Introduction to the Psalms
This book is a beginner's guide to the study of the book of Psalms. The approach we will use is as follows:
- We will review the general history, background and various authors who contributed the 150 individual psalms contained in the book of Psalms.
- We will examine the technical information and literary devices that make Hebrew poetry unique.
- The book of Psalms has nine different categories of psalms and we will look at each type and focus on one specific psalm from each group for further analysis.
The main objectives of this study are that you know the history and background of this Old Testament book, appreciate the distinctive style of Hebrew poetry and recognize the differences between the nine different types of psalms. Hopefully, because of this increased understanding, you will be able to draw greater and more meaningful insights from this beautiful and inspiring book.
"Tehillim" is Hebrew for praises. The Greek translation of this Hebrew word is "Psalmoi." The English word Psalms is an Anglicized version of the Greek word "Psalmoi." The Psalms have a universal quality in that they offer the reader comfort without the necessity of critical understanding. In other words, you do not have to be a scholar or need to understand Jewish history in order to appreciate them. This being said, the Book of Psalms also presents the modern reader with a paradox. This contradiction is best stated with the question: How could a book that comes from such a narrow-minded culture with its complex and exclusive religious tradition have such universal appeal? One answer could be that the Psalms speak to every area of the human experience, need and condition. For example:
- The heightened sense of worship presented in many of the psalms satisfies the basic need in all people to seek God.
- In general, the Psalms present a people who were bold in prayer and had an intimate relationship with God during a time when this was not the norm.
- The attitude of theological certainty in the presence and power of God, found in the Psalms, is appealing to the human spirit.
- The aesthetic form of the poetry itself appeals to all kinds of people. The beauty and grace evident in the Psalms are timeless (e.g. "the Lord is my shepherd..." Psalms 23:1 - written almost 3000 years ago resonates with people in every generation).
As Christians, we understand by faith that these things are so because the Psalms are God's work and were purposefully given to men and women with these features in mind, but non-believers find comfort, wisdom and beauty in this ancient poetry as well.
The Psalms were written by different writers, but the Holy Spirit is the author of this as well as every other book in the Bible (II Timothy 3:16). Quotations from the book of Psalms appear in the New Testament more times than any other Old Testament book (of the 287 quotations in the New Testament taken from the Old Testament, 116 of these are from Psalms).
There are 150 individual psalms in the book of Psalms, but there are more than 150 psalms contained in the Old Testament portion of the Bible. The present format of 150 represents a selection process from a larger number of psalms available and brought together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Originally, psalms or praises were gathered into small collections arranged by the similarity of themes, catchwords, phrases, types and forms. We understand that this is how the book of Psalms was developed for several reasons:
- Psalms 72:20 says that David's psalms are ended, but later on in Psalms 86, 101, 103 and 108 there are more psalms referring to David. This suggests that two collections were combined and the smaller was included with the larger.
- There are doublets or duplicate psalms in and out of the book of Psalms. Psalms 14 and 53 are similar, and 105:1-15 and I Chronicles 16:8-22 are also similar. This means that different groups had various collections and when they were put together, the duplicates became evident.
- We recognize that short sets were used for special purposes. For example, Psalms 113-118 are called the Hallel (Hebrew word for praise) psalms because they begin and end with the words "praise the Lord" and sung at the three great Jewish festivals of Dedication, New Moon and Passover (the Hallel psalms are what Jesus sang with the Apostles at the last supper - Matthew 26:20). This was a separate smaller collection that was eventually placed within a larger one.
Some psalms were included in the book of Psalms and others were not. For example, Moses' song of deliverance (Exodus 15:1-18), Deborah's song of praise (Judges 5), David's lament over Saul and Johnathan (II Samuel 1:19-27), and Hezekiah's praise to God for delivering him from illness (Isaiah 38:9-20) are all psalms that were not in the actual book of Psalms. This process of selecting some and omitting others can be compared to John's statement in John 20:30-32 where he writes that only some of the events of Jesus' life were recorded to suit the purpose of the author (the Holy Spirit). In other words, of all the songs of praise and psalms written, some were recorded under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and included in various books throughout the Old Testament, and 150 of these were grouped together to form the book of Psalms itself.
The book of Psalms is divided into five sections. This was probably done to aid studying or to correspond to the five books of the Law. Before the end of each section there was a "doxology" (oral expression of praise). The five "books" were divided in the following way:
- Psalm 1 - Psalm 41
- Psalm 42 - Psalm 72
- Psalm 73 - Psalm 89
- Psalm 90 - Psalm 106
- Psalm 107 - Psalm 150
The book of Psalms was written over a period of approximately 1000 years by a number of writers. Moses, who is credited with Psalm 90, is the earliest of the writers (1400 BC). David (1040 BC) is the most prolific in that Psalms 1- 41 are exclusively attributed to him as well as an additional 30 or so in the rest of the book of Psalms. Solomon (950 BC) is credited with two or possibly three psalms. Asaph, the sons of Korah, Ethan, Heman and other unknown writers from 900-400 BC are mentioned as the writers of the remaining psalms. The entire collection was included in the Old Testament canon as one single book containing 150 psalms 400 years before Jesus appeared.
Use of the Psalms
The book of Psalms was considered and used as the "Jewish songbook" in Old Testament times. It was used in temple worship, synagogue prayer and praise, and at home as a hymnal and guide for devotional purposes. It also served in the early church in much the same way. Later on, Martin Luther used the book of Psalms in restoring congregational singing in early Protestant churches. Many versions of the songbook that we, in the Churches of Christ, use today contain as many as 126 songs originally taken from the Psalms.
The book of Psalms is a valuable book because of what it provides for the reader:
- It is effective in proving that the claims of Christ were accurately prophesied in the Old Testament (e.g. Luke 24:44).
- It enhances our prayer and devotional experience. The psalms help us to develop a pious vocabulary and spirit as we seek to offer acceptable worship to God.
- The Psalms expand our understanding and appreciation for God. They describe with wondrous praise God's power, glory, wisdom and mercy.
- They deepen our knowledge of and relationship with Him, and help us understand the link between thanksgiving and contentment. Focusing on what we do not have leads to dissatisfaction. However, recognizing and giving thanks for what we do have creates and nourishes a sense of contentment and well-being in our souls. The Psalms serve us in this process by providing the language and understanding we need to effectively give thanks.
- The Psalms also teach us the godly response to sorrow, fear, discouragement, anger, disbelief, victory and joy. They explore and explain believers' feelings as they relate to God and the world around them.
As you work your way through this book my hope is that you will learn to understand and use the language of prayer and praise given to us by God in order to equip every saint for the purpose of acceptable and edifying worship.