Introduction to the Book of the Psalms
Table of Contents
- General Info
- Brief Survey and Composition
- Song Titles
- Key Chapters and Verses
- Author, Date and Recipients
- Historical Background & Timeline
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
The book of the Psalms is somewhat unique in that it is basically a hymn book of various types of Hebrew songs and hymns that spans almost all of Jewish Old Testament (OT) history. In addition, it continued to be used in New Testament (NT) period. Its importance is further verified by the frequent quotes by the NT writers/ Indeed, the NT contains more quotes from the Psalms than from any other OT book. Jesus not only quoted from it, but also fulfilled many of the book’s predictions. Many of the psalms contain the title, “for the choir director”, indicating that these songs were used in worship services in the Temple. In addition, , the singing of psalms was already a part of worship services in the first century church (1Cor 14:26, Col 3:16, Eph 5:19). Finally, many of the classic hymns that we sing today come from the Psalms. Even today, the book of Psalms continues to be a source of some of our best-loved Bible passages. It is the ultimate collection of 150 poems/hymns/songs that express a wide variety of emotions, including: love and adoration toward God, sorrow over sin, dependence on God in desperate circumstances, thankfulness for God’s care, devotion to the word of God, and confidence in the eventual triumph of God’s purposes for the world. It is truly written for both the heart and minds of all believers.
The Hebrew title of the book of Psalms is Tehillim, literally “praises.” At first glance, this title appears somewhat surprising, since the book contains a large number of laments. Upon closer examination, we find that almost all the laments end with an expression of confidence that the sovereign Lord will deliver His chosen messenger and His people, so even the laments are a song of praise. We get the English title from the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation from the Hebrew Bible in the intertestamental period, which titled the book Psalmoi, meaning “songs to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument” or simply “songs of praise”. The LXX Greek word Psalmoi was translated from the Hebrew word mizmor (“song”) that occurs in the titles of over 50 of the psalms as the title. The English translators transliterated the Greek Psalmoi, resulting in the title “Psalms” in our English Bibles today.
Regarding placement in our modern Christian Bible canons, Psalms is the second book in the Books of Poetry section (following Job and preceding Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Songs). This section follows the Books of the Law (Genesis – Deuteronomy) and Historical Books (Joshua – Esther), and precedes the Books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi). In the Hebrew Bible, Psalms and the four other poetic books are located in the third and last section known as the Writings (or Hagiographa), along with Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
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Brief Survey and Composition
The Book of the Psalms is somewhat unique amongst the other books of the Bible Canon in that each chapter can stand on its own as a separate writing. It also had multiple divinely inspired human authors whose writings spanned about one thousand years, from Moses to after the returned exiles. Yet, the One True God that inspired each individual chapter, also directed the final makeup of the whole. The song placed as Psalm 1 contains a portrayal of an ideal godly person who obediently follows the Lord’s instructions, while the second psalm characterizes the Anointed Messiah as the ultimate King of Israel, Who the worldly leaders rage and plot against in vain. This sets the tone for the remainder of the psalms, that Jesus is the true king by whom our redemption and peace is secured. The compilers then then added the other 148 psalms and divided them into five collections or “books” (see the “Outline” section at the bottom of this page). The last psalm of each of the first four books ends with a doxology. In the fifth book, the entire last chapter (Psalm 150) is a doxology.
Book One (Psalms 1-41) consists of psalms almost wholly believed to be attributed to King David. Many involve prayers of distress followed by affirmations of confidence in God and His sovereignty. Book Two (Psalms 42-72) continue with additional psalms of David, but also contain psalms written by contemporaries of David such as Asaph (David’s director of music), and the sons of Korah (minsters of the Tabernacle and Temple during the reign of David and his son Solomon). Subjects are similar to those in Book 1, however while most psalms in the first book were individual requests, some psalms in book 2 take on a corporate or communal tone of worship as well as an individual voice. The final psalm 72 was written by Solomon himself. Interestingly, the final verse of Psalm 72 reads, “This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse” (Ps 72:20). I say this because the final comment was left in place even after Books Three, Four and Five, that contained additional psalms of David, were added into the canon. Book Three (Psalms 73-89) were mostly written during and shortly after the reigns of David and Solomon, and were composed almost exclusively by Levites (Asaph and Korah were Levites), except Psalm 86 (by David). This book contains songs of thanksgiving and praise, but as a whole, takes on a darker and more desperate tone by the authors, culminating with the Psalmist wrestling with his faith in Psalm 88, and mourning over the fall of David’s dynasty in Psalm 89.
