International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
PSALMS, BOOK OF
samz, (tehillim, "praises," cepher tehillim, "book of praises"; Psalmoi, Psalterion):
I. INTRODUCTORY TOPICS
2. Place in the Canon
3. Number of Psalms
4. Titles in the Hebrew Text
II. AUTHORSHIP AND AGE OF THE PSALMS
1. David as a Psalmist
2. Psalmody after David
III. GROWTH OF THE PSALTER
1. Division into Five Books
2. Smaller Groups of Psalms
IV. POETRY OF THE PSALTER
V. THE SPEAKER IN THE PSALMS
VI. THE GOSPEL IN THE PSALTER
1. The Soul's Converse with God
2. The Messiah
3. Problem of Sin
4. Wrestling with Doubts
5. Out of the Depths
6. Ethical Ideals
7. Praying against the Wicked
8. The Future Life
I. Introductory Topics.
The Hebrew title for the Psalter is cepher tehillim, "book of praises." When we consider the fact that more than 20 of these poems have praise for their keynote, and that there are outbursts of thanksgiving in many others, the fitness of the Hebrew title dawns upon us. As Ker well says, "The book begins with benediction, and ends with praise-first, blessing to man, and then glory to God." Hymns of praise, though found in all parts of the Psalter, become far more numerous in Books IV and V, as if the volume of praise would gather itself up into a Hallelujah Chorus at the end. In the Greek version the book is entitled in some manuscripts Psalmoi, in others Psalterion, whence come our English titles "Psalms," and "Psalter." The Greek word psalmos, as well as the Hebrew mizmor, both of which are used in the superscriptions prefixed to many of the separate psalms, indicates a poem sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. The title mizmor is found before 57 psalms. The Psalter was the hymnal of the Jewish nation. To individual psalms other titles are sometimes prefixed, such as shir, "song"; tehillah, "praise"; tephillah, "prayer," etc. The Psalter was both prayerbook and hymnal to the Jewish people. It was also a manual for the nurture of the spiritual life in private as well as public worship.
2. Place in the Canon:
The Psalms were placed in the kethubhim or "Writings," the third group of the Hebrew Scriptures. As the chief book of the kethubhim, the Psalter appears first in the great majority of German manuscripts, though the Spanish manuscripts place Psalms after Chronicles, and the Talmud puts Ruth before Psalms. There has never been any serious question as to the right of the Psalter to a place in the Canon of Scripture. The book is possibly more highly esteemed among Christians than by the Jews. If Christians were permitted to retain only one book in the Old Testament, they would almost certainly choose Psalms. By 100 B.C., and probably at a much earlier date, the Book of Psalms was completed and recognized as part of the Hagiographa, the 3rd division of the Hebrew Bible.
3. Number of Psalms:
According to the Hebrew text, followed by modern VSS, there are 150 separate poems in the Psalter. The Greek version has an additional psalm, in which David describes his victory over Goliath; but this is expressly said to be "outside the number." The Septuagint, followed by Vulgate, combined Psalms 9 and 10, and also 114 and 115, into a single psalm. On the other hand, they divide Psalms 116 and 147 each into two poems. Thus, for the greater part of the Psalter the Hebrew enumeration is one number in advance of that in the Greek and Latin Bibles.
The existing division in the Hebrew text has been called in question at various points. Psalms 42 and 43 are almost certainly one poem (see refrain in 42:5, 11; 43:5); and it is probable that Psalms 9 and 10 were originally one, as in Septuagint. On the other hand, it is thought by some that certain psalms were composed of two psalms which were originally separate. We may cite as examples Psalm 19:1-6, 7-14; Psalm 24:1-6, 7-10; 27:1-6, 7-14; 36:1-4, 5-12. It is evident that such combinations of two different poems into one may have taken place, for we have an example in Psalm 108, which is composed of portions of two other psalms (57:7-11; 60:5-12).
4. Titles in the Hebrew Text:
(1) Value of the Superscriptions.
