Introducing the Psalms

Mon, 29/11/2010 - 12:45 -- James Oakley

I thought it might help if I wrote down my thoughts so far on the Psalms: What kind of literature are they? How are they to be read and interpreted today?

The titles of the individual Psalms

Most English translations of the Bible give titles to chapters or paragraphs of the Bible. Those are the editors’ contribution to the translation, and are not found in the original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek text. They will vary in how helpful they are, and they will vary in how well they function as a title for the section they stand over. My preference is for them not to be read out during the public reading of Scripture.

The Psalms are a little different. Most, but not all, Psalms have a title in the original Hebrew. Most English translations will still add their own title, but they will also print the title found in the original text.

For example, the first Psalm to have a title in the Hebrew is Psalm 3. The English Standard Version (ESV) translates that title as “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son”, which is printed in small-caps type. The editors then add their own title of “Save me, O my God”, in the same bold type they use for titles in other books of the Bible.

This example illustrates well the character of these original Hebrew titles. The English translators’ editorial titles are designed as a summary of the text which follows. The ESV editors think that Psalm 3 can best be summarised as a prayer to God along the lines of “Save me, O my God”, as found in (English) verse 7. The original titles are not so much summaries as introductions: In this case, the Psalm is ascribed to David, and we are given some of the historical setting when he penned it.

One more confusion is worth mentioning at this point. In the Hebrew, the title is normally the first verse, making our “verse 1” the verse numbered “2” in the Hebrew text. Psalms that have titles therefore have one more verse in the Hebrew than they do in the English translation, and all the verse numbers are thus translated by one. When I refer to any verse numbers below, I am referring to the verse numbering used in English translations.

The Psalms of David

74 of the 150 Psalms contain the ascription “of David” (ledawid) in the title. To this we can add a number of others, such as Psalm 10. Psalms 9-10 originally were composed as a single Psalm, as evidenced by the acrostic structure running through the two of them. Psalm 9 is ascribed “of David”, but Psalm 10 (as would be expected) has no title; it is a continuation of Psalm 9 and so should be regarded as sharing Psalm 9’s title.

That ascription need not mean that David wrote each of those Psalms. The phrase “of David” could be variously mean: “written by David”, “commissioned by David”, “written about David”. Other Psalms are ascribed to other individuals. 12 are ascribed to Asaph, one of the song-leaders in the tabernacle in the time of David according to 1 Chronicles 6:39. 11 are ascribed to the sons of Korah; Korah was a great-grandson of Levi (Exodus 6:21), so the Korahites were one of the Levite clans. Their notoriety in Numbers 16 was for opposing Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, but by 1 Chronicles 6 their descendants are also being enlisted by King David to serve the tabernacle with their music.

This means that the majority of Psalms are ascribed to either David, or those whom he enlisted to serve the tabernacle’s music. This is significant, because one of David’s unique contributions to the worship of Israel was to introduce music. After all, he was himself a musician, whose music was a comfort to King Saul.

From what we can learn in the Pentateuch, Israel’s worship in the Mosaic period was virtually silent. Verbal confession was required on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:2 1), and we can infer that confession often accompanied the presentation of animal offerings. Trumpets were blown over the morning and evening ascension offerings (Num. 10:9-10), but no other liturgical music is explicitly mentioned. By contrast, as we shall see (chapter 4), the worship of the Davidic tabernacle was mainly worship in song, and the Levitical choir and orchestra was later incorporated into temple worship in the days of Solomon. When Christians sing hymns and psalms in worship, when we play organs or pianos guitars or trumpets we are heirs of the Davidic “liturgical revolution.” (Leithart, P J, From Silence to Song), pages 14-15.

Jewish tradition sees the whole book of Psalms as being written by David. We find similar thought within the Psalms, where Psalm 72:20 concludes the whole of Psalms 42-72 (see below) with the line “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse are ended”, in spite of the fact that many of those Psalms are explicitly ascribed to other people. Furthermore, within the New Testament, Acts 4:25 ascribes Psalm 2 to David, a Psalm having no explicit ascription, and Hebrews 4:7 does the same for Psalm 95. We can be fairly confident, however, that some of the Psalms were not written in David’s time. It is hard to see Psalm 137 as having been written before the exile to Babylon. So what are we to make of such traditions?

David introduced sung worship in Israel, and he appointed some clans of Levi to lead Israel’s music. He, and this team, wrote many Psalms for use in worship. The project of having a book of Psalms continued long after David’s death; it is hard to be certain when the book of Psalms, as we have it, was finally edited. Nevertheless, given David’s historical role in the “liturgical revolution” out of which the Psalms grew, it is not improper to speak of the whole book as “the Psalms of David”. As we’ve seen, to speak in this way is not to imply that David was the actual author of each of the 150 Psalms we have.

Shuffle the Pack?

How significant is the book of Psalms? Is it merely a set of 150 Psalms, which happen to occur in the order they are in, but we could shuffle the pack and it would make no difference to how we read them? When we read one Psalm, do we need to read it in its context, noting what comes before and after it, if we are to hear it correctly?

These are questions which are presently being debated and thought through, and there is no consensus. Clearly the book of Psalms is less structured than, say, the book of Romans. Whilst a New Testament epistle can be divided into sections, there will always be numerous ways this can be done, and the final section divisions will always be a matter of opinion. With the Psalms, they come divided into 150 individual Psalms, although a few pairs (like 9-10 and 42-43) should be treated as single Psalms. So we should avoid the extreme which treats the book of Psalms as though it were one continuous piece with no discrete breaks. There may be a progression of thought and mood through the Psalms, but to treat each Psalm as an individual piece of poetry is not a mistake because that is what it is.

On the other hand, we must also avoid the extreme that says that each Psalm is an isolated poem, a text without a textual context (cotext). We avoid this extreme because there is some clear structuring.

Beginning and End

The only Psalms not to have superscriptions in Psalms 1-89 are: 1, 2, 10, 33, 43, 71. Psalms 10 and 43 were both originally part of the Psalm before, so no superscription would be expected. Apart from 33 and 71, Psalms 1-2 are unique in Psalms 1-89 in having no superscription. Could this be because they are general Psalms, whose precise original historical setting is relatively unimportant, that serve to introduce and launch the whole book?

Psalms 146-150 all begin and end with the word “Hallelujah!”, translated by the ESV “Praise the LORD!” The length of these 5 Psalms increases from 146-147, then shortens again towards 150. The cumulative effect is that these 5 Psalms function as a final burst of praise to end the book of Psalms.

So it appears to be no accident that the book of Psalms starts and ends in the way it does. It is consciously introduced, and has a purposeful ending.

Five Books

“Most modern versions mark out the division of the Psalter into its five ‘books’, which respectively begin at Psalms 1, 42, 73, 90 and 107. The basis of this is to be found in the Psalter itself, which crowns each of these groups with a doxology. The Septuagint, translated in the third or second century B.C., witness to the antiquity of these landmarks, and earlier still the Chronicler quotes the one which concludes Book IV (1 Chronicles 16:35f).” (Kidner, Psalms 1-72, page 4).

Kidner wrote in 1973, and there may now be less consensus that the 5-book structure is as old as this. Even if it doesn’t date to B.C., the 5-book structure has been around for a long time. Nevertheless, exactly how these 5 books offer structure and development of thought within the Psalms remains complex.

Groups of Psalms

Several times in the Psalms we encounter groups of Psalms that have been grouped together deliberately. Examples include the Psalms of Korah (42-49 and 84-88), the Psalms of Asaph (50, but then 73-83), the long Psalms that retell portions of Israel’s history (103-106), the Songs of Ascents (120-134), the closing Hallelujah Psalms (146-150).


So we conclude that the Psalms are individual pieces of poetry. They have, however, been compiled into five books, which have been combined into the Book of Psalms we have today, in a deliberate fashion. We therefore study each Psalm in its own right, looking for ways in which its meaning may be sharpened, added to or altered by its place in the Psalter. We also are left with the conclusion that there may be a movement or development of thought through the whole book, but that the evidence of structure we have seen does not, in and of itself, require this.

Content of the Psalms

Having considered the structure of the Psalter, we move now to consider what we find in there.

At this point, generalisation is difficult because so much is in the book of Psalms. Some are words addressing God; others are words of instruction addressed to other people. Some are words of thanks and praise in good times; others are words of despair in incomparably difficult times. Some seem very tied to the experience of King David himself; others could be used by almost any member of the people of God.

This means we should not look to any given Psalm to conform to any given pattern, but allow it to speak for itself. However the Psalms are part of the Old Testament, and as such are inspired by God. So insofar as they describe the experiences of God’s people, they are God’s descriptions of the experiences of God’s people. Insofar as they describe David the king, they are God’s descriptions. Insofar as they instruct the people of God in their own history, or in the character of the God they serve, the instruction is to be read as God’s own. Insofar as they are prayers (be it prayers of petition, thanksgiving or lamentation) they are prayers that God would want prayed.

It could be said that the rest of Scripture contains God’s words to us, but that the Psalms contain our words to God. We can now see that there are two problems with this. First, not every Psalm is a prayer from humanity to God. Second, those Psalms that are prayers are inspired prayers, and so they don’t cease to be God’s words to us just because they offer us words to speak to him.

It follows that every Psalm is in the Old Testament because it is part of God’s definitive word to his people. Through the Psalms, God speaks, and God’s people must listen to him humbly and submissively. The Psalms are therefore to be read publicly and preached just as much as any other part of Scripture. Because they are in the Old Testament, Jesus came not to abolish them but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). We must neither neglect them (as though they had been abolished), nor read them as though they were originally timeless or as though we were living under the Old Covenant (as thought they had not been fulfilled). Rather we read them today as part of the fulfilled Old Testament Scriptures

The Psalms for the New Testament People of God

When we turn to the New Testament, we find the Psalms being used in several different ways.

