Psalms - Lesson 5

Form Critical Approach

Knowing that there are different types of literature in the Psalms helps you interpret each Psalm more accurately. Introduction to the Hymns of Praise.

Lesson 5
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Form Critical Approach


Part 1: Introduction

I. A Survey of Academic Approaches

A. The Traditional Approach

B. The Literary Analytical Approach

C. Form Critical: 1900-Present

II. Types of Psalms and Hymns

Part 2: Praise Psalm

I. Two Types

II. The Hymns (general)

A. Motifs

1. Introduction (to be continued in Lecture 6)

  • Dr. Waltke summarizes the different approaches to studying the Psalms. By understanding "how" it means, you will understand more clearly "what" it means. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 1

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 4

  • This is a review of the exegesis and exposition of Psalm 4, followed by a study of Hebrew Poetry and Psalm 23.

  • Knowing that there are different types of literature in the Psalms helps you interpret each Psalm more accurately. Introduction to the Hymns of Praise.

  • Some elements of the hymns of praise are the call to praise, the cause for praise and fervent praise with music.

  • We learn theology from the praise of God's people. God has both communicable and incommunicable attributes. It is incomprehensible that the laws of nature are comprehensible. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 100. Also some introductory remarks and a summary of Genesis 1. 

  • We learn theology from the people of God celebrating the attributes of the God of history. 

  • Dr. Bruce Waltke's lesson on Psalm 92 emphasizes gratitude for God's righteousness and faithfulness with the unique use of musical instruments. The psalm is divided into two parts, expressing gratitude and celebrating God's triumph over evil. It serves as a reminder of God's goodness and the importance of incorporating music into worship, with the Sabbath as a time for rest and reflection.
  • There are three common sub-motifs in the petition psalms.

  • The theme of imprecatory psalms is petitioning God for deliverance from distress. Some also pray that God will uphold justice by punishing the enemy. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 3. This is the first lament psalm.

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 22. Summary of Elohistic psalms. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 51. The theme of Psalm 51 is the petition for forgiveness of sin. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 44.

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 91 and Psalm 139, which are both examples of psalms of trust. 

  • The liturgical approach considers the setting of the psalm. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 73 and Psalm 15. Also a further explanation of the importance of the liturgical approach when reading and interpreting the psalms. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of psalm 2, a coronation psalm. 

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 110, a coronation psalm.

  • Introduction to the rhetorical approach.

  • Introduction to the Messianic Approach.

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 16.

  • Introduction to Wisdom Psalms.

  • Exegesis and exposition of Psalm 19.

  • Introduction to the Editorial Approach.

The book of Psalms is considered by some to be the most popular book of the Old Testament. It is also the Bible's longest and, in some ways, most complex book, containing a collection of religious Hebrew poetry written over several centuries.

This course aims to edify you by teaching you to better read, understand and meditate authentically on each of the Psalms individually, and the book as a whole. Dr. Waltke is convinced that "what" a text means cannot be understood until it is known "how" it means. This course introduces you to five approaches that have proven helpful in guiding you to understand "how" the Psalms mean what they say, and then Dr. Waltke applies each of these approaches in exegeting and reflecting on specific Psalms. 

You can view the notes that Dr. Waltke uses in the class by single-clicking on Outline Notes, or download them by right-clicking on Outline Notes then choosing the "Save Link As" option. You can do the same with the Psalms Passages. Dr. Waltke summarizes at the end of Lecture 1, but does not lecture in detail on the points in the outline, "2. Hermeneutics: Spiritual Approach," and "3. Historical Approach." We kept this information in the notes so you can better understand how Dr. Waltke uses these approaches in exegeting specific Psalms. 


This is the 5th lecture in the online series of lectures on Psalms by Dr Bruce Waltke. Recommended Reading includes: The Psalms as Christian Lament, James Houston, Bruce Waltke; The Psalms as Christian Worship: An Historical Commentary, James Houston, Bruce Waltke.

