1. Title. The book of Psalms, or the Psalter, takes its English title from the LXX title of the collection, Psalmoi, the plural of psalmos, which designates a song to be sung to the musical accompaniment of stringed instruments. One manuscript has the title Psalterion, from which the word “Psalter” is derived. Psalmos is the Greek translation of the Heb. mizmor, a technical designation for many of the psalms. The root of mizmor is zamar, which means “to sing with instrumental accompaniment,” or simply “to sing” or “to praise.” In the Hebrew Bible the title of the book is Tehillim, “praises,” and in rabbinical literature Sepher Tehillim, “book of praises.” Tehillim is derived from the root halal, “to praise.” Halal is familiar to English readers in the word hallelujah.
The Hebrews divided their sacred writings (our OT) into three divisions: the Law (Torah.), the Prophets (NebiХim), and the Writings (Kethubim) (see Vol. I, p. 37). The division called Writings included the three poetical books, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job; the Five Rolls (Megilloth), The Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; and the historical books of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Since Psalms was considered the most important of the Writings, that title was often made to stand for the group (by the figure of speech called synecdoche); thus the Hebrews frequently spoke of the three divisions of their sacred writings as “the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (see Luke 24:44).
2. Authorship. The psalms are the inspired productions of a number of authors, the whole collection having been brought together in its final form possibly by Ezra, Nehemiah, or some of the scribes immediately following their period. On the editorial activities of Ezra see EGW, Supplementary Material, on Ezra 7:6–10. Our oldest indications regarding the origin of the Psalter are represented in the titles, or superscriptions, that appear at the beginning of two thirds of the psalms. In the Hebrew these superscriptions appear as part of the text. Although these superscriptions are older than the LXX, many scholars believe that they were prefixed to the psalms after the original psalms were composed, and hence question their validity and authenticity. These scholars advance as their arguments: (1) that the origin of these superscriptions is uncertain; (2) that their contents are sometimes ambiguous or obscure; and (3) that it seems difficult to reconcile the content and style of some of the psalms with the statements or implications of the superscriptions.
The more conservative students of the psalms incline toward accepting the explicit statements of the superscriptions as authentic: (1) because their antiquity can be proved to go back to a time at least as early as the second century b.c. by their presence in the LXX (in fact they must have gone back to a time far preceding the date of that version, because the translators of the LXX did not understand many of the expressions); (2) because they have come down to us as a part of the Hebrew text itself; (3) because Hebrew lyrics from the earliest times had superscriptions attached to them; and (4) because the superscriptions provide certain helpful backgrounds for a fuller understanding of the meaning and message of the psalms thus introduced. This commentary accepts the conservative point of view.
Eight names of persons occurring in the superscriptions to the psalms appear to be the names of authors, contributors, compilers, musicians, or others associated with the composition, compilation, and use of the sacred lyrics. The names are David, Asaph, Korah, Moses, Heman, Ethan, Solomon, and Jeduthun.
Foremost among these names is that of David. Although some moderns deny that David was the chief author of the book of Psalms and the principal contributor to the collection, many reasons may be given to substantiate the traditional belief. David was a poet and musician in his own right (1 Sam. 16:15–23; 2 Sam. 23:1; Amos 6:5). He was a man of deep affection, of outstanding magnanimity (2 Sam. 1:19–27; 3:33, 34), and of great faith and deep feeling, which found expression in enthusiastic worship of Jehovah. Under his wise and benevolent leadership music flourished in Israel. The capture of the heathen fortress, Jebus, and the enshrining of the ark upon the heights of Zion increased the importance of public worship and encouraged the composition of hymns and music for the sacred ritual.
David’s acquaintance with the world of nature, his knowledge of the law, his tutelage in the school of adversity, of sorrow, and of temptation, his years of intimate fellowship with God, his colorful life as king in Israel, his assurance from God that He would raise up an everlasting King upon the throne of David—these experiences equipped the shepherd-king, the son of Jesse, to sing the sweetest and saddest songs of the human soul in its thirst for God. Moreover, references and allusions to the life of David and evidences of David’s personality and craftsmanship abound in the psalms. The connection of David’s name with the psalms, and with parts of psalms quoted in 2 Sam. 22 and 1 Chron. 16:1–36, constitutes strong support of authorship. The NT evidence in the use of David’s name in Matt. 22:43–45; Mark 12:36, 37; Luke 20:42–44; Acts 2:25; 4:25; Rom. 4:6–8; 11:9, 10; Heb. 4:7 adds weight to the argument. The writings of Ellen G. White also provide substantial testimony (see PP 642–754; Ed 164, 165).
