On June 26, we started a series on Sunday mornings called Epic Poetry. It is a series in which we are looking at select Psalms. I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief overview of the book of Psalms as we prepare to meet with God in its pages for the rest of the summer.
What is the book of Psalms?
The Book of Psalms is a collection of prayers, poems, and songs that are meant to focus our mind and heart on praising and adoring God. It appears the psalms in this book were used as songs in the worship services of ancient Israel. The psalms encourage us to praise God for who He is and what He has done. Psalms affirms God’s faithfulness to us in times of trouble and reminds us that He is our Provider. The portrayal of worship in the Psalms offers us glimpse after glimpse, of hearts and lives utterly devoted to God.
Who wrote the psalms?
Psalms is one of only two Old Testament books to identify itself as a composite work containing multiple authors (Proverbs is the other). Some psalms name their author in the first line or title. For example, Moses wrote Psalm 90. David was responsible for many of them, composing seventy-three psalms. Two of the psalms (72 and 127) are attributed to Solomon, David’s son and successor. Another group of 12 psalms (50) and (73—83) is ascribed to the family of Asaph. The sons of Korah wrote 11 psalms (42, 44—49, 84—85, 87—88). Psalm 88 is attributed to Heman and Psalm 89 to Ethan the Ezrahite. Outside of Moses, David, and Solomon, these other authors were Priests or Levites who were responsible for providing music for sanctuary worship. Fifty of the psalms designate no specific author.
When were the psalms written?
The oldest psalm in the collection is probably the prayer of Moses (90), a reflection on the frailty of man as compared to the eternity of God. The latest psalm is probably (137), a song of lament written during the days when the Hebrews were being held captive by the Babylonians, from about 586 to 538 B.C. This means the writing of the book spans one thousand years. Some of the psalms attributed to David have additional notations connecting them with documented events in his life (for example, Psalm 59 is linked with 1 Samuel 19:11; Psalm 56 is connected with 1 Samuel 21:10-15 and many more).
How are the Psalms organized?
The psalms are organized into five books or collections.
- Book 1: Psalms 1—41
- Book 2: Psalms 42—72
- Book 3: Psalms 73—89
- Book 4: Psalms 90—106
- Book 5: Psalms 107—150
It is uncertain why Psalms is divided into five books. The division of the Psalms is not based on authorship or chronology. There are some themes within the books, but they don’t run through every psalm in the book. The five books are clear because each of these five books or sections of psalms ends with a doxology or a song of praise, and these songs of praise all end with very similar lines of praise for God.
It seems that the 150 individual psalms, written by many different people across a period of a thousand years in Israel’s history, must have been compiled and put together in their present form by some unknown editor shortly after the captivity ended about 537 B.C.
How were the psalms used?
The psalms comprised the ancient hymnal of God’s people. The psalms express the emotion of the author to God or about God. Different types of psalms were written to communicate different feelings and thoughts regarding life situations.
- Psalms of lament express the author’s crying out to God in difficult circumstances.
- Psalms of praise portray the author’s offering of direct admiration to God.
- Thanksgiving psalms reflect the author’s gratitude for a personal deliverance or provision from God.
- Pilgrim psalms include the title “a song of ascent” and were used on pilgrimages “going up” to Jerusalem for three annual festivals.
- Wisdom psalms provide God’s proverbial wisdom about life.
- Royal psalms are songs celebrating the kings of Israel and its ultimate King to come.
Many, if not all these psalms seem intended to be sung. The psalms include unique Hebrew terms. Words like Selah and maskil communicate musical instructions for those using the psalms. Occasionally, a psalm appears with instructions for the song leader. For example, we see instructions such as “For the director of music” (occurring in fifty-five psalms); “To the tune of ‘Lilies’” (similar references found in Psalms 45, 60, 69, 80); “To the tune of ‘The Doe of the Morning’” (Psalm 22); “To the tune of ‘Do Not Destroy’” (Psalms 57–59, 75). These and others can refer to melodies used with the given psalms.
How do the Psalms impact us?
The Psalms constantly provide encouragement for us by reminding us of Jesus and his salvation. Prophetic pictures of the Messiah are seen in numerous psalms.
- Psalm 2:1-12 portrays the Messiah’s triumph.
- Psalm 16:8-11 foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection.
- Psalm 22 gives us a glimpse of the suffering Savior who was to come and details prophecies about the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion.
- The glories of Jesus and His bride are on exhibit in Psalm 45:6-7.
- Psalms 72:6-17, 89:3-37, 110:1-7 and 132:12-18 present the glory of His reign.
Psalms reminds us that our God is good and worthy of praise and that he will not leave His people in their sin and sent a Savior to die for our sins.
The Psalms are also a reminder that every moment is to be a moment of worship in our lives. We can bring all our feelings, thoughts and experiences to God. Sometimes we are experiencing the highest of highs and at other times we are feeling the lowest of lows. In all situations and with all our feelings, we can rest assured that He will hear and understand. The psalmists teach us that the most profound prayer of all is a cry for help as we find ourselves overwhelmed by the problems of life. They teach us that God is good no matter what our current circumstances are and lead us into praise whether we feel like praising or not.
I know that as we spend time in a few of these psalms this summer, we will draw closer to God and grow in our praise for Him.