Background

The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 hymns. The Hebrew title of this book is not “Psalms” but “Songs of Praise,” which is a very fitting title for the book as a whole. The book is filled with praise and thanksgiving. The “plot” of the book of Psalms moves from a focus on trials in the beginning toward a focus on praise at the end. The last five psalms, which emphasize the chief themes found throughout the whole book, all begin and end with the exclamation, “Praise the Lord.”1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Psalms at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

The English title “Psalms” was adopted from the title which this book received in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, which became the standard Bible for most of the early Christian church. The Greek word for “psalm” (psalmos) refers to the music of a stringed instrument or to a song sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.  It’s corresponding Hebrew word (mizmor) is used to designate only 57 of the 150 hymns in the book of Psalms, thus only about one-third of the hymns are technically psalms in the strict sense.  However, traditional practice has been to refer to the whole book as “Psalms” and thus each individual hymn as a “psalm.”  This seems to have been the practice of early believers as well — and even Jesus (Luke 24:44).

Types of Psalms

It has been noted above that only 57 of the 150 hymns in the book of Psalms are specifically classified as “psalms” (mizmor) in the technical sense. Many of the hymns in the book of Psalms are assigned to some other musical or literary category.

About 30 of these hymns are called “songs” (shir), for example Psalms 18 and 96. The precise technical meaning of this title is uncertain, but it often occurs with joyful songs. It is noteworthy that it already occurs as a title for ancient Sumerian hymns. This title “song” is joined with the title “a psalm” about a dozen times (for example, Psalms 65, 66, and 68).

Some of the hymns are called “prayers” (tiphloth–Psalms 17, 86, 90, 102, 142). A plea to God to protect the psalmist’s life is a prominent element in most of the psalms with this title, for example in Psalm 17:14 or in Psalm 86:2. In Psalm 72:20 the title “prayers” is also assigned to the larger collection of hymns which makes up Book II of the Psalms.

The meaning of several of the hymn titles used in Psalms is so uncertain that they are left untranslated by the NIV. Several of the psalms are called miktams (Psalms 16, 56-60). Some commentators, including Martin Luther, have connected miktam with kitam, a poetic word for “gold,” and have suggested that miktam, therefore, means “a choice piece,” “a gem,” or “a jewel.” Another suggestion is that miktam is related to the Akkadian word katamu, which means “to cover” or “to atone for,” but atonement is not a prominent topic in the biblical miktams. A more promising connection is with the Akkadian term kitmu, which occurs as a term describing the tuning of a seven-string lyre. The exact meaning of kitmu is uncertain (interval, key or mood, tuning, lyre string or instrument). Another suggestion is that miktam refers to a memorial prayer inscribed on a tablet or to a poem of memorable thoughts. This interpretation is based on the rendering of the Septuagint and the Vulgate. Since prayers in the ancient Near East were sometimes inscribed on memorial steles or placed in the temple as a written document, this is a plausible suggestion. Nevertheless, we must admit that the meaning of the term eludes us.

Thirteen psalms are called maskils (for example, Psalms 42-45). On the basis of one meaning of the Hebrew root shakal this title is usually understood as describing a psalm for teaching or meditation. Another suggestion is that maskil means “a skillful psalm.”

Psalms 120-134 are classified as “songs of ascents” (shir hammaaloth). There are a number of different possibilities for this designation.  These psalms could be those that were sung as the exiles “went up from Babylon” as they returned to Jerusalem, as the pilgrims journeyed “up to Jerusalem” () for festivals, or as the priests “went up” the circular steps of the temple.  It could also point to the “stair-like” structure of the psalms themselves as they progressed up and advanced the thought.  Ultimately it is uncertain why these psalms are referred to as “songs of ascents.”

There are also some additional titles which are applied to only one psalm or to a compact group of psalms. In general, it can be said that we do not know the precise difference between these various kinds of hymns, largely because we no longer know what kind of music accompanied them.

In addition to these classifications which are based on the original headings of the psalms, ancient and modern commentators have suggested several additional categories based on their own analysis of the style and subject matter of the psalms. The most ancient example of such a classification is that of the seven Penitential Psalms, which have been treated as a group since at least 250 AD (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143).

