The Book of Psalms
What is the Book of Psalms?
The Book of Psalms is a collection of poems, hymns and prayers in the Bible. These psalms express religious feelings of Jews throughout their long history; their lasting quality also puts into words our feelings, so much better than we can express them ourselves. It is composed of five separate books, is the longest book in the Bible and is one of the most widely read of Old Testament books.
A few psalms are in other Old Testament books, e.g. Jonah 2, Habakkuk 3. Their structure is very close to those in the Book of Psalms.
THE PSALMS IN JEWISH HISTORY: The psalms held an integral part in the religious life of ancient Israel; they help us understand those people’s inner lives, their sorrows, questions, hopes and joys. Psalms were used in homes, synagogues and the temple. The Hebrew word for Psalms means ‘Praises’.
Every able Jew was expected to visit the Temple annually. Psalms were sung
- On their journey to the Temple,
- When Jerusalem came in sight,
- When they reached the Temple entrance,
- Antiphonal (alternately by two groups) in services,
- On feast days.
AUTHORSHIP OF THE PSALMS: While the Book of Psalms is often attributed to David, scholars accept that some are his, but historical events in other psalms place them later than David, as when the Children of Israel were held captive in Babylon.
In 73 Psalms, David is named as author, but 50 do not name an author. Of the remainder, 12 name Asaph, 11 the Sons of Korah, 2 Solomon (72 and 127), and 1 each: Moses (90), Ethan the Ezrahite (89), and Herman the Ezrahite (88).
PSALMS AS POEMS: Biblical poetry differs from the way we usually view it. Known as parallelism, it is further development of a thought by repeating an idea in different words: synonymous parallelism (Ps. 27.1); expanding a thought: expansive parallelism (Ps. 71.8); or an opposing idea: antithetic parallelism (Ps. 78.14).
The longest Psalm, 119, praises the Law in an acrostic poem. Its 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas, one for each of character of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the eight verses of a stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter.
The five books in the Book of Psalms are comprised of Psalms 1 – 41, 42 – 72, 73 – 89, 90 – 106, and 107 – 150.
Possibly the five sections were chosen to represent the five books of the Torah. Originally they were separate books: Book 1 by David, Books 2 and 3 were added during the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, and Books 4 and 5 were compiled in the times of Ezrah and Nehemiah.
Structure of Psalms
Each Psalm has a special structure, e.g.
Repetition: in Ps 8, the first verse is repeated at the end. Verses 7 – 10. Verses 7 - 10 of Psalm 57 repeat verses 1 – 5 of Psalm 108.
The word ‘Selah’: Found 71 times in Psalms, it may mean a break in the singing or thought, e.g. In Ps 46: Verse 1 sets the scene; we find 'Selah' at the end of verse 3 and after verse 7; each time it signifies a mood change.
Psalms with Unusual Structures: Most Psalms are intended for either ‘Individual’ or ‘Communal’ use.
Psalm 139 is good to study as it includes both. It also incorporates different structures:
- A rhetorical question (v. 7) with different levels of thought, e.g. 'How can I get away? You are with me always.'
- synonymous parallelism (vs 7, 10),
- antithetical parallelism(v. 8)
- A metaphor (v. 12) reminds us it is humans who fear the dark; God is Light of all, referred to in John 1.5.
Psalms Difficult to Understand: Look at those around it; they probably express similar thoughts.
Each book has a distinct formula, e.g.
The conclusion: Is a doxology, or blessing, e.g. 41.13, 72.19, 89.52.
Planned collections: e.g.
- The Kingship Psalms(95 – 99).
- The Praise Psalms. The last five Psalms in the fifth book were intentionally placed together (possibly by David). A great way to finish!
Over the years, the Psalms have been placed in various categories and genres. These often include orientation: putting our trust in God; disorientation: when our lives go wrong, and reorientation: when we turn back to God.
Songs of Orientation
- Songs of Ascents: Songs for the road, for worshippers going to Jerusalem: 120, 134, and several more.
- Stories of Israel: History – Poems of remembrance: 78, 105, 106; God’s grace in action: 78, 105, 106.
