Psalms

The book of Psalms is not a single literary work. It is a collection of around 150 poems. The divisions of the psalms vary slightly across different translations, as it is not always clear where one psalm ends and another begins. (This article gives references to the Psalms as in the English translations.)

In Hebrew the book of Psalms is called tehillim which can be translated ‘praises.’ The English word ‘Psalms’ is derived from the Greek word for the book, psalmoi, which refers to music accompanied by a stringed instrument.

The 150 psalms are arranged into five ‘books’:

  1. Psalms 1–41
  2. Psalms 42–72
  3. Psalms 73–89
  4. Psalms 90–105
  5. Psalms 106–150

Each ‘book’ appears to end with a closing formula, incorporating an exclamation of praise.

Headings were added to the psalms during the process of compilation. Some of these headings may originally have been intended as a sort-of footnote to the psalm before. Headings will often ascribe a particular author or authors to the psalm (e.g., David, the sons of Asaph or the sons of Korah).

Psalm types

There are several ways in which the different types of psalms may be categorised:

Psalms of lament and psalms of praise

Psalms of lament typically feature supplicants praying to YHWH for deliverance from horrendous predicaments and from their enemies. Psalms of praise usually feature supplicants exalting YHWH for having delivered them from such difficult circumstances, or praising him for his mighty acts. Many psalms contain both prayer and lament, generally rapidly switching from one to another. Often, the psalms begin with lament, but are transformed into praise once YHWH has delivered the supplicant (e.g., Psalm 22). Psalms tend to end in praise, with some exceptions (e.g., Psalm 88).

Individual and communal psalms

Psalms of lament and psalms of praise can both be written in two narrative voices:

  • ‘I-voices’ (referred to as ‘individual psalms’ or ‘I-Psalms’) are spoken in the first person singular.
  • ‘We-voices’ (referred to as ‘communal psalms’ or ‘We-psalms’) are spoken in the first person plural.

It is sometimes presumed that psalms in the ‘I-voice’ were personal prayers, whereas psalms in the ‘we-voice’ were said in communal settings. However, it may not be so straightforward as this. For example, in the case of I-voice ‘royal psalms’ (see below) some scholars have suggested that the king speaks not as an individual, but on behalf of society as a whole.

Some psalms can be grouped together as sub-types because they have similar characteristics. For much of the 20th century, it was thought that the psalms in some of the sub-types were all originally used in the same sort of ritual setting, but this is now disputed (see Date and authorship for specific examples). Some sub-types include:

  • Royal psalms: Essentially psalms which mention a king who is thought to be the monarch of Judah, or possibly of Israel. Due to explicit references to the king, Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, and 144:1-11 have generally been described as ‘royal psalms.’ Some scholars, however, have vastly expanded the number of psalms they consider ‘royal,’ including many where the presence of a king is not explicit.
  • Enthronement psalms: Not to be confused with ‘royal psalms,’ these psalms proclaim the cosmic kingship of YHWH, often representing his triumph over the forces of chaos. Psalms 47, 93, 96, 97, 98, and 99 are usually categorised as ‘enthronement psalms.’
  • Psalms about the past: Sometimes referred to as ‘historical psalms,’ these contain extensive information about the nation’s past. However, they do not merely recount history. Rather, they appear to invoke the past in order to address present concerns. These include Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, and 136.
  • Wisdom and Torah psalms:Wisdom psalms’ are so-called because of their affinity to other biblical writings referred to as ‘wisdom literature’ (including Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). ‘Wisdom literature’ is a broad term, subject to a great variety of interpretations. Sometimes, it is summarised as literature containing sayings and admonitions. Lists of ‘wisdom psalms’ vary widely from one another. This is partly due to the difficulty in defining the term. Moreover, the characteristics of ‘wisdom literature’ often define particular portions of psalms rather than psalms as a whole. So, for example, Psalm 1 tends to be referred to as a ‘wisdom psalm,’ whilst Psalm 18:20-27 is identified as a passage of ‘wisdom literature’ in a psalm which mostly does not have the characteristics of ‘wisdom literature.’ ‘Torah psalms’ are a form of ‘wisdom psalms,’ and are concerned with promoting the law of YHWH. These include the longest psalm (Psalm 119).
  • Zion psalms: In which Mount Zion in Jerusalem repels the attacks of enemy invaders (Psalms 46, 48, and 76).
  • Pilgrimage psalms and entrance liturgies: Many scholars and religious communities have understood these psalms to have been recited by pilgrims upon ascending Mount Zion to the Jerusalem temple. The key group in this sub-type are Psalms 120–134, which comprise a large portion of ‘Book 5’ (see Contents). This group is generally known as the ‘Psalms of Ascent.’ The headings of each of these psalms describe them as ‘Songs of Ascent.’ Visiting Jerusalem and its temple was understood as a ‘going up’ or ascent. The so-called ‘entrance liturgies’ are commonly identified as Psalms 15 and 24. In these ‘liturgies,’ requirements of righteousness and purity are recited. Most scholars understand these to reflect rituals recited before entrance to the Jerusalem temple.
  • Messianic, ‘Christological,’ and eschatological psalms: These highly contentious terms were regularly applied to psalms until the beginning of the 20th century. Before this time, many scholars understood the majority of the psalms to predict the coming messiah, or even Jesus Christ himself – hence ‘Christological’ (see Reception history). A minority of scholars still hold that some of the ‘royal psalms’ refer not to the king of Judah or Israel, but to a coming messiah. The term ‘eschatological’—from the Greek eskhatos, ‘last’—refers to texts which point toward the last days. Various scholars have suggested that a great number of individual psalms or groups of psalms are eschatological. In particular, it has often been argued that the ‘enthronement psalms’ refer to YHWH establishing his rule and dominion over the earth in future or end times.

