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Book of Psalms

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The Book of Psalms (in Hebrew called Tehillim meaning “Praises”), commonly referred to simply as Psalms or “the Psalms”, is the first book of the Ketuvim (meaning “Writings”). This is the third section of the Hebrew Bible.

The Book of Psalms

The Psalms is the English title which derives from the Greek psalmoi; meaning “instrumental music”. It also means sacred song or hymn, in particular any of those contained in the biblical Book of Psalms and used in Christian and Jewish worship.

Psalms is all about justice, grave, wisdom, repentance, patience, the mystery of God, suffering, the wrath of God, the grace of God, the work and providence over the world.

Authorship of the Book of Psalms

David has written many of the individual psalms, but he is not the author of the entire collection. The large portions of the Psalms were written by King David before and during his reign over Israel.

Other authors of Psalms include Moses (Psalm 90), Solomon (Psalms 72 and 127), the sons of Korah (Psalms 11; 42; 44-49; 84-85; and 87-88), the sons of Asaph (Psalms 50 and 73-83), and Ethan the Ezrahite (Psalm 89).

Date of the Book of Psalms

A careful examination of the authorship question, as well as the subject matter covered by the psalms themselves, reveals that they cross a period of many centuries.

The oldest psalm in the collection is probably the prayer of Moses (90) and the latest psalm is probably (137); a song of lament clearly written during the days when the Hebrews were being held captive by the Babylonians, from about 586 to 538 B.C.

It’s far clean that the one hundred fifty psalms have been written by many special people beings across a period of a thousand years in Israel’s records.

They must have been compiled and put together in their present form by some unknown editor shortly after the captivity ended about 537 B.C.

Purpose of Writing the Book of Psalms

The Book of Psalms has 150 individual psalms and it is the longest book in the Bible. It is also one of the most diverse; since the psalms deal with such subjects as God and God’s creation, war, worship, wisdom, sin and evil, judgment, justice, and the coming of the Messiah.

The Book of Psalms liturgical literature

Many of the psalms used for the singing and for the musical instruments and in other temple activities. So, it seems reasonable to support that some of the perhaps the majority, and had a cultic origin, that were adopted to liturgical purposes and closely associated with the temple and its service for the public worship.

They all, however, ultimately lead people to worship the true God. They were a part of Israel’s daily life. The Bible records a number of times when the people spontaneously responded to God with a Psalm of praise.

The Book of Psalms as private prayer

Though most of the psalms appear to have had cultic origin; but a number of them are not directly related to the cults.

They used as devotional poetry which had become part of the Israel psalmody. Among them some are (Pss. 1; 112; 127) described as didactic (instructive, informative) in character; while another group designated as “Psalms of Trust” (Pss. 11; 16; 23; 27; 62; 131).

This shows some evidence of adaptation to community usage.  Writing of Psalms is comes from the deep experience of life situations which came out in the form of poetry. Some are more suited for private devotion.

These expressions were also used to enlighten the future generation about the story of their ancestors through which they can live a committed life, God fearing life.

They can connect their ancestor’s situations with the situations of their lives. They can evaluate their lives and to act according to this, they will be ideal models for their future generations.

Superscription

There are Thirty-Four psalms which have superscription (title) they are 1-2; 10; 33; 43; 71; 91; 93-97; 99; 104-107; 111-119; 135-137; 146-150. These psalms are called the orphan psalms which have titles prefix to them.

These titles are not free from obscurity, either describe the character of the poem or furnish some liturgical or musical direction or indicate the author or the source of the psalm, or suggest the circumstances under which the psalms arose.

The Book of Psalms’ Names and Technical Terms

There are 38 names and titles are given in these particular psalms which have very specific meanings to explain that particular psalm.

The Book of Psalms’ Historical Allusions

There are purport to describe the historical circumstances under which the psalms arose. The psalms to which they are prefixed are associated with the name of the David; and the titles undoubtedly reflect a desire to find the occasions for certain psalms in particular incidents in the life of the David.

Origins of the Book of Psalms

The composition of the psalms spans at least five centuries, from Psalms 29, adapted from early Canaanite worship to others which are clearly from the post-Exilic period.

The majority originated in the southern Kingdom of Judah and was associated with the Temple in Jerusalem; where they probably functioned as libretto (the text of an opera or other long vocal work) during the Temple worship.

Exactly how they did this is unclear, although there are indications in some of them: “Bind the festal (relating to or characteristic of a celebration or festival) procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar”.

