By Gordon Franz
The Psalms of the Sons of Korah, like the other psalms, express the inner most feelings of the psalmists as they experience real life events. Psalms 42-49 and 84-89 reflect the end of the eighth century BC when the Assyrians afflicted the Kingdom of Judah. This article will briefly look at these psalms from a literary perspective and then place them in their historical context at the end of the eighth century BC. Some archaeological material that has been excavated in the Land of Judah, as well as Assyrian reliefs, will be employed to illustrate portions of these psalms.
The year 701 BC was a traumatic, bittersweet one for Judah. A large portion of the Judean population was deported to Assyria, yet the Lord delivered Jerusalem from the hands of the Assyrian army that encircled the city.
The Psalms of the Sons of Korah as a Literary Unit
Michael Goulder, in his book entitled The Psalms of the Sons of Korah (1982), suggests that these psalms were in sequential order and were employed as liturgical psalms for the fall festival or pilgrimage that was conducted to the Israelite cultic shrine, or high place, at Dan (1 Kings 12:26-33). He points out that these psalms are a literary unit and should be looked at from that perspective. The main body of liturgy was Psalm 42-48 with Psalms 84, 85 and 87 as supplementary psalms to the main corpus. He suggests that Psalm 42/43 and 84 were psalms of longing for Yahweh’s “tabernacles”; Psalm 44 and 85 are national laments. Psalms 46, 47, 48 and 87 are “songs of Zion”. He goes on to say, “Psalms 45 and 47 have no counterpart in the 80’s, but the parallel ordering of the remaining psalms can hardly be accidental” (1982:12).
I disagree with Goulder’s hypothesis that these are liturgical psalms for the fall cultic festival at Dan, but would go further than he does in seeing a unity of these psalms. Nevertheless, his ideas are stimulating, original, and creative. His scholarly efforts were appreciated. However, I think the primary interpretation of the psalms is to Zion / Jerusalem and another historical situation more aptly fits the context of the psalms. However, Goulder has broken new ground in suggesting the order and literary units.
I would like to expand on some of his thoughts and propose my own understanding of the order. Psalms 42-45 form a trilogy regarding suffering and exile composed by the psalmist as he goes into the Assyrian captivity in 701 BC. Psalms 46-48 form a trilogy of psalms exalting and praising the Lord for His deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrians in that year. Psalm 49, a wisdom psalm, points out the shortcomings of the wealthy who do not trust the Lord. Psalms 84-89 are the answer to the prayers of the psalmists expressed in Psalms 42-49.
Psalm 84 describes the psalmist returning to the Temple after having been away for a long time. This return is the answer to the petition and vow made in Psalm 42/43, “Oh send out you light and your truth! Let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your tabernacle. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and on the harp I will praise You, O God, my God” (43:3, 4). Psalms 44 and 85 are lament psalms, both individual and national, regarding the captivity and the return. The subject of Psalms 45 and 86 is the King, the Lord Himself. Psalms 46-48 and 87 are “Songs of Zion.”
The Historical Background to the Psalms of the Sons of Korah
Psalms 46-48 record a miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem at the hands of a powerful enemy. The only time this miraculous deliverance occurred was in 701 BC. The Angel of the Lord destroyed the Assyrian army that was besieging Jerusalem.
In order to put these psalms in their proper context, a brief overview of the life of King Hezekiah is in order. King Hezekiah was enthroned in the year 727 BC. He began his reign on the “right foot” by reinstituting the Passover, which led to a great revival (2 Chron. 29-31). In the “fourteenth year” (713/12 BC) of his reign, events began to sour. He had a near death experience, which he recovered from, and the Lord promised him fifteen extra years to live (2 Kings 20:1-11; Isa. 38:10-20).
