The book of Psalms derives its name from the ancient Greek translation, psalmoi, which designates instrumental music and, by extension, the words that accompany the music. In Hebrew it is known as “the book of praises.” One hundred and fifty psalms were numbered consecutively in the Hebrew tradition. The same number is found in the Greek and Latin versions, though there is a variation of usually one digit within Psalms 10–147 (e.g., Ps. 72 is 71 in the Greek). One of the Dead Sea Scrolls and many Greek manuscripts have other psalms as well, especially Psalm 151, which is recognized as canonical by some Orthodox churches. By the Hellenistic period, the psalms were provided with superscriptions indicating authorship (“by” or possibly “concerning” David), musical annotations (e.g., “with stringed instruments,”), and even the setting (e.g., Ps. 51, after David's sin with Bathsheba). Titles exist for 116 psalms, but the information contained in most of them is no longer understood (e.g., Ps. 69, “according to Lilies”). Nothing much can be said about the psalms as musical compositions. There are many references to musical accompaniment, and one may infer that the words were sung, but nothing is known about melody or orchestration. (see Music and Musical Instruments.)
There is evidence of a complicated history behind the present form of the psalter. It seems to be divided into five “books” by the insertion of doxologies: 41.13; 72.18–19; 89.52; 106.48; 150.6 (or perhaps all of Ps. 150). Behind this stand earlier collections: Psalms of David (73 in all), of Asaph (Pss. 73–83), of the Korahites (Pss. 42; 44–49; 84; 85; 87; 88), and so on. The fact that the generic name for God, Hebrew yhwh, probably pronounced Yahweh; see Tetragrammaton) by about four to one in Psalms 42–83 suggests a separate collection of psalms; hence, this section has been called the “Elohistic psalter.” Another sign of earlier compilation is the presence of duplicate psalms (14=53; 40.13–20=70).
Modern English translations are irregular in verse references. Some follow the Hebrew numbering, while others, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), follow the tradition of the Authorized Version, which does not count the title as a verse. Hence, there is often a difference of one digit or more between the Hebrew and English references to the verse numbers (thus, NRSV 51.1 = Hebr. 51.3). In this article, the NRSV numbering is followed.
More significant are the differences in rendering that can be found in all translations. At many points, the traditional Masoretic text of the Psalms is corrupt and in need of emendation. Such correction is based on the usual sources, especially the ancient translations. But these are not always trustworthy; the rendering of the tenses in the Septuagint is particularly misleading. In order to restore the supposedly original form of the text, scholars also have recourse to the resources of related Semitic languages, especially for the meanings of words. In modern times, the discovery of Ugaritic language and literature has provided a window on the Hebrew text that has led to improved translation.
Modern scholarship is skeptical about two aspects of the traditional titles: authorship (hence dating) and setting. There is no hard evidence for Davidic authorship of any of the psalms. David's reputation as a musician (1 Sam. 16.23; Amos 6.5) makes it reasonable to associate him with the psalms, but it is not possible to prove authorship. As regards the setting, modern scholarship is much more modest in its claims. The ancients were overspecific. Rather, one can only describe the setting in a very generic way: a lament of an individual or community, a song of praise in the Temple, and so on. In other words, literary classification has replaced the historicizing tendency that the titles display.
Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) originated the modern literary analysis of the psalter. His conclusions have been modified somewhat by subsequent scholars, but his classification of the psalms remains basic. Many psalms resist easy classification, but the following description is helpful.
The hymn, or song of praise, begins on a joyful note in which the psalmist summons self (Pss. 103–104) or a community (Ps. 117) to praise the Lord. Usually two reasons are given, and they constitute the heart of the prayer: God's creative activity and saving intervention is Israel's history. The pattern is: “praise the Lord, because….” As far as creation is concerned, one must be ready for the skilled and imaginative portrayal of the divine creativity, recorded throughout the Bible. One thinks of the majestic description of the effortless activity in Genesis 1, a creation by word, but there is also the picture of the divine potter in Genesis 2.7. Another mode of representation was the battle with chaos, personified in the redoubtable Leviathan (Pss. 74.14; 104.26; cf. Isa. 27.1; Job 3.8; 41.1–34), or Rahab (Ps. 89.9–10; Job 9.13; 26.12–13), or characterized simply as “Sea” (probably to be understood against the background of Baal's conflict with Yamm [“Sea” in Ugaritic literature; cf. Ps. 74.13). Attention is not limited to the action of God at the beginning; creation is also continuous (Ps. 104). The Israelites obviously were able to relish and savor the creative activity of God.
Another reason for solemn praise is the divine intervention in history on behalf of Israel, especially the Exodus (Pss. 78; 114; cf. Exod. 15.1–18). This sacred history could also be commemorated in such a way as to teach Israel a lesson (Ps. 78) or to move the people to penitence (Ps. 106). This “history” was not antiquarianism. It was re‐presented in the liturgy and re‐created in the hearts of the people, for whom it also guaranteed a future.
