Hebrew sacred song really began with Israel’s birth as a nation, and it then continued for more than one thousand years. The earliest recorded composer of psalms was Moses. His first was a solemn choral song, with musical accompaniment, sung after the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1,20-21). He followed this up with other songs, most of which were made for particular occasions (Num. 21:17; Deut. 31:22,30; 32; Ps. 90 [see title]). In the time of the Judges, Deborah and Hannah received the prophetic gift for composing such sacred songs (Judg. 5; 1 Sam. 2). Later, it seems, the art of sacred song was cultivated among the sons of the prophets in those prophetic societies apparently founded by Samuel (1 Sam. 10:5). A society was established at Ramah, where David may have received his first impulse to compose psalms (1 Sam. 19:18,20).
David, whom the Spirit of God eminently qualified for the purpose, brought Israel’s psalmody to its highest degree of perfection. He was “the sweet psalmist of Israel,” who said, “the Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:1-2). After arranging psalms for bringing up the ark (1 Chron. 15:16), he appointed psalm singing, with its typical musical accompaniment, for solemn worship (1 Chron. 6:31; 16:4-8). This was evidently under divine direction (2 Chron. 29:25).
Altogether seventy-three of the psalms are ascribed to David (Pss. 3-41; 10; 33; 51-65; 68-70; 86; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138-145), but it is clear that he was the author of others (e.g., Ps. 2, cf. Acts 4:25; Ps. 95, cf. Heb. 4:7). Moses composed at least one psalm (Ps. 90); Asaph, the director and seer, composed twelve (Pss. 50; 73-83; cf. 1 Chron. 6:39; 2 Chron. 29:30); Heman, one (Ps. 88; cf. 1 Chron. 15:16-17); Ethan, one (Ps. 89; cf. 1 Chron. 15:17); the sons of Korah, ten, perhaps eleven (Pss. 42; ; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88[?]; cf. 1 Chron. 9:19); and Solomon, two (Pss. 72; 127; ). It is evident that some of the later prophets also composed lyrical pieces (e.g., Isa. 12; Jonah 2; Hab. 3) and some of their productions may have been included in the book of Psalms, albeit anonymously.
Since the book contains psalms by a number of inspired authors, a single date cannot be given for the whole collection. In its chronological range, the book commences with the time of Moses, when the children of Israel experienced judicial calamity in the wilderness (Ps. 90; cf. the title with Num. 21:7); and it possibly concludes with the time of Nehemiah, when the outcasts gathered, Jerusalem was rebuilt, and the bars of its gates strengthened (Ps. 147:2,13; cf. Neh. 3:4 where the same word “strengthened” is translated “repaired”). If this is indeed so, the period in which the book of Psalms was written must have been approximately from 1445 BC (the probable date of the exodus) to 444 BC (when the work on Jerusalem’s walls was completed), a period of one thousand years.
The engagement of the whole soul of man in the worship of God.
To direct God’s people in their praises and prayers to the Lord.
The Contribution of Psalms to Redemptive Revelation
The Scriptures call this book “the book of Psalms” (Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20). Its Hebrew name is both simple and significant: “Praises” (tehillim), or more fully, “Book of Praises” (sepher tehillim), which expresses its great and leading characteristic—the praising of Jehovah, the one, living, and true God. “Praise” in the Bible relates to the adoring of the divine excellence (Ps. 63:3). Others words generally relate, not to what God is, but to what He does and to what He gives.
There are, in fact, three names for the various praises in this book: first of all, “psalms,” a general term for “praise with musical instruments,” from the Greek word, “to strike the lyre” ( psallein); and “hymns,” praises devoted to Almighty God (e.g., Pss. 18; 145); and “spiritual songs,” inspired poems containing doctrine, history, or prophecy (e.g., Pss. 45; 78; 102; see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
The Psalms are divinely inspired patterns for both personal and corporate worship. The book of Psalms itself was intended to be Israel’s hymnbook, as is clear from its name, “The Book of Praises,” the various titles (e.g., “To the Chief Musician” [the Precentor or Master of Song] which occurs fifty-five times), and from various hints within the Psalms themselves (e.g., Ps. 105:2, “Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him”; Ps. 116:19, “In the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Praise ye the Lord”). There is also historical evidence to show that the Psalms were used for public worship (1 Chron. 16:7; 2 Chron. 29:30; cf. Neh. 12:24).
