Book of Psalms
PSALMS, BOOK OF. The longest book in the Bible follows “the Law” and “the Prophets” in the Hebrew OT (Luke.24.44) and inaugurates the final division of the OT, called “the Writings” (see Canon). The majority of its chapters, moreover, are antedated only by Genesis-Ruth. But the basic reason why Psalms is more often quoted by the NT and more revered by Christians than any other OT book is found in its inspiring subject matter. Both for public worship—“the hymnbook of Solomon’s temple”—and for individual devotional guidance, its 150 poems constitute the height of God-given literature.
I. Name. The Hebrew designation of Psalms is Tehillîm, meaning “praises,” a term that reflects much of the book’s content (cf. Ps.145.1-Ps.145.21, title). Its name in Latin and English Bibles, however, comes from the Greek, Psalmoi, which means “twangings [of harp strings],” and then, as a result, songs sung to the accompaniment of harps. This latter name originated in the LXX (cf. its NT authentication, Luke.20.42) and reflects the form of the book’s poetry. The same is true of its alternate title, Psalterion, meaning “psaltery,” a collection of harp songs, from which comes the English term “Psalter.”
III. Occasions. The titles of fourteen of the Davidic psalms designate specific occasions of composition and contribute to a historical understanding of Scripture as follows (chronologically):
Ps.59.1-Ps.59.17 (= 1Sam.19.11) sheds light on David’s envious associates (59:12).
Ps.56.1-Ps.56.13 (1Sam.21.11) shows how David’s fear at Gath led to faith (56:3).
Ps.34.1-Ps.34.22 (1Sam.21.13) illuminates God’s subsequent goodness (34:6-1Sam.21.8).
Ps.142.1-Ps.142.7 (1Sam.22.1) depicts David at Adullam, persecuted (142:6).
Ps.52.1-Ps.52.9 (1Sam.22.9) emphasizes Saul’s wickedness (52:1).
Ps.54.1-Ps.54.7 (1Sam.23.19) judges the Ziphites (54:3).
Ps.57.1-Ps.57.11 (1Sam.24.3) concerns En Gedi, when Saul was caught in his own trap (57:6).
Ps.7.1-Ps.7.17 (1Sam.24.9) introduces slanderous Cush (1Sam.7.3, 1Sam.7.8 correspond to 1Sam.24.11-1Sam.24.12).
Ps.18.1-Ps.18.50 (2Sam.7.1) is repeated in 2Sam.22.1-2Sam.22.51.
Ps.60.1-Ps.60.12 (2Sam.8.13-2Sam.8.14) illumines the dangerous Edomitic campaign (60:10; 1Kgs.11.15).
Ps.51.1-Ps.51.19 (2Sam.12.13-2Sam.12.14) elaborates on David’s guilt with Bathsheba.
Ps.3.1-Ps.3.8 (2Sam.15.16) depicts David’s faith versus Absalom’s treachery (2Sam.3.5).
Ps.63.1-Ps.63.11 (2Sam.16.2) illumines the king’s eastward flight (63:11).
Ps.30.1-Ps.30.12 (2Sam.24.25; cf. 1Chr.22.1) reviews David’s sin prior to his dedication of the temple area (30:5-1Chr.22.6).
Bibliography: W. S. Plumber, Psalms, 1867; John Paterson, The Praises of Israel, 1950; H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, 1959; R. L. Harris, “Psalms,” The Biblical Expositor (ed. C. F. H. Henry), 1960, 2:34-70; Arthur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, 1962; C. Westermann, The Praise of God in the Psalms, 1965; A. A. Anderson, Psalms (1-72) (NCB), 1972; Derek Kidner, Psalms, (TOTC) 1973, 1975.——JBP
PSALMS, BOOK OF (ψαλμόι, twangings > the sounds of a harp > songs sung to a harp > psalms). The OT’s primary book of lyric poetry.
Based on content.
The Hebrew title for the תְּהִילִּים, meaning praises. The term reflects much of its contents (cf. Ps 145, title).
Based on form.
The Hebrew nouns that identify the formal literary types of most of the Psalms are: שִׁיר, H8877, song (for twenty-nine pss); and, most commonly (for fifty-seven pss.), מִזְמוֹר, H4660, melody, psalm (BDB, 274) from the root זמר, to play a musical instrument, hence sing with instrumental accompaniment, sing, praise (ibid., and KB, 260). Neither of these, however, developed into a title for the entire Book of Psalms in Heb.
But in the Greek, Latin, and English Bibles, Psalms is named from the Greek ψαλμός, G6011, which means a twanging of bow strings or harp strings (Euripides, Ion, 176) and then, as a result, a song sung to the accompaniment of a harp—pl., ὁι ψαλμόι, the Psalms. This last phrase became the name for the Book of Psalms in the LXX, and it is authenticated in the NT (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20). It reflects the form of the book’s poetry. The same is true of its alternate title (Codex A), ψαλτήριον, meaning psaltery and then a collection of harp songs, from which comes the Eng. term, “Psalter.”
The Psalms are poems, and as such they make little attempt within their various poetic forms to elaborate the circumstances of their composition.
Negative Biblical criticism consistently rejects the psalm titles as of little value (IB, IV, 8). As R. H. Pfeiffer has so dramatically put it, “For the dating of individual psalms, the names of authors mentioned in the titles...with the possible exception of Heman and Ethan are utterly irrelevant” (Introduction to the OT, 629). One suspects, however, that such denials spring from an evolutionary bias, which refuses to admit as genuinely Davidic the advanced spiritual conceptions that Scripture assigns to an era 1,000 years b.c. Of peculiar character is the criticism of J. W. Thirtle (The Titles of the Psalms ), who proposed that the titles should be assigned as colophons to the compositions that preceded them, rather as titles to the chs. that followed them. His contention is now universally rejected.
From the viewpoint of lower criticism, no significant evidence exists for denying the authenticity of the psalm titles within the text of the OT. All Heb. MSS contain these titles. The earliest VSS, except for the Syr., not only exhibit their trs. but even misrepresent (e.g., in the LXX) certain of their meanings, which had been lost because of their antiquity. Hebrew Bibles as well as some of the modern VSS, regularly include the titles in the numbered vv. of the inspired text, thus raising the v. numbers in many of the psalms by one or two digits.
The exhaustive analysis of R. D. Wilson (PTR, XXIV , 353-395) has demonstrated the compatibility of David’s authorship with the content of each psalm attributed by title to him. A similar approach, for those open to receive it, may be applied to those other, non-Davidic psalms, which Scripture assigns to its earlier psalm compilations. Psalm 44 (in Book II), for example, has been considered Maccabean (IB, IV, 228); but it is equally comprehensible as stemming from David’s era, under military duress (cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, 344, 345).
For the majority of its chs., Psalms was composed during the united kingdom (1043-930 b.c.); it is thus antedated only by Genesis-Ruth among the books of the OT corpus. Precise occasions often are difficult to pinpoint within this well-known hundred year period.
The titles of fourteen of the Davidic psalms designate specific occasions of composition. These in turn contribute to a historical understanding of Scripture, as follows (in chronological order):
Psalm 59 was occasioned by the incident recorded in 1 Samuel 19:11 and sheds light on the character of David’s jealous associates (Ps 59:12).
56 shows how David’s fear at Gath (1 Sam 21:10) led to faith (Ps 56:12).
34 illuminates God’s subsequent goodness (vv. 6-8; cf. 1 Sam 21:13).
142, because of the persecution it describes (v. 6), suggests David’s experience at the cave of Adullam (1 Sam 22:1) rather than at En-gedi (Ps 57, below).
52 (cf. v. 3) emphasizes Saul’s wickedness, as Doeg’s superior (1 Sam 22:9).
54 (cf. v. 3) judges the Ziphites (1 Sam 23:13).
57 concerns the cave of En-gedi, when Saul was caught in his own trap (v. 6; 1 Sam 24:1).
7 introduces slanderous Cush (vv. 3 and 8 correspond to 1 Sam 24:11, 12).
18 is repeated as a whole in 2 Samuel 22 and belongs chronologically at 2 Samuel 7:1.
60 (cf. v. 10) illumines the dangerous Edomitic campaign (2 Sam 3:13, 14; 1 Chron 18:12; referred to in 1 Kings 11:15).
51 elaborates on David’s guilt with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:13, 14).
3 (cf. v. 5) depicts David’s faith at the time of Absalom’s revolt (2 Sam 15:16).
63 sheds light on David’s flight E at this time (2 Sam 16:2), for in his previous flights he was not as yet king (Ps 63:11).
30 alludes to David’s sins of pride in his armed power (vv. 5, 6; cf. 2 Sam 24:2), prior to the brief pestilence (2 Sam 24:13-17; 1 Chron 21:11-17), his repentance, and his dedication of the altar and “house” (sacred temple area, 1 Chron 22:1) of Yahweh.
It is of some interest that the historical allusions of the psalms do not go beyond the times of David, except for the anonymous psalm of the Captivity, Psalm 137. Several psalms refer in general terms to times of captivity and hardship and to periods of desolation of the Temple (for example...80, 85, 129). These are quite general poetic descriptions, however, and we must remember that Jerusalem was sacked more than once. David himself suffered two palace revolts. None of the above psalms is ascribed to David, though some of them could be of his days or soon thereafter (C. F. H. Henry, ed., The Biblical Expositor, II, 49).
But these theories were proposed before the discovery of the DSS that date from that very Maccabean period and include MSS both of the canonical psalms and of the הוֹדָיוֹת, thanksgivings (secondary psalmodic compositions), and other books that incorporate materials from the Biblical Book of Psalms. F. M. Cross has further observed that “the psalms of the Maccabean period are much developed from the latest of the OT psalms,” which establishes the Persian era as the most recent possible point for inspired psalmody (The Ancient Library of Qumran, rev. ed., 165, 166; cf. J. P. Hyatt, JBL, LXXII , 5, or O. Eissfeldt, in B. W. Anderson, ed., Israel’s Prophetic Heritage, 196). The Qumran evidence reinforces the evangelical hypothesis that Ezra may not only be the author of his own book and of 1-2 Chronicles (some of the last in the OT) but may also be the compiler of the entire Jewish canon, including Psalms, shortly after 424 b.c. (Darius II, mentioned in Neh 12:22).
In addition to Psalms 9-10, the LXX also combines two of the Hallel Psalms, 114 and 115, but only “for liturgical reasons” (ICC, Psalms, II: 393). As a result Psalm 115 is designated 113:9-26 in the LXX enumeration. But since the LXX later divides Psalm 116 and 147 into two separate chs. each, it concludes with the same total of 150. The LXX’s socalled 151st Psalm has a Heb. prototype, discovered at Qumran Cave II; but even the Gr. text inserts the caution that this supplement is ἔξωθεν του̂ ἀριθμου̂, outside the number. The practical significance of the LXX’s variations thus relates neither to content nor to arrangement, but simply to enumeration. Since it is the LXX that determines nomenclature for the Lat. Vul., and hence for Roman Catholic Eng. VSS, the ch. numbers of the Psalms in the latter are one number lower (two numbers lower for 115-116) than in other Bibles, except for Psalms 1-9 and 147-150.
The 150 psalms are then organized into five books: 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. A given psalm or psalm portion may, moreover, appear in more than one collection: Psalms 14 and a part of 40, in Book I, reappear, respectively, as 53 and 70 in Book II; and the latter halves of 57 and 60, in Book II combine as 108 in Book V. It seems likely, therefore, that each book compilation experienced at least an initial period of independent existence. Furthermore, since the last psalm of each collection was composed with terminal ascriptions or doxologies that were designed to mark the completion of each book as a whole (Pss 41:13; 72:18-20; 89:52; 106:48, and the entire 150th Ps for Book V), it appears that the origins of these five concluding psalms provide clues for the compilation of their respective books.
Psalm 41 was written by David; and, since the remaining psalms of Book I are also attributed to him (except for Ps 1, which constitutes the Book’s introduction; Ps 10, which combines with 9 to form one continuous acrostic, as noted above; and Ps 33, which has no title), it would appear that David brought together the first collection some time before his death in 970 b.c. Book I consists primarily of personal psalms which arose out of the king’s own experiences.
David further composed Psalm 106 (cf. 1 Chron 16:34-36; and see above, II, B), so that Book IV must likewise be traced to David’s own hand, prior to 970. It consists of a Mosaic composition (Ps 90, the oldest of all) and other Davidic psalms (96; 101; 103; 105) but mostly of anonymous chs. Its nature is liturgical, in contrast with the more personal character of Psalms 1-41.
The inappropriateness of שִׁיר, H8877, as a description for Psalm 88 is counterbalanced, however, by its applicability to Psalm 89 (cf. vv. 1, 2), so that 88 prob. “is but the first part of the whole, consisting of Psalms 88 and 89; [and] the title, in its first part, belongs to both” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, A Commentary Critical, Experimental and Practical on the OT and NT, III, 289).
Furthermore, the joyous composition of the Solomonic Ethan (89:1-37) has added to it the exilic supplement (of vv. 38-52), to which the Korahite title must also refer. The sons of Korah are thus ultimately responsible for Psalm 89’s terminal strophe, which they seem to have suffixed in the spirit of Psalm 88. Hence the entirety of Book III would have been completed and collected by this unnamed group of Korahites soon after 586 b.c.
This third book includes a variety of compositions: 86, by David; 73-83, Asaphite; and 84, 85, and 87, also Korahite. When inserted between Books I-II and Book IV it completed Israel’s psalter of the Exile. Since the divine process of compiling the Psalms had at this juncture come to embrace all but the last forty-four chs., the inadequacy of the often used description for Psalms as “the hymnbook of the second temple” (e.g., S. Terrien, The Psalms and their Meaning for Today, 32) becomes apparent. For such a description prejudices both the purpose and the date of the Psalter: on the one hand, many of the psalms were never intended as public hymns (see below, VII; and J. Paterson, The Praises of Israel, 3); and, on the other, whereas all were clearly in existence in the days of the postexilic Temple, most of them had been just as available in the days of the first Temple too.
Finally Book V parallels David’s Book IV in liturgical interest; but it includes several postexilic psalms (e.g., 107; cf. vv. 2, 3), as well as fifteen Davidic chs. and one by Solomon (Ps 127). It must have come into being after the return of 537 b.c. and existed for some time as a vol. independent from the preceding four books: this would account for the presence of Psalm 108 which, as indicated above, is essentially a combination of 57:7-11 and 60:5-12, all three being Davidic by title.
It then remained for a Spirit-led scribe to bring Book V into union with I-IV, adding his own inspired composition of Psalms 146-150 as a grand hallelujah for the entire Psalter. Since this last writing occurred in 444 b.c. (Ps 147:13), at the time of Ezra’s proclamation of the written law and reform of Temple worship (Neh 8-10), it may well be that Ezra himself executed the final compilation of the Book (cf. Ezra 7:10).
Since the time of Ezra, certain minor scribal corruptions have found their way into the text of Psalms; cf. for example the dislocations in the acrostic structure of Psalm 9-10. The text in general is well preserved, as a comparison of the MT with the LXX and other ancient VSS readily demonstrates. The only change of real doctrinal moment is a later Jewish attempt to avoid the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 22:16, “כָּארוּ, they pierced my hands and my feet,” by reading, “כָּאֲרִ֗י, like a lion, my hands and my feet” (IDB, III, 944). Other passages, even in this major passion psalm (e.g., 22:7, 8, 18), remain untouched.
The 150 psalms of the OT are inspired of God (2 Tim 3:16; cf. Luke 24:44). This conclusion is based on apostolic authority, for Peter could quote from them as “the scripture...which the spoke beforehand by the mouth of David” (Acts 1:16). David himself, moreover, affirmed, “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue” (2 Sam 23:2). The Psalms are therefore divinely canonical: a κανών, G2834, authoritative standdard or rule of faith (Arndt, 403). They possess canonicity by virtue of their origin as redemptive revelation (see Canon of the Old Testament).
It stands, accordingly, as a “fundamental error” to consider canonization as describing an action in time, taken by men, by which a given book is rendered authoritative, as if “what was not itself intended to be sacred, nevertheless became sacred” (Wm. H. Green, General Introduction to the OT, the Canon, 26, 27). Books cannot “become” canonical or have canonicity imparted to them; from God’s viewpoint, “If a certain writing has indeed been the product of divine inspiration, it belongs in the canon from the moment of its composition” (E. J. Young, An Introduction to the OT, 33). To assert to the contrary, or that “it lies in the original nature of all sacred writings that they become sacred without intending it” (Green, op. cit., 26), is simply, on a priori grounds, to deny the possibility of a written divine authority and to designate that human action of canonization as an unwarranted one.
From man’s viewpoint, however, some of the psalms do seem to have arisen as the outpouring of the human spirit, without the writers’ apparent consciousness at the time that their writings were to serve as inspired standards of life (cf. Pss 42; 130). In such cases “canonization” became necessary, provided this is understood as “a matter of recognition of the qualities already inherent by divine act in the books so inspired” (SOTI, 69).
When the exilic singing-guild of the Sons of Korah concluded Psalm 89 with a doxology (89:52), patterned on those of the previous books, that suggests an awareness of a parallel canonicity for Book III; and the five-psalms-doxology (146-150) of Book V implies not only an equivalent authority for all five books but also the concept that precisely these 150 psalms were now set apart as a distinctive, completed portion of the canon.
External testimony to the canonical acceptance of Psalms is lacking until the intertestamental period, when the Apoc. speaks of “the books of David” in parallel with “the books about the kings and prophets” (2 Macc 2:13) and quotes directly from Psalm 79:2, 3 as canonical (1 Macc 7:17). Psalms were part of the 3rd cent. b.c. LXX tr. of the Bible, and Qumranic MSS of the 2nd cent. b.c. give evidence that “the collection of canonical Psalms was fixed by Maccabean times” (Cross, op. cit., 165). The major Psalms scroll from Qumran Cave 11, together with five other fragments that once formed parts of it, now touches on forty-one of the chs. of Books IV and V (with the aforementioned variations in order); but it also presents insertions from 2 Samuel 23 and Jeremiah 10 and from eight apocryphal compositions, including parts of Ecclesiasticus 51. J. A. Sanders suggests: “One may look at the fluidity of order in the Psalms Scroll in one of two ways: either as unique and at variance with a generally accepted order; or as a ‘local text’ representing a limited but valid Psalter tradition.” He prefers the latter alternative and considers the Cave 11 scroll “as a signpost in the multi-faceted history of the canonization of the Psalter,” which became “fixed by sections progressively from the front to the back” (The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll, 13). He elsewhere grants that this scroll is marked by “floating bits of liturgical literature” (ibid., 156); and his conclusion does fly in the face of the above noted Biblical data that favors the Davidic formulation of Book IV. The Cave 11 scroll seems best seen as a sort of service lectionary rather than the OT canon.
Within the total canon of the OT, according to the old Heb. arrangement, the Book of Psalms follows “the Law” and “the Prophets” and inaugurates the final division of the OT, called “the Writings” (cf. Luke 24:44). As Josephus explained during the 1st Christian cent., the OT consists of a total of twenty-two books. makes up five; the Prophets, thirteen (8 “former prophets”—the historical books of Josh, Judg-Ruth, Sam, Kings, Chron, Ezra-Neh, Esth, and Job—and 5 “latter”: Isa, Jer-Lam, Ezek, Dan, and the twelve minor prophets); and the remaining four books of the canon “embrace hymns to God and counsels for men for the conduct of life” (Apion, I. 8): namely Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and . By the 4th cent., liturgical considerations had altered the old Heb. arrangement to its present rabbinical order, in which a number of the prophetic books have been transferred from the second to the third division (see CANON, OT; and cf. R. L. Harris, The Inspiration and Canonicity of the OT, 141-145).
The older arrangement of the canon is, however, reflected in the Gr. (and Eng.) Bible, with this difference: that the Book of Psalms, together with the other three of Josephus’ poetic books, is now inserted between the former and the latter prophets. This has NT support from the Lord Himself, namely His testimony in Matthew 23:35 to Genesis-through-Zechariah (and Mal) as marking off the OT Bible, from “first to last” (cf. J. B. Payne, “Zachariah Who Perished,” The Grace Journal, 8:3 [Fall, 1967], 33-35).
Psalms ranks next to Jeremiah as the longest book in the Heb. Bible, and it possesses some of the most inspiring subject matter. It is more quoted by the NT than any other book and is revered by Christians up to the present day. The Psalter is individualistic, personal, and emotional; its 150 poems constitute, in fact, the height of God-given lit.
Each of the psalms exhibits, moreover, the formal characteristics of Heb. poetry (see Hebrew Poetry). This consists, not primarily in rhyme, or even rhythmic balance, but rather in a parallelism of thought, whereby succeeding phrases either repeat or in some way elaborate the previous line. The poems vary in content. has proposed a number of categories, not all of which appear valid (see below, VII); but the following psalm types do distinguish themselves, by their Heb. titles or by subject.
A total of five elements may appear in the titles of the canonical psalms: (1) assignment, (2) music, (3a-b) literary type and aim, (4) author (see II, A, above), and (5) occasion (see III, A). Only Psalm 60 contains all five, as follows: “ To the choirmaster:  according to . [3a] A Michtam  of David; [3b] for instruction;  when he strove with Aram-naharaim and with Aramzobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand of Edom in the .” Most of the psalms have titles that contain one or more of these elements. (1) and (2) are discussed below, under the “Use of psalms”; but (3), on literary type, serves as an introduction to the contents of the Psalter, although one must recognize a degree of uncertainty over some of the exact connotations of these titles.
The greatest number of the poems possess a lyric, singing quality and are entitled “psalm,” מִזְמֹ֥ור, with the name’s emphasis resting upon the stringed accompaniment (see above, I, B, 57 times), or “song,” שִׁיר, H8877, emphasizing joyful melody (29 times). Their praises may be general (e.g., Ps 145) or specific (e.g., Ps 19, concerning God’s revelation). The actual title תְּהִלָּ֗ה, praise, occurs only for Psalm 145.
Also of a somewhat lyric quality is the תְּפִלָּ֗ה, prayer, a title which identifies the contents of Psalms 17; 86; 90; 102; and 142. Some of these chs. contain elements of laments (e.g., 86:1-3); but the character varies, and many more of the psalms are phrased either in part or in whole as prayers to God.
