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Introduction to the Psalms

*Much of this material comes from R. K. Harrison's An Introduction To the Old Testament, pp. 976-1003 and LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, pp 510-532.

I. NAME OF THE BOOK

 

A. In Hebrew the title is "Songs of Praise" or Praises" (Tehillim, cf. Psalm 145). This is surprising because so many of the psalms are laments or complaints.

 

B. In the Septuagint (LXX) the title is psalmos which means "to pluck." This Greek term is used of the Psalms in Luke 20:42; 24:44 and Acts 1:20. Not all the psalms were meant to be sung with musical accompaniment, but this came to be the title of the whole book in the LXX.

 

II. CANONIZATION

 

A. Psalms is part of the third division of the Hebrew canon called the "Writings" (Kethubhim, Hagiographa). This section of the Hebrew canon was made up of:

1. wisdom literature

a. Job

b. Psalms

c. Proverbs

2. festival books (Megilloth)

a. Ruth

b. Ecclesiastes

c. Song of Songs

d. Lamentations

e. Esther

3. historical books

a. Daniel

b. Ezra

c. Nehemiah

d. Chronicles

 

B. The Psalms are quoted more often in the NT than any other OT book.

 

III. GENRE

 

A. This literary form was common to the Ancient Near East. The biblical psalms share the form of hymns from Babylon, Egypt, and Canaan. Scholars have seen a close connection:

1. between Psalm 104:20-30 and the Egyptian Hymn to Aton (14th century b.c.)

2. Psalm 29 is almost identical to a Ugaritic poem to Ba'al, except for the name of the deity.

 

B. The archaeological discovery of the Ras Shamra texts from the city of Ugarit show the similarity between Canaanite poetry and the Psalms. The discovery has helped to understand the form and vocabulary of the Psalter (see The Anchor Bible, 3 volumes, by Mitchell).

 

C. The literary form was an ancient genre within Israel:

1. the song of Moses, Exod. 15:1-17

2. the song of Miriam, Exod. 15:21

3. a song of Israel, Num. 21:17-18

4. the song of Deborah, Judges 5

5. the song of Hannah, 1 Sam. 2:1-10

6. the song of the bow from the book of Jashar, 2 Sam. 1:17-27

 

D. Three principle forms:

1. praise psalms — characterized by starting with an imperative such as "praise the Lord," "sing unto the Lord," etc.

2. lament psalms — characterized by starting with a vocative such as "O Lord," followed by a complaint or petition

3. wisdom psalms — similar to categories of wisdom literature (i.e., how to live happy, successful, godly lives)

 

IV. AUTHORSHIP

 

A. The traditional authorship of many of the Psalms is given in titles or superscriptions, which are present in all but thirty-four Psalms. There are two ways to view these titles:

1. They are part of the Masoretic Hebrew text and present in the Septuagint (though often differing), therefore, canonical. However, the Psalms found in the Dead Sea Scrolls do not have these titles and superscriptions.

2. They are not original with the inspired authors and should be viewed as ancient traditions, not inspired truths. It seems that at least two of them disagree with other canonical texts:

a. Psalm 34's title vs. 1 Sam. 21:10ff (the name of the Philistine king)

b. Psalm 56's title vs. 1 Sam. 21:10 (how did David get to Gath)

c. Psalm 60's superscriptions show the difficulty of relating to 2 Sam. 8:13 and 1 Chr. 18:12 in the number of enemies killed by whom.