The Psalms were also intended for teaching. “Maschil” occurs thirteen times and is derived from the verb “to instruct.” The title of Ps. 60 reads, “Michtam of David, to teach.” By psalms, the divine Word was a means of instructing children (Ps. 78:3-6). They are also a means of meditation: “Higgaion” or “meditation” (Ps. 9:16; cf. 19:14).
The use of the Psalms in worship continued in New Testament times (1 Cor. 14:15,26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). The “hymn” sung by Christ and His apostles (Matt. 26:30) would have been, as always at the close of the Passover, the second part of the Hallel (Pss. 115-118). The Psalms were sometimes called “hymns” (Matt. 26:30) and sometimes “songs” (titles of Pss. 45-46; 67-68; 75; etc.; James 5:13).
The Psalms are of great value to the church, for they teach:
- A sum and summary of the whole Bible. The book of Psalms is a Bible within a Bible. Athanasius called it an “epitome of the Bible,” while Luther called it “a little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended and compacted.” It holds the middle place of Scripture, as the very heart of God’s written revelation.
- Praises of divine perfections. This book unveils God, in all His perfect and most excellent glories, and it provides an inspired response of praise: “The Lord is great and greatly to be praised” (Psa. 96:4). It shows us God, as only God can reveal Himself, and it teaches us how to fear and adore His glorious Being.
- Insights into our human condition. This book shows us ourselves, as we really are. John Calvin called it “an anatomy of all parts of the soul, for no one will discover in himself a single feeling, whereof the image is not reflected in this mirror.” The Psalms express our inmost feelings: loneliness (Psa. 102:7); oppression (Psa. 129:1); abandonment (Psa. 68:5); uncertainty (Psa. 77:7); and depression (Psa. 42:5).
- An approach to God. The Psalms teach penitence and prayer. They provide us with a most excellent pattern showing precisely how these things are experienced and expressed; and they inflame our hearts to greater sorrow for sin and desire for God. They sympathize with the souls of believers in all their feelings, agonies and ecstasies. Sometimes prayers pour forth (Psa. 86:1-6; cf. 119:94) and sometimes praises (Ps. 148). The great value of the book is that it conducts us into the presence of the King and brings us before the throne of His glory (Psa. 26:6; 43:3-5).
- The nature of spiritual communion. The Psalms describe the almost indescribable experience of communion with God (Psa. 63:3-4). It has been said: “The Psalter is the music of the soul’s friendship with God,” but more excellent still, perhaps, is the language of another when he describes the Psalter as “the whole music of the human heart, swept by the hand of its Maker.”
- A means to stir vital godliness. The Psalter stirs in believers a strong affection for God’s holy law and a profound recognition of its higher and more deeply spiritual requirements (Psa. 19:7-9; 119). The law is of great use to believers to show us what Christ has done (Gal. 4:4-5), what service and gratitude we owe (2 Cor. 7:1), our many deficiencies (Rom. 7:24), the rule of sanctification (1 Cor. 9:21), and the excellence of what one day we are to enjoy (Rev. 21).
- The voice of the universal church. The Psalms introduce us to the communion of saints. The Jews were able to recite the Psalms in a national way, so that the “I” became the voice of the worshiping community; but even if we do not take that into account, the Psalter is still the book of the church’s song (Psa. 51:18; 79:8; 85:6).
- A book of hope, in life and death. Arising from great stress and sorrow, there are chants of holy expectation: “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Pss. 17:15; cf. 16:9-10; 49:15; 73:24).
- A heaven-drawn picture of Christ. Finally, the book of Psalms brings our Savior into view. Jerome said, “David on the harp and ten-stringed lute, sings throughout of Christ.”