When we get to Book 4 (Psalms 90-106), we have moved ahead a few centuries to the time after the Israelite’s return from the Babylonian exile. Thus, as one would suspect, most of these Psalms contend with various issues raised during the time that the Jewish people were banished in Babylon. Topics in this book include the importance of growing in godliness (Pss 91-92), and portrays God as the one true sovereign ruler over all His creation (Pss 93-100). Even with the people’s disobedience, He is still faithful (Pss 104-106). The human authors of this book are anonymous. Finally, Book 5 (Psalms 107-150) includes an assortment of collected hymns such as praise hymns (PSS 111-118), the Torah psalm (Ps 119) other psalms of David, and ends with five concluding hymns (Pss 146-150). Although this final book contains many of the concerns in the previous books, it looks forward to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises.
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Reading through the Psalms, we notice that the vast majority contain some notes at the head or beginning. These notes, typically referred to as “Song Titles” may give the name of the author, some historical context, instruction to the music leader, or other info. Because they are typically printed in a different type font or size in modern English Bible versions, this often gives the typical reader the impression that these notes are of secondary importance to the rest of the text. In our online bible of the Psalms, we include the note that “Psalm titles are found in the oldest surviving manuscripts and should be considered canonical, but may or may not have been a part of the original Hebrew autographs”. That said, we believe that if they were not a part of the original autographs, they were almost certainly a part of early tradition.
While the modern English translations set the titles apart from the remaining text, the titles appear as verse one of the standard Hebrew Bible text, so that the verse numbers in the Hebrew text is out of step with those in the modern English versions. So the Hebrew compilers considered the titles as part of the inspired text. We also have other books in the English Bibles that consider the titles to be inspired. For example, Habakkuk’s prayer in Habakkuk 3:1-16 begins with “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth” as verse 1. Habakkuk’s use of the third person also refutes the argument of some critics that third person references to David in the Psalm song titles meant someone else had to be the author. Actually, it is quite common for biblical writers to refer to themselves in the third person.
In addition, the NT writers considered these titles to be inspired. For example, Psalm 110 has the title, “A Psalm of David”, Jesus himself based an argument on David being the author when He used a direct quote in Mark 12:35-37. Others citing David’s authorship of this Psalm included the Apostles Peter (Ac 2:29-34) and Paul (Ac 13:35-37). We also find some of the song titles utilized by other inspired authors of Scripture, such as by Samuel (see 2Sam 22:1 vs Ps 18), and by Isaiah to introduce a writing of King Hezekiah of Judah (Is 38:9).
With regard to the “Historical Titles”, some critics argue that some of these were added much later due to disparities between the title and the actual content of the psalm. For example, the first historical title is found in Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, When He fled from Absalom His Son”. Yet the psalm itself doesn’t mention Absalom. This is easily explained as the psalmist typically understood that he was writing for a larger audience that went beyond the local event. Thus he was careful to avoid specifics that would limit the song’s use in public worship. In the case of Psalm 3 and other similar historical psalms, we believe the lack of historical data is actually evidence for an earlier date. A later author of the title would not have included the reference to Absalom, but would title it based on its content alone. Only David or a close contemporary would have the knowledge of its historical context. In addition, some of the technical terms used in the titles (most thought to be musical terms) were no longer in use by the time the individual psalms were arranged in their final order after the return from exile. In fact, we are still not totally sure of their precise meaning today. Thus the English translators merely transliterated the terms into English letters rather than attempting an actual translation. This fact also argues for an early date for these titles.
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Key Chapters and Verses
It has been said that, most lists of favorites and most popular items speaks more about the author than the actual subject. That said, I've tried to include examples of most popular as well as some personal favorites. It would certainly be impossible to include all of the popular chapter and verses in this allotted space, but we’ll do our best.