3. Another problem is that the Hebrew preposition "of" can be understood in several ways:

a. "written by"

b. "written for"

c. "written to"

d. "belonging to the time of"

e. "under the direction of"

4. I think they are not inspired. I will not comment on them in this commentary.

 

B. The Masoretic Hebrew Text's title designation of authors:

1. David, (1 Samuel 16:16-18), (MT) author of 73 psalms; (LXX) author of 84 psalms; (Vulgate) author of 53 psalms

2. Anonymous — 50 psalms: 1,2,10,33,43,71,91, 93-97,104-107,118-119,135,137,146-150

3. Asaph, David's choir leader (1 Chr. 15:16-17; 16:5, "the sons of Asaph" are mentioned in Neh. 7:44) 12 psalms: 50, 73-83

4. Sons of Korah, a family of Levitical musicians (1 Chr. 9:19; 15:17) 11 psalms: 42-49 except 43; 84-88 except 86

5. Jeduthun, Levitical choir leader, (1 Chr. 16:41-42; 25:1-3; 2 Chr. 5:12) 3 psalms: 39; 62; 77

6. Solomon, 2 psalms: 72; 127, "written by," "written for," "written to," "belonging to," "in the time of," or "under direction of"

7. Moses, 1 psalm: 90

8. The Ezrahite (1 Chr. 6:33; 15:17)

a. Ethan, Psalm 89 (some think Abraham) 1 Chr. 15:17,19

b. Heman, Psalm 88 (also a son of Korah) 1 Kgs. 4:31; 1 Chr. 4:31; 15:19

 

C. Traditions of Authorship from Jewish Writings:

1. Baba Bathra 14b (Talmud) — "David wrote the book of Psalms with the help of ten elders, with the help of Adam, the first, and Melchizedek and Abraham and Moses and Heman and Jeduthun and Asaph and the three sons of Korah"

2. Sanhedrin 38b (Talmud) attributes Psalm 139 to Adam and Psalm 110 to Melchizedek

 

D. The Septuagint attributes Psalms to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah (112; 126; 127; 137; 146-149).

 

V. DATE

 

A. The dating of the Psalms is difficult for several reasons:

1. the individual psalms have a particular occasion that caused them to be written

2. at some point the words of one psalmist became the words of the community of faith

3. the psalms were collected through an editorial process into five books

 

B. The Psalms include poems from all periods of Israel's life:

1. Jewish tradition says:

a. Adam wrote Psalm 139 

b. Melchizedek wrote Psalm 110 

c. Abraham wrote Psalm 89

d. Moses wrote Psalm 90

2. Modern scholarship has divided the Psalms into three major periods:

a. pre-exilic (books, I, II, & IV)

b. exilic (book III)

c. post-exilic (book V)

 

C. It is obvious that many of the Psalms are attributed to David:

1. David was a musical composer, player, and singer, 1 Sam. 16:16-18

2. He initiated and organized the Levitical music groups, or Temple singers, 1 Chr. 15:1-16:43, 25:1-31; 2 Chr. 29:25-30

3. The first two books of the Psalms are attributed to him, Ps. 72:20

4. His Psalms appear in all five books of the Psalter

 

VI. THE STRUCTURE OF THE Psalter

 

A. There is no general theme or pattern. There is:

1. a general introduction (characteristic of a righteous person) — Psalm 1

2. every one of the five divisions of books ends with a doxology, 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48

3. a general close (doxology) — Psalm 150

 

B. Characteristics of the Five Books

1. Book 1 — Psalms 1-41

a. all but 4 attributed to David (1; 2; 10; 33)

b. YHWH as title for God predominates, YHWH — 273 to Elohim — 15

c. the historical setting was possibly David's days in conflict with Saul

2. Book 2 — Psalms 42-72 (72:20 shows editor)

a. Psalms 42-49 to sons of Korah (except 43)

b. Elohim as title for God predominates, Elohim - 164 to YHWH - 30

c. the historical setting was possibly David's days as King

3. Book 3 — Psalms 73-89

a. Psalms 73-83, Asaph

b. Psalms 84-88, sons of Korah (except 86)

c. 26 psalms attributed to David

d. YHWH as title for God 44 times; Elohim 43 times

e. the historical setting was possibly Assyrian crisis

4. Book 4 — Psalms 90-106

a. Psalm 101; 103 to David

b. Psalm 90 to Moses

c. all others anonymous

d. YHWH used 104 times; Elohim - 7 times

e. the historical setting was possibly Babylonian crisis

5. Book 5 — Psalms 107-150

a. Psalm 119 is an extended acrostic on God's Word

b. YHWH is used 236 times; Elohim 7 times

c. Psalms 146-150 are praise psalms which all begin with "Praise the Lord"

d. the historical setting was possibly hope in God's future blessings

 

