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Book of Psalms


Author and Date
The Psalter is a collection of collections and represents the final stage in a process that spanned centuries. It was put into its final form by postexilic temple personnel, who completed it probably in the third century b.c. As such, it has often been called the prayer book of the "second" (Zerubbabel's and Herod's) temple and was used in the synagogues as well. But it is more than a treasury of prayers and hymns for liturgical and private use on chosen occasions.
Both the scope of its subject matter and the arrangement of the whole collection strongly suggest that this collection was viewed by its final editors as a book of instruction in the faith and in full-orbed godliness -- thus a guide for the life of faith in accordance with the Law, the Prophets and the canonical wisdom literature. By the first century a.d. it was referred to as the "Book of Psalms" (). At that time Psalms appears also to have been used as a title for the entire section of the Hebrew OT canon more commonly known as the "Writings" (see ).

Many collections preceded this final compilation of the Psalms. In fact, the formation of psalters probably goes back to the early days of the first (Solomon's) temple (or even to the time of David), when the temple liturgy began to take shape. Reference has already been made to "the prayers of David." Additional collections expressly referred to in the present Psalter titles are:

Other evidence points to further compilations. Ps 1-41 (Book I) make frequent use of the divine name Yahweh ("the Lord"), while Ps 42-72 (Book II) make frequent use of Elohim ("God"). The reason for the Elohim collection in distinction from the Yahweh collection remains a matter of speculation. Moreover, Ps 93-100 appear to be a traditional collection (see "The Lord reigns" in ). Other apparent groupings include Ps 111-118 (a series of Hallelujah psalms; see introduction to Ps 113), Ps 138-145 (all of which include "of David" in their titles) and Ps 146-150 (with their frequent "Praise the Lord"; see ). Whether the "Great Hallel" (Ps 146-150 , Ps 120-136) was already a recognized unit is not known.

In its final edition, the Psalter contained 150 psalms. On this the Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the OT) and Hebrew texts agree, though they arrive at this number differently. The Septuagint has an extra psalm at the end (but not numbered separately as Ps 151); it also unites Ps 9-10 (see ) and and divides Ps 116 Ps 147 each into two psalms. Strangely, both the Septuagint and Hebrew texts number Ps 42-43 as two psalms whereas they were evidently originally one (see ).

In its final form the Psalter was divided into five Books (Ps 1-41; Ps 42-72;Ps 73-89; Ps 90-106; Ps 107-150), each of which was provided with a concluding doxology (see ). The first two of these Books, as already noted, were probably preexilic. The division of the remaining psalms into three Books, thus attaining the number five, was possibly in imitation of the five books of Moses (otherwise known simply as the Law). At least one of these divisions (between Ps 106-107) seems arbitrary . In spite of this five-book division, the Psalter was clearly thought of as a whole, with an introduction (Ps 1-2) and a conclusion (Ps 146-150). Notes throughout the Psalms give additional indications of conscious arrangement.

Authorship and Titles

Regarding authorship, opinions are even more divided. The notations themselves are ambiguous since the Hebrew phraseology used, meaning in general "belonging to," can also be taken in the sense of "concerning" or "for the use of" or "dedicated to." The name may refer to the title of a collection of psalms that had been gathered under a certain name (as "Of Asaph" or "Of the Sons of Korah"). To complicate matters, there is evidence within the Psalter that at least some of the psalms were subjected to editorial revision in the course of their transmission.
As for Davidic authorship, there can be little doubt that the Psalter contains psalms composed by that noted singer and musician and that there was at one time a "Davidic" psalter. This, however, may have also included psalms written concerning David, or concerning one of the later Davidic kings, or even psalms written in the manner of those he authored. It is also true that the tradition as to which psalms are "Davidic" remains somewhat indefinite, and some "Davidic" psalms seem clearly to reflect later situations (see, e.g., ; and see and ).
Moreover, "David" is sometimes used elsewhere as a collective for the kings of his dynasty, and this could also be true in the psalm titles.

The word Selah is found in 39 psalms, all but two of which ( , both "Davidic") are in Books I-III. It is also found in a psalm-like poem. Suggestions as to its meaning abound, but honesty must confess ignorance. Most likely, it is a liturgical notation. The common suggestions that it calls for a brief musical interlude or for a brief liturgical response by the congregation are plausible but unproven (the former may be supported by the Septuagint rendering). In some instances its present placement in the Hebrew text is highly questionable.

