The Choir and the Orchestra: Two Kinds of Divine Praise

George Savran


Chapters 148 and 150 of the book of Psalms make use of extensive lists to impress upon the reader the idea of the involvement of the entire cosmos in divine praise. While Psalm 148 details the heavenly and earthly participants in this action, Ps. 150 describes the full range of musical instruments which participate in praising God. A close reading of both psalms reveals a sudden shift in perspective in the final verse - in Ps. 148 from the universal to the particular and in Ps. 150 a change in the opposite direction. The article examines the balance between the two psalms and discusses the relationship between their complementary perspectives on the praise of God.

Click here for a pdf version of this article.

…”our pleasure in a poem does not consist in having all our expectations gratified but, on the contrary, … the effective power of poetry lies in what it can do with those expectations.” 1 1 Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1968), 108.

For the past few years I have had the pleasure of davening together with Dovid Roskies at a unique Jerusalem minyan which devotes an exceptional amount of time and energy to the psalms in the first part of the service (pesukei dezimra). One of our conversations focused on the subject of how to read these psalms in the context of Jewish prayer, and the following discussion of Psalms 148 and 150 is a fuller response to the question which Dovid put to me.

At the center of pesukei dezimra is the group of psalms known in biblical scholarship as the hallelujah psalms or the Little Hallel. 2 2 Each psalm (with the exception of Ps. 145) begins and ends with the word hallelu-yah. A discussion of the Hallelujah psalms can be found in F.L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger, Psalms 3, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 605-07; E. Zenger, “Die Komposition Ps 145-150 als Anstoss zu einer christlich-jüdischen Psalmenhermeneutic”, Biblische Zeitschrift 41 (1997):1-27. Psalms 145-150 direct the worshipper through a concentrated sequence of praise of God which invokes the entire cosmos in different ways. In Psalm 145 the word כל occurs some 16 times and the alphabetic acrostic reinforces the idea of totality. The speaking voice in Psalm 146 emphasizes the personal aspect (“Praise the Lord, O my soul”) while describing God as creator of all and as highly responsive to human needs. Psalm 147 invokes Jerusalem as essential to this circle of praise and connects control of the cosmos to human commandments. Psalms 148 and 150 close out this section by describing the broadest range of phenomena involved in the praise of God. The cumulative effect of these six psalms is to nurture one’s awareness of the breadth of divine control over the entire cosmos, and to prepare for the intense focus on Israel in the final prayers in this section of the liturgy: David’s prayer in I Chronicles 29/Nehemiah 9 and the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15.

Both Psalm 148 and Psalm 150 make use of detailed lists as part of their respective poetic strategies.Each psalm describes how the praise of God is to be accomplished: Ps. 148 lists the subjects of the divine, both above and below, who offer praise to God; Ps. 150 enumerates the musical instruments with which God is to be praised. But each psalm proceeds along a different trajectory. Psalm 148 goes from the cosmic to the particular, first invoking heavenly forces, then human groupings of different sorts, and concluding with a specific concern for the people Israel. Psalm 150, on the other hand, moves outward from the narrower details of temple music to a more universal vision in which all beings praise God. This essential difference reflects a basic tension within the psalms between a special concern for the fate of Israel and a more general address to all peoples. In each case the content and the order of the list is essential to understanding the psalm’s logic. And in both cases the final verse of the psalm refocuses the reader’s understanding of his/her place in the cosmos.

Psalm 148

  1. Hallelujah. Praise the Lord from the heavens praise Him on high.
  2. Praise Him, all his angels praise Him, all his hosts.
  3. Praise Him, sun and moon praise Him, all bright stars.
  4. Praise Him, highest heavens and you waters that are above the heavens.
  5. Let them praise the name of the Lord for it was he who commanded that they be created.
  6. He made them endure forever establishing an order that shall never change.
  7. Praise the Lord from the earth all sea monsters and ocean depths.
  8. Fire and hail, snow and smoke storm wind that executes his command,
  9. All mountains and hills all fruit trees and cedars
  10. All wild and tamed beasts creeping things and winged birds,
  11. All kings and peoples of the earth all princes of the earth and its judges,
  12. Youths and maidens alike old and young together.
  13. Let them praise the name of the Lord for His name, His alone, is exalted. His splendor covers heaven and earth.
  14. He has exalted the horn of his people for the glory of all his faithful ones, Israel, the people close to him. Hallelujah.