The structure of the song of praise is simple: after the initial invocation, certain themes are developed as the reason for praising the Lord. The psalm often ends on the general note of praise. But certain hymns have received special classification due to their content.
The first of these are the “Songs of Zion” (Pss. 46; 48; 84; 87; 122). They are clearly hymns, but the praise is centered on Jerusalem. They do not view Jerusalem apart from the Lord; the Holy City is preeminently the divine dwelling place among the people, where the divine “name” (Deut. 12.11) or presence is to be found. A frequent theme is the invincibility of Zion (Pss. 46; 48). This attitude can turn out to be a trap for those who place a false confidence in the “city of God” (cf. Jer. 7.1–15; 24.1–10). But Israel saw truly that her greatness was connected with the Lord's presence.
The second type deals with the enthronement of the Lord: “the Lord is king” (or, “has become king”). These psalms (most clearly, 47; 93; 95–99) celebrate the Lord as king, and have as themes the divine creative power as well as the divine domination of history. The kingship of the Lord is not conceived as a recent claim; it is rooted in the past and is re‐presented in the liturgical celebration itself.
Gunkel regarded these as the prayers offered up after deliverance from distress—a counterpart to the laments (see next paragraph): e.g., Psalms 18; 30; 40; 66; 116; 118; cf. Jonah 2.2–9. They begin like a song of praise and then quickly acknowledge that the Lord is the rescuer. This confession is sometimes expanded into a witness directed to bystanders (see Ps. 30.4–5), who may share in the thanksgiving sacrifice offered by the psalmist. At times there is a flashback, as the psalmist recounts the difficult period before deliverance (Ps. 116.10–11). Psalm 100 is entitled a song for thanksgiving, and vv. 4–5 (cf. Jer. 33.11) are found in variant form in Psalms 106.1; 107.1; 118.1; and 136.1.
The psalms of lament can be considered from an individual or from a collective point of view. Most of them are psalms of individual lament, and indeed this literary type is the most frequent in the psalter (some forty psalms, e.g., 22; 42–43; 69). The prayer usually begins with a cry for help to the Lord (“my God”), followed by a description of the distress of the psalmist. This can be manifold: sin (Ps. 51), sickness and death (Pss. 6; 38), false accusation (Ps. 7), and especially persecution by enemies (Pss. 38.12–20; 41.5–11). It is paradoxical but true that in most cases one cannot pinpoint the precise reason for the complaint. This is because the imagery is so extravagant; Psalm 22, for example, mentions “bulls of Bashan,” dogs, the sword, the lion, and wild oxen. But this can be an advantage for modern readers, who can interpret the vivid language of the psalmist in the light of their own distress. What at first sight seems to be a disadvantage turns out to be profitable, provided the modern reader develops an appreciation for the symbolic language (the abyss, Sheol, the pit, the “waves” and “billows” of the Lord, etc.). Biblical writers are fond of extremes. Death is not a static mystery at the end of one's days; death is parallel to Sheol, the place of the dead (see Hell), and both are visualized as a power that affects a human being in this life. To the extent that a person experiences nonlife (suffering, etc.)—to that extent one is in Sheol. Hence, the psalmist can express joy over deliverance by saying “You brought me up from Sheol” (Ps. 30.3). There has not been a resuscitation or resurrection; the psalmist has been delivered from the nonlife of suffering and distress.
The grim portrayal of personal agony in the individual lament is lightened by frequent cries for help, and especially by motifs of why the Lord should intervene. Appeals are made to the divine “steadfast love” (Hebr. ḥesed), which binds together the Lord and the covenanted Israelite. The psalmist even alleges personal integrity and loyalty (Pss. 17; 26) and also trust (Pss. 13.5; 25.1) as motives to induce the Lord to act.
In almost all the individual laments (Ps. 88 is a significant exception) a centainty is expressed that the Lord has heard the prayer, but the explanation for the change in mood is not obvious. Is it due to the psychological strength of the psalmist's trust? Or could it be that there are two moments here: the before and the after of deliverance, which have been joined together? A promising solution, which has gathered wide support, is to recognize here the liturgical background of the prayer. When one uttered a lament in the Temple, it was followed by an oracle of salvation from one of the Temple personnel, and then the response to this was the proclamation of certainty. There are some hints of oracular assurance in several psalms (12.5; 35.3; 85.8; 91.14–16), but the lament has not retained the oracle as part of its structure.
Gunkel regarded the motif of trust, so frequent in the individual laments, as the seed of another type of psalm, the psalms of confidence (e.g., 4; 11; 16; 23; 62; 131). The motif of trust becomes the heart of the prayer.
National laments would have been characteristic of special days of crisis, such as a drought or military defeat (cf. Joel 1.13–14; 2 Chron. 20.3–12). The community would be summoned to the rites celebrated in the Temple for a day of national mourning. There is no fixed structure, but most of the elements that appear in an individual lament are present here: a cry for help, the challenge of “why?”, a description of the distress, and often a vow to praise the Lord (perhaps akin to the motif of certainty). Among these psalms can be included 44, 74, and 79.
