 2 and celebrate the victory of the Lord. They invite the worshipers to join the heavens and everything that exists in praising God in his sanctuary. What bridges the secure world of Books I and II, and the renewed praise in Books IV and V after faith was severely challenged in Book III is the scene of the heavenly sanctuary and the divine King who rules in it (Ps. 91–101).
The Psalter closes with the eschatological hope of rebuilt Jerusalem (147:2) and the people triumphantly praising God in His sanctuary (150:1), which is so characteristic of the prophets (Isa. 52:7–10; 54:11–14).The descriptions of the people of Zion rejoicing in their king in Psalm 149:2 and the call for the universal praise in Psalms 146 to 150 strongly resemble similar descriptions of rejoicing and praises in the prophets (Isa. 24:14; 51:11; 65:18).
The development of the sanctuary theme in the discussed pivotal psalms appears to suggest that the sanctuary motif played a significant role in the shaping of the Psalter and hints of a possible narrative movement from abiding in the sanctuary as an ideal in Psalm 1 to the eschatological abiding and praising God in His sanctuary in Psalms 149 and 150. Brueggemann nicely describes the psalmists’ journey of faith by using the “scheme” of orientation-disorientation-new orientation. The journey of faith starts with the season of orientation, characterized by pure yet unchallenged faith in Psalms 1 and 2. The journey then takes the psalmists through the season of disorientation, when faith is challenged by evil and suffering, and finally brings them to new orientation, when transformed and mature faith emerges after trials. At every stage the sanctuary appears to be the place where the victory is accomplished.
The Psalms seem to demonstrate that “the reorientation has both continuities with and discontinuities from what has been.”25 Thus, Israel still hopes that the Lord will build up Jerusalem (147:2, 12–14), but the transformed faith now looks beyond the earthly Jerusalem to the splendor of the Lord above the earth and the heavens (148:13). The shape of the Psalter seems to promote Israel’s faith in the heavenly sanctuary and the divine King.
This emphasis appears to be fully developed in the New Testament, which closes with the scenes of God welcoming the righteous ones into His sanctuary (Rev. 22:1, 2), undoubtedly reminiscent of Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17, and Ezekiel 47. The praise of the righteous ones in Revelation 21:3 seems to echo the praise of the righteous ones praising God in His sanctuary in the closing psalms of the Psalter.
Dragoslava Santrac was serving as Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Old Testament at the University of the Southern Caribbean, Trinidad, at the time this article was written.
NOTES AND REFERENCES