Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bible in a Year: Overview of the Psalms

Bible dictionary that my grandma Crawford
purchased me when I was 14 in 1971.
It has been well-used for years. 
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week and for the next few weeks, I'm studying the Psalms. The following post is adapted from two of my articles, “The Psalms: An Overview”, Adult Bible Studies (Teacher), Vol 4, No. 4 (Summer 1996), 5-8.  and “Psalms: The Bible’s Hymnbook” Adult Bible Studies (Teacher) Vol. 10 No 4 (June-July-August 2002), 2-5. My grateful thanks to the series editor at the time, Eleanor A. Moore. I'm also grateful to  “The Book of Psalms” by J. Clinton McCann, Jr., in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 639-1280. McCann is an Old Testament professor at Eden Theological Seminary, where I teach as an adjunct, and his wonderful commentary was a resource for my 2002 piece as well as other pieces over the years.

The Beautiful Psalms 

The Psalms are a favorite part of the Bible for many of us! McCann writes, “the book of Psalms presents nothing short of God’s claim upon the whole world… it articulates God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations” (p. 641). Martin Luther writes: "Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving?… On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? … Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better" (Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament I, Vol. 35 [Muhlenberg Press, 1960], 255-256).

John Calvin writes, "For there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particular, in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed" (Commentary on the Book of Psalms [Eerdmanns, 1949], I, xxxvii).

My Jewish Study Bible has this: "Praise is the quintessential nature of psalms, and hymns of praise are the most common type of psalm in the Psalter. In the words of Ps. 92.2: 'It is good to praise the Lord, to sing hymns to Your name, O Most High.' Most psalms are, in one way or another, aimed at praising God--for His power and beneficence, for His creation of the world, and for His past acts of deliverance to Israel. Often the praise comes after the psalmist has prayed for help from sickness or enemies... and his prayer has been answered... According to the outlook of psalms, the main religious function of human beings is to offer praise to God, to proclaim His greatness throughout the world.... God is called upon to hear prayers and to respond; this is one of His attributes. Worst of all is when He 'hides His face' and refuses to pay attention to the psalmist, because this puts into question the efficacy of prayer. If there is one primary underlying assumption of the book of Psalms, it is the potential efficacy of prayer" (pp. 1283-1284).

And Thomas Scott writes, "[The psalms] present religion to us in its most engaging dress, communicating truths which philosophy could never investigate, in a style which poetry can never equal; while history is made the vehicle of prophecy, and creation lends all its charms to paint the glories of Redemption" (Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments.. with explanatory, notes, practical observations, and copious marginal references.., Vol II, [Glasgow: MacKenzie White & Co, 1843], 56.)

As I wrote about in my previous post, I hadn't thought of Job as a kind of companion to the Psalms. They were not written together, but they are placed together in the Bible (after Psalms in the Jewish Bible, before Psalms in the Old Testament). Job is a suffering person seeking God, as are many of the psalmists. God is affirmed as faithful, but sin and suffering also also major themes. Both books have honest--sometimes shockingly honest--language addressed to God, and though we may not understand God's ways, we can affirm that God does hear us, is merciful and full of grace, and responds for our benefit.

Types of Psalms

The word "psalm" comes from the Greek psalteroi, meaning songs for string instruments. The Hebrew word is tehillim, or praises. Virtually all the psalms contain some element of praise, but different psalms serve different purposes. Here is a table of more types and genres of psalms: A few of the types of psalms (as analyzed by scholars like Hermann Gunkel, Sigmund Mowinckel) include:

Individual Thanksgiving (e.g., 32)
Individual Lament (3, 5, 6, 7, notably 51, and others)
Community Lament (44, 74, 79, 80, and others)
Royal Psalm (18, 20, 72, and others)
Hymns of Praise (8, 96, 100, 104, 113)
Wisdom Psalms (1, 19, notably 119, and others)
Expressions of Trust and Confidence (23, 82, 121, et al.)
Entrance Liturgies (there are two of these: 15 and 24)

McCann discusses contemporary insights about these types and content of psalms in his commentary, pages 644-652. It is interesting to learn more about these types of psalms and identify them as you read.

Also, here is a table of the psalms by theme:

Groupings of Psalms 

Here is a Roman Catholic site that lists the psalms and their subjects, with links to the psalms themselves:

The whole of the book of Psalms is grouped in five “books,” echoing the five-part nature of the Torah. These are Psalms 1-41 (with 41:13 as a doxology), 42-72 (with 72:18-19 as the doxology), 73-89 (89:52 is the doxology), 90-106 (106:48 is the doxology), and 107-150 (with 150 as the doxology for the whole collection.

Psalms are often grouped in meaningful ways: Psalm 1 is a wonderful beginning for the whole collection, praising God’s will as expressed in the Torah, while 2 praises God for God’s purposes for the nations. Psalms 22 and 23—a psalm of despair and praise, and a psalm of quiet confidence—are appropriately paired. McCann notes that Psalms 1 and 2 set up basic theological outlooks for the rest of the psalms: a person is happy when one follows God’s instruction (the Hebrew word is torah), and a person is happy when one takes refuge in God (pp. 664-665).

Psalms and the Exile

In Bible studies, once we realize the central role of the exile, we never get too far from its pervasive role within the text. McCann points out that royal psalms are found early in Book 1 (Psalm 2) and at the end of Books 2 and 3 (Psalms 72 and 89). But Psalm 89 concludes with God’s harsh words concerning David’s monarchy, and then Psalm 90, which begins Book 4 and which is the only psalm attributed to Moses, affirm God as Israel’s true home. Book 4 contains psalms that grapple with the experience of exile and loss of land and monarchy, for instance, 102-102 and 106. Such psalms would have brought peace and hope to post-exilic Jews, who have a rebuilt Temple but as yet no monarchy, and a more tenuous presence on the land than during the era of the kings. Later, a psalm like the famous 110 in Book 5, expresses hope in a messianic king (McCann goes into much more, important detail on these themes and psalms: pages 659-665, 1128-1131.)

Brevard S. Childs also comments that, because of the experience of exile, the whole psalter now has an eschatological outlook, that is, “It looks toward the future and passionately years for its arrival. Even when the psalmist runs briefly to reflect on the past in praise of the ‘great things which Yahweh has done’, invariably the movement shifts and again the hope of salvation is projected into the future (Ps. 126.6)… As a result, the Psalter in its canonical form, far from being different in kind from the prophetic message, joins with the prophets in announcing God’s coming kingship. When the New Testament heard in the psalms eschatological notes, its writers were standing in the context of the Jewish canon in which the community of faith worshipped and waited” (Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979], 518).


There are several attributions of authorship of the Psalms. About a third are labeled with a Hebrew expression translated “by David” or “according to David” or “of David”: these are 3-9, 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 138-145. Thirteen arose from a situation in David’s life: 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63. But Psalms 1-72 conclude with “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended,” although not all those psalms are David’s, and other psalms after 72 are indicated to be of David.

Asaph, a musician of David’s mentioned in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16, is named as author of 50 and 73-83. Other names include Almoth (46; see 1 Chr. 15:17), the Ezrahites Heman (88; 1 Chr. 15:19, 25:1-7) and Ethan (89; I Kings 4:31), Jeduthun (39, 62, and 77; 1 Chr. 9:16), and the Korahites (Ps. 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88; 2 Chr. 20:19). Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses, and 72 and 127 to Solomon.

Although individual psalms are likely very old, perhaps dating in some form back to the designated authors, the collection was assembled during the Second Temple period. In fact, scholars have called the Psalms “the hymnbook of the Second Temple." The Septuagint has them all, but some 4th century CE manuscripts do not, and the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of these psalms and others not included.

An example of an additional psalm is Psalm 151, which is not canonical in Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Bibles but is canonical in the Bibles of the Eastern Orthodox,  Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Armenian Catholic Churches.


Some of the psalms have designations that refer to now-forgotten tunes, like “Do Not Destroy” (57-59), “Dove on Far-off Terebinths” (56), “Lilies” (80 and others), and “Mahalath" (53, 88). There are also designations for different kinds of instruments. (We find references to musical instruments in other parts of the Bible: Lev. 25:9, Num. 10:2, 2 Sam. 6:5, Isaiah 30:29, Jeremiah 33:11, Ezra 3:10-11, et al.) The word selah, a word used in several psalms, may mean that singers are supposed to lift up their voices at that point.