C. Numbering of Psalms Varies

1. Jewish tradition

a. Berachoth 9b — Psalms 1 and 2 counted as 1

b. Shabbath 16 — total number of psalms was 147 to match the years of Jacob's life

2. Greek translation

a. Psalms 9 and 10 are together making one acrostic psalm

b. Psalms 114 and 115 are together, both being Hallel Psalms

c. Psalms 116 and 147 are divided into 2 each

3. The number of Psalms may be related to the annual Scripture reading cycle of the early synagogue

 

D. A sample of ways to group the Psalms:

1. by theme or topic

a. hymns of praise

(1) to God as creator, 8; 19; 104; 139; 148

(2) to God in general, 33; 103; 113; 117; 134-136; 145-147

b. hymns of thanksgiving, 9-10; 11; 16; 30; 32; 34; 92; 116; 138

c. laments/dirges/complaints

(1) corporate, 12; 14; 44; 53; 58; 60; 74; 79; 80; 83; 85; 89; 90; 94; 106; 123; 126; 137

(2) individual, 3-7; 3; 17; 22; 25-28; 31; 35; 38-43; 69-71; 86; 88; 102; 109; 120; 130; 139-143

d. hymns of kingship

(1) God as king, 47; 93; 96-99

(2) King of Israel or Messiah, 2; 18; 20; 21; 45; 72; 89; 101; 110

e. hymns about Zion, 46; 48; 76; 84; 87; 122

f. hymns of liturgy

(1) covenant renewal, 50; 81

(2) priestly blessings, 134

(3) about Temple, 15; 24; 68

g. hymns about wisdom, 36; 37; 49; 73; 111; 112; 127; 128; 133

h. hymns about faith in YHWH's faithfulness, 11; 16; 23; 62; 63; 91; 121; 131

i. condemnation of false gods and idolatry, 82; 115

2. by author or speaker

a. hymns of David using mostly YHWH as the name of Deity, Psalms 1-41

b. hymns of David using mostly Elohim as the name of Deity, Psalms 51-72

c. hymns by David's Levitical musicians and singers

(1) Korah and sons, Psalms 42-49; 84-88

(2) Asaph and sons, Psalms 73-83

d. hymns by praisers, Psalms 111-118; 140-150

e. hymns by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship at a feast day, Psalms 120-134

3. by historical events in Israel's history based on superscription or content, Psalms 14; 44; 46-48; 53; 66; 68; 74; 76; 79; 80; 83; 85; 87; 108; 122; 124-126; and 129

 

E. Related Psalms

1. Psalms 14 and 53 are the same except for the name of God

a. Psalm 14 has YHWH

b. Psalm 104 has Elohim

2. Psalms 103 and 104 are linked:

a. same opening and close

b. Psalm 103 has YHWH as Savior and Redeemer

c. Psalm 104 has Elohim as Creator and Sustainer

3. Psalms 32 and 51 both possibly relate to David's sin with Bathsheba

4. Psalms 57:7-11 and 60:5-12 are combined into Psalm 108

5. Psalm 18 is repeated from 2 Sam. 21:1-51

 

F. Why 150 Psalms in 5 books

1. possibly 150 psalms paralleled the 150 synagogue divisions of the Law for public reading on the Sabbaths

2. possibly five books paralleled the five books of Moses

 

VII. MUSICAL TERMS IN THE Psalter

 

A. Musical terms in the superscriptions used to describe different types of psalms

1. MIZMOR means "to pluck." These were psalms that were meant to be sung and accompanied by musical instruments. There are 57 of these.

