Visualizing the Psalter

by James Dowden


After that series of rather heavy posts, I thought I’d post something rather lighter today: my visualization of the structure of the Psalter.Psalter StructureKey:

  • Magenta: David (desaturated outside collections)
  • Green: Korah (desaturated outside collection)
  • Brown: Asaph (desaturated outside collection)
  • Purple: Solomon
  • Blue: Moses
  • Dark Grey: Heman and Ethan
  • Light Grey: Anonymous
  • Yellow Quartering: Psalms with evidence of complex textual histories (not simple joins (e.g. 19) or splits (e.g. 42-43))
  • Blue Rings: Maskils (desaturated: implicit through doublets)
  • Gold Rings: Mikhtams (desaturated: implicit through doublets)
  • Background Aleph: Alphabetic acrostics
  • Illegible word below numeral: “Hist” — the five predominantly historical Psalms


Firstly, I should state my indebtedness to Casper Labuschagne, whose website first put me on to the groups of seven, eleven, and fifteen that so characterize the Psalter.

What should be immediately obvious about this visualization is that it does not follow a five-book structure. I see that structure as having arisen over a number of stages:

  1. The initial 2 David group consisting of a penitential psalm (51), maskils (52-55), mikhtams (56-60), and another penitential psalm (61) was formed as a group of eleven.
  2. Several stages of accretions followed (possibly first with four more to form a group of fifteen, then another three to make 11+7, and then another four), with whoever finally added Psalm 72 wanting to finalize the accretions with (a) making 2 David up to two groups of eleven; (b) adding a doxology; (c) adding a note that the prayers of David are ended; and (d) ascribing it to Solomon.
  3. 2 David was incorporated by the Elohistic editor with the Korah Psalms (42-49), the Asaph oracle (50), and the Asaph Psalms (73-83), possibly on the basis that the Davidic Psalms should be the centre of the structure.
  4. The Yahwistic coda to Part Two of the Psalter was added (84-89).
  5. Part Three of the Psalter was added.
  6. Someone reinterpreted the end of Psalm 72 as closing 42-72 rather than 51-72, creating four books.
  7. In imitation of the resultant seventeen-psalm Book Three and the Pentateuch, someone counted seventeen psalms into Part Three and inserted a copy of 41.13 at the end of Psalm 106.

Whilst we are on the Solomon ascription, the other instance of this is peculiarly meaningful as well: Psalm 127 forms a centrepoint to the Songs of Ascents just as the Temple formed a focus for pilgrimage.

The other element I would particularly like to highlight is what I have termed the Great Inclusion. This breaks the eleven psalms of 3 David into two parts. It is tied in with: (a) incipits; (b) the theme of material preceding 3 David material; and (c) an internal structure of a pair, a group, the Great Psalm, another group, and another pair. On that last basis, Psalm 137 seems rather anomalous.

And if nothing else, this is a pretty picture.