What Are the Psalms of Asaph?
As you’ve read the Scriptures, you’ve maybe noticed a heading on some of the Psalms: A psalm of Asaph. Is Asaph a person? Is it a musical notation? Who is this strange character who has written a few of these Psalms?
Asaph was a person, and he was a worship leader assigned by David for the tabernacle choir. What else do we know about Asaph? And do his psalms have any kind of unifying theme?
What Are the Psalms of Asaph?
Most people do not realize that the Psalms are organized just as any of the other books of the Scriptures. It is not as if someone discovered a binder filled with worship songs, thrown together unthinkingly. They are not indiscriminately ordered; there is an intentional story told through the Psalms. They are structured around five books, likely a nod to the Torah. But they tell the story of the people of God from their formation, to the rise of the Davidic kingdom, to the exile, and end with a call to worship as the people of God are intended.
Asaph is the author of twelve of these psalms. He first appears in Psalm 50 as the author and then in Psalm 73-83. Psalm 50 is in book II, and 73-83 open up book III. This third book is the darkest of the five books, and Asaph authored a majority of them. So, when you think of Asaph as a worship leader, don’t think of a contemporary worship leader with smoke, lights, and an attempt to get people excited about the Lord. Think instead of a worship leader sitting in ashes with torn clothes helping people properly lament.
Who Was Asaph?
It is not only through the Psalms that we hear of Asaph. He also appears in 1 Chronicles 6. This is one of those chapters that you likely skim in your Bible reading. It’s a long list of names that are difficult to read and practically impossible to connect to our day. But tucked away in this chapter (verses 31-48) is a list of “men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the LORD after the ark rested there.” Asaph, the son of Berechiah, son of Shimea appears in that list.
Asaph also appears in 1 Chronicles 16 as one of those assigned “before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister regularly before the ark as each day required.” Asaph and his brothers were to sing songs of praise each day as sacrifices were made.
He also appears in 2 Chronicles 29:30 as a “seer” or a “prophet.” Here Hezekiah uses the psalms of both David and Asaph to sing praises with gladness. Asaph is long gone at this point, but it’s interesting that he is referred to here in Scripture as a seer. There is nothing particularly prophetic about his psalms except for some expectation that enemies would be judged by God.
The “sons of Asaph” were also instrumental in the reconstruction following the exile. I would argue that they were perhaps part of compiling the Psalms themselves during this time. This might explain his prominence in the psalms.
What Is the Central Theme of the Psalms of Asaph?
To really understand the setting of Asaph one need look no further than Psalm 73. It is here in this psalm where we find the central theme to the rest — and really to all of book III.
Asaph begins by reciting the goodness of God towards his people. Then Asaph confesses that his feet almost slipped. He became envious of the arrogant and godless. He saw only trouble in his life and blessing in theirs. At his lowest point Asaph cries out, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” The covenant that God made with Israel was that if they did good, they would be blessed, if they did evil they would be cursed. Asaph looked around and it seemed as if the wicked were blessed and the righteous were cursed.
Yet, for Asaph everything changed when he “went into the sanctuary of God.” Here he gained an eternal perspective. He saw that the blessing of God is the stuff of eternity. Yes, the wicked may seem to have “no pangs until death” and their bodies are “fat and sleek” but in reality, they are walking on slippery places. They may have it all in this life, but this life is all that they have.
Asaph also realized how perilous his own standing could be. Throughout the psalm, it’s as if there is an invisible force tugging at Asaph to pull him away from trusting the way of the LORD. He became “brutish and ignorant” and became “like a beast” toward the LORD. We aren’t strong enough to endure. We aren’t strong enough to keep the faith. But verse 26 points to our anchor.
Here Asaph says, “my strength and my heart may fail.” It happened to him. His knees buckled. He was a stout and devout dude but all it took was one glance of his eyes to fixate on the forbidden fruit and he became like Adam and Eve — crippled by covetousness. We also have seasons where our strength fails. Thankfully our strength is not our anchor. Our heart — brutish as it can become — is not our anchor. The Lord Jesus and his accomplishment is our anchor.
It is because of him that we have a reason to sing. It is because of Jesus that the Lord is our portion forever. We inherit everything because of Jesus. It is in him that we have all the spiritual blessings. Everything that is good will be yours. He will withhold no good thing. There will not be a moment when you are in heaven and you think — ah, man I missed out on that. You’ll never say, “I lack. I thirst. I hunger. I want. I need.” Never. Because there will be no good thing that is not yours. Wrap your mind around that.
It is because of Jesus that the Lord will always do us good. It is because of the Lord Jesus that we are upheld by his right hand. It is because of Jesus that the Lord is our portion forever.
And it is not only because of Jesus that these things are true. These things are true through Jesus as well. It is not the strength of your heart or your confession or your faith or anything of the sort that will make the Lord your portion. Those fail. Those falter. Those shake. Those buckle. Those shift. It is through Jesus that we are upheld. He is upholding us. He is doing us good. He is our portion forever.
And that really is the theme of every one of these Psalms. It’s the people of God trying to hold onto the promises of God. It’s all about wrestling with the reality of living in a fallen world. At times it looks as if everything is upside down. It looks as if the enemies of God, and our enemies, are prospering. These psalms are cries given to God in those darker seasons. But they are profoundly hopeful. God is making all things right.
Who Were Some other Authors of Psalms?
Asaph wasn’t the only worship leader who had his works published in the inspired songbook of God’s people. King David wrote many psalms. Solomon wrote a few. Moses is credited with a couple. And the sons of Korah also make quite a few appearances. God used many different people to write these songs. People with different backgrounds and different perspectives all coming together to make one beautiful anthem of praise.
Asaph seemed to be one of the more contemplative of the authors. He was able to see the depth of brutish temptation within his own heart, but also the steadfast anchor of God’s love for him. This would be vital for the Israelites as they trekked through the wilderness of exile and began to rebuild. And his work continues to serve believers even today as we long for the return of Christ.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Ben White