Martin Luther suggested that the psalms could be divided into five main types:

  1. Messianic psalms which speak of Christ (for example, Psalms 2, 22, 110);
  2. teaching psalms which emphasize doctrine (Psalms 1, 139);
  3. comfort psalms (Psalms 4, 37, 91);
  4. psalms of prayer and petition (Psalms 3, 137, 143); and
  5. thanksgiving psalms (Psalms 103, 104, 136).

Luther’s five categories are useful for analyzing the main point of each psalm, but many of the psalms may be placed into more than one of these categories. Luther’s categories are based on theme or content of the psalm. The originally Hebrew categories seem to be based more on style or a combination of style and content. Often there is not a consistent correspondence between the literary or poetic style of psalms and their content. As a result the specific classification of many of the psalms is debatable. The authors and first users of the psalms may have thought in categories quite different from ours. Nevertheless, the idea of classifying psalms is useful. In fact, there are two content-based classifications of psalms which are given special discussion below, the Messianic psalms and the imprecatory psalms.

Christ in the Psalms

Before the psalms were written, Old Testament believers apparently had been provided with few details about the work of the coming Savior. Adam and Eve had learned that a descendant of the woman would come to crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Later prophecies successively narrowed the line of the Savior to the descendants of Shem, Abraham, and Judah (Genesis 9:26; 12:3; 49:8-10). Moses prophesied that God would raise up a special prophet like him for Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15). Balaam spoke of the ruler who would rise like a star out of Jacob to defeat Israel’s enemies (Numbers 24:17). Believers knew of and believed in the Messiah before the writing of the psalms, but they seemingly knew few details about him.

The writing of the psalms was a major step forward in the unfolding of Messianic prophecy. In 2 Samuel 7 David had learned that the Messianic king would be his descendant. In the psalms David was privileged to reveal many things about his great descendant. The Messiah, though he was David’s descendant, would also be true God (Psalms 2:7; 45:6; 110:1). He would rule over an eternal kingdom, which would include the whole world (Psalms 72, 2, 89). As true man he would obtain the complete dominion over the earth which Adam had lost through sin (Psalm 8).

However, the Messiah would also come to suffer for sin. His suffering is most fully described in Psalms 22 and 69. He would be rejected by the leaders of Israel (Psalm 118:22) and mocked during his suffering (Psalm 22:8). The Messiah would be betrayed by a friend (Psalms 41:9; 55:12-14). His hands and feet would be pierced during his suffering (Psalm 22:16). He would be given vinegar to drink (Psalm 69:21). His clothing would be divided by lot (Psalm 22:18). Two of Jesus’ words from the cross come from Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalms 22:1; 31:5). The Messiah would be obedient to God’s will through all of this suffering (Psalm 40:8). Though he suffered the anguish of being forsaken by God, he would also be exalted and glorified (Psalm 22:22-31). He would rise from the dead (Psalm 16:10), and he will reign forever as priest and king (Psalm 110).

This summary of the teaching of the psalms concerning Christ demonstrates the importance of the book of Psalms in the unfolding of Messianic prophecy.

Authorship

Headings or superscriptions are attached to 116 of the psalms. The headings name the authors of 100 of the 150 psalms. Seventy-three psalms are credited to David. Thirteen of these psalms mention specific events of David’s life in their superscriptions. These Davidic psalms are spread throughout the book of Psalms, but they are especially prominent in the first two sections of the book. All of the psalms of Book I of Psalms are attributed to David except those few that have no heading. In Book II Psalms 51-65 are Davidic. In Book V, Psalms 138-145 are a supplementary Davidic grouping. It is possible that quite a few of the anonymous psalms were also written by David. In 1 Chronicles 16, portions of Psalms 96, 105, and 106 are ascribed to David, even though those psalms are anonymous in the book of Psalms. Psalms 2 and 95, which are not credited to David in the Old Testament, are attributed to him in the New Testament (Acts 4:25; Hebrews 4:7). The Septuagint attributes twelve additional psalms to David. The attribution of most of the psalms to David fits perfectly with David’s reputation as “Israel’s singer of songs” (2 Samuel 23:1).