Merodach-Baladan, king of Babylon, sent emissaries to congratulate him on his recovery and also to see if he would join the Babylonian coalition against the Assyrians. Hezekiah was apparently part of this revolt, which the Assyrians put down (Isa. 20:1), probably under the leadership of Sennacherib, then the crown prince and tartan. Hezekiah, along with the Philistines, Moabites and Edomites, paid tribute to Sargon II (2 Kings 18:14-16). This disaster for Hezekiah and Judah was apparently because of the influence of the royal steward (prime minister), Shebna, who most likely was a foreigner in the courts of Judah (Isa. 22; 2 Kings 18:14-16).
In 701 BC, Hezekiah revolted again. This time, Sennacherib, now king of Assyria, was bent on the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. He began his “third” campaign down the coast of Phoenicia and took part of Philistia before he turned his attention on Judah.
The first phase of his Judean campaign was to secure the Shephelah. After Lachish, the capital of the Shephelah, fell, he felt confident enough to split his army. One part of his army, under the leadership of the Rabshakeh, laid siege to Jerusalem, and the other part continued with Sennacherib in the Shephelah and attacked Libnah. Most likely Libnah is located at Tel Goded.
The Angel of the Lord destroyed the part of the army encircling Jerusalem. When Sennacherib got word of this defeat in Jerusalem, he returned shame-faced to Nineveh. In his annals, Sennacherib describes this campaign in these words: “As for Hezekiah, the Judean, who had not submitted to my yoke, 46 of his strong, walled cities and the cities of their environs, which were numberless, I besieged, I captured, I plundered, as booty I counted them. Him, like a cage bird, in Jerusalem, his royal city, I shut up” (Luckenbill 1927:II: 143). “Caged up like a bird” is diplomatic code word for “We lost.” Sennacherib then lists the “tribute” that Hezekiah sent to him, which included 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, along with male and female singers. I suspect that since Sennacherib could not admit defeat, this “tribute” was actually booty that he plundered from the earlier part of his campaign.
This campaign was bittersweet for the Judeans. Jerusalem was delivered, but many Judeans deported, including the psalmist who composed Psalms 42-45. These psalms were his “musical diary” while going into captivity. The Biblical records only hint of this captivity in 701 BC and it was probably downplayed for theological reasons. According to Sennacherib’s annals, he deported “200,150 people, young and old, male and female … as booty” (ANET 288). Whether this number is exaggerated or not is beyond the scope of this article. The point is, there was a deportation of Judeans in 701 BC. For a discussion of the Judean exile in 701 BC, consult Stohlmann (1983). For a discussion of the chronology of the reign of King Hezekiah, see Franz 1987.
An ancient “photograph” depicting some Lachishites going into captivity is found on a wall relief from Nineveh (Ussishkin 1982).
The historical texts of the Bible seem to downplay the Assyrian captivity of 701 BC, however, the prophet’s hint at it. Isa. 24:1 says, “Behold, the LORD makes the land [of Judah] empty and makes it waste, distorts its surface and scatters abroad its inhabitants.” The end of the so-called “Isaiah Apocalypse” has the captives returning from Assyria and Egypt (Isa. 27:12, 13). Hosea promises that some Judeans will return from Assyria and Egypt (11:11). Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, seems to describe the 701 BC campaign of Sennacherib in chapter 1. He ends the chapter with the words, “…because of your precious children … for they shall go from you into captivity” (1:16). They apparently were taken to Babylon as part of the Assyrian “resettlement” policy. However, Micah promises them that the Lord would rescue and redeem them (4:10).
One intriguing relief is a fragment in the British Museum. This relief is a depiction of three musicians, apparently Judeans, playing their harps, as they are being taken captive (Barnett, Bleibtreu and Turner 1998: 116; Plate 398, 399). Behind them is an Assyrian officer. [Assyrian with three musicians] My “sanctified imagination” would like to suggest we have an “ancient photograph” of a Biblical personage. Among other things, the Korahite family was musicians. At one time they lead the people of Judah in praise to the Lord during the conflict with the “Eastern Confederacy” during the reign of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 20:14-19). One of the sons of Korah had vowed to praise the Lord in the Temple with his harp if he was delivered from captivity (Ps. 43:4). Could one of these musicians be one of the sons of Korah who composed Psalms 42-45 and 84?
