It may be no accident that the book of Psalms is in the center of the Christian Bible. The psalms express the heart and soul of the conversation between God and His people. Its popularity through the millennia lies in its human words to God that articulate our innermost joys, aspirations and fears, and in its prophetic words in which God Himself assures us and unmasks our pretensions.
What is a Psalm?
Psalms are tightly woven poetic compositions, unlike the prose prayers found in biblical narratives. Within the psalms, the identities of “I,” “we,” and “they” (usually the enemies) are open-ended. And the circumstances reflected are portrayed with a variety of impressionistic images. In Psa 35, the imagery applied to the opponents comes from a variety of spheres: the battlefield, agriculture, hunting, robbery, legal accusation, carnivorous beasts, and social mockery. This nonspecific language stands in contrast to David’s poetic lament contained in 2 Samuel chapter 1 (quoted from “the Book of Jashar”), which names its subjects (Saul and Jonathan), their enemies (the Philistines), and the location (Mount Gilboa).
While we have 150 psalms, each unique, they generally follow established literary patterns (such as individual/corporate laments, thanksgivings, hymns, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms). The psalms are full of liturgical and ritual allusions. Many of them contain plural commands, which imply the speaker is addressing a congregation (such as, “Hallelu-Yah!,” which means, “Y’all praise Yahweh!”). Several psalms refer to the temple on Mount Zion, to sacrifices, and ritual processions in accompaniment with the singing of the psalm and musical instruments.
The psalms were not spontaneous free verse written for singular occasions, but were carefully crafted liturgies written for recurring, typical human needs and for services of worship. They formed a kind of ancient prayer and hymn book.
Most Christian prayer books contain regular liturgies in which all worshipers participate during the liturgical year (such as Morning Prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and Easter Sunday), as well as special prayers and thanksgivings for particular groups and needs (governments, schools, the unemployed, and the sick). The book of Psalms is no different. The hymns and the songs about Zion were probably performed regularly at the temple during the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. The Royal Psalms were probably sung on special occasions, such as the king’s coronation. The laments of the individual may have been invoked in more local, private ceremonies, even at the bedside for the sick.
David and the Psalms: Whether or not David actually composed all of the psalms whose superscriptions name him (“a psalm of David” or “of David, a psalm”), we cannot be certain. The Hebrew preposition that translates “of” is even more ambiguous than the English preposition. Even the name “David” can denote the historical individual or a whole dynasty (Jer 30:9; Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24–25; Hos 3:5). Many of these “Davidic” psalms mention developments that took place after David’s lifetime, such as the construction of the temple (5:7; 68:69; 138:2) and its courts (65:4). Whether or not he was their author, the psalms were preserved, not to give us historical information about David, but to serve as models of prayer and praise for the people of God. The psalms were composed with language suited for any worshiper at any time and from any place. This quality helps explain their universal appeal over the millennia.
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.
This final arrangement of the 150 psalms incorporates and restructures several earlier “collections,” as evident from some of the superscriptions at the beginning of the psalms.
The Psalms as a Christian Hymnbook and as Christian Scripture
The Psalms are not merely ancient liturgies and literature for the curious. Our exploration of the Psalms began with a question of what a psalm is. The answer was found in how psalms functioned in the worship of ancient Israel. But how should the psalms function in the Christian Church?
As Scripture, the Psalms disclose God. This is ironic because, unlike Mosaic Torah and the Prophets, the Psalms are primarily human words addressed to God. Yet as prayers and praises to God hammered out over generations of experience, they reflect what Israel found to be appropriate and effective speech to God. They are not a “lens” focused on God, as the Prophets represent, rather they are a “mirror” reflecting the character of God.
Time and again the psalms refer to “the face of God” (24:6; 27:4, 8; 105:4) and petition Him to “incline your ear” (17:6; 102:2) and to “see my affliction” (9:13; compare 33:18). These claims are remarkable—especially considering they could have been misconstrued in the cultural context of ancient Israel. Among Israel’s neighbors “the face of God” was understood to have its literal counterpart in the face of a divine statue or idol. So the biblical Psalms, at the risk of people misinterpreting “God’s face” and thus violating the Bible’s repeated prohibition against images, use this metaphor to portray God as a living, interacting person.
The Psalms also urge us to engage our beliefs in worship. They are not only Christian Scripture; they are also a Christian hymnbook. The Apostle Paul commands believers to “address one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). The Psalms should not only inform our beliefs about God, ourselves, and the world; they should also shape our worship. The lament psalms invite us into a world where we may “pour out our heart before him” (compare Psa 62:8)—authentically disclosing our heart (e.g., compare Psa 22:1 and 22:24). And the liturgies of temple entry and the hymns invite us into the palace to have an audience with the cosmic King (Pss 24; 95).
As the prophet Hosea enjoins the people of Israel, “Take with you words and return to the Lord” (Hos 14:2), so the Book of Psalms provides such words for God’s people to beseech and worship Him.
The “Davidic” Psalms
Pss 3–41 (except Psa 33); 51–65; 68–71; 86; 101; 103; 108–110; 138–145
Distinct from the two Levitical collections, those with the superscripts “of the sons of Korah” and “of Asaph.”
The Psalms of “the sons of Korah”
Pss 42–49; 84–85; 87–88
The Psalms of “Asaph”
Pss 50; 73; 83
“Psalms of Ascent”
Probably a prayer book for pilgrims to the postexilic temple.
The “Elohistic Psalter”
Pss 42–83 (compare, Pss 14 and 53).
The generic name “Elohim” or “God” is preferred in these psalms over the personal name “Yahweh,” which most English translations render as “the Lord.” This collection overlaps several others.
In this article “Psalms” capitalized refers to the book of Psalms, and “psalm(s)” lowercase refers to an individual psalm or psalms.
A comparison of Pss 14 and 53 illustrates the distinction. They are virtually identical, aside from their divine names, where Psa 14 uses “the Lord” and Psa 53 uses “God.” Although both psalms contain “of David” in the superscript, they were transmitted in separate collections.
Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazinepublished by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Beth Moore, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at http://www.biblestudymagazine.com. Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Sept–Oct 2009): pgs. 28–30.
Publication date: January 26, 2012