Psalm 148 is divided equally between praise of God from above and from below. All of creation is involved in this praise. In the first half (vv. 1-6) God is lauded by elements of the upper world: the heavens themselves, celestial bodies and agents of the divine. In the second half of the psalm (vv. 7-13) praise comes from the earth: forces of nature, hills, trees, animals, and finally human beings. Each half of the psalm follows the same threefold sequence:

1) A command to praise from a certain vantage point in the cosmos: “Praise God from the heavens” (v.1), and “Praise God from the earth (v. 7).

2) A detailed list of who is to do the praising: heavenly elements in vv. 1-4, and meteorological, geographical, and animate elements in vv. 7-12.

3) The reason why this praise of God is essential: the power of the creator who has inscribed this cosmic order (vv. 5-6) and the elevated and unique aspect of God’s name (v. 13).

In this manner the very organization of the psalm describes symmetry above and below, and unites the entire cosmos in its praise and its relationship to God.

Within this unity there is a hierarchy, marked by a progression from those things in greater proximity to the divine to those at a distance. The host of messengers mentioned in v. 2 are closest to God as attendants in the heavenly council. At a further remove are sun, moon and stars, and still farther away are “the heavens of the heavens,” the highest point of the universe.The mention of the heavenly waters (also known from the creation account in Gen. 1:7) indicates that, despite the vastness of the cosmos, there are limits to the universe. The waters are contained in such a way that they cannot transgress certain boundaries. This section describes a chorus of praise which goes ever higher, reaching to the very borders of the cosmos—fixed, unchangeable, and eternal. 3 3 Understanding חק as limit as in Prov. 8:29; Job 26:10; 28:29. While heavenly beings praise God in Isaiah 6 and in Psalm 29, here the psalmist extends this praise beyond the sons of God and the seraphim. If, in Psalm 19, the heavens tell of the glory of God, here the psalmist goes further to “the heavens of the heavens”. The verb הלל is repeated in nearly every stych of the first four verses—”praise Him… praise Him… praise Him…”—a total of 7 times.This continuous chiming of the verb הלל brings together all the features of the upper cosmos in the service of a common goal.

The second part of Psalm 148 descends to the earth with greater specificity about who is called upon to praise. The elements in this half of the psalm are organized according to the principle of merism, the expression of totality by means of contrasting parts. Thus “serpents” and “deeps” are chaotic forces tamed by God which complement one another as representatives of the earthly and watery spheres. 4 4Tannin: Is. 27:1; 51:9; Ps. 74:13; Job 7:12. Tehom: Is. 51:10; Ezek. 31:15; Pss. 77:17; 104:6; 106:9. The four elements of v. 8a are balanced between hot (fire and smoke) and cold (snow and hail). 5 5 “Fire” refers to lightning as in Ps. 18:13. קיטור is usually understood as equivalent to smoke (עשן) present in theophany descriptions such as Ex. 19:18 and Ps. 18:8-14. See D.R. Hillers, “A Study of Psalm 148” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978):326. The components of v. 9 reach to the heights: “mountains and hills” rise topographically, while “cedars and fruit trees” are part of the botanical landscape. Verse 10 continues this trope into the animal world, contrasting domesticated and wild beasts, swarming creatures with birds in flight. Taken together vv. 7-10 describe the fullness of the earth in terms of all things which populate the planet, and set the stage for the most significant living beings, to which the psalmist devotes the next two verses.

Thus far the psalmist has followed the sequence of creation in Genesis 1—heavens, earth and dry land, trees, animals and humans—with vv. 11-12 describing the high point of earthly creation. But beyond echoing this order we should recognize that this psalm is the product of human imagination and is intended to be recited by people. The psalmist demonstrates this by detailing four pairs of human types. The first of these, “kings of the land and all (common) peoples,” designates upper and lower classes in the broadest sense—rulers and the people they govern. The second, “princes and judges of the land,” indicates two complementary aspects of those who wield power, administrative rule vs. judicial management. 6 6 Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, 638. The third, “young men and maidens,” is a gender distinction within a particular age group, while the fourth, “elders and youths,” points to the generational span of the psalm. The pairs in v. 11 refer to societal roles while those in v. 12 describe biological differences. By bringing together these four examples of merism, the psalmist presents multiple perspectives on human identity—external and internal power, gender and age. Every reader can find him/herself in at least one of these categories. Verse 12 joins the pairs in slightly different ways—young men and women are linked by “also” and old and young are linked by “with”. This change in conjunction underscores the joint nature of their endeavor: the common task of praising God. At the same time, the profusion of nouns in the second half of the psalm emphasizes the diversity and dissimilarity of the forces and elements involved in divine praise.

