The Meaning of the Word “Psalms”
The Book of Psalms bears various names in the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Vulgate texts. This is not surprising since the Hebrew texts are written in Hebrew, the Septuagint in Greek and the Vulgate in Latin. Here are these names.
- The Hebrew name “praises” comes from the infinitive “to praise” or the noun phrase “book of praises.”
- The name “praises” does not indicate that all the psalms in the Psalter are designed for praise. Many are not. Only Psalm 145 is entitled “praise” in the superscription.
- In later Jewish worship, a synonymous name Hallel was given to four groups of songs of praise (Psalms 104-106, 111-117, 135-136 and 146-150).
- While these were designated as songs of praise, the entire collection of the Psalms constituted the Jewish hymnal for temple services.
- Since the temple services were made up of praise, the name “Praises” was given to the hymnal itself, i.e. The Psalms.
Other assorted titles
There are other assorted liturgical titles that introduce individual psalms. Here are examples:
- Psalm 100 – “A Psalm for Giving Thanks” – a psalm for the thank-offering;
- Psalm 38 and 70 – “For the Memorial Offering” – to remember God’s goodness;
- Psalm 30 – “A Song at the Dedication of the Temple”;
- Psalm 92 – “A Song for the Sabbath.” Authorship of the Psalms
Authorship of Psalms
The Old Testament witness to the authorship of the Psalms chiefly lies in the superscriptions or titles at the top of a psalm. These attribute various psalms, especially in Books I-3, to David, Asaph, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Moses, and others. Let’s consider these authors individually.
The titles of 73 psalms in the Masoretic Text and of many more in the Septuagint seem to identify David as the major author of the Psalms. While it is popular today in some scholastic circles to strip David of the authorship of any psalms, the weight of history and the biblical evidence is clearly in his favor. Here is a breakdown of the Davidic psalms:
- Psalms 3-41, i.e. all of Book I except Psalm 10 and 33;
- Psalms 51-70 in Book 2, except Psalm 66 and 67;
- Psalm 86 in Book 3;
- Psalm 103 in Book 4; and
- Psalms 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 135-145 in Book 5.
- It is now generally believed by most Hebrew scholars that the Hebrew expression in the titles of the Davidic psalms has the force of a genitive, as in the Septuagint, and that tou David, “of David” is a better translation than the Vulgate ipsi David, “unto David himself.”
- This preposition, however, does not always signify authorship. In cases where a psalm has a composite title such as “to the Choirmaster. A Psalm of David” (Psalm 19), or “A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah” (Psalm 48), the title probably doesn’t indicate authorship but rather a collection of psalms.
- Further Old Testament evidence of Davidic authorship of many Psalms is David’s natural poetic talent. After all, he is the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1).
- If you compare David’s songs and dirges in 2 Samuel 22 and 1 Chronicles 16 with the wording of multiple psalms, there should be no question of David’s authorship of the psalms that bear the telltale traces of his talent.
- Besides, it was David who instituted the solemn Levitical cantilation of psalms in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chronicles 16:23-24) and established the singers, choirs and musicians of Israel (1 Chronicles 25).
- No candidate for authorship of the psalms attributed to David stands out like David himself.
- Asaph is credited, by their titles, with 12 psalms (Psalms 50, 73-83).
- Asaph was a Levite, the son of Barachias (1 Chronicles 6:39), and one of the three choirmasters of the Levitical choir (1 Chronicles 15:17).
- The “Sons of Asaph” were separated from David’s army as those “who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals” (1 Chronicles 25:1).
- Most probably members of Asaph’s Levitical family composed the psalms bearing Asaph’s name which later were collected into an Asaph psalter.
- These psalms are all nationalistic in character and seem to address Israel’s state of affairs in widely-diverse periods of Jewish history.
- Psalm 83, for example, appears to have been written when Tiglath-pileser III invaded Israel in 737 BC.
- Psalm 74 was likely written during the Babylonian Exile, after 586 BC.
- All the Asaph psalms are uniform in that they feature vivid descriptions, make frequent allusions to Israel’s history and exalt Yahweh as God above all gods.
The Sons of Korah
- The Sons of Korah are named in the titles of 11 psalms (Psalms 42-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88).
- The Korahim were a family of temple singers (2 Chronicles 20:19).
- This family did not all jointly compose every psalm that bears their name.
- Rather, each psalm was either composed or compiled by a particular member of the guild of Korah and thus ascribed to that family.
- There is a similarity in style between each of the Sons of Korah psalms; they betray their Levitical heritage.
- Korahite psalms exhibit an innate trust in Yahweh, an intense love for the Holy City of Jerusalem, and a strong desire for the public worship of Israel.
