Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way ExperiencedAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Prayer, Psalms, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship
Even if modern Restorationist/Evangelical disciples tend to ignore the Book of Psalms (like the rest of the Hebrew Bible) it is difficult to exaggerate its importance to Jews of the Second Temple period. This includes Jews of all stripes: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Jesus himself.
For example, the Psalms dominate the biblical manuscript treasure found at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) with thirty-nine separate manuscripts found (for comparison the next closest are Deuteronomy with thirty-one manuscripts and Isaiah with twenty-two). This ratio is matched pretty well in the New Testament writings themselves.
The Psalms are so important in Jesus’s life and teaching that N. T. Wright has called the Gospel “the Psalm soaked gospel.” Any disciple of Jesus must become a student of the Psalms just as he was because the tune Jesus sang was already playing in the liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem. Just a single example from the most fundamental of all Jesus’s teachings, the kingdom of God. See my blog: The Psalms, The Reign of God, and Jesus the Messiah.
Psalms and Liturgy in the Second Temple
My interest in this blog is not necessarily the temple as ancient Israel experienced it though that is a vital question in itself. Rather our question is how did Jews, Jesus and those who followed Jesus experienced the Psalms. There is likely going to be some overlap but also some differences.
Among our earliest window into the temple liturgy is from Ben Sira who flourished about 200 BC. His writing was later translated into Greek and became part of the Septuagint and was recognized as Scripture by many in the ancient world. Either way his work is of immense importance as a witness to the faith of God’s people. Ben Sira shared the opinion of most ancient Jews that worship in the temple was arranged by King David who was also a prophet.
“[David] established harp-singers before the altar, also to make sweet melodies with their ringing sounds. He gave dignity at the feasts, and he arranged seasons until completion. When they were praising his holy name, and from early morning the holy precinct was resounding” (Sirach 47.9-10).
Later describing the worship the Sage wrote, “And the harp-singers sang praises with their voices, a melody was made sweet with a full tone” (Sirach 50.18).
Years later after the desolation of abomination was set up in the Temple by Antiochus IV, the temple was recaptured and rededicated to God. It became a time of great worship to the Lord. We read in 1 and 2 Maccabees
“At the very season and on the very day that the gentiles had profaned it [temple], it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals” (1 Macc. 4.54)
“They offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year” (2 Macc. 10.7-8)
Offering a sacrifice of praise was an integral part of worship in the Temple whether in daily worship or on special occasions.
Daily Psalms in the Temple
Jesus frequented the Temple. Luke tells us that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover “every year” (2.41-42).
The Gospel of John spreads Jesus’s ministry over a three year period integrating various pilgrimages to the Temple into his narrative. We Gentiles often read right over this material failing to recognize how John uses the Old Testament liturgical calendar to tell the story of Jesus.
In addition to the Passover, John says Jesus attended all the major festivals of liturgical calendar. John does not name the festival in 5.1, but since ancient times it has been identified as Weeks/Pentecost; Jesus attends the Festival of Tabernacles in John 7-8 (7.2, 14, 37); Jesus attends the Festival of Hanukkah/Lights in John 10 (10.22ff).
Besides being in the Temple for the festivals, the Gospels depict Jesus doing a great deal of his teaching in the temple like other rabbis would have done. So whether it was for the festivals or daily routine Jesus and his disciples would have received a considerable immersion in the Psalms as we shall see.
The tradition of having daily Psalms did not begin with St. Benedict by any stretch of the imagination. Daily Psalms were sung, chanted and prayed in the Temple itself. One of the oldest tractates in the Mishnah is called The Tamid and it concerns the Temple. In Tamid 7.5 we read the following on the Psalms.
“The song that the Levites would recite int he Temple: on the first day they would recite, ‘to Yhwh is the earth and its fullness, the world and its inhabitants;’ on the second [day], they would recited, ‘Yhwh is great and much to be praised, in the city of our God, his holy mountain;’” (etc)
In typical Jewish fashion only the first line of the Psalm is quoted in the text as it goes through the days of the week (the rabbis believed you had the Psalter memorized and it was unnecessary to quote the entire passage for illustrative purposes). So from Tamid 7 we learn the following Psalms were used on different days of the week.
Day 1, Sunday, Psalm 24
Day 2, Monday, Psalm 48
Day 3, Tuesday, Psalm 82
Day 4, Wednesday, Psalm 94
Day 5, Thursday, Psalm 81
Day 6, Friday, Psalm 93
Sabbath, Psalm 92
This information is corroborated from the Septuagint which assigns specific days to five of the seven Psalms listed above
Day 1, Psalm 24 (LXX Ps 23, the numbering of the LXX is one off from the Hebrew, the Psalms are identical)
Day 2, Psalm 48 (LXX Ps 47)
Day 4, Psalm 94 (LXX Ps 93)
Day 6, Psalm 93 (LXX Ps 92)
Sabbath, Psalm 92 (LXX Ps 91)
Based on the evidence, most scholars believe we have an accurate picture of the daily Psalm singing in the Temple that Jesus and his disciples worshiped in. A brief examination of these Psalms reveals why these were deemed particularly appropriate for such frequent use in the communal worship of God’s people. I will quote a sampling that seems to drive home the vital Spiritual truth to be impressed upon all those entering the Temple and embraced by all who wish to worship the Holy One in Spirit and Truth.
Psalm 24: “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? And Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart ...”
Psalm 48: “The LORD is great and greatly to be praised. In the city of our God, his holy mountain … We envision, O God, your kindness, In the midst of your temple, As is your name, O God, so is your praise, Unto the ends of the earth ...”
Psalm 93: “Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore.”
Psalm 92: “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, Like a cedar in Lebanon he shall grow strong. They are planted in the house of the LORD; and they flourish in the courts of our God.”
The daily Psalms are not the only Psalms used in the Temple by any means. All the Psalms were used in the Temple however these ones Jesus, the disciples and the Way that gathered in the Temple heard these to the point they became chiseled on the hearts of God’s people.
Psalms in the Temple for Different Festivals
Various Psalms were used specifically in relation to certain of the festivals in Jesus’s day. Mishnah Middot 2.5 tells us regarding the Songs of Ascent (Pss 120-134),
“And there were fifteen steps that went up from its [Court of Women] midst to the court of Israel, corresponding to the fifteen Songs of Ascent that are in Psalms [=book of], on which the Levites would stand in song.”
We are not told at this point in the Mishnah when these Songs of Ascent were song. As we will learn it was on multiple occasions. In describing the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) we read
“Pious and distinguished men would dance before them with torches, and they would recite hymns and words of exaltation before them. And the Levites accompanied them with harps, lyres, cymbals and musical instruments without number–on the fifteen steps that go down from the Court of Israel to the Court of Women, on which the Levites would stand and would recite in song” (Sukkot 5.4).
The Songs of Ascent were deemed particularly appropriate for the Festival of Booths. Large numbers of pilgrims would come from all over the known world on this great festival to the Lord. Imagine being a pilgrim from Anatolia, or Nazareth, and you sang these words as part of the festive throng.
“Woe is me, that I reside in Meshech [= Anatolia/Turkey!], That I dwell amongs the tents of Kedar [=Arabia] … too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace …” (Ps 120.5)
The passage in the Mishnah reminds us that it was not, as is sometimes asserted, only the Levites that sang (some are concerned about this because of the instruments!). At the very least during Sukkot, Israelites would sing and dance while the Levites accompanied the joyous praise with “instruments without number.”
The Hallel Psalms are a collection of Psalms that are dominated by the word “praise.” These are Psalms 113-118. The Mishnah tells us that when individual Jews brought their sacrifice to the temple “they read/recited the Hallel” (Pesahim 5.7).
The Hallel Psalms were incorporated into the Passover liturgy as well and provides the Scriptural context, along with the Exodus, for the table Jesus and his disciples reclined at for the Last Supper. Or as Matthew states “after they sang a hymn” (Mt 26.30 =the Hallel) Jesus and the disciples followed regular Jewish practice to spend time in prayer. It can be an interesting experience to read the Pss 113-118 among the gathered saints with the Wine and the Bread on the Table.
Final Thoughts: Worship and Heaven
As we began this blog I claimed that it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Psalms to Jews of Jesus’s day. I think that is also true of Jesus and the early church. The more we immerse ourselves in the Hebrew Bible in particular and the Psalms in particular the richer the more we see Jesus as he was and is.
One last important thought needs to be recognized. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls a document was discovered that has been called Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (parts of several mss survive, 4Q400-407; 11Q17 and at Masada). What this document reveals is what Geza Vermes called “the simultaneity of heavenly and earthly worship” (Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 321). That is, when worshipers are gathered together to offer sacrifice and sing the Psalms the angels in heaven simultaneously joined in the worship. That is worship on earth was the mirror image of that in heaven! This by the way is exactly what we see in the Book of Revelation. Heavenly worship is the counterpart to earthly worship and it is united in the Psalms. Now if we believed this we probably would be as excited about the Psalter as Jesus and his contemporaries were.
This short blog has attempted to provide a window into what Jesus, Peter, James, Paul and the thousands of disciples that gathered in the temple daily experienced. If we “went to church” with Peter and John that day in Acts 3.1f, we just might be in for a pretty big shock that it does not look or sound anything like a contemporary gathering in north American Churches of Christ … or Baptists for that matter …
Jesus sang the Psalms. Jesus danced the Psalms. Jesus prayed the Psalms. The early Way did too. I hope you fall in love with them.
Helpful Resources for Studying the Psalms in the World of Jesus
William Holliday, A Cloud of Witnesses: The Psalms Through Three-Thousand Years
Gary Rendsburg, “The Psalms as Hymns in the Temple of Jerusalem,” in Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archeological Explorations, ed. James H. Charlesworth, (Fortress Press, 2014), 95-122