Special Problems of Interpretation::
Titles of the Psalms
Dating individual psalms depends partly, but not entirely, on the authority of the prefixed titles. Altogether, there are 116 psalms with titles or inscriptions: the other thirty-four are sometimes called orphan psalms.
Scholars agree that the titles are ancient, existing when the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament) was written, somewhere around 200 BC. Account should also be taken of the following facts: (1) the information in the titles can hardly have been produced by process of deduction; (2) many of the psalms do not have any superscription, and a later scribe, if at work on these, would surely have been tempted to supply the deficiency; and (3) pious Jews, though conscientious readers and students of the written Word, would never have added to what God had written. It is therefore to be believed that these titles are vital parts of God’s inspired Word.
The following considerations argue for counting the titles as parts of Holy Scripture. An inscription of some kind would certainly be expected on lyrical compositions, and they can be found in other Scripture passages (Ex. 15:1; Deut. 33:1; 2 Sam. 1:17; Isa. 38:9). A title appears as part of the inspired prophecy of Habakkuk: “To the chief singer, on my stringed instruments” (Hab. 3:19). The title of Ps. 18 is incorporated into the inspired text of the book of Samuel: “David spake unto the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord had delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, and out of the hand of Saul” (2 Sam. 22:1). We also find a title prefixed to words of “the sweet psalmist of Israel” recorded later in Samuel: “Now these be the last words of David” (2 Sam. 23:1).
References in the historical books confirm the details in the titles. First Samuel 21:13 reads, “And he (David) changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad” and the heading of Ps. 34 is as follows: “A Psalm of David, when he changed his behaviour before Abimelech.” The information in the titles often corresponds with the contents of the psalms to which they relate. Psalm 90, for example, has for a title, “A Prayer of Moses the man of God,” and he is so described in Deut. 33:1. Moreover, in that psalm there are allusions to, if not actual citations of, Moses’ words elsewhere—“refuge” (Deut. 33:27), “all generations” (Ps. 90:1), “repent thee” (Ps. 90:13), “thy work” (Ps. 90:16), and “His glory” (Deut. 33:17).
Our Lord and His apostles treated the titles of psalms as Scripture. Our Lord quotes from Psalm 110, entitled “A Psalm of David,” and says, “How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?” (Matt. 22:43-44); and the apostles, when quoting Pss. 16 and 110, also make reference to the name given in those psalm titles (Acts 2:29-36; 13:34-37).
The meaning of these titles deal with various matters:
- Authorship: e.g., “A psalm of David” or “of Asaph.” Nature: “Maschil”—meaning “teaching,” that is, “a teaching psalm” (cf. Psa. 32:8)—is a cognate or kindred verb (“to instruct” as in Pss. 32; 78; 142); “Michtam”—possibly from “to cover”—therefore refers to a psalm with a hidden meaning, or a psalm revealing some great mystery (Pss. 16; 56-60).
- Setting: “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son” (Ps. 3); “Upon Mahalath,” meaning “sickness” or “disease” (Ps. 53; cf. Ex. 15:26), possibly a spiritual condition (Isa. 1:5). Compare “Upon Mahalath Leannoth,” meaning “sickness, or disease, in order to humble” (Ps. 88).
- Classification: “A Song of degrees” or “ascents” (Pss. 120-134), probably sung as pilgrims “went up” to Jerusalem at the time of the annual festivals (1 Sam. 1:3; Ps. 122:4).
- Music: “On Neginoth,” meaning, “With music of stringed instruments” (Pss. 4; 6; 54; 55; 67; 76); “Upon Neginah,” meaning, “With music of a stringed instrument”; and “Upon Nehiloth,” meaning, “with music of wind instruments” (Ps. 5). “Upon Gittith,” a feminine adjective of the Philistine town “Gath,” and so possibly an instrument or tune which came from there (Pss. 8; 81; 84); “Upon Mahalath,” perhaps the name of a musical instrument (although some trace it to a word for “sickness” and “disease” [Ex. 15:26], suggesting that it may refer to sin as the universal “illness”) (Pss. 53; 88).