Seventy-three psalms carry in their superscription the phrase, “of David” (Heb. ledawid): 37 in Book One, 18 in Book Two, 1 in Book Three, 2 in Book Four, and 15 in Book Five (see p. 626 on the division of the psalms into books). These 73 psalms are commonly called the Davidic Collection. However, the expression ledawid, “of David,” is not alone sufficient evidence for assigning authorship to David for the psalm in which the expression appears. The Hebrew preposition le expresses a number of relationships of which authorship is only one. At times le expresses the idea of “belonging to”; hence, ledawid could mean “belonging to the collection of.” Nevertheless other evidence combines to show that David wrote at least many of these psalms. With reference to the use of the preposition le in connection with proper names, Barnes says: “Such a title does not imply, still less prove, that all the pieces in the collection come from the hand of David, but it does suggest that the outstanding one among the authors was the great king of Israel.”
In the superscription of 12 psalms the phrase “of Asaph” (leХasaph) appears (Ps. 50, 73–83). As with the expression ledawid, leХasaph is not positive evidence of authorship. Several of the psalms in this collection were apparently written by David (see Introductions to Ps. 73, 77, 80). Asaph was a Levite, one of David’s choir leaders. Like David, Asaph was a seer and a musical composer (see 1 Chron. 6:39; 2 Chron. 29:30; Neh. 12:46). In the list of captives who returned to Jerusalem, the children of Asaph are the only singers mentioned (Ezra 2:41).
In the superscription of 11 psalms the phrase “for the sons of Korah” appears (Ps. 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87, 88). The Hebrew word translated “for” is le, the preposition translated “of” in the phrase “a Psalm of David” (see p. 616). Korah’s children escaped the punishment inflicted because of their father’s rebellion against the authority of Moses (see Num. 16:1–35), and their descendants became leaders in the Temple worship (see 1 Chron. 6:22; 9:19).
One psalm (Ps. 88) designated “for the sons of Korah” is also designated “Maschil of Heman of Ezrahite.” Heman was the son of Joel and grandson of Samuel (Heb. ShemuХel), a Kohathite of the tribe of Levi, and a leader in the Temple music (1 Chron. 6:33; 15:17; 16:41, 42).
The titles to three psalms (Ps. 39, 62, and 77) contain the name of Jeduthun, who was the head of a company of Temple musicians (see 1 Chron. 16:41, 42), and probably an arranger and compiler of Temple music. These titles, however, contain other names than that of Jeduthun, and it is probable that the three psalms were not written by Jeduthun but possibly were intended to be sung to tunes composed by him.
One psalm (Ps. 89) is entitled “Maschil of Ethan the Ezrahite” (see 1 Kings 4:31).
In the titles to two psalms (Ps. 72, 127) the phrase “for Solomon [lishlomoh]” appears.
One psalm (Ps. 90) is entitled “A Prayer of Moses [lemosheh].”
About one third of the psalms bear no superscription whatsoever, and therefore are entirely anonymous (they are called orphan psalms). It has been conjectured that among the composers of the psalms were such other OT worthies as Ezra, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Haggai.
3. Historical Setting. Modern attempts to discover authorship and to date the psalms began about the middle of the 19th century, with a study of the references contained in the superscriptions. During the last hundred years scholars have placed the composition of the psalms over a span of more than a thousand years, beginning with Moses and ending with Alexander Jannaeus (d. 78 b.c.), with constant widening in the disparity of their views. Ewald (Eng. tr. 1880) allocated 13 psalms to the time of David, and considered most of the rest of the psalms postexilic. Cheyne (1888, 1891) allocated 16 psalms to pre-exilic times (chiefly during Josiah’s reign) and considered all the rest postexilic—30 Maccabean. With the rise of higher criticism among Biblical scholars of this period, there was a general tendency to date only a few of the psalms as belonging to David and his times, while most of them were considered to be the product of postexilic times, chiefly the Persian and Greek periods, and some distinctly Maccabean. At the turn of the century, however, the general trend was to come to middle ground and date most of the psalms in the middle, or Persian, period. More recent knowledge of psalmody among the nations bordering on Israel has tended to date many of the psalms as pre-exilic; and the most recent archeological discoveries, especially the unearthing of the Ras Shamrah (Ugarit) tablets (from 1929 onward), have tended to prove that many of the psalms go back to an early date in Palestinian history (see H. H. Rowley, ed., The Old Testament and Modern Study). Buttenwieser (1938) dates the psalms from Joshua to the Greek period, with none later than 312 b.c.