You could think of the Psalms, originally as a royal hymn book where all the people of God gathered with the King at the Temple representing the people and himself. Know that the Old Testament is a metaphor of the New Testament. It is concrete and physical with the earthly temple representing a picture of a spiritual temple. The Hall of Judgment in the temple is a picture enabling us to better understand Christ at the Father’s right hand being the judge. We make a transition from the metaphorical to the spiritual. We have the metaphorical so that we can understand the spiritual. The Old Testament is like a picture book with the King being a picture of the Greater King. Israel and the fathers (1st Corinthians 10) speak of Abraham as their father and so he is also our father. Galatians 3:29 says that we are the seed of Abraham. Today, we are identified as the People of God. We have already considered Psalm 4 from a literary viewpoint dealing especially with its poetry. We talked about the way one should read poetry realizing that all poetry has a form of parallelism. This word is important as it relates to all poetry in the Bible and also much of the literature of the ancient near east. It is when you say something and then you say it again, but it’s not just a restatement, it is a related statement. You also ask how they are related and how are they different, thus you begin to read it the way the poet thought. You enter into the mind of the poet in order to be authentic in the interpretation for understanding for example: the background of the gifted poet David who shows himself to be a well-spoken person in the way literature works.

Part 1: Introduction

I. A Survey of Different Academic Approaches

We will eventually consider the form Critical Approach, looking at it very broadly and then we will narrow it down looking at different particular Psalms in detail, the Praise Psalms. Along with these Praise Psalms, there are also Royal Psalms, Individual Lament Psalms, and Communal Laments and also Thanksgiving Psalms. We will also look at the theology within these Psalms. We will hear Israel give testimony to what they believe God has put into their hearts about himself. Their words to God are praise and through the king and his people, we are being taught about God. It is a different form of revelation that we get from the Psalms, another way of looking at God. So we will be looking at these hymns of praise. We will classify these Psalms as hymns, laments, trust, or instruction. But you must understand first what the traditional approach to understanding the Psalms is as this is the most conservative view in dealing with them.

A. The Traditional Approach

There is first the traditional approach where you depend upon the superscript dating them back to David, earlier in Israel’s history. This is also considered the historical approach, an approach scoffed by many liberal and conservative scholars who have allowed the trappings of the world to affect their judgement.  So here, the traditional approach emphasizes the concept of the king which is correct but some consider it not normal because academia doesn’t accept Davidic authorship for the reason stated above. In fact, most scholars teach that you shouldn’t trust superscripts. We will need to consider the literary analytical approach so readily accepted in many institutes today to understand this. The cause of the literary analytical approach is due to presuppositions: that is of putting reason above revelation; a person trusts their reasoning over revelation. This creates skepticism toward the Bible; even the idea of divine intervention is tossed out as the scientific method has no place for miracles and God’s intervention. The scientific method can’t cope with this as it is not subject to scientific investigation. Thus a lens is created where you can’t see and thus acknowledge the Spirit of God. This skepticism all began with the Pentateuch and this came to a climax with the German scholar: Julius Wellhausen around the year1869. He came out with a Magus Opus that toppled the biblical academic world. So this is the literary analytical approach to understanding the Bible.

B. The Literary Analytical Approach

This was divided up by the men who created it: Wellhausen, Briggs, Cheyne and then Duhm. Before they came and sowed the beliefs of understanding the Bible must be done scientifically, most of the academic literature prior to this would have followed the Traditional Approach. Thus, from about 1870 to 1920, all academic literature was based upon this analytical approach. The method associated with this is skepticism, incoherence and analogy. It denies superscripts to be original and credible and then it reconstructs the historical horizon by philological and theological evolution of religion typologies. This creates a dictum of historical criticism at loggerheads with theology of Scripture and it is destructive to interpretation of the Psalms as if there is no exegetical value in it.

To understand this, let’s examine what brought this liberalism on. According to Wellhausen, there had been evidence before that the Pentateuch consisted of documents which were isolated by way of certain literary criteria. This has become known as the Document Theory. So in some cases where God is referred to as Yahweh, spelling it with a ‘J’ in German and so this has become known as the J document. The other document uses the name Elohim for God. So they identified it as the second document and thus document ‘E’ was created. Other books dealing with Elohim with the priestly order was assigned P for the Priestly Document. So we have documents J, E and P. There was yet another document that differs again, the Book of Deuteronomy which was a different document. This was assigned the letter ‘D’ for Deuteronomy. So now we have the J, E, P and D documents. So the question then was put forward as to which of these document came first. Note that this is such a plausible theory; even evangelicals have bought into it. So the doubt to Scripture is created in posing certain questions to these documents. For example in the J document, when do people begin to call upon the name of Yahweh? It begins with Genesis 4 with the birth of Seth and then Seth had Enoch and when Enoch was born is when men began to call on the name of Yahweh. So according to the J document, the name of Yahweh began with Enoch. Now in the E document the name Yahweh is revealed when God calls Moses at the burning bush. So you have a different origin for the name of God in the E document. In the P document in Exodus 6 God says to Moses, heretofore, I was not known by the name, Yahweh. So what is to be done with this? Abraham was calling upon the name of Yahweh. We are told that in the J document they started using the name Yahweh and then the E document Moses has to ask his name and then in Exodus 6 he didn’t know his name. So this is the P document. So these documents seem to contradict one another and that is what is behind this whole documentary hypothesis and what cap-stoned it was Wellhausen’s work as he supposedly demonstrated the sequence putting the J document first.  The next document was the E and so he dated J basically to about the time of David and Solomon in 950 BC and the E document to 850 BC and then dated the D document to the time of Josiah in 620 BC.