Imagine that you wrote the words of a song, and you stipulated that the song was to be played on a violin to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." Then imagine that 2000 years have passed, and no one knows what a violin is and no one knows that tune, but they do have your poem! That's a silly example to illustrate our dilemma with understanding the original performances of the psalms in worship.

Hardships and Blessings 

I wrote this in my 1996 article:

“In kind with the other Scriptures, the Psalms look to God as the true King of Israel. He rules from the heavens but is active among his people, guiding, disciplining, directing, and blessing them. God’s great works for the benefit of human beings can be seen in his mighty deeds in the history of Israel. God gives dignity to human beings, getting us above the earth’s other creatures. Not only is God active in Israel’s history, he is also the Creator of all we see. The Psalms marvel at the glory and beauty of nature but credit God the Creature with the beauty of the universe; the world is not beautiful in isolation from its Lord!

“Some passages of the Bible (in many Proverbs, for instance) promise God’s goodness to those who do God’s will and serious consequences to those who act against his will. This outlook is in concert with God’s promises to Israel, wherein Moses beseeches the people to be obedient to God and gain his favor. Other portions of the Bible, however, tell of persons (one especially thinks of Job and Ecclesiastes), who have done God’s will but find trouble and heartache).

"We need to affirm both: God blesses us as we seek to do his will, yet we are not immune from all kinds of trouble in life. The Psalms beautifully lift up many answered prayers and fulfilled blessings. The Psalms also lift up the disappointment and perplexity one may experience when one is in the midst of terrible trouble—knowing that God has acted in past times to help. God intervenes on behalf of his people. Like all of us who struggle to grow in faith, the psalmists know the joy of God’s blessings yet come impatient and troubled if those blessings are delayed” (“The Psalms: An Overview," page 8).

Homework Assignments to Myself (I) 

What I plan to do during the next couple weeks, is to read through the Psalms and pay attention to concepts that McCann notes as particularly important theologically in the Psalter. pp. 666-672):

* The person who looks to God is happy (or “blessed”) in some translations—a quality that connects us ahead to the Beatitudes of Jesus.

* The happy person is one who “takes refuge in” God (puts one’s whole self in the care of God)

* The happy person is righteousness (which is relational: one’s morality but in relation to one’s trust in God and concern for God’s instruction)

* The affirmation of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness—which connect us back to Exodus 34:6 and ahead to Jesus Christ.

Assignment 2

Psalms in the New Testament

In another blog post, I wrote that some of the Psalms are referenced in the New Testament: 2, 22, 23, 34, 69, 78, 89, 110, and 118 especially, but also 33, 35, 39, 50, 102, 105, 106, 107, 116, 119, 135, 145, and 147. Many psalm passages are understood to be fulfilled in, or connected to Jesus (Matt. 13:35 and Ps. 78:3, John 19:24 and Ps. 22:18, John 19:36 and Ps. 34:20, Acts 2:25-35 and Ps. 16:8-11, 132:11, and 110:1) (McCann, 672-675). In another blog post, I show how important are the psalms for scripturally demonstrating the necessity of Jesus' suffering and death: We also find connections like Acts 4:11 and Psalm 118:22, Acts 4:25-26 and Psalm 2:1, Hebrews 1:8 and Psalm 45:6-7, Hebrews 1:10 and Psalm 102:25, and notably Hebrews 1:13 and Psalm 110:1.

It would be interesting to browse in the Bible and read some of these connections to New Testament passages.

Assignment 3

I shared this link to an article that identifies types of psalms--- --- and also this link to an article that groups psalms by theme--- I'd like also to use these sites for more "browsing" through the psalms.

Assignment 4

Although I have several Bibles, a favorite is the RSV Harper Study Bible that I purchased for a college class in 1977. This spring semester is the 40th anniversary of my first use of the Bible. (I spent time browsing its pages and taking notes: Subsequently I used it in seminary and in many other settings. As you can imagine, the poor book is falling apart and looks terrible, but I still love to use it.

In seminary, I highlighted Psalm verses (or whole Psalms) that I wanted to memorize. I memorized many of them. My other homework assignment for myself is to re-memorize these passages. Here are the highlighted passages in my old Bible. Do you have verses (or whole psalms) that you particularly find helpful and comforting?

Psalm 1:1-3
Psalm 3
129:1-8, 23-24


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