A psalm is a hymn of praise intended to be sung to musical accompaniment. The biblical book of Psalms is a collection of 150 of these hymns. The reader of Psalms does not have to move through the book from beginning to end as with other books of the Bible, for the psalms are not successive chapters of a story, but individual songs and poems.
A collection with unity and variety
It seems that the collection of the psalms was made by a number of people over a long time.
Although each psalm is a unit in itself and not necessarily connected with the psalms before or after it, certain psalms have been grouped together. They may have come from smaller collections that already existed (e.g. those of the ‘sons of Korah’; see Ps 44-49) and some seem to have been arranged in a certain order (e.g. Ps 120-134).
Five major groups make up the collection and these are numbered in the Bible as Books 1 to 5 (see Outline below). At the end of the last psalm in each of the first four books a general 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 grand climax to the whole collection.
There is much variety in the types of psalms found in the book. Some express feelings of joy and confidence, others grief and uncertainty. Many of these arose out of circumstances in the lives of the individual writers (e.g. Ps 3; 75). They may have been roughly prepared in times of excitement or crisis, then later rewritten. In some cases the writers may have made adjustments and additions to make the psalms more suitable for public use (e.g Ps 54). Some psalms were written specially for use in public worship and temple festivals (e.g. Ps 38), while others were written for joyous national occasions such as coronations, victory celebrations and royal weddings (Ps 2; 18; 45).
Writers of the psalms
In many cases a psalm is introduced by a title (or heading) that gives the name of the author or the name of the person(s) from whose collection the psalm was taken. David is named as the author of seventy-three psalms, which is almost half the collection. He was a gifted musician and poet (1 Sam 16:23; 2 Sam 1:17-27; 23:1) and was the person who first arranged Israel’s musicians and singers into formally recognized groups for the temple services (1 Chron 15:16-28; 16:7).
The temple musicians and singers were Levites. David arranged them into three groups, according to the three sons of Levi from whom they were descended – Gershon, Kohath and Merari. The Gershonites were under the direction of Asaph, the Kohathites under the direction of Heman (one of the ‘sons of Korah’) and the Merarites under the direction of Ethan (Jeduthan) (1 Chron 6:1,31-48; 15:19; 2 Chron 5:12). Asaph was a prophet (2 Chron 29:30), while Heman and Ethan, both known as Ezrahites because of their birthplace, were famed for their wisdom (1 Kings 4:31). Asaph is named as the author of twelve psalms (Ps 50; 73-83), Heman of one (Ps 88) and Ethan of one (Ps 89).
Solomon is named as the author of two psalms, which reflect respectively the splendour and wisdom for which Solomon was famous (Ps 72; 127). One psalm is noted as having come from Moses, which would make it probably the oldest in the collection (Ps 90).
Characteristics of the Psalms
In reading Psalms we should bear in mind that the book is one of poetry, specifically Hebrew poetry. The distinctive style of Hebrew poetry comes not from metre and rhyme as in traditional English poetry, but from the balanced arrangement of words and sentences. This means that when Hebrew poetry is translated into other languages, it retains some of its style and rhythm. But we should still seek to understand some of the linguistic characteristics of Hebrew poetry, as this will help us understand better what the poet is saying.
Often the poet expresses a central idea by making two parallel statements, where the second repeats the thought of the first in slightly different form (e.g. Ps 27:1; 104:28,33). Sometimes he might balance two statements, where one expresses a truth and the other either states its opposite (e.g. Ps 37:9) or gives
an application (e.g. Ps 103:5,13). In other cases the poet may develop his theme through a careful arrangement of related statements (e.g. Ps 4:3-5; 91:1-2,14-16).
We can easily misinterpret the psalms if we look in too much detail at each line or sentence. We should rather treat the whole verse as a unit. At times a verse is repeated as a refrain in the psalm (e.g. Ps 42:5,11; 46:7,11; 49:12,20). A number of psalms are written in the form of an acrostic (see note on Psalms 9 and 10).
As in our hymn books today, a psalm may be introduced with practical directions for musicians and song leaders. Some Hebrew words used in these directions are of uncertain meaning, and therefore are simply transliterated into English; e.g. Shiggaion (Ps 7), Miktam (Ps 16), Maskil (Ps 55). Most likely these words indicate the kind of hymn.
Other unfamiliar Hebrew words in some of the titles may be instructions concerning the purpose of a particular psalm or the kind of occasion on which it should be sung. Additional directions may concern the type of instruments to be used (e.g. Ps 4; 5; 67) and the tune to which the psalm should be sung; e.g. ‘Muth-labben’ (Ps 9), ‘The Hind of the Dawn’ (Ps 22).