- Voice: “Upon Alamoth,” literally, “virgins” and therefore “sung by sopranos” (Ps. 46); “upon Sheminith,” meaning, “the eighth,” perhaps an octave lower—tenor or, more probably, bass (Pss. 6; 12).
- Tune: “Shiggaion,” derived from a verb “to wander,” possibly a tune with changing rhythm (Ps. 7); “upon Muth-labben,” meaning, “the dying of the son,” the name of a mournful tune or the opening words of a song associated with a particular tune, although some think it just may refer to its evangelical theme, the death of Christ (Ps. 9).
- Subject: “Upon Jonath-elem-rechokim” could be the name of a tune called “The silent dove afar off” (Ps. 56), or it could describe the contents, the expression of how David felt when in Gath, far from the sanctuary and silent as to public praise. “Upon Aijeleth Shahar” again could be a tune, “The hind of the morning” (Ps. 22), but it could also be (as Martin Luther thought) a reference to Christ, the innocent and lovely hind, who was hunted and driven to the ground, but who, before daybreak, rose up and leapt to the very heights. “Upon Shoshannim” means “the lilies,” and since lilies were the emblem of sacred love (Song 2:1-2; cf. 1 Kings 7:19,22,26), this suggests a psalm concerning the excellence of our Lord’s person, beauty, and love (Pss. 45; 69). Thus also “Shoshannim-Eduth” means “Lilies, a testimony” (Ps. 80), and “Shushan-eduth” means “Lily of testimony” (Ps. 60).
- Purpose: “To bring to remembrance” (Pss. 38; 70).
- Occasion: “At the dedication of the house of David” (Ps. 30); “For the sabbath day” (Ps. 92). Jewish authorities tell us there was a psalm for each day in the worship of the temple: Psalm 24 for the first day, 48 for the second, 82 for the third, 94 for the fourth, 81 for the fifth, 93 for the sixth, and 92 for the seventh.
Although “Selah” is not in any actual title, it is a word found 71 times in 39 psalms. “Selah” appears to be derived from a root word which means “to elevate” or “to raise,” and it may therefore indicate a lifting up of hearts in a silent pause for meditation.
Collection and Arrangement
The number of psalms increased over the years by degrees; and the need for an authorized collection first arose when David, under divine direction, made psalm singing an essential element of public worship (1 Chron. 16:4). There is indeed evidence of some kind of editorial work (Ps. 72:20); and besides David, there may have been other, later editors.
All inspired psalms were not included in the Book of Psalms, but some were placed in other books (e.g., 2 Sam. 1:19-27; 23:1-7). What then were the principles of selection when it came to inclusion in the book of Psalms? First, of course, they had to be inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2; 1 Chron. 25:5; 2 Chron. 29:30; Matt. 22:43). Second, they had to be sacred and charged with spiritual truth; and third, they had to be suited to public worship (Isa. 38:20). It is quite true that many of the psalms are written in the first person, but the “I” of the psalmist often represents the typical pious Israelite and even, in process of development, the entire nation of Israel. In any case, these psalms contain material which the nation or church could easily appropriate to its spiritual need.
The Hebrew Psalter is actually one volume in five parts. Its divisions can be easily identified, for each division ends with a doxology which, in the last, is a whole psalm:
- Book 1 (Pss. 1-41): “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen” (41:13). This section is almost completely Davidic; and, in content, it is doctrinal, teaching about God, His glorious name and wonderful works, and about man, his sin and salvation.
- Book 2 (Pss. 42-72): “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things. And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen. The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” (Psa. 72:18-20). This one is mainly Davidic, but eight psalms are ascribed to the sons of Korah; and it is experimental, twenty-five psalms dealing with failure and sixteen with victory.
