Psalms - Introduction
The book of Psalms is an anthology or collection of sung poetic prayers (see Introduction to the Poetical and Wisdom Books) associated with divine worship in Israel. The word “psalm” is derived from Greek “psalmos,” which translates Hebrew “mizmor”; these both mean a song recited to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. The times of composition for the psalms range across at least five centuries; the earliest psalm is probably Ps 29 , which is adapted from early Canaanite worship, while several psalms contain contextual (e.g., Ps 126 ), linguistic, or other evidence that they are from the postexilic period (Ps 51; 114; 137 ). While most psalms are from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the language or internal references in several psalms suggest that they originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (e.g., Ps 80 and 81 , which contain references to Joseph); these most likely were brought to Judah after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. The majority of the psalms, however, originated in the preexilic, monarchic period, and were associated with the Jerusalem Temple.
These psalms likely functioned as a musical libretto for sections of the Temple worship services, though exactly when and how they were used is unclear. Psalm 118.27 , “The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” suggests that some psalms were used in connection with sacrifices, while Ps 141.2 , “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” may indicate that some were recited when the incense was offered. Several psalms contain allusions to musical performance (e.g., 13.6; 26.7; 30.4; 33.2–3 ), and many of the superscriptions (headings) contain detailed, technical references to how the performance should be completed. Unfortunately, many of the technical terms that are ubiquitous in the psalms, including the frequent “Selah,” are imperfectly understood, and it is thus very difficult to reconstruct with any certainty exactly how these poems were performed.
From the early twentieth century, many attempts have been made, especially by biblical scholars interested in form criticism (see “Form Criticism” in the essay on p. 493 ES ), to follow clues in the psalms, in order to reconstruct the original Sitz im Leben, or setting in life, of the psalms. This scholarship has suggested that the psalms are to be divided into several genres. The two main types are laments, forming approximately a third of the Psalter, and hymns. Laments can be either individual (e.g., Ps 3 ) or communal (e.g., Ps 44 ). The lament's component parts include the invocation of the name of God, the complaint wherein the psalmist describes the distress experienced, and appeals for divine intervention. Many of these laments include expressions of trust, couched in the past (e.g., Ps 6.9 , “The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer”). It is unclear if this reflects the psalmist's great faith, which is furthered through the recitation of the psalm, or if part of the recitation of the psalm might have included a response to the lament by a priest or other religious official, and the psalmist might have expressed trust only after this divinely given reassurance, which does not usually appear in the psalm. The hymns typically focus on the role of God as creator (e.g., Ps 8; 19; 104 ) or victorious warrior (Ps 66; 98 ). These hymns are not connected to specific requests; they express the piety of individuals or the community, who want to have a close connection with God, in the belief that “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High” (Ps 92.1 ). The Hebrew title of Psalms, “tehillim” (“praises”), shows the significance of the genre of hymns to the book.
Still other types of psalms can be identified. For example, Ps 15 , which recounts the ideal qualities of the individual who “may abide in your tent” and “may dwell on your holy hill” (v. 1 ), is likely an entrance liturgy, recited by the worshiper while approaching the Temple. There are several royal psalms (e.g., Ps 2 ), which focus on the king. The number of these psalms, and by extension, the extent to which the Psalter should be viewed as a work with specifically royal focus, is debated, with some scholars contending that the “I” of the Psalter is typically the king. A handful of psalms (e.g., 37; 119 ) contain the vocabulary of the wisdom books—Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes—and focus on issues that characterize those books, such as righteousness in contrast to evil; for this reason, they are often called wisdom psalms. Several psalms, especially 93–99 , focus on the kingship of God; it is unclear how these might have been used ritually, and especially if they might provide evidence for a Judean New Year festival in which the deity was ritually reinstated as king, as was the case in a well‐attested Babylonian festival. Form critics continue to debate the genres of specific psalms, the number of different genres contained in the Psalter, and the ways in which the psalms were connected to ancient Israelite worship.
The book of Psalms came together over many centuries. This is clear from the final verse of Ps 72 , “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.” This is further reflected through the existence of several collections or anthologies within the book; a good example is Ps 120–134 , each of which has the title “A Song of Ascents.” Psalms 42–83 also form a distinct collection (“the Elohistic Psalter”); these typically call the deity “elohim” (translated “God”), rather than “yhwh” (translated “LORD”), as in the rest of the book. The presence of almost verbatim repetitions, such as Ps 14 and Ps 53 (from the Elohistic Psalter), is another illustration of the nature of the book of Psalms as an anthology. Clusters of psalms also begin or end with the words “halelu‐yah,” “Praise the LORD” (Ps 105–106; 111–113; 115–117; 146–150 ).
This brief reconstruction of the history of the Psalter indicates that the widespread early Jewish and Christian tradition that David composed the entirety of the book of Psalms is secondary. The tradition arose from an interpretation of the many psalms that do begin “of David,” a phrase understood to mean written by David himself, as well as from the descriptions in other books of David as a poet and musician (1 Sam 16.16–17; 2 Sam 1.17–27 ) and as the patron of the Jerusalem Temple (1 Chr 29.1–5 ), constructed by his son, Solomon. The historical headings of several psalms (e.g., Ps 3; 18; 34; 51 ) are early exegetical attempts to link the psalms with incidents in the life of David in 1–2 Samuel. This desire to connect the psalms directly to the life of David is further evident in additional historical headings found in the Septuagint, the second‐century BCE translation of the Bible into Greek, as well as in later Jewish exegesis. These reflect a movement away from understanding Psalms as a loose collection of liturgical works to viewing it as a thematic book.
This understanding of Psalms as a single book also explains its subdivision into five parts or books, indicated by the secondary insertion of doxologies (detailed praises of God) at the ends of Ps 41; 72; 89; and 106 , and through the functioning of the last psalm(s) of the Psalter (Ps 146–150 or Ps 150 alone) as a concluding doxology. Thus the book in its final form is structured as a Pentateuch (five books), just like the Torah. The reference to “the Torah (NRSV “law”) of the LORD” in the introductory psalm (Ps 1.2 ) suggests that, at some level, the book of Psalms as a whole is to be read as Torah and is to be studied as Torah. This assumed even more importance after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), when study of psalms replaced their liturgical recitation.
Individual psalms can thus be interpreted on several levels. In their earliest stages they were hymns, used on various occasions and at a variety of sacred sites. Later, some of these were anthologized, and could have been understood within the anthology that they are in; e.g., Ps 123 might be understood within the Songs of Ascent. Finally, individual psalms might be understood within the entire Psalter as a book, either narrating a biography of David, or providing instruction like the Torah. The main function of psalms within later Jewish and Christian tradition, however, has been in individual and communal prayer, where worshipers have found appropriate words in tradition to express the depths of their religious feelings.