Psalms 1 (Contrast between the righteous and wicked) - Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. (1:1-2)
Psalms 2 (Coming of the Lord’s Anointed) - I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father”. (2:7)
Psalms 8 (God and mankind) - Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens... What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them d a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” (8:1,5-6)
Psalms 14 & 53 (The Godless fool) - The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. (14:1)
Psalms 15 (The Righteous - contrast to Psalm 14 ) - Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart... (15:1-2)
Psalms 19 (Creation and the Law) - The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge... The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. (19:1-2,7)
Psalms 22 (Psalm of the Cross) - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? ...Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment... Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (22:1,16-18,30-31)
Psalms 23 (The Divine Shepherd) - The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (23:1-4, ESV)
Psalms 24 (The King of Glory) - The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god... Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty — he is the King of glory. (24:1-4,10)
Psalms 27 (Trust in the Lord - No Fear) - The Lord is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear? ... One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life... (27:1,4)
Psalms 37 (Fate of the Wicked) - The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. (37:12-13)
Psalms 42 (Hope in God) - As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God... Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (42:1,5)
Psalms 46 (God, Our Refuge and Strength) - God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. (45:1-2)
Psalms 51 (David’s Confession) - Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (51:10-12)
Psalms 62 (Waiting Confidently for God) - Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. (62:1-2)
Psalms 66 (Praise for what God has Done) - Shout for joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you. All the earth bows down to you; they sing praise to you, they sing the praises of your name.” (66:1-4)
Psalms 84 (Dwelling with God) - How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! ... Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. (84:1,10)
Psalms 90 (A Prayer of Moses) - Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (90:1-2)
Psalms 100 (Song of Thanksgiving) - Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs... Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations. (100:1-2,4-5)
Psalms 104 (Song of Creation) - Praise the Lord, my soul. Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (104:1-5)
Psalms 106 (God’s Faithfulness to Israel) - Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; His love endures forever... Save us, Lord our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise. Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord. (106:1,47-48)
Psalms 110 (The Coming of the Messiah as Prophet, Priest and King - Most quoted Psalm by the New Testament Authors) - The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”. (110:1)
Psalms 119 (The Ultimate Acrostic Psalm Magnifying the Word of God) - Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord... I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you... Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (119:1,11,89-90,105)
Psalms 121 (God, Our Help and Protector) - I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth... The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (121:1-2,7-8)
Psalms 127 (The Blessing of Children) - Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain... Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him... Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them... (127:1,3,5)
Psalms 139 (Omnipresence of the Lord) - You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways... Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (139:1-3,23-24)
Psalms 148 (Let all the Creation Praise the Lord) - Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. (148:1-4)
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Author and Date
As with all other books of the Bible, the divine author is none other than God Himself. That said, we can identify the divinely inspired human authors by the opening notes (song titles) in approximately 100 of the 150 psalms. David, who reigned for forty years as the King of the united Monarchy of Israel, wrote at least half of the Psalms. We can also identify Levites who were organized by David to serve in worship in the Tabernacle (1Chr 25), and some went on to serve in the Temple once it was completed under King Solomon, son of David. Of these, Asaph (David’s chief worship leader) wrote 12 Psalms (50, 73–83) and the sons of Korah composed 10 (42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87). Also associated with David was Heman the Ezrahite who wrote Psalm 88, on of the darkest laments, and Ethan the Ezrahite who wrote Psalm 89. Moses wrote the earliest Psalm (90) and the other Psalms remain anonymous, although the prophet Ezra is thought to have composed some of the post-exilic Psalms.
Of the psalms with a title (see “Psalm Titles”
above), the majority of the titles identify a person. It is commonly
thought that this identifies the author. Yet, the authorship of David
is often challenged by some critics. The Hebrew transliteration of the
title translated “of David” is “ledawid”. The Hebrew preposition
“le” before a name is usually translated “of”,
but can also mean “for”, “dedicated to”, “concerning”, “to”, or “by”. So,
ledawid, critics argue, could be interpreted as “for David”, “dedicated to
David”, “concerning David”, or “by David”. The divinely inspired New
Testament authors however, attributed several of the Psalms to David.
For example, Psalm 2 is attributed to David in Acts 4:25. Psalm 95
is attributed to David in Hebrews 4:7. The Bible refers to David as
the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2Sam 23:1) and notes that he like to play
instruments (Am 6:5), even chasing away an evil spirit from King Saul by
playing a harp (1Sam 16:14-23). Even Jesus Himself recognized Paul as
the author of Psalm 110 (the most quoted Psalm by the NT authors) in Mk
12:35-37. These are only a sampling of the number of NT citings of
David as the author of certain Psalms. Finally, although the Psalms
were written over an approximate one thousand year period of time, the vast
majority were written during the lifespans of David and his son Solomon.
See the “Timeline” Chart below for dates.
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Historical Background and Timeline
Unlike the Historical Books of the OT (Joshua thru Esther), the Wisdom books that include the Psalms do not place a great emphasis on their historical backgrounds. Although the Book of the Psalms are rooted in history, the authors mostly de-emphasize the various historical events. The various authors were not trying to void or devalue history, since Christianity is the only religion that is firmly entrenched the One True God’s revelation to us within history while all other religions are based on someone’s philosophy and teachings. The Psalmists instead minimized exact historical events so that their writings could be relevant, understood and followed regardless of the era in which they were read. This may be why, of the five “Historical Psalms” that reflects on their own history of Israel, none of the five have any historical info in their song titles. These psalms (Pss 78, 105, 106, 135, 136) include events such as creation, the exodus, the conquest and exile, but the emphasis instead is on salvific history, how the nation relates to God in these events. In addition, the historical information found in the title of fourteen psalms (Pss 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) may provide some information regarding its author and origin, but often provides minimal aid in its interpretation.
See the Historical Background and Timeline of the Wisdom Books for Additional Info.
|~ 1446-1407 BC
|Israelites wander in the desert and camp at Plains of Moab; Possible location of Moses composing the Books of the Law and Psalm 90
|~ 1406 BC (1)
|Death of Moses
|~ 1020 - ~974 BC
|King David writes his approximately 75 Psalms
|~ 1011 - ~971 BC
|Asaph (David’s worship leader) wrote 12 songs; the Sons of Korah wrote their 11 Psalms plus Psalm 88 with Heman
|Solomon writes Psalms 72 and 127
|Ethan the Ezralite wrote Psalm 89 during the reign of Solomon
|Division of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms
|Isaiah Prophet of Israel
|Hezekiah King of Judah compiled a few Proverbs written during Solomon’s reign
|Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians
|The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
|Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Population, Judean King Jehoiachin Imprisoned
|Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
|First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel
|Rebuilding of the Temple Completed
|Last of the post-exilic Psalms written (anonymous)
|Writing of the Last Books of OT - Possibly assembled by Ezra
(1) The date of Moses’ death is based upon 1 Kings 6:1, which records that Solomon began to build the temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt. Extra-biblical records indicate that the temple building began about 966 BC, placing the exodus about 1446BC, and the death of Moses 40 years later, or about 1406 BC. Many scholars believe that the “480 years” is symbolic, placing the exodus in the early 1200s BC. Most conservatives (including ourselves) favor the earlier date.
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
In the Book of Psalms, the inspired human authors recorded praises, petitions, laments and other requests in song to the sovereign and loving God of all creation. Thus it in effect, the Psalms functioned as a hymnbook for God’s chosen people. Thus, this initial purpose was to aid the people in expressing themselves to God. Yet, the authors also wrote is such as way it is useful for all peoples in all eras. We thus find that many of our best beloved hymns that we sing today are based on the Psalms. Whatever we may be experiencing, there is probably a psalm that speaks to that situation in life. The Psalms certainly contain excellent doctrine, but their primary purpose is still the same today, to help us express a vast range of feelings to God.
The themes within the Psalms are almost as far-reaching as the entire OT itself. Martin Luther often referred to the Psalms as a “mini bible” and saw it as a summary of the OT. The writers of the Psalms weave the various doctrines into their songs. One of the most common to the Psalms is that God, is the One True Creator God, sovereign all-powerful ruler overall all, all-knowing, eternal, perfectly just, pure and holy, all wise, morally good, loving, and faithful. God’s creation was good, but man’s fall in the garden would require God’s grace and mercy for healing. Through His covenants, God made a way for man to be forgiven by choosing a people (Israel) for Himself to reflect His glory to themselves and the Gentiles. The Psalms also anticipate the coming of the Messiah (Jesus, the ultimate heir of David), who would provide this salvation to all people who would believe. Finally, the psalmists also address the time of a glorious future for all believers that will stretch into eternity.
Since the Psalms were written and formed from time of Moses to after the return from exile (the same period of time for the writing of the entire OT), it is no surprise that the theology in Psalms is as vast as that of the OT itself. We've already mentioned most of the main theological aspects in the previous paragraph, so we’ll briefly reprise them here. The Book of Psalms provides us with one of the most comprehensive pictures of God. We see him as Creator, King, Redeemer, and Sovereign Lord, among others. We also see His attributes such as His love, power, wisdom, eternality, faithfulness, holiness, goodness, immutability, goodness, justice and mercy, and many more. The late great theologian, RC Sproul stated that “the book of Psalms gives us one of the most complete and comprehensive revelations of the character of God in the entire Bible. If we want to know who God is, what He has done, and how we should respond to Him, the book of Psalms is one of the best places to start”. There are also many mentions of the Holy Spirit at work (Ps 51:11-12, 104:30, 143:10).
