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Introduction to the Psalms
James J. Tissot (1836-1902, French artist and illustrator), detail of "David Singing" (1896-1900), watercolor. Psalms 57:7. Larger image.
Over the next 600 years other God-inspired poets gave voice to psalms, completing the collection of psalms that we know today as the Book of Psalms, the Psalter -- 150 poetic songs that lie at the heart of our Bibles. The Psalms express the entire spectrum of human emotion -- fear, despair, longing, love, hope, joy, and exultation. They also instruct us in how we can voice our own prayers and praise to God.
What Is a Psalm?
Captive musicians from the siege of Lachish sing praises to the conqueror. Detail of relief from SW Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, ca. 701 BC British Museum, London. Larger image.
The word Psalm (Greek psalmos) translates the Hebrew noun mizmôr, "song, instrumental music," from the verb zāmar, "sing, sing praise, make music." It reminds us that the Book of Psalms was -- and is -- intended for singing. This was the church's first song book. Though we have lost the original tunes, individual psalms have been put to music many times since. The ancient songwriters were devout poets who put their heartfelt devotion toward God into verse.
The Psalms are meant to be sung -- and accompanied by musical instruments. David, the author of many of the psalms, was a skilled player of the "harp," more accurately perhaps, the "lyre" (kinnôr), "a musical instrument having strings and a wooden frame," and commonly associated in the Bible with joy and gladness.2
Hebrew poetry differs from most Western poetry in that it doesn't rhyme. There seem to be two primary elements that distinguish Hebrew Poetry:
- Thought parallelism
In western poetry we use both rhyme and rhythm in traditional poems. But in Hebrew poetry the rhythm may be in terms of units per line. However, the exact nature of this is still debated and some recent scholars have concluded that the Psalms are not metrical, that this is an idea imported from Western poetical forms. Longman recommends caution about any interpretation based primarily on a verse's supposed meter.1
1. Thought Parallelism
However, the element of thought parallelism in Hebrew poetry is quite apparent and has become better understood in recent decades. Unlike poetry that relies on rhyme, parallelism can be translated into other languages without losing its distinct flavor. The two basic types of parallelism are:
Synonymous Parallelism is the most common form of parallelism. Here the idea of the first line is reinforced in the second line.
"He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities." (Psalm 103:10)
You can find parallelism in Jesus' teaching, too (for example, Matthew 5:43-45). But scholars have realized rather recently that synonymous parallelism is something of a misnomer. The lines are not strictly synonymous. You might describe it as "A, what's more B." The second line always seems to carry forward the thought found in the first phrase in some way.2 This progression is sometimes subtle, but often quite obvious. The second -- or sometimes third line -- reinforces and extends the meaning of the first, like a second wave that mounts higher than the first, and a third even higher yet (for example, Psalms 92:9; 93:3; 145:18).
When interpreting Hebrew poetry however, it's important not to overemphasize the nuances between the similar words, for example, between "man" and "Son of man" in 8:4 or "my soul" and "my flesh" in Psalm 63:1. As Kidner puts it, "They are in double harness, rather than in competition."3 Rather look for the ways that second idea builds upon the first.
Antithetic Parallelism is also common. The idea in the first line is contrasted or negated in the second line as a means of reinforcing it. It is found most commonly in the Proverbs and in the didactic psalms.
"The wicked borrow and do not repay,
but the righteous give generously." (Psalm 37:21)
In addition to these two common forms of Hebrew parallelism, scholars have found a number of other less prominent varieties. Hebrew poetry was a fine art that we are just beginning to appreciate more fully.
A second common characteristic of Hebrew poetry is its use of imagery, comparing one thing to another. Of course, imagery can be found in prose sections of the Old Testament and it is not found in every psalm, but it is especially rich in Hebrew poetry. Imagery has a way of fixing an idea in our minds with clarity.
Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1837–1922), "The Shepherd David, " (ca. 1895), oil on canvas; 61 1/2 x 42 3/8 in. (156.2 x 107.6 cm), National Museum of Women in the Arts. Larger image.
Think about the images in the familiar 23rd Psalm. In prose we might say with some accuracy: "God meets all our needs and protects us." It is true, but not particularly memorable. The power and beauty of the 23rd Psalm is the way that it communicates these ideas through images: shepherd/sheep, green pastures/still waters, the valley of the shadow of death, a table, an anointing, and an overflowing cup. These images in our minds with the thoughts and emotions they evoke contribute to make this psalm an all-time favorite.
There are two kinds of images used in the Psalms:
1. Simile is a comparison which is made explicit by the presence of the word "like" or "as." For example:
"As the deer pants for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, O God." (Psalm 42:1)
2. Metaphor is a comparison that is implicit, that is, a comparison without the mention of "like" or "as." For example:
"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want." (Psalm 23:1)
A metaphor communicates a more vivid image than a simile because it is implicit and draws the comparison more closely.
As you study the Psalms, be aware of the images that are used and the thoughts and emotions that they are intended to evoke in us, the readers.
A few psalms (9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145) are structured as an acrostic, each verse or section beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Exactly the function acrostics serve, we're not sure. But the acrostics may be a way of reflecting the order of God in creation. They may be an aid to memorization, or simply aesthetically pleasing because of their intricacy.4
Categories of Psalms
The twentieth century saw various attempts to classify psalms by their structure and form, a discipline known as Form Criticism. Hermann Gunkel, comparing the Psalms with parallels in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, saw five major groups or genre of psalms: hymns, community laments, individual laments, royal psalms, and individual thanksgivings, plus some subcategories.5 Gunkel's categories have sparked intense debate. Since a number of psalms fit into more than one category, these categories can't be seen as rigid. A psalm genre is a kind of template, but the author is free to improvise or alter the template as necessary. Tremper Longman III suggests the following genre of psalms:
- The Hymn, recognized by its exuberant praise of the Lord. Examples are abundant, such as, Psalms 8, 19, 29, 33, 47, 48, 92, 96, 103.
- The Lament, the polar opposite of the hymn on the emotional spectrum. Lamentations begin with a complaint, but often conclude with praise. Within a lament you may find several of the following elements: (a) invocation, (2) plea to God for help, (3) complaints, (4) confession of sin or assertion of innocence, (5) curse of enemies (imprecation), (6) confidence in God's response, and (7) hymn or blessing. Examples include: Psalm 3, 7, 13, 25, 22, 42-43, 44, 51, 74, 79, 80 and many others.
- Thanksgiving Psalms. These are similar to hymns, but particularly recount what God has done. They are closely related to laments, in that a thanksgiving psalm is often an answer to a lament. Examples include: Psalms 18, 30, 32, 34
- Psalms of Confidence, an expression of the psalmist's trust in God's goodness and power. Examples include Psalms 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 91, 121, 125, 131.
- Psalms of Remembrance make reference to the great redemptive acts of the past, particularly the Exodus (Psalm 77:16) and the establishment of the Davidic covenant and dynasty (Psalms 89, 132). Examples are found in Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136.
- Wisdom Psalms tell us in concrete ways how God wants us to live our lives. This kind of literature is found in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. But it is also found in several psalms, such as Psalms 1, 19, 37, 49, 119.
- Kingship Psalms focus on two kings: (1) the human king of Israel (Psalms 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 132) and (2) God as king (Psalms 47, 98). There is also a messianic theme throughout the Psalms collection that looks forward to the coming Davidic king, especially in Psalms 2 and 110.6
Of the 150 psalms, 116 include an extended title or an ascription that is part of verse 1 in the Hebrew text. While not part of the original text, they were probably inserted by editors fairly early -- certainly long before the second or third century when they were translated into Greek.
The titles at the beginning of many of the psalms, such as "of David," use a Hebrew preposition le. It can carry the ideas "of, for, from, at, in reference to, belonging to." Thus "of David" could mean "belonging to David" or "(dedicated) to David."7 In the ascription to Psalm 18 it is quite clear that authorship was intended:
"For (le) the director of music. Of (le) David the servant of the LORD. He sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said...."
