The Book of Psalms

Updated on August 24, 2018
BlossomSB profile image

Bronwen was a Sunday School teacher for over sixty years. Part of her doctorate was in Christian Education.

Different Translations of The Bible
Different Translations of The Bible

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.

The Torah
The Torah

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!

Psalm Categories

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

  1. Songs of Ascents: Songs for the road, for worshippers going to Jerusalem: 120, 134, and several more.
  2. Stories of Israel: History – Poems of remembrance: 78, 105, 106; God’s grace in action: 78, 105, 106.
  3. Psalms that Teach: 1, 9, 10, 25, 33, 19, 37, 49, 73, 119.
  4. 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.
  5. Royal Psalms: used by the royal court: 2, 72, 110.
  6. 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.

  1. Individual Lament: upset by our thoughts and actions: 3, 5, 7, 17, 25 – 27, 38, 39, 56, 62, 69, 88.
  2. 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.
  3. Targeting: God’s enemies: 139. 19 - 22; God: 44. 23 – 24.

Songs of Reorientation

  1. Confidence: trust in God: 23: as caring Shepherd.
  2. Praise: when our relationship with God is untroubled: 8, 19, 29, 33, 47, 104, 105, 111, 113, 114,117, 135, 136, 96, 146 – 150.
  3. 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.

The Book of Psalms in Big Print
The Book of Psalms in Big Print

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.


From the Cathedral Psalter
From the Cathedral Psalter

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.

The Sower
The Sower

Questions & Answers

© 2018 Bronwen Scott-Branagan

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    • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      2 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      Manatita44: Yes, it did take some research, but that meant that I also learned more! thank you for your comment and God bless you.

      Readmikenow: Thank you. My favourite is probably Psalm 100, but there are so many that I love.

      Jo Miller: Thank you for your comment. Yes, you would miss them. We used to sing them and that often gave us longer to think about the words, now we just say them.

      Eric Dierker: How lovely! We use the Lectionary, too, but every now and then it's good to have an overview, the Psalms have so much to tell us and can help us in so many life situations.

      Dora Weithers: Yes, the Psalms cover so much, and as you write, they're great for both reading and singing. Thank you.

      Kathleen Cochran: That is so true! Actually, for quite a number of years I have had a special Psalm for the year, according to my age, so in part I have read them chronologically without thinking of them like that! Yes, they express, so much better than I can, the difficulties I meet and I just love the way they are followed with thanksgiving and uplifting praise.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      2 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      So appreciate the work that went into this engaging article. Have you ever read the Psalms in the order they were written. A chronological Bible will provide the opportunity. It is a powerful way to put each of them in context. Usually, something difficult happens followed by praise and thanksgiving.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 months ago from The Caribbean

      Blossom, thank you for this lesson on the Psalms, helping us to understand its many uses. I have always thought that if I could only have one the Bible's 66 books, I would choose the psalms for reading and for singing.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Wow that was great! I was pulling a lectionary book for my readings today and said "hey let us just read Bronwen again today." We have to stay fresh and this article fills the bill. Thanks again.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 

      2 months ago from Tennessee

      Very well researched and written, Bronwen. We don't read the psalms in our church as much as we once did and I miss the practice.

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 

      2 months ago

      Very well written. I enjoyed reading it. Do you have a favorite psalms? if so, which one?

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      2 months ago from london

      You have done some research and come up with a brilliant piece worth respecting. God bless you.

    • BlossomSB profile imageAUTHOR

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      2 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      Margaret Minnicks: Thank you for your comment. I do agree, it's a Book (or Books) for always.

      FlourishAnyway: Thank you! My favourite is usually the one I need at the time, otherwise it's probably 100.

      Mr. Happy: Yes, we can read them over and over and their impact never dulls. Sometimes we even use some of the phrases without realising it.

      Mary Norton: Yes, there's always one (or more) that just speaks to us. There are so many different chants, often for each Psalm. They all sound beautiful and lift up the heart, but some are much more difficult than others to sing.

      Peg Cole: Both those Psalms you mention are much loved and express what we'd like to say, only so much better. They can be such comfort, too. I'ts amazing that we still remember Psalms we learned as children.

      Eric Dierker: Thank you. The Psalms are the most read of all the Books of the Old Testament and they really must be the most loved, too.

      Linda Crampton: Thank you. There is always so much we can learn and so much help we can gain from reading the Psalms.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for this educational article, Bronwen. I enjoyed learning more about the psalms. I'll keep your information in mind when I next read them.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Really well done. Thank you. I just love them.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      2 months ago from Dallas, Texas

      Thanks for this wonderful review of these biblical readings. Psalm 100 in the King James Version is among my favorites. We learned this one in the 3rd grade and recited it daily in the public school. "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord. Serve the Lord with gladness."

      In times of trouble, I usually turn to Psalm 46. "God is our refuge and strength."

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      2 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I always love lsitening to the chanting of the paslms especially in monasteries. Psalms express very well what I feel. I can always find one to meditate on.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      2 months ago from Toronto, Canada

      Neat article. Thank You for putting it together. I am not religious but I have read the Bible many times and I do love the Psalms.

      I have a couple of favorites:

      "115 To us belongs nothing, O Jehova, to us belongs nothing,

      But to your name give glory

      According to your loving-kindness, according to your trueness."

      And "120 To Jehova I called in the distress of mine,

      And he proceeded to answer me.

      O Jehova, do deliver my soul from false lips,

      From the tricky tongue ...

      121 I shall raise my eyes to the mountains.

      From where will my help come?

      My help is from Jehova,

      The Maker of heaven and earth.

      He cannot possibly allow your foot to totter."

      Been coming back to these passages for the last twenty years.Thanks again for your writing.

      May the Great Spirit guide your path.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 months ago from USA

      You provided a very thorough overview here. Favorite psalm if you have one?

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 

      2 months ago from Richmond, VA

      Good job on explaining the Psalms. It is a book of the Bible that I never get tired of reading.

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