Classification of Psalms

All commentators have recognized that the psalter comprises psalms of different types. But it is Hermann Gunkel’s distinction that he proposed a classification which has met with a wider acceptance than that of any other modern scholars.    

a) The hymns (8; 19; 29; 33 etc.)

These were intended to praise God and were meant primarily for the choral part of the temple ceremonies.

b) Communal Laments or Lament of the community (44; 74; 79 etc.)

These are arise of the natural calamities, presented the nation’s cause to God; and asked for God’ intervention.

c) Royal Psalms (2; 18; 20 etc.)

This concern with a reigning Hebrew king, and there is no reason for placing them in the second or first century BC, when the Hasmoneans ruled Judea. They must be dated prior to 587 BC, when the Davidic monarchy terminated.

d) Individual Laments (3; 5; 6; 7; 13 etc.)

These are the commonest type in the psalter and are the counterpart of the “Laments of the community”.

Such a psalm is the cry of an individual to God for succor (help) from a variety of trying circumstances. The “I” of the psalms is not individual but the personification of the nation.

e) Individual Songs of Thanksgiving (30; 32; 34 etc.)

These are expression of gratitude to God for mercies received. Most of them appear to be connected with ceremonies in the temple during which the worshiper gives tangible evidence of his/ her thankfulness.

f) Other groups

In addition to these 5 main categories there are other subclasses are available which also called minor types.

  • Enthronement songs.
  • Psalms of confidence.
  • Wisdom poetry.
  • Liturgies.
  • Prophetic liturgies.
  • Mixed poems.

Theological aspect of Psalms

Psalms as addresses to God

The book of Psalms provides the most reliable theological, pastoral and liturgical resource given us in the biblical tradition. In season and out of season, generation after generation, faithful women and men turn to the Psalms as a most helpful resource for conversation with God.

The Psalms are prayers and confession of faith. They arose from ordinary, concrete experiences: both positive and negative. They managed to express a variety of human emotions. The ancient Israelites were not afraid to express anger and rage in their prayers even toward God.

The experience of faith which speaks out of the Psalms is of limitless richness. The Psalmist speaks to God rather than of God. But their piety is formulated in the context of the Israelite religion and cult.

The Psalmist’ interests are centered on God. The main concern always remains the glory of God, not the welfare of the Psalmist. The main interest of the Psalmists are found in the hymns: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise (100:4); “Give to the Lord glory and praise” (29:1); “Give to the Lord the glory due his name” (29:2).

The psalmist’ prime interest for the glory of God is reflected in the motivations put forward in their cry for help: “Why should the nations say, Where is their God?” (79:10) and “Why should the pagans say, Where is their God?” (115:2).

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The answer of the psalmist:

“Our God is in heaven; whatever he will, he does” (115:3). Loyalty to the God of Israel is abundantly illustrated in every psalm that appears. We come across passages in which the recognition of the existence of other gods is outspokenly stated.

They are not to be compared with Yahweh the God of Israel. The psalmist believed in the reality of other gods comes out too clearly in many passages. In psalms 77 it is said: “Who is a great god like our God?

There is none like thee among the gods, Yahweh” (86). In many instances there can be no doubt that, when human emotions are attributed to God. 

Liturgical aspect of Psalms

The Psalms called liturgies which clearly shaped by some liturgical activity. The Psalter is not an order of service. It does not contain rubrics that tell what actions or movements made at specific points.

The Psalter is more like one of our hymnbooks than a minister’s edition of our orders of service. It meant for the congregation and therefore it contains the words to be prayed or spoken by the congregation.

Psalms 15 and Psalms 24:3-6 ascribed to the category of ‘Entrance Liturgies’ or ‘Portal Liturgies’; also known in the Old Testament from Isaiah 33. This is a kind of ‘Catechism’ which set before the pilgrim on his entry to the sanctuary.

Psalms of embodiment, Dis-embodiment and re-embodiment

Psalms of orientation are characterized by a lack of movement. These are Psalms that do not remind worshippers of any problems in the world. They focus on the stability of things as they are.

Among these are psalms of creation, such as Psalms 104; torah Psalms, such as Psalms 1 and 119. Psalms of disorientation are laments either of the individual or of the community. They focus on instability: life is not as it should be and in these psalms the psalmist lament, protest.

Psalms of new orientation include songs of thanksgiving. They mark the occasions of celebration when God has acted to save or liberate.