Date and authorship

The Book of Psalms is an anthology of pre-existent material, probably compiled by the 2nd century BCE at the latest.

The headings of each psalm appear to have been added during the process of compilation of the book. This took place a long time after the composition of individual psalms (see Interpretation). The headings may indicate the thematic content of the psalms, and even give some clues as to the original contexts in which they were written, but scholars would generally not attribute authorship of the psalms to the historical figures named in the headings. So, for example, headings to many of the psalms claiming that David wrote them are not to be taken seriously. There is no way of reliably identifying the particular author of any given psalm.

There is almost no agreement as to when the individual psalms were written. The nature of the book of Psalms as a collection of poems written across different times and contexts makes it especially difficult to date individual psalms. Some scholars who argue that many psalms pre-date their collection into the book of Psalms by at least several centuries nonetheless hold that even these psalms were edited over time, and possibly adapted for use in different ritual contexts.
However, scholars have used several techniques in order to try to date the psalms:

By sub-type

Identifying the sub-types of psalms continues to be an important part of Psalms scholarship. This endeavour was especially important through much of the 20th century (see Interpretation), because the vast majority of scholars thought many of the psalms could be dated by the ‘sub-type’ under which they were categorised. This method of dating texts is known as ‘form criticism,’ that is, analysing their literary form, and then deciding on the ritual ‘setting in life’ in which such forms of psalms would be used. A couple of examples of ‘form criticism’ being used to argue for an early date for ‘sub-types’ of psalms are as follows:

  • Among psalms sometimes assigned an early date, the ‘royal psalms’ were thought for most of the 20th century to have been early, having originated from the royal cult at Jerusalem, before the monarchy at Jerusalem formally ended in the early 6th century BCE. Therefore, those scholars, who identified a large number of psalms as ‘royal,’ tended to understand a large portion of the book of Psalms to have been composed before the 6th century BCE. This view still draws support, but other scholars now hold that these psalms are imaginative reconstructions of the rituals or histories of monarchy. Still others argue that even if ‘royal psalms’ date to the time of monarchy, they were substantially edited at later dates. A small number of scholars date at least some of the ‘Royal Psalms’ (see above) to the 2nd century BCE, when the Hasmonean dynasty was imitating the royal dynasty of David. There has tended to be an assumption that any psalms dated to the time of monarchy will have derived from the cult of the royal dynasty in Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Yet certain scholars have suggested that some psalms originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which came to an end in the late 8th century BCE. Similarly, it has sometimes been suggested that many of the psalms ascribed, in their headings, to the sons of Asaph or Korah originated from the Northern Kingdom.
  • Early dates have frequently been claimed for the ‘Zion Psalms.’ Given that these psalms portray Mount Zion as indestructible, it is argued that it would not have made sense for them to have been composed after the capture of Jerusalem in the early 6th century BCE. Nonetheless, it is not clear that the royal dynasty in Jerusalem had, in fact, always withstood invasions. Some scholars, moreover, contend that these are later psalms, which are looking forward to times of peace for Jerusalem as opposed to relating actual experiences of the city.

By comparison with other texts

Some psalms, such as Psalm 18, use language which scholars believed to indicate early forms of Hebrew. Language within psalms such as these bears similarities with language in other biblical texts that scholars have understood to have been written early in the history of the composition of the Old Testament. This may suggest that such psalms may pre-date even the 10th century BCE, in which the Old Testament claims the united kingdom of Israel was founded. However, the development of the classical Hebrew language is a controversial subject. So what language one identifies as ancient is dependent upon how one understands the development of classical Hebrew.

Some scholars contend that a few psalms correspond so closely to texts written before the 10th century BCE that they must originate from the same contexts. These include Psalm 29, and also Psalm 104 which bears similarities with an Egyptian hymn to Aten (‘A Hymn of Akhenaten’) composed in the early 14th century BCE. The methods for establishing these early origins are disputed.

By correspondence with historic events

It has been claimed that some psalms are responses to particular historical events. Sometimes psalms are understood to be referring to events in the past (e.g., Psalm 132). Others are thought to be responding to contemporary events. A number of psalms have therefore been dated to particular battles before the fall of the royal dynasties of Israel and, later, Judah. However, there is rarely agreement as to which particular event should be assigned to any supposed monarchic psalm. So, for instance, the apparent humiliation of the king in Psalm 89:38-51 has been identified variously as a description of the death of Josiah, the exile of Jehoiachin, the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 BCE, or as a more general reflection on Judah’s exile.