The conservative scholar generally holds that the psalms were composed against a historical background of a thousand years. Although many individual psalms cannot be placed definitely at any specific point in the history of the Hebrew people from Moses and David to the years immediately following the Exile, it may be safely concluded that the time of their composition lies within these bounds.
The hypotheses that seek to establish the authorship and date of many of the psalms are often highly ingenious and frequently interesting, but many of them are by no means conclusive. The reasons that have led many modern scholars to reject in whole or in part the authority of the superscriptions to the psalms have led to such differences of opinion that the matter is one of almost hopeless confusion. This commentary follows the plan that where authorship and historical background are certain or reasonable, these data appear in the introductory notes to the several psalms preceding the comment on the text itself. When the word “psalmist” is used in these notes, it does not always mean a specific composer, such as David or one of the Asaphites, or one of the Korahites, but may be employed to cover general authorship.
Even though the authorship and historical background of a number of the psalms is not known, this in no way hinders us from accepting the entire body of the Psalter as the product of men who “spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (Peter 1:21).
Among the notable finds of archeology in recent years, those that have made the greatest contribution to a better understanding of the psalms have come from the north Syrian site of Ras Shamrah, called Ugarit in ancient times. Excavations in this place, begun in 1929, have unearthed hundreds of clay tablets. These were written in a cuneiform script unknown at the time of their discovery, but which has since been deciphered, largely through the able efforts of Prof. Hans Bauer and P. Dhorme. The tablets contain mythological texts dealing with the religion of the ancient Canaanites (see Vol. I, pp. 128, 129). The study of these documents has become a special science called Ugaritic, a name that has also been given to the language and script in which these documents are written.
Ugaritic was a Canaanite dialect spoken by the population of northwestern Syria during the middle of the second millennium b.c. Because the Hebrew language varies but little from the ancient Canaanite, the Ugaritic religious literature has thrown much light on many obscure phrases and words of the Old Testament, especially of Psalms. The terminology and vocabulary of Ugaritic religious literature vary only slightly from those found in the Bible.
Besides throwing light on many obscure passages in Psalms, the study of the Ugaritic literature has also shown that the Biblical psalms are of much greater antiquity than many modern scholars were willing to admit. Numerous psalms that higher critics have dated in the Maccabean age have now been shown to contain phrases that were in common use in the second millennium b.c., but were not so in the Hellenistic period. This tends to substantiate the early dates suggested for many of the psalms by their respective titles.
However, the greatest contribution that Ugaritic has made with reference to the psalms is in the matter of vocabulary and phraseology. Many passages that were formerly obscure because the meaning of the words had been lost and could only be guessed at, have now, through a study of Ugaritic equivalents, become clear and meaningful. In other cases the Ugaritic has confirmed the traditional understanding and translation of the text that is found in our English Bible.
Where the Ugaritic has made a substantial contribution to a better understanding of a certain text or word, this will be noted in the comments on the passages involved. In only a few exceptional cases will notice be made of the fact that the Ugaritic supports the traditional reading. The notes on Ugaritic owe much to the following scholars who have done pioneer work in demonstrating the bearing of Ugaritic on the study of Psalms: W. F. Albright, H. L. Ginsberg, C. H. Gordon, U. Cassuto, and J. H. Patton. The writer’s indebtedness to the work of these men, and his gratitude, are herewith expressed.
4. Theme. Man is in trouble—God gives relief. This is the theme—universal in its appeal—of the book of Psalms. In these sacred poems we hear the cry, not only of the Hebrew, but of universal man, ascending to God for help, and see the hand of Omnipotence reaching down to bring relief. No wonder that for centuries, for Jew and Gentile alike, the Psalter has supplied material for private prayer and for public devotion; it has served with equal satisfaction as the formal liturgy for the Hebrew Temple and synagogue, as the hymnbook of the Christian church, and as the prayer book of the solitary child of God, regardless of race or creed.
The narrative of the use of the Psalter among the Hebrews is full of interest. The psalms early became the expression of the devotion of the people both in private life and in public worship.
A prominent part of worship in the Temple was the singing, or chanting, of psalms by antiphonal choirs, or by the choir and the congregation in responsive style. For this David set the pattern, in entrusting a psalm “to thank the Lord” into the hands of Asaph and his brethren when he brought the ark into the newly appointed tent in Jerusalem (see 1 Chron. 16:7–36). According to the Mishnah and the Talmud a psalm was assigned to each day of the week, to be sung after the daily sacrifice when the drink offering was being poured.
