"An Overview of Psalms" by Mark Wash
1. Author and Time of Writing
The book of the Psalms is probably the best known part of the Old Testament (OT). It is a collection of 150 poems or songs by various authors and it is divided into five books (similar to the Pentateuch).
David wrote 73 Psalms. They are mainly to be found in the first, second and fifth book. Twelve Psalms bear the name of Asaph, the conductor of David's choir of the temple (1 Chronicles 16:7; 2 Chronicles 29:30). Asaph's Psalms are Psalms 50 and 73-83. Ten Psalms are written by the sons of Korah (Psalms 42; 44-49; 84; 85; 87), two by Solomon (Psalms 72 and 127), one each by Moses (Psalm 90), Ethan (Psalm 89) and Heman (Psalm 88). The remaining 50 Psalms bear no author's name.
The following Psalms are also ascribed to David in the New Testament (NT): Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25) and Psalm 95 (Hebrews 4:7). Together with the Psalms that bear David's name they add up to 75, which means David has written exactly half of all the Psalms.
David was very suitable for this. He was an able poet, player (of an instrument) and singer (1 Samuel 16:18; 2 Samuel 23:1). He was filled with the Spirit of God (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 23:2) and had gone through many experiences with God in his life of faith. Many references of Scripture tell us that David was very active in spiritual poetry and music (e.g. 1 Samuel 18:10; 2 Samuel 1:17-18; 6:5; 1 Chronicles 6:31; 16:7; 25:1; 2 Chronicles 7:6; 29:30; Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 12:24, 36, 45; Amos 6:5).
In some places David mentions the occasion or the reason for the composition of a Psalm in the heading: Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142. One of these occasions is described in 2 Samuel 22. This is where we find a nearly word-by-word parallel to Psalm 18.
Psalm 90 is probably the oldest psalm: "A prayer of Moses the man of God". Moses lived in the 15th century BC. Most of the Psalms however have been written at the time of David who introduced the singing in the temple (1 Chronicles 25). At the time of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:25-30) reference is made to that (". . . according to the commandment of David") and to the Psalms of David and Asaph. These psalms therefore had already been joined to a sort of collection. The last Psalms were written in the days of Ezra (5th century BC). Psalm 137 clearly refers to the Babylonian captivity. According to many researchers it was Ezra, the priest and scribe, himself who completed the final collection of the Psalms (Ezra 3:10).
2. Purpose of Writing
The book of Psalms is the first and main book of the third part of the Hebrew Bible, of the "writings" (hebr. ketubim). The reference in Luke 24:44 "psalms" probably means the whole third part of the OT. The Hebrew title is "tehillim" (hebr. hillil, which means "to praise"; compare hallelujah) and signifies "praises". The name "psalm" for a singular praise originates from the Greek and means "singing with instrumental accompaniment" or "playing a stringed instrument".
The Psalms particularly speak to the Bible-reader because the sentiments of God fearing men are expressed more than in other books of the Scriptures, be it in prayer, in confession, in praises or in grief. In many of these situations the Bible reader finds himself and therefore is especially attracted and spoken to by the Psalms.
b) Prophetic Character of the Psalms
But this does not yet exhaust the substance of the Psalms. For the psalmists not only described their own feelings. The Spirit of Christ was working in them and was sharing in their distresses and joys and was at one with them (compare Isaiah 63:9; 1 Peter 1:11). This is why we find Christ everywhere in the Psalms and not only in the so-called "Messianic Psalms", e. g. Psalms 16, 22, 24, 40, 68, 69 and 118. Christ is very distinguished in the "messianic psalms" but many psalms are referred to Him in the NT (and these are not the so-called messianic psalms). The following Psalms ought to be mentioned especially:
- Psalm 2:7 - "Thou art my Son: this day have I begotten thee" (Acts 13.33)
- Psalm 8:6 - "Thou hast put all things under his feet" (Hebrews 2:6-10)
- Psalm 41:9 - "Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me." (John 13:18)
- Psalm 45:6 - "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever." (Hebrews 1:8)
- Psalm 110:1 - "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand."(Matthew 22:44)
If we see this spiritual link of Christ with the believing Israelites (who wrote the Psalms) the true character of the book, which is a prophetic character, opens up before our eyes. The Spirit of Christ unites with the experiences and feelings of these believing Israelites. This is why the sufferings of the Lord and His feelings as true and perfect man are described in the book in such touching manner, for they are a proof of His interest in His earthly people.
Describing the history of the Jewish remnant in the last days reflects the prophetic character of the Psalms. But again not the outward events are described but the inward feelings. This would also explain the pleas for punishment or for vengeance on the enemies (e. g. Psalm 137:9), which are difficult to understand for many a reader. The feelings explained in these Psalms are feelings of believers but not of Christians living in the household of grace (compare Romans 12:17-21). They are feelings of believing Jews living in the coming last days. These Jews will await God's salvation and the just punishment of their oppressors, and especially of the Antichrist.
c) Structure of the Psalms
Taking the prophetic viewpoint we will find a fairly clear division of the book. All other divisions are more or less unsatisfactory. The similar structure of the Psalms and of the Pentateuch is also remarkable and one can state certain parallels. The first Psalm of each book contains so to speak the "heading" and the last Psalm of each book concludes with praises.
The first book of the Psalms puts forward the principle of separation of the just from the unjust among the people of God. Connected with it the Messiah is seen as Son of God (Psalm 2), as Son of man (Psalm 8), as suffering servant (Psalm 22) and as true offering (Psalm 40). The prevailing name of God in this book is His covenant name Jehovah (which is mentioned approximately 275 times).
In the second book we find the sufferings of the just ones, who - separated from any blessing - live in great tribulation and who cry to God (Elohim is mentioned roughly 200 times) in their distress.
The third book describes the return of Israel as a people and God's mercy towards His people.
The fourth book begins with the reign of Jehovah (app. 100 times) after introducing the firstborn into the habitable world (JND translation). With this begins the reign of the glorified Son of man in the Millennium after the salvation of the whole of Israel.
The fifth book contains the summary of all Jehovah's ways with His people Israel as well as the praise, which is due to Him for His mercy (Psalms 111-113; 146-150).
a) Hebrew Poetry
Rhyme, rhythm and metre as well as partially the division into verses play an important role in classical European poetry. The Hebrew poetry is entirely different. Rhyme and metre are totally unknown. A division into verses, as we know it today is entirely unknown. Nevertheless we find a sort of division in Psalm 119, which 22 paragraphs of eight verses each are beginning with the same Hebrew letter continuously, that is verses 1-8 are starting by the letter aleph, verses 9-16 by the letter beth, etc. (acrostic).
In saying this we have already mentioned one style of Hebrew poetry, which is alliteration. Alliteration means that the beginning of words is similar and not the ending of words. One variety of alliteration is to have each verse begin with the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as we find it in Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 47, 111, 112, 145 as well as in Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations 1-4 (compare also Psalm 119). The often very pictorial comparisons are a further element of Hebrew poetry (see Psalms 1:3; 22:12-16).
The most important characteristic however is parallelism. Parallelism means that a statement is stressed or extended by repetition. One distinguishes three kinds of parallelisms:
(1) Synonymous parallelism, for example Psalm 49:1 "Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world." - The same thought is expressed twice with different words.
(2) Antithetic (contrasted) parallelism, for example Psalm 1:6 "For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish." - The thought of the first sentence is stressed by the contrast in the final clause.
(3) Synthetic (connecting) parallelism, for example Psalm 22:4 "Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them." - The final clause completes and expands the thought of the first sentence.
b) Heading of the Psalms
With the exception of a few Psalms all Psalms bear a heading. The 34 Psalms without heading are: Psalms 1, 2, 10, 43, 71, 91, 93-97, 99, 104-107, 111-119, 135-137, 146-150 (The words "Praise ye the Lord" are not headings but belong to the text).
The most important headings are:
Maschil - 13 Psalms bear this heading (Psalms 32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, 142). Maschil probably signifies teaching or instruction.
Poem - Psalms 16 and 56-60 are headed "poem" (hebr. michtam).
Song of Degrees - Psalms 120-134 are songs of degrees that is songs of going up. It is assumed that they were to be sung either on journeys to great feasts in Jerusalem or going up to the hill where the temple stood.
