Psalms - Introduction
In the psalms there are many voices, from various times and places, from Joshua to Ezra, and from Jerusalem to Babylon. Gathered by unknown persons, often called “the sages of Israel,” the psalms were used in ancient worship as they have continued to live in both synagogue and church.
When Israel came to Canaan it encountered and absorbed a living poetic tradition; hence many psalms reveal much that Israel had in common with its predecessors and neighbors. At times, however, some of Israel's poets skillfully shaped the language with intuitive insight greater even than the very language itself; these are the occasions which are always exciting for the student who is interested in the singular thrust of Israel's creative literary achievement. But the historian must also recognize that the less striking aspects, the common elements themselves, could be of great significance too in the late biblical age.
Some of the poetic voices seem muffled by our own world view, yet others break through such barriers, for in many passages the Hebrew poets sang of a reality which is only on the horizon of our comprehension.
The Book of Psalms is divided into five books. In the Hebrew Masoretic Text, there is a superscription or heading for many psalms. These superscriptions are relatively early additions to the psalms, identifying them with particular persons, for example, David, connecting them with historical events, as in Pss. 51, 56, and 57 , or giving musical or liturgical notations, as in Pss. 4–8 . Two recurrent words, “Selah” and “Amen,” appear at times in the body of a psalm. These words appear to be instructions inserted when the psalms were used liturgically. Perhaps Selah, whose meaning is unclear, was a signal for an instrumental interlude. Amen (e.g. 41.13 ), likewise uncertain in its original use, seems to instruct the participants in the liturgy to assent to the passage read to them.
The classification of each psalm is to be regarded as summary, and meant to be useful rather than complete. Thus, the “Laments” are not here classified into subcategories such as “individual” and “group” Laments. The procedure in the notes is to designate the following types: Lament, Thanksgiving, Hymn, Enthronement Hymn, Royal Psalm, Wisdom Psalm, Prophetic Judgment, Vow, Liturgy, and Benediction. Some psalms are really only fragments of known types and others are impossible to classify at all.
A Lament, the most abundant type, was sung in time of great trouble. It usually contains a statement of the poet's distress, a word of trust, an appeal to God, a declaration about the poet's obedience, and a vow to sing a Thanksgiving (see Pss. 22 and 26 ; also compare 56.8, 12; 107.22 ). A Thanksgiving Psalm gives thanks for what God has done in specific historical circumstances to save an individual or the nation. A Hymn praises God for what God is accustomed to do in nature or history for the welfare of humankind. An Enthronement Hymn was used to celebrate the kingship of God. Royal Psalms dealt with the human king; many were used at the time of his coronation and one is a Wedding Song. The Wisdom Psalms reflect the teaching of the sages of Israel. Other types are rather rare, and are explained in the notes.
Tradition ascribes the Book of Psalms to David (2 Sam. 23.1 ); about half are so ascribed in the superscriptions. Modern scholarship rejects a view held some generations ago which supposed that no psalms were as early as David; indeed, some were written even before his time. The Psalter is a collection, indeed, probably a collection of collections, of poems from all periods of Israel's history. It has, with justice, been called “the prayer book of the second temple,” for in that later period (after 520 B.C.E.) the psalms were used in the liturgy.