The Book of Psalms has often been called the hymnbook and prayer book of the Bible. The individual psalms were written in the meter and style of classical Hebrew poetry and set for singing as part of public worship. But many of them also can double as personal prayers, read or recited privately. The total number of psalms in this collection is 150 representing a variety of types: laments, songs of thanksgiving and praise of God, pilgrimage songs, wisdom songs, songs of Zion, and songs for the king's enthronement. They also include prayerful songs for God's help, for (personal and national) rescue from disaster, and for forgiveness. They cover a wide range of subjects and express a wide range of emotion. The longest psalm (119) extols the joys and benefits of studying Torah (God's instructions and commandments).
This collection of 150 psalms, however, is not generally organized by “types” or subjects, with the exception of the “Songs of Degrees (Ascent)” (120–134), which were sung by those making pilgrimages up to Jerusalem. Instead, the various types of psalms are simply gathered into five sections, perhaps in recognition of the five books comprising the Torah (Pentateuch): Book I (1–41); Book II (42–72); Book III (73–89); Book IV (90–106); and Book V (107–150). The division between each section is distinctly marked: the final verse of the last psalm in each section concludes with an expression of praise of God and a double or single “Amen” (for example, see the KJV at 41.13, “Amen, and Amen”). Because the language of the psalms is so evocative of the human spirit and trust in God, so worshipful and even healing, these songs of praise and prayer have been at the center of worship and liturgy for Jews and Christians for centuries. Psalms is the most frequently quoted book in the entire Bible, and the New Testament has over 250 allusions to the psalms.
Because the psalms were all composed in Hebrew poetry, this collection is also much valued by scholars as a source for the study of Hebrew poetry and its central feature—poetic parallelism. Unlike English poetry, this style prizes the artful “rhyming” of thoughts, not sounds. This can be seen, for example, in 145.14: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, / and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” In this system the parallel line echoes or modifies the preceding line in a way that more richly enhances the meaning. Parallelism can also introduce expansions or even contradictions in the parallel line to good effect. For readers, attention to the ways in which the psalms use this poetic feature can be very helpful to understanding. In the KJV most parallelisms occur within a single verse, but some may span two or more verses (e.g., 101.2b,3; 114.5,6).
Book I (1.1—41.13)
Book II (42.1—72.20)
Book III (73.1—89.52)
Book IV (90.1—106.48)
Book V (107.1—150.6)