It is the fashion among advanced critics to waive the titles of the psalms out of court as wholly worthless and misleading. This method is as thoroughly unscientific as the older procedure of defending the superscriptions as part of an inspired text. These titles are clearly very old, for the Septuagint, in the 2nd century B.C., did not understand many of them. The worst that can be said of the superscriptions is that they are guesses of Hebrew editors and scribes of a period long prior to the Greek version. As to many of the musical and liturgical titles, the best learning of Hebrew and Christian scholars is unable to recover the original meaning. The scribes who prefixed the titles had no conceivable reason for writing nonsense into their prayerbook and hymnal. These superscriptions and subscriptions all had a worthy meaning, when they were first placed beside individual psalms. This indisputable fact of the great antiquity of these titles ought forever to make it impossible for scientific research to ignore them. Grant for the sake of argument, that not one of them came from the pen of the writers of the Psalms, but only from editors and compilers of exilic or post-exilic days, it would still be reasonable to give attention to the views of ancient Hebrew scholars, before considering the conjectures of modern critics on questions of authorship and date. Sources of information, both oral and written, to which they had access, have long since perished. In estimating the value of their work, we have a right to use the best critical processes known to us; but it is unscientific to overlook the fact that their proximity to the time of the composition of the Psalms gave them an advantage over the modern scholar. If it be said by objectors that these ancient scribes formed their conclusions by the study of the life of David as portrayed in the historical books of Kings and Chronicles, the reply is ready that several historical notices in the titles cannot be thus explained. Who was Cush? Who was Abimelech? (Psalms 7 and 34). A careful weighing of the facts concerning the superscriptions will make it seem highly improbable that the earliest of these titles does not reach back into pre-exilic times. We almost certainly have in them the results of the labors of Hebrew scribes and compilers stretching over several centuries. Some of the titles may have been appended by the psalmists themselves.
We are far from claiming that the titles are always intelligible to us, or that, when understood, they are always correct. The process of constructing titles indicative of authorship had not ceased in the 2nd century B.C., the Septuagint adding many to psalms that were anonymous in the Hebrew. The view expressed nearly 50 years ago by Perowne is eminently sane: "The inscriptions cannot always be relied on. They are sometimes genuine, and really represent the most ancient tradition. At other times, they are due to the caprice of later editors and collectors, the fruits of conjecture, or of dimmer and more uncertain traditions. In short, the inscriptions of the Psalms are like the subscriptions to the Epistles of the New Testament. They are not of any necessary authority, and their value must be weighed and tested by the usual critical processes."
(2) Thirtle's Theory.
J. W. Thirtle (The Titles of the Psalms, 1904) advances the hypothesis that both superscriptions and subscriptions were incorporated in the Psalter, and that in the process of copying the Psalms by hand, the distinction between the superscription of a given psalm and the subscription of the one immediately preceding it was finally lost. When at length the different psalms were separated from one another, as in printed editions, the subscriptions and superscriptions were all set forth as superscriptions. Thus it came about that the musical subscription of a given psalm was prefixed to the literary superscription of the psalm immediately following it. The prayer of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3) was taken by Thirtle as a model or normal psalm; and in this instance the superscription was literary. "A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, upon Shigionoth," while the subscription is musical, "For the Chief Musician, on my stringed instruments." The poem of Hezekiah in celebration of his recovery (Isaiah 38:9-20) seems to support Thirtle's thesis, the superscription stating the authorship and the occasion that gave birth to the psalm, while Isaiah 38:20 hints at the musical instruments with which the psalm was to be accompanied in public worship. If now the musical notes be separated from the notes of authorship and date that follow them, the musical notes being appended as subscriptions, while the literary notes are kept as real superscriptions, the outcome of the separation is in many instances a more intelligible nexus between title and poem. Thus the subscript to Psalm 55, "The dove of the distant terebinths," becomes a pictorial title of 55:6-8 of the psalm. The application of the rule that the expression "for the Chief Musician" is always a subscript removes the difficulty in the title of Psalm 88. The superscription of Psalm 88, on Thirtle's hypothesis, becomes "Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite." Psalm 87 thus has a subscript that repeats the statement of its superscription, but with an addition which harmonizes with the content of the poem. "Mahalath Leannoth," with a slight correction in vocalization, probably means "Dancings with Shoutings," and 87:7 speaks of both singing and dancing. The tone of Psalm 87 is exceedingly cheerful; but Psalm 88 is the saddest in the entire Psalter. The application of Thirtle's hypothesis also leaves Psalm 88 with a consistent literary title, whereas the usual title ascribes the psalm first to the sons of Korah and then to Heman the Ezrahite.
(3) Meaning of the Hebrew Titles.
Scholars have not been able to come to agreement as to the meaning and application of a goodly number of words and phrases found in the titles of the Psalms. We append an alphabetical list, together with hints as to the probable meaning:
(a) 'Ayeleth ha-Shachar (Psalm 22) means "the hind of the morning," or possibly "the help of the morning." Many think that the words were the opening line of some familiar song.
(b) `Alamoth (Psalm 46) means "maidens." The common view is that the psalm was to be sung by soprano voices. Some speak of a female choir and compare 1 Chronicles 15:20 Psalm 68:11, 24 f. According to Thirtle, the title is a subscript to Psalm 45, which describes the marriage of a princess, a function at which it would be quite appropriate to have a female choir.
(c) 'Al-tashcheth (Psalms 57-59; 75) means "destroy not;" and is quite suitable as a subscript to Psalms 56-58 and 74 (compare Deuteronomy 9:26). Many think this the first word of a vintage song (compare Isaiah 65:8).
(d) Ascents, So of" (Psalms 120-184): the Revised Version (British and American) translates the title to 15 psalms "A So of Ascents," where the King James Version has "A So of Degrees." The most probable explanation of the meaning of the expression is that these 15 psalms were sung by bands of pilgrims on their way to the yearly feasts in Jerusalem (Psalm 122:4). Psalms 121-123; 125; 127; 128 and 132-134 are well suited for use on such occasions (see, however, Expository Times, XII, 62).
(e) "For the Chief Musician": 55 psalms are dedicated to the precentor or choir leader of the temple. "To the Chief Musician" might mean that the precentor was the author of certain psalms, or that there was a collection of hymns compiled by him for use in temple worship, or that certain psalms were placed in his hands, with suggestions as to the character of the poems and the music which was to accompany them. It is quite likely that there was an official collection of psalms for public worship in the custody of the choir master of the temple.
(f) "Dedication of the House" (Psalm 30): The title probably refers to the dedication of Yahweh's house; whether in the days of David, in connection with the removal of the ark to Jerusalem, or in the days of Zerubbabel, or in the time of Judas Maccabeus, it is impossible to say positively. If Psalm 39 was used on any one of these widely separated occasions, that fact might account for the insertion of the caption, "a So at the Dedication of the House."
(g) "Degrees": see "Ascents" above.
(h) Gittith (Psalms 8; 81; 84) is commonly supposed to refer to an instrument invented in Gath or to a tune that was used in the Philistine city. Thirtle emends slightly to gittoth, "wine presses," and connects Psalms 7; 80 and 83 with the Feast of Tabernacles.
(i) Higgayon: This word is not strictly a title, but occurs in connection with Celah in Psalm 9:16. the Revised Version (British and American) translates the word in Psalm 92:3, "a solemn sound," and in Psalm 19:14, "meditation." It is probably a musical note equivalent to largo.
(j) Yedhuthun: In the title of Psalm 39, Jeduthun might well be identical with the Chief Musician. In Psalms 62 and 77 the Revised Version (British and American) renders "after the manner of Jeduthun." We know from 1 Chronicles 16:41; 1 Chronicles 25:3 that JEDUTHUN (which see) was a choir leader in the days of David. He perhaps introduced a method of conducting the service of song which ever afterward was associated with his name. (k) Yonath 'elem rechoqim (Psalm 56): We have already called attention to the fact that as a subscript to Psalm 55 "the dove of the distant terebinths," or "the silent dove of them that are afar off," would have a point of contact with Psalm 55:6-8.
(l) Machalath (Psalm 53), Machalath le`annoth (Psalm 88): Perhaps Thirtle's vocalization of the Hebrew consonants as mecholoth, "dancings," is correct. As a subscript to Psalm 87; mecholoth may refer to David's joy at the bringing of the ark to Zion (2 Samuel 6:14, 15).
(m) Maskil (Psalms 32; 42-45; 52-55; 74; 78; 88; 89; 142): The exact meaning of this common term is not clear. Briggs suggests "a meditation," Thirtle and others "a psalm of instruction," Kirkpatrick "a cunning psalm." Some of the 13 psalms bearing this title are plainly didactic, while others are scarcely to be classed as psalms of instruction.
(n) Mikhtam (Psalms 16; 56-60): Following the rabbinical guess, some translate "a golden poem." The exact meaning is unknown.
(o) Muth labben: The title is generally supposed to refer to a composition entitled "Death of the Son." Possibly the melody to which this composition was sung was the tune to which Psalm 9 (or 8) was to be sung. Thirtle translates "The Death of the Champion," and regards it as a subscription to Psalm 8, in celebration of the victory over Goliath.
(p) On "Neghinoth'' occurs 6 times (Psalms 4; 6; 54; 55; 67; 76), and means "with stringed instruments." Neghinath (Psalm 61) may be a slightly defective writing for Neghinoth. Perhaps stringed instruments alone were used with psalms having this title. According to Thirtle's hypothesis, the title was originally a subscript to Psalms 3; 5; 53; 54; 60; 66; 75.
(q) Nechiloth (Psalm 5), possibly a subscript to Psalm 4, is supposed by some to refer to "wind instruments," possibly flutes.
(r) Celah, though not strictly a title, may well be discussed in connection with the superscriptions. It occurs 71 times in the Psalms and 3 times in Habakkuk. It is almost certainly technical term whose meaning was well known to the precentor and the choir in the temple. The Septuagint always, Symmachus and Theodotion generally, render diapsalma, which probably denotes an instrumental interlude. The Targum Aquila and some other ancient versions render "forever." Jerome, following Aquila, translates it "always." Many moderns derive Celah from a root meaning "to raise," and suppose it to be a sign to the musicians to strike up with a louder accompaniment. Possibly the singing ceased for a moment. A few think it is a liturgical direction to the congregation to "lift up" their voices in benediction. It is unwise to dogmatize as to the meaning of this very common word.
(s) Sheminith (Psalms 6; 12), meaning "the eighth," probably denotes the male choir, as distinguished from `Alamoth, the maidens' choir. That both terms are musical notes is evident from 1 Chronicles 15:19-21.
(t) Shiggayon (Psalm 7) is probably a musical note. Some think it denotes "a dithyrambic poem in wild ecstatic wandering rhythms, with corresponding music."
(u) Shoshannim (Psalms 45; 69) means "lilies." Shoshannim `edhuth (Psalm 80) means "lilies, a testimony." Shushah `edhuth (Psalm 60) may be rendered "the lily of testimony." Thirtle represents these titles as subscripts to Psalms 44; 59; 68; 79, and associates them with the spring festival, Passover. Others regard them as indicating the melody to which the various psalms were to be sung.
(v) "So of Loves" (Psalm 45) is appropriate as a literary title to a marriage song.
(4) Testimony of the Titles as to Authorship.
(a) Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses.
(b) To David 73 psalms are ascribed, chiefly in Books I and II.
(c) Two are assigned to Solomon (Psalms 72; 127).
(d) 12 are ascribed to Asaph (Psalms 50; 73-83).
(e) 11 are assigned to the sons of Korah (Psalms 42-49; 84; 85; 87).
(f) Psalm 88 is attributed to Heman the Ezrahite.
(g) Psalm 89 bears the name of Ethan the Ezrahire.
In most cases it is plain that the editors meant to indicate the authors or writers of the psalms. It is possible that the phrase "to David" may sometimes have been prefixed to certain psalms, merely to indicate that they were found in a collection which contained Davidic psalms. It is also possible that the titles "to Asaph" and' "to the sons of Korah" may have originally meant that the psalms thus designated belonged to a collection in the custody of these temple singers. Psalm 72 may also be a prayer for Solomon rather than a psalm BY Solomon. At the same time, we must acknowledge, in the light of the titles describing the occasion of composition, that the most natural interpretation of the various superscriptions is that they indicate the supposed authors of the various poems to which they are prefixed. Internal evidence shows conclusively that some of these titles are incorrect. Each superscription should be tested by a careful study of the psalm to which it is appended.
(5) Titles Describing the Occasion of Writing.
There are 13 of these, all bearing the name of David. (a) Psalms 7; 59; 56; 34; 52; 57; 142; 54 are assigned to the period of his persecution by Saul. (b) During the period of his reign over. all Israel, David is credited with Psalms 18; 60; 51; 3; and 63.
II. Authorship and Age of the Psalms.
Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses. It is the fashion now to deny that Moses wrote anything. A careful study of Psalm 90 has brought to light nothing inconsistent with Mosaic authorship. The dignity, majesty and pathos of the poem are worthy of the great lawgiver and intercessor.
1. David as a Psalmist:
(1) The Age of David Offered Fruitful Soil for the Growth of Religious Poetry.
(a) The political and religious reforms of Samuel created a new sense of national unity, and kindled the fires of religious patriotism. (b) Music had a large place in the life of the prophetic guilds or schools of the prophets, and was used in public religious exercises (1 Samuel 10:5 f). (c) The victories of David and the internal expansion of the life of Israel would inevitably stimulate the poetic instinct of men of genius; compare the Elizabethan age and the Victorian era in English literature. (d) The removal of the ark to the new capital and the organization of the Levitical choirs would stimulate poets to compose hymns of praise to Yahweh (2 Samuel 6 1 Chronicles 15; 1 Chronicles 16; 25).
It is the fashion in certain critical circles to blot out the Mosaic era as unhistoric, all accounts of it being considered legendary or mythical. It is easy then to insist on the elimination of all the higher religious teaching attributed to Samuel. This leaves David "a rude king in a semi-barbaric age," or, as Cheyne puts it, "the versatile condottiere, chieftain, and king." It would seem more reasonable to accept as trustworthy the uniform tradition of Israel as to the great leaders, Moses, Samuel and David, than to rewrite Israel's history out of the tiny fragments of historical material that are accepted by skeptical critics as credible. It is often said that late writers read into their accounts of early heroes their own ideas of what would be fitting. James Robertson's remark in reply has great weight: "This habit of explaining the early as the backward projection of the late is always liable to the objection that it leaves the late itself without explanation" (Poetry and Religion of the Psalms, 332).
(2) David's Qualifications for Composing Psalms
(a) He was a skillful musician, with a sense of rhythm and an ear for pleasing sounds (1 Samuel 16:15-23). He seems to have invented new instruments of music (Amos 6:5). (b) He is recognized by critics of all schools as a poet of no mean ability. The genuineness of his elegy over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19-27) is commonly accepted; also his lament over Abner (2 Samuel 3:33 f). In the elegy over Saul and Jonathan, David displays a magnanimity and tenderness that accord with the representations of S as to his treatment of Saul and of Jonathan. No mere rough border chieftain could have composed a poem full of the tenderest sentiment and the most exemplary attitude toward a persecutor. The moral elevation of the elegy has to be accounted for. If the author was a deeply religious man, a man enjoying the friendship of God, it is easy to account for the moral dignity of the poem. Surely it is only a step from the patriotism and magnanimity and devoted friendship of the elegy to the religious fervor of the Psalms. Moreover, the poetic skill displayed in the elegy removes the possible objection that literary art in the days of David had not attained a development equal to the composition of poems such as the Psalms. There is nothing more beautiful and artistic in the entire Psalter.
Radical critics saw the David of the Bible asunder. They contrast the rough border chieftain with the pious Psalmist. Though willing to believe every statement that reflects upon the moral character of David, they consider the references to David as a writer of hymns and the organizer of the temple choirs as the pious imaginings of late chroniclers. Robertson well says: "This habit of refusing to admit complexity in the capacities of Biblical characters is exceedingly hazardous and unsafe, when history is so full of instances of the combination in one person of qualities the most diverse. We not only have poets who can harp upon more than one string, but we have religious leaders who have united the most fervent piety with the exercise of poorly developed virtue, or the practice of very questionable policy. A critic, if he has not a single measure of large enough capacity for a historical character, should not think himself at liberty to measure him out in two halfbushels, making one man of each" (Poetry and Religion of the Psalms, 332). Among kings, Charlemagne and Constantine the Great have been likened to David; and among poets, Robert Burns. There were contradictory elements in the moral characters of all these gifted men. Of Constantine it has been said that he "was by turns the docile believer and the cruel despot, devotee and murderer, patron saint and avenging demon." David was a many-sided man, with a character often at war with itself, a man with conflicting impulses, the flesh lusting against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh. Men of flesh and blood in the midst of life's temptations have no difficulty in understanding the David of the Bible.