- Moses’ name is found in the title of Psalm 90.
- It is called “A Prayer of Moses, the Man of God.”
- But not all the Church Fathers agreed on Mosaic authorship of Psalm 90.
- While Jerome attributed the psalm to Moses, Augustine denied Mosaic authorship.
- Since the author of the psalm imitates the songs of Moses found in Deuteronomy 32 and 33, the title could simply reflect that imitation and not authorship. The jury is still out.
- Solomon is said to be the author of Psalms 72 and 127.
- Since these psalms somewhat mimic Solomon’s sententious sayings in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, some have concluded that Psalm 72 and Psalm 127 were composed simply to imitate the style of Solomon. Again, no jury decision.
- Some scholars have argued that the name “Ethan” in the title of Psalm 89 should probably be understood as the name Idithun or Jeduthun.
- Three psalms in the Psalter have as a title “To the Choirmaster: According to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David” (Psalm 39 and 62) and “To the Choirmaster: According to Jeduthun. A Psalm of Asaph” (Psalm 77).
- Some believe Psalm 89 should be the fourth.
- However, the title over Psalm 89 is significantly different from the other three.
- “To the Choirmaster” is missing.
- “A Psalm of David” or “A Psalm of Asaph” is missing.
- Psalm 89 is not dedicated to anyone; it is a maschil, a contemplation of an individual.
- However the greatest reason for believing this genuinely referred to a man named Ethan is that a man named Ethan existed during David’s time, and he was a musician.
- Ethan was a descendant of Levi through Levi’s son Merari, and the son of Kishi (1 Chronicles 6:44) or Kushaiah (1 Chronicles 15:17).
- He was one of three outstanding musicians, along with Heman and Asaph, appointed by David to be the lead singers when Israel brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 15:16-19).
- In fact, contrary to the view expressed above, it was probably this Ethan whose name is ascribed in the title to Psalm 39, 62 and 77:1 as “Jeduthun.”
- In 1 Chronicles 16:41 and 25:1 Ethan was called “Choirmaster.”
- He probably was the composer of the music for these hymns of praise.
The Psalms as Poetry
When I mention that the Psalms are poetry, some may question the choice of words. They don’t look like the poetry we know. The lines don’t even rhyme. So what makes the Psalms poetry? Much of the poetic character is hidden or even lost in the translation from Hebrew into other languages, but consider the following features of Hebrew poetry.
Parallelism is the principle of balance. This is likely the dominant characteristic of Hebrew poetry. It is the essential feature of the poetic form of the Psalms. By the use of symmetrical synonymous, antithetic, or step-like parallelism, thought is balanced with thought, line with line, strophe with antistrophe forming the balance that is key to Hebrew poetry.
For some time many scholars denied that there was any metre to the Psalms. However more moderate views have recently returned to favor. Scholars explain Hebrew metre by quantity, by the number of syllables, by accent, or by both quantity and accent. Is there metre in the Psalms? Those of earlier centuries thought so.
- Flavius Josephus spoke of the hexameters of Moses (Antiq., II, xvi, 4; IV, viii, 44) and the trimeters and tetrameters and manifold meters of the hymns of David (Antiq., VII, xii, 3).
- Philo said that Moses had learned the “theory of rhythm and harmony” (De vita Mosis, I, 5).
- Origin (ca. 185- 254) said the Psalms are in trimeters and tetrameters (In Psalm 118; cf. Card. Pitra, Analecta Sacra, II, 341).
- Eusebius (ca. 260-340), in his De Praeparatione Evangelica, XI, 5 (P.G., XXI, 852), spoke of the same metres of David.
- Jerome (ca. 345-419), in Praef. ad Eusebii Chronicon (P.L., XXVII, 36), found iambics, Alcaics, and Sapphics in the Psalter.
- Jerome writing to Paula (P.L., XXII, 442) explained that the acrostic Psalms 111 and 112 were made up of iambic trimeters.
- He also said the acrostic Psalm 119 was iambic tetrameters.
Acrostic or alphabetic alliteration
Acrostic or alphabetic psalms are psalms in which the letters of the alphabet begin successive lines, strophes, or couplets. Again, this is only discernible in the original language.
- Examples of alphabetic psalms are: Psalms 9-10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 129,145.
- In Psalm 119 the same letter begins eight successive lines in each of the twenty-two alphabetic strophes.
- In Psalms 13, 23, 62, 148 and 150 the same word or words are repeated multiple times making for balance.
- Rhymes, by repetition of the same suffix, are found in Psalms 2, 13, 27, 30, 54, 55,142, etc. These rhymes always are found at the ends of lines.