Twenty-four or twenty-five psalms are attributed to the Levites to whom David had assigned responsibility for music in the temple. The composers of these psalms are Asaph, Heman the Ezrahite, Ethan the Ezrahite, and a group called the sons of Korah. Asaph son of Berekiah was a Levite descended from Gershon. He seems to have been the chief musician for the sanctuary of the Ark in Jerusalem during the time of David (1 Chr 16:4-7, 37). Ethan son of Kushaiah was a Levite descended from Merari. It seems that Ethan and Jeduthan were the same man. The Sons of Korah were descended from the Levite Kohath and apparently from the same Korah that rebelled in the wilderness against Moses. They were descended from the prophet Samuel through his son Joel. Heman was a member of their group. Heman and Jeduthan were in charge of the music at the sanctuary at Gibeon, where the bronze altar was kept during the time of David (1 Chr 16:39-42). A genealogy of these men is found in 1 Chronicles 6:31-47.

Two psalms are credited to David’s son Solomon (Psalms 72, 127). Some commentators have suggested that the heading of these psalms should be translated “for Solomon” rather than “by Solomon,” but the traditional view is that they were written by Solomon. In view of the fact that 1 Kings 5:32 credits Solomon with writing 1005 songs, it is remarkable that only two of them were inspired sacred songs which were included in the book of Psalms.

Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses. This makes it the oldest psalm in the collection. The poems of Moses recorded in Exodus 15 and in Deuteronomy 31 and 33 are further evidence of his work as a poet.

Date of Writing

The scriptural headings credit a majority of the psalms to David and his contemporaries, who lived about 1000 BC. A single psalm is credited to Moses, who lived about 400 years before David.

The only psalm which must be exilic is Psalm 137, which was written in Babylon. The content of a few of the psalms of Asaph, such as Psalms 74, 79, 83, and some of the anonymous psalms, such as Psalm 126, suggests that they may have been written at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Captivity in 586 BC. However, they may have been written prophetically long before the events to which they allude. Other psalms that some conservative commentators have suggested are late include Psalms 1, 42-43, 44, 46, 48, 75, 76, 80-82, and 102. In Books IV and V some commentators suggest that Psalms 103, 117, 119, 124, 125, 144, 145 and that some of the closing hallelujahs (146-150) are post-exilic, but some of these have Davidic superscriptions.

On the basis of the Old Testament evidence it is clear that the majority of the psalms must be assigned to the time of David. The New Testament also confirms the Davidic authorship of certain psalms (Matthew 22:43, Luke 20:42, Acts 1:16, 2:25, 4:25, 13:36). In Matthew 22:41-46 Jesus’ assertion of the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 is also essential to the point he is making.

The Books of the Psalms

The biblical book of Psalms is divided into five parts which are traditionally called “books.” This five-fold division may be patterned after the five-fold division of the writings of Moses. The five divisions of the book of Psalms are Book I (Psalms 1-41), Book II (Psalms 42-72), Book III (Psalms 73-89), Book IV (Psalms 90-106), and Book V (Psalms 107-150). A doxology marks the end of each of these books, and this division into five books is also indicated in the Leningrad codex by blank lines at the end of each book. Within these five “books” groups of psalms are arranged on the basis of such criteria as authorship, psalm type, key words, and subject matter. Thematically, there is a general progression from suffering and complaint, which dominate in Books I-III, toward thanks and praise, which dominate in Books IV and V.

BOOK I

The basic criterion for inclusion in this book is Davidic authorship. Since many of these psalms were submitted to the director of music, it appears that this book originated as a collection of David’s psalms intended for use in the tabernacle and temple.

The major theme of this section is the suffering and the triumph of the godly, as illustrated by the experiences of David. A striking characteristic of this book is a very strong preference for the use of the divine name “LORD” (Yahweh) rather than “God.”