As songs for the people of God

As has already been said, the Psalms were used in the worship of the tabernacle and temple. Ephesians 5:19 envisages this continuing, as Christians are told to address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”. Some Christians have argued that these three types of song are in fact the types of Psalm to be found in the book of Psalms. They conclude that Ephesians 5 only tells Christians to sing from the Psalms in their worship.

That is an argument that is yet to persuade me. What is clear is that the psalms are included in what Paul describes here. Whatever we are to sing when we come together, it should include the Psalms.

As we do so, we need to remember the range of Psalms there is. Whilst a Christian congregation can sing any Psalm, not every Psalm is a Psalm of praise. Some are more didactic, addressed to fellow members of the church. In spite of this, David and others wrote Psalms for the people of God to sing, and so we can still sing them today.

As instruction about the Christ

David was promised by God, in 2 Samuel 7, that he would have a son to reign on his throne forever. This son’s kingdom would never end, and would have the most expansive geographical limits. The immediate referent was to Solomon, David’s literal son. However, the kingdom was torn away from him (1 Kings 11:9-13), and the splendour of his kingdom (whilst great) never fulfilled the scale of 2 Samuel 7.

So as the line of David’s successors runs from Solomon to Jehoiachin, the hope still stands. In part, the existence of this unbroken dynasty is itself testimony that God is keeping this promise, especially when compared to the numerous short dynasties of the northern kingdom. But if Solomon did not exhaust 2 Samuel 7, none of his descendants did either. So God keeps his promise by giving David a dynasty, but it remains a promise. The books of Kings end in 2 Kings 25:27-30 with the lifting up of Jehoiachin’s head from his Babylonian prison. Is God raising up a new Joseph to come to the deliverance of his people? The story ends with a focus on Jehoiachin’s good fortunes to remind us that God will still keep that promise.

When the New Testament begins, we are still looking for God to raise up a descendant of David to reign on David’s throne. Matthew begins his gospel by showing us that Jesus is “the son of David”.

Other New Testament writers follow Jesus in seeing Psalm 110 contain a reference to him. David writes of God addressing his Son, only he refers to his own son as “my Lord”. Psalm 110 looked for the day when God would give David a son who would be greater than David himself. The hope for a Messiah is the hope for “great David’s greater son”.

This means that as we read of how David, the Lord’s anointed, was treated in the Psalms, we will also learn about how Jesus was to be treated. As we read prayers that David prayed, we read prayers that would fit perfectly on the lips of David’s son.

So Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1 from the cross (Mark 15:34) and Psalms 42-43 in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:34). The early church looked to Psalms 69 and 109 to decide how to respond to Judas’ departure from the apostolic 12 (Acts 1:20), to Psalm 16 to explain Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:25-28) and Psalm 2 to interpret the hostility of worldly rulers to Jesus’ session (Acts 4:25-26)

As instruction about righteous suffering

The Psalms offer us words to God for all the changing scenes of life. However many were written from a context of persecution, suffering or even exile. As such they particularly instruct us about being part of the suffering people of God, and particularly provide us with words of prayer to use in these times.

Both / And / Either / Or

It can be confusing to realise that the New Testament uses the Psalms in so many ways. Does this mean that every Psalm should be used in every one of these ways? Or, is each Psalm in one, and only one, of these categories, so that it is either about praise, or Messianic, or about suffering?

I want to suggest that it is more fruitful to resist the “either / or” approach in favour of the “both / and” approach. Yes, some Psalms fit every category. Yes, some Psalms fit only one. Like any other text, a Psalm is capable of being looked at from a number of different angles and perspectives. Some angles will shed considerable light upon the subject; others will shed less. But these different New Testament uses for the Psalms give us different ways to look at them so that we can enjoy God through each Psalm in the richest way possible.

Rhetorical Impact

Let me conclude. What impact do we expect any given Psalm to have on us today?

We read the Psalms as Christians, as members of Christ’s bride the church. As we do so we are instructed as the people of God about our God, our head the Lord Jesus Christ, and about what it means to live and suffer as the people of God. As we do so, we read the prayer book of the Lord Jesus himself, and we learn a language for our own prayer as we, the church, echo his prayers. Different Psalms will have different impacts on us. Some we can pray every day. Others we learn how to pray ready for the day we need them.

However, if the church neglects the Psalms, their God will be smaller, their Christ will be more distant, their praise will be diminished, their prayer language will be poorer, their resilience in suffering will be weaker. The church that reads, preaches and prays the Psalms will live in response to the God of the Psalms, following the Lord Jesus who supremely was the one who did this.

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