‘Selah’, a word that occurs in many psalms, is probably a musical direction. Its apparent purpose was to indicate a variation in the music such as a pause, a softening of the music, a build up of voices, a change in the tempo, or the repetition of a line (e.g. Ps 89:37,45,48).
Psalms and the New Testament
No matter what part of the Bible we read, we shall understand it better when we understand the events that prompted its writing. This applies to Psalms as it does to other parts of the Bible. Each psalm had a meaning to the author when he wrote. As we today understand this meaning, the Holy Spirit who inspired the writer is able to speak to us and apply the ancient Word to present circumstances. This helps us understand God better and know how we ought to live if we are to please him.
However, the New Testament writers often found truths in the Old Testament of which the original writers were not aware. The reason for this is that the New Testament writers saw Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Israel. They therefore had no hesitation in taking Old Testament passages that referred originally to events in the history of Israel and applying them to Jesus (cf. Ps 68:17- 18 with Eph 1:18-23; 4:8-10). Jesus was the embodiment of the ideals that God desired for his people (cf. Ps 89:3-4 with Luke 1:32-33).
Israel, as a nation and in its kings, failed to fulfil God’s purposes for it. Yet the people constantly looked forward to a day of glory when evil would be destroyed and righteousness would be established under the rule of God’s chosen king. Jesus, the true embodiment of Israel, so shared in his people’s sufferings that in the end he bore the full force of God’s wrath against sinners (cf. Ps 22:1-18 with Matt 27:39-46). But he came out victorious, bringing greater blessing than Israel had ever expected (cf. Ps 22:19-31 with Phil 2:7-11, Rev 5:9-14; cf. Ps 2:1-11 with Acts 4:25-31; 13:33-34).
Because of the union between God and his people, the sufferings of the godly in Old Testament times are an anticipation of the sufferings of Christ. (In much the same way, the sufferings of the godly in Christian times are a sharing in the sufferings of Christ; see 2 Cor 1:5; Phil 3:10.) Likewise the victories of the godly in the Old Testament are an anticipation of the victory of Christ. When the New Testament writers spoke of the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus Christ, that fulfilment was not just the occurrence of events that someone had predicted. Rather it was the completion of a pattern that God had been silently directing through the varied history of his people Israel.
The word ‘messiah’ is a transliteration from Hebrew and means ‘the anointed one’. Kings and priests (and sometimes prophets) were anointed with oil as a symbol of appointment to their position. That person whom God would send to be Israel’s greatest leader – the mighty saviour-deliverer, the supreme king-priest – was popularly called the Messiah. The New Testament (Greek) equivalent of this word is ‘Christ’. Because Jesus and his disciples spoke the local language of the Jews of Palestine, they would have used the local word ‘Messiah’; but because the Gospels were written in Greek, the word appears in our Bible as ‘Christ’ (Matt 22:42; John 7:41-42).
We have seen that we may expect to see fore-shadowings of Christ in the Psalms. This does not mean, however, that because a certain verse is applicable to Christ, the whole psalm is therefore applicable. The godly psalmist wrote of the ideals that he desired for himself and others, but the only true expression of those ideals was in the perfect person, Jesus Christ. The same godly psalmist also wrote of his failures, but these could not in any way be applied to Christ.
For example, in Psalm 40, verses 1-3 and 12 are a vivid description of the experience of the sinner that could not be the experience of Jesus Christ. But verses 6-8 of the same psalm contain a principle which, though in some measure applicable to the psalmist, could find its true meaning only in Christ (Heb 10:5-9).
This application of the psalmist’s language to Christ becomes more common in those psalms where the writer considers the ideals that Israel looked for in its king. As the people’s representative, the king is sometimes called God’s son (e.g. Ps 2:7; cf. Exod 4:22; 2 Sam 7:14), and as God’s representative may even be called God (e.g. Ps 45:6; cf. Ps 82:6; John 10:34). These ideals spread out from the king to his kingdom, and are well expressed in those psalms where the writer looks for the development of this kingdom in righteousness and power.
The psalmist’s idealism was fulfilled not in David or in any of the Davidic kings of the Old Testament, but in David’s greatest descendant, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus became in fact what the Davidic king of the Psalms merely foreshadowed (cf. Ps 45:6-7 with Heb 1:8-9; cf. Ps 110:1 with Matt 22:44; Acts 2:34-36). The better known psalms among those commonly referred to as messianic are Psalms 2, 45, 72 and 110.
Problems in the Psalms
There are many features in the Psalms that may appear to Christians as unusual in the light of their understanding of the New Testament. The problem arises frequently throughout the collection, but this commentary will discuss each issue at length only once. For the issues and the discussions on them readers are referred to the following.