The Psalms also have much to say about man, that man was made to praise God, and would achieve their highest potential only in relation with God. The book depicts many failures by man attempting to navigate this world without God, yet also describes the glory of humanity and his dominion as created and blessed by God (Ps 8). The Psalms is consistent with the NT teachings about salvation as Psalm 32:1-2 is quoted by Paul in Romans 4:7-8 to show that justification by faith alone is consistent between the Old and New Testament. Paul then goes on to show that Abraham was also saved by faith alone in Romans 4:9-12, and so were/are all other believers (Rm 4:13-25).
Christ is also prominent in the Psalms. Psalms 110 (the most quoted Psalms by the NT authors) anticipates the coming of the Christ (Messiah) as Prophet, Priest and King. Both of His advents are predicted in multiple psalms, for example Psalms 22 describes his suffering on the cross, Psalm 16:10 predicts His resurrection, and Psalms 2 looks forward to the consummation of His kingdom.
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
As we noted above, Martin Luther often referred to the Psalms as a “mini bible” and saw it as a summary of the OT. Thus most of the typical rules for Bible interpretation apply to the Psalms. See our Principles and Methods for Understanding the Bible for more information. We've already covered some of the principles previously on this page, but we’ll attempt a brief summary with additional points here.
We noted above in the “Song Titles” chapter above that these title are almost certainly a part of the original inspired text, so these help to provide context. Since the vast majority of the Psalms were written during the time of David and Solomon, we would typically consult the historical background from the books of Samuel and the Kings. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the psalm title have historical data, and this data is typically minimized to make the content more useable to audiences of other eras. Therefore, we return to the number one rule of interpreting everything in context. God not only inspired the original authors, but also those who were compiling the individual psalms into the whole collection. The final combined book is not a random collection, or even in chronological order, but a collection that was purposely arranged. Thus we should interpret the individuals in the context of the surrounding psalms, and the smaller groups as part of the entire collection.
Next, don’t get hung up on the antique musical terms that are included. There were an aid to worship leaders during a certain era, but are not applicable today. Instead, remember the purpose of the Psalms for all generations, to help us call on and worship God.
We also find many psalms located in other books of the Bibles. For example, the first is in Exodus 15, in which Moses and the Israelites sang a song of gratitude to the Lord for destroying Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea crossing at the outset of the exodus. In 1st Samuel 2, Hannah offered a psalm of prayer to God for giving her a child and fulfilling her vow that she would dedicate him (Samuel) to the priesthood. In 2 Samuel 22, David sang to the Lord after He delivered him from Saul and other enemies. In Isaiah 38, we find a written song of thankful prayer for God delivering King Hezekiah and added fifteen years to his life. In Jonah 2, the prophet offered a psalm of distress from inside the great fish. We could also mention the psalm of prayer and praise in Habakkuk 3, and this practice continued into the New Testament with Mary’s song in Luke 1 after the angel’s visit in Luke 1. Thus, we see that the writing of psalms often were of a spontaneous nature and part of ordinary life for the Israelites.
In interpreting the Psalms, we must also recognize the literary genre. The psalms should not be read as a historical narrative, or carefully reasoned prose. Instead the Psalms use dramatic hyperbole and other figurative language to adequately express the author’s feelings and emotions. We should also note and the type of Psalms, which typically will reveal its purpose and other features. We should also understand the many differences between Hebrew Poetry used in the Psalms versus our modern English poetry. Please see also Literary Genre of the Psalms for additional genre information and a description of the some of the most popular types of the Psalms.
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Even though the Book of Psalms is one book of the Bible, it contains five “books in one”. These five books are actually divisions or collections, each reflecting a separate period of assembly into the whole., since the psalms were written over a period of about a thousand years. As we noted in our “Brief Survey and Composition” chapter above, Book 1 consists primarily of individual laments primarily by King David. Book 2 is similar but contains songs by the “Sons of Korah”, Levites involved in corporate worship. Book 3 is written almost exclusively by Asaph and other Levites, and takes on a more national focus. Book 4 is added after the exile, and contains songs mostly by anonymous authors. Book 5 contained a large number of praise psalms and was roughly split between compositions of David and of anonymous authors.
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