To the Chief Musician - 55 Psalms of David's time bear this indication in the heading. The chief musician was certainly the conductor of the choir in the temple. In this we may see a hint to the Lord Jesus who Himself will sing praise in the midst of the assembly (compare Psalm 22:22; Hebrews 2:12).
Any further expressions have no need of special explanation or are explained in the various editions of the Bible.
4. Overview of Contents
First Book (Psalm 1-41): Separation of the Just from the Unjust
Psalm 1: The Just and the Unjust
Psalm 2: God's King: the Messiah
Psalm 3: David's Confidence in the Unchangeable God
Psalm 4: David's Confidence in the Special Care of God
Psalm 5: Jehovah Hears the Cry of His People
Psalm 6: Plea for Mercy
Psalm 7: Prayer for Just Punishment of the Oppressor
Psalm 8: Reign of the Son of Man
Psalm 9: Praising God for Victory over the Enemies
Psalm 10: Plea for Salvation from the Wicked
Psalm 11: The Just in the midst of Wickedness
Psalm 12: The Confidence of the Just in the midst of Wickedness
Psalm 13: Ditto
Psalm 14: General Ruin of Mankind
Psalm 15: Marks of the True God-Fearing
Psalm 16: Christ as Perfect Man
Psalm 17: Prayer of the Just for Protection
Psalm 18: Praise of God
Psalm 19: Testimony of God in Creation
Psalm 20: Help from the Sanctuary
Psalm 21: Royal Song of Victory
Psalm 22: Christ's Sufferings and Glory
Psalm 23: Christ, the Good Shepherd
Psalm 24: Christ, the King of Glory
Psalm 25: Plea for Salvation and Forgiveness
Psalm 26: Prayer of an Upright Man
Psalm 27: Desire for God's Presence
Psalm 28: Cry in Distress
Psalm 29: God's Might is Above Everything
Psalm 30: Praise for God's Help
Psalm 31: Salvation from the Enemy
Psalm 32: Blessing of Forgiveness
Psalm 33: Worship of the Creator
Psalm 34: Experience of Those who Love God
Psalm 35: Cry for Help of the One in Distress
Psalm 36: Mind of the Wicked and the Goodness of God
Psalm 37: Confidence in God in the midst of a Wicked World
Psalm 38: Sufferings of the Believers for their Sins
Psalm 39: Every Man is Vanity
Psalm 40: Christ the Obedient Servant of God
Psalm 41: Confidence, Betrayal and Triumph
Second Book (Psalm 42-72): The Sufferings of the Just
Psalm 42: Desire of the Just for God
Psalm 43: Continuation of Psalm 42
Psalm 44: The People of God in Distress Cry for God
Psalm 45: Christ, King and Bridegroom
Psalm 46: God is Refuge and Strength
Psalm 47: God's Reign as King
Psalm 48: The City of God
Psalm 49: Vanity of Earthly Riches
Psalm 50: The Just Judgment of God
Psalm 51: Confession of Sins and Repentance
Psalm 52: Condemnation of the Wicked
Psalm 53: Apostasy of the Wicked
Psalm 54: The Cry of the God-fearing for Salvation
Psalm 56: Confidence in the Faithfulness of God
Psalm 57: Confidence in the Salvation of God
Psalm 58: God Reveals Himself in Judgment
Psalm 59: Help for the Helpless
Psalm 60: Lamentation in Great Distress
Psalm 61: God is the True Refuge
Psalm 62: God Only Saves
Psalm 63: Thirst for God
Psalm 64: The Fate of the Enemies
Psalm 65: The Rich Blessing of God
Psalm 66: Acknowledgment of Just Intervention of God
Psalm 67: Outlook on the Blessing
Psalm 68: Liberation is Accomplished
Psalm 69: Lamentation of the Rejected Messiah
Psalm 70: Cry for Salvation
Psalm 71: Revival of People of God
Psalm 72: Announcement of Reign of Peace
Third Book (Psalm 73-89): Return of the People and God's Goodness
Psalm 73: An Enigma and its Solution
Psalm 74: Destruction of the Sanctuary
Psalm 75: God's Coming into Action by Judgment
Psalm 76: Victorious Might of God
Psalm 77: Retrospect in Faith
Psalm 78: God's Dealings in the History of Israel
Psalm 79: Prayer at Destruction of Jerusalem
Psalm 80: Prayer of the People in Their Distress
Psalm 81: The People Gather Fresh Hope
Psalm 82: God's Judgment of the Judges
Psalm 83: Prayer at the Attack of the Enemy
Psalm 84: Taking Pleasure in the Sanctuary of Jehovah
Psalm 85: The People of God Enjoy the Promised Blessing
Psalm 86: The God-fearing Soul in Humble Prayer to God (This is the only Psalm of David in the third book.)
