November 19, 1990
Composition of Psalm 65
Psalm 65 is unified around the idea of praise of God. It develops this praise in three sections or scenes. I will first describe these scenes and then discuss how they are connected. This analysis is of the result, it is not a comment on either the thought process of the poet or the historical way the material came to be.
The psalm falls into three scenes. The first (v1-5a) is the most explicitly theological of the three. It evokes the world of Zion, of the temple, the cult. The second scene (v5b-8) and the third (v9-13) both have the world as their stage. The second develops the image of God's signs and how they are seen throughout the world. The third scene takes up the image of the harvest.
All of these scenes individually relate to the overall theme of praise of God. The first does so explicitly, using the words "praise" and speaking of "vows." Also, praiseworthy acts of God are listed: "you who answer prayer," "you grant forgiveness." Living close to God is a blessing, the house of God is "holy."
The second and third scenes relate to praise most directly in terms of enumerating God's great works. The second scene tells how strong God's signs are. The third scene of harvest echoes other psalms that use the bounty of the harvest as something to be attributed in praise of God (Psalm 67, 104). Also, nature may praise God as v13 suggests, and this too is present in the psalms (e.g. Psalm 19:1-4, 96, 148, perhaps 103:22).
However the three scenes are not disconnected pieces; the psalm is not a catalog of praise. I will describe several connections, noting that I cannot discuss those connections that are only visible in the Hebrew.
Connections between scene 1 and scenes 2 and 3. On the surface there is the greatest contrast between the first part of the psalm and the rest. However, several things link these together. First, note how v5 is an explicit transition, seeing the awesome deeds of God as an answer to human needs. Thus, the first section praises God for answering prayer, and the rest of the Psalm is, in a way, an elaboration of the types of answers that are given. The psalm therefore uses the dynamic of repentance/forgiveness. Sins are brought to God, God forgives and blesses with mighty deeds and a bountiful harvest. A second way of connecting the two is to see the psalm in the type of God as ruler. People come to the ruler to pay respects, and the ruler blesses with largess the loyal subjects.
Connections between the first and the third scene. Two things link the first and third scenes explicitly. First, in the opening section, people are bringing things to God, there is a movement in: praise, vows, sins are brought to God. The final section is a movement out: God sends forth a bountiful harvest. Given that some offerings to God were cereal offerings (cf. Lev 23:10), there is an explicit connection between harvest and offering.
The "brook of God" in verse 9 is an explicit reference to Jerusalem (Psalm 46:4, Isaiah 33:20-21) and to the temple itself (Ezekiel 47, Zechariah 14:8). As people come to the temple, God's lifegiving bounty flows out.
Connections between the second and third scenes. Section two focuses on the signs of God. The harvest and the providing of food by God are a sign of God's action, as, for example Psalm 104 makes evident. Psalm 66:3-4 also links the "mighty deeds" and signs of God with the joy of the earth (v13).
Perhaps we should now try to read the psalm one more time as a whole; the analysis above risks fragmenting the psalm in the process of trying to establish its unity. God is praised in Psalm 65 for, in a way, the comprehensiveness of God's actions towards humans. Human needs are answered by God, both physical and spiritual. The temple (as locus for God's actions) is both source of spiritual and physical blessing: sins and the fruits of the harvest are brought, forgiveness and sustenance come from it.