Theme and Message

  1. At the core of the theology of the Psalter is the conviction that the gravitational center of life (of right human understanding, trust, hope, service, morality, adoration), but also of history and of the whole creation (heaven and earth), is God (Yahweh, "the Lord"; see . He is the Great King over all, the One to whom all things are subject. He created all things and preserves them; they are the robe of glory with which he has clothed himself. Because he ordered them, they have a well-defined and "true" identity (no chaos there). Because he maintains them, they are sustained and kept secure from disruption, confusion or annihilation. Because he alone is the sovereign God, they are governed by one hand and held in the service of one divine purpose. Under God creation is a cosmos -- an orderly and systematic whole. What we distinguish as "nature" and history had for the psalmists one Lord, under whose rule all things worked together. Through the creation the Great King's majestic glory is displayed. He is good (wise, righteous, faithful, amazingly benevolent and merciful -- evoking trust), and he is great (his knowledge, thoughts and works are beyond human comprehension -- evoking reverent awe). By his good and lordly rule he is shown to be the Holy One.
  2. As the Great King by right of creation and enduring absolute sovereignty, he ultimately will not tolerate any worldly power that opposes or denies or ignores him. He will come to rule the nations so that all will be compelled to acknowledge him. This expectation is no doubt the root and broadest scope of the psalmists' long view of the future. Because the Lord is the Great King beyond all challenge, his righteous and peaceable kingdom will come, overwhelming all opposition and purging the creation of all rebellion against his rule -- such will be the ultimate outcome of history.
  3. As the Great King on whom all creatures depend, he opposes the "proud," those who rely on their own resources (and/or the gods they have contrived) to work out their own destiny. These are the ones who ruthlessly wield whatever power they possess to attain worldly wealth, status and security; who are a law to themselves and exploit others as they will. In the Psalter, this kind of "pride" is the root of all evil. Those who embrace it, though they may seem to prosper, will be brought down to death, their final end. The "humble," the "poor and needy," those who acknowledge their dependence on the Lord in all things -- these are the ones in whom God delights. Hence the "fear of the Lord" -- i.e., humble trust in and obedience to the Lord -- is the "beginning" of all wisdom (). Ultimately, those who embrace it will inherit the earth. Not even death can hinder their seeing the face of God.
    The psalmists' hope for the future -- the future of God and his kingdom and he future of the godly -- was firm, though somewhat generalized. None of the psalmists gives expression to a two-age vision of the future (the present evil age giving way to a new age of righteousness and peace on the other side of a great eschatological divide). Such a view began to appear in the intertestamental literature -- a view that had been foreshadowed by Daniel (see especially ) and by Isaiah (see ) -- and it later received full expression in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. But this revelation was only a fuller development consistent with the hopes the psalmists lived by.
  4. Because God is the Great King, he is the ultimate Executor of justice among humans (to avenge oneself is an act of the "proud"). God is the court of appeal when persons are threatened or wronged -- especially when no earthly court that he has established has jurisdiction (as in the case of international conflicts) or is able to judge (as when one is wronged by public slander) or is willing to act (out of fear or corruption). He is the mighty and faithful Defender of the defenseless and the wronged. He knows every deed and the secrets of every heart. There is no escaping his scrutiny. No false testimony will mislead him in judgment. And he hears the pleas brought to him. As the good and faithful Judge, he delivers those who are oppressed or wrongfully attacked and redresses the wrongs committed against them (see ). This is the unwavering conviction that accounts for the psalmists' impatient complaints when they boldly, yet as "poor and needy," cry to him, "Why, O Lord, (have you not yet delivered me)?" "How long, O Lord (before you act)?"
  5. As the Great King over all the earth, the Lord has chosen Israel to be his servant people, his "inheritance" among the nations. He has delivered them by mighty acts out of the hands of the world powers, he has given them a land of their own (territory that he took from other nations to be his own "inheritance" in the earth), and he has united them with himself in covenant as the initial embodiment of his redeemed kingdom. Thus both their destiny and his honor came to be bound up with this relationship. To them he also gave his word of revelation, which testified of him, made specific his promises and proclaimed his will. By God's covenant, Israel was to live among the nations, loyal only to her heavenly King. She was to trust solely in his protection, hope in his promises, live in accordance with his will and worship him exclusively. She was to sing his praises to the whole world -- which in a special sense revealed Israel's anticipatory role in the evangelization of the nations.
  6. As the Great King, Israel's covenant Lord, God chose David to be his royal representative on earth. In this capacity, David was the Lord's "servant" -- i.e., a member of the Great King's administration. The Lord himself anointed him and adopted him as his royal "son" to rule in his name. Through him God made his people secure in the promised land and subdued all the powers that threatened them. What is more, he covenanted to preserve the Davidic dynasty. Henceforth the kingdom of God on earth, while not dependent on the house of David, was linked to it by God's decision and commitment. In its continuity and strength lay Israel's security and hope as she faced a hostile world. And since the Davidic kings were God's royal representatives in the earth, in concept seated at God's right hand (), the scope of their rule was potentially worldwide (see ).
    The Lord's anointed, however, was more than a warrior king. He was to be endowed by God to govern his people with godlike righteousness: to deliver the oppressed, defend the defenseless, suppress the wicked, and thus bless the nation with internal peace and prosperity. He was also an intercessor with God in behalf of the nation, the builder and maintainer of the temple (as God's earthly palace and the nation's house of prayer) and the foremost voice calling the nation to worship the Lord. It is perhaps with a view to these last duties that he is declared to be not only king, but also "priest" (see Ps 110).
  7. As the Great King, Israel's covenant Lord, God (who had chosen David and his dynasty to be his royal representatives) also chose Jerusalem (the City of David) as his own royal city, the earthly seat of his throne. Thus Jerusalem (Zion) became the earthly capital (and symbol) of the kingdom of God. There in his palace (the temple) he sat enthroned among his people. There his people could meet with him to bring their prayers and praise, and to see his power and glory. From there he brought salvation, dispensed blessings and judged the nations. And with him as the city's great Defender, Jerusalem was the secure citadel of the kingdom of God, the hope and joy of God's people.
    God's goodwill and faithfulness toward his people were most strikingly symbolized by his pledged presence among them at his temple in Jerusalem, the "city of the Great King" (). But no manifestation of his benevolence was greater than his readiness to forgive the sins of those who humbly confessed them and whose hearts showed him that their repentance was genuine and that their professions of loyalty to him had integrity. As they anguished over their own sinfulness, the psalmists remembered the ancient testimony of their covenant Lord: I am Yahweh ("the Lord"), "the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (). Only so did they dare to submit to him as his people, to "fear" him (see ).