Book Summaries

A collection of sacred hymns appearing in the Hebrew canon as the 1st book in the 3rd section known as the Kethubim, or Writings, which includes the books that appear in the English canon from 1 Chr. through Song, with Ruth, Lam, and Dan. In view of the fact that Ps was the first, longest, and most important book in this section, the Jewish people occasionally spoke of the entire section as "Psalms" (see Lk 24:44). In Hebrew the book is called Tehillim, "praises," from hallal, "to praise"; in Greek it is called Psalmoi, "songs of praise," or "psalms," a translation of the plural of the Heb. mizmor, "a song with instrumental accompaniment," from zamar, "to sing with instrumental accompaniment," or simply "to sing" or "to praise." From early times the book has been divided into 5 sections, Book One (Ps 1 ­41), Book Two (Ps 42 ­72), Book Three (Ps 73 ­89), Book Four (Ps 90 ­106), and Book Five (Ps 107 ­150). Altogether 8 persons--David, Asaph, Korah, Moses, Heman, Ethan, Solomon, and Jeduthum--are mentioned in the superscriptions to the various psalms as authors, compilers, or musicians. The Hebrew preposition le, which precedes these names in the superscriptions, may mean variously "to," "for," "of," "from," etc. In view of the variety of relationships expressed by this Hebrew preposition, it is not always possible to determine whether the person whose name follows is thereby designated as the author, the collector and arranger, the musician for whom it was written, or the one to whom a song was dedicated. These superscriptions or titles appear in the oldest Hebrew texts known. That they were already old at the time the LXX translation was made about the 2nd or 3rd cent. b.c. is evident from the fact that the translators obviously did not understand a number of the technical musical terms in the superscriptions. Modern critics, who question whether David wrote any of the psalms, challenge the authenticity of these superscriptions. However, because of their great antiquity, because they are included in the oldest extant Hebrew manuscripts, because the oldest known Hebrew lyrics had such superscriptions, and because certain of the superscriptions explain the meaning or historical background of the Psalms, conservative readers of the bible find no reason for rejecting them. Irrespective of the fact that the expression "of David" may mean either that David wrote the psalm or that it belonged to a collection of psalms arranged by David, the Scriptures clearly represent David as a poet and musician in his own right (1 Sa 16:15 ­23; 2 Sa 23:1 ­7; Amos 6:5). He was a man of great faith and deep emotions, which often found expression in poetry and song (2 Sa 1:19 ­27; 3:33, 34). His intimate acquaintance with nature and "the Law"--the creative and revealed expressions of the divine will--his years of adversity, and his personal devotion to God all qualified him to be the "sweet psalmist of Israel." Furthermore, references and allusions to numerous experiences in his life occur in the psalms and in their superscriptions. The fact that Ps 18 and 105 are repeated in the historical narrative of David (see 2 Sa 22 and 1 Chr. 16:7 ­36, respectively), and are there attributed to him, confirms his authorship of these 2 psalms and implies that he doubtless wrote others. Jesus and various NT writers use David's name when referring to the Psalms (see Mt 22:43 ­45; Mk 12:36, 37; Lk 20:42 ­44; Acts 2:14, 25; Rom 4:6 ­8; 11:9, 10; Heb 4:7). The phrase "of David" occurs in the superscription of 73 psalms--37 times (Ps 3 ­9; 11 ­32; 34 ­41) in Book One, 18 (Ps 51 ­65 and 68 ­70) in Book Two, 1 (Ps 86) in Book Three, 2 (Ps 101; 103) in Book Four, and 15 (Ps 108 ­110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138 ­145) in Book Five. The LXX lacks the notation of Davidic authorship in the superscriptions of Ps 122 and 124, but adds it to those of Ps 33, 43, 67, 71, 91, 93 ­99, 104, 137. The phrase "of Asaph" appears in the superscription of 12 psalms (Ps 50; 73 ­83). Asaph was a Levite choir leader, musician, and "seer" of the time of David (see 1 Chr. 15:19; 16:4 ­7; 2 Chr. 29:30). Of the various groups of Temple singers, only the children of Asaph are mentioned as returning to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity (Ezr 2:41). These psalms were either arranged by Asaph or members of his family, or were prepared for their use as the official musicians and singers of the sanctuary. The phrase "for the sons of Korah" appears in the superscription of 11 psalms (Ps 42, 44 ­49, 84, 85, 87, 88). The sons of Korah and their descendants assisted in the Temple service (cf. Num 26:9 ­11; 1 Chr. 9:19). Thus 96 of the 150 psalms--about of the entire collection--are associated with the names of David, Asaph, and Korah. Ps 88 carries the double designation "for the sons of Korah" and "of Heman the Ezrahite." The latter was a Kohathite Levite and a leader of Temple music (see 1 Chr. 6:33; 15:17; 16:41, 42). Ps 39; 62; and 77 carry the name of Jeduthun, another leader of Temple music (see 1 Chr. 16:41, 42). Inasmuch as the superscriptions of Ps 39 and 62 also carry the name of David, and Ps 77 that of Asaph, it appears likely that these 3 psalms were written for the use of Jeduthun and his fellow Temple musicians. Ps 89 is entitled "Maschil of Ethan the Ezrahite" (see 1 Ki 4:31). The name of Solomon appears in the superscriptions of Ps 72 and 127. Ps 90 is entitled "A Prayer of Moses." Nearly of the total psalms have no superscription and are, accordingly, anonymous. Fifty-five psalms have the phrase, "To the chief Musician" (KJV), or "To the choirmaster" (RSV), possibly suggesting that this group was dedicated or entrusted to the overseer of the choir.

