Psalms - Introduction
THE BOOK OF PSALMS IS THE FIRST BOOK of Kethuvim, or Writings—probably because of its size and significance and also perhaps because it was the first book in Kethuvim to become authoritative. A text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, MMTd (4Q397: 14–21; C.9–10), speaks of “the books of Moses and the books of the Prophets and David,” thus indicating its status. (For “David” as a locution for Psalms, see below.)
Psalms is a collection, actually a collection of collections, of poetic prayers. (Prose prayers are also found throughout the Bible, but they are ad hoc, private prayers of individuals.) The origin of most of these poetic prayers is lost in obscurity, but they were preserved because they were likely used liturgically in ancient Israel, certainly in the Second Temple and in some cases perhaps in the First Temple. The Hebrew name of the book, Tehilim, “songs of praise,” is found often in rabbinic literature and is also attested in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a Psalms scroll (11QPsa, lines 4–5) which says that David wrote 3,600 tehilim plus other compositions (see below for David as the author of Psalms). The English title “Psalms” derives from the Greek psalmos, a translation of Hebrew mizmor, “a song with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.”
There are 150 chapters or psalms in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible; some chapters may contain two separate psalms (possibly Pss. 19 and 40 ), while in other cases, one composition has been split into two chapters (e.g., Pss. 9–10 and 42–43 ). The book crystallized in several different forms in different communities: The LXX contains an additional psalm at the end of the book, and the Syriac Peshitta Bible translation contains five additional psalms. Several of these, as well as some previously unknown compositions, have been found in the Qumran Psalm scroll (11QPsa), suggesting that the collection and arrangement of psalms in the early Psalter was fluid, within certain parameters, with no fixed order nor even a set list of compositions to be included.
The book of Psalms is subdivided into five “Books”: I, chapters 1–41 (most of the “Psalms of David” are in this collection); II, 42–72 (containing some psalms of Korah and Asaph); III, 73–89 (almost exclusively the psalms of Korah and Asaph); IV, 90–106 (mostly untitled psalms); V, 107–150 (mostly liturgical psalms for pilgrimages to the Temple and for festivals). The division into books is marked by the insertion of doxologies, short hymnic praises of God, at the end of each book. The doxologies to Books I–IV all beginwith the words “Blessed is the LORD.” The last psalm, Ps. 150 , serves as the concluding doxology for Book V and for the book of Psalms as a whole (just as Psalm 1 may be viewed as an introduction to the entire book). The division into five books of psalms is designed to parallel the five books of the Torah. As the Rabbis put it: “Moses gave the five books of the Torah to Israel and David gave the five books of Psalms to Israel” (Midrash Shoḥer Tov, 1.2 ). This arrangement into five books is artificial and relatively late, and reflects the development from Psalms as a liturgical collection to a Torah‐like book to be studied. Strong evidence for the existence of separate collections is: (1) the end of one collection, Ps. 72.20 , is clearly marked by the words “End of the prayers of David son of Jesse”; and (2) some psalms were included in two different collections, as is seen by the fact that Pss. 14 and 53 are nearly identical, as are Ps. 18 and 2 Sam. ch 22; Ps. 70 is comprised of Ps. 40.14–18 . The first three books seem to have been in place before the last two were added, judging from the fact that 28 out of 33 untitled psalms are found in Books IV and V, and that the differences between the Dead Sea Psalms text and the Masoretic Text occur mostly in Books IV and V. Within the present collections are smaller collections, for example, the Songs of Ascents (the ascent of pilgrims to the Temple Mount; Pss. 120–134 ), so named from their opening words. Modern scholars speak of the Elohist psalter, Pss. 42–83 , in which God is typically referred to as Elohim rather than as LORD (YHVH). Some scholars see clusters of psalms that begin or end with “hallelujah” as subcollections (Pss. 105–106; 111–113; 115–117; 146–150 ). Other collections have been isolated as well. It remains unclear, however, if the psalms within each collection, and the collections themselves, were arranged according to any overarching principle. It is clear, though, that Psalms, even at 150 chapters, is not the single definitive collection of ancient Israel's psalms, since similar poems are also found outside of the Psalter (e.g., 1 Sam. 2.1–10; 2 Sam. 23.1–7; Jonah ch 3; Hab. ch 3 ).
An ancient and pervasive tradition, going back to the Bible itself, attributes the authorship of Psalms to David. David is “the favorite of the songs of Israel” (2 Sam. 23.1 ), the one who soothed Saul with music (1 Sam. 16.17–23 ), the classic example of a musician (Amos 6.5 ), and the founder of Temple singing (2 Chron. 23.18 ). Deriving from and reinforcing this tradition are the many psalm superscriptions or titles that contain “a psalm of David.” Other superscriptions link a psalm with a specific event in the life of David (Pss. 3; 18; 34; 51; 56 ). These superscriptions are not original to these psalms, but reflect early interpretive additions that derive from the notion of David as author of the psalms. Early extrabiblical sources show that ancient Jewish and Christian tradition also assumed that David wrote all or most of Psalms. As mentioned above, a Psalms scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls attributes 3,600 psalms to David (a tradition on the analogy of the Bible's attribution of 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs to Solomon in 1 Kings 5.12 ). Additionally, Davidic superscriptions occur in that scroll in Pss. 104 and 123, although they are lacking in the Masoretic Text. Along the same lines, the author of Acts, the first century CE New Testament book, assigns Ps. 2 to David (Acts 4.25 ), even though the psalm itself has no such ascription. This evidence suggests that there was widespread acceptance of the Davidic authorship of theentire Psalter, a tradition that is echoed in rabbinic literature and has continued until modern times in both Jewish and Christian circles. Davidic authorship, however, on the basis of lingustic and contextual evidence, is not accepted as historical fact by modern scholars, but is viewed as a way the ancients linked biblical writings with the appropriate inspired well‐known biblical figure, thereby confirming the divine inspiration and the authority of those writings (as is the case in the ascription of Proverbs to Solomon, Lamentations to Jeremiah, and so forth). Not all psalms are specifically attributed to David; some are attributed to the sons of Korah (Ps. 42 ), to Asaph (Ps. 50 ), to Ethan the Ezrahite (Ps. 89 ), to Heman the Ezrahite (Ps. 88 ), to Solomon (Ps. 72 ), and to Moses (Ps. 90 )—and others bear no ascription at all.
Dating the psalms is notoriously difficult, partly because they contain few explicit references to specific historical events or personages (as noted above, the superscriptions are not useful in this regard). While many modern scholars believe that at least some, perhaps even many of the psalms are from the preexilic period (before 586 BCE), none can be dated on linguistic grounds to the tenth century BCE, the period of David. There is little consensus on the dating of preexilic psalms, or even on which psalms are preexilic. Linguistic analysis can, in general, differentiate between preexilic and postexilic Hebrew, but the analysis is not always refined enough to be definitive. For one thing, poetry is often archaizing, so the presence of older‐sounding phrases does not, in itself, prove an early date. Moreover, the hints to specific events that scholars find in the psalms often have more than one possible reference. Dating of psalms is subject to trends in biblical scholarship: At one time many psalms were thought to have originated in the Maccabean era (2nd century BCE), then in the preexilic period, and now more are being seen as products of the exilic or postexilic period. Some psalms clearly date from exilic or postexilic times, as we know from their references to events or their linguistic usages (e.g., Pss. 137; 145 ). It is also likely that some psalms have an ancient core that was reshaped after the exile into a new psalm. The bane of historical critics may be the virtue of the book of Psalms: The absence of specific historical references results in the poems' being seen as timeless, appropriate to many recurring occasions in the life of the individual or the community.
Many of the psalms have superscriptions containing information other than a personal name. Their terms are not well understood, but some are thought to be musical directions or instruments; for example: sheminith (Ps. 12 ); ayyeleth ha‐shaḥar (Ps. 22 ); maskil (Ps. 32 ). The menatzeaḥ or “leader” often referred to is presumably a choir‐leader or chief musician. It is likely that the psalms were sung or recited to musical accompaniment. Psalm 150 indicates that music was a form of praise to God, and terms for praise include “sing…a new song” ( 96.1; 98.1; 149.1 ), “chant hymns” ( 147.1 ), and “sing joyously” ( 95.1 ). Unfortunately, the acoustic dimension has been lost, but it must have been an important component of the performance of psalms.