Special psalms were selected as suitable for the great feasts: Ps. 113–118 for Passover; Ps. 118 for Pentecost, Tabernacles, and the Dedication; Ps. 135 for the Passover; Ps. 30 for the Dedication; Ps. 81 for the New Moon, with Ps. 29 for the evening sacrifice on that day; and Ps. 120–134 for the first night of Tabernacles.
In the synagogue the daily prayers replaced the sacrifices of the Temple, the daily service being made to correspond as much as possible with that of the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, the psalms were employed as prayers along with the reading of the Law and the Prophets, thus providing a constant communion with God in public worship. Special psalms came to be used for special occasions: Ps. 7 for Purim; Ps. 12 for the eighth day of Tabernacles; Ps. 47 for the New Year; Ps. 98 and 104 for the New Moon; Ps. 103 and 130 for Atonement. The people knew by heart the great hallels, or “hallelujahs”: Ps. 104–106, 111–113, 115–117, 135, and 145–150, which were used as communal expressions of thanksgiving.
In the modern synagogue the use of the psalms varies according to the rite followed (Eastern European, Spanish–Portuguese, Yemenite, Italian, etc.), but the psalms have an honored place in all the rituals.
Likewise in the life of the orthodox Jew, from the first waking moment to the last moment before the night’s rest begins, the psalms comprise a substantial part of the worshiper’s daily prayers.
Christians have to a degree followed the pattern set by Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth quoted more frequently from Psalms and from Isaiah than from any other OT books. No other OT book is so frequently cited in the NT as the book of Psalms, with the possible exception of Isaiah. The early Christians incorporated psalms into their worship (see 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13) and the churches that followed continued the practice down through the centuries. Chrysostom (c. 347–407) attests the prevalence of psalms in all forms of worship. In the medieval church the clergy recited the whole Psalter weekly. It is said that St. Patrick recited the whole book of Psalms daily.
The psalms are a definite part of the Catholic ritual—both Roman and Eastern—and continue to hold a substantial place in the worship of both Anglican and evangelical branches of the Christian church, as current observation and experience confirm.
In the treatment of the theme of man’s trouble and God’s relief, the psalms draw their materials from the personal and national life of a people who experienced much of sorrow and joy, of frustration and fruition, of disappointment and satisfaction; from the reactions of a people who felt deeply the poignancy of their experiences and expressed themselves with emotional freedom. The psalms, therefore, reflect almost every experience possible to finite man, and give expression to practically every human emotion. Says Ellen G. White: “The psalms of David pass through the whole range of experience, from the depths of conscious guilt and self-condemnation to the loftiest faith and the most exalted communing with God” (PP 754). They are concerned with sickness and recovery, sin and forgiveness, sorrow and comfort, weakness and strength, evanescence and permanency, futility and purposefulness.
There are psalms for every mood, for every need: psalms for the disappointed, for the discouraged, for the aged, for the despairing, for the sick, for the sinner; and psalms for the youthful, for the vigorous, for the hopeful, for the faithful, believing child of God, for the triumphant saint. There is a psalm with scarcely a note of hope in its overtone of dejection; and, on the other hand, there is a psalm of praise that breathes not a single word of petition. There are psalms in which the sinner tarries “in the secret” of God’s “presence” “under the shadow” of His “wings” and pours out his soul alone; and there are psalms in which the saint of God joins the vast assembly of worshipers in the great congregation, and, to the accompaniment of all manner of instruments, shouts aloud the praise of God. And throughout the whole collection, God is exalted as the solution to all man’s problems, the ultimate All in all: our hope, our confidence, our strength, our triumph—incarnate in the Messiah, whose coming brings redemption and ushers in the universal and eternal reign of righteousness. Christ moves through the psalms; in them we catch prophetic glimpses of His deity (Ps. 45:6; 110:1), Sonship (Ps. 2:7), incarnation (Ps. 40:6, 7), priesthood (Ps. 110:4), betrayal (Ps. 41:9), rejection (Ps. 118:22), resurrection (Ps. 16:9, 10), and ascension (Ps. 68:18). “The golden key of the Psalter lies in a Pierced Hand” (Alexander).
Among the many phases of development in the psalmist’s treatment of his grand theme, the following statements are suggested as of special importance:
1. The devout soul can imagine no greater blessing than to be in the presence of God, no greater calamity than to be shut away from His presence.