Apart from their titles, the psalms are most satisfactorily categorized on the basis of their subject matter. A number of modern critics, following Gunkel, have sought for a more objective standpoint and have attempted to group the poems of the Psalter according to certain formal characteristics. A psalm, e.g., that consists of a petitionary invocation, followed by a description of the psalmist’s distress, and concludes with an expression of trust in Yahweh, is designated a “lament” (G. Fohrer, Introduction to the OT, 261, 262, 267). Whereas a few such forms may appear to be capable of isolation, this approach as a whole must be designated inadequate: on the one hand, because of the variety that is exhibited by the psalms, so much latitude has had to be allowed within any given formal category that distinguishability has become questionable; and, on the other hand, a psalm’s form seems to follow upon an almost predictable basis from its content, e.g., how else would a lament naturally be phrased, other than by an invocation, description of the problem, and then a commitment to God? The following categories are based on content but are by no means exhaustive; they do, however, cover some of the more significant or more distinguishable subjects that appear in the Book of Psalms on the relationships of God and men.
Psalms 19 and 119 are the poems of revelation, both general (in nature, 19:1-6), and special (His verbalized communication in history, 19:8-14). Whereas the former is limited to a confronting of man with the fact of God’s greatness—
There is no speech nor language;
Their voice is not heard (v. 3 ASV)—
Nature’s purpose is to glorify God (148) and to point men to Him (19:1; 8:3, 4). This function is particularly illustrated by the comparative parallelism of the Psalter:
As the hart panteth after the water brooks,
So panteth my soul after thee, O God (42:1 ASV; cf. 103:5; 128:3).
—or by its implied parallelism:
Yea, the sparrow hath found her a house,
And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young,
Even thine altars, O Jehovah of hosts,
My King, and my God” (84:3 ASV)—
not that the burning altar was any place for a bird to nest, but that through it man finds his true house, like a nest, with God. To the psalmist, nature is far from ultimate; it will some day fail (102:26). It exists to serve mankind (104:10-23) and to praise Yahweh (v. 33).
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
For Thou alone O Yahweh makest me dwell in safety (4:8),
confidence (25:13) and enlargement (31:8). He finds everlasting aid in his God:
Cast your burden on Yahweh,
and He will sustain you;
He will never permit
the righteous to be moved (55:22).
Some boast of chariots, and some of horses;
But we boast of the name of Yahweh our God.
The economics of society, although receiving a greater emphasis in Proverbs than in Psalms, does find expression in David’s opposition to usury, in his concern for the poor, and in his insistence upon integrity in the repayment of debts (15:5; 37:21).
Writers with liberal theological tendencies have united in condemning the Biblical imprecations: “They must be viewed as belonging to the dispensation of the OT...they belong to the spirit of Elijah, not of Christ; they use the language of the age which was taught to love its neighbor and hate its enemy (Matt 5:43)” (CBSC, Psalms, I, lxxxix). In respect, however, to the passage cited, it should be clear that what Matthew 5 is condemning is the anti-Biblical tradition of intertestamental Judaism and not the OT Scriptures. The former does teach hate for the enemies (cf. the sectarian documents from the caves of Qumran, e.g., IQS i, 3-9), but the latter do not (cf. Exod 23:4, 5; Lev 19:17, 18). Three things must also be observed, positively: that the psalms and other Biblical imprecations are not hasty, emotional expressions, but carefully written lit.; that they are prayers and songs to God, written in good conscience; and that they are not, in the last resort, human products but are rather inspired works of the Holy Spirit.
The following explanations then present themselves for the justification of these divinely approved words:
(i) Poetic statements. Some imprecations exhibit only contemporary color, or hyperbole, as Psalm 68:21, 23: “that you may bathe your feet in blood” (cf. 58:10). Again, that God should destroy is sometimes but a poetic way of speaking of destruction by (brutal) men. Thus, as a commentary on the prayer to God in Psalm 137:9, cf. Jeremiah’s message from Yahweh against the Jews (Jer 13:14), “I will dash them one against another,” though actually, in the historical fulfillment, it proved to be human enemies, and not God, who did the dashing down.
(ii) Abhorrence of sin. What the OT essentially curses is the Satanic evil of sin (cf. Nah 3:19); and when the man is condemned (as in Ps 50:21) it is because the punishment of the sin inevitably involves the individual sinner (101:8; 139:21).
(iv) Positive goals beyond private vindication. David is noted for the way in which he often forgave Saul; and similarly, in 109:2-5, he disclaims any personal thirst for vengeance. But he continues with one of his most devastating imprecations. That is, a man’s zeal for God and for the vindication of His righteousness may involve as a corollary the vindication of the individual himself: “My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies...to show that Yahweh is upright” (92:11, 15; cf. 54:7). Such justification for imprecation applies particularly in the case of David, God’s anointed; he himself said, “The righteous shall see, and fear” (52:6). Again, God’s vindication could involve that of His nation; cf. the stated reason for the prayer against Israel’s enemies in 83:3-5, “They lay crafty plans against thy people...against thee they make a covenant” (cf. 137:8).
One concludes that the imprecatory psalms are truly normative examples of the proper human appreciation for the vindication of divine justice. As W. T. Davison has stated,
It may indeed be well to consider whether the OT saints, in the vigor and simplicity of their piety, did not cherish a righteous resentment against evil which the more facile and languid moral sense of later generations would have done well to preserve. “Oh ye that love Yahweh, hate evil,” is an exhortation that belongs, not to one age, but to all time (HDB, IV, 158; cf. PTR, I , 23-37, or 537-553).
Basic to a proper understanding of the penitential psalms is the Psalter’s stress upon the reality of human unrighteousness (cf. Ps 1) and upon its universality:
If thou, Yahweh, shouldst mark iniquities,
(2) Psalms that are similar to certain OT passages that are noted by NT analogy as having Messianic fulfillment, but which are not themselves to be so classified, as Psalm 34:20, “He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken”—but John 19:36, on the crucifixion, seems better related to the known typology of the Passover in Exodus 12:46. Another example is Psalm 97 (v. 7), but Hebrews 1:6 seems rather to be related to Deuteronomy 32:43 (LXX).
(3) Psalms fulfilled in God’s final theocratic rule, but with no particular reference to Jesus Christ as Messiah; e.g., Psalm 9:8, “He judges the world with righteousness,” which is quoted in Acts 17:31. Acts does go on to state that God will do this by Christ, but there is no claim that such was originally taught in the psalm (cf. Pss 50; 96; 98; etc.).
Classification may now be accomplished on the basis, either of form or of content. Formal distinction may accord with the literary method of allusion to the Messiah, whether in the first, second, or third person: (i) Simple reference to Christ may be in the 3rd person, as in the conclusion to Psalm 2, “Kiss the son” (ASV). The form may become most indefinite; e.g., in 89:4 (KJV), that David’s “seed” might be established forever.
Rationalistic critics insist that to apply part of a psalm to David and part to Christ introduces confusion. They contend that the language refers to the psalmist and to him alone and that the application of certain vv. to our Lord Jesus is only by way of accommodation. This theory ignores the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit altogether; and when men talk of psychological impossibilities, they may be talking nonsense; for who of us can understand fully the psychological experience of men while receiving revelations from God? The real author of inspired prophecies is the Holy Spirit. His meaning is that which the reverent interpreter most delights to find (op. cit., IV, 2493). Identification of the Messianic psalms, grouped by form, is as follows:
Religious feasts (e.g., 42:4; 84:12) and their accompanying processions (68:25) concern a number of the psalms. The three annual pilgrimage feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Exod 23:14-17; Lev 23) may have provided the occasion for the psalms of מַּעֲלֹ֗ות (120-134), ascents, ASV; e.g., in 122:
Let us go unto the house of Yahweh.
Our feet are standing
Within thy gates, O Jerusalem... Whither the tribes go up (Heb. עָל֪וּ, ascended; vv. 1, 2, 4 ASV).
Certain of the “songs of ascents” do indeed suggest pilgrims on the way to Zion (e.g., 121), but others are equally as distinguishable by the literary form of progressive or climactic parallelism (e.g., 124:1-3); cf. the KJV title, “A Song of degrees.” Less likely suggestions for מַּעֲלֹ֗ות include Israel’s returns from the Exile (three of these psalms are Davidic, and one Solomonic!) or particular Temple stairs, from which priestly benedictions might have been pronounced (JBL, LXXIV , 38; cf. the LXX’s title, ὠδή τω̂ν ἀναβαθμω̂ν, a song of the flight of steps). The Passover came in time to involve Psalms 113-118, called “the Hallel,” in its services; and Tabernacles has become the occasion of elaborate theories on possible liturgical employments of the Psalms (see below, VII, B, 2).
Although differing markedly in content, all 150 psalms are suitable for use in devotions, either private or public. It is the latter that receives the greater Biblical elaboration, particularly when certain chs. or collections are considered as “the hymnbook of the Solomonic temple.”
The psalm titles in Books I-III contain a number of musical terms in Heb.
Sitz im Leben.
The cultic employment of psalms has led to an elaborate theorizing on the “place-in life” of the Israelitish community (Ger., Sitz im Leben) that may have been held by the various psalms. Such study possesses a basis in fact: cf. the designation of Psalm 92, “for the sabbath” or the prob. antiphonal function of Psalm 136 and certain other of the liturgical psalms (above, VI, B, 8). Although the original occasion or the literary type and content of a given psalm may be directly stated, either in its title or in its main body, the cultic usage for most of the psalms remains at best inferential. Conclusions based on an assumed Sitz im Leben are thus bound to be subjective and may even tend toward the fanciful, when developed from less obvious theories of psalm function. They become destructive if, at worst, cultic speculation is so employed as to deny the OT’s own statements on the nature of its psalms or to introduce concepts about the meanings of the psalms that run contrary to the teachings of the Bible itself.
Study of the place-in-life of psalms is an aspect of the movement more broadly identified as “form criticism.” For the Psalter, it had its rise in Hermann Gunkel’s Ausgewählte Psalmen (1905). On a foundation of comparative studies in Babylonian and Egyptian psalmody, Gunkel advocated the recognition of certain literary “forms” (Ger., Gattungen), that corresponded to a series of assumed types of Sitz im Leben. He adduced five primary Gattungen: (1) hymns, for worship services of praise; (2) communal laments, for intercession in times of disaster; (3) royal psalms, for support of the ruling dynasty; (4) thanksgivings, for blessings received; and (5) individual laments (the largest single group), for intercession over personal needs.
It should be observed that all five “forms” assume a cultic situation. The Gattung of the so-called royal psalms is the one that has led to the most extreme speculation (see below, 2), whereas all of the first three categories have emphasized a communal rather than individualistic approach to the Psalter (below, 3). Gunkel’s form-critical approach has been widely adopted in recent OT introductions—as by Bentzen (1949), Eissfeldt (1965), or Fohrer (1968)—or in commentaries or specialized studies on the Pss., e.g., Leslie (1949), Terrien (1952), Oesterley (1953), Drijvers (1965), or Westermann (1965), though agreement has yet to be achieved.
Furthermore, the very concept of an enthronement for Yahweh is open to severe criticism, on at least three counts. (1) That God’s people would borrow a liturgy from pagan Babylon, not simply the outer forms but also the inner meaning of a heathen festival, appears fundamentally unlikely. (2) The fact remains that Scripture contains no direct testimony to such a festival, which is strange if it were as important and all-pervasive as Mowinckel maintains. Moreover, the indirect evidence that is adduced appears to be more illusory than real (cf. N. H. Snaith, The Jewish New Year Festival). (3) Finally, the idea of a localized rule of God (contrast Ps 24:1), who would be even capable, let alone in need of enthronement at the hands of men (contrast 95:6, 7), runs counter to the primary theological thrust of the OT (cf. Y. Kaufmann, The , 117-121). Mowinckel’s theory remains both theologically unacceptable and historically unsupported (IB, IV, 7).
Paralleling Gunkel’s stress upon cultic origins is a modern emphasis upon a collective rather than individualistic understanding and use of psalms. There is a truth in this, moreover, for the OT does not hesitate to personify groups or to address an entire group as if it were one individual: e.g., ”If you [sing., but meaning the Israelite nation] say in your [sing.] heart, ‘These nations [the Canaanites] are greater than I; how can I dispossess them?’ you shall not be afraid of them” (Deut 7:17, 18). Occasionally, the OT may even speak in poetic language of Israel as a “corporate personality,” existing prior to the actual experiences of those individual Israelites who might have happened to be then addressed: e.g., Moses’ further word, “Remember what Yahweh your God did to Pharaoh...the great trials which your eyes saw...and the outstretched arm, by which the Yahweh your God brought you out” (vv. 18, 19), though few of those who heard Moses’ final address had been alive personally at the time of the Exodus. Certain of the psalms exhibit a similar group expression, particularly among the pilgrim psalms (120-134): e.g., “If it had not been Yahweh who was on our side, let Israel now say...when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive” (124:1-3). This may also be the case when the pronoun employed is “me” (sing.) rather than “us” (pl.): e.g., “‘Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth,’ let Israel now say...yet they have not prevailed against me” (129:1, 2).
Even where a psalm possesses a known, individualistic background, it may yet have been designed for collectivistic use. As R. L. Harris remarks about Psalm 56, which concerns that experience of David when the Philistines took him in Gath:
It expresses trust in time of trouble; but the Philistines, or Gath, or David’s capture are not explicitly mentioned. The psalm very likely was written years after the event as David thought upon those desperate days. He did not write just for the pleasure of writing about his experiences. By the Spirit of God, he was moved to write a general psalm that would also be helpful to us when we are captured by our Philistines in the twentieth cent. (The Biblical Expositor, II, 38; cf. H. C. Leupold, about Psalm 18, Exposition of the Psalms, 163).
Many others of the psalms manifest a distinctly individualistic consciousness (e.g., 1; 21; 112; 127). The completed five-book compilation embraces not simply the congregational hymnbook of Solomon’s Temple but also the devotional heartbeat of men like David, who “strengthened himself [against the crowd] in Yahweh his God” (1 Sam 30:6). Leupold thus concludes, “How much was at first designed to be liturgy and later frequently became material for private devotions, and how much was at first the outgrowth of private devotions and was later adapted to liturgical use, no man will ever know. Both trends must be reckoned with and will have been much in evidence” (ibid., 13).
The regrettable fact is that, as stated in O. R. Sellers’ historical survey of psalm studies,
At the turn of the century there was a strong tendency to consider all the psalms communal. That is, when the Psalmist said “I,” he was supposed to mean “we”; when he said “my,” he was supposed to mean “our”; when he said “me,” he was supposed to mean “us.” We were told that the Israelite seldom considered himself as an individual....Since World War I, however, there has been growing the conviction that many of the psalms were written to be used by individuals (in H. R. Willoughby, The Study of the Bible Today and Tomorrow, 133).
Enemies described in the Psalms are seldom “hostile nations,” and the sicknesses and diseases of which the psalmist complains are hardly ever “national calamities” (cf. CBSC, Psalms, I, lii).
An extreme example is that of Mowinckel’s attempt to explain the phrase פֹּ֣עֲלֵי אָ֑וֶן, which is normally rendered workers of evil (cf. 6:6-8; 64:2-4; 94:3-7). On the basis of Babylonian incantation texts, he has understood them as sorcerers, or even demons, that were casting spells and against whose machinations certain psalms (such as 59; 69; 109) were composed, for use in cultic rites, to protect the nation and its threatened members. The psalms must not be reduced to the status of “counter-spells.” Indeed, the richest blessings of the Psalter flow from its affirmations of personal faith: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (23:1); cf. the individualistic use of psalms in James 5:13, “Is any cheerful? ψαλλέτω, let him sing [psalms of] praise.”
J. A. Alexander, The Psalms (1851); E. W. Hengstenberg, The Psalms (1896); F. Delitzsch, KD, Psalms (1883); R. D. Wilson, “The Headings of the Psalms,” PTR, XXIV (1926), 353-395; N. H. Snaith, The Jewish New Year Festival (1947); E. A. Leslie, The Psalms (1949); J. Paterson, The Praises of Israel (1950); *A. R. Johnson, “The Psalms,” H. H. Rowley, ed., The OT and Modern Study (1951), 162-209; S. Terrien, The Psalms and their Meaning for Today (1952); L. S. M’Caw, NBC, Psalms (1953), 412-514; W. O. E. Oesterley, The Psalms (1953); S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship (1953); &--;—, “Psalm Criticism Between 1900 and 1935,” VT, 5 (1955), 13-33; M. Tsevat, A Study of the Language of the Biblical Psalms (1955); C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1958); W. S. McCullough, “The ‘Enthronement of Yahweh’ Psalms,” E. C. Hobbs, ed., A Stubborn Faith (1958); H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (1959); W. Harrelson, The Worship of Ancient Israel (1960); R. L. Harris, “Psalms,” C. F. H. Henry, ed., The Biblical Expositor (1960), II, 34-70; A. Weiser, The Psalms (1962); SOTI (1964), 424-437; P. Drijvers, The Psalms: Their Structure and Meaning (1965); O. Eissfeldt, The OT, an Introduction (1965), 444-454; C. Westermann, The Praise of God in the Psalms (1965); M. Dahood, Psalms, Anchor Bible (1968-1970); *G. Fohrer, Introduction to the OT (1968), 256-295.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
samz, (tehillim, "praises," cepher tehillim, "book of praises"; Psalmoi, Psalterion):
I. INTRODUCTORY TOPICS
2. Place in the Canon
3. Number of Psalms
4. Titles in the Hebrew Text
II. AUTHORSHIP AND AGE OF THE PSALMS
1. David as a Psalmist
2. Psalmody after David
III. GROWTH OF THE PSALTER
1. Division into Five Books
2. Smaller Groups of Psalms
IV. POETRY OF THE PSALTER
V. THE SPEAKER IN THE PSALMS
VI. THE GOSPEL IN THE PSALTER
1. The Soul’s Converse with God
2. The Messiah
3. Problem of Sin
4. Wrestling with Doubts
5. Out of the Depths
6. Ethical Ideals
7. Praying against the Wicked
I. Introductory Topics.
The Hebrew title for the Psalter is cepher tehillim, "book of praises." When we consider the fact that more than 20 of these poems have praise for their keynote, and that there are outbursts of thanksgiving in many others, the fitness of the Hebrew title dawns upon us. As Ker well says, "The book begins with benediction, and ends with praise--first, blessing to man, and then glory to God." Hymns of praise, though found in all parts of the Psalter, become far more numerous in Books IV and V, as if the volume of praise would gather itself up into a Hallelujah Chorus at the end. In the Greek version the book is entitled in some manuscripts Psalmoi, in others Psalterion, whence come our English titles "Psalms," and "Psalter." The Greek word psalmos, as well as the Hebrew mizmor, both of which are used in the superscriptions prefixed to many of the separate psalms, indicates a poem sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. The title mizmor is found before 57 psalms. The Psalter was the hymnal of the Jewish nation. To individual psalms other titles are sometimes prefixed, such as shir, "song"; tehillah, "praise"; tephillah, "prayer," etc. The Psalter was both prayerbook and hymnal to the Jewish people. It was also a manual for the nurture of the spiritual life in private as well as public worship.
2. Place in the Canon:
The Psalms were placed in the kethubhim or "Writings," the third group of the Hebrew Scriptures. As the chief book of the kethubhim, the Psalter appears first in the great majority of German manuscripts, though the Spanish manuscripts place Psalms after Chronicles, and the Talmud puts Ru before Psalms. There has never been any serious question as to the right of the Psalter to a place in the
3. Number of Psalms:
According to the Hebrew text, followed by modern VSS, there are 150 separate poems in the Psalter. The Greek version has an additional psalm, in which David describes his victory over Goliath; but this is expressly said to be "outside the number." The Septuagint, followed by Vulgate, combined Psalms 9 and 10, and also 114 and 115, into a single psalm. On the other hand, they divide Psalms 116 and 147 each into two poems. Thus, for the greater part of the Psalter the Hebrew enumeration is one number in advance of that in the Greek and Latin Bibles.
4. Titles in the Hebrew Text:
(1) Value of the Superscriptions.
It is the fashion among advanced critics to waive the titles of the psalms out of court as wholly worthless and misleading. This method is as thoroughly unscientific as the older procedure of defending the superscriptions as part of an inspired text. These titles are clearly very old, for the Septuagint, in the 2nd century BC, did not understand many of them. The worst that can be said of the superscriptions is that they are guesses of Hebrew editors and scribes of a period long prior to the Greek version. As to many of the musical and liturgical titles, the best learning of Hebrew and Christian scholars is unable to recover the original meaning. The scribes who prefixed the titles had no conceivable reason for writing nonsense into their prayerbook and hymnal. These superscriptions and subscriptions all had a worthy meaning, when they were first placed beside individual psalms. This indisputable fact of the great antiquity of these titles ought forever to make it impossible for scientific research to ignore them. Grant for the sake of argument, that not one of them came from the pen of the writers of the Psalms, but only from editors and compilers of exilic or post-exilic days, it would still be reasonable to give attention to the views of ancient Hebrew scholars, before considering the conjectures of modern critics on questions of authorship and date. Sources of information, both oral and written, to which they had access, have long since perished. In estimating the value of their work, we have a right to use the best critical processes known to us; but it is unscientific to overlook the fact that their proximity to the time of the composition of the Psalms gave them an advantage over the modern scholar. If it be said by objectors that these ancient scribes formed their conclusions by the study of the life of David as portrayed in the historical books of Kings and Chronicles, the reply is ready that several historical notices in the titles cannot be thus explained. Who was Cush? Who was Abimelech? (Psalms 7 and 34). A careful weighing of the facts concerning the superscriptions will make it seem highly improbable that the earliest of these titles does not reach back into pre-exilic times. We almost certainly have in them the results of the labors of Hebrew scribes and compilers stretching over several centuries. Some of the titles may have been appended by the psalmists themselves.
We are far from claiming that the titles are always intelligible to us, or that, when understood, they are always correct. The process of constructing titles indicative of authorship had not ceased in the 2nd century BC, the Septuagint adding many to psalms that were anonymous in the Hebrew. The view expressed nearly 50 years ago by Perowne is eminently sane: "The inscriptions cannot always be relied on. They are sometimes genuine, and really represent the most ancient tradition. At other times, they are due to the caprice of later editors and collectors, the fruits of conjecture, or of dimmer and more uncertain traditions. In short, the inscriptions of the Psalms are like the subscriptions to the Epistles of the
(2) Thirtle’s Theory.
