Sung as praise to God, read for inspiration by many in times of discouragement and crisis, and studied for instruction in godly principles, the book of Psalms has its own unique value as a summation of biblical truths.
This longest book of the Bible is located in the middle of the Scriptures and has been described as “a little Bible”; it points back over the history of ancient Israel to Creation, and forward to the New Testament and the end of this present age. The Yahweh, or Lord, of old-covenant Israel is Jesus Christ of the new covenant. Israelites of ancient times sang psalms in the temples on Mount Zion, as did the earliest followers of Christ in their assemblies.
The English term Psalms comes from the Greek version of the Old Testament via the Latin Vulgate. Psalmoi (“Songs”) is the Greek plural equivalent of the Hebrew word mizmor, meaning “a composition sung to a musical instrument.” In Hebrew the title is Sepher Tehillim, “Book of Praises,” emphasizing an overall positive approach in singing to God despite reasons for sadness and despair. As a collection of individual and community expressions of lament and complaint, of thanksgiving and praise, and of prayers and hymns, the book comprises five sections written and assembled across several centuries.
“[The five sections of Psalms] reveal a lengthy architectural process of amassing blocks of material and building them together into larger wholes and eventually into an overarching unity.”
Psalms is often thought of as the work of Israel’s preeminent king, David. According to the Jewish Midrash on Psalm 1, David gave the Jews five books of psalms to match the five books of Moses. But within the book itself, superscriptions attribute many of the psalms to other writers, including Moses, Solomon, Ethan the Ezrahite, and the temple musicians Jeduthan and Heman. In addition, 34 of the 150 psalms are anonymous, without superscription of any kind.
The five sections or internal “books” are composed of Psalms 1–41; 42–72; 73–89; 90–106; and 107–150. Each concludes with a short statement, or doxology, that praises God, except for the fifth book; there, the final five psalms are themselves a conclusion, calling on the congregation to sing “Hallelu-Yah” (“Praise Yah[weh]”). These five books in turn contain various independent collections, as we’ll see.
In the Hebrew version of the Scriptures, 73 psalms are attributed to David (3–41, except 10 and 33; 51–65; 68–71; 86; 101; 103; 108–110; 138–145). This is a reasonable assumption since David is described elsewhere as a player of the lyre (1 Samuel 16:14–23), as the composer of a poetic lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17–27), and at the end of his life as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1).
But it’s uncertain whether the Hebrew attribution above many psalms—mizmor ledawid (“a musical composition ‘dedicated to,’ ‘on behalf of,’ or ‘belonging to’ David”)—means that he composed them, and/or in the case of 13 of them, that others later connected them to incidents in his life. For example, the superscription on Psalm 18 reads, “A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” And the one above Psalm 51, with its purported connection to David’s repentance of adultery, indicates that this is “a Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
That said, there is likely a core of psalms that are Davidic in origin. Book 2 closes with the words “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” (72:20), indicating that material in the first two books formed a unit before the book of Psalms was completed. The postexilic book of Chronicles recalls that David “appointed some of the Levites . . . to commemorate, to thank and to praise the Lord God of Israel” (1 Chronicles 16:4). It notes that “on that day, David first commissioned Asaph and his kinsmen to give praise to the Lord” (verse 7, Tanakh). What follows in verses 8–36 is a repetition of Psalm 105:1–15 and 96:1–13 as well as shorter quotes from other psalms. David is also credited with making four thousand instruments for the Levites “for giving praise” morning and evening, on Sabbaths and annual holy days (1 Chronicles 23:5, 30–31).
Within the final collection of 150 psalms, four other significant collections are identified, some of which overlap with those attributed to David and Asaph. They are those labeled “Korahite” (42–49; 84–85; 87–88), which likely represent songs for community worship developed under the Levites descended from Korah; those attributed to the temple musician Asaph (73–83); the Elohistic psalms (42–83), which privilege Elohim as God’s name over Yahweh; and the Songs of Ascents (120–134), related perhaps to “going up” to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrim festivals. In all, 116 psalms have some form of superscription.
“The Psalms seem to arise from many variant settings in diverse times, places, and circumstances. The collection of Psalms, moreover, is itself a collection of subcollections, at least some of which were extant before the book itself was formed.”
The first book opens with two psalms whose themes continue through the entire work. This is perhaps an indication of the final editor setting the tone for the completed collection.
In Psalm 1 we learn of the importance of obedience to the Torah, or teaching of God, as expressed in laws, principles, examples and narrative found in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is a wisdom psalm made personal for the one who follows Torah as a way of life: “whatever he does shall prosper”; but by contrast, “the way of the ungodly shall perish” (verse 3, 6).