We do know that David was closely identified with worship music. He sang to calm King Saul (1 Samuel 16:14-23; 18:10-11), accompanying himself on a lyre or harp. He is called "the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Samuel 23:1), and is named as an inventor of musical instruments (Amos 6:5).
While realizing that it is not entirely certain, I am taking the preposition le in the ascription of psalms as primarily ascribing authorship.8 If this is indeed the case, named authors include:
|David||Named as author of nearly half the collection||
|Asaph||Called "Asaph the Seer" (2 Chronicles 29:30), and was from a Levitical family. He founded the temple choir as chief musician (1 Chronicles 15;17-19; chapter 16).||Psalms 50, 73-83||
|Sons of Korah||A Levitical family, singers and musicians of the temple choir founded by Heman the Ezrahite (1 Chronicles 6:31-46).||Psalms 42-49, 84-85, 87-88||
|Ethan the Ezrahite = Juduthun||From a Levitical family and founded one of the temple choirs (1 Chronicles 16:41; 25:1-6).||Psalm 89, 39, 62, 77||
|Heman the Ezrahite||Called "Heman the Musician" (1 Chronicles 6:33) and was founder of a temple choir.||Psalm 88||
|Solomon||Third king of Israel||Psalms 72, 127||
|Moses||Leader during the Exodus||Psalm 90||
|No title at all||
Date of the Psalms
While there has been considerable debate about the dating of the Psalms as rather late, the following points should be considered in defense of an earlier dating:
- Egypt, Babylon, and Canaan all had developed psalmody before and during Israel's residence in Palestine.
- Psalmody was known from the earliest times in Israel, such as the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) from about 1150 BC. It is even possible that some of the psalms in our Psalter predated David. Some of the allusions to the temple could possible refer to the tabernacle at Shiloh, known as the "holy place" (Exodus 28:43; 29:30), "the house of the Lord" (Joshua 6:24; 1 Samuel 1:7ff; 3:3; cf. 2 Samuel 12:20).
- It is difficult to imagine that psalms mentioning the king or the ark could have been first composed after the exile.
- The traces of Aramaic found in some of the psalms are no reason to date them late, since Aramaic was known in Jerusalem as early as the eighth century BC. The presence of Ugaritic language affinities are witness to the early date of many of the psalms.
- The Psalms could have been written no later than the translation of the Greek Septuagint 300-200 BC.
Thus it is likely that the Psalms were composed during the period of the Kings and before the Maccabean period, that is, a 600 year period between about 1000 and 400 BC.9 The dating of the Psalms can be divided into three groups:
- Pre-Exilic, written during the period of the Kings prior to the Exile (1000-600 BC). This would include the royal psalms, those which mention the existence of the northern kingdom, and those with greater affinity to Ugaritic language and syntax. David who reigned approximately 1010-970 BC was by all accounts the most prolific author of psalms.
- Exilic, those written during the exile (605-537 BC). This would include some of the dirge or lament psalms and perhaps those mentioning the betrayal of Judah by her enemies. Psalm 137 recalls this period: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion...."
- Post-Exilic, written after the Exile (537 to about 400 BC). This probably includes psalms about the righteous sufferer, how the Torah should be observed, wisdom, and cautions against atheism.
Structure of the Psalter
While the dating of the Psalms seems to be between 1000 and 400 BC, editing took place somewhat later, but by the time the Septuagint was translated.
Recently, scholars have taken much more seriously the composition of the Book of Psalms as a whole, as an editor put it into final form. The Book of Psalms in our Bibles is divided into five books, probably to echo the five books of the Pentateuch. Book 1, chapters 1-41; Book 2, chapters 42-72; Book 3, chapters 73-89; Book 4, chapters 90-106; and Book 5, chapters 107-150. Each of the books concludes with a doxology, such as the last verse of Book 1:
"Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen." (Psalm 41:13)
Psalms begins deliberately with a psalm designed to urge the reader to study the Psalms with the same diligence as one studied the Torah.