While no psalm is exactly identical with another and many show considerable creativity, all the psalms have similar style, vocabulary, and forms of expression. They share these features with other ancient Near Eastern prayers as well; Israel's borrowing from its neighborsincluded forms of religious expression. Like all biblical poetry, the psalms make much use of repetition, parallelism, and imagery (see essay on “Biblical Poetry,” pp. 2097–2104). They also have recourse to many of the same themes found elsewhere in the Bible, for these themes were central to the corporate identity of Israel. Included are the themes of creation (which shows God's supreme power over everything in the world); the promise to Abraham of land and progeny (especially important after the exile); the exodus (the foundational experience in the formation of the people of Israel and their covenant with God); the exile (the key event in the formation of Jewish identity after 586 BCE); the Davidic monarchy (symbol of the continuity of Judah); the centrality of Jerusalem, Zion, and the Temple. (Striking in its absence is the giving of the Decalogue or Torah at Sinai.) In addition, psalms borrow mythological motifs found at Ugarit and elsewhere in the ancient Near East that were known in ancient Israel, such as God the warrior defeating Israel's enemies, the conquest of the primeval waters (the forces of chaos), and God as king enthroned amid a heavenly court. Not surprisingly, the psalms draw heavily on the religious concepts of ancient Israel; for modern scholars they are a window into the religious experience that the Bible chose to preserve (see essay on the “Religion of the Bible,” pp. 2021–40).
Based on the literary structure or “form” of each psalm, modern form‐critical scholars have been concerned to assign to each psalm a genre and a specific social setting (the German term Sitz im Leben is often used) in the religious practice of ancient Israel. This is often conjectural, based on interpreting hints contained in the psalms (see, e.g., Ps. 67.7–8 n. ). It is surprising that the psalms contain so few hints (but see 118.27 n. ). Like dates, and for much the same reasons, genre labels must be assigned tentatively. Most psalms fall into three general categories (sometimes a psalm partakes of more than one category): hymns of praise; complaints or pleas for help (sometimes called laments); and thanksgiving psalms. Other subcategories, like wisdom psalms (see Ps. 1 ), royal psalms (see Ps. 2 ), or Zion psalms, have also been discerned. Several do not address God at all, and can only with great difficulty be classified as prayers. Psalms may be written in the first‐person singular, called a psalm of the individual, or in the first‐person plural, communal psalms. The speaking voice should not be understood as a sign of authorship, but rather as a literary persona through whom the psalm is conveyed. In fact, psalms often move from an individual speaker to communal speaker; and all psalms, by their inclusion in the Psalter, are property of the community. As is the case in later prayer, a psalm may be recited privately by an individual or publicly by an individual or by a group.
Psalms also occupies a prominent place in Jewish liturgy; some entire psalms are recited as part of the regular service or on special occasions, and many individual verses or passages have found their way into later prayers (see list in “The Bible in the Liturgy,” pp. 1937–48). Additional psalms are recited publicly or privately at times of joy or danger. Some individuals or groups take upon themselves the recitation of all the psalms on a weekly basis.
Praise is the quintessential nature of psalms, and hymns of praise are the most common type of psalm in the Psalter. In the words of Ps. 92.2 : “It is good to praise the LORD, to singhymns to Your name, O Most High.” Most psalms are, in one way or another, aimed at praising God—for His power and beneficence, for His creation of the world, and for His past acts of deliverance to Israel. Often the praise comes after the psalmist has prayed for help from sickness or enemies (the typical subject of complaints) and his prayer has been answered. As part of his complaint, he promises to praise God when he has been delivered from trouble. Thanksgiving for God's help or beneficence is another form of praise. According to the outlook of Psalms, the main religious function of human beings is to offer praise to God, to proclaim His greatness throughout the world. Thus, the psalms enjoin others to praise God, and they envision a world in which everyone and everything will praise God. This implies a relationship between God and humans, another important dimension of Psalms. God is called upon to hear prayers and to respond; this is one of His attributes. Worst of all is when He “hides His face” and refuses to pay attention to the psalmist, because this puts into question the efficacy of prayer. If there is one primary underlying assumption of the book of Psalms, it is the potential efficacy of prayer.
[ADELE BERLIN AND MARC ZVI BRETTLER]