As we approach the end of the psalm the length of the poetic line changes significantly. Unlike all the previous verses, v. 13 adds a third stych which brings together both parts of the psalm; God’s grandeur is over both heaven and earth. 7 7 The term הוד indicates royal authority and splendor, often associated with creation as in Ps. 8:2; 104:1. It has associations with light and with shining, not unlike the Akkadian melammu. The term summarizes what has come before and also looks ahead to v. 14. This is architecturally satisfying but hardly unexpected in a psalm where formal structure plays such a significant role. The real surprise emerges in verse 14, where what has been a universal psalm takes a particularistic turn. In a dramatic departure from the rest of the psalm, here God acts, lifting up the horn of his people. 8 8 Cf. Deut. 33:17; I Sam. 2:1; Ps. 92:11; 112:9; 132:17. In contrast to the non-inflected character of nearly all those who praise God, here we encounter His people, His faithful ones, the people Israel who are close to Him. The act that God performs, giving tehillah to his people, is God’s response to the praise he has received. In Psalms 145:1 and 149:1 the word indicates praise, God’s reciprocal gift to his people. Alternatively, tehillah can signify “renown”, implying Israel’s restoration after exile, or even “light”, suggesting a refocusing of creation upon Israel. 9 9 For tehilla as renown, see Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, 633-35. For the association with light, see A. Hacham, Psalms vol. 3, (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1987), 599 [Hebrew]—see the parallel in Hab. 3:3 of הוד//תהלה. Hacham notes that קרן has associations with light as well in Hab. 3:4.

In any case the verse challenges the notion of divine transcendence which has been prominent thus far. The God who would seem to be above even “the heavens of the heavens” is reimagined in v. 14 as a deity close to his people. He is responsive and reactive, willing to bestow his favor in return for the praise he has received. The movement towards particularity is an essential part of the poetic strategy of the entire psalm. 10 10 See the discussion of the relationship between v. 14 and the rest of the psalm in Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, 630, 638. In our opinion v. 14 is not an addition distinct from vv. 1-13. See the detailed analysis of vs. 14 in A. J. Schmutzer and R. X. Gauthier, “The Identity of “Horn” in Psalm 148:14a: An Exegetical Investigation in the MT and LXX”, Bulletin for Biblical Research 19.2 (2009):161–183. The sense of a nearly limitless cosmos gives way to a more precisely described earthly world in the second part, and is contracted still further to focus upon God’s relation to Israel. This is not unlike the poetic strategy in Genesis, where the concentration on the heavens and the earth in Gen. 1-11 gives way to the focus on the family of Abraham as the precursor of Israel. 11 11 Ps. 136 follows a similar trajectory, beginning with the creation (vv. 1-9) but continuing with the exodus from Egypt. The message that emerges is that Israel’s fate is closely tied to the cosmos as a whole, with God’s response reflecting the reciprocity of the Deity and his nearness to Israel.

Psalm 150

  1. Hallelujah. Praise God in his sanctuary, Praise him in the sky, his stronghold.
  2. Praise him for his mighty acts, Praise him as befits his excellent greatness.
  3. Praise him with blasts of the horn, Praise him with harp and lyre.
  4. Praise him with timbrel and dance, Praise him with lute and pipe.
  5. Praise him upon resounding cymbals, Praise him upon the loud-clashing cymbals.
  6. Let all that breathes praise the LORD. Hallelujah.

Psalm 150 is similar to Psalm 148 in a number of ways. The verb הלל is repeated frequently in different forms; it is in fact the only verb found in the psalm.Like Psalm 148 the central section contains a list concerning the praise of God, but here we find an inventory of musical instruments rather than a catalogue of the elements of the cosmos. The psalm also responds to the questions where to praise God (v. 1) and why one should praise God (v. 2). The main difference between the two texts (apart from length) is that Psalm 150 devotes its central verses to the means by which God is to be praised. Only at the very end of the psalm is the issue of “who” addressed.