In discovering the Book of the Law in the Temple which was attributed to Moses, they ask how could this be. And from this everybody agreed in academia that basically the Book of Deuteronomy is a forgery because it didn’t fit into their Document Theory. They said that it was a pseudo graph being composed during the reign of Josiah in order to justify his reform of removing all the high places. And during the reign of Josiah they destroyed the high places but they existed before that so therefore the D document is firmly stated from the academic viewpoint at 620 BC and the P document is dated to the Exile or after it and dated late. So what has happened here, the whole Bible is turned on its head. So what we thought was early by Moses is now late. So all the priestly material like Leviticus and Exodus that we thought was Mosaic is now turned upside down and it is the last thing. So this is what happened within academia and creating an attitude that you can’t trust the Bible’s own claims to itself because it says that Moses wrote it but Wellhausen and the Document Theory says that Moses could not have written it. So it is secondary and it can’t be trusted. So if you don’t trust Moses, why do you trust David in writing the Psalms which academia also denies?  Again, these arguments were based on presuppositions that create doubt in the Scriptures and with God who never intervenes and no real prophesy.

So how do you answer the question of Exodus 6? I was ask this question during the presentation of my doctoral thesis. I didn’t have an answer to that then but then there are a lot of things I don’t have an answer to as we all live with ambiguity. We don’t have to have answers to everything in order to believe and have faith in God and the Scriptures. But Exodus 6 says that you did not recognize or know who I AM. You didn’t experience it. They never knew who he was until he exercised his power in Egypt. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew the name but they never knew what that name meant. They never felt the power of that name. When you see the prophecies fulfilled like from Ezekiel, you will know that I AM Yahweh. And as far as Deuteronomy, there is no reference to Jerusalem and other points show that it can’t belong to the time period they say it does. So you see this background on why academia has rejected the superscripts of David in Psalms today. I think that the Book of the Law is by Moses but the Book of Deuteronomy isn’t and this is why there isn’t the obituary of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy. Moses put the Book of the Law in the Tabernacle in the Ark and in my judgement there are 59 verses in the Book of Deuteronomy that Moses didn’t write.

C. Form Critical Approach

1900-Present: Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) was the champion of this. He accepted the conclusions of the literary analytical approach, but modified it somewhat. The method of the form critic buys into skepticism, coherence and analogy. These presuppositions are foundational to their method. They dismiss the idea of superscripts because the Bible is not credible. They claim that the superscript is not part of the Psalms, even though every hymn outside of the Psalms has a superscript. What is troubling, even in the TNIV study Bible, it is not firm on some of these things. We believe that words have meaning within historical context (the Traditional Approach). If you do away with David, then what is the historical context? Where did it originate? However, you can see without David, you don’t know where it comes from. It just becomes a lot of speculation. So as a result, Psalms was dated to the second temple that was built in the days of Haggai and Zechariah. Therefore, the way they dated it was through so-called scientific typologies, namely they thought that they could trace the evolution of language, early and late Hebrew and they thought they could trace the evolution of religion: animism, polytheism to pantheism to monotheism and dating it by philosophy of religious development, the Psalms are highly spiritual they did agree, but they placed them late at the end of the spectrum. Those were the reasons. Of course I disagree with this. Buy now, we have something that has shattered the scientific language bed and that is the discovery of the Ugaritic script in 1929. These texts came from Ras Shamra in Syria and these tablets show us what Canaanite religion was about. It was the worship of Baal with temples designated to Baal. They are in parallelism, just like that of Hebrew text. And therefore Psalms is no longer dated to the late temple period because of the similarity they are to the language of the Ugaritic script and the dating of those tablets. And the whole idea of the philosophy of religious development has now been called into question. The basic foundations of the form critical approach have now eroded. In my own opinion, I see no value in the above two approaches, the literary analytical approach and the form critical approach. But, sadly, from 1900 until now, all scholarly literature has been influenced by these two approaches, especially form criticism.

