Psalms Introduction

The window into the Old Testament

What was it like to be a member of the OT church? What did they believe? What was their experience of God, personally and corporately? Did their religion make them happy or was it a burden? Were they aliens in another age or our brothers and sisters of long ago? As we look through the window of the Psalms we discover that here indeed is the same God, now disclosed to us in Christ, and here are people of the same nature as ourselves facing the same kind of life as we and finding that their God enhances their joys and bears their burdens.

Their commitment, prayerfulness, zeal, knowledge and delight rebuke our hesitances, unwillingness to pray, and cool responses. But they are our brothers and sisters. Their songs show us that just as in the NT God’s grace prompts obedience to God’s law, so in the OT obedience to God’s law rests on his work of grace. But what a people of song they were! Great leaders like Moses (Ex. 15), Deborah and Barak (Jdg. 5), David (2 Sa. 1) and Hezekiah (Is. 38), ordinary folk like Hannah (1 Sa. 2) and prophets like Habakkuk (Hab. 3) marked their significant moments in song. The Psalms themselves reveal a religion overflowing in song. No wonder that from such people and such a religion this great anthology of psalmody should have emerged!

The Psalms as a book

It may be more appropriate to think of the psalms as a collection of books.

(i) It seems certain that within the Psalter as we have it smaller, once separate, collections have been preserved (e.g. 93–100 [Jerusalem Praise]; 113–118 [A Salvation Cantata]; 120–136 [Pilgrim Praise]; and 146–150 [The Endless Hallelujah]).

(ii) There is evidence too of an earlier anthology which has been absorbed into the Psalter in a more diffuse fashion. Many psalms are inscribed ‘For the director of music’ (e.g. 31, 47, 51–62). Was there then a ‘Master of Temple Music’ who at some point compiled his own hymnbook? If so he was careful of copyright for, apart from Pss. 66, 67, his inscription is always coupled with a personal ascription, ‘To David’/‘To Asaph’, etc. For example, on taking Ps. 88 into his anthology he indicated that ‘This psalm was included in the Korahite Collection and was composed by Heman the Ezrahite.’

(iii) Korah and Asaph were leaders of choirs (1 Ch. 6:31–33, 39ff; 15:16ff; 16:4–7). The ‘Korahite’ collection, with its delight in Mt. Zion, is represented in Pss. 42–49, 84, 87, and the ‘Asaph’ collection, emphasizing both divine judgment and shepherding care, is represented in Pss. 50, 73–83.

(iv) Other individuals appear more sparsely: Jeduthun (39, 62, 77), Ethan (89), Heman (88), cf. 1 Ki. 4:31, and Moses (90). But the majority of the Psalms are ascribed to David (3–32, 34–41, 51–65, 68–70, 101, 103, 108–110, 122, 131, 133, 138, 139, 140–145).

(v) Specialist opinion has usually been sceptical about the value of the psalm-titles. In the days when it was fashionable to date as many psalms as possible in the Maccabaean period (1st century bc) the headings were dismissed as an editorial fancy. More recently there is a greater willingness to allow pre-exilic dating, though opinions differ as to which and how many psalms may belong to the Kings period. It is agreed that the ascription ‘To David’ implies authorship but few follow M. G. Goulder (The Prayers of David: Psalms 51–72, Studies in the Psalter II, [JSOTS 102, Sheffield, 1990]) in taking Davidic authorship seriously. Yet there is no serious reason for not doing so. Certainly the headings have been added editorially to the Psalms (as their use of a third-person form indicates) but already by the time of the lxx (second or third century bc) many of the terms used were no longer understood, and how far back this editorial work goes no one knows for certain. They come to us as part of the Massoretic Hebrew Text (where they are included as verse 1 of the psalm in question) and in the NT, the Lord Jesus, Peter and Paul argue on the basis of their veracity. Against taking the headings seriously, it is urged that the historical notes which link some psalms to the life of David (3, 7, 18, etc.) are editorial guesses inasmuch as there is little or nothing to link the psalm and the occasion. Leaving aside the fact that an ancient editor is unlikely to have acted with crass ineptness, this charge overlooks the nature of the psalms themselves as meditations, not descriptions. In each instance a satisfying case can be made out that either within the incident mentioned or in subsequent reflection David could well have voiced these sentiments.

(vi) Further evidence of editorial hands at work in the Psalms is afforded by what is called ‘the Elohistic Psalter’. In Psalms 42–83, ‘Elohim’ (‘God’) occurs far more frequently than ‘Yahweh’ (‘The Lord’) and it looks as if the noun Elohim has been deliberately substituted for God’s Name. (Cf. Pss. 14 and 53; 40:13–17 and 70.) Presumably this was done before the collection as a whole was assembled. But to us it is one of the many unexplained steps by which the psalmody of the centuries gradually became the Psalter of the Bible.