Verse 1 states that God is to be praised beqodsho, in his sanctuary, but where is the locus of praise? To be sure God’s heavenly abode is meant, in keeping with the parallel term “the firmament of his strength” (raqiˁa ˁuzo), but from where does this praise emanate? Praise of God in the heavens is well known elsewhere: In Isaiah 6 the seraphim chant “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in Psalm 29 and Job 38 the sons of God join in the acclaim. But, given that instrumental music in the Bible is always located on the earth, the detailed list of instruments in the continuation of the psalm argues for an earthly origin to the music.Ibn Ezra goes so far as to argue that beqodsho refers to the Holy of Holies in the temple and raqiˁa ˁuzo is the ark. In his estimation this is a song sung by Levites and is earth-bound throughout. 12 12 Ibn Ezra ad loc. Yet there is ambiguity here, for “the firmament of his strength” in v. 1b situates God on high, as do the references to God’s might and greatness in v. 2. 13 13 The term עז also occurs in musical contexts—cf. Exod. 15:2, II Sam. 6:14, Ps. 29:1, 68:33, 35; I Chron. 13:8; II Chron. 30:21; W.H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18, (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 512. It seems best to understand that this praise is directed at God in his heavenly abode but springs from below.

The focus of the psalm is less on God’s location than on the list of instruments with which God is to be praised in vv. 3-5. As with other lists in the Bible, this is not a haphazard inventory but a reflection of the diversity of musical expression which enlivens the praise of God. Taken together these instruments form an ensemble which reveals the breadth and variety of psalmic praise in the Bible. And by examining their occurrences elsewhere in the Bible we can get a sense of the range of situations (and musicians) to which the psalmist is alluding.

The list begins with a wind instrument, the shofar, which is used in a wide variety of settings: cultic, military, political and penitential. 14 14 J. Braun, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 26; I.H. Jones, “Music and Musical Instruments”, Anchor Bible Dictionary IV:936. It is the most frequently mentioned instrument in the Bible (over 70 occurrences) and is therefore appropriate to be the lead voice here. Its sound is described with the term תקע (teqaˁ), a blast, whose basic meaning of pushing or striking indicates a somewhat percussive sound in addition to its melodic tone. 15 15 E.g. Num. 10:4 This blast is appropriate as an opening chord as it announces the beginning of the Jubilee year in Lev. 25:9 and proclaims the new moon festival in Ps. 81:4. 16 16 Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, 659 also mention Joel 2:15, where the sounding of the shofar signals the beginning of lament.

The next pair of instruments, nebel and kinnor, are also used in diverse situations, but their sound is more melodic. They also occur with significant regularity, albeit less frequently than the shofar (42 and 27 times respectively), and are often mentioned together as part of a cultic ensemble associated with the Levites. The nebel is a harp-like instrument and the kinnor is a type of lyre, both of which were used in temple settings (I Chron. 15:16; 16:5; 25:6). 17 17 The terms may indicate two different types of lyre, possibly a standing lyre and a portable instrument; see Braun, Music, 16-24; Hossfeld and Zenger, Psalms 3, 66. The kinnor is mentioned together with a greater assortment of instruments than any other, suggesting its particular versatility in ensemble playing. In I Sam. 16 and 19, it implies something more than simple accompaniment, as David plays the kinnor to calm Saul’s fits. In I Sam. 10 both instruments are used to invoke prophetic ecstasy, and in Psalm 57:9 they are employed “to wake the dawn”, perhaps with some magical effect intended. 18 18 F.L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger, Psalms 3, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 74. Here too there is a percussive element in addition to the melodic, as both instruments were plucked, not bowed. 19 19 E. Skulj, “Musical Instruments in Psalm 150”, ed. J. Krasovec,, The Interpretation of the Bible: The International Symposium in Slovenia, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 1122 citing Josephus.

The third instrument is the tof, the drum (accompanied by the dance), which is not among the instruments associated with the Levites in the second temple period. 20 20 Some understand maol to refer to an instrument akin to the alil, a flute—see Hacham, Psalms vol. 3, 607. When drum and dance occur together, the context is always celebratory, whether of victory, rescue from danger, or the end of exile. 21 21 Exod. 15:20; Jud. 11:34; I Sam. 18:6; Jer. 31:3. The tof is explicitly percussive with a very limited melodic range. More significantly, it is largely associated with female musicians, both in the biblical text and in archaeological findings. 22 22 Braun, Music, 118-133; Jones, “Music”, 936. It occurs much less often than the previous instruments; the tof appears only 16 times and the accompanying maol 13 times. The psalmist has widened his scope here. The inclusion of drum and dance extends the call to praise into non-cultic settings and, most significantly, includes women in the act of praising God.