- Psalms that Teach: 1, 9, 10, 25, 33, 19, 37, 49, 73, 119.
- Wisdom Psalms: 1. 1 – 3, 37, 49 (also found in other Old Testament books, e.g. Proverbs 1, 119, Ecclesiastes 49, Song of Songs 45.
- Royal Psalms: used by the royal court: 2, 72, 110.
- Kingship Psalms: The Divine King, God: 47, 93, 96, 97.1, 98.6, 99.1,100; the Human King: 2, 20, 21.
Songs of Disorientation
Lament, complaint: expressing sadness (3) and prayer when hurt or upset.
- Individual Lament: upset by our thoughts and actions: 3, 5, 7, 17, 25 – 27, 38, 39, 56, 62, 69, 88.
- Community Lament: upset by others, God: 3, 12, 13, 22, 44, 60, 74, 79. 80, 83, 90, 126, 77. Each of these, except 88, turns to God with praise or trust at the end.
- Targeting: God’s enemies: 139. 19 - 22; God: 44. 23 – 24.
Songs of Reorientation
- Confidence: trust in God: 23: as caring Shepherd.
- Praise: when our relationship with God is untroubled: 8, 19, 29, 33, 47, 104, 105, 111, 113, 114,117, 135, 136, 96, 146 – 150.
- Thanksgiving: from individuals: 30, 32, 34, 66, 116, 138; from the community: 67, 124; for earlier lament and answered prayer: 18, 30; Best known: 100.
Psalms in Christian Churches
Since the dawn of Christianity the Psalms have been used in many contexts in Christian worship. Some are personal and speak to us as individuals, while others are intended for communal occasions.
The Messiah: One in every six Psalms includes a prophesy about the Messiah. The website, ‘Got Questions’ provides references for when they are fulfilled in the New Testament. Here is one from each category:
- Concerning the Messiah’s birth: from the lineage of David (89. 3 - 4; Matt. 1.1).
- Concerning the Messiah’s nature and name: the Messiah will be the Son of God (2.7, Luke 1. 31-35).
- Concerning the Messiah’s ministry: The Messiah will reveal that the Hebrew Scriptures were written of Him 40. 6 – 8b; John 5. 39 – 40).
- Concerning the Messiah’s betrayal and death: Political/Religious leaders will conspire against the Messiah (2. 1 - 3; Matt. 26. 3 - 4).
- Concerning the Messiah’s resurrection and exultation: The Messiah will be resurrected (16.8 – 10a; Acts 2. 25 - 32). The Messiah will be exalted to the right hand of God (80. 17; Acts 5. 31).
St. Paul: quoted several Psalms in letters he wrote to churches, e.g. 1 Cor. 10.26 is a direct quote from Ps. 24.1.
The most quoted Psalm in the New Testament:110.
Use of the Book of Psalms
Muslims: use the psalms of David; they are known in the Quran as the Zabur. One quotation in the Quran is from Psalm 37.29: “The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever.”
Christians: Some churches sing only the Psalms, while others incorporate them into their order of service or liturgy, either spoken or sung. Many Anglican churches use the Anglican chant to sing prose versions of psalms; a psalter in modern English is used daily and in cathedrals.
Psalms For Special Occasions: These include those used for
Lent: 22; an individual psalm of Lament, known as the ‘Psalm of sobs’, it stresses the importance of faith in times of testing.
To comfort the dying, or mourners at funeral services: 23.
In times of repentance: 51.
In funeral services: 82.
Matins: Ps. 95 chosen for inclusion the first Anglican Prayer-book.
Prayer: 129, 130.
Psalms as Hymns and Songs
After the Protestant Reformation, commenced by Martin Luther in 1517, numbers of psalms have been made to rhyme and set as hymns. Classical composers, including Bach, have used psalms, incorporating them into cantatas; Psalm 103 is the basis of ‘Bless the Lord” in Godspell; while several contemporary pop groups have used psalms in their albums.
The Psalms are loved for genuine the way they speak from and to the human heart. They are appreciated for the beauty of their language, and esteemed for the powerful way they have reveal the eternal goodness of God to every generation over thousands of years, and continue to do so.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Bronwen Scott-Branagan