It is evident that the writing of the psalms and their collection and arrangement in the book bearing this title occupied a space of many centuries. There is a period of some 900 years between the writing of Ps 90, which is attributed to Moses, and Ps 137, which describes the Babylonian captivity. With the exception of Ps 137 and certain psalms whose superscriptions refer to specific historical events (Ps 51; 52), there is little clear internal evidence by which to associate particular psalms with known historical events. To a certain extent the diction and grammatical constructions used un a psalm are helpful in assigning it to some particular period of Hebrew history. Modern scholars, who deny the authenticity of the superscriptions, have tended to assign most of the psalms to postexilic times, generally on a supposed basis that diction and phraseology represent a late development in Hebrew literature. However, archaeological discoveries in recent decades have demonstrated that many of the words and phrases critical scholars formerly pointed to as evidence of late composition were actually in common use by Canaanite writers a thousand years earlier than the critical scholars once believed possible. Excavations on the site of Ugarit (Ras Shamra), begun in 1929, have unearthed hundreds of clay tablets written in Ugaritic, a Canaanite dialect written in cuneiform and in use about 1400 b.c.. Some of these tablets contain texts dealing with the religion of the ancient Canaanites. In this literature many formerly obscure words and phrases that occur in the Psalms appear in a context that clarifies their meaning. A study of this literature confirms the earlier dating implied by the superscriptions, thus invalidating the contentions of modern critics. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary makes extensive use of the information on the Psalms provided by these Ugaritic documents.