The next pair, minnim and ˁugav, are less certain. The former is a collective term for a group of string instruments, and occurs only here. The ˁugav is understood variously as a wind instrument or a string instrument, and is mentioned only four times. 23 23 But see Ps. 45:9. See Hacham, Psalms vol. 2, 260; Braun, Music, 36, Skulj, “Psalm 150”, 1125. Most suggestively, it seems to indicate a prototypical instrument which appears very early in the Bible in Gen. 4:21. The two occurrences in the book of Job refer to general festivities with no liturgical context. 24 24 Cf. Job. 21:12; 30:31. We seem to have again moved beyond a purely cultic context to embrace something larger, something more inclusive than liturgical prayer. 25 25 Braun, Music, 31f. At the same time this lack of frequency may well indicate that these were rarer than the previous instruments.

The final pair of instruments is mentioned in two parallel stychs in order to heighten the dramatic conclusion of the list. Ṣelṣelim refer to two different types of cymbals, clearly percussive, and played in different ways to produce distinctive sounds. 26 26 These are not identical to the meṣiltayim, a more common term substituted at a later stage for the rarer ṣelṣelim. The word occurs only in late biblical Hebrew in Chronicles and in Ezra-Nehemiah. In I Chron. 13:8 the term is used in place of ṣelṣelim in keeping with the Chronicler’s preference for simpler terms. The first of these is usually translated “resounding cymbals”, since the term shema does not indicate much beyond volume. By contrast the phrase ṣilṣelei teruˁah indicates a different type of tone as reflected by the translation “loud-clashing cymbals”. The list of instruments is thus framed by these two essential sounds, teqaˁ and teruˁah as in Num. 10:1-7. The percussive aspect of these two sounds is set off against the more melodic instruments. Whereas the blast of the shofar in v. 3a is primarily melodic and only somewhat percussive, the final instruments, these crashing cymbals, are primarily percussive and only minimally melodic. Between these bookends we find an alternation of melodic and percussive instruments: nebel and kinnor (melodic); tof and maol (percussive); minim and ˁugav (melodic); ṣilṣelei shema (percussive). This arrangement suggests a blended orchestral sound, where each instrument contributes its unique music in a non-hierarchical way. The repetition of this unusual word which closes out the list owes something to its usage in II Sam 6 in the account of the bringing of the ark from Kiryat Ye’arim to Jerusalem. That event is both a popular celebration as well as a cultic event. It is cultic in that priests officiate and the ark itself is the central object of celebration, yet it is popular since a large number of Israelites participate. 27 27 The inclusion of the Levites in I Chron. 15 refocuses the event as essentially cultic. See S. Japhet, I and II Chronicles (Louisville: Westminster, 1993), 293. Perhaps the psalmist had just such an occasion in mind for Psalm 150—a broadly inclusive musical event which brought together both priesthood and laity, both men and women.

There is a double trajectory to the list: On the one hand we can see movement from within to without: not only liturgical music associated with the temple, but musical celebration in the widest context. The drum and the accompanying dance imply greater inclusiveness than the cultic usage of nebel and kinnor, both in terms of setting as well as musicians. At the same time, the consistent decrease in the frequency of mention of the instruments suggests that the list moves from the most common instrument, the shofar, to the least common, the minnim, the ˁugav, and the ṣelṣelim. While the teqaˁ at the beginning of the list is an initiatory sound, the teruˁah is a louder crescendo which points toward the conclusion of the praise. 28 28Psalms 3, 663. The assemblage of instruments gives expression to a broad venue for the praise of God, including men and women, priests and laity, military settings as well as liturgical prayer.

As in Psalm 148 the final verse of Psalm 150 comes as a surprise. Syntactically it reverses the subject-verb order which has held for all the previous verses, placing the subject first in order to emphasize it. And that subject—כל הנשמה—refers not just to musicians, not simply to Israel, but to all beings.If we had assumed a localized communal setting—whether cultic, military or liturgical—for all the previous verses, our attention is now redirected outward to embrace the most capacious subject—everything that has breath is called upon to join in the praise. At this point we realize that despite the enumeration of all these instruments the psalmist has not invoked the human voice. But rather than mention the qol (voice), the psalmist specifies the breath, thereby going beyond the purely musical to hint at something larger, something grander than musical praise. All human breath is now invoked, as the psalmist’s vision of praise of the divine is shown to be vaster and more inclusive than we had previously imagined. Like Psalm 148, the last verse forces a reversal of the reader’s expectations, from the particular world of temple music to a universal audience of all human beings engaged in the praise of God.