- The word “Selah” often makes the end of a strophe.
The Classification of the Psalms
It is not easy to classify each individual psalm in a specific category. That would be like trying to put all ten of your fingers into the holes of a bowling ball. But some psalms are easily classified. They jump out at you, they grab you by the arm, they scream at you and you immediately know what type of psalm they are. Here is a summary of such psalms.
Psalms of Praise
Many Psalms are pure praise. They are composed simply to extol God, His deity, His nature, His mercy, His justice, and all His manifold attributes. A great example of this kind of psalm is Psalm 19. This is one of my favorite psalms. Psalm 19 praises the work of God in creation (vv. 1-6), then it extols the magnificent Word of God (vv. 7-11), and finally focuses on rousing the workers of God to offer acceptable service to Him (vv. 12-14).
Some of psalms are a record of God’s dealing with His people throughout their history. More than 20 historical psalms have been identified. Psalm 105 is one of them. It begins with an anthem of praise to God for all that He has done for His people (vv. 1-5). Then it reiterates Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham (vv. 6-15). It turns to Joseph and God’s providence in His life and the sojourn of Israel in Egypt (vv. 16-24). Psalm 105 records the journey of Moses, Israel’s great deliverer, and the plagues with which God devastated Egypt (vv. 25-38). Verses 39-41 address Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Finally, the psalm celebrates the conquest of Canaan (vv. 42-45). This genre of psalm proves that even poetry can highlight history.
Some of the 150 psalms stress the moral responsibility of man and his ultimate accountability to God. For example, in the first psalm of the Psalter, a contrast is made between the person who lives to please God and the one who does not. To please God we must not be one who walks “in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers”-all ethical no-no’s for righteous living. The wicked on the other hand, will be judged by God and they “will not stand in the judgment.” Psalm 8 highlights the dignity of man where, while addressing God’s glorious creation, the psalmist asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him?”
Psalms of Penitence
Some psalms reveal the deep contrition that comes when a person acts contrary to God’s will or His Law, is broken by their sin and repents of it. These psalms reflect the holiness of God and, by way of contrast, the sinfulness of man. They demonstrate the psalmist’s understanding that sin is a slap in the face of God and an assault on the character of God. A perfect example of a psalm of penitence is Psalm 51 where David genuinely confesses his sin with Bathsheba and the pain and shame that resulted. Other psalms echo this same contrition (cf. Psalm 6, 32, 38 and 143, etc.).
An imprecation is a prayer for the defeat and/or destruction of an enemy. The imprecatory psalms feature a highly nationalistic sense of love for God and country. While to the unprepared reader they may seem to be venomous, to the person who has stood on the battlefield and watched the atrocities of war, they seem more in keeping with the desire for God’s help in defeating their enemy. Examples of imprecatory psalms are Psalms 35, 69 and 109). These psalms do not reflect personal vendettas by the psalmist but rather they cries for justice and reprisal for persistent enemies of God. The Holy Spirit carefully guided the writer of these psalms just as He did the psalms of praise (cf. Psalm 69; Acts 1:16-20).
It has become the popular sport of liberal scholarship to deny that any psalms in the Psalter reflect a messianic character of prediction. But rational critics being what they are, most fail to grasp the spiritual implications of the Psalms anyway. It is certain that the Lord Jesus understood particular psalms to be Messianic in character for He addressed them as such.
When Christ encountered Cleopas and friend returning to their village of Emmaus after the events of Resurrection Day, He helped them understand the truth about the risen Lord by, as Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” This would have included the Psalms. Within the Psalter you can come to appreciate that the Messiah would be both divine and human (Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 22:22). The Psalms predict that Messiah would be betrayed (Psalm 69:25), that He would suffer a cruel death (Psalm 22:1-31), but He would rise from the grave and conquer death (Psalm 16:10) and then ascend into heaven to be seated as King and to serve as our great High Priest (Psalm 110:1-7). It seems a bit foolish to deny the Messianic character of some psalms when the evidence is so plain.
Some of the psalms of the Psalter were composed for Temple worship, for special festivals, holy days and to aid Jewish worship. For example, Psalm 30 was composed as “A Song at the Dedication of the Temple.” Psalm 92 is “A Song for the Sabbath.” Other psalms were dedicated to the Choirmaster to be a part of the worship of God (Psalms 4-8, 9, 11-14, 18-22, 31, 36, 39-42, 44-47, 49, 51-62, 64-70, 75-77, 80, 81, 84, 85, 88, 109 and 140). And Psalms 120-134 were sung as pilgrims made their way up the Judean hills to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts of Israel. In fact, most of the psalms in the Psalter were used in the ceremonies of Israel.