2. SHIR refers to songs of all kinds. There are 30 of these.

3. MASCHIL or MASKIL which denotes songs of special skill or teaching psalms. There are 30 of these.

4. MITCHTAM or MITKHTAM — the meaning of this term is uncertain. From a possible

a. Hebrew root it could mean "golden" or "precious"

b. from an Akkadian root it could mean "hidden" or "unpublished"

c. from an Arabic root it could mean "atoning" or "forgiving"

There are 6 of these.

5. PALAL means prayer. It is used to describe the psalms of David in books I & II (cf. Psalm 72:20). It is also found in the superscription of Psalms 17; 86; 90; 102; 142; and possibly 122.

 

B. Musical terms describing the playing or singing of the psalm

1. SELAH is used 71 times in 39 psalms and Hab. 3:3, 9, 13. Its meaning is uncertain. There have been several theories:

a. from the LXX "interlude" for meditation or dramatic effect

b. from Hebrew root "to lift," therefore, an elevation or forte

c. the rabbis say it is an affirmation like "amen," which means "forever"

2. SHIGGAION or SHIGIONOTH is used in Psalm 7 and Habakkuk 3. It is a lament or dirge expressing sorrow. It has a highly emotional poetic form.

3. NEGINOTH is used 6 times in the Psalms and in Hab. 3:19. It means "on stringed instruments."

4. SHEMINITH is used twice. It may mean "on the octave" or "on the eight." It is opposite of ALAMOTH, therefore, possibly for male voices (cf. 1 Chr. 15:21).

5. ALAMOTH is used 4 times. It refers to female soprano voices (cf. 1 Chr. 15:20).

6. MECHILOTH is used once. It means "on wind instruments."

7. GITTITH is used 3 times. It means "on the harp."

8. There are several references to specifically named tunes, Psalm 9; 22; 45; 53; 56; 57-59; 60; 62; 69; 75; 77; 80; and 88

 

VIII. PURPOSE OF PSALMS

 

A. Israel believed that all of life was related to God by covenant. The Psalms are humanity's release to God of the deepest emotions of life (awe and intimacy). They functioned in corporate worship as well as individual devotions. They were a liturgical way to recount and accent Israel's history and theology.

 

B. Israel believed in one and only one personal, caring God and that they were the special object of His love. Faith was not liturgical or creedal but personal and daily. The poetic form of the Psalms helps us express our religious self to God. The chief character of the OT is God!

 

C. All of the Psalms may have begun as individual expressions of personal faith, which were later used by the community of faith (cf. Psalm 23; 139, etc).

 

D. From the NT use of quotes from the Psalms it is obvious that they were revelatory, as well as emotive. They reflect truths about God, humanity, sin, hope, Messiah, and restoration.

 

IX. INTERPRETIVE PROCEDURES

 

A. This commentary seeks to interpret the Psalms in light of

1. their historical setting (i.e., worldview)

2. their genre

3. seeing how NT authors used the Psalms (LXX) to reveal and explain the gospel of Jesus Christ

4. finally, applying these truths to our day, but this significance must follow #1, 2, 3!

 

B. I have chosen to analyze the parallelism by listing the elements. This does violate the genre, but hopefully will help modern western thinkers to see the original author's emphasis and content.

 

C. Each reader/interpreter needs to seek the original author's main points and not interject his/her own. This is difficult in an ancient, poetic book. Often moderns read the Psalms like the morning newspaper, written directly to them in their language and culture. With this interpretive method, one can make the Psalms say anything about anything!

There should be a main point to each and every strophe. The problem is, strophes are not a technical issue but a subjective issue. We must all struggle with where to divide these ancient poems and be sure we have as many truths/points as the original inspired author.

D. One final point, for me, the NT is the proper interpreter of the OT. The Psalms are not the new covenant but Mosaic covenant! They must be interpreted and applied in light of NT revelation.

 

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Bible Study Methods