At a Glance
Author: Multiple authors, including David, Solomon, Asaph, the prophetic singers of Korah’s clan, and Moses
Audience: Originally Israel, but the Psalms speak to humanity in general
Date: From the monarchy to the postexilic era
Type of Literature: Poems, which reflect several types: wisdom, lament, prayer, praise, blessings, liturgy, and prophetic oracles
Major Themes: Praise, prayer, wisdom, prophecy, and Jesus Christ
Outline: The book of Psalms is really five books in one. Moses gave us the five books of the Law called the Pentateuch; David gave us the five books of the Psalms. Each division ends with a doxology that includes the word “Amen!” The last division ends with Psalm 150 as the doxology, forming an appropriate conclusion to this “Pentateuch of David.” These five divisions have been compared to the first five books of the Bible:
Psalms 1–41 (Genesis) — Psalms of man and creation
Psalms 42–72 (Exodus) — Psalms of suffering and redemption
Psalms 73–89 (Leviticus) — Psalms of worship and God’s house
Psalms 90–106 (Numbers) — Psalms of our pilgrimage on earth
Psalms 107–150 (Deuteronomy) — Psalms of praise and the Word
I have loved the Psalms for over forty years. They have been my comfort and joy, leading me to the place where worship flows. When discouraged or downcast, I have never failed to take new strength from reading the Psalms. They charge my batteries and fill my sails. In fact, they seem to grow even more powerful as I grow older. Their thunder stirs me; their sweet melodies move me into the sacred emotions of a heart on fire. The dark rain clouds of grief turn to bright rainbows of hope just from meditating on David’s soul-subduing songs.
The Psalms find the words that express our deepest and strongest emotions, no matter what the circumstances. Every emotion of our hearts is reflected in the Psalms. Reading the Psalms will turn sighing into singing and trouble into triumph. The word praise is found 189 times in this book. There is simply nothing that touches my heart like the Psalms. Thousands of years ago my deepest feelings were put to music—this is what we all delightfully discover when reading the Psalms!
A contemporary name for the book of Psalms could be Poetry on Fire. These 150 poetic masterpieces give us an expression of faith and worship. They become a mirror to the heart of God’s people in our quest to experience God’s presence. Much of Christianity has become so intellectualized that our emotions and artistic creativity are often set aside as unimportant in the worship of God. The Psalms free us to become emotional, passionate, sincere worshipers. It is time to sing the Psalms!
The Psalms are clearly poetic. They are praises placed inside of poetry. Everyone who reads the Psalms realizes how filled with emotion they are! You will never be bored in reading the poetry that spills out of a fiery, passionate heart. These verses contain both poetry and music that touch the heart deeply, enabling you to encounter the heart of God through your emotional and creative senses.
Author and Audience
Most of these poetic masterpieces come to us from David, King of Israel. He wrote them during specific periods of his life: when he was on the run from Saul, grateful for the Lord’s protection and provision, scared for his future, mournful over his sin, and praising God with uplifted hands. Other authors include David’s son Solomon, Moses, Asaph, and the prophetic singers of Korah’s clan.
While they were written during specific periods in the history of Israel—from the monarchy to the postexilic eras—they connect to our own time as much as they reflect their time. So in many ways these poems are written to you and me. The original audience was the children of Israel, but the Psalms reflect the hopes and dreams, fears and failures of humanity in general.
Poetry of Praise. The Psalms are pure praise, inspired by the breath of God. Praise is a matter of life and breath. As long as we have breath we are told to praise the Lord. The Psalms release a flood of God-inspired insights that will lift heaviness off the human heart. The Psalms are meant to do for you what they did for David: they will bring you from your cave of despair into the glad presence of the King who likes and enjoys you.
Poetry of Prayer. Mixed with intercession, the Psalms become the fuel for our devotional life. Each psalm is a prayer. The early church recited and sang the Psalms regularly. Many contemporary worship songs have been inspired by this book of prayer-poetry!
Poetry of Wisdom. The Psalms unlock mysteries and parables, for within the purest praise is the cryptic language of a wise messenger. The wisdom of God is contained in these 150 keys; you have a key chain with master keys to unlock God’s storehouse of wisdom and revelation. It is the “harp” (anointed worship) that releases divine secrets. Read carefully Psalm 49:4: “I will break open mysteries with my music, and my song will release riddles solved.”
Poetry of Prophecy. Prophetic insights rest upon the Psalms. David’s harp brings revelation and understanding to the people. Singers who tap into the insights of the Psalms will bring forth truths in their songs, which will break the hearts of people and release divine understanding to the church. Prophets must become musicians and musicians must become prophets for the key of David to be given to the church.
Poetry of Jesus Christ. As with every part of the Old Testament, we are called to read the Psalms in two ways: (1) as the original audience heard them in their ancient Hebrew world; and (2) as the fulfillment of messianic prophesies, submitting by faith that these poems point to Jesus Christ. Therefore, at one level, these poems are all about him. There are 150 Psalms, and each of them reveals a special and unique aspect of the God-man, Christ Jesus. We could say every Psalm is messianic in that each finds its fulfillment in Christ. Looking backward in light of Christ’s revelation, we see they all point to our Lord Jesus, whom God has chosen as King over all.