- Book 3 (Pss. 73-89): “Blessed be the Lord for evermore. Amen, and Amen” (Psa. 89:52). This is Asaphic on the whole, opening with eleven “psalms of Asaph,” followed by four Korahite psalms; and these are historical, with references to dividing the sea (Psa. 74:13), the way through the sea (77:19), the cleaving of the rock in the wilderness (Psa. 78:15), the vine taken from Egypt (Psa. 80:8), the people given up to sin (81:12), the coalition against Israel (83:5), and David’s glorious kingdom (Ps. 89).
- Book 4 (Pss. 90-106): “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting: and let all the people say, Amen. Praise ye the Lord” (106:48). The psalms in this section are chiefly anonymous, with the following exceptions: Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses, and Pss. 101 and 103 to David; and the emphasis is prophetical concentrating upon the Lord’s reign (as in Pss. 96-98).
- Book 5 (Pss. 107-150): The last five are Hallelujah psalms, each beginning with a “Hallelujah,” or “Praise ye the Lord.” The doxology at the close of this section is “Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power . . . Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord” (150:1-6). This section’s psalms are generally anonymous, but fifteen are identified as from David; and these psalms being full of praise, they are throughout evidently jubilant.
The Jews saw in these five books (or divisions) some likeness to the Pentateuch, with its five books (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The Hebrew Midrash on Psalm 1 says, “Moses gave the five books of the Law to the Israelites and, as a counterpart to them, David gave the psalms consisting of five books.”
Classifications of Psalms:
It is helpful to identify different kinds of psalms in the Psalter.
- Alphabetical Psalms. There are nine (Pss. 9; 10; 25; 34; 37; 111; 112; 119; 145). The finest example is Ps. 119, formed of twenty-two stanzas, arranged acrostically according to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These psalms are mainly didactic and were probably composed in this form to aid the memory.
- Penitential Psalms. There are seven (Pss. 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). They have been so called since Origen’s time. Each expresses contrition and contains confession of sin. There are others, however, which have something of this character.
- Imprecatory Psalms. There are four (Pss. 7; 35; 69; 109). Other psalms contain imprecations (e.g., Pss. 5:10; 55:9; 83:9-17; 137:8-9), but these are characterized throughout by curses on enemies. They are useful when referring to judgment. Luther tells of a man driven by these denunciations to seek pardon and safety in Christ.
- Thanksgiving Psalms. There are six (Pss. 113-118), known as the Hallel. These were used on festive occasions, especially the Passover when two were sung before partaking of the lamb and four afterward (Matt. 26:30). They describe God’s mercy (Ps. 113), a greater redemption (Ps. 114), the necessity of faith (Ps. 115: “Trust thou in the Lord,” v. 9), eternal life in possession (Ps. 116), the universality of the gospel call (Ps. 117), and the kingdom of heaven open to all believers (Ps. 118: “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” v. 19).
- Psalms (or Songs) of Ascent. There are fifteen (Pss. 120-134). They were probably sung when making pilgrimage (“ascent” or “going up”) to Zion (1 Sam. 1:3; Ps. 122:4; Zech. 14:19). They are also sometimes called “Pilgrim Psalms.”
- Nature Psalms. There are four (Pss. 19; 29; 104; 147). Psalm 104 is based on the six days’ work of creation, beginning with the breaking forth of light on the first day, and concluding with a Sabbath day’s meditation on God’s works.
- Historical Psalms. There are six (Pss. 68; 78; 105-106; 135-136). They rest on the principle of the unity of the church in all times and the fact that we should identify ourselves with our forefathers. They are also acted “parables,” typical representations of spiritual truth (Ps. 78:1-3).
- Judgment Psalms. There are six (Pss. 9-14). These are psalms of judgment, finding consummation in Ps. 15, a vision of the eternal dwelling place of God and His righteous people.
- Sovereignty Psalms. There are three (Pss. 93; 97; 99). They begin with “The Lord reigneth,” and they anticipate the day when all shall be placed under His feet (Rev. 11:17; 19:6).
- Hallelujah Psalms. There are ten (Pss. 106; 111-113; 135; 146-150). All commence with “Praise ye the Lord,” and they are ideal for teaching on worship. For example, in Ps. 150: “Praise God,” or equivalents, occurs twelve times, representing perhaps all God’s people (twelve tribes, twelve apostles).
Christ in the Psalms
The Psalms may be studied as a manual for the devotional life and also as prophecies of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many only regard as “messianic” those which are so in the most obvious sense (Pss. 2; 16; 22; 45; 72; 110). It is therefore important to establish some basic principles for a more biblically consistent interpretation, with a view to seeing Christ in all the Psalms.
David was a prophet (Acts 2:29-30) and, as such, the Spirit of Christ was in him, testifying to “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Peter 1:11; cf. Rev. 19:10). The Psalms, with great propriety, are called “the word of Christ” (Col. 3:16). Christ Himself declared that the Psalms applied to Him: “All things must be fulfilled, which were written . . . in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44); and the apostles assumed that Christ was speaking in them (Acts 2:25,27,31). The entire collection is known as “the psalms of David,” and so, according to the principle of typology, the entire collection belongs to Christ because David is His prophetic name (Jer. 30.9; Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24; Hos. 3:5).
Though the eternal Son of God, Christ also became fully human in body and soul (John 1:14; 19:5; Heb. 2:16). Indeed, He is “the man” par excellence (Ps. 1:1). He was able to sing the Psalms while here upon the earth. A union exists between Christ and His people, and they are so united as to be regarded as one (1 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:11). As a result of this union, the Psalms express His thoughts as well as ours.
Our Lord lived in the Psalms and constantly quoted them (Matt. 16:27; 21:16; 25:41; Luke 20:42; John 13:18; 15:25; 17:12). In fact, four out of the seven words from the cross either quote or fulfill verses in the Psalms: “My God . . .” (22:1); “I thirst . . .” (69:21); “It is finished . . .” (22:31); “Into thy hands . . .” (31:5).
Confessions of sin (e.g., 40:12) present difficulties to the messianic interpretation of the Psalms, yet this example of a confession is found in a psalm evidently messianic (40:6-8; Heb. 10:5-7; see also Ps. 69:5,9; John 2:17). With all such confessions, it is important to recall that, although our Lord was not a sinner and was totally without sin in heart and life, yet as our Head and Representative, the sins of His people were imputed or reckoned to Him (Isa. 53:6; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24), so that there was a sense in which He felt the burden of them upon His soul (Matt. 26:37; John 1:29) and, of course, He suffered throughout His life and particularly in His death the punishment due to them (Isa. 53:5; 1 Peter 3:18). It is further to be remembered that, as our great High Priest, a vital part of His ministry was to confess His people’s sins in order to secure pardon for them (Lev. 16:21; Isa. 53:12).
The messianic view is most helpful in interpreting difficult statements and passages, such as:
- Assertions of innocence (Pss. 7:8; 18:20). While such words can be applied to God’s people who have righteousness imputed to them, who are given a new heart and a new spirit, and who genuinely seek to live obedient lives (unlike “the wicked”), they are uniquely true of Christ, the righteous One (Acts 3:14; 1 John 2:1).
- Terrible imprecations (Pss. 40:14–15; 69:22-24). This language is not altogether inappropriate for the believer, since they are really the outpourings of a heart provoked by evil, righteously indignant, and zealous for God and righteousness (Rom. 12:19; Eph. 4:26); but it is entirely appropriate upon the lips of Christ who, as Judge, is able to pronounce doom upon the wicked (Matt. 11:20-24; 23:13-33; Mark 3:5).
- Book 1 (Pss. 1:1-41:13)
- Book 2 (Pss. 42:1-72:20)
- Book 3 (Pss. 73:1-89:52)
- Book 4 (Pss. 90:1-106:48)
- Book 5 (Pss. 107:1-150:6)
Extracted from: Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible Notes(Beeke, Joel R. 2015. Reformation Heritage Books).