People who are bereft, bewildered or battered by life, find
that the psalms can give utterance to their deepest thoughts and
feelings. They were the prayers of ancient Israel but they have
acted as the pleas and protests of persons in distress throughout
The Hebrew name for the psalms – Tehilim –
means “praises”. From the songs of thanksgiving to the imprecatory
petitions, the psalms are fundamentally praises to God - even those
that are full of anger and complaint.
Every hymn, song and prayer in the Psalter, in one way or
another, recognizes God’s greatness and goodness. They honour Divine
faithfulness, they place trust in Divine mercy, and they express
confidence in Divine wisdom and justice.
The psalms are human utterances to the Holy Other. They are
praises and petitions that reveal God’s self and reflect upon the
spiritual journey, both ancient and modern. The psalms are
essentially relational both in nature and use.
One of the favourite hymns in my church is
“It is Well with My Soul.” Parishioners draw
comfort and strength not just from its words but from the knowledge
that its composer understood suffering and loss. His hope in God
despite his pain reaches across the years and inspires those
about a hymn makes the singing of it more meaningful and more
formative. This is equally true of the psalms which were written
at least 2,500 years ago. Understanding their historical
context, original purpose and role in worship helps us receive
more from them whether we are studying them in our private
devotions or listening to them being read during Sunday service.
If we are to make the
hymns and prayers of ancient Israel our own words to God then we
must have a very clear understanding of what those words do and
don’t mean. Like all of Scripture, the psalms must be carefully
exegeted and interpreted .
The psalms were written over many
generations and by many authors.
Robert Alter states
that “the writing of psalms was a persistent activity over many
In all probability,
psalm composition began in the pre-monarchic period (1,000 BCE) and
continued some time after the return from the Babylonian exile (538
David is possibly one
composer though that is unclear from the Hebrew.
The character that
English translates as “of” can also mean “concerning” or “dedicated
to” or “associated with”. Certain authors such as the Temple
musicians, “the sons of Korah” and “Asaph”, can be identified with
monarchs found in the historical books. It is also likely that
individuals commissioned psalms to express their own piety or
petitions. Exact authorship of the psalms is unknown.
Over the years, the
psalms were organized into small collections. After the return from
exile and the re-building of the Temple, these collections were
edited and arranged into a single volume. Dead Sea Scrolls
manuscripts indicate that books I-III were in their final form by
the 2nd cent. BCE, while the two later books were not fixed until
just before the time of Christ. Content and organization indicate
theological as well as liturgical intention and planning.
Book 2: 42-72
Book 3: 73-89
Book 4: 90-106
Book 4: 107-150
Psalms 1 & 2 are
considered the introduction to the whole volume. They tell us the
meaning and purpose of the entire collection, viz.
The Psalter ends with
a magnificent collection of praise hymns (146-150).
The Poetry of the Psalms
Poetry was a highly prized mode of
expression in the ancient world. With its rhythms and balances,
poetry has an internal structure that makes it easy to memorize.
Therefore it was an important tool for learning and for handing on
traditions & historical narratives.
The Israelites drew upon
the poetry of Egypt and Mesopotamia for inspiration. Similar images
& metaphors for God & for the forces of evil & chaos are present in
all the poetry of the ancient Middle-East. The human condition is
also described using comparable language and images.
Uses of the Psalms
The psalms were
functional songs, that is, they constituted the worship service.
They served the crucial function of making a connection between the
worshipper and God.
The psalms were:
Used in Temple worship
Sung by professional singers while the people
were bringing their sacrifices to the Altar
Sung by both choirs & congregations
Used in both private & communal religious
practices (Jesus uttering Psalm 22 on the Cross)
The mainstay of worship in the earliest
Classifying & Categorizing the Psalms
Since the 19th C.,
Biblical scholars have attempted to classify & categorize the
psalms. While these distinctions are useful in helping us analyze
and understand the different psalms, many do not easily fit into one
particular category. The groupings should serve as flexible (vs.
rigid) guides to worship and study.
Psalms were composed
for a number of different ceremonies and events. They were written
for Temple services & commissioned by individuals for private use or
public expression of their joys or sorrows.
The major types of
Praises – praising God’s goodness &
greatness; individual or communal thanksgiving
Laments – pleas for Divine aid; protests
against unfair treatment or perceived injustices
Laments are the largest
group of psalms (>60). Philosophical reflections (Wisdom psalms) &
proclamations (civic, cultic) make up the remainder of the Psalter.
The psalms express the
full range of human feelings from the most noble and lofty to the
basest. We too can use them to express our hopes and fears, our
pleas and protests, our praises & thanksgivings.
The psalms point us
towards God’s greatness & goodness and show us how to praise with
our whole hearts and minds. They demonstrate how to relate honestly
to God; and they help us recognize & voice our negative feelings
(cf. John Bradshaw: we must be willing “to feel as bad as we really
Psalms are authentic prayers to an
Authentic prayers always honour and