II. Types of Psalms and Hymns

This study makes us aware of the different types of psalms and hymns. We can think of them differently as being hymns or petitions or instructions, etc. So throughout the churches’ history Psalms has fallen into various types, such as penitential psalms (Psalm 51). And in addition, they meet different emotional needs of the church, from joy to pain to protest and aggress. They do, indeed, address every emotion we experience.  As mentioned Gunkel had a great influence in terms of form critical and through form criticism, he sought to establish the historical settings of the Psalms in different ways. I persist in showing you this because of the effect these approaches have permeated the Scriptures. So Gunkel wrongly concluded that the forms originated in the era of the 1st Temple, not David but pre-exilic, but the extant psalms belonged to the period of the 2nd temple. Well, the form originated in the 1st Temple but the Psalms themselves comes from the 2nd Temple. So he has to satisfy that political correctness. His first method is according to where the psalm originated and thus the question of origin of the Proverbs and Psalms had become questionable. You tried to get the setting of life where they originated; this was done with every psalm. In regards to the historical approach, I don’t ask where it originated in contrast to David. I am asking a different question; what is the historical situation that prompted the prayer (Psalm 4)? The form critic asks where did it originate and where and how was the tradition passed down. According to the form critics, the first point is that it originated more orally through prayers. The second is in relation to the genre or the form and this has to do with the moods of certain psalms; they have certain vocabulary. They have different motifs, different outlines. So they are categorized according to words, moods, ideas, motifs and other literary criteria (The Literary analytical approach). The approach gained support from analogies of ancient Near Eastern hymns that belonged to similar categories as the Salter. But now at this point, scholarship isn’t aware of recent archeology of Sumerian and Arcadian literature which has hymns from both places and also from Egypt which all are also of similar form.  So this kind of analogy with the ancient near east confirmed that we have distinct kinds of forms of literature. What Gunkel didn’t have at his disposal in 1930’s was the Ugaritic text which had not yet been published. They only showed that the material was much earlier dated somewhere between 120 and1400 BC.

Gunkel rightly concluded that there were five principal types of Psalms: Hymns of Praise, Royal Psalms, individual laments, communal laments and Thanksgiving Psalms. The Royal Psalms actually got included under Hymns of Praise. Gunkel ended up with ten Royal Psalms as they mention the king: psalms 2, 20, 21, 45, and 72. 72 is also the end of book 2. It talks about universal rule in space over all nations and in time through all of history. There is also Psalms 89, 101, 110, 132 and 144. So Gunkel is the first to identify these Royal Psalms. Then we have individual laments such as psalm 27 and 91. There are also Thanksgiving Psalms. There are songs and then hymns of grateful praise. You have hymns that celebrate God generally as creator, champion of Israel’s history. Songs of grateful praise are the opposite of lament psalms where God has answered specific prayers and you are giving God thanks specifically for the answer. These songs were sung along with sacrifices of thanksgiving that went with it. David’s psalms can only have originated with himself. Even if David’s psalms were created individually, they were given over to the director of music to be used in the temple. They didn’t originate in the temple.

What about the Gattung? This word is a German noun meaning a class and is used by biblical critics to denote types or genres of literature which can be classified. It follows a certain conventional pattern appropriate to its social circumstance. It argues the form was acquired through oral use before it was written down. Do they really fall into these distinctive types? I believe the Chronicler would agree with Gunkel on this. In 1st Chr 16:4, ‘then he appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel.’ Here are three types: to invoke, to thank and to praise; three types that Gunkel identified. I think the ten royal psalms that Gunkel pointed out are much more extensive. The above verse is from the ESV, but in the NIV it has ‘to extol’. The Hebrew word is hazkir and is translated ‘petition’, not extol. We have two other Hebrew words: hodot and hallel, where hodot is public praise with hallel being specific praise. So Gunkel ended up with three types of psalms which David had already clearly put forth in 1st Chr 16:4. He was missing one category, the instructions Psalms which aren’t mentioned in the Chronicles either. The instruction psalms are like Psalm 1, it is neither petition nor praise; it is praise. So three types are confirmed empirically with the distinction between individual and community to be somewhat flawed by failure to recognize extensive royal interpretation. I argue that the royal is a topic based on the mention of king, not by literary criteria. There are minor types like the songs of Zion which is a form of praise (Psalm 137:1). Note that there are hermeneutic, exegetical and literary values. For example the word peti means simple, even fool in the Book of Proverbs but in Psalms it means pious. In order to study words, you need to be aware of the type of literature you are dealing with.