2. The God who is the creator and sovereign-ruler of the universe is at the same time the loving father of His children, the tender shepherd of His human sheep.
3. Real religion is an intensely joyous experience, abounding in all manner of expression, requiring the consecration of all human values to the praise of God. “I will praise thee, O Lord, with my whole heart” (Ps. 9:1).
4. Petition and thanksgiving should go hand in hand. Prayer and praise are partners. When the psalmist asks God for a blessing, he praises Him for the abundance of His blessings and thanks Him for the blessing as if it were already received.
5. The contemplation of nature always leads the devout soul to the praise of God as Creator—it is never an end in itself.
6. Since the history of God’s people shows that God has blessed them abundantly in the past, it may be confidently expected that He will continue to bless them now and in the future.
7. Righteousness—rightdoing—ultimately has its rewards. In general, the devout life on earth is eminently more satisfactory than the way of the worldling; and ultimately it yields eternal satisfaction. Conversely, wickedness—wrongdoing—brings suffering and ultimate death. Although the wicked appear to prosper for a time, the justice of God’s government will ultimately show the folly of their way and give them the logical result of their wickedness.
8. It is the privilege and responsibility of the child of God to share his experience with others. The apparent nationalism of some of the psalms gives way in others to the psalmist’s recognition of the church universal.
9. Trouble, pain, and sickness are part of God’s redemptive plan, to be accepted as instruction and warning. All life’s problems will be solved ultimately in the coming of Messiah and the establishment of His everlasting kingdom of righteousness.
10. In God’s government, “mercy and truth are met together” (Ps. 85:10)—the law and the gospel are joined in perfect union.
For the expression of the vast theme of Psalms in its many phases, the psalmists chose the literary form of lyric poetry as the fittest means of expressing man’s deepest insights and highest aspirations in his desire for fellowship with God. The psalms are “the perfection of lyric poetry” (Moulton). But to the casual reader, accustomed to the metrical forms of English poetry, the psalms do not present the appearance of poetry. In them he does not find the regularly recurring accent and the rhyme that constitute the typical metrical features of much of the poetry of the Western languages. Hebrew poetry, which comes to its point of highest excellence in Psalms, is entirely different in nature from the poetry of the West. Its rhythm does not consist in a regular recurrence of accented and unaccented syllables, with rhyme at ends of lines and sometimes within the lines, as in much English poetry. It appears that accent occurring irregularly is a feature of the form of Hebrew poetry, but its nature is challenging scholarship and is not fully understood (see p. 27). The infrequent appearance of similar sounds at the ends of adjacent verses does not necessarily give evidence of rhyming design on the part of the poet. Neither of these elements appears in the common English translations. Significantly, the metrical basis of Hebrew poetry, in common with that of other languages of the Near East, is much more elastic than the metrical basis of conventional English poetry. It is so elastic as to reveal in its inner structure the development and relationship of the component thoughts of the over-all composition.
The significant feature of Hebrew poetry is the rhythm of thought called parallelism, or balanced structure, the setting of line against line in a variety of patterns. This peculiar structure has been likened to the ebb and flow of the tide, and, in the language of a German writer, to “the heaving and sinking of the troubled heart.” There is something about it that transcends nationality. It seems to be indigenous to the human heart. And the Bible reader may take satisfaction in the fact that this Oriental metrical form loses little if any of its validity and beauty in the English of the KJV, as he grows used to recurrence of phrase after phrase, marshaled according to a wide range of variations in balance.
Parallelism is of three primary kinds:
1. Synonymous parallelism, in which the thought is repeated immediately in different words and images in the succeeding line, the two lines forming a couplet of unified ideas; for example,
“The sorrows of hell compassed me about:
the snares of death prevented me” (Ps. 18:5).
“Cast me not off in the time of old age;
forsake me not when my strength faileth” (Ps. 71:9).
2. Antithetical parallelism, in which the thought is contrasted or reversed in the succeeding line; two thoughts are set over against each other; for example,
“I am as a wonder unto many;
but thou art my strong refuge” (Ps. 71:7).
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses:
but we will remember the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7).
3. Synthetic parallelism, in which the second member of the couplet adds a thought akin to that of the first member, or completes the thought of the first member; for example,
“I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised:
so shall I be saved from mine enemies” (Ps. 18:3).
“For as the heaven is high above the earth,
so great is his mercy toward them that fear him” (Ps. 103:11).
