Author: The Book of Psalms is a compilation of several ancient collections of Hebrew songs and poems used in congregational worship, as well as private devotion. Some of the oldest collections compiled the majority of David's formidable songs. Others gathered the work of several authors, such as Moses, Asaph, Heman, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Ethan and Jeduthun. Many spring from unknown sources. Jewish experts call them "orphan psalms".
Date: The individual psalms could have been written in times that span from the period of the Exodus from Egypt to the restoration after the Babylonian exile. But the small collections seem to have been put together in specific periods in Israel's history; David's kingdom (I Chron. 23:5), Hezekiah's government (II Chron. 29:30), and during Ezra's and Nehemiah's leadership (Neh. 12:24). This process of compiling helps explain the duplication of some psalm. For example, Psalm 14 is similar to 53.
The Book of Psalms, as we know it today, save a series of variants, was edited in the time of the Greek Septuagint, when the Hebrew Texts were translated a few centuries before the coming of Christ.
The Ugaritic texts, on being compared with the more recent Dead Sea Scrolls, show that the images, style and parallelisms of some psalms reflect a very ancient Canaanite style and vocabulary. Therefore, the Book of Psalms reflects what the worship, devotional life and religious sentiment were through approximately 1,000 years of the history of Israel.
Content: The Hebrew title of this book, Sepher Tehillim, means "Book of Praises". The Greek title, Psalmoi or Psalterion, denotes a poem that should be recited with the accompaniment of some stringed instruments. However, the Psaltery contains more than simple songs or hymns of praise. It includes elegies, laments, individual and collective prayers, petitions, meditations, instructions, hymns of historical character and acrostic praises about noble themes.
In its final form, in our canon of the Scriptures, the book of Psalms appears subdivided into five small books. Each one of them is a compilation of several ancient collections of songs and poems. The editors include, at the end of each book, a doxology to close the section. [A doxology is a declaration of praise to GOD or a brief hymn expressing His power and glory. The word itself doesn't appear in the Bible, but the concept is certainly present. Several passages in the Bible are called doxologies because of their clear declaration of praise to GOD. IBD] In the "First Book" (Psa. 1-41), the majority of the Psalms are attributed to David. The "Second Book" (Psa. 42-72) is a collection of songs assigned to the sons of Korah, Asaph, David and Solomon; and four of these songs are by unanimous authors. The "Third Book" (Psa. 73-89) is categorized by gathering a great collection of the songs of Asaph, who was David's choirmaster (I Chron. 16:4-7). Although the majority of the Psalms in the "Fourth Book" (Psa. 90-106) are by unknown authors, Moses, David and Solomon are represented there. In the "Fifth Book" (Psa. 107-150) more of David's Psalms appear. The series of psalms called "the Egyptian Hallelujah" (Psa. 113-118) are also included here. The final psalms (Psa. 146-150) are known as the series of "The Great Hallelujah". Each psalm begins and ends with the Hebrew exclamation of praise, "Alleluia!"
At the beginning of many psalms informative subtitles appear. The Hebrew preposition used in many of the subtitles can be translated in three ways: "to", "for" and "of". That is, "dedicated to", "for the use of" or "pertaining to". Those that describe the occasion on which the psalm was written always deal with the life of David. Psalms 7,34,52,54,56,57,59 and 142 refer to events that occurred in the course of the turbulent relations between David and Saul; and Psalms 3,18,51,60 and 63 cover the period when David reigned over Judah as well as over Israel.
Other subtitles allude to the musical instrument which should accompany the recitation of the psalm; the appropriate tone or melody; to the part of the choir that should act as soloist (e.g., soprano, tenor, or bass); or what type the psalm is (e.g., for our meditation, prayer). In actuality, some of the meanings of these liturgical and musical notes are unknown.
Meaning and Reliability of the Superscripts: (HBH) Some scholars, however, question whether the superscripts are meant to ascribe authorship to the psalms. The phrase ledawid used frequently in the psalm superscripts could mean by David, but it also could mean for David. But most scholars would admit that the word means by David There is no reason to think it is some kind of dedication.
A more serious question is whether the superscripts are reliable. Some scholars believe they were added at a late date and are no more than conjectures that have no real historical value. But there are good reasons to believe the superscripts can be trusted. Many of the psalm superscripts refer to incidents in the life of David about which Samuel and Chronicles say nothing. For example, the superscript of Psalm 60 mentions battles with Aram-Naharaim, Aram-Zobah, and Edom. It would be strange if, in the late post-exilic period, rabbis invented this. Another example is the superscript of Psalm 7, which speaks of a certain "Cush the Benjamite" (he is mentioned here only in the Old Testament). If the superscripts were late fabrications, one would expect that they would refer more to incidents from David's life mentioned in Samuel.
Many of the psalm titles contain technical musical terms, the meanings of which were already lost by the time the Old Testament was translated into Greek. For example, lammenasseah, "for the choir leader", is wrongly translated "to the end" in the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament. A number of these terms are still not understood. Obscure or difficult words in the superscripts include: song titles ("Do Not Destroy"; "A Dove on Distant Oaks"; "The Doe of the Morning"; "Lilies"; "The Lily/ies of the Covenant"; and "Mahalath"); musical instruments or technical terms ("stringed instruments" and "Sheminith"); musical guilds or singers ("Asaph"; "Sons of Korah"; "Heman the Ezrahite"; "Ethan the Ezrahite"); and types of psalms ("Songs of Ascent", likely sung by those who were making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; maskil, possibly an instructional or meditative psalm; miktham; shiggayon).
Ancient terminology and references to old guilds and bygone events all imply that the titles are very old. This supports confidence in their reliability.
Types of Psalms: (HBH) When studying a psalm, one should ask the following questions: (1) Was it sung by an individual or the congregation? (2) What was the psalm's purpose (praise, cry for help, thanksgiving, admonition)? (3) Does it mention any special themes, such as the king and the royal house, or Zion? By asking these questions, scholars have identified a number of psalm types.
Hymns. In this type of psalm, the whole congregation praises GOD for His works or attributes (Ps. 105). Six sub categories of hymn are: victory songs, which praise GOD for His victories over the nations (Ps. 68); processional hymns, sung as the worshipers moved into the temple area (Ps. 24); Zion songs, which praise GOD and specifically refer to His presence in Zion (Ps. 48); songs of the LORD's reign, which begin with the words, "The LORD reigns" (Ps. 99); antiphonal hymns, chanted by either the priests or choir with the congregation responding antiphonally (Ps. 136);hallelujah hymns, which begin or end with "Praise the LORD!" (Hebrew hallelu Yah; Ps. 146).
Community complaints. In these psalms the whole nation voiced its complaints over problems it was facing, such as defeat in battle, famine, or drought (Ps.74). A sub category of this is the national imprecation, in which the people cursed their oppressors (Ps.83).
Individual complaints. These psalms are like the community complaint except that they were prayers given by one person instead of the whole nation. The reason for the prayers might be that the individual was sick, hounded by enemies, or in need of confessing personal sin (Ps.13). This type of psalm may include substantial imprecation or curses against the psalmist's personal enemies (Ps.5). A sub category is the penitential psalm, in which the speaker is dominated by the sense of his guilt (Ps.51).
Individual songs of thanksgiving. In these psalms an individual praises GOD for some saving act. Usually it alludes to a time that the individual was sick or in some other kind of trouble (Ps.116).
Royal psalms. These psalms deal with the king and the royal house. Sub categories include: wedding songs, sung at the marriage of the king (Ps.45); coronation songs (ps.72); prayers for victory, chanted when the king went to war (Ps.20); votive psalms, perhaps sung by the king at his coronation as a vow to be faithful and upright (Ps.101).
Torah psalms. These psalms give moral or religious instruction (Pss. 1; 127). Subcategories include: testimony songs, in which the psalmist used his personal experience of GOD's salvation to encourage the hearer (Ps.32); wisdom songs, in which the psalmist instructed the hearer more in practical wisdom similar to that in Proverbs than in the law (Ps.49).
Oracle psalms. These psalms report a decree of GOD (Ps.82). The content of the oracle is often divine judgment, and the psalm concludes with a prayer for GOD to carry out His decree But see also Psalm 87, an oracle of salvation for the Gentiles.
Blessing psalms. In these psalms a priest pronounced a blessing upon the hearer(s) (Ps.128).
Taunt songs. These psalms reproach the godless for their vile behavior and promise that their doom is near (Ps.52).
songs of trust. In these psalms the psalmist may face difficulty but remains assured of GOD's help and proclaims his faith and trust (Ps.110.
When interpreting a psalm, it is important first to determine what kind of psalm it is. In this way one can see how the psalmist intended it to be read.
Hebrew Poetry: Instead of rhyme and sound, Hebrew poetry and songs are characterized by parallelism, or the rhyme of sense. Many parallelisms are paired verses that express synonymous concepts in each line (36:5). Others are antithetical, whose second line expresses something contrary to the earlier verse (20:8). There are also syntactic pairs, that add to or build upon an idea already expressed (19:8,9). A few parallelisms are causal, and the second line justifies what is said in the first (31:21). Sometimes the parallelism supports three lines of verse (1:1), four lines (33:2,3) or even more.
For more information about Hebrew poetry, see the article, "Poetry of the Bible".
Theological Contribution: (IBD) We may think of the psalms as a description of our human response to GOD. At times GOD is presented in all His majesty and glory. Our response is wonder, awe, and fear: "Sing to GOD, you kingdoms of the earth" (68:32). But other psalms portray GOD as a loving LORD who is involved in our lives. Our response in these cases is to draw close to His comfort and security: "I will fear no evil; for You are with me" (23:4).
GOD is the LORD in both of these psalms. But we respond to Him in different ways, according to the specific needs of our lives. What a marvelous GOD we worship, the psalmist declares - One who is high and lifted up beyond our human experiences but also one who is close enough to touch and who walks beside us along life's way.
Other psalms might be described as outcries against GOD and the circumstances of life rather than responses to GOD because of His glory and His presence in our lives. The psalmist admits he sometimes feels abandoned by GOD as well as his human friends (88). He agonizes over the lies directed against him by his false accusers (109). He calls upon GOD to deliver him from his enemies and to wipe them out with His wrath (59). Whatever else we may say about the psalms, we must admit they are realistic about human feelings and the way we sometimes respond to the problems and inequities of life.
But even in these strong psalms of lament, the psalmist is never totally engulfed by a feeling of despair. The fact that he uttered his protest to the LORD is a sign of hope in GOD and His sense of Justice. This has a significant message for all believers. We can bring all our feelings to GOD, no matter how negative or complaining they may be. And we can rest assured that He will hear and understand. The psalmist teaches us that the most profound prayer of all is a cry for help as we find ourselves overwhelmed by the problems of life.
The psalms also have a great deal to say about the person and work of Christ. Psalm 22 contains a remarkable prophecy of the crucifixion of the Savior. Jesus quoted from this psalm as He was dying on the cross (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Other statements about the Messiah from the psalms that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus include these predictions: He would be a priest like Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 5:6); He would pray for His enemies (Ps. 109:4; Luke 23:34); and His throne would be established forever (Ps. 45:6; Heb. 1:8).
Personal Application: The apostles of the New Testament employ references to the Book of Psalms with much frequency as texts to teach Christian doctrine. The forgiveness of sins by grace, GOD's faithfulness, the sinfulness of man (Jews and Gentiles), the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church, the existence of angels and the appropriate conduct of the saints, are all doctrines that are reinforced by citations from Psalms.
Throughout the centuries, the psalms have also been a source of personal inspiration and spiritual strength. In the course of the struggles with life's adversity, people are more or less frustrated by not knowing how to adequately express their emotional sadness or mental anguish. The psalms free us from that frustration. With laments tinged with emotion, humble confessions, desperate pleas, prayers imploring forgiveness or exclamations of pain, the authors of Psalms exhibit and skillfully express the anxieties that life in the deepest part of our hearts. This utilization of the Psalms sometimes represents the first step toward our own liberation. By songs and the Spirit, they comfort the lonely, strengthen the weary, bandage the broken hearted and make the eyes of the downcast turn toward their Creator. Hope is reborn, faith is renewed and life is made bearable again.
The Psalms also have a rich history of liturgical and congregational uses. King David organized choirs and orchestras, and designated talented directors and composers to lead worship (I Chron. 25). Not only did he compose many of the psalms himself, he invented musical instruments (I Chron. 23:5). Fifty-five psalms were expressly dedicated to the "musical principal" or director of praises.
This orchestrated worship continued in Solomon's temple, although the worship services in differing moments of Israel's history went through stages of impoverishment and abuses (see II Chron. 7:6; 29:25-30; Amos 5:23). With the destruction of the second temple, in 70 AD, and the cessation of animal sacrifices, the importance of singing psalms grew along with the reading the Scriptures in worship services in the synagogue.
The first Christian churches had many members of Jewish origin, so it was natural that use of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs entered into the praise and worship (Col. 3:16). Throughout the centuries, many of the greatest Christian denominations have used psalms adapted to their own cultural and musical patterns in congregational praise. In modern times, the churches continued to make use of the Book of Psalms in search of songs of worship. The praise that the Christian church has adopted not only incorporates the poetry and music of Psalms, but also claps hands (47:1), raises arms (141:2), kneels down (95:6), acclaims (134:1), makes exclamations (47:1) and dances (149:3).
Christ Revealed: Approximately one-half of the Old Testament references relating to the Messiah, cited by the New Testament authors, are taken from the Book of Psalms. The apostles find in the Psalms references to the birth of Jesus (Acts 13:33), his lineage (Matt. 22:42,43), his teaching by parables (Matt. 13:35), his rejection (Matt. 21:42), his priesthood (Heb. 5,6), his betrayal by Judas (John 13:18), his vicarious suffering (Rom. 15:3), his triumphant resurrection (Acts 2:25-28), his ascension (Acts 2:34) and his kingdom (I Cor. 15:27), as well as many other aspects of his ministry.
Some of the prophetic references to Christ are typical, that is, symbolic shades of future realities. Other references are direct prophetic affirmations. In whatever manner, the messianic sense of these psalms was confirmed by Jesus with his own words in Luke 24:44, where he declared that the Psalms had spoken of Him.
The Holy Spirit in Action: The Book of Psalms and the principles of worship that they reflect, minister to the soul of man and GOD's heart because they're fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit. David, the principal author of the Book of Psalms, was anointed by the Holy Spirit (I Sam. 6:13), not only as king, but as prophet (Acts 2:30); and the prophecies that he picked up in his psalms were inspired by the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:44; Acts 1:16). In fact, the lyrics of these songs were composed by inspiration of the Holy Spirit (II Sam. 23:1,2), as also his decisions to designate chief musicians and choirs with the accompaniment of their respective orchestras were (I Chron. 28:12,13).
Thus, the Psalms are something unique and completely different from the works of secular composers. Some of them may reflect the profound agony experienced by the human spirit, with all its pathos as much as the psalms do, as well as express the spontaneous joy of the liberated soul, but the psalms transport us to a higher plain because of the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Music and Instruments of the Bible
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