Note, that in Psalms 51:16, ‘for you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. David is saying that this isn’t a time for celebration because a person has been put to death and there is a pregnant woman. David is saying what we can feed upon is my broken spirit. He is not rejecting sacrifices as such but it wasn’t right for then. After he is forgiven, then there will be delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings. These then will be righteous sacrifices. Note that in academic context, it is wrong but normal to take things out of context. So in reference to being hermeneutic, exegetical or literary values, it helps us to see what type of literature it is and thus how we are to interpret it.

So I hope you have some idea of how form criticism emerged, taking the shape that it does now.

Part 2: Praise Psalm

I. Two Types

There are Hymns of Praise in general for creation and salvation history and then there is thanksgiving. These are grateful praise of specific answers to prayer. In praise the one being praised is elevated while in thanks the one being thanked remains in their place. In the Old Testament, you never said thank you to God, instead there is confession, saying God you did this for me; a sort of public praise and confession. You are telling everybody that you are praising God for what he did for you. There are fifteen psalms of grateful praise.

II. The Hymns (general)

There are motifs which has an introduction and a body; this is their structure. I feel somewhat awkward in the way I’m presenting this information. There is a sort of tearing apart through the analyzation of the Psalms in order to see how it is composed. Afterwards, I will deal with the performance or liturgical approach. Afterwards I will deal with theology; what exactly are they celebrating which is really the heart of the matter. So motifs are first, then performance is next and the third part is theology and finally we will deal with the Song of Zion and finally enthronement psalms.  

A. Motifs

There is a call to praise and a cause for praise which is the main body and that is where we get the theology and then we have a conclusion which is a renewed call to praise: three parts. Consider the following psalm: Psalm 117:1-2, a complete psalm:

Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD! It is only two verses but you have all three elements. This psalm has all three motifs.

Another Psalm: Psalm 33:1-22

  1. Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
  2. Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
  3. Sing to him a new song; play skilfully, and shout for joy.
  4. For the word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.
  5. The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.
  6. By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
  7. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses.
  8. Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him.
  9. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
  10. The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
  11. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.
  12. Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he chose for his inheritance.
  13. From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind;
  14. from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth—
  15. he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do.
  16. No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.
  17. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.
  18. But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
  19. to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.
  20. We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.
  21. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.
  22. May your unfailing love be with us, LORD, even as we put our hope in you.

In verse 3, the old song is that of the Exodus. This shows the constant work of the spirit in our lives by singing a new song. The reason for playing skilfully and shouting of joy is because the Word of the LORD is right and true. He is faithful for all he does. Again in verse 6, he goes back to the Word. It was by the word the heavens were made, their starry hose by the breath of his mouth. Notice the imagery and figurative language in verse 7, ‘he gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses.’ He talks about God’s justice in history in verse 10, ‘the LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.’ This is a typical praise psalm.  

1. Introduction

Let’s look at the first part, the call to praise in verses 1 – 3. Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy. This is in the imperative mood; it’s a command to praise the Lord. The mood is of enthusiasm. Who does the singing of these Psalms? The imperative mood is typical German where everything gets analysed. It is in the second person, ‘you’. It is in the jussive form using ‘may the people’ and then the cohortative form using ‘let us’.  This is Gunkel who only demonstrates analytical investigation but no spirituality. We are called to praise God which was troubling to C.S. Lewis.  The question begged to be ask, is God narcissistic? Is God insecure? Does he have to have us tell him how great he is? Well, we praise a piece of art, don’t we? C.S. Lewis then says it would be totally wrong not to praise it. And if you can praise a piece of art, being the right thing to do, then isn’t it the right thing to do with someone who is much greater than a piece of art?  It is right and fitting to praise the Lord. God is the object to admire which is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all. I think this is great what Lewis has said. He goes on to say that the incomplete and crippled lives of those who are tone-deaf, have never been in love, never known true friendship, never cared for a good book, never enjoyed the feel of the morning air on their checks….are faint images of it. For myself, I admire God; I don’t admire the rapist, the murders, or those people in Holly Wood. I identify with God. To the world, talking about God is boring but to the saints, it’s the joy of our lives.

According to Psalm 95, we are to praise him in all circumstances:

1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.

3 For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.

4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.

5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.

6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;

7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if only you would hear his voice,

8 "Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,

9 where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.

10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, 'They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my


11 So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'

Thus, we are commanded to praise, it is not optional. We are dead if we don’t.