(3) Meaning of the Hebrew Titles.
Scholars have not been able to come to agreement as to the meaning and application of a goodly number of words and phrases found in the titles of the Psalms. We append an alphabetical list, together with hints as to the probable meaning:
(a) ’Ayeleth ha-Shachar (Ps 22) means "the hind of the morning," or possibly "the help of the morning." Many think that the words were the opening line of some familiar song.
(b) `Alamoth (Ps 46) means "maidens." The common view is that the psalm was to be sung by soprano voices. Some speak of a female choir and compare 1Ch 15:20; Ps 68:11,24 f. According to Thirtle, the title is a subscript to Ps 45, which describes the marriage of a princess, a function at which it would be quite appropriate to have a female choir.
(c) ’Al-tashcheth (Psalms 57-59; 75) means "destroy not;" and is quite suitable as a subscript to Psalms 56-58 and 74 (compare De 9:26). Many think this the first word of a vintage song (compare Isa 65:8).
(d) Ascents, So of" (Psalms 120-184): the Ps 122:4). Psalms 121-123; 125; 127; 128 and 132-134 are well suited for use on such occasions (see, however, Expository Times, XII, 62).
(e) "For the Chief Musician": 55 psalms are dedicated to the precentor or choir leader of the temple. "To the Chief Musician" might mean that the precentor was the author of certain psalms, or that there was a collection of hymns compiled by him for use in temple worship, or that certain psalms were placed in his hands, with suggestions as to the character of the poems and the music which was to accompany them. It is quite likely that there was an official collection of psalms for public worship in the custody of the choir master of the temple.
(f) "Dedication of the House" (Ps 30): The title probably refers to the dedication of Yahweh’s house; whether in the days of David, in connection with the removal of the ark to Jerusalem, or in the days of Zerubbabel, or in the time of Judas Maccabeus, it is impossible to say positively. If Ps 39 was used on any one of these widely separated occasions, that fact might account for the insertion of the caption, "a So at the Dedication of the House."
(g) "Degrees": see "Ascents" above.
(h) Gittith (Psalms 8; 81; 84) is commonly supposed to refer to an instrument invented in Gath or to a tune that was used in the Philistine city. Thirtle emends slightly to gittoth, "wine presses," and connects Psalms 7; 80 and 83 with the
(i) Higgayon: This word is not strictly a title, but occurs in connection with Celah in Ps 9:16. the Revised Version (British and American) translates the word in Ps 92:3, "a solemn sound," and in Ps 19:14, "meditation." It is probably a musical note equivalent to largo.
(j) Yedhuthun: In the title of Ps 39, Jeduthun might well be identical with the Chief Musician. In Psalms 62 and 77 the Revised Version (British and American) renders "after the manner of Jeduthun." We know from 1Ch 16:41; 25:3 that JEDUTHUN (which see) was a choir leader in the days of David. He perhaps introduced a method of conducting the service of song which ever afterward was associated with his name. (k) Yonath ’elem rechoqim (Ps 56): We have already called attention to the fact that as a subscript to Ps 55 "the dove of the distant terebinths," or "the silent dove of them that are afar off," would have a point of contact with Ps 55:6-8.
(l) Machalath (Ps 53), Machalath le`annoth (Ps 88): Perhaps Thirtle’s vocalization of the Hebrew consonants as mecholoth, "dancings," is correct. As a subscript to Ps 87; mecholoth may refer to David’s joy at the bringing of the ark to Zion (2Sa 6:14,15).
(m) Maskil (Psalms 32; 42-45; 52-55; 74; 78; 88; 89; 142): The exact meaning of this common term is not clear. Briggs suggests "a meditation," Thirtle and others "a psalm of instruction," Kirkpatrick "a cunning psalm." Some of the 13 psalms bearing this title are plainly didactic, while others are scarcely to be classed as psalms of instruction.
(n) Mikhtam (Psalms 16; 56-60): Following the rabbinical guess, some translate "a golden poem." The exact meaning is unknown.
(o) Muth labben: The title is generally supposed to refer to a composition entitled "Death of the Son." Possibly the melody to which this composition was sung was the tune to which Ps 9 (or 8) was to be sung. Thirtle translates "The Death of the Champion," and regards it as a subscription to Ps 8, in celebration of the victory over Goliath.
(p) On "Neghinoth’’ occurs 6 times (Psalms 4; 6; 54; 55; 67; 76), and means "with stringed instruments." Neghinath (Ps 61) may be a slightly defective writing for Neghinoth. Perhaps stringed instruments alone were used with psalms having this title. According to Thirtle’s hypothesis, the title was originally a subscript to Psalms 3; 5; 53; 54; 60; 66; 75.
(q) Nechiloth (Ps 5), possibly a subscript to Ps 4, is supposed by some to refer to "wind instruments," possibly flutes.
(r) Celah, though not strictly a title, may well be discussed in connection with the superscriptions. It occurs 71 times in the Psalms and 3 times in Habakkuk. It is almost certainly technical term whose meaning was well known to the precentor and the choir in the temple. The Septuagint always, Symmachus and Theodotion generally, render diapsalma, which probably denotes an instrumental interlude. The Targum Aquila and some other ancient versions render "forever." Jerome, following Aquila, translates it "always." Many moderns derive Celah from a root meaning "to raise," and suppose it to be a sign to the musicians to strike up with a louder accompaniment. Possibly the singing ceased for a moment. A few think it is a liturgical direction to the congregation to "lift up" their voices in benediction. It is unwise to dogmatize as to the meaning of this very common word.
(s) Sheminith (Psalms 6; 12), meaning "the eighth," probably denotes the male choir, as distinguished from `Alamoth, the maidens’ choir. That both terms are musical notes is evident from 1Ch 15:19-21.
(t) Shiggayon (Ps 7) is probably a musical note. Some think it denotes "a dithyrambic poem in wild ecstatic wandering rhythms, with corresponding music."
(u) Shoshannim (Psalms 45; 69) means "lilies." Shoshannim `edhuth (Ps 80) means "lilies, a testimony." Shushah `edhuth (Ps 60) may be rendered "the lily of testimony." Thirtle represents these titles as subscripts to Psalms 44; 59; 68; 79, and associates them with the spring festival, Passover. Others regard them as indicating the melody to which the various psalms were to be sung.
(v) "So of Loves" (Ps 45) is appropriate as a literary title to a marriage song.
(4) Testimony of the Titles as to Authorship.
(a) Ps 90 is ascribed to Moses.
(b) To David 73 psalms are ascribed, chiefly in Books I and II.
(c) Two are assigned to Solomon (Psalms 72; 127).
(d) 12 are ascribed to Asaph (Psalms 50; 73-83).
(e) 11 are assigned to the sons of Korah (Psalms 42-49; 84; 85; 87).
(f) Ps 88 is attributed to Heman the Ezrahite.
(g) Ps 89 bears the name of Ethan the Ezrahire.
In most cases it is plain that the editors meant to indicate the authors or writers of the psalms. It is possible that the phrase "to David" may sometimes have been prefixed to certain psalms, merely to indicate that they were found in a collection which contained Davidic psalms. It is also possible that the titles "to Asaph" and’ "to the sons of Korah" may have originally meant that the psalms thus designated belonged to a collection in the custody of these temple singers. Ps 72 may also be a prayer for Solomon rather than a psalm BY Solomon. At the same time, we must acknowledge, in the light of the titles describing the occasion of composition, that the most natural interpretation of the various superscriptions is that they indicate the supposed authors of the various poems to which they are prefixed. Internal evidence shows conclusively that some of these titles are incorrect. Each superscription should be tested by a careful study of the psalm to which it is appended.
(5) Titles Describing the Occasion of Writing.
There are 13 of these, all bearing the name of David. (a) Psalms 7; 59; 56; 34; 52; 57; 142; 54 are assigned to the period of his persecution by Saul. (b) During the period of his reign over. all Israel, David is credited with Psalms 18; 60; 51; 3; and 63.
II. Authorship and Age of the Psalms.
Ps 90 is ascribed to Moses. It is the fashion now to deny that Moses wrote anything. A careful study of Ps 90 has brought to light nothing inconsistent with Mosaic authorship. The dignity, majesty and pathos of the poem are worthy of the great lawgiver and intercessor.
1. David as a Psalmist:
(1) The Age of David Offered Fruitful Soil for the Growth of Religious Poetry.
(a) The political and religious reforms of Samuel created a new sense of national unity, and kindled the fires of religious patriotism. (b) Music had a large place in the life of the prophetic guilds or schools of the prophets, and was used in public religious exercises (1Sa 10:5 f). (c) The victories of David and the internal expansion of the life of Israel would inevitably stimulate the poetic instinct of men of genius; compare the Elizabethan age and the Victorian era in English literature. (d) The removal of the ark to the new capital and the organization of the Levitical choirs would stimulate poets to compose hymns of praise to Yahweh (2Sa 6; 1Ch 15; 16; 25).
It is the fashion in certain critical circles to blot out the Mosaic era as unhistoric, all accounts of it being considered legendary or mythical. It is easy then to insist on the elimination of all the higher religious teaching attributed to Samuel. This leaves David "a rude king in a semi-barbaric age," or, as Cheyne puts it, "the versatile condottiere, chieftain, and king." It would seem more reasonable to accept as trustworthy the uniform tradition of Israel as to the great leaders, Moses, Samuel and David, than to rewrite Israel’s history out of the tiny fragments of historical material that are accepted by skeptical critics as credible. It is often said that late writers read into their accounts of early heroes their own ideas of what would be fitting. James Robertson’s remark in reply has great weight: "This habit of explaining the early as the backward projection of the late is always liable to the objection that it leaves the late itself without explanation" (Poetry and Religion of the Psalms, 332).
(2) David’s Qualifications for Composing Psalms
(a) He was a skillful musician, with a sense of rhythm and an ear for pleasing sounds (1Sa 16:15-23). He seems to have invented new instruments of music (Am 6:5). (b) He is recognized by critics of all schools as a poet of no mean ability. The genuineness of his elegy over Saul and Jonathan (2Sa 1:19-27) is commonly accepted; also his lament over Abner (2Sa 3:33 f). In the elegy over Saul and Jonathan, David displays a magnanimity and tenderness that accord with the representations of S as to his treatment of Saul and of Jonathan. No mere rough border chieftain could have composed a poem full of the tenderest sentiment and the most exemplary attitude toward a persecutor. The moral elevation of the elegy has to be accounted for. If the author was a deeply religious man, a man enjoying the friendship of God, it is easy to account for the moral dignity of the poem. Surely it is only a step from the patriotism and magnanimity and devoted friendship of the elegy to the religious fervor of the Psalms. Moreover, the poetic skill displayed in the elegy removes the possible objection that literary art in the days of David had not attained a development equal to the composition of poems such as the Psalms. There is nothing more beautiful and artistic in the entire Psalter.
Radical critics saw the David of the Bible asunder. They contrast the rough border chieftain with the pious Psalmist. Though willing to believe every statement that reflects upon the moral character of David, they consider the references to David as a writer of hymns and the organizer of the temple choirs as the pious imaginings of late chroniclers. Robertson well says: "This habit of refusing to admit complexity in the capacities of Biblical characters is exceedingly hazardous and unsafe, when history is so full of instances of the combination in one person of qualities the most diverse. We not only have poets who can harp upon more than one string, but we have religious leaders who have united the most fervent piety with the exercise of poorly developed virtue, or the practice of very questionable policy. A critic, if he has not a single measure of large enough capacity for a historical character, should not think himself at liberty to measure him out in two halfbushels, making one man of each" (Poetry and Religion of the Psalms, 332). Among kings, Charlemagne and Constantine the Great have been likened to David; and among poets, Robert Burns. There were contradictory elements in the moral characters of all these gifted men. Of Constantine it has been said that he "was by turns the docile believer and the cruel despot, devotee and murderer, patron saint and avenging demon." David was a many-sided man, with a character often at war with itself, a man with conflicting impulses, the flesh lusting against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh. Men of flesh and blood in the midst of life’s temptations have no difficulty in understanding the David of the Bible.
(c) David was a man of deep feeling and of imperial imagination. Think of his love for Jonathan, his grateful appreciation of every exploit done in his behalf by his mighty men, his fondness for Absalom. His successful generalship would argue for imagination, as well as the vivid imagery of the elegy. (d) David was an enthusiastic worshipper of Yahweh. All the records of his life agree in representing him as devoted to Israel’s God. In the midst of life’s dangers and disappointments, "David strengthened himself in Yahweh his God" (1Sa 30:6). We should have been surprised had no trace of religious poetry come from his pen. It would be difficult to imagine Milton or Cowper or Tennyson as confining himself to secular poetry. "Comus," "John Gilpin," and the "Charge of the Light Brigade" did not exhaust their genius; nor did the elegy over Saul and Jonathan and the lament over Abner relieve David’s soul of the poetry that clamored for expression. The known facts of his life and times prepare us for an outburst of psalmody under his leadership. (e) The varied experiences through which David passed were of a character to quicken any latent gifts for poetic expression.
James Robertson states this argument clearly, and yet with becoming caution: "The vicissitudes and situations in David’s life presented in these narratives are of such a nature that, though we may not be able to say precisely that such and such a psalm was composed at such and such a time and place, yet we may confidently say, Here is a man who has passed through certain experiences and borne himself in such wise that we are not surprised to hear that, being a poet, he composed this and the other psalms. It is very doubtful whether we should tie down any lyric to a precise set of circumstances, the poet being like a painter who having found a fit landscape, sits down to transfer it to canvas. I do not think it likely that David, finding himself in some great perplexity or sorrow, called for writing materials in order to describe the situation or record his feelings. But I do think it probable that the vicissitudes through which he passed made such an impression on his sensitive heart, and became so inculcated withn an emotional nature, that when he soothed himself in his retirement with his lyre, they came forth spontaneously in the form of a psalm or song or prayer, according as the recollection was sad or joyful, and as his singing mood moved him" (Poetry and Religion of the Psalms, 343 f).
The Biblical writers, both early and late, agree in affirming that the Spirit of Yahweh rested upon David, empowering him for service of the highest order (1Sa 16:13; 2Sa 23:1-3; Mt 22:43; Ac 2:29-31). The gift of prophetic inspiration was bestowed upon Israel’s chief musician and poet.
(3) External Evidence for Davidic Psalms
(b) In 2 Macc 2:13 (the Revised Version),in a letter purporting to have been written by the Jews of Palestine to their brethren in Egypt, about 144 BC, occurs the following: "And the same things were related both in the public archives and in the records that concern Nehemiah; and how he, rounding a library, gathered together the books about the kings and prophets, and the books of David, and letters of kings about sacred gifts." We do not know the exact date of 2 Maccabees, but it was almost certainly in the 1st century BC. The author regards David as the author of books in the sacred library gathered together by Nehemiah.
(c) Jesus the, who wrote not later than 180 BC, and possibly a good deal earlier, thus describes David’s contribution to public worship: "In every work of his he gave thanks to the Holy One Most High with words of glory; with his whole heart he sang praise, and loved him that made him" (Ecclesiasticus 47:8 f the Revised Version (British and American)). David’s fame as a psalmist and the organizer of choirs for the sanctuary was well known to Ben Sira at the beginning of the 2nd century BC.
(e) Amos refers incidentally to David’s great skill as an inventor of musical instruments (Am 6:5). The same prophet is a witness to the fact that songs were sung in worship at Bethel to the accompaniment of harps or viols (Am 5:23).
(f) The earliest witness, or witnesses, if the narrative be composite, we find in 1 and 2 Samuel. David is described as a wonderful musician and as one on whom the Spirit of Yahweh rested mightily (1Sa 16:13-23). He is credited with the beautiful elegy oyer Saul and Jonathan (2Sa 1:17-27) and the brief lament over Abner (2Sa 3:33 f) . He is said to have danced with joy before the ark, and to have brought it up to Jerusalem with shouting and with sound of trumpet (2Sa 6:12 ). He is credited with the pious wish that he might build a temple for Yahweh and the ark, and is said to have poured forth a prayer of thanksgiving to Yahweh for the promise of a perpetual throne (2Sa 7). David dedicated to Yahweh much wealth taken from his enemies. (2Sa 8:11). Both the good and the bad in David’s life and character are faithfully set forth in the vivid narrative.
We come next to two statements that would settle the question of David’s psalms, if critics would only accept them as the work of an author living within a generation or so of the time of David. Unfortunately 2Sa 21-24 is regarded by most critical scholars as an appendix to the early narrative of David’s career. There is no agreement as to the exact date of the composition of these chapters. Naturally the burden of proof is on the critic who tries to disintegrate a document, and suspicion of bias is inevitable, if by the disintegration he is able to escape the force of a disagreeable argument. Happily, we live in a free country, every man having a right to hold and to express his own opinion, for whatever it may be worth. It seems to the present writer that 2Sa 21-24 may well have come from the pen of the early narrator who told the story of David’s reign in such a masterly fashion. Even if these chapters were added by a later editor as an appendix, there is no sufficient reason for putting this writer so late as the exile. His statements cannot be set aside as unreliable, simply because they run counter to the current theory as to the date of the Psalms. 2Sa 22 purports to give the words of a song which David spake to Yahweh, when he had been delivered from Saul and from all his enemies. Ps 18 is evidently a different recension of the same poem. The differences between 2Sa 22 and Ps 18 are not much greater than the differences in the various odd of " ." Only the most advanced critics deny that David wrote this glorious song. 2Sa 23:1-7 must not be omitted, for here David claimed prophetic inspiration as the sweet Psalmist of Israel. This original and striking poem is worthy of the brilliant royal bard. (g) The titles of the Psalms are external evidence of real value for determining the date and authorship of the Psalms; and these ascribe 73 to David. A sweeping denial of all the forms of external evidence for Davidic psalms ought to be buttressed by convincing arguments from internal evidence. Unverified conjectures will not answer.
(4) Internal Evidence for Davidic Psalms
The fact that many of the psalms ascribed to David correspond in tone and temper and in historical allusions with incidents in his life, while not in itself convincing proof that David wrote them, certainly re-enforces the external evidence in favor of Davidic psalms. We must refer the reader to the commentaries of Delitzsch, Kirkpatrick, Perowne and others for the evidence discovered in individual psalms. In many psalms the evidence is strongly in favor of the superscriptions, in which David is named as the writer. See especially Psalms 18; 23; 32; 3.
(5) Number of Davidic Psalms
Opinion varies among conservative scholars all the way from 3 or 4 to 44 or 45. It has come to pass that a critic who acknowledges even Ps 18 to be David’s is called conservative. In fact, the more radical critics regard a scholar as conservative if he assigns even a small group of psalms to the period before the exile. We must not allow ourselves to be deterred from ascribing to David any psalm that seems to us, on the basis of both external and internal evidence, to come from his pen. Delitzsch and Kirkpatrick are safer guides than Cheyne and Duhm. Maclaren also has made a close and sympathetic study of David’s life and character, and accepts the results of sane criticism. W. T. Davison (HDB, IV) speaks out clearly and strongly for Davidic authorship of Psalms 7; 11; 17; 18; 19 (first half), 24 and a few other psalms or parts of psalms, though he makes large concessions to the present tendency to bring the psalms down to a later date. He stands firmly for a large body of pre-exilic psalms. Ewald assigned to David Psalms 3; 4; 7; 8; 11; 18; 19; 24; 29; 32; 101; also 60:8-11 and 68:14-19. Hitzig ascribed to David Psalms 3-19, with the exception of Ps 5; 6 and 14. If one follows the titles in the Hebrew text, except where internal evidence clearly contradicts the superscriptions, it will be easy, to follow Delitzsch in attributing 44 or 45 psalms to David.
2. Psalmody after David:
(1) Psalms of Asaph (Psalms 73-83, also 50).
The prophetic spirit throbs in most of the psalms ascribed to ASAPH (which see). God is pictured as a righteous Judge. He is also pictured as the Shepherd of Israel. Ps 73 holds fast to God’s righteous rule of mankind, in spite of the prosperity of the wicked. Ps 50, which is assigned by many to the time of Hosea and Isaiah, because of its powerful prophetic message, may well have come from Asaph, the contemporary of David and of Nathan. Some of the Asaph group, notably 74 and 79, belong to the period of the exile or later. The family of Asaph continued for centuries to lead in the service of song (2Ch 35:15; Ne 7:44). Inspired poets were raised up from age to age in the Asaph guild.
(2) Psalms of the(Psalms 42-49; 84; 85; 87).
This family of singers was prominent in the temple-worship in the days of David and afterward. Several of the most beautiful poems in the Psalter are ascribed to members of this guild (see Psalms 42; 43; 45; 46; 49; 84). We are not to think of these poems as having been composed by a committee of the sons of Korah; no doubt each poem had an individual author, who was willing to sink his personality in the psalm that he was composing. The privileges and blessings of social worship in the sanctuary are greatly magnified in this group of psalms
(3)(Psalms 72; 127).
Even conservative critics are in doubt as to the Solomonic authorship of the two psalms ascribed to him by the titles. Perhaps assurance is not attainable in the present state of inquiry. Delitzsch well says: "Under Solomon psalmody already began to decline; all the productions of the mind of that period bear the stamp of thoughtful contemplation rather than of direct feeling, for restless yearning for higher things had given place to sensuous enjoyment, national concentration to cosmopolitan expansion."
(4) The Era of Jehoshaphat.
Delitzsch and others regard the period of Jehoshaphat as one of literary productivity. Possibly Psalms 75 and 76 celebrate the deliverance from the great eastern invasion toward the close of Jehoshaphat’s reign.
(5) The Era of Hezekiah.
The latter half of the 8th century BC was one of literary vigor and expansion, especially in Judah. Perhaps the great deliverance from Sennacherib’s invasion is celebrated in Psalms 46 and 48.
(6) The Period of Jeremiah.
Ehrt and some other scholars are inclined to attribute to Jeremiah a considerable number of psalms. Among those which have been assigned to this prophet may be named Psalms 31; 35; 38; 40; 55; 69; 71. Those who deny the Davidic authorship of Ps 22 also assign this great poem to Jeremiah. Whether we are able to name definitely any psalms of Jeremiah, it seems thoroughly reasonable that he should have been the author of certain of the plaintive poems in the Psalter.
(7) During the Exile.
Ps 102 seems to have been composed during the exile. The poet pours out his complaint over the present distress, and reminds Yahweh that it is time to have pity upon Zion. Ps 137 pictures the distress of the captives by the rivers of Babylon. The fire and fervor of the poem bespeak an author personally involved in the distress. No doubt other psalms in our collection were composed during the captivity in Babylon. (8) Post-exilic Psalms
As specimens of the joyous hymns composed after the return from exile, we may name Psalms 85 and 126. Many of the liturgical hymns in the Psalter were no doubt prepared for use in the worship of the second temple. Certain recent critics have extended this class of hymns so as to include the greater part of the Psalter, but that is surely an extreme view. No doubt, the stirring times of Ezra and Nehemiah stimulated poets in Jerusalem to pour forth thanksgiving and praise to Israel’s God. Ewald taught, that the latest psalms in our collection were composed at this time.
(9) Are There Maccabean Psalms?
Calvin, assigned Psalms 44; 74 and 79 to the Maccabean period. If there are Maccabean psalms, Calvin has perhaps hit upon three of them. Hitzig assigns to the Maccabean period all the psalms from 73 to 150, together with a few psalms in the earlier half of the Psalter. Among moderns, Duhm puts practically the whole Psalter in the period from 170 to 70 BC. Gesenius, Ewald, Hupfeld and Dillmann, four of the greatest names in Old Testament criticism, oppose the view that the Psalter contains Maccabean psalms. Most recent students admit the possibility of Maccabean psalms. The question may well be left open for further investigation. III. Growth of the Psalter.
1. Division into Five Books:
In the Hebrew text as well as in the Revised Version (British and American), the Psalms are grouped into five books, as follows: Book I, Psalms 1-41; Book II, Psalms 42-72; Book III, Psalms 73-89; Book IV, Psalms 90-106; Book V, Psalms 107-150. It is possible that this division into five books may have been already made before the Chronicler composed his history of Judah (compare 1Ch 16:36 with Ps 106:48). At the end of Book II appears a subscript which is significant in the history of the Psalter. It is said in Ps 72:20: "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended." It would seem from this note that the editor who appended it meant to say that in his collection he had included all the psalms of David known to him. Singularly enough, the subscript is attached to a psalm ascribed to Solomon. Psalms 51-70, however, lie near at hand, all of which are attributed to David. Ps 71 is anonymous, and Ps 72 might possibly be considered a prayer for Solomon. There is a further difficulty in the fact that the Second Book of Psalms opens with nine poems ascribed to the sons of Korah and to Asaph. It is a very natural conjecture that these nine psalms were at one time united with Psalms 73-83. With these removed, it would be possible to unite Psalms 51-70 with Book I. Then the subscript to Ps 72 would be a fitting close to a roll made up of psalms ascribed to David. It is impossible at this late date to trace fully and accurately the history of the formation of the Psalter.
2. Smaller Groups of Psalms:
Within the Psalter there lie certain groups of psalms which have in a measure retained the form in which they probably once circulated separately. Among these groups may be named the Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), the Asaph group (Psalms 73-83), the sons of Korah groups (Psalms 42-49; 84-87, except 86), a Mikhtam group (Psalms 56-60), a group praising Yahweh for His character and deeds (Psalms 93-100), to which Psalms 90-92 form a fitting introduction. Psalms 103-107 constitute another group of praise psalms, and Psalms 145-150 make a closing Hallelujah group.
The Psalter has had a long and varied history. No doubt the precentor of the temple choir had his own collection of hymns for public worship. Small groups of psalms may have been issued also for private use in the home. As time went on, collections were made on different organizing principles. Sometimes hymns attributed to a given author were perhaps brought into a single group. Possibly psalms of a certain type, such as Maskil and Mikhtam psalms, were gathered together in small collections. How these small groups were partly preserved and partly broken up, in the history of the formation of our present Psalter, will, perhaps, never be known.
IV. Poetry of the Psalter.
For general discussion of the form of Hebrew poetry, see Poetry. In the Psalms almost all known varieties of poetic parallelism are exemplified. Among moderns, C.A. Briggs has made extensive research into the poetical structure of the Psalms. In summing up the result of his study of the various measures employed in the Psalms, he classes 89 psalms or parts of psalms as trimeters, that is, the lines have three main accents; 22 psalms or parts he regards as tetrameters, each of the lines having four accented syllables; 25 psalms or portions are classed as pentameters, and an equal number as hexameters. He recognizes some variety of measure in certain psalms. There is coming to be agreement among Hebrew scholars that the rhythm of Hebrew poetry is largely determined by the number of accented syllables to the line. Some critics insist rigorously on perfect regularity, and therefore are compelled to resort to conjectural emendation.
See Poetry, Hebrew.
Nine psalms are known as alphabetical poems, namely, Psalms 9; 10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145. The most elaborate of these is Ps 119, which is divided into 22 sections of 8 verses each. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet occurs 8 times in succession as the initial letter of the verses in its section.
As to strophical structure or stanza formation, there is evidence in certain psalms of such organization of the poems. The refrains with which strophes often close form an easy guide to the strophical divisions in certain psalms, such as Psalms 42; 43; 46; 107. Among English commentators, Briggs pays most attention to strophical structure. There is some evidence of antiphonal singing in connection with the Psalter. It is thought by some that Psalms 20 and 21 were sung by responsive choirs. Psalms 24 and 118 may each be antiphonal.
V. The Speaker in the Psalms.
Smend, in ZATW, 1888, undertook to establish thesis that the speaker in the Psalms is not an individual, but a personification of the Jewish nation or church. At first he was inclined to recognize an individual speaker in Psalms 3; 4; 62 and 73, but one year later he interpreted these also as collective. Thus, at one stroke individual religious experience is wiped out of the Psalter, A few scholars have accepted Smend’s thesis; but the great majority of critics of every school have withheld their assent, and some of the best commentators have shown that theory is wholly untenable.
Perhaps the best monograph on the subject, for the German student, is one by Emil Balla, Das Ich der Psalmen. Balla’s thesis is that the "I" psalms, both in the Psalter and in the other books of the Old Testament, are always to be understood as individual, with the exception of those in which from plain data in the text another interpretation of the "I" is necessary. Of 100 psalms in which "I" occurs, Balla classes 80 as easy to interpret; in the remaining 20 there might be reasonable room for difference of opinion whether the psalm was individual or collective.
Personification is largely used in all parts of the Old Testament. There is no room for doubt that Ps 129, though using "I," "my" and "me," is the language of Israel as a people. The same is true of Ps 124. The author of Ps 126 likewise associates himself with his brethren. The author of Ps 122, however, is evidently speaking for himself individually, when he says in 122:8, "For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee." The intelligent reader usually has no difficulty in deciding, after a careful reading of a psalm, whether the "I" refers to an individual Israelite or to the congregation of Israel. Sane views on this subject are important, inasmuch as Smend’s theory does violence to the strength and power of the individual religious experience of Old Testament believers. In many portions of the Old Testament, national duties are urged, and Israel is addressed as a whole. At the same time, it would be easy to exaggerate the relatively small place that individual religion occupies in the prophetic writings and in the Law. The Psalter absolutely refuses to be shut up in the molds of a rigid nationalism.
VI. The Gospel in the Psalms
Christians love the Psalter as much as the ancient Jew could possibly have done. On every page they discover elements of religious life and experience that are thoroughly Christian. In this respect the earlier dispensation came nearer to the perfection of Christian standards than in political and social organization. Along with the New Testament, the aged Christian saint desires a copy of the Psalms. He passes easily from the Gospels to the Psalter and back again without the sense of shifting from one spiritual level to another. Religious experience was enjoyed and was portrayed by the ancient psalmists so well that no Christian book in the apostolic period was composed to displace the Psalter.
1. The Soul’s Converse with God:
(1) The Psalmists Are Always Reverent in Their Approach to Deity.
Yahweh is infinitely holy (Ps 99:3,5,9). Psalms 95-100 are models of adoration and worship.
(2) Thirsting for God.
Psalms 42 and 43, which were originally one psalm, voice the longing of the individual soul for God as no other human composition has been able to express it. Ps 63 is a worthy companion psalm of yearning after God.
(3) Praising God.
More than 20 psalms have for their keynote praise to God. See especially Ps 8:1,9; 57:7-11; 71:22-24; 95:1-7. The first three verses of Psalms 33; 34; 40; 92 and 105 reveal a rich vocabulary of praise for stammering human lips.
(4) Joy in God’s house.
Psalms 84 and 122 are classic hymns expressive of joy in public worship in the sanctuary. Religious patriotism has never received a more striking expression than is found in Ps 137:5 f.
(5) Practicing the Presence of God.
In Psalms 91 and 23 the worshipping saint delights his soul with the sense of God’s protecting presence. The Shepherd, tender and true, is ever present to shield and to comfort. The shadow of the Almighty is over the saint who dwells in the secret place of the Most High.
(6) God in Nature.
The Psalmist did not go "through Nature up to Nature’s God"; for he found God immanent in all things. He heard God’s voice in the thunder; felt His breath in the twilight breeze; saw the gleam of His sword in the lightning’s flash, and recognized His hand in every provision for the wants of man and the lower animals. See Ps 104, "Hymn of Creation"; Ps 29, "Yahweh, the God of the storm"; and the first half of Ps 19, "the heavens are telling."
(7) Love for God’s word.
Ps 119 is the classic description of the beauty and power and helpfulness of the Word of God. The second half of Ps 19 is also a gem. Ps 119 was happily named by one of the older commentators "a holy alphabet for Zion’s scholars." The Psalmist sings the glories of God’s Word as a lamp to guide, as a spring of comfort, and as a fountain of hope.
(8) God’s Care of All Things.
Faith in Divine Providence--both general and special--was a cardinal doctrine with the psalmists; yea more, the very heart of their religion. Ps 65 sings of God’s goodness in sunshine and shower, which clothes the meadows with waving grain. The river of God is always full of water. Ps 121, "Yahweh thy Keeper," was read by at family worship on the morning when he left home to go out to Africa as a missionary.
(9) God Our Refuge.
The psalmists were fond of the figure of "taking refuge in God." Yahweh was to them a rock of refuge, a stronghold, a high tower, an impregnable fortress. Psalms 46; 61 and 62 exalt God as the refuge of His saints. His help is always easy to find. The might and wisdom of God do not overwhelm the inspired singers, but become a theme of devout and joyous contemplation.
Our Lord Jesus found in the Psalms prophecies concerning Himself (Lu 24:44-47).
2. The Messiah:
(1) The Suffering Saviour.
While hanging on the cross, the mind of our Lord turned to the Psalter. He voiced the terrible anguish of His soul in the opening words of Ps 22, and breathed out His spirit at the end with the trustful words of Ps 31:5. He also invited the fulfillment of a Messianic prediction in Ps 69:21 by saying, "I thirst." Isa and the Psalms did not fail Him in the hour of His shame, when reproach broke His heart, and there was none to comfort Him. Only Isa 52:13-53:12 surpasses Ps 22 as a picture of Calvary and an interpretation of the significance of the cross. Whether Ps 22 is a direct prophecy of Christ, or only a typically Messianic psalm, is in dispute. Every sentence can be applied to Jesus without straining its meaning. If David or some other sufferer took up his harp to sing of his own sorrows, the Spirit of God guided him to describe those of a greater.
Rationalistic critics insist that to apply part of a psalm to David and part to Christ introduces confusion. They ridicule theory of a "double sense," and contend that the language refers to the Psalmist and to him alone, and that the application of certain verses to our Lord Jesus is only by way of accommodation. This theory ignores the presence and activity of the 1Pe 1:10-12). We ought not to be surprised that we should be unable to explain fully the method of the Holy Spirit’s activity in guiding the thought of prophets and psalmists in their predictions of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow them.
(2) The Conquering King.
Psalms 2 and 110 (with which Ps 72 may be compared) describe the Messiah as Yahweh’s Son, a mighty. Conqueror, who shall overwhelm all foes and reign supported by Yahweh. Some will oppose the Messiah, and so perish; others will enter His army as volunteers, and in the end will enjoy the fruits of victory. "It is better to sit on His throne than to be His footstool."
(3) The Growing Kingdom.
There is room in the earth for no god other than Yahweh, the Creator and Redeemer of mankind. Psalms 47; 67; 96-100 and 117 are proofs of the glorious missionary outlook of the Psalter. All nations are exhorted to forsake idols and worship Yahweh. Ps 47 closes with a picture of the whole world united in the worship of the God of Israel. Ps 67 is a bugle call to all nations to unite in the worship of the true God. Psalms 96-100 paint the character of Yahweh as a basis of appeal to all nations to turn from idols and worship the God of Abraham. Psalms 96 and 98 exalt His righteousness; Ps 97 His power and dominion; Ps 99 His holiness and His fidelity to Israel, while Ps 100 tells of His goodness. Idols will finally go down before a God worthy of men’s reverence and love.
3. Problem of Sin:
The Psalter deals with man as a sinner. Seven of the best known poems in the collection are so charged with a sense of sin and of its deadly fruits that they have been known for centuries as the Penitential Psalms (6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). Besides these poems of penitence and confession, there are many passages elsewhere in the Psalter which depict the sinfulness of men. And yet there are assertions of personal innocence and righteousness in the Psalter that sound like the claims of self-righteous persons (7:3-9; 17:1-5; 18:20-24; 35:11-17; 44:17-22). The psalmists do not mean to affirm that they are sinless before God, but rather that they are righteous in comparison with their foes who are seeking to destroy them. Sometimes they plead for mercy in the same context. The honest exegete does not find the Pharisaic temper in these noble hymns, though he is quite willing to admit that the Christian cannot well employ some of the expressions concerning his own experiences. Jesus requires a humility deeper than that which was attained in Old Testament times.
(1) Confessing Sin.
(a) Individual confession: Psalms 32 and 51 are notable examples of individual confession. The cries of the penitent in Ps 51 have been repeated by thousands on bended knee as the best expression of their own sense of sin and yearning for forgiveness. (b) National confession (see especially 78; 95 and 106). Ps 105 celebrates the praises of Yahweh for His unfailing kindness to Israel; Ps 106 tells the tale of Israel’s repeated rebellion.
(2) Seeking Forgiveness.
Ps 51 is the penitent’s cry for mercy. Never did the soul of man plead more powerfully for forgiveness. God cannot despise a heart broken and crushed with the sense of sin and pleading like a lost child for home and mother.
(3) Conquering Sin.
Psalms 130 begins with a cry out of the depths and ends with a note of joy over redemption from sin. The plenteous redemption of which the poet speaks includes triumph over sin in one’s heart and life. The cries of the Old Testament saints for victory over sin were not unheeded (139:23 f; 19:13; 119:133). The author of Ps 84 truthfully depicts the life of Yahweh’s worshippers, "They go from strength to strength." Victory over sin is sure in the end.
4. Wrestling with Doubts:
The ancient Hebrew seems to have had no temptation to atheism or pantheism. The author of Ecclesiastes felt the pull of agnosticism and materialism (Ec 3:19-21; 9:2-10), but in the end he rejected both (12:7,13 f). The ancient Hebrew found in the world about him one difficulty which seemed almost insuperable. He believed in the wisdom and power and justice of God. How then could it be possible, in a world over which a wise and just God presides, that the wicked should prosper and the righteous suffer? This is the question which is hotly debated by Job and his three friends. A partial solution of the difficulty may be seen in Ps 37, theme of which is `the brevity of godless prosperity, and the certainty that well-doing will lead to well-being.’ A better solution is attained in Ps 73, which depicts God’s attitude toward the wicked and toward the righteous. The wicked will be suddenly overthrown, while the righteous will live forever in the enjoyment of communion with God. Not even death can sever him from God. The fleeting pleasures of proud scoffers pale into insignificance before the glories of everlasting fellowship with God.
5. Out of the Depths:
(1) Out of the depths of persecution and slander the author of Ps 31 climbed into his refuge, as he exclaimed, "In the covert of thy presence wilt thou hide them from the plottings of man: Thou wilt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues."
(2) Ps 77 is a stairway out of depths of suspense and the anxiety. The experience of the author well illustrates Maclaren’s epigram, "If out of the depths we cry, we shall cry ourselves out of the depths."
(3) The author of Ps 116 looked into the jaws of death. Perhaps no other psalm has so much to say of physical death. The singer is filled with gratitude as he reviews the deadly peril from which Yahweh has saved him.
(4) Ps 88 is unique, because it is sad and plaintive from beginning to end. The singer has long cried for deliverance from bodily weakness and from loneliness.
(5) Out of the depths of disaster and defeat the authors of Psalms 60; 74; 79 and 89 cry to God. The Babylonian exile was a sore trial to patriotic Jews. They mourned over the destruction of their beautiful temple and the holy city in which their fathers had worshipped. The author of Ps 60 closes with hope and confidence (60:12).
6. Ethical Ideals:
"Unquestionably in the Psalms we reach the high-water mark of Old Testament practical piety, the best that, the Old Testament can exhibit of heart-religion."
(1) What Sort of Man, Then, Would the Psalms Acclaim as Good?
Ps 1 opens with a vivid contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Ps 15 is the most complete description of a good man to be found in the Psalter. The picture is drawn in answer to the question, What sort of man will Yahweh receive as an acceptable worshipper? The morality of the Bible is rooted in religion, and the religion of the Bible blossoms and bears fruit in the highest ethics known to man. Ps 131 makes humility a prime quality in real goodness. Ps 133 magnifies the spirit of brotherly love. The social virtues had a large place in the psalmists’ ideals of goodness. Humility and brotherly love are a guaranty of peace in the home, the church and the nation. Ps 24:4 is a compend of ethics in a single sentence.
(2) The Ethics of Speech.
Even a casual reading of the Psalms must impress one with the fact that the psalmists felt very keenly the lies and slanders and boastings of the wicked. Stirred with righteous indignation, they call upon God to awake and confront the blatant foes of truth and righteousness (see especially Psalms 12; 52 and 120).
(3) Ministering to the Needy.
Bible readers are familiar with the ideal of the good man in Job 29:12-16; 31:13-22. Ps 82 is a plea for justice. Venal judges are one day to confront the great Judge. Men need fair play first. Perhaps there will then be no occasion for the exercise of almsgiving. Ps 41 is a plea for kindness. The Christian reader is reminded of the words of Jesus, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." The Ideal Ruler is both just and beneficent (Ps 72:2,12-14).
7. Praying against the Wicked:
To be a good lover one must know how to hate. The excitement of battle throbs in many of the Psalms. The enemies of righteousness are victorious and defiant. Their taunts drive the psalmists to importunate prayer. Yahweh’s honor is at stake and His cause in peril. More than 20 psalms contain prayer for the defeat and overthrow of the wicked. Warlike imagery of the boldest kind is found in many of the imprecatory psalms. To the Christian reader some of the curses pronounced against the wicked are startling and painful. Many are led to wonder how such imprecations ever found a place in the Bible. The most severe curses are found in Psalms 35; 69 and 109. Maclaren’s words are well worth reading as an introduction to Ps 109: "For no private injuries, or for those only in so far as the suffering singer is a member of the community which represents God’s cause, does he ask the descent of God’s vengeance, but for the insults and hurts inflicted on righteousness. The form of these maledictions belongs to a lower stage of revelation; the substance of them, considered as passionate desires for the destruction of evil, burning zeal for the triumph of truth, which is God’s cause, and unquenchable faith that He is just, is a part of Christian perfection." Two remarks may be made, as suggestions to the student of the Psalter:
(1) We ought to study the psalms of imprecation in the light of their origin. They are poetry and not prose; and De Witt reminds us that the language of oriental poetry is that of exaggerated passion. Some of these imprecations pulse with the throb of actual battle. Swords are drawn, and blood is flowing. The champion of Yahweh’s people prays for the overthrow of His foes. The enemies cursed are men who break every moral law and defy God. The Psalmist identifies himself with Yahweh’s cause. "Do not I hate them, O Yahweh, that hate thee? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: They are become mine enemies" (Ps 139:21 f). Thus the psalmists pray with God’s glory in view.
(2) We ought to use the imprecatory psalms in the light of our Lord’s teaching. We cannot pronounce curses on our personal enemies. This heavenly artillery may be turned upon the saloon, the brothel and the gambling hell, though we must not forget to pray for the conversion of the persons who are engaged in these lines of business.
8. The Future Life:
"If a man die, shall he live again?" What answer do the Psalms give to Job’s cry for light? There are expressions in the Psalter which seem to forbid hope of a blessed immortality (Ps 6:5; 30:9; 39:13; 115:17). The psalmists are tempted to fear that fellowship with God would cease at death. Let this fact, however, be borne in mind, that not one of the poets or prophets of Israel settled down to a final denial of immortality. Some of them had moments of joyous assurance of a blessed life of fellowship with God in the world to come. Life everlasting in the presence of Yahweh is the prospect with which the author of Ps 16 refreshes himself (16:8-11). The vision of God’s face after the sleep of death is better than worldly prosperity (17:13-15). The author of Ps 73 wins rest for his distressed mind in the assurance of a fellowship with God that cannot be broken (73:23-26). God will finally take the singer to Himself. It has been well said that Ps 49 registers the high-water mark of Old Testament faith in a future life. Death becomes the shepherd of the wicked who trusted in riches, while God redeems the righteous from the power of Sheol and takes the believing soul to Himself.
One of the most elaborate and informing articles on the history of the exposition of the Psalms is found in the Introduction to Delitzsch’s Commentary (pp. 64-87, English translation). Among the Fathers, Jerome, Chrysostom and Augustine are most helpful. Among the Reformers, Calvin, the prince of expositors, is most valuable. Among modern commentators, Ewald and Delitzsch are scholarly and sane. Their commentaries are accessible in English translation Hupfeld is strong in grammatical exegesis. Baethgen (1904) is very thorough. Among recent English and American commentators, the most helpful are Perowne (6th edition, 1866), Maclaren in Expositor’s Bible (1890-92), and Kirkpatrick in Cambridge Bible (1893-95). Briggs in ICC (1906) is learned; Davison, New Century Bible, is bright and attractive. Spurgeon, Treasury of David, is a valuable compilation, chiefly from the Puritan divines. Cheyne, The Book of Psalms (1888) and The Origin and Religious Contents of the Psalter (1891), is quite radical in his critical views. Binnie, The Psalms: Their Origin, Teachings and Use (1886), is a fine introduction to the Psalter. Robertson, The Poetry and Religion of the Psalms (1898), constructs an able argument against recent radical views.
John Richard Sampey