The Book of PSALMS

Authors: David, Asaph, Sons of Korah, and Others Date: 1000–300 B.C.
Theme: Communion with God in Prayer and Praise Key Words: Rejoice, Mercy (Lovingkindness), Praise, Enemies, Lord, Righteousness

Author. The Book of Psalms is a compilation of several ancient collections of Hebrew songs and poetry for use in congregational worship, as well as in private devotion. In some collections the ancient compilers gathered together mostly David’s superb songs. In others they drew from a variety of authors such as Moses, Asaph, Heman, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Ethan, and Jeduthun. Many are from unnamed sources. Jewish scholars called these “orphan psalms.”

Date. The individual psalms may have been written at dates extending from the Exodus to the restoration after the Babylonian exile. But the small collections seem to have been gathered at specific periods in Israel’s history: the reign of King David (1 Chr. 23:5), the rule of Hezekiah (2 Chr. 29:30), and during the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 12:24). This collection process helps explain the duplication of some psalms. For example, Psalm 14 is similar to Psalm 53.

The Book of Psalms was edited in its present form with several variations by the time the Greek Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew, a few centuries before Christ’s advent.

The Ugaritic texts, when contrasted with the more recent Dead Sea Scrolls, show that the imagery, style, and parallelisms of some of the psalms reflect a very ancient Canaanite style and vocabulary. The Book of Psalms, then, reflects the worship, devotional life, and religious sentiment of approximately one thousand years of Israel’s history.

Content. The Hebrew title of this book, Sepher Tehillim, means “Book of Praises.” The Greek titles, Psalmoi or Psalterion, denote a poem that is to be accompanied by a stringed instrument. However, the Psalter contains more than temple songs and hymns of praise. It includes elegies, laments, personal and national prayers, petitions, meditations, instructions, historical anthems, and acrostic tributes to noble themes.

In its final form in our canon of Scripture, the Book of Psalms is subdivided into five smaller books. Each book is a compilation of several ancient collections of songs and poems. A fitting doxology has been placed at the end of each book by its editors. In Book One (Ps. 1–41) most of the songs are attributed to David. Book Two (Ps. 2–72) is a collection of songs by, of, or for the sons of Korah, Asaph, David, and Solomon, with four anonymously written. Book Three (Ps. 3–89) is marked by a large collection of Asaph’s songs. He was King David’s choirmaster (1 Chr. 16:4–7). Although most psalms in Book Four (Ps. 0–106) are without given authors, Moses, David, and Solomon are contributors. More of David’s songs are found in Book Five (Ps. 7–150). The series of songs called the Egyptian Hallel (Ps. 3–118) is found here as well. The final songs (Ps. 6–150) in Book Five are known as the “Great Hallel” series. Each song begins and ends with the Hebrew exclamation of praise, “Hallelujah!”

Informative subheadings are found at the beginning of many of the psalms. The Hebrew preposition used in many of the subheadings can be translated three ways: “to,” “for,” and “of.” That is, “dedicated to,” “for the use of,” and “belonging to.” Those subheadings describing the historical occasion of the psalm all deal with the life of David. Psalms 7, 34, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, and 142 refer to events during David’s troublesome relationship with Saul; and Psalms 3, 18, 51, 60, and 63 cover the period when David reigned over both Judah and Israel.

Other subheadings preceding psalms refer to the musical instruments that are to accompany them; to the appropriate tune or melody; to which part of the choir is to lead (for example, soprano, tenor, bass); or to what type of psalm it is (for example, meditation, prayer). Some of the meanings of these liturgical and musical notations are unknown to us today.

Hebrew Poetry. Instead of a rhyming of sounds, Hebrew poetry and song are marked by parallelism, or rhyming of thoughts. Most parallelisms are couplets that state synonymous thoughts in each line (36:5). Others are antithetic, where the second line states the negative of the preceding line (20:8). There are also constructive or synthetic couplets, which tend to add to, or build on to, a thought (19:8, 9). A few parallelisms are causal, revealing the justification for the first line (31:21). Sometimes parallelism involves three lines (1:1), four lines (33:2, 3), or more.

Personal Application. The New Testament apostles frequently used references from the Book of Psalms as texts for teaching Christian doctrine. The forgiveness of sins by grace, the faithfulness of God, the sinfulness of all men (Jew and Gentile), the inclusion of Gentiles in the church, the existence of angels, and the appropriate conduct of saints, are all doctrines reinforced by quotations from the Psalms.

Also, throughout the centuries the Psalms have been a source of personal inspiration and spiritual strength. In the course of dealing with the adversities of life, people are often frustrated by not being able to express adequately their emotional pain or mental anguish. The Psalms release us from that frustration. With emotionally drenched complaints, humble confessions, desperate pleas, penitent prayers, or screams of pain, the writers of the Psalms skillfully expose and express the yearnings of our deepest thoughts. This use of the Psalms is often the first step toward our own deliverance. By song and Spirit they comfort the lonely, strengthen the weary, bind the brokenhearted, and turn the eyes of the downcast up toward their Creator. Hope returns, faith is renewed, and life again becomes bearable.