"His delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night." (Psalm 1:2)
In his careful survey of the Psalter, Gerald H. Wilson also observes "frames" -- a Royal Covenantal Frame (Psalms 2, 72, 89, 144) and a Final Wisdom Frame (Psalms 1, 73, 90, 107, 145).10 The Psalter is much more than a haphazard compilation of individual psalms. It is "the end result of a process of purposeful editorial arrangement of psalms and collections of psalms producing a unified whole."11
Canonicity of the Psalms
As the Hebrew Bible developed, it was divided into three sections: The Law (the Pentateuch, Torah, first five books of the Bible), the Prophets (the historical books, and the major and minor prophets), and the Writings (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon). Some psalms scrolls found at Qumran contain both psalms that appear in our Bibles and psalms that "didn't make the cut." However, the canon of accepted psalms in the Hebrew Bible seems to have been fixed by the time of the translation of the Septuagint in the third and second centuries BC, since it is very similar to the Book of Psalms in the Masoretic Hebrew text that forms the basis of our modern Bibles.
Chapter and Verse Confusions
The chapter numbers were added much later in the 13th century AD. Up until that point, individual psalms would be referred to by their first line rather than their chapter number. When Jesus from the cross quoted Psalm 22:1 with the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he was probably calling the whole psalm to mind, which included the phrase "they have pierced my hands and my feet...." (22:16b).
Adding chapter numbers and verses should have clarified things, but in some ways they've confused matters. For example, while the Hebrew numbering counts a psalm's inscription as verse 1, our English versions number from the verse following any inscription. Another confusion comes from slight discrepancies between the numbering of the Hebrew and Greek versions of Psalms. Modern Protestant and Roman Catholic translations are based on the Hebrew numbering, while the Catholic lectionary and Eastern Orthodox translations are based on the Greek numbering.
Some of the intriguing aspects of the psalms are technical terms which often appear in the ascription. Unfortunately, there's lots of speculation but not much firm knowledge about most of these.
- Selah occurs 71 times. It is probably a signal for an interlude or change of musical accompaniment, probably from the root sll, "to lift up" or perhaps an Aramaic verb "to bend.12
- Higgaion, found in 9:16 in a note with Selah and in the text of 19:14; and 92:3. It seems to derive from hāgā, "meditate, devise, plot." It may mean "meditation, whispering melody." As a musical direction it may perhaps indicate the quieter instruments.13
- Psalm (mizmôr) and Song (shîr) can't be completely distinguished, but psalm probably implies that it was sung to an instrumental accompaniment.14
- Shiggaion (Psalm 7) seems to derive from shāgā, "to err, wander." Perhaps it means "wild and ecstatic" or denotes a stirring of the emotions.15
- Maskil (maskîl) designates 13 psalms. The root śkl, denotes "insight" or "wisdom," so a maskil might be an "efficacious psalm" or "skillful psalm," but we don't really know the meaning.16
c. Liturgical Notes
There are a number of designations that we can only speculate about their actual meanings. The following two, however, seem fairly well established.
- To the Choirmaster (nāṣaḥ), "chief musician" (KJV), "leader" (NRSV), "director of music" (NIV) occurs in 55 psalms. The Hebrew root (nāsaḥ) means "to excel," thus "to superintend," so "choirmaster" seems like a reasonable translation.17 Again, we're not sure what it means.
- A Song of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), ascribed to 15 psalms, probably referring to the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, or the processional ascent of "the hill of the Lord" (Isaiah 30:29).18 They were used particularly during the Feast of Tabernacles.
Two other groups of psalms should also be noted:
- Egyptian Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118) are traditionally associated with the feast of Passover and deliverance from Egypt. Hallel means "praise." The first half of the Hallel (Psalms 113-114) was sung earlier in the Passover. The "hymn" that Jesus and his disciples sang after the Last Supper (Mark 14:26; Matthew 26:30) was, no doubt, the second half of the Hallel (Psalms 114-118 or 115-118), sung at the end of the Passover meal.19
- Hallel Psalms (Psalms 146-150) were for more general use in worship.
A Phantom New Year Festival
Before we conclude our introduction to the Psalms, it's important to mention a wrong turn in twentieth century Psalms studies. As mentioned above, Gunkel's categories of Psalm forms came out of a study of literature of other Near Eastern cultures and, as a whole, has been helpful in better understanding the Psalms as literature. However, this comparative religions approach led several leading scholars, beginning with Gunkel and Mowinckel, to argue that a high percentage of Israel's psalms must be related to an Israelite New Year Festival, celebrated in the autumn, in which the Lord's kingship was annually reaffirmed over the forces of chaos. This hypotheses relies on the existence of an Israelite festival corresponding to the Babylonian Akitu festival. However, there is nothing in the Psalms or the Old Testament that suggests celebration of such a festival in Israel.20 Arthur Weiser later modified this hypothesis to the celebration of an autumn covenant festival, but the evidence of such a festival just isn't there.
The unfortunate result is that the commentaries that adopted these hypotheses are much less useful than they would have been if they had limited their search for a life-setting within the history and culture of Israel itself. The emphasis on determining the life setting (Sitz im Leben) of a psalm is good, but the fact is that most of the psalms just don't provide much context to the reasons for their composition and we must accept that limitation rather than import speculative theories to "guide" our interpretation.
Authority of the Psalms
The New Testament quotes the Psalms extensively. But note the reverent way in which the author of Hebrews quoted passages from Psalms:
- "God says... He says" (Hebrews 1:7-8)
- "The Holy Spirit says..." (Hebrews 1:7)
Now all the lessons are available together in e-book and paperback formats.
Jesus too regarded the Psalms as inspired Scripture.
- "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (Luke 24:44)
- "David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared.... (Mark 12:35, regarding Psalm 110:1)
- "This is to fulfill the scripture...." (John 13:18 regarding Psalm 41:9)
- Jesus interpreted Psalm 118:22 as predictive prophecy concerning himself (Matthew 21:42-43).
Hopefully this rather academic introduction doesn't ruin the Psalms for you. Ultimately they find their highest use in inspiring believers to trust in God in spite of the tough times we may go through in our lives. And in that role of inspiring us humans, some of the psalms in our Bibles are old enough to have done admirably for a full three thousand years. How about that for enduring value!
- Longman, How to Read the Psalms, p. 108. He cites his article, "A Critique of Two Recent Metrical Systems," Biblica 63 (1982):230-254.
- Longman, How to Read the Psalms, pp. 97-98.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 2.
- Longman, How to Read the Psalms, pp. 107-108.
- For a helpful examination of prayers in neighboring cultures, see Tremper Longman III, "Ancient Near Eastern Prayer Genres," in Firth and Johnston, Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 41-59.
- Longman, How to Read the Psalms, chapter 19.
- Craigie, Psalms 1-50, p. 35.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 33.
- This section draws on material from Harrison, Introduction, pp. 983-985 and lecture notes from David J. Cline.
- David M. Howard, Jr., "The Psalms and Current Study," in Firth and Johnston, Interpreting the Psalms, pp. 25-29; and Gerald H. Wilson, "The Structure of the Psalter," Ibid., pp. 229-246.
- Gerald H. Wilson, Ibid., p. 229.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, pp. 36-37.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 37. Herbert Wolf, hāgā, TWOT #467c.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 37.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 37; Herbert Wolf, śākal, TWOT 2263b.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, pp. 40; Milton C. Fisher, nāṣaḥ, TWOT 1402.
- Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 43.
- Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1955), pp. 30-31, especially fn. 1 on page 31.
- Harrison, Introduction, p. 995-996.
Copyright © 2022, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastorjoyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.
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