As for the genre of psalms called “hymns”, in Brueggemann’s categories they could be classified either as psalm of orientation or of new orientation. It is a psalm of orientation whereas if a hymn declares what God has done to liberate or save.

Theological Themes in Psalms

a) God of the Psalmists

Most of the times, the psalmists use the name YHWH to refer to God (Pss. 68:4; 83:18, etc.) which expresses all the mystery and wonder of revelation, the object of all prayer, praise and reflection.

In fact the word YHWH is used more times than Elohim (God). The psalms also address God as YHWH of hosts, especially in the Psalms of Zion (Pss. 24, 46, 84). There is also a mention of God Most High (Ps. 76:2).

An important way in which the psalmists perceived God was in terms of Creator of everything. The maker of heaven and earth (124:8, 134:3) and therefore must be praised in both spheres. It also understands that God is the creator of the things we saw around us and it reveals the glory of God (19:1-4).

God also understood as the one who has fashioned us human beings and God knows our inward parts (139:13-14). Psalms also perceive God as a righteous Judge who will judge with equity and justice (7: 11, 43, 75:7, 82:8, 94, etc.).

Perhaps the central metaphor used for God in Psalms is that of a King. Expressions like “God Reigns,” “The Lord Reigns” occur as part of describing the Kingship of God. Mowinckel sees a liturgical sequence in the six psalms that emphasizes on the kingship of YHWH.

These psalms often referred to as enthronement psalms (47, 93, 96-99). The sequence described is – combat among the gods, victory for YHWH, entrance, and enthronement of YHWH, and establishment of YHWH’s rule for the period of kingship proclaimed.

In this description YHWH is seen as a liberator whose reign will ensure justice and life to all as against the prevailing unjust rule.

b) Human Response to God

Parallel with putting forth ideas of God, Psalms also record the human response that elicits because of who God is and what God has done, is doing and will do. Praise and worship are the forms and key part of human response in the psalms.

The psalms use to praise God both in individual and corporate worship in Israel. Still, it used so in Christian circles. The praise is wholehearted (103:1), often exuberant (98, 148) and reflects on what God had done for the whole world (96), for the nation (48), for individuals (40), or a combination of all (66, 14).

Worship and Praise

Usually, there is a call to worship and praise God and mostly the call is in the imperative like “Praise the Lord” (148, 150) or “Bless the Lord” (103). This imperative followed by the reasons for praise such as God’s mighty acts as reflected in creation and/or in creation (8, 19, 104, 148, etc.).

Hallel and Ascent

The Egyptian Hallel (113-118) and the songs of ascent (120-134) used in the festivals which celebrate the nation’s origin and how God delivered Israel and blessed the people. This reflects their joy in liberation.

Laments and Prayers

Prayers and laments are also part of human response to God in times of trouble. The name of God is invoked, followed by a cry for help (142:2). It followed by a complaint that described in a dramatic way to move God (v. 3); and then a prayer request with the phrases like “Listen to me”, Open your ears, Look, Save me, Answer me, etc.

The psalms also record who the suppliants are, who are usually the sick, the accused, the persecuted, the poor, the oppressed, the righteous ones (5,6,7,13,17,22,31). Whereas a judgment is sought for the wicked who bring distress and oppression.

The individuals and community also give thanks to God especially because the prayer and trust of the suppliant have not been in vain. The request has been granted or at least help is assured.

The assurance may be given by prophet or revelation (8) if it is not so the suppliant’s confidence rests on his/her faith in God. (22, 28). Psalms 9, 30, 32, 34, 41, 65, 67, etc. are examples of thanksgiving psalms.

Faith in God

The psalms also tell us of the faith of the people in God. Even in battered and perplexing times, the believers show their trust in God. For that, they come to God and ask questions. Even if they do not understand why they have problems, they still obey God because of their faith in God.

c) Wisdom and Torah Psalms

Another important theme in the psalms is wisdom and instructions (torah). These psalms offer reflections on the possibilities and problems of life and advice how best to live that life. It gives practical suggestions like there should balance between work and rest (127:2), etc.

Psalm 1 introduces the whole psalter by telling that meditation on the teaching of the Lord is the way to blessed. Psalm 119 talks about the statutes of God and asks people to meditate on it for it is joy and it will give direction for the believer to walk in the proper direction.

Conclusion

The psalms are a collection of poems of the community of believers which as part of liturgy in individual and corporate worship helps people to remember God and God’s acts.

Therefore, also renew hope that there will be liberation from present oppression and provides the luxury to imagine an alternative reality in the present world.