The second theme appears in Psalm 2. It concerns the centrality of Jerusalem, King David and the temple in the history of ancient Israel, but also in the hope of an ultimate messiah to defeat the enemies of God at the end of the age. Perhaps unrecognized by most, these two themes are overarching in human life in that they apply to all individuals in terms of a final reckoning—“the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment”—and to nations, kings and rulers who oppose the Messiah at His return—“Be wise. . . . Serve the Lord with fear. . . . Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way” (1:5; 2:10–12).
Because the book of Psalms is so varied in purpose and extensive in content, here we’ll survey selected portions of Book 1, paying attention to the overarching themes already put forward in Psalms 1 and 2.
Psalm 3 is effectively the beginning of the first book and begins a set of five laments. As noted already, the title of the first complaint situates David at the time of the infamous rebellion “when he fled from Absalom his son” (see 2 Samuel 15:13–17).
Since it’s likely that titles and historical contexts were added later, the psalm becomes a prototype for the many others that express not only distress but also faith in God’s ability to preserve His people. “Many are they who say of me, ‘There is no help for him in God.’ Selah But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head” (Psalm 3:2–3).
It’s to those who seek God and His way that He renders help in their troubles. When others disadvantage them, they must not hold grudges, storing up anger; but rather, the psalmist counsels, “Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the Lord” (4:4–5). The wicked will not triumph in the end, because God will always deliver the righteous man: “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You. The boastful shall not stand in Your sight; You hate all workers of iniquity. You shall destroy those who speak falsehood; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (5:4–6).
There will be times when God’s help in the distress caused by the wicked will not be immediate: “O Lord—how long?” (6:3), emphasizing the need for faith and endurance, knowing all the while that “the righteous God tests the hearts and minds,” and that the difficulties a wicked person causes “shall return upon his own head” (7:9, 16).
Psalm 8 breaks the lament pattern and is one of five creation psalms that punctuate the book, the others being Psalms 19, 65, 104 and 148. They draw the reader’s attention toward the important clarifying truth that all of creation is within God’s power. It stands out as a hymn of praise for His creative work, which includes not only the wonders of the visible universe but also His care for all life-forms on earth, of which humankind is the pinnacle—made “a little lower than the angels” (verse 5).
In the New Testament, this psalm becomes the basis for an extended understanding of the destiny of humanity in becoming the spiritual children of God, through the coming of Yahweh as Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2), whose ultimate return signals the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.
“The Psalms are not only the heart of the Old Testament; they are a pivotal witness and anticipation of Jesus Christ.”
Echoes of Psalms 1 and 2
The role of the ungodly in subverting the social order reappears in the 10th psalm. There is no superscription here, leading to the thought that it was originally a continuation of Psalm 9. A partial acrostic pattern based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be seen in the opening and closing verses of these psalms when they are joined back together (aleph, bet in 9:2, 4; shin, taw in 10:15, 17).
Initially there is praise for God, but then trouble strikes and patience is required. God will deal with the wicked; the oppressed can rely on Him, but sometimes He does not act immediately: “Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide in times of trouble?” (10:1). The wicked shun God and thereby absolve themselves of the duty of care for their fellow human beings. The psalmist pleads for God to intervene on behalf of the poor and oppressed, against the wicked man who says in his heart, “God has forgotten; He hides His face; He will never see” (10:11). But in the end the righteous will be vindicated, because only “the fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (14:1).
With Psalm 15, we hear again an echo of Psalm 1, in that righteous behavior is being confirmed. In answer to a contemplation about who can live alongside God, the psalm is reminiscent of the 10 Commandments. It defines 10 characteristics of the godly. Such a person is  “he who walks uprightly, and  works righteousness, and  speaks the truth in his heart;  he who does not backbite with his tongue,  nor does evil to his neighbor,  nor does he take up a reproach against his friend;  in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honors those who fear the Lord;  he who swears to his own hurt and does not change;  he who does not put out his money at usury,  nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”
The overarching theme of God’s future judgment at His coming recurs in several places in the complete collection (see, for example, Psalms 110 and 145). But the first is in Psalm 24, where the central elements of the entire book, as noted earlier, reappear. They are the celebration of God as Creator (verses 1–2), the character of those who may have a relationship with God (verses 3–6), and the coming of the Lord to the earth (verses 7–10).
The first of the five internal books ends with a characteristic expression of praise: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen.”
Next time we’ll consider the remaining four books and psalm categories.