Psalm 87: Zion, the City of God
Psalm 88: A Prayer coming from Deepest Distress
Psalm 89: Covenant of God and His Faithfulness
Fourth Book (Psalm 90-106): Jehovah's Government in the Millennium
Psalm 90: The Eternal God and Mortal Men (of Moses; probably the oldest Psalm)
Psalm 91: Exemplary Confidence of Man In God
Psalm 92: Song of Praise in the Sanctuary
Psalm 93: Jehovah Reigns in Majesty
Psalm 94: Cry for Justice and Vengeance
Psalm 95: Praise of Jehovah as Creator and Saviour of His People
Psalm 96: Praise of Jehovah as Creator and Judge of the Earth
Psalm 97: Appearing of Jehovah as King
Psalm 98: Praise of Jehovah, the King
Psalm 99: Jehovah's Reign
Psalm 100: Worldwide Worship of Jehovah
Psalm 101: Principles of Jehovah's Government
Psalm 102: God Revealed in Flesh
Psalm 103: Israel's Praise over Ways of God
Psalm 104: Praise of Creator-God
Psalm 105: Historical Retrospective: God's Faithfulness toward Israel
Psalm 106: Historical Retrospective: Israel's Unfaithfulness toward God
Fifth Book (Psalm 107-150): Summary of Jehovah's Ways with His People
Psalm 107: Jehovah Saves Out of Every Difficulty
Psalm 108: The Coming Salvation
Psalm 109: Hostility to Christ
Psalm 110: Christ as Priest and King
Psalm 111: Praise of the Wonderful Works of Jehovah
Psalm 112: Jehovah's Blessing for the God-fearing
Psalm 113: Praise of the Name of Jehovah
Psalm 114: The Might of the God of Jacob
Psalm 115: Honour Is Due to God Only
Psalm 116: Praise of God for His Help in Distress
Psalm 117: Praise of the Nations (This is the shortest Psalm.)
Psalm 118: Israel Recognizes the True Corner-stone (This Psalm is the one most frequently quoted in the NT.)
Psalm 119: Praise of the Word of God (the longest Psalm)
Psalm 120: Solemnity of the God-fearing
Psalm 121: God as Protector of Israel
Psalm 122: House and City of God
Psalm 123: Israel's Fountain of Help in Tribulation
Psalm 124: Salvation in Distress
Psalm 125: Perfect Security
Psalm 126: Sowing in Tears and Reaping with Rejoicing
Psalm 127: Blessing over the House
Psalm 128: Blessing over the Family
Psalm 129: God's Mighty Hand
Psalm 130: Repentance and Forgiveness
Psalm 131: Rest and Satisfaction
Psalm 132: Habitation of Jehovah in Zion
Psalm 133: Blessing of Brotherly Fellowship
Psalm 134: Worship in the Sanctuary
Psalm 135: Knowing and Worshiping the True God
Psalm 136: Praise of God's Eternal Mercy
Psalm 137: Reminiscences of the Exile
Psalm 138: Praise of God for His Salvation
Psalm 139: The Heart-searching Presence of God
Psalm 140: Jehovah, the Fountain of Help for the Just
Psalm 141: Prayer of the Just amidst the Wicked
Psalm 142: Jehovah, the Refuge of the Lonely Ones
Psalm 143: Prayer out of Deepest Distress
Psalm 144: The True Fountain of Strength
Psalm 145: Praise of God in the Millennium
Psalm 146: Personal Praise of the Just
Psalm 147: Praise of the People of God
Psalm 148: Praise of the Whole Creation
Psalm 149: Praise by a New Song
Psalm 150: End: Summary of God's Praises