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Introduction to Psalms

INTRODUCTION TO

PSALMS

The word for psalms in Hebrew is Tehilîm, 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.

“Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem”.

“Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem” (Ps 122:6).

CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING

AUTHOR: Since the book is a collection of many different psalms written over a long time, there is not just one author for this collection. By far the most common designation in the titles is “Of David,” which may refer to David as the author of those psalms. David’s role as a musician in Saul’s court (1Sm 16:14-23) as well as his many experiences as a shepherd, a soldier, and a king make him a likely candidate for writing many of these psalms.

The problem is that the mention of his name in the titles consists of an ambiguous Hebrew construction. It is nothing more than a preposition attached to David’s name. The preposition could be translated “written by,” “belonging to,” “for,” or “about.” This does nothing more than relate the psalms bearing that title to David in some way but not necessarily naming him as author. The translation “Of David” accurately conveys this same ambiguity.

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

There are myriad messages scattered through the 150 psalms, but overall, this record of the responses of God’s people in worship and prayer serves the purpose of teaching us how to relate to God in various circumstances of life. The psalms also demonstrate God’s sovereignty and goodness for his people in order to instill confidence in those who trust in him.

CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE

The relationship between God’s activities in the lives of his people and their responses to them is the most significant contribution of this book. God never spoke directly in any of the psalms, as he often did in the narratives and prophets. Therefore, they are written from the human perspective as authors work their way through various life situations. The struggle to understand how God’s attributes, particularly his sovereignty and goodness, relate to life experiences is a major theme in the collection. These words are from people who had not lost their faith in God, although they might have been tempted to at times (Ps 73). They wrestled with how God was dealing with them personally and as a community.

STRUCTURE

The book of Psalms is, from first to last, a book of poetry. Hebrew poetry lacks rhyme and regular meter, but uses parallelism wherein two (or three) lines are balanced and complete a thought. Some parallelism is synonymous, where the second line echoes the first. Antithetic parallelism uses a contrast between the two segments, and in synthetic parallelism the second segment completes the idea in the first segment.

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.

OUTLINE

Psalms is unlike most other biblical books since it contains many writings collected and compiled over a period of time and finally organized into its present form. For this reason, it is not possible to outline the book in the standard way. However, there is clearly a structure to the collection. The book is divided into five parts, also known as books. According to Jewish tradition, this fivefold division was based on the arrangement of the Torah (or Pentateuch), the first five books of the Bible. The book divisions are Book 1 (Pss 1-41), Book 2 (Pss 42-72), Book 3 (Pss 73-89), Book 4 (Pss 90-106), and Book 5 (Pss 107-150).

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.

3000-1600 BC

Abraham 2166-1991

Isaac 2066-1866

Hymn to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, Ebla 3000-2000

Lament for Ur, Sumerian 2000-1500

1600-1500 BC

Moses 1526-1406

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

1500-1300 BC

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

1300-900 BC

David 1050?-970

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

Proverbs 970

Song of Songs 970?

Ecclesiastes 935?

Israel divides into northern and southern kingdoms. 931

900-700 BC

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

700-400 BC

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

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