This classification derives from content, not from literary factors. Indeed, many settings and moods are reflected in them: a royal coronation or anniversary (Pss. 2; 72; perhaps 110); a royal thanksgiving (Ps. 18; cf. Ps. 144); prayers before (Ps. 20) and after (Ps. 21) military operations; a royal wedding (Ps. 45), a “mirror of princes” (Ps. 101). In the course of time such psalms would have become “democratized.” Although originally featuring the monarch as the main figure, they came to be applied to and used by the average person (e.g., Pss. 28; 61; 63).
Why were the distinctly royal psalms preserved after the fall of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE? Monarchy disappeared until the short‐lived triumphs of Simon Maccabee and the Hasmonean rulers (142–63 BCE). The most reasonable answer is that the royal psalms were reinterpreted, always bearing in mind the promise of 2 Samuel 7 (cf. Pss. 89; 132). The temporary awakening of messianism in the time of Zerubbabel (Hag. 2.2–9, 20–23; Zech. 3.8; 4.8–11; 6.11–12), if it met the aspirations of the people, did not receive the approval of the Persian authorities.
The royal psalms are not predictive; in their literal historical meaning they refer to the currently reigning king. Nonetheless, they were perceived as open‐ended in Jewish and Christian tradition, and from that point of view can be considered as messianic in the future sense of that word (see Messiah).
Not all would agree that this classification is proper, and there is a wide variation in determining which of the psalms might come under this rubric. The criteria for the classification remain somewhat vague: typical wisdom language (such as “teach” and “fear of the Lord”); acrostic patterns (e.g., Pss. 34; 37); the contrast between the just and the wicked (Ps. 1); the problem of retribution (Pss. 37; 73); a meditative style (Ps. 90). If the literary genre remains difficult to pin down, perhaps it is better to speak of wisdom influence on such psalms as 1; 32; 34; 37; 49; 73. (See also Wisdom Literature)
In a broad sense, most of the psalms can be considered liturgical, but certain poems capture the spirit of a liturgy more obviously, particularly those in which oracles, questions, and litany response are featured. A liturgical format (question and answer) is conspicuous in the gate or entrance liturgies of Psalms 14 and 23 (cf. Isa. 33.14–16; Mic. 6.8). Prophetic oracles appear in Psalms 50; 75; 85. Psalm 136 is virtually a litany, with the repetition of the enduring “steadfast love” in each verse.
Since the pioneering work of Gunkel, certain refinements in literary classification have been proposed. Sigmund Mowinckel (The Psalms in Israel's Worship [1951; Engl. trans. 1967) were beyond Gunkel's analysis in his emphasis on the liturgical background of the psalter, not merely in its use in the period of the Second Temple but in its origins as well. It seems that most of the psalms were written in the first instance for liturgical performance in the Temple. There is not sufficient evidence for the feast of Yahweh's enthronement, which Mowinckel postulated, and with which he associated about forty psalms. However, the idea of the enthronement of Yahweh certainly dominates many psalms (e.g., 47; 93; 96–99).
Claus Westermann (Praise and Lament in the Psalms [1977; Engl. trans. 1981) proposed to incorporate the traditional thanksgiving psalm into the class of hymns. He regarded such psalms as declarative songs of praise (e.g., Ps. 30), as opposed to descriptive songs of praise (e.g., Ps. 136). Indeed, he regarded the hymn (praise) and lament as the dominant categories of the psalter, and he presented the psalms as a movement from lament to praise.
Walter Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms [1984) has added another dimension to the interpretation of the psalter. While recognizing the traditional literary types established by Gunkel, he placed a new grid on the classification, based upon the categories of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He distinguished between psalms of orientation (all is right with the world; hymns such as Pss. 8; 33; 104), or disorientation (laments such as Pss. 13, 74, 88), and of new orientation (e.g., Pss. 23; 30; 66). These three categories are not univocal, since traces of movement from one stage to another can be found in many psalms. Neither is his approach merely psychological; it helps the reader to see things that may not be seen otherwise, by underscoring the dimension of personal experience.
These prayers illustrate the theology and worship of the Israelites across the six centuries in which they were composed and collected. No other book in the Bible has this kind of origin and orientation. One learns what kind of God Israel worshiped and both the history and the mystery of the covenanted relationship. At the same time, one learns much about the warmth and dynamism of Israel's faith. An important mix of theology and anthropology is the result.
In both Jewish and Christian tradition, the psalter is one of the most treasured books. It is aptly considered a school of prayer, not simply because it contains prayers that can be appropriated for personal use but because it also teaches one to pray. The familiarity and the frankness of the lament, the enthusiasm of the hymn, the confessional character of the thanksgiving—all these characteristics speak to the human heart before God.
Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm