The book of Psalms was Israel’s national hymnbook. The book title is from the Greek word psalmos, which was a poem normally sung with musical accompaniment. The Hebrew psalms, or songs, encouraged scriptural memorization and meditation, and enhanced the Jews’ worship of Jehovah. Psalms that were to be sung by the entire congregation were called hymns. Accordingly, the book of Psalms contains the vibrant prayers and joyful praise of the Jewish people.
Though its poetry is ancient, its contents have been a timeless source of encouragement, wisdom, and inspiration for all of God’s people down through the ages. In fact, no portion of scripture is more frequently cited by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament than Psalms, thus, affirming its inspiration. The book of Psalms contains one hundred and fifty individual psalms, covering a vast range of topics and personal experiences. This ensures that every child of God will benefit from reading and meditating on the Psalms. As you study the character, attributes, and feats of God as He interacts with His covenant people, you too will be motivated to praise and worship God along with the psalmists.
The wide variety of psalms naturally conveys a broad diversity of purpose. Some songs are a historical review, to remind the Jewish nation of their dependence on Jehovah. Others are prophetic in nature, or poems ascribing praise to God, or personal songs relating to specific events. For instance, fourteen of David’s psalms relate to personal events, often distressing situations, which occurred in his own life, such as when he fled Jerusalem during his son Absalom’s rebellion, Ps. 3. Although David often requested divine deliverance, his poetry expresses a resolute confidence in God’s character and faithfulness, despite his situation. David knew God’s help would come, but in His best timing – this realization encourages us to trust God in the same way.
Some of David’s writings are prophetic in nature, such as Psalm 22, which foretells the death of the Jewish Messiah by crucifixion. The majority of David’s psalms are either fervent prayers, asking for the Lord’s assistance, praising Him for His abiding presence, or acknowledging God’s faithfulness and goodness to him and the Jewish nation. Other writers capture this same tenor, though the specific focus of each psalm is unique.
Leviticus was Israel’s worship manual, but Psalms was their national hymnal. Psalms comprises a wide assortment of hymns, such as hymns of victory, Ps. 68, hymns of procession, Ps. 24, songs of Zion, Ps. 48, and hallelujah choruses, Ps. 146. Some psalms were to be sung congregationally, Ps. 75, but others were an individual’s songs of lament, Ps. 4, or thanksgiving, Ps. 18. Some were temple liturgies sung during times of public worship, Ps. 15, and yet others, like Psalm 128, were spoken by a priest to pronounce a blessing on those listening. In summary, the application of the poems in Psalms is quite diverse. Perhaps the Hebrew title of the book, Sepher Tehillim, meaning ‘Book of Praises’, best describes the purpose of the entire book – praises to God!
Divisions and Formation
Psalms is the longest book in our Bibles. Both the Hebrew and Protestant Canon contain one hundred and fifty psalms; the Orthodox Canon, includes one additional song, Ps. 151. The psalter is actually the combination of five separate books. It is unknown when these five books were arranged; perhaps the divisions were purely arbitrary for liturgical reasons, i.e., smaller scrolls would be more easily handled by worshippers than one large one. Each book concludes with a doxology, i.e., praise to God. While the psalms themselves are divinely inspired, the book divisions were humanly devised. The five separate books comprise the following individual psalms:
- Book One: Psalms 1-41
- Book Two: Psalms 42-72
- Book Three: Psalms 73-89
- Book Four: Psalms 90-106
- Book Five: Psalms 107-150
After individual psalms were composed, many were gathered into small collections before being arranged in the five different books. For instance, Psalms 120-134 are known as the Psalms of Ascent or Psalms of Degrees which the Jews sang while en route to Jerusalem to keep the feasts of Jehovah. Psalms 146-150 were a collection referred to as Praise Psalms. The psalms authored by David were commonly referred to as David’s Psalms. Some of this collection were clearly available in the days of King Hezekiah, who reigned three centuries after David, as he commanded the Levites to sing the psalms of David and Asaph to the Lord, 2 Chr. 29. 30.
It is not known who gathered the various smaller collections into separate books and then assembled the final book of Psalms. Some believe that this was accomplished by the post-exilic scribe Ezra in the 5th century BC. What is known is that the Holy Spirit not only inspired the original works, but also ensured what was to be collected, and preserved for our benefit.
Date and Historical Setting
The oldest psalm, Ps. 90, was written by Moses in the 15th century BC. The contents of Psalm 137, which mentions the destruction of Jerusalem, pertain to the post-Babylonian exile experiences of the Jewish people. This means that Psalm 137 was most likely written a short time after 538 BC. Psalms 107 and 126 thank the Lord for rescuing and bringing the Jewish captives back into the land of Israel; hence, these too may have been written after the Babylonian exile. Because of its literary sophistication and unique scholarship, it is possible that Ezra wrote Psalm 119 as a teaching tool for post-exilic Jews; however, others believe that David penned this psalm. In any case, the great majority of the psalms were written during the glorious reigns of King David, and his son Solomon, about five centuries after Moses penned Psalm 90, and more than four centuries before the Babylonian captivity.
For many psalms, an ancient Hebrew superscript introduces us to the historical context, and also the writer, by such phrases as ‘A Psalm of David’, Ps. 15, or ‘A Psalm of Asaph’, Ps. 79. Asaph was David’s choirmaster in the temple, 1 Chr. 16. 4-7. In some cases, the superscript indicates the instrumental accompaniment for the psalm, Ps. 5, or an alternative tune that it might be sung to, Ps. 57. In our English Bibles, these introductions are usually printed in a smaller font to introduce the psalm, but in the Hebrew Bible the superscripts are the first line of text in the psalm.
Some have questioned whether these introductory superscripts can be trusted. However, their historicity is notably ancient, and sometimes the internal evidence within the psalms confirms their reliability. For instance, some superscripts refer to incidents in David’s lifetime which are not recorded in the books of Samuel or Chronicles. Psalm 60 serves as a good example; its superscript reads: ‘When he [David] fought against Mesopotamia and Syria of Zobah, and Joab returned and killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt’. It would be quite odd for some post-exilic scribe to add this type of detailed information to the Hebrew text centuries later, without any historical basis for doing so. It is also noted that the Lord Jesus and His apostles referred to the authorship information contained in the superscripts on several occasions, thus proving their trustworthiness.
When a psalm does not have a superscript, its authorship may be discerned through textual observations. For example, Psalm 10 has no superscript, but because it is surrounded by psalms that are accredited to David, and Psalm 10 continues the theme of Psalm 9, most scholars believe that David wrote both psalms. In fact, it is possible that the two were originally one psalm. Another way to identify authorship is to note a particular style, or a repetitive phrase that is peculiar to only one writer in those psalms for which the authorship is known. For instance, when the psalmist speaks directly to Jehovah the phrase ‘your servant’ is only asserted by David himself, the one exception being that Ethan refers to David as ‘your servant’, i.e., ‘the Lord’s Servant’, in Psalm 88. This is why the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash contend that David wrote Psalm 119, as the phrase ‘your servant’ occurs thirteen times in that psalm. This type of evaluation is not conclusive, but does confirm valid candidates for authorship.
The most prolific author of the psalms was David, writing seventy-three of the one hundred and fifty psalms. Besides David, other known writers of Psalms include: Asaph, Ethan, Heman, the Korahites, Moses, and Solomon. As the Korahites were Levitical singers at the temple, they may not have actually composed the psalms, but rather these were dedicated to them, or were provided to them to publicly perform. The authorship breakdown is as follows:
- Asaph: 50, 73-83 (for a total of 12).
- David: 2-9, 1 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-69, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138-145 (for a total of 73).
- Ethan: 89
- Heman: 88 (joint authorship with Korahites)
- Korahites: 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88 (for a total of 11)
- Moses: 90
- Solomon: 72, 127
- Unknown: 1, 10, 33, 43, 66-67, 71, 91-100, 102, 104-107, 111-121, 123, 125-126, 128-130, 132, 134-137, 146-150 (for a total of 49).
In summary, the authorship of one third of the psalms is unknown. This fact did not prevent their canonization, as the authorship of other books in the Bible is also unknown. The inspired character of these psalms is obvious, and their proven historicity well-established. While it is more difficult to enter into the emotional nature of the poem without knowing the personal circumstances that provoked its composition, the messages contained within these psalms will bless the reader and exalt the Lord.
[Selected from Lessons for Life, Volume 6 of the Old Testament Overview series published by Precious Seed Publications].
1 Although Psalm 2 does not have a superscription dedicated to David, it is clear from Acts chapter 4 verse 25 that David was the author of this psalm.