The “Sons of Korah” also appear in another late 8th century BC context. Yohanan Aharoni excavated part of a bowl at Tel Arad that had an inscription on the bottom that listed several families, among which were “the sons of Korah.” This bowl, inscription #49, was found in Stratum VIII of the building next to the sanctuary. Aharoni conjectures that this was “a list of contributions to the sanctuary. The letter het adds weight to this hypothesis, whether interpreted as wheat or as a sin-offering” (1981:82). According to Aharoni, Stratum VIII was destroyed at the end of the 8th century BC (1981:149). Orna Zimhoni, of the Lachish Excavations, has re-evaluated the Arad material and has suggested that all the pottery of Arad Stratum X-VIII is paralleled to Lachish III pottery, which was destroyed by Sennacherib. Thus, she would also agree that the inscription should be dated to the end of the eighth century BC (Zimhoni 1985:84-88). Two questions should be raised at this point: first, what is a Levitical family doing in a non-Levitical city? Second, what was the nature of this sanctuary? Was it kosher or not? Was it a bamah (high place) or a pure Yahwistic shrine?
There is one other piece of archaeological evidence that relates to the sons of Korah. A figurine of a musician playing a harp was discovered in a burial cave at Beth Shemesh. I understand it dates to the end of the 8th century BC as well. The Korahites were allotted cities in the Land of Ephraim and Manasseh. Apparently they moved south after Jeroboam I set up the cultic shrines at Dan and Bethel and made a priesthood of anybody who was not a Levite (1 Kings 12:31; 13:33). Some Korahites settled in Arad. Perhaps some settled in Beth Shemesh as well.
An Archaeological Exposition of These Psalms
Psalm 42/43, originally one psalm, begins the set of psalms recounting the Assyrian captivity in 701 BC. In Psalm 42:6-8, the psalmist uses geographical terms to pinpoint where he is as he reflects on his departure from the Land of Israel. George Adam Smith points out “The Land of Jordan usually means in O.T. land across Jordan [The Jordan River – gf]. Hermons (not Hermonites) must refer to the triple peaks of Hermon. If these two identifications hold, the standpoint of the Psalmist is fixed in the corner between Hermon and Jordan, where Banias stands. To the two localities the Hill Mis’ar, is placed in apposition. It may mean, as it stands, Hill of Littleness. But it may also be a proper name; and it is remarkable that in the neighborhood there should be two or three names with the same or kindred radicals: (1) Za’ura; (2) Wady Za’arah, above Banias; (3) Khubet Mezara. I suggest these may be reminiscent of a hill in this district, called Mis’ar” (1931: 476, footnote 1). As he describes the waters rolling over the waterfalls, he may be referring to the Banias waterfalls in that region. As he leaves the Land of Israel he prays for deliverance and vows he will play his harp in Jerusalem again. As previously pointed out, the alabaster relief from Sennacherib’s palace depicts three barefooted musicians going through a mountainous region, possibly the Lebanon mountain range.
A good example of a lyre is displayed on a beautiful seal of the seventh century BC with the inscription “Belonging to Ma’adanah the king’s daughter” (Avigad 1978: 146-151).
The psalmist declared his trust in the Lord for deliverance from his Assyrian captors. In the 44th Psalm, during his captivity, he received word that the Lord miraculously delivered Jerusalem from the hands of the Assyrians (44:7, cf. Isa. 37:36). The psalmist, however, struggles within himself, “Lord, you answered their prayers, but what about mine?” (44:9-21). After this internal struggle, he came to the point where he realized this test was “for the Lord’s sake” (44:22). He finally renewed his confidence in the Lord (44:25, 26).
