Readers must interpret the Psalms within the social context of covenant. Yahweh formed a special, reciprocal relationship with Israel at Mt. Sinai. He promised to protect and exalt Israel among all the other nations. In return, the people of Israel were expected to honor God with loyalty and obedience. This socio-cultural framework of covenant informs the theology of ancient Israel. The message of Psalms, in honor-shame terms, is the honorable God faithfully keeps his covenant by honoring his people and by shaming their enemies. Most psalms either celebrate or lament this patron-client relationship between Yahweh and Israel.
When Israel experiences God’s covenant faithfulness and favor (e.g., a strong king, military victory, economic prosperity, international renown), they rejoice and honor God. Salvation in the Psalms is not just forgiveness of sins and entrance into heaven, but it also involves vindication of honor, restoration of status, deliverance from shame, and the humiliation of enemies. In response to this divine salvation, the psalmists honor God by recounting his faithful deeds. As God told Israel, “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (50:15). Psalms of praise glorify God for his benevolence, patronage, faithfulness, covenant loyalty, favor, and generosity as a trustworthy covenant partner.
But when God’s people experience shame, they call upon God to vindicate their status and humiliate their enemies. In moments of shame, Israelites feel betrayed by their covenant partner. God’s apparent disloyalty jeopardizes the very relationship that defines Israel’s identify and value. Psalms of lament plea with God to remember the covenant and rescue his people from disgrace.
5 Theological Motifs
The Psalmists’ theological worldview centers upon God’s covenant relationship with his people and reflects honor-shame values. These five theological motifs pervade the book of Psalms.
1. The Honor of God. God is the ultimate source of honor. Humanity must look to God, not human strength, to be lifted up and honored. Yahweh alone blesses people with honor.
2. The Shamefulness of People. The book of Psalms portrays the default state of humanity as one of lowly shame. Compared to the eternality of God, humans are a shadow, a breath, withering grass, dirt. These metaphors symbolize the insignificance and innate shamefulness experienced by humans after the Fall.
3. Honoring the Faithful. Many psalmists petition God to notice and remove their shame. They expect God to vindicate their honor.
4. Honoring the King. The messianic psalms (2, 45, 72, 89, 110) envision the exaltation of David’s royal family above all other kings. God has honored the Davidic king as his favored son and appointed him to rule as his royal representative over the earth.
5. Shaming the Enemies. Imprecatory psalms ask God to shame enemies. The recompense for opposing God and his people is disgrace and humiliation. Many psalms request that God’s shaming judgment occur soon.
In sum, “honoring covenant”—in all sense of the phrase—is key to interpreting Psalms.