BOOK II

This book also deals with the trials and triumphs of the godly. It ends with the words, “This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.” This footer marks the end of the initial collection of Psalms, consisting of Books I and II. In addition to Davidic psalms this book includes seven or eight psalms by the sons of Korah, a single psalm by Asaph, and a closing psalm by Solomon. Perhaps this book was a collection of the psalms of David and his musicians, motivated by the building of the temple. It appears that Books I and II were the basic kernel from which the book of Psalms was developed.

There is no one principle which governs the arrangement of Book II. Book II contains several groups of psalms arranged on the basis of psalm types, for example, a group of maskils (Psalms 52-55), a group of miktams (Psalms 56-60), and a group of “songs” (Psalms 66-68). An example of arrangement by subject matter is the emphasis on events during David’s flight from Saul in Psalms 52-59.

A peculiar, unexplained trait of Book II is a strong preference for the divine name God, rather than the name LORD. Neither date of writing or geographic origin of these psalms provides an adequate explanation for this phenomenon.

An interesting feature that tends to support the independent origin of the five books of the Psalter is the presence of several “doublets,” that is, psalms or psalm portions which occur in more than one book. Psalm 53 parallels Psalm 14; Psalm 57:7-11 parallels Psalm 108:1-5; Psalm 60:5-12 parallels Psalm 108:6-13; and Psalm 70 parallels Psalm 40:13-17. It is striking that one half of each of these “doublets” occurs in Book II. The reasons for this repetition are unclear.

BOOK III

The main criterion of Book III is authorship by Asaph or the sons of Korah. Only one Davidic psalm appears (Psalm 86). In this book the name God predominates in the Asaph group (Psalms 73-83), but the name LORD dominates in the sons of Korah group (Psalms 84-89). This collection of psalms shows a special concern for the welfare of Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple.

BOOK IV

Only two psalms of this book are directly attributed to David (Psalms 101, 103), but others may be his as well. This group of psalms uses the divine name LORD exclusively. The main principle of arrangement for the last two books of the Psalter seems to be groups of psalms arranged around themes of praise and thanksgiving. Notable groups in Book IV are Psalms 94-100, which emphasize the Lord’s rule, and Psalms 103-106, which emphasize his work as creator and preserver.

BOOK V

Book V includes two blocks of Davidic psalms (Psalms 108-110 and 138-145) and a scattering of other Davidic psalms, but the basic principle of arrangement seems to be groups of psalms arranged around the themes of thanksgiving and praise rather than authorship. Again, there is a very strong preference for the name LORD. Notable groups are the “Praise the LORD Psalms” (Psalms 111-118 and Psalms 145-150) and the “Songs of the Ascents” (Psalms 120-134).

Although there is a clear pattern of organization present in the book of Psalms, it is not possible to explain the position of every psalm in the Psalter. The fact that Psalms is so carefully arranged indicates that is designed to be read from beginning to end like a novel or a play. Though Psalms is an anthology, made up from pieces that originated independently, in its present form it has “chapters” and even something of a plot that runs from beginning to end. Though each psalm can be used independently, readers miss something of its message and impact if they do not read the psalms consecutively, noting the relationships between them. Though Psalms was used as a hymnbook, its arrangement is much tighter than that contemporary hymnals usually is, which are arranged loosely by season and topic without much attention to the specific order of the hymns within a section.

Notable Passages

  • Psalm 1:1-3
  • Psalm 2:6-7
  • Psalm 5:4-5
  • Psalm 16:9-11
  • Psalm 22:1,6-8,16-18,29-31
  • Psalm 23:1-6
  • Psalm 45:7
  • Psalm 46:1-2
  • Psalm 49:7-9,15
  • Psalm 51:1-17
  • Psalm 53:1-3
  • Psalm 90:1-2,17
  • Psalm 91:1-2,11-12
  • Psalm 96:1-3
  • Psalm 103:1-5
  • Psalm 104:27
  • Psalm 110:1
  • Psalm 118:1-4
  • Psalm 119:89,103,105
  • Psalm 121:1-8
  • Psalm 122:1
  • Psalm 127:1-5
  • Psalm 130:1-8
  • Psalm 133:1
  • Psalm 136:1-3
  • Psalm 139:7-10
  • Psalm 139:13-16
  • Psalm 139:23-24
  • Psalm 141:1-2

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Psalms at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.