The Choir and the Orchestra

Psalm 150 may be imagined as reflecting an orchestral framework, where the music of praise is produced entirely by instruments in performance ensemble,with all instruments playing at the same moment to create their unique harmony. By contrast, I see Psalm 148, with its assortment of sounds and actors, as a choral enterprise, in which diverse voices enter at different times to complement one another.

The orchestra is composed of equals—no instrument has precedence over any other. This is brought out by the uniformity of rhythm, syntax and line length in vv. 3-5. After describing the setting of the orchestral praise and the reasons for it in vv. 1-2, the psalmist cum conductor enumerates the instruments under his baton. The inventory of instruments may follow no clear pattern, but it nonetheless maintains a balance between the percussive and the melodic, both qualities being necessary for euphonious music. As a cohesive ensemble they produce a well-tempered music which is pleasing to the ear, a conjoining of different timbres which blend together in unison. The final verse of the psalm expands the range of the orchestra in an unexpected but entirely harmonious fashion.

The choir, on the other hand, is composed of different voices and different registers. This is suggested by the order of the text itself as it brings together upper and lower worlds, animate beings and inanimate forces of nature, common people together with lords and masters. All are engaged in the same activity of praising God, and their common purpose encourages a certain shared identity, but these voices remain much more disparate than the instruments of the orchestra. They are arranged hierarchically, which reflects both their diversity and their specific places in the cosmos; as a result, the music they produce is more complex, more varied. The multiplicity and variety of nouns in the second half of Psalm 148 emphasize that there is less of an organic unity to their music. It is rather like a well-constructed fugue, where different voices enter at different times, repeating and reworking a basic theme. This music is no less pleasing, but it is of a different sort than the sound of the orchestra.

The two psalms are brought together by their mutual emphasis on praise (הלל) and their poetic organization. In both texts the final verse discloses a different understanding of the manner of praise than that which is apparent from the first part of the psalm. In the case of Psalm 148, vv. 1-13 lead the reader to see the psalm as a universalistic reflection of creation. Only with v. 14 does the reader come to understand that the people Israel are the main focus of the psalmist’s praise. Likewise, in Psalm 150 the idea that praise of God is located in the temple encourages a narrower understanding of the psalm, until v. 6 refocuses this reading. As a call (or a hope) that all living things will praise God, it redirects the psalm outward towards the widest possible human audience to include all those who have the breath of life within them.

In both cases the effect of the closing verse is to upset the “sweet anticipation” we expect as a conclusion. 29 29 See the discussion of anticipation and surprise in music in David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006), 1-18. In the case of Psalm 150, this might have been a concluding orchestral chord played in unison; for Psalm 148, perhaps a final chorus which resolved the polyphonic weave of the various voices. In its place we are bidden to refocus our expectations—the orchestra becomes a metaphor for all human praise of God, and the choral music simply a prelude to the unique connection between God and Israel.

Despite this structural similarity the two psalms do not merge, for the choir and the orchestra don’t make quite the same music. This is not Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Eighth, in which orchestra and choir blend together to create an integrated musical whole. Rather, the close of each psalm leads the worshipper in a different direction, one towards universal praise, the other celebrating the particular relationship between God and Israel. In both psalms there is an element of surprise when reading the final verse, followed by a new understanding of the psalm’s intent. 30 30 Huron, Sweet Anticipation, 19-39. There is an aspect of “Yes, but …” here which is distinctly Jewish, a quality of qualification, of multiple opinions and changing perspectives which begins with the Bible and continues through to rabbinic literature and Jewish thought more broadly. The organization of the liturgy forces us to read the psalms consecutively, but “a Jewish way of saying things” is not content with either/or. It alternates between the universal and the particular, between praying for the welfare of the world and focusing one’s concern primarily upon the people Israel. Jewish prayer, like the rest of Judaism, is in a dynamic relationship with the world, at one moment calling forth the choir and in the next summoning the orchestra. Taken together these two psalms exemplify what Jewish prayer in pesukei dezimra is all about: Israel and the world, hierarchy and unanimity, a single unified sound and an assemblage of different voices all involved in the praise of God.

George Savran. “The Choir and the Orchestra: Two Kinds of Divine Praise.” In geveb, June 2020:
George Savran. “The Choir and the Orchestra: Two Kinds of Divine Praise.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Jul 04, 2020.


George Savran

George Savran has taught at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem since 1996 and previously served as director of biblical studies for the Institute. His books include Telling and Retelling: Quotation in Biblical Narrative (Indiana University Press, 1989) and Encountering the Divine: Theophany in Biblical Narrative (Sheffield University Press, 2005).