Since these songs are all about Jesus, one of the keys to understanding the Psalms is to look for Jesus within its pages. Luke 24:44 says: “I told you that everything written about me would be fulfilled, including all the prophecies from the law of Moses through the Psalms and the writings of the prophets—that they would all find their fulfillment.” There are many secrets about Jesus waiting to be discovered here!
Poetry on Fire
The Genesis Psalms
Psalms of man and creation
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The Hebrew Psalter numbers 150 songs. The corresponding number in the Septuagint differs because of a different division of certain Psalms. Hence the numbering in the Greek Psalter (which was followed by the Latin Vulgate) is usually one digit behind the Hebrew. In the New American Bible the numbering of the verses follows the Hebrew numbering; many of the traditional English translations are often a verse number behind the Hebrew because they do not count the superscriptions as a verse.
The superscriptions derive from pre-Christian Jewish tradition, and they contain technical terms, many of them apparently liturgical, which are no longer known to us. Seventy-three Psalms are attributed to David, but there is no sure way of dating any Psalm. Some are preexilic (before 587), and others are postexilic (after 539), but not as late as the Maccabean period (ca. 165). The Psalms are the product of many individual collections (e.g., Songs of Ascents, Ps 120–134), which were eventually combined into the present work in which one can detect five “books,” because of the doxologies which occur at 41:14; 72:18–19; 89:53; 106:48.
Two important features of the Psalms deserve special notice. First, the majority were composed originally precisely for liturgical worship. This is shown by the frequent indication of liturgical leaders interacting with the community (e.g., Ps 118:1–4). Secondly, they follow certain distinct patterns or literary forms. Thus, the hymn is a song of praise, in which a community is urged joyfully to sing out the praise of God. Various reasons are given for this praise (often introduced by “for” or “because”): the divine work of creation and sustenance (Ps 135:1–12; 136). Some of the hymns have received a more specific classification, based on content. The “Songs of Zion” are so called because they exalt Zion, the city in which God dwells among the people (Ps 47; 96–99). Characteristic of the songs of praise is the joyful summons to get involved in the activity; Ps 104 is an exception to this, although it remains universal in its thrust.
Another type of Psalm is similar to the hymn: the thanksgiving Psalm. This too is a song of praise acknowledging the Lord as the rescuer of the psalmist from a desperate situation. Very often the psalmist will give a flashback, recounting the past distress, and the plea that was uttered (Ps 30; 116). The setting for such prayers seems to have been the offering of a todah (a “praise” sacrifice) with friends in the Temple.
There are more Psalms of lament than of any other type. They may be individual (e.g., Ps 3–7; 22) or communal (e.g., Ps 44). Although they usually begin with a cry for help, they develop in various ways. The description of the distress is couched in the broad imagery typical of the Bible (one is in Sheol, the Pit, or is afflicted by enemies or wild beasts, etc.)—in such a way that one cannot pinpoint the exact nature of the psalmist’s plight. However, Ps 51 (cf. also Ps 130) seems to refer clearly to deliverance from sin. Several laments end on a note of certainty that the Lord has heard the prayer (cf. Ps 7, but contrast Ps 88), and the Psalter has been characterized as a movement from lament to praise. If this is somewhat of an exaggeration, it serves at least to emphasize the frequent expressions of trust which characterize the lament. In some cases it would seem as if the theme of trust has been lifted out to form a literary type all its own; cf. Ps 23, 62, 91. Among the communal laments can be counted Ps 74 and 79. They complain to the Lord about some national disaster, and try to motivate God to intervene in favor of the suffering people.
Other Psalms are clearly classified on account of content, and they may be in themselves laments or Psalms of thanksgiving. Among the “royal” Psalms that deal directly with the currently reigning king, are Ps 20, 21, and 72. Many of the royal Psalms were given a messianic interpretation by Christians. In Jewish tradition they were preserved, even after kingship had disappeared, because they were read in the light of the Davidic covenant reported in 2 Sm 7. Certain Psalms are called wisdom Psalms because they seem to betray the influence of the concerns of the ages (cf. Ps 37, 49), but there is no general agreement as to the number of these prayers. Somewhat related to the wisdom Psalms are the “torah” Psalms, in which the torah (instruction or law) of the Lord is glorified (Ps 1; 19:8–14; 119). Ps 78, 105, 106 can be considered as “historical” Psalms. Although the majority of the Psalms have a liturgical setting, there are certain prayers that may be termed “liturgies,” so clearly does their structure reflect a liturgical incident (e.g., Ps 15, 24).
It is obvious that not all of the Psalms can be pigeon-holed into neat classifications, but even a brief sketch of these types help us to catch the structure and spirit of the Psalms we read. It has been rightly said that the Psalms are “a school of prayer.” They not only provide us with models to follow, but inspire us to voice our own deepest feelings and aspirations.
First Book—Psalms 1–41
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