Who Compiled the Psalms into the Psalter?
David was the man chosen by God to establish a “forever” kingdom. His dynasty (descendants) was uninterrupted from David to Jesus Christ, but the son who immediately followed David as king of Israel was Solomon. Nearly one thousand years before Jesus’ virgin birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, Solomon built the temple, the house of God, in Jerusalem. Twenty kings reigned in succession after David’s son Solomon, only eight of which were good kings who attempted to please the Lord. But from the days of Josiah the thirteenth king, everything went downhill. None of the kings who followed Josiah were followers of God.
The people of Judah put one of Josiah’s sons, Jehoahaz, on the throne. He lasted only three months. Pharaoh Neco replaced him with Jehoiakim, another son of Josiah, who reigned from 609 to 598 BC. But in 605 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, invaded Judah, heavily taxed the people, and took hostages. This is when the prophet Daniel and his friends were taken captive (Daniel 1:1). Jehoiakim revolted against Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar came after him in 597 BC. Jehoiakim died before the Babylonians arrived. His son, Jehoiachin, became king, only ruling three months before the Babylonians forced him into exile. The prophet Ezekiel was among those taken into captivity at this time.
The Babylonians then installed Zedekiah, Josiah’s youngest son, as king. When Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem and conquered it. The Babylonians destroyed the Jewish temple and to their capital at Babylon carried into captivity large numbers of Israel’s population. This 70-year Babylonian captivity is referred to as the “Exile.” }As a result of God’s goodness and grace, in exile the Jews turned their backs on the idolatry that brought them to Babylon and began to practice the worship of Yahweh once again. Fortunately, since they did not have a temple, priests, kings, or a homeland, the Jews made God’s Word the foundation of their worship, as it was in the days of Josiah (as it should be today).
In 559 BC, a Persian prince named Cyrus revolted against the dynasty controlling the Persian Empire and defeated it. According to the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1), Cyrus was anointed by God to release the nations held captive by the Babylonians. Cyrus became a world leader conquering much of what is today the Middle East. But he was also a cunning yet humane man. He knew that slaves from so many nations were essentially useless and allowing them to return home and rebuild their communities would become an important source of taxation. Cyrus made a decree that all the conquered peoples held captive in Babylon should return to their homeland (Ezra 1). The year was 539 BC. As a result, about 50,000 Jews went back to Judah (Ezra 2:64-65).
After the Exile, when the Jews returned home, the people rebuilt the temple, not quite as astounding as Solomon’s temple but quite functional. It was at this point that the poets and priests began to collect psalms into a corpus or grouping. They needed the psalms so they could sing and worship in the reconstructed temple. They weren’t necessarily composing the psalms; they were collecting older psalms by David, Moses, the sons of Korah and others into a hymnbook. Some psalms, however, do show signs of being new like Psalms 1 and 2.
The Witness of the New Testament
The New Testament bears witness to the authorship of many of the Psalms. These poems were often cited or at least alluded to. Here are some examples:
- When the Pharisees said that the Messiah Christ was the Son of David, immediately Jesus posed this question to them: “He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “‘The Lord said to my Lord …” (See Matthew 22:43-45; Mark 12:36-37; Luke 20:42-44 and Psalm 110:1).
- The superscription over Psalm 110 reads, “A Psalm of David.” While these superscriptions are not inspired of God as the text of Scripture is, it is evident that Jesus Himself authenticated the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110.
- Nor should there be any question about the occasion when, on the first Pentecost in Jerusalem, Peter said, “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand'” (Acts 2:34).
- Elsewhere Peter cites David when describing the events of Jesus’ life.
- Acts 1:16, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus” (cf. Psalm 41:9).
- In Acts 4:25, Peter quotes Psalm 1:1-2 when he says, “…who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?'” (cf. Psalm 2:1-2).
- In Acts 2:25-32 Peter alludes to Psalm 16:8-11 as of Davidic authorship, confirming what the Old Testament says.
- And Paul confirms David’s authorship when he quotes Psalm 32:1-2 in his argument for righteousness through faith. “… just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘”Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.'” (Romans 4:6-8).
- Again the apostle quotes Psalm 69:22-23 in Romans 11:9, “And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them.”
- While critics write long and scholarly works on why the internal character of these psalms cannot support Davidic authorship, both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul refute them and the Lord Jesus Himself held the view that David authored many of the psalms in the Psalter.
- If I have to choose, I’m going with Jesus, Peter and Paul as more reliable sources.