Among psalms said to be written by exiles in Babylon in the mid-6th century BCE, Psalm 137 is particularly noteworthy as it describes the experiences of exiles. Even this psalm, however, is now held by some scholars to be a later portrayal of the Babylonian exile, rather than something written by the exiles themselves.

Interpretation

There have been huge changes in the interpretation of the Psalms since the 1970s. Although some opinions on aspects of the Psalms held during the early to mid-20th century are still held today (while some have been rejected), many of the questions scholars ask about the psalms have changed considerably.

From the early to mid-20th century CE, Psalms scholars were heavily concerned with establishing the contexts in which individual psalms (or groups of psalms) were originally composed (see Date and authorship). As a consequence, categorising the types and ‘sub-types’ of psalms became an important area of scholarly debate, because it was held that grouping psalms in this way could often reveal information about the specific ritual context in which they were performed.

Many scholars understood the ‘enthronement psalms’ to have been used at an annual ceremony, during the time of monarchy, in which YHWH’s kingship was affirmed. Due to a prevalent opinion that many of the ‘royal psalms’ were originally recited as part of a ‘New Year Festival’ which involved the king of Judah as a ritual performer, scholars who identified many psalms as ‘royal’ tended to argue that a very large number of psalms originated from this festival.

It began to be debated how far ‘individual’ and ‘communal’ are a helpful way to categorise psalms (see Psalm types). It was argued that some psalms with ‘I-voices’ were not ‘individual’ at all, as they might have been recited by an individual (such as the king) on behalf of the whole community. There were also disagreements as to what exactly was meant by an ‘individual psalm.’ Some suggested that references to enemies in individual psalms were directed against illnesses or demons that afflicted the individual reciting the psalm. Others argued that enemies generally referred to enemies of the nation.

1970s and later

To some extent, discussions about how to ‘type’ or categorise psalms have continued, as have debates as to how they were used in ancient ritual. Nonetheless, other questions have risen to prominence, in the light of other developments in the field of psalms scholarship.

Some scholars now argue that it is simply impossible to reconstruct an original ritual setting for psalms. Moreover, there is now a greater interest in analysing the psalms as literary works, without necessarily paying the same level of attention to their dating, or historical or ritual contexts. It had long been debated how far the Psalms are poetry and how to recognise Hebrew poetry. More philosophical questions have now been asked about poetry in the Psalms—e.g., what is a poem? Or, how is poetry distinguished from prose?

Another significant change of direction in Psalms’ interpretation since the 1970s has been an increased focus on the structure and editing of the book of Psalms as a whole. The focus is less on the origins and editing of individual psalms, than the overarching reasons for their arrangement into the ‘final form’ of the book of Psalms, some time after most of the psalms themselves were written. By focusing on the ‘final form’ of the Psalms as an anthology, many scholars have looked at the messages conveyed by the way in which the book is organised. Some of the many topics they consider include:

  • The messages conveyed by the division of the Psalms into five books, and the order of the psalms. It has been suggested that—book by book—the psalms develop an account of the covenant of YHWH with his people (Book 1), followed by an account of the covenant’s breakdown (Books 2–3), concluding with calls for changed behaviour in order for the people to be restored to Israel (Books 4–5).
  • The beginnings and ends of each book. These include debates as to whether Psalms 1 and 2 are supposed to be read as a unity, and whether both were composed or arranged so as to form an introduction to the book of Psalms as a whole. At the other ‘end’ of the book, there are questions as to how much of the material was composed and arranged in order to form a closing acclamation of praise—is the closing praise comprised of Psalm 150:6, Psalm 150 as a whole, or the collection of Psalms from 146–150? There have also been discussions as to why ‘royal psalms’ tend to be at—or near—the beginnings and ends of the books.

Reception history

The Psalms have a rich and varied reception. They are heavily quoted as messianic prophecy in the New Testament, especially in Hebrews. They have played a major part throughout the ages in the liturgies of most Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Psalms have had a major influence on music from ancient times to the present day, probably to a greater extent than any other biblical book. Among the most famous musical works based on the Psalms are ‘Lift up your Heads, O ye Gates’ in Handel’s Messiah (based on Psalm 24), a large number of hymns based on Psalm 23, and Boney M’s ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ (based on Psalm 137).

Further reading

Anderson, A. A. The Book of Psalms. 2 vols. London: Oliphants, 1972. Repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
Day, John. Psalms. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990.
Gillingham, Susan E. Psalms through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
Gillingham, Susan E. “Studies of the Psalms: Retrospect and Prospect.” ExpTim 119 (2008): 209-16.
Gunkel, Hermann. The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction. FBBS 19. Translated by Thomas M. Horner. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967.
Smith, Kevin Gary, and Bill Domeris. “A Brief History of Psalms Studies.” Conspectus 6 (2008): 97-102.