The book of Psalms has served Hebrews and Christians with equal effectiveness, for both public worship and private devotion. The chanting of psalms by antiphonal choirs, or by choir and congregation, was a prominent part of worship in the ancient Temple service, where many of the psalms came to be associated with the great national festivals. Ps 113 ­118 and 135 were used at the Passover time, Ps 118 at Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Feast of Dedication, Ps 120 ­134 on the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, Ps 30 at the Feast of Dedication, Ps 81 at the New Moon, and Ps 29 with the evening sacrifice at the New Moon. Ps 120 ­134 were probably used as pilgrim psalms (see Ascents). After the destruction of the Temple the psalms continued to be used as prayers in the synagogues, Ps 7 for Purim, Ps 12 for the 8th day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Ps 47 for the New Year, Ps 98 and 104 for the New Moon, and Ps 103 and 130 for the Day of Atonement. The great hallels, or praise psalms--Ps 104 ­106, 111 ­113, 115 ­117, 135, and 145 ­150--were learned by heart and used as congregational expressions of thanksgiving. The psalms still have an honoured place in Jewish synagogue ritual, as they do in Christian ritual, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Evangelical. The dominant theme of the book of Psalms is man's great need and God's gracious provision for meeting that need. Its universal appeal to men of all ages, all nations, and all stations in life is the result of its effective presentation of this great theme. In one way or another it reflects almost every human experience and gives expression to practically every human emotion. It covers the whole range of human experience, from the depths of conscious guilt and self-condemnation to the heights of faith and communion with God. It reflects sorrow, disappointment, sickness, guilt, weakness, and futility, but also joy, satisfaction, recovery from illness, forgiveness of sin, comfort, strength, and trust.

The psalms impart courage in the midst of discouragement, hope in the midst of despair, strength in the midst of weakness, and the certainty of forgiveness in the midst of condemnation. Some psalms take the sinner in secret to the very presence of God, and help him to pour out his own soul alone before God. Seven psalms deal so intimately with the sense of sin and its results that they have been called penitential psalms (Ps 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), of which Ps 32 and 51 in particular are notable examples of individual confession of sin. Ps 106 expresses national confession of sin. In Ps 42, 43, 60, 74, 79, 89 the writer cries out to God from the depths of disaster, defeat, and conviction of sin. Ps 1, 15, 24, 34, 52, 120, 131, 133 present various aspects of a righteous character. Ps 42, 43, and 63 in particular express intense yearning after God. In others (see Ps 27; 84; 122) the author expresses the blessings of worshipping in the sanctuary. All point to God as man's hope, confidence, strength, and triumph. Many anticipate the coming of Messiah to save His people and to usher in His eternal reign of righteousness. Ps 2, 22, 69, 72, 110 are rich in Messianic overtones. They testify to the Messiah's deity (Ps 45:6; 110:1), Sonship (Ps 2:7), incarnation (Ps 40:6, 7), priesthood (Ps 110:4), betrayal (Ps 41:9), rejection (Ps 118:22), and His resurrection and ascension (Ps 16:9, 10; 68:18). Ps 46, 61, 62, and 91 present God as our refuge in trouble. The missionary outlook is reflected in Ps 96. Ps 37 and 73 deal with the problem of doubt, and its solution. Ps 16 and 49 reflect faith in the reality of the future life. Ps 8, 19, 29, and 104 deal with various aspects of nature. Ps 68, 79, 105, 106, 114 take as their theme various experiences in Israel's history. Ps 35, 52, 69, 83, 109 are imprecatory, denouncing the enemies of God and His people and bringing down curses upon their heads. Praise is the keynote of Ps 8, 16, 33, 55, 65, 71, 86, 89, 90, 92, 95 ­100, 103, 104, 107, 142, 143, and 145 ­150 express praise and adoration. Ps 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145 are alphabetic or acrostic in the Hebrew text, the verses beginning with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in succession in various arrangements.