(vii) The Psalter is sometimes called ‘The Hymnbook of the Second Temple’, referring to the House built by the returned community in 520 bc (cf. Ezr. 5:1, 2; 6:15; Hag. 1:14, 15). Without a doubt such an event could have motivated the creation of a new hymnbook and, agreeing with Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (George Allen and Unwin, 1961), p. 311 that ‘there is no psalm whose plain sense … requires a dating later than the exilic Psalm 137’ all our present psalms would have been available for selection. The collection was probably then given its present division into five ‘books’ by adding doxologies at 41:13; 72:18–20; 89:52 and 106:48. But again we face an unsolved puzzle: was the fivefold division adopted in order to match the five books of the Law with five books of song? It is not certain.

The Psalms in worship

The father of modern specialist psalm-study is Hermann Gunkel, Die Psalmen (Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1926) who set out to relate each psalm to the life-situation from which it emerged. He distinguished certain main categories: (a) Hymns, poems like 8, 19, 29 which dwell on the greatness and attributes of God. Sub-groups here included Enthronement Psalms, celebrating the Lord as King (e.g. 47, 96, 98) and Zion Psalms (e.g. 46, 87); (b) Communal Laments such as 74, 79, 80; (c) Royal Psalms, centring on the king, (e.g. 2, 45, 110); (d) Individual Laments, by far the largest category, (e.g. 3–7, 140–143); a sub-group here were Psalms of Confidence in which assurance was expressed of coming divine deliverance (11, 16, 23); (e) Individual Psalms of Thanksgiving (e.g. 30, 32, 116) following deliverance. In addition to these main groups, smaller categories were discerned: Communal Thanksgiving (e.g. 124), Wisdom (49), Pilgrimage (120–134), and Liturgies (15, 24).

Gunkel’s work was unsatisfactory in that it offered no consistent basis on which one category might be distinguished from another. Sometimes he emphasized form or structure, sometimes content, but at least he rescued psalm-study from arid discussions of date and introduced a living appreciation of what the psalms were attempting to be and do. Where he led others have followed, building on and developing his category-approach but in particular agreeing with him that the chief setting in which the psalms are to be understood is the cult, Israel’s round of temple-worship.

Cultic setting and terms

The Psalms themselves delight in the Lord’s House (84); they see the ‘holy hill’, the ‘tabernacle’ and the ‘altar’ (43) as affording entrance to his presence; they are full of the inward piety that accompanied and gave meaning to outward acts (116:13–19), insisting that the ritual of sacrifice only becomes a ‘sacrifice of righteousness’ (4:5) when it springs from a right attitude.

Much of the material in the headings, mysterious though it remains to us, bore on the way in which a psalm was to be used in public worship. The word ‘psalm’ (4, 55, etc.) indicates musical accompaniment, though it is not clear how this differs from ‘song’. Some difference must have been intended as the use of the two words together (e.g. 30) indicates. ‘Prayer’ (e.g. 17) ‘Praise’ (145) and ‘For teaching’ (60) suggest the function a psalm might serve, rather like subject-divisions in modern hymnbooks.

There are musical directions regarding strings (4), flutes (5), ‘sheminith’ (an eight-string instrument, or an eight part arrangement, 6); notes of tunes to be used: ‘The Death of a Son’ (9); ‘The Doe of the Morning’ (22); ‘Lilies’ (45); ‘A dove on distant oaks’ (56) etc. ‘Gittith’ (8, 81, 84) means ‘wine-press’ and may be a known joyful melody.

There are also words which now defy understanding but which, with varying certainty, can be said to bear on the cultic use of the psalms: ‘shiggaion’ (7, cf. Hab. 3:1); ‘miktam’ (16, 56–60); ‘maskil’ (32, etc.); and ‘selah’ (3:2, 4, 8; etc.) ‘Miktam’ may be related to the verb ‘to cover’ and since enemies figure in the psalms where it occurs, it could recommend the use of these psalms when protection is needed. ‘Maskil’ may mean ‘didactic’ but why these psalms in particular merit this note is not clear. ‘Selah’ occurs internally in the psalms and may have indicated some division of the material, a meditative/musical interlude when the psalm was sung in worship. But both its meaning as a word and its significance as a directive are now unknown.

Since the work of S. Mowinckel (cf. The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, [Blackwell, 1962]) many have believed the Feast of Tabernacles included an annual celebration of the Lord’s kingship. The expression ‘The Lord reigns’ (93:1; 97:1; 99:1; etc.) then should be ‘The Lord has become King’, a cultic cry acclaiming the ritual reassertion of divine kingship over all the earth, ensuring the welfare of his people for the coming year. Certainly at a later date (Zc. 14:16ff) Tabernacles was linked with kingship and prosperity, but for pre-exilic days the evidence is less clear.