Two statements in this psalm are of interest to our study. The first is his statement in verse 11, “You have given us up like sheep intended for food, and have scattered us among the nations.” In Sennacherib’s annals, he states, “From the booty of those lands which I plundered, [Phoenicia, Philistia and Judah – gf] … and added them to my royal equipment. The rest, the heavy spoil of enemy (captives). I divided like sheep among my whole camp (army) as well as my governors and the inhabitants of my large cities” (Luckenbill 1927:II: 137). There was also a relief in Sennacherib’s palace showing Assyrian soldiers slaughtering sheep (Barnett, Bleibtreu and Turner 1998: 113; Plate 381; Parpola and Watanabe 1988:9).
The second statement of interest is the psalmist’s declaration of innocence regarding idolatry. “If we had forgotten the name of our God, or stretched out our hands to a foreign god, would not God search this out?” (44:20). He may have been innocent, but the truth of the matter is, Judah was not. They were involved in idolatry. The Lachish relief depicts Assyrian soldiers carrying off at least two metallic incense burners. Micah describes Lachish in these terms, “O inhabitants of Lachish … (She was the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion), for the transgressions of Israel were found in you” (1:13). The transgressions of Israel could hint at the alternative place of worship set up at Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam. Micah goes on to say that Judah was involved in sorcery, soothsaying, and idolatry (5:12-14).
After a struggle within himself, the psalmist finally acknowledges the captivity he was going through was “for your sake we are killed all day long” (44:22), a verse that the apostle Paul will quote in Romans 8:36.
The 45th psalm expresses the theme of worship in spite of the circumstances that the worshipper is in. After submitting himself to the sovereignty of God, the psalmist’s heart is over flowing with a good theme concerning the King (45:1). He describes himself as a “ready writer”. One is reminded of the Assyrian reliefs depicting scribes writing down lists of booty that had been captured. Usually there were two scribes, one scribe writing on papyrus and the other on a cuneiform tablet.
In the context of the Korah psalms, the king is not an earthly king, but rather, the Lord Himself (44:4; 47:2,6,7; 48:2,3; 84:3; Isa. 33:17,22; 44:6,8; 6:5, cf. John 12:37-41). The book of Hebrew identifies the King as the Lord Jesus (1:8, cf. 45:6, 7). The composer of this psalm describes the King as a warrior who fights for His people and the city of Jerusalem, with sword, chariots and arrows. It was the Angel of the Lord that destroyed the Assyrian army that was encircling Jerusalem that night (Isa. 37:36; 2 Kings 19:35). Ironically, this psalm may be an answer to the Lachish relief with Sennacherib sitting on his ivory throne, holding arrows in his right hand, his war chariots on display and his feet on his footstool with his enemies bowing down to him. It will ultimately be, however, the Lord Jesus who will win the final victory (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:8-14).
Psalm 45:8 mentions the ivory palaces. Ivory was used to adorn palaces of the eighth century BC. Some ivory has been found in the excavations at Ramat Rachel, probably the administrative palace built by Hezekiah called “MMST” (Barnett 1982:47,88, footnote 44, unpublished; Barkay 2006: 34-44). Sennacherib also paneled his palace with ivories (Smith 1878:147).
Psalms 46-48 were composed as songs of praise and thanksgiving after the Lord delivered Jerusalem from the hands of the Assyrians. Jerusalem took on a special connotation because the God who acted in the affairs of human history was residing in the city. Psalm 48 was composed in Jerusalem, and more specifically in the city of David, so he used the geography of the city in the opening of the song. “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, in the city of our God, in His holy mountain [the Temple Mount]. Beautiful in elevation [the 600 meters walk from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount with a 95 meter elevation change], the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion on the sides of the north [from the City of David, the Temple mount is north], the city of the great King” (48:1,2). The term “great king” is also a title that the Assyrians kings used for themselves.