Whereas regularly recurring accent and rhyme are the characteristic qualities of most modern English poetry, the rhythm of Hebrew poetry is largely one of recurring thought, and, to a limited extent, of recurring accent. The balanced symmetry of form and sense known as parallelism, variously called "sensed rhythm" or "thought rhythm," provides the metrical basis for Hebrew verse. This rhythm of thought can readily be traced in English translations, despite the inevitable loss of a measure of its original artistic beauty. Modern speech translations usually arrange Hebrew poetry in poetic form. Three primary forms of Hebrew parallelism are generally recognised: (1) Synonymous parallelism, in which the basic thought is repeated in different words and images in the 2nd line of the couplet, as in Ps 19:8. (2) Antithetical or contrasted parallelism, in which the thought of the first line of the couplet is further explained by its contrast or reversal in the 2nd line, as in Ps 1:6. (3) Synthetic, or constructive, parallelism, in which the 2nd line of the couplet adds a thought to the first line by way of completion, enlargement, or intensification, as in Ps 14:2. There are, as well, 3 secondary forms of Hebrew parallelism: (1) Emblematic parallelism, an elaborate type of synonymous parallelism in which a figure of speech or image of some kind is used as a basis for developing the thought, as in Ps 129:5 ­8. (2) Climatic, or starlike parallelism, a vigorous type of synthetic parallelism in which a key word or phrase, or several such words or phrases, are repeated, with the thought being completed at the very end, as in Ps 121:1 ­4. (3) Introverted parallelism, in which the first and last lines of a series are similar, and enclose a number of lines developing the basic idea, as in Ps 30:8 ­10. These primary and secondary forms of parallelism are employed with almost infinite variety and ingenuity by the writers of the psalms: as in Ps 144:12 ­14, where several consecutive lines are synonymous; as in Ps 2:2, where the first 2 lines are synonymous but are supplemented by a 3rd that adds a further thought; as in Ps 27:1, where the 1st and 3rd, and 2nd and 4th lines of a four-line unit are parallel; as in Ps 136:1 ­3, where there is an accumulation of thought clause by clause throughout the entire poem, with a repeated refrain.

In common with the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Canaanite literatures, Hebrew poetry exhibits a recurring accent, or beat. However, not all Hebrew poetry clearly reflects this feature and even when present the accent may not occur regularly as in conventional English verse. Instead, the accent occurs a given number of times in the line irrespective of the number of syllables. The typical line of Hebrew lyric poetry is divided into 2 parts, with 2 accented syllables in each half. In elegiac and other highly emotional poetry the typical line has 3 accents in the 1st half and 2 accents in the 2nd half. This is known as the qinah rhythm. Its effect is that of a crescendo of 3 beasts followed by a shorter decrescendo of 2 beats. In epic, didactic, and liturgical poetry the typical line tends to show 3 accented syllables in each half. In no case, however, is there any relationship between accented syllables and the number of unaccented syllables. Unfortunately, the accent in Hebrew poetry cannot be preserved in translation and is therefore lost. The Hebrew poem is often broken into a series of strophes or stanzas which indicate transitions of thought within the larger unit. These stanzas may be of equal or nearly equal length (see Ps 1, 42, 43, 119), but are more often unequal. In some psalms (see 42, 43, 46, 57, 67) the transition from one stanza to the next is marked by a refrain.

Certain words or phrases in the superscriptions of many of the psalms are thought to indicate the nature or type of the psalm thus introduced, such as: (1) "Psalm" (Heb. mizmor), in the superscriptions of 57 psalms, a term indicating a song designed to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. (2) "Song" (Heb. shir), in the superscriptions of 30 psalms. (3) "Prayer" (Heb. tephillah,), in the superscriptions of Ps 17, 86, 90, 102, and 142. (4) "Praise" (Heb. tehillah), in the superscription of Ps 145 only. (5) "To teach" (Heb. lelammed), in the superscriptions of Ps 60. (6) "To bring to remembrance" (Heb. lehazkir), in the superscriptions of Ps 38 and 70, an indication that these psalms were intended to be sung during the offering of incense in the morning and evening Temple ritual. (7) "Of praise" (Heb. lethodah), in the superscription of Ps 100, a possible indication of its use at the time of the thank offering.

Other words or phrases in the superscriptions may suggest melodies to accompany the psalms, probably tunes that were well known in the ancient Temple ritual, as, for example, Gittith. Still others seem to indicate the kind of orchestral instruments used to accompany the singing or chanting of the psalms, such as possibly Nehiloth.

Horn, Siegfried H., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1979.