When Jeroboam needed to detach his newly separated kingdom from the Lord’s house and the Davidic king, we read that he appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month ‘like the feast that was in Judah’. No feast in the eighth month is known but Tabernacles was on the fifteenth of the seventh month. Was it on this that Jeroboam modelled his feast? If so then Tabernacles too was a festival of kingship. It has to be recognized that the ‘enthronement psalms’ (47, 93, 96–99) are an amalgam of matching themes, not least Kingship and Creation and the Lord’s sovereignty over spiritual forces of disorder, and it makes sense to think of an annual celebration with an ‘Ascension Day’ theme and focus.

On the other hand, the attempt by A. R. Johnson, Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel (University of Wales Press, 1967) and J. H. Eaton, Kingship and the Psalms (SCM, 1976) to derive from some psalms (e.g. 2, 18, 89, 101, 110, 118) a ritual of the annual renewal of earthly/Davidic kingship has not met with widespread acceptance. At its widest this theory identifies many, if not all, psalms of Individual Lament with the king, humbled by his (worldwide) foes and cast on the Lord for deliverance. More specifically psalms like 22 are set within this ritual of humiliation and its denouement in dramatic divine intervention to reinstate the king. Appeal is made to verses like 46:8 (‘Come, see …!’) and 48:9 (translated ‘we have portrayed/dramatized your love within your temple’) to justify thinking in terms of a cultic ritual drama.

Equally, A. Weiser’s theory of an annual ceremony of Covenant Renewal, The Psalms (SCM, 1962) has not found wide support. He contended that the dominant theme at Tabernacles was not the Lord’s enthronment but national renewal of the Covenant. While Weiser found psalm after psalm speaking to this point, it is generally agreed that he allowed enthusiasm to replace realism and that while psalms like 50 and 81 need a ritual setting with a focus on the Commandments and the Sinai events, this is far from establishing the existence of a major annual festival. The seven-year law-reading of Deuteronomy 31:9ff is a sufficient background.

The Psalms as Scripture

As we consider the continuing vitality of the Psalms in today’s church we can but touch on a few topics of importance.

(i) The Lord. One of the remarkable features of the Psalms is that though personal testimony abounds, the clearest impression left is not of people but of God. In this respect the Psalms are the OT in miniature: the Lord is the Creator (8, 104). But this is no abstract concept of how the world began; it is the ground of his present sovereign rule over all things as King (29, 96–99). The righteousness of his rule is predominant (11, 75) but in the great rhapsody of divine Kingship (145) righteousness is only one strand in a threefold cord along with greatness and grace. The goodness of God (34) is inseparable from his holiness (103) and finds its counterpart in his wrath (38). He is universal in his rule (67) and particular in his choice of Israel (87), two aspects of truth which find their unity in the messianic David, king of Israel and of the world (2, 72, 110). Both to his people as a whole (80) and to the individual (23), the Lord is Shepherd, the basis of confidence in looking to him for deliverance (16, 25, 31), recognizing his attentiveness to his people’s needs (e.g. 3, 27). At the same time there is the problem of divine providence, the frequent adversities of God’s people, individual (e.g. 10, 12) and collective (44, 74). It is this frank admission that suffering is ever part of the experience of the Lord’s people that provides a proper perspective for understanding the link between righteousness and prosperity (e.g. 1). This is not a description of experience but a statement of faith (as when we affirm belief in ‘God the Father, Almighty’ in a world which challenges both his fatherliness and his almightiness). Since God is good and there is no other God, the outcome for his people is guaranteed.

(ii) The King. In the portrait of the King in the Psalms we have either the most blatant, unrealistic flattery of the successive kings of David’s line, or else the expression of a great ideal, a mirror of the truth held up before each king in turn, awaiting the One in whom all will be fulfilled. The King meets world-opposition (2:1–3; 110:1) but, as Victor (45:3–5; 89:22f) and by the Lord’s activity (2:6, 8; 18:46–50; 21:1–13; 110:1f), he establishes world-rule (2:8–12; 18:43–45; 45:17; 72:8–11; 89:25; 110:5ff), based on Zion (2:6) and marked by morality (45:4, 6; 72:2–4, 7; 101). His rule is everlasting (21:4; 45:6; 72:5); prosperous (72:7, 16) and undeviating in reverence for the Lord (72:18–19). Pre-eminent in gifts, graces and dignity (45:2–7), he is also friend of the poor and enemy of oppression (72:2, 4, 12–14); under him the righteous flourish (72:7). He is remembered for ever (45:17); possesses an everlasting name (72:17), and is the object of unending thanks (72:15). In relation to the Lord he is recipient of everlasting blessing (45:2). He is heir of David’s covenant (89:28–37, 132:11f), and of Melchizedek’s priesthood (110:4). He belongs to the Lord (89:18) and is devoted to him (21:7; 63:1–8, 11). He is his son (2:7; 89:27), seated at his right hand (110:1) and is himself divine (45:6).