The Psalms also have a rich history of liturgical and congregational use. King David organized choirs and orchestras, and appointed skilled conductors and composers to lead the worship (1 Chr. 25). He not only composed many psalms himself, but he invented musical instruments (1 Chr. 23:5). Fifty-five psalms are specifically addressed to the “Chief Musician,” or worship leader.
This orchestrated worship was continued in Solomon’s temple, although at different periods of Israel’s history the worship passed through seasons of misuse and abuse. See 2 Chr. 7:6; 29:25–30; Amos 5:23. With the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70 and the cessation of animal sacrifices, the singing of psalms along with Scripture reading took a place of increasing importance in synagogue worship services.

The first Christian churches comprised mainly Jewish people, so it was natural that they incorporate the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs into their worship (Col. 3:16). Throughout the centuries, in most of the major Christian denominations, hymnbooks composed mostly of psalms set to cultural music patterns have been used in congregational singing. In modern times, churches continue to draw from the Book of Psalms for songs of worship. The worship the Christian church has adopted incorporates not only the lyrics and instruments of the Psalms, but involves clapping (47:1), lifting up hands (141:2), bowing (95:6), standing (134:1), shouting (47:1), and dancing (149:3).

Christ Revealed. Approximately half of the Old Testament references to the Messiah quoted by New Testament writers are from the Book of Psalms. The apostles saw prophetic reference in this book to Christ’s birth (Acts 13:33), His lineage (Matt. 22:42, 43), His zeal (John 2:17), His teaching by parables (Matt. 13:35), His rejection (Matt. 21:42), His priesthood (Heb. 5:6), His betrayal by Judas (John 13:18), His vicarious suffering (Rom. 15:3), His triumphant resurrection (Acts 2:25–28), ascension (Acts 2:34), and reign (1 Cor. 15:27), as well as many other aspects of His ministry.

Some of the prophetic references to Christ are typical, that is, symbolic shadows of future realities. Other references are direct prophetic statements. Either way, the interpretation of these psalms as messianic is verified by Jesus’ own words in Luke 24:44, where He declared that the Psalms spoke concerning Him.

The Holy Spirit at Work. The Book of Psalms, and the principles of worship they reflect, minister to the soul of man and to the heart of God because they are the product of the work of the Holy Spirit. David, the major contributor to the Book of Psalms, was anointed by the Holy Spirit (1 Sam. 16:13). Not only was this anointing for kingship, but it was for the office of a prophet (Acts 2:30); and the prophetic statements he recorded were by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:44; Acts 1:16). In fact, the lyrics of his songs were composed by the inspiration of the Spirit (2 Sam. 23:1, 2), as were his plans for appointing chief musicians and choirs with their accompanying orchestras (1 Chr. 28:12, 13).

Thus the Psalms are unique and vastly different from the works of secular composers. Both may reflect the depths of agony experienced by the tormented human spirit, with all its pathos, and express the rapturous joy of the freed soul, yet the Psalms move to a higher plane by the creative anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Specific statements show that the Holy Spirit is at work in creating life (104:30); that He faithfully accompanies the believer (139:7); that He guides and instructs (143:10); that He sustains the penitent (51:11, 12); and that He interacts with the rebellious (106:33).

Outline of Psalms (1)

  1. Book 1 1:1-41:13
    1. Introductory songs 1:1–2:12
    2. Songs of David 3:1–41:12
    3. Doxology 41:13
  2. Book 2 42:1–72:20
    1. Songs of the sons of Korah 42:1–49:20
    2. Song of Asaph 50:1–23
    3. Songs of David 51:1–71:24
    4. Song of Solomon 72:1–17
    5. Doxology 72:18, 19
    6. Concluding verse 72:20
  3. Book 3 73:1–89:52
    1. Songs of Asaph 73:1–83:18
    2. Songs of the sons of Korah 84:1–85:13
    3. Song of David 86:1–17
    4. Songs of the sons of Korah 87:1–88:18
    5. Song of Ethan 89:1–51
    6. Doxology 89:52
  4. Book 4 90:1–106:48
    1. Song of Moses 90:1–17
    2. Anonymous songs 91:1–92:15
    3. “The Lord Reigns” songs 93:1–100:5
    4. Songs of David 101:1–8; 103:1–22
    5. Anonymous songs 102:1–28; 104:1–106:47
    6. Doxology 106:48
  5. Book 5 107:1–150:6
    1. Thanksgiving song 107:1–43
    2. Songs of David 108:1–110:7
    3. Egyptian hallel 111:1–118:29
    4. Alphabetic song on the law 119:1–176
    5. Songs of ascents 120:1–134:3
    6. Anonymous songs 135:1–137:9
    7. Songs of David 138:1–145:21
    8. “Praise the Lord” songs 146:1–149:9
    9. Doxology 150:1–6

(1) Spirit filled life study Bible. 1997 (J. W. Hayford, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (Ps 1:1). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson