A psalm is a hymn of praise to God designed to be sung to the accompaniment of music. The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 such hymns.
One hymn book for all
The collection of the various psalms into one volume seems to have taken place gradually over a long time. Although each psalm is a unit in itself, not necessarily connected with those before or after it One hymn book for all , certain psalms have been grouped together. They may have come from smaller collections already in existence (e.g. those of the ‘sons of Korah’; see Ps 44-49), and may have been arranged in a certain order (e.g. Ps 120-134). Five groups (or books) make up the collection. The five books are Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106 and 107-150. At the end of each of the first four books, an expression of praise has been added to mark the close of the book. The very last psalm, the 150th, has been placed where it is to form a climax to the entire collection. Within the hymn book there are psalms for all occasions. Some were written specifically for use in public worship and temple festivals (e.g. Ps 38); others were adapted from personal psalms (e.g. Ps 54). Some were written for use on great national occasions such as coronations, victory celebrations and royal weddings (e.g. Ps 2, 18, 45); others arose from circumstances in the lives of private individuals (e.g. Ps 3, 75). The psalms may have expressed joy and confidence on the one hand, or terror and uncertainty on the other.
Writers of the psalms
Many of the psalms have titles that give the name of the writer or the name of the person(s) from whose collection they were taken (e.g. Ps 41, 42). David is named as the author of 73 psalms, which is almost half the collection. He was a gifted musician and writer (1 Sam 16:23; 2 Sam 23:1), and was the person who established the various groups of singers and musicians for the temple services (1 Chron 15:16-28; 16:7,37-42). David arranged the singers and musicians into three groups under the leadership of three men taken from the three family groups that made up the tribe of Levi. The three men were Asaph, Heman and Ethan (or Jeduthun) (1 Chron 6:31-48; 15:17-19; 16:5,42), and between them they wrote a number of psalms that have been included in the book of Psalms (e.g. Ps 50, 73-78, 88-89). The book also contains two psalms credited to Solomon (Ps 72, 127) and one to Moses (Ps 90).
Language of the psalms
Hebrew poetry has certain characteristics that the reader needs to know if he is to interpret the psalms correctly. The rhythm in Hebrew poetry comes not from metre and rhyme as in English poetry, but from the balanced arrangement of words and sentences. For this reason, Hebrew poetry can retain some of its style even when translated. The balanced arrangement of Hebrew poetry is well demonstrated in the book of Psalms. Often the writer expresses one central idea by making parallel statements that have virtually the same meaning (Ps 7:16). Sometimes only one or two words are changed (Ps 118:8-9). The writer may make further emphasis by giving an application of his central idea (Ps 37:7), by contrasting two truths (Ps 68:6), or by otherwise developing his theme through a careful arrangement of related statements (Ps 4:3-5). In some psalms the writer may repeat a verse to provide a refrain (Ps 42:5,11; 46:7,11). In others he may begin successive verses with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (‘from A to Z’, so to speak). This produces a kind of verse known as an acrostic (e.g. Ps 25, 34, 119). (See also POETRY.) The titles of the psalms, though not necessarily written by those who wrote the psalms, often include directions for those in charge of the music. The directions may indicate the kind of instruments to be used (Ps 4, 5) and the tune to which the song is to be sung (Ps 53, 56, 58). Words such as Shiggaion (Ps 7), Miktam (Ps 16) and Maskil (Ps 55) are Hebrew words of uncertain meaning. They may indicate the kind of hymn or the occasion on which it should be sung. ‘Selah’ is probably a musical term used to indicate a variation in the music, such as a pause, the repetition of a line, or a change in the volume or speed of the music (Ps 89:37,45,48).
Interpreting the psalms
Like all writings of the Old Testament, the psalms must be interpreted in their historical context. The present-day reader’s first responsibility is to understand each psalm as its author intended it to be understood. However, the New Testament writers often saw meanings in the psalms that the original writers were not aware of. Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of all that God intended the nation Israel to be. The Davidic kings of Israel foreshadowed the greatest of all Davidic kings, Jesus the Messiah. When writing about the Davidic kings, the psalmists freely spoke of Israel’s ideals of triumph and glory, but those ideals found their perfect expression only in Jesus Christ (cf. Ps 2 with Acts 4:25-31; 13:33-34; Heb 1:5; 5:5; cf. Ps 45 with Heb 1:8-9; cf. Ps 110 with Matt 22:41-46; Heb 7:15-17; see MESSIAH). The failures of the Davidic kings, however, indicate how far they fell short of God’s perfect requirements. In a psalm that speaks of the ideal qualities of the Davidic king there may also be references to the king’s sins. The New Testament writers may therefore quote from one part of a psalm and apply it to Christ (cf. Ps 69:4,9,21 with John 2:17; 15:25; Matt 27:34,38), though other parts of the same psalm may refer to the Davidic king’s sins and therefore could never apply to Christ (cf. Ps 69:5 with 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).
Just as the reader must interpret each psalm according to the psalmist’s purpose, so must he interpret a New Testament application of a psalm according to the New Testament writer’s purpose. As the psalmists were concerned with suffering and victory, so are the New Testament writers as they consider the work of Christ When the godly of the Old Testament era suffered for righteousness’ sake, they anticipated Christ’s sufferings (cf. Ps 22:1-18; Matt 27:39-46). (This may be likened to the experience of Christians who, when they suffer for righteousness’ sake, share in Christ’s sufferings; 2 Cor 1:5; Phil 3:10.) Similarly, when godly kings of Israel won great victories, they anticipated the triumphs of Christ (cf. Ps 68:17-18; Eph 1:18-23; 4:8-10). Christ, the true embodiment of Israel, so shared his people’s sufferings that in the end he bore the full force of God’s wrath against sin. But he came out victorious, so that people can enter a kingdom greater than Israel ever imagined (cf. Ps 22:19-31 with Phil 2:7-11; Rev 5:9-14).