The commentary should be consulted on the references listed above, but the exalted dimensions of the picture are clear. While much of the portrait can be traced in principle to Nathan’s foundational oracle in 2 Sa. 7, the steps by which those hopes became the expectation of a perfect, righteous, human, divine, everlasting and universal king cannot be traced. The older view is needless that it was only when the monarchy ceased with the Babylonian exile and showed no signs of recovery that such hopes developed. The failure of monarchy goes back to David himself! The bright hopes implied in Jdg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25 had not been fulfilled; the historian in Kings might swing his spotlight on the constitutional, dynastic, covenant monarchy of Judah or on the charismatic ‘do-it-yourself’ monarchy of Israel, but the longed-for king was not to be found. This failure was the seedbed of one of the OT’s greatest expectations.

(iii) Imprecations. The vigour with which enemies were denounced within the Psalms has ever been a source of difficulty. Has the desire for the sudden destruction of foes (35:8), their death (55:15), the breaking of their teeth (58:6), the destitution (109:10) and massacre of their children (137:9) anything in common with the mind of Christ? There are about 25 psalms which contain such passages and commentators have been quick to dismiss them as ‘Old Testament morality’, condemned and outmoded by the revelation of God in Christ. There are three reasons why this is unsatisfactory: (i) Similar sentiments are expressed in the NT (Gal. 1:8, 9; Rev. 6:10; 18:20; 19:1–3) and by the Lord Jesus (Mt. 11:20–23; 23:13–36). If there is a problem, it is biblical not OT; (ii) The OT like the NT urges love (Lv. 19:17–18), God’s hatred of violence (Ps. 5:6), the duty of returning good for evil (Pss. 7:3–5; 35:12–14) and the rejection of vengeance (Dt. 32:35; Pr. 20:22); (iii) In almost every case the imprecation which we find objectionable sits alongside a spirituality we would envy, e.g. Psalm 139. One commentator who classes the imprecations in general as ‘the very opposite of the spirit of the Gospel’ finds, in 139:19–22, ‘the duty of keeping alive in the human heart … burning indignation against … evil’ (Kirkpatrick, The Psalms [Cambridge, 1910])—simply because it is impossible to impute a low spirituality to the author of vs 1–18.

More positively, we note that they are all prayers (except 137:9, see Commentary). There is no suggestion that the psalmists planned vengeful action, nor even that they entertained vengeful thoughts. Their reaction to hurt was to commit the matter to the Lord and leave it there. As J. R. W. Stott remarks (The Canticles and Selected Psalms [Hodder & Stoughton, 1966], pp. 11ff.), ‘I do not find it hard to imagine situations in which holy men of God do and should … cry to God for vengeance … and that without any feelings of personal animosity.’ Living as we do in a savage age when personal vengeance is an assumed right, and communal problems, real and fancied, ‘justify’ violence, terror, bombing and torture, we ought at least to be prepared to say that even if we deplore their prayers their approach was preferable to ours. But there is no need so to judge: their prayers shock us because of their realism. We would find ourselves at home with 143:11 but hesitate over its realistic corollary (12) just as we pray with a glad heart for the second coming of the Lord Jesus (2 Thes. 1:7), but would hesitate to frame our prayer in terms of the scriptural realities of that event, by asking for flaming fire to consume those who do not obey the gospel (2 Thes. 1:8). If we were holier—and certainly if we were less comfortable and knew more of the persecutor’s power—we would more readily identify than condemn.

The following commentary has attempted to major on the structure of each Psalm as the key to its meaning. It is seriously suggested to every psalm-student (indeed to every Bible student) that ‘the medium is the message’ and that the first objective in study should be to discover and clarify structure. See the article, Poetry in the Bible.

Further reading

J. Day, Psalms (Sheffield Academic Press, 1990).

K. Seybold, Introducing the Psalms, (T and T Clark, 1990).

F. D. Kidner, Psalms, 2 vols, TOTC (IVP, 1975).

A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, CBSC (Cambridge, 1910).

W. A. VanGemeren, Psalms, EBC (Zondervan, 1991).

P. C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, WBC (Word, 1983).

M. Tate, Psalms 51–100 WBC (Word, 1991).

L. C. Allen, Psalms 101–150, WBC (Word, 1983).

OT Old Testament

NT New Testament

cf. compare

JSOTS Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (supplement)

lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)

TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary

EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Sal 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.