Discovering Psalms

Psalms may be the most familiar, well-known book in the Bible. It is the largest book in the Bible, features the shortest (Ch. 117) and longest (Ch. 119) chapters in the Bible, and is quoted more times in the New Testament (NT) than any other Old Testament (OT) book.

Historical Background

The Book of Psalms is a collection of psalms that span a vast historical timespan (approx. 1,000 yrs.), with psalms dating from the time of Moses approx. 1450 BC (Psa 90) to the Second Temple (after Zerubbabel rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, approx. 450 BC). It is generally believed that Ezra provided the final compilation and organization of the psalms to be used in Temple worship after returning from foreign captivity. The majority of the psalms were composed between 1010 and 930 BC during the lives of Kings David and Solomon.

Though we generally attribute the authorship of Psalms to David, only half of the 150 individual psalms are attributed to him. The authors of psalms include:

  • 75 – David (3-9; 11-32; 34-41; 51-65; 68-70; 86; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138-145)
  • 12 – Asaph and Sons (50; 73-83)
  • 11 – Sons of Korah (42; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88)
  • 2 – Solomon (72; 127)
  • 1 – Heman (88, w/ sons of Korah)
  • 1 – Ethan (89)
  • 1 – Moses (90)
  • 48 – Anonymous

Apart from David, Solomon, and Moses, who are well-known figures in biblical OT history, the other writers named were members of Israel’s priestly line assigned by God to lead and serve Temple worship in a dedicated, official capacity.

Altogether, 116 of the 150 psalms provide information about the psalm of some kind or another in an opening superscription.

Still, many psalms provide no concrete historical information about the specific setting in which they were written, but some of them do. Thirteen psalms provide historical background information in the opening superscriptions before the psalm begins (Psa. 3, 7, 34, 51, 54, 56-57, 59, 60, 63, 142). At least five other psalms provide such info within the psalm itself (Psa 30, 45, 92, 100, 102).

Numerous psalms provide musical information in the opening superscriptions before the psalm begins. Some of this information explains what instrument (usually stringed or wind) the psalm would be accompanied by. Other musical info seems to indicate whether a psalm was to be sung by men or women or in a male or female register. Still other musical information seems to describe the style in which a psalm would be sung, whether the emotional style (such as celebratory or mournful) or the local, regional (a style associated with a particular region).  Still other musical information seems to assign a particular, preset tune to the psalm.

Within the Book of Psalms, there seems to be at least four identifiable collections of a specific kind, as follows:

  • Psalms of Asaph (50, 73-83): these psalms written by Asaph and perhaps his descendants as well focus on matters of divine justice, refer to God as Elohim, and emphasize matters of history, prophecy, and references to God’s covenant relationship with Israel.
  • Sons of Korah (42-49, 84-85, 87-88): these psalms feature a range of emotion, from the depths of discouragement to the heights of confidence in God. The first half of these psalms feature Elohim as the title for God, while the second half refer to God as Yahweh.
  • Songs of Ascent (120-134): these psalms feature a broad range of emotion and content but share a persistent emphasis Jerusalem, the central location of Israel’s worship and identity. Some believe these psalms were sung in order or as a recurring cycle as Israelites traveled from outlying cities and towns to Jerusalem for festivals and holy days. Others believe they were sung as the priests ascended the steps to the Temple on holy days.
  • Hallel Psalms (104-1-6, 111-117, 135, 146-150): these psalms begin, end, or do both with the Hebrew command to “Praise the Lord!” (hallelujah). They are mostly songs of praise or thanksgiving to God and two groups of them (104-106; 146-150) conclude the fourth and fifth books of the Psalms.

The Psalms touch upon a vast variety of topics and themes. Gregory Goswell suggests the following primary themes:

  • God’s kingship
  • Zion as God’s capital
  • Creation
  • The figure David, present and future

What other themes do you find as you read through the Psalms?

Style and Structure of the Book

The Book of Psalms is written as Hebrew poetry, which differs in style from Hebrew legal or narrative writing. At its most basic level, Hebrew poetry is written in poetic lines and stanzas. Unlike English poetry, Hebrew poetry does not necessarily follow patterns of predictable rhythm and meter and end with rhyming sounds, such as, “A fox jumped up one winter’s night, and begged the moon to give him light.” Instead, Hebrew poetry utilizes groups of lines, normally two or three.

In this arrangement, each lines in these small groupings are usually brief and similar in length to the other lines in the grouping. We call these groupings “stanzas.” It is the responsibility of the reader to read and meditate on the lines in each stanza together as one, shared unit of thought. We must figure out how the lines relate to each other and what they are trying to convey – together. We call the relationship between lines in a Hebrew poetry stanza “parallelism.” Here are three basic examples:

  • Synonymous (Psa 19:1) – both lines say a similar thing and should cause us to meditate on that central fact: in your own words, how would you state the point that the two lines of this stanza (or couplet) are expressing?
  • Antithetical (Psa 75:10) – both lines say opposite things and should cause us to meditate on the contrast that is presented: in your own words, how would you state the point or conclusion that the two lines of this stanza (or couplet) are expressing?
  • Synthetic (Psa 119:11) – the second line expands or extends the first line, providing a more complete idea: in your own words, how would you state the combined point that the two lines of this stanza (or couplet) are expressing?

In Hebrew, many other poetic features occur, such as word selections with similar starting sounds, ending sounds, or rhythms, repeated words, and so on. Sometimes Hebrew poetry even follows an alphabetic acrostic, arranging opening lines and stanzas by starting letters which follow the sequence of the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet. Psa 119 is the longest, most complete acrostic Psalm in which there is a section for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with all eight lines in each section beginning with a shared letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Other acrostic psalms include:

  • Psa 111 and 112 – each letter begins a line
  • Psa 25, 34, 145 – each letter begins a half-verse
  • Psa 37 – each letter begins a whole verse

Other notable features of Hebrew poetry can be explored, such as the use of poetic figures of speech, including simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and more. Other structural features can also be explored, such as chiasms. Since time and space does not permit such a complete study of these things, we should ask the question of what purpose does Hebrew poetry with all of its various literary techniques serve?

Though other answers may be given, such as to present God’s Word in an artistic, attractive, and compelling way, a key answer must be given. These features (in addition to their musical melodies) made it easier for people to pay attention, remember, and later meditate upon this Scripture. As you may know, the Israelite people did not have access to personal, transportable copies of the OT. Their only access to God’s Word was through hearing it read, taught, and sung at the Temple, and in subsequent years at the synagogue. In fact, not until the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1400s did personal copies of the Bible even begin to become possible.

So, the Psalms were written to be remembered and sung so that the truth of God’s Word would more easily and personally be embraced, remembered, and lived out by God’s people, not just at the Temple in Jerusalem but throughout their daily lives away from the holy city.

The Book of Psalms consists of 150 psalms in total and these psalms are arranged into five successive books (or scrolls). This reality is partly driven by the constraints of a single scroll so that five scrolls were required to contain the lengthy content of this massive collection of writing. The five books are as follows:

  • Book 1 – Chs. 1-41
  • Book 2 – Chs. 42-72
  • Book 3 – Chs. 73-89
  • Book 4 – Chs. 90-106
  • Book 5 – Chs. 107-150

This five-part arrangement, though, seems to have been arranged with some degree of intent and purpose. It is generally acknowledged, for instance, that the first two psalms (Psa. 1-2) introduce the entire collection, all 150 psalms.

Books 1-2

It is also recognized that most of the psalms in the first two books (55 of 72) are Davidic, placing most of his 75 psalms at the front end of the book, serving as the foundation and backdrop for the rest of the collection. Further intriguing is how 12 of the 13 superscriptions that provide historical background material occur in these two books and provide detailed information from events in the life of David. This arrangement also seems to emphasize David’s devotional, prayer-filled approach to God, life, and his service and kingship of Israel. Such an emphasis is supported by how the final psalm of Book 2 concludes with, “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” (Psa 72:20).

As we read through Books 1-2, we find emphases, themes, and progressions similar to what we find in the historical progressions of 1-2 Samuel, tracing David’s pilgrimage from God’s promise of kingship over Israel to the close of his reign and the establishment of subsequent Davidic dynasty. James Hamilton makes the following observations about the arrangement of content in Books 1-2 of the Psalms:

The impressionistic narrative in Psalms seems to have David suffering in Book 1 until his establishment as king (cf. 1 Sam 16–2 Sam 5; Pss 3-41), then bringing the ark into Jerusalem at the beginning of Book 2 (Pss 42–50; 2 Sam 6), sinning with Bathsheba (Ps 51; 2 Sam 11), suffering the consequences (Pss 52–60; 2 Sam 12–20), and slowly recovering from them toward the end of Book 2 (Pss 61–72; cf. 2 Sam 21–24).

In other words, Book 1 traces David’s devotional life before God from the hope of God’s promise, to the suffering he endured at the hands of Saul, to his eventual triumph and establishment as king. Book 2 then traces David’s devotional life before God from the hope of bring the Ark of God’s covenant to Jerusalem, to the suffering he endured as consequences for his own sin with Bathsheba, to his repentance and restoration.

Book 3

From Book 3 (Ch. 73) onward, the psalms seem to move on historically from emphasizing events and themes from David’s reign to reflecting elements from King Solomon’s reign and beyond. In particular, Book 3 seems to conclude with a psalm (Ch. 89 by Ethan the Ezrahite) reflecting upon lost blessings in response to God’s judgment through the Babylonian captivity and destruction of Jerusalem (see 2 Kgs 25). This book seems to allude to various foreign attacks upon Israel which led up to this eventual demise (compare Psa 74 to 1 Kgs 14:25 and Psa 79 to 2 Chr 12:1-12). This downward progression culminates with “the anointed king cast off and rejected (Ps 89:38), crown in the dust (89:39) and city walls breached (89:40), it looks as though God’s wrath has brought an end to the covenant with David (cf. 89:49–51)” (James Hamilton).

Book 4

Book 4 (Chs. 90-106) begins with a song by Moses, which seems rather abrupt and random from a cursory reading of the Psalms. Why does this song appear here and not at the beginning? Some commentators who have pondered this question conclude that this juncture in Psalms (the start of Book 4) resembles, thematically, the moment when God’s Mosaic covenant with Israel appeared to be in jeopardy. Similarly, the exile of Israel to Babylon centuries later seemed to have placed God’s Davidic covenant with Israel in jeopardy as well. Would God this time cast away Israel?

As you may recall, Moses prayed for God to “relent” from casting away Israel in Exo 32:12. The only other place in Scripture where the same request is made to God is here in Psa 90:13. Of course we know that God answered Moses’ prayer by preserving Israel despite their many years of wilderness wanderings. Similarly, Psa 91 provides a hopeful promise of God’s deliverance to all those who put their trust in him, despite the attack of invaders from afar. This Book then ends with a review of Israel’s failings under Moses then a request to deliver Israel yet again from the same kind of failures as before: “Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the Gentiles, to give thanks to your holy name, to triumph in your praise” (Psa 106:47).

Book 5

Book 5 (107-150) then begins with an announcement that sounds like the deliverance from captivity (not in Egypt but this time in Babylon) requested in Psa 106 has been answered (Psa 107:1-3):

“Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! For his mercy endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from the hand of the enemy, and gathered out of the lands, From the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.”

At this point, Psalms 108 and 109 (ascribed to King David) appear, both reminding us of God’s faithfulness to the historical King David at the start of Israel’s royal history while also looking ahead to the future Davidic descendant and king who would bring God’s promises of a kingdom to complete fulfillment (as David did not). It’s at this point that the famed Messianic Psalm 110 appears, the psalm that announces God’s enthronement of the future messianic king at his right hand.

There is a very real sense in which this Psalm (esp. Psa 110:1) is the most quoted OT verse in the NT. Technically, Lev 19:18 is the most quoted OT verse so far as straight up quotations are concerned (“love your neighbor as yourself”), but when we factor in loose quotations and references to what this verse says, Psa 110:1 is one of the most referred to statements in the NT.

“The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool’” (Psa 110:1). This statement celebrates God’s eventual installment of Christ, both as God, as Savior, and as the preeminent King of his kingdom throughout creation. This King will come from the royal line of David but is not David himself. This King, unlike David, will bring about final and ultimate triumph for Israel and all God’s people, with no further suffering or captivities to follow.

After this announcement of the coming Messianic King, Book 5 shifts from a mournful, hopeful tone to a celebratory one. Eight Hallel (hallelujah!) psalms immediately follow (Psa 111-118), followed by the Songs of Ascent (Psa 120-134). “Ascent” means literally to “the goings up” and reflect the command to “let him go up,” referring to the Persian king’s command to let Ezra go up to Jerusalem to reestablish Jewish worship in Jerusalem at the Temple (2 Chr. 36:23; Ezra 1:3). The remainder of Book 5 features a growing theme of resounding celebration and praise to God for his faithfulness and the deliverance of his people.

***Much of the perspective shared in this previous section is based upon the research of James Hamilton, provided in greater detail in his commentary on the Psalms.

Personal Takeaways

As we read and study the Psalms, here are some personal takeaways to consider though there are certainly many more.

Express yourself honestly and openly to God. Many psalms express the candid thoughts of God’s people, whether King David or someone else. Some psalms confess sins, others express confusion and frustration, while others lament difficult and painful experiences. Such psalms almost always end on a note of confidence in and praise to God, but such confidence and praise is the result of a humble, honest heart towards God.

Read and meditate on the Word of God. Psalm 1 makes this very clear. If you meditate on the Word of God and allow God’s truth to shape your affections and guide your choices in life, you will be like a tree who saturates itself with vibrant water and produces a fruitful harvest. But if you choose to meditate on other things, then you will experience heartache and disappointment instead. The entire Book of Psalms that follows Psa 1 is a lengthy collection of inspired meditations on the Word of God through the highs and lows of following him. Such meditation ends just as the Book of Psalms concludes, with triumph and praise.

Keep Christ in view as God’s coming, conquering Davidic King. Psalms teaches us to get our eyes off the people around us and onto Christ instead. Christ is greater than the pagan world rulers around us and he is greater than the Davidic kings as well. Despite all the suffering that his people endure, they will triumph together with him in the end.

Value worshiping together with God’s people. Though many psalms were written by individuals as expressions of personal, private devotion, all were collated and published through inspiration and guidance of God to be heard, sung, and taught to God’s people when they gathered together regularly for Temple worship and community gatherings. Psalms reminds us that God calls his people to gather together for corporate worship. Today, we do this together as the church and such gatherings should include not only public teaching of God’s Word, but also confession of our need and expressions of faith in God through prayer and song.

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