The word for psalms in Hebrew is TehilÃ®m, which means “praise.” The English title is derived from the Greek translation (LXX) Psalmoi, which means “Songs of Praise.” Praise directed to the Lord, the God of Israel, is certainly the primary emphasis in the Psalms. Some have referred to the Psalms as Israel’s hymnbook, which is partially true but overall is insufficient to account for all that is in the Psalms. More than one-third of the collection is made up of prayers to God. Therefore, it contains both hymns and prayers that were used in the context of Israel’s worship.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING
Other titles include the designations of Solomon (Pss 72; 127), Asaph (Pss 50; 73-83), the sons of Korah (Pss 42; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88), Ethan the Ezrahite (Ps 89), Heman the Ezrahite (Ps 88), and Moses (Ps 90). All of these use the same Hebrew preposition as appears with David’s name and therefore have the same ambiguity about authorship. In the case of Asaph, although he was one of David’s chief musicians (1Ch 6:39), the name itself became associated with a group of musicians bearing the same name (Ezr 2:40-41; see note at Ps 50 title). This might explain why an apparently postexilic psalm (Ps 74) includes the title “of Asaph.”
BACKGROUND: The book of Psalms consists of many different hymns and prayers composed by individuals but used by the community. If one were to take the names in the titles as authors, the date of composition ranges from the time of Moses (fifteenth century BC) to a time following the exile (sixth century BC or later). Some of the titles do contain historical information that might indicate the setting of the composition, although even this (like the authorship) is ambiguous. They might not refer to the date of composition but to the setting of its contents, being composed some time after the events had taken place. This is a more likely scenario since some of these psalms describe life-threatening situations, where composing a psalm in the heat of the moment would not have been a top priority. In many cases, these psalms include thanksgiving sections as well, showing that they were written after God had answered the prayers.
MESSAGE AND PURPOSE
CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE
The psalms can be divided into classes. There are hymns (145-150) and songs of thanksgiving (30-32). Psalms of lament (38-39) are prayers or cries to God on the occasion of distressful situations. Royal psalms (2; 110) are concerned with the earthly king of Israel. Enthronement psalms (96; 98) celebrate the kingship of the Lord. Penitential psalms (32; 38; 51) express contrition and repentance, and wisdom or didactic psalms (19; 119) tend to be proverbial.
Another part of the structure of the Psalms is that they are generally grouped together by their titles, such as the Asaph psalms and those of the sons of Korah. Following the close of each of the first four books is a doxology or statement identifying the end of one book and the beginning of another. The psalms containing these statements are known as “seam” psalms because they show the “piecing together” of these psalms to form the collection as it now stands.
Hymn to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, Ebla 3000-2000
Lament for Ur, Sumerian 2000-1500
Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses the man of God
Hymn to Ishtar, Sumero-Akkadian 1600
Hymns to Amun, Egypt 1550-1350
Book of the Dead, Egyptian texts appear on mummy wrappings. 1500
Rig Veda, a collection of over 1,000 hymns in Sanskrit, the oldest known major work in an Indo-European language 1500
The Phoenicians develop a 22-letter alphabet that consisted of consonants only. It was read from right to left and became an important step in the development of the modern Western alphabet. 1600
Hymn of Amenhotep II, Egypt 1450-1425
Ba’al and Anat, Ugarit 1400
Events in Judges 1380?-1060?
“Hymn to the Sun,” Akhenaten 1375-1358
Saul is anointed king. 1050
David becomes king over all Israel. 1003
73 Psalms of David, 14 of which are tied to events in David’s life
Solomon becomes king. 970
Song of Songs 970?
Israel divides into northern and southern kingdoms. 931
Babylonian music makes use of five-tone and seven-tone scales. 800-700
Fall of Damascus to Tiglath-pileser of Assyria 732
Fall of Samaria to the Assyrians 722
Assyrians invade Judah but fail to capture Jerusalem. 701
Greek poet Hesiod writes the Theogony, the oldest surviving account of the origin of the Greek gods. 700
Babylonians invade the southern kingdom on three occasions. Each time Judeans are taken to Babylon as exiles. 605, 597, 586
Cyrus’s decree allows return of Jews from exile. 538
Second temple is dedicated. 516
Jerusalem’s walls are rebuilt. 445
Latest of the psalms are composed, including Psalm 137. These reflect Israel’s exile and restoration. 400