Psalm 49 ends this section with a wisdom psalm regarding rich fools who think their wealth came bring them salvation. Verses 10 and 11 say, “For he [the rich fool] sees that the wise men dies; likewise the fool and the senseless persons perish, and leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses will continue forever, and their dwelling place to all generations.” Most commentators suggest the “house” in verse 11 refers to the dynasties of the wealthy individuals. I would like to suggest that the phrase should be taken more literally. In the second half of the verse, “houses” are paralleled with “dwelling places”, a literal structure. The materialistic fool knows his earthly house, made of stones and mud brick, will eventually collapse. He hewn’s out of bedrock a burial cave [an “eternal house” – Eccl. 12:5] patterned after his earthly house so he will feel “at home in death” (pardon the pun).
It is interesting to note the parallels between the Iron Age burial caves and the typical Israelite “four-room house”. The pattern is quite similar. The burial cave has an entrance, a central depression, and two benches on either side and one in the back. The “four-room house” has an entrance leading to a central courtyard with two long rooms on both sides of the courtyard, and a broad room in the back. Sunken panels have been observed in some of the large tombs of Jerusalem. Some of the royal structures had panels of cedar on their walls (1 Kings 6:9; Jer. 22:13-15; Hag. 1:4). Parapets on the benches are reminders of parapets on the roof to prevent people from falling off the house (Deut. 22:8). For a further exposition of this passage, see Franz 2002: 85-91.
Psalm 84 begins the second set of Korah psalms (Psalms 84-89). These psalms complement the first set. In this psalm, the procession to the House of the Lord is described as going up through the Valley of Baca. Josephus, the first century AD Jewish historian, seems to situate this valley close to the Valley of Rephaim (Antiquities 7:71-77; LCL 5: 397-399; Feliks 1981: 49-51). Quite possibly the psalmist has returned from his captivity in Nineveh and is making his first pilgrimage to the Temple for the Feast of Succoth. The date for this feast is hinted at with the mentioning of the “early rains” (84:6). The psalmist also seems to hint at where he has been in Nineveh. He says, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:10). Judean captives worked as slave laborers on Sennacherib’s “palace without rival” (Ussishkin 1982: 127-130). Was the psalmist one of them? If so, he saw the wickedness that was inherent in the palace and pledged he would rather be a humble doorkeeper in the Temple than to hang around Sennacherib’s palace.
The historical circumstances surrounding the return of at least some of the Judeans from the Assyrian captivity is uncertain. After Hezekiah died, his son Manasseh reigned. He was a vassal of the Assyrian kings, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. Any one of these kings could have released Judean captives because of Manasseh’s subjection.
The Conclusion of the Matter
This article has tried to demonstrate that the psalms of the sons of Korah should be taken as a literary unit and the order in which they are grouped is significant. It has also placed these psalms in the year 701 BC, a traumatic year for the people of Judah. The first group of psalms (42-48) express the inner most thoughts and feelings of one going into captivity as well as the rejoicing of those who stood still to see the salvation of their God in Jerusalem. Psalm 49, a wisdom psalm, stands alone and is set in the 14th year, 713/12 BC. The second set of psalms (84-89) compliment the first set and showed God faithfulness to His people and the answered prayer of the psalmist. The Assyrian reliefs and archaeology are used to illustrate the words of the psalmist.
It is my impression that more of the psalms belong to the end of the 8th century BC. More attention should be placed on this period. The commentary writers or expositor of the Scriptures should utilize more of the Assyrian reliefs and archaeological data to illustrate the Word of God. For an interesting attempt at this, see Keel (1985).
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1978 The King’s Daughter and the Lyre. Israel Exploration Journal 28/3: 146-151.
2006 Royal Palace, Royal Portrait? The Tantalizing Possibilities of Ramat Rachel. Biblical Archaeology Review 32/5: 34-44.
1981 Ancient Ivories in the Middle East. Qedem 14. Jerusalem: Hebrew University.
Barnett, Richard; Bleibtreu, Erika; and Turner, Geoffrey
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______2002 “At Home in Death”: An Archaeological Exposition of Psalm 49:11. Bible and Spade 15/3: 85-91.
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Parpola, Simo, and Watanabe, Kazuko
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Smith, George A.
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