This use of parallelism has numerous intricate developments, which are explained more in detail in the article, “The Poetry of the Bible,” pp. 24–27.
Although this thought rhythm, or parallelism, appears to some extent in the KJV, the prose form in which that version is printed tends to obscure the poetic structure. Therefore, in this commentary the text is printed in the customary typographical form of English verse in an endeavor to represent to some degree the metrical basis of the psalms.
A. Classification. Many classifications of the psalms according to subject matter and purpose have been offered. Barnes recognized five types: (1) Hymns in Praise of God, (2) National Hymns of the Hebrews, (3) Temple Songs, (4) Psalms on the Themes of National and Individual Trial and Calamity, and (5) Religious and Moral Psalms. Kent listed the following types: (1) Love and Marriage, (2) Praise and Thanksgiving, (3) Adoration and Trust, (4) Prayer, and (5) Reflective and Didactic. MacFayden arranged the psalms according to eleven topics: (1) Adoration, (2) Jehovah’s Universal Reign, (3) The King, (4) Reflection, (5) Thanksgiving, (6) Worship, (7) History, (8) Imprecation, (9) Penitence, (10) Petition, and (11) Alphabetical.
Based upon his study of literary compositions in the form of religious lyrics not only in Israel and Judah but also in the early and contemporary cultures of the adjacent Near Eastern peoples, Gunkel found five types: (1) Hymns, including Songs of Zion and Enthronement Psalms, (2) Communal Laments, (3) Royal Psalms, (4) Individual Laments, and (5) Individual Songs of Thanksgiving, with a group of psalms which he calls Mixed Psalms. Classifying according to literary form and purpose, Moulton designated the psalms as (1) Prefatory, (2) Dramatic Monologues, (3) Acrostic Psalms, (4) Dramatic Anthems, (5) Anthems for the Inauguration of Jerusalem, (6) Liturgies, (7) Festal Hymns, (8) Votive Hymns, (9) Litanies, (10) National Elegies, (11) Occasional Hymns, and (12) Festal Anthems.
For the purpose of this commentary the following classification, with notes by way of definition and typical examples of each class, will serve to show the variety of ideas and inclusiveness of theme in the Psalter:
a. Nature. Ps. 8, 19, 29, 104. The Hebrews, living close to the land, were lovers of nature. However, their love of nature was never an end in itself, but always pointed to nature’s God and led them to extol the power and majesty of the Creator. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni,” is an outstanding example of this Hebraic treatment of nature in English literature. In it the poet’s contemplation of nature leads to praise of God.
b. Historical and National. Ps. 46, 68, 79, 105, 106, 114. From the rich experiences of the past, depressing or exhilarating as they might have been, the Hebrew psalmists drew warnings with respect to daily conduct and inspiration for the future. Their loyalty to God was ever the focal point of their patriotism. It was He who furnished the inspiration needed in time of national crisis.
c. Didactic. Ps. 1, 15, 34, 71. The psalms abound in moral, ethical, and religious counsel.
d. Messianic. Ps. 2, 22, 69, 72, 110. The Messiah is presented in His divine character and human descent, in His humility and exaltation, in His suffering and glory, in His priestly service and royal dignity, and in the ultimate triumph and blessedness of His eternal reign. The NT picture of Christ as Prophet, Priest, Redeemer, and King is forecast in the Psalter. It has been said that a systematic treatise on the Messiah could almost be compiled from Psalms. It need hardly be added that to say there are Messianic psalms is also to say that there are prophetic psalms. David was not only a sweet singer, he was also a prophet (Acts 2:29, 30).
e. Penitential. Ps. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. David stands out as one of the great confessors in the Bible. Vigorously sinning, he as vigorously renounced his sin, falling in sorrow and contrition at the feet of his Saviour. It is significant that of the seven penitential psalms five are attributed to the poet-king, who, when faced with the prophet’s parable of the ewe lamb, immediately confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:1–13).
f. Imprecatory. Ps. 35, 52, 69, 83, 109. A number of psalms denounce the enemies of God and His people and bring down curses upon their heads. The tone of these psalms seems contrary to the spirit that Christ declared should govern our attitude toward an enemy (Matt. 5:44). The following suggestions, of varying value, offered by a wide range of expositors, may help collectively to throw light on the problem:
1. The expression of denunciation may be understood as predictive rather than imperative. The punishment is foreseen by the psalmist; it does not come in response to his petition. The verbs of imprecation may be considered statements of warning rather than expressions of desire.
