The History of Psalms

No book of the Bible has a wider scope than the Psalms. Its tradition and literary history spans from the time of the Judges (ca. 1200 BC) to the centuries just prior to Jesus Christ. It stems from a variety of social circles: from the kingdom of northern Israel to that of southern Judah, and from the royal court and the priestly temple to rural clan settings.

Many psalms originated during Israel’s monarchy (ca. 1000 BC to 587 BC).

The Babylonian destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 BC should have resulted in the end of Israel’s religion. But the songs that had accompanied temple rituals were rescued as scrolls carried by the deported scribes. In exile they were correlated with the other sacred scrolls, such as Exodus and 1–2 Samuel. During that period, the psalms became Scripture and thus a “book” in their own right. As indicated by the book’s opening psalm, they now belonged to “the law of the Lord,” on which His people should “meditate day and night” (Psa 1:2).

Even during the Babylonian exile (587–538 BC), psalms were composed and sung, either among the exiles or by those who remained in the land. Psalms 74 and 79 lament the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Psalm 106 confesses the people’s sin and closes with a petition, “gather us from among the nations.” After the initial return from Babylonian exile under Zerubabbel (538 BC) and the building of the second temple (ca. 515 BC), the “Psalms of Ascents” (Pss 120–134) probably functioned as a prayer book for pilgrims as they “ascended” (Pss 122:4; 24:3; compare Isa 2:3) to the second temple (Pss 124–126 and 129–130 especially reflect a postexilic setting). Generally, most of these postexilic psalms appear in the latter third of the Book of Psalms.

At a time when Judah was a province of the Persian Empire, and there was no Davidic king, why would scribes choose to retain the Royal Psalms?

Their preservation was in part motivated by their reinterpretation in light of the prophecies of a new David (Isa 9:5–6; 11:1–5; Mic 4:14–5:4a; Jer 23:5–6; Ezek 34:23–24; Zech 9:9–10). Certain psalms therefore functioned not only as liturgies and literature, but also as prophecies, engendering hope for a new David.

The Church sees this trajectory traveling one step further: the new David is identified with Jesus Christ. As the embodiment of His people, this king, this Messiah, becomes the true Israel. As such, even laments such as, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Ps 22:1, 18), can foreshadow the passion of the Lamenter par excellence (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; and John 19:24; Matt 27:35; Luke 23:34).

The Book of Psalms

Over the centuries the psalms have transitioned from liturgies to literature, prompted especially by the destruction of the first temple in 587 BC. This development reflects a larger one within the religion of the Old Testament as its focus shifted from temple to “torah” (the Hebrew word that literally means “instruction” but is usually translated “law”). Seeing the temple symbols and performed rituals receded as hearing the written word read aloud took center stage.

Psalm 1, when read among other psalms of its own kind (e.g., Pss 19 and 119), appears to be a “Torah” psalm, where torah originally denoted Mosaic Torah (the Pentateuch: Genesis–Deuteronomy). But when placed as the introduction to the Book of Psalms, it leads the reader to construe the following psalms as another Torah of the Lord. This reading is confirmed by the final arrangement of the Book into five “books,” thus reflecting the five book arrangement from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Each book is marked off by a closing doxology, such as “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen” (41:13; compare 72:18–19; 89:52; 106:48). Psalm 150 marks off book five and the book of Psalms as a whole.