(c) David was a man of deep feeling and of imperial imagination. Think of his love for Jonathan, his grateful appreciation of every exploit done in his behalf by his mighty men, his fondness for Absalom. His successful generalship would argue for imagination, as well as the vivid imagery of the elegy. (d) David was an enthusiastic worshipper of Yahweh. All the records of his life agree in representing him as devoted to Israel's God. In the midst of life's dangers and disappointments, "David strengthened himself in Yahweh his God" (1 Samuel 30:6). We should have been surprised had no trace of religious poetry come from his pen. It would be difficult to imagine Milton or Cowper or Tennyson as confining himself to secular poetry. "Comus," "John Gilpin," and the "Charge of the Light Brigade" did not exhaust their genius; nor did the elegy over Saul and Jonathan and the lament over Abner relieve David's soul of the poetry that clamored for expression. The known facts of his life and times prepare us for an outburst of psalmody under his leadership. (e) The varied experiences through which David passed were of a character to quicken any latent gifts for poetic expression.
James Robertson states this argument clearly, and yet with becoming caution: "The vicissitudes and situations in David's life presented in these narratives are of such a nature that, though we may not be able to say precisely that such and such a psalm was composed at such and such a time and place, yet we may confidently say, Here is a man who has passed through certain experiences and borne himself in such wise that we are not surprised to hear that, being a poet, he composed this and the other psalms. It is very doubtful whether we should tie down any lyric to a precise set of circumstances, the poet being like a painter who having found a fit landscape, sits down to transfer it to canvas. I do not think it likely that David, finding himself in some great perplexity or sorrow, called for writing materials in order to describe the situation or record his feelings. But I do think it probable that the vicissitudes through which he passed made such an impression on his sensitive heart, and became so inculcated withn an emotional nature, that when he soothed himself in his retirement with his lyre, they came forth spontaneously in the form of a psalm or song or prayer, according as the recollection was sad or joyful, and as his singing mood moved him" (Poetry and Religion of the Psalms, 343).
The Biblical writers, both early and late, agree in affirming that the Spirit of Yahweh rested upon David, empowering him for service of the highest order (1 Samuel 16:13 2 Samuel 23:1-3 Matthew 22:43 Acts 2:29-31). The gift of prophetic inspiration was bestowed upon Israel's chief musician and poet.
(3) External Evidence for Davidic Psalms
(a) In the New Testament David is named as the author of certain psalms. Thus Psalm 110 is ascribed to David by Jesus in His debate with the Pharisees in the Temple (Matthew 22:41-45 Mark 12:35-37 Luke 20:41-44). Peter teaches that David prophesied concerning Judas (Acts 1:16), and he also refers Psalms 16 and 110 to David (Acts 2:25-34). The whole company of the disciples in prayer attribute Psalm 2 to David (Acts 4:25 f). Paul quotes Psalms 32 and 69 as Davidic (Romans 4:6-8; Romans 11:9 f). The author of He even refers Psalm 95 to David, following the Septuagint (Hebrews 4:7). From the last-named passage many scholars infer that any quotation from the Psalms might be referred to David as the chief author of the Psalms. Possibly this free and easy method of citation, without any attempt at rigorous critical accuracy, was in vogue in the 1st century A.D. At the same time, it is evident that the view that David was the chief author of the Psalms was accepted by the New Testament writers.
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PSALTER, (PSALMS), OF SOLOMON
See APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE, sec. III, 1; BETWEEN THE TESTAMENTS, sec. IV, 1, (1), (b).
See PSALMS, VI, 7.
SOLOMON, PSALMS (PSALTER) OF
See APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE, sec. B, III, 1.