2. The concreteness of Hebrew thought and expression tended to associate sin and the sinner as one. The Hebrew mind found it difficult to harbor the abstract idea of sin except as he saw it personified in the sinner. Sin and the sinner were not separate entities, but inseparable concomitants. To destroy the sin, demanded the destruction of the sinner.
3. Recognizing their role as God’s chosen representatives among the heathen, the Hebrews considered an attack made against them by the heathen to be a sin against God, and felt obligated to inflict punishment for such an attack. The psalmist is conscious of being anointed of God. When he speaks, he speaks for God. When the enemy persecutes him, he is persecuting God. In this connection it may be noted that Moses, in the impassioned intensity of the oratorical discourse of Deuteronomy, sometimes turns from using the third person pronoun, and, without transition or explanatory phrase, speaks, as it were, directly from the mouth of God (see Deut. 11:13–15; 29:5, 6). The psalmist wrote under divine inspiration, and thus had the right not only to denounce sin but to pronounce judgment against the sinner. With these imprecations against the enemy may be compared the maledictions against the Israelites themselves for falling into sin, as recorded in Lev. 26, Deut 27 and 28, the denunciations of Isa. 5:24, 25; 8:14, 15; Jer. 6:21; 7:32–34, the strong language used by Jesus in denouncing the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23), and the words of the NT writers in Acts 5:3, 9; Gal. 1:8, 9; 5:12; James 5:1–3. As these references indicate, the imprecations of the Bible are not confined to the psalms, nor even to the OT. They are found in the NT as well.
4. The denunciations of the sinner must be understood against the background of the times in which they were written. In those days men expressed themselves in strong terms and with vigorous imagery. The Bible writers set forth their ideas in human language and in a style familiar to men. “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible” (EGW MS 24, 1886).
g. Prayer, Praise, and Adoration. Ps. 16, 55, 65, 86, 89, 90, 95–100, 103, 104, 107, 142, 143, 145–150. The psalmist’s voice is continually heard in prayer: “I cried unto the Lord” (Ps. 3:4), “Hear my prayer, O Lord” (Ps. 39:12); and in praise and adoration: “I will extol thee, my God, O king” (Ps. 145:1), “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name” (Ps. 103:1). All the experiences of life are lifted above their setting and made the subject of praise.
h. Pilgrim. Ps. 120–134. Essentially folk songs, called “A Song of degrees” in the superscription. These songs were perhaps sung by pilgrims on their way to the great feasts in Jerusalem.
In the Hebrew these psalms are called shir hammaФaloth (Ps. 121 is designated shir lammaФaloth).MaФalah comes from the root Фalah, which means “to go up.” MaФalah is used of the ascent or return home from Babylon (Ezra 7:9), of “steps” or “stairs” (Ex. 20:26; 1 Kings 10:19), and of “steps of a sundial” (2 Kings 20:9). In the title to these psalms, maФalah possibly refers to the pilgrimages to the feasts at Jerusalem (cf. its use in Ezra 7:9). The Mishnah refers to a traditional use of these 15 psalms in the Temple as follows: “Holy men … repeated songs and praises … and Levites stood with harps upon the fifteen steps which go down from the court of Israel to the court of women, corresponding in number with the fifteen songs of Maaloth which are in the book of Psalms.” Tradition also affirms that these psalms were sung by the Levites during the all-night feast of the first night of Tabernacles on the 15 steps between the Court of Israel and the Court of the Women, while the Court of the Women was brilliantly illuminated with candelabra.
i. Alphabetic, or Acrostic, Psalms. Ps. 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145 in the Hebrew text reveal an alphabetical succession in initial letters of verses, unrecognized in the ordinary English translations, except in part in the KJV of Ps. 119, where the Hebrew letter appears at the beginning of each stanza. The acrostic psalms are of three kinds:
1. Those in which the first letter of each verse is a letter of the alphabet in order (Ps. 25, 34, 111, 112, 145, with a few minor exceptions in Ps. 25 and 34).
2. Those in which the letters of the alphabet begin alternate verses (Ps. 37) or occur at the beginning of verses at wider intervals in the psalm (Ps. 9 and 10).
3. The psalm (119) which is divided into 22 stanzas of 8 verses each, each line of each stanza beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, the stanzas proceeding in the normal order of the alphabet.
This acrostic device was employed doubtless to aid the memory of the reader, thus anticipating our modern ABC books by more than 2,000 years. The acrostic psalms, as a rule, do not show active development of theme, but rather repetition in different words and with varied illustrations. Stylistically, they are characterized by richness of expression.