The Theological Value of the Psalms
Because Psalms is much like an anthology of Hebrew poetry, don’t think them to be devoid of theological content. They are loaded with it. The theological concepts found in the Psalms are comprehensive. Here is a partial list of such concepts.
- The existence of God
- The attributes of God
- The certainty of judgment
- The necessity of virtue
- The hope of resurrection
- The doctrines of heaven and hell
- The fear of punishment
- The soul’s yearning for immortality
- The need for divine protection
- The providence of God
- The heinousness of sin
- The fetal existence of the human soul
- The two ways of righteous living and wicked living
- The eternality of the Word of God
- The truth of the Word of God
- The blessing of God
- The promise of a Redeemer
- The praise of the heart for God
- The prophecy of the coming Messiah
- And many, many more.
The truths and doctrines of the Psalms are not presented in dogmatic form as, say, the Apostle Paul presents his doctrine. Rather they are evidenced in the beauty of poetry, the simple and childlike lyric yearning of writers who thirsted for God. The Psalms both sink to the lowest depths of the human heart and soar to the highest heights of intimacy with God, often in the same psalm. They are the poetic presentation of divine truth and of equal theological benefit to any of the New Testament epistles.
The sacred poetry of the religions of ancient paganism has withered away in the dustbin of history. Scarcely anyone can quote a line of them. And yet the Psalms of the Bible are as fresh as ever. They are quoted, emblazoned on banners, placed on wall hangings, refrigerator magnets, the halls of justice and more. Why? Because they aren’t just pieces of lyric poetry; they are writings inspired by the Spirit of the living God.
“Let your daughter have first of all the book of Psalms for holiness of heart, and be instructed in the Proverbs of Solomon for her godly life.” – Jerome (4th century Latin theologian and historian, translator of the Latin Vulgate)
“The Book of Psalms represents a rich tapestry of prayer and praise. Some psalms reflect a texture of deep despair. Others glow with a deep peace in the Lord’s strength. Still others bubble with an exuberant exaltation of the Most High God. The psalms cover the range of human emotion and experience.” – Ralph F. Wilson
“Perhaps we are safe in saying that no biblical book has seen more use throughout Christendom than has the Psalter.” – H. C. Leupold
“There does not seem to be any situation in life for which the Psalter does not provide light and guidance.” – H. C. Leupold
“They [the Psalms] are not the fruit of abstract meditation. They did not grow out of the study of the scholar. They were born out of real-life situations. They are often wet with tears and the blood of the writer.” – H. C. Leupold
“The Christian can learn to pray in the psalter, for here he can hear how the saints talk with God. The number of moods which are expressed here, joy and suffering, hope and care, make it possible for every Christian to find himself in it, and to pray with the psalms.” – Martin Luther
“I am reading the Psalms daily, as I have done for years. I know them and love them more than any other book in the Bible.” – Dietrich Bonheoffer (Written on May 15, 1943. On April 9, 1945 at the Flossenburg concentration camp, he was executed by the Nazis by hanging at dawn, just two weeks before U.S. soldiers liberated the camp, and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany.)
“I used to read five psalms every day – that teaches me how to get along with God. Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.” – Billy Graham
“A psalm a day keeps the devil away.” – A. C. Gabelein
“The Psalms is one of the most beloved books in the Bible. It brings to us conviction, correction, comfort and courage, plus a whole lot more.” – Woodrow Kroll
- The Psalms is a book of the Bible in the Old Testament.
- There are 150 individual psalms in the book of Psalms.
- The Psalms were composed over a span of almost one thousand years.
- When you refer to the book you say Psalms indicating a plurality of poems.
- When you refer to an individual psalm, you do not use the plural.
- Psalms 119 is incorrect because there is only one such psalm.
- It is correct to say Psalm 119 but never Psalms 119.
- The longest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 119.
- The shortest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 117.
- The center chapter in the Bible is Psalm 115.
- There are 594 chapters before Psalm 115.
- There are 593 chapters after Psalm 115.
- Psalm 115 plus 594 chapters before and 593 after equals 1188, the total number of chapters in the Bible
- Thus, approximately speaking, Psalm 115:1 is the center of the Bible with reference to the number of chapters into which the Bible is divided.
- Psalm 115:1 says, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!”
- Finding the true center of the Bible is not as simple as this because the number of verses in each chapter varies significantly.
- With regard to verses, there are 31,173 verses in the Old and New Testaments. The middle verse would be the second half of the 15,586th verse or Psalm 104:14b (not a particularly inspiring verse).
In the New Testament
- There are 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament.
- The Psalms are quoted more frequently in the New Testament than any other book of the Old Testament.