In this commentary the acrostic nature of the psalms in poetic form is indicated by letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the margin. The 22 letters of the alphabet are listed in order on p. 14.
B. Arrangement. Since very early times the book of Psalms has been divided into five books, possibly in imitation of the five books of Moses. Commenting on Ps. 1, the Midrash says: “Moses gave the Israelites the five books of the Law, and to correspond to these David gave them the Book of Psalms in five books.” This fivefold division, which is probably older than the LXX, is indicated by the insertion of doxologies and “Amens” at the close of each book, except Book Five, which, as an expanded and climatic doxology, serves as a conclusion to the whole Psalter.
These major divisions are as follows:
Book One, Ps. 1–41, closing with a doxology and double “Amen” (Ps. 41:13).
Book Two, Ps. 42–72, closing with a double doxology, double “Amen,” and the inscription “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” (Ps. 72:18–20).
Book Three, Ps. 73–89, closing, as Book One, with a doxology and double “Amen” (Ps. 89:52).
Book Four, Ps. 90–106, closing with a doxology, an “Amen,” and a hallelujah (“Praise ye the Lord,” Ps. 106:48).
Book Five, Ps. 107–150, closing with Ps. 150, which begins and closes with a hallelujah (“Praise ye the Lord”), and is itself an extended hallelujah.
Within the body of the Psalms, in addition to the Davidic, Asaphic, and Korahite collections referred to above, several other collections appear as minor psalters.
Ps. 51–72 are called The Prayers of David the Son of Jesse (see Ps. 72:20). Ps. 52–55 are a collection of maschils (see p. 628); Ps. 56–60, of michtams (see p. 627); Ps. 57–59, of al-taschiths (see p. 629). Ps. 113–118 constitute the Egyptian Hallel, so-called from the first phrase in Ps. 114: “When Israel went out of Egypt.” Jewish tradition has it that the Egyptian Hallel was used as part of the Passover ritual in the Temple. The several psalms of the collection, it is said, were sung while the vessels containing the blood of the Passover lambs were being passed up and down the rows of priests, on its way to be poured out at the foot of the altar by the ministering priest. The people joined orally in the ceremony, shouting Hallelujah and repeating certain verses of the psalms at intervals. Ps. 119 may be regarded as a collection of 22 short psalms, forming an ingenious acrostic meditation on the law. Ps. 120–134 are called Songs of Degrees, and are a collection of pilgrim folk songs (see p. 625). Ps. 145–150 constitute a final magnificent Hallelujah Chorus. The devout soul is offered an array of psalters within the Psalter.
In referring to verses in Psalms, by the customary method of textual reference, one must note the text or version to which he is referring, for the numbering of the verses varies in several texts and versions. Special attention is called to the textual numbering of the Hebrew text, the KJV, and the RSV, as compared with the textual numbering of the Greek LXX, the Latin Vulgate, and the English Douay Version.
The English Bible (KJV, RSV, etc.), following the Hebrew, numbers 150 psalms. The LXX numbers 151 psalms and the Vulgate 150 psalms, but these versions are numbered differently. They combine Ps. 9 and 10 into one psalm, and likewise Ps. 114 and 115; and divide Ps. 116 into two psalms: Ps. 116:1–9; Ps. 116:10–19; and Ps. 147 into two psalms: Ps. 147:1–11, Ps. 147:12–20. Thus, only Ps. 1–9 and 148–150 are numbered the same in the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Latin. Except for Ps. 9, 10, 114–116, and 147, in the remaining psalms the Hebrew numbering is higher by one than that of the LXX and Vulgate. It is important to recognize this difference in numbering when one cites references to the LXX or the Vulgate. This difference in numbering the several psalms appears in the following table:
Hebrew, KJV, RSV
LXX, Vulgate, Douay
151 (in LXX only)
Moreover, in the Hebrew text, the title or superscription of a psalm constitutes v. 1, in whole or in part. This requires further care in citing verse references from the Hebrew text. For example, Ps. 4:1 (KJV) is Ps. 4:2 in the Hebrew, the superscription being numbered v. 1. The Hebrew text of Ps. 4 therefore has nine verses instead of eight verses as
C. Superscriptions. See also pp. 615–617. The superscriptions of the psalms designate psalm collections, psalm types, musical melodies, instrumental accompaniment, and facts of authorship and occasion.
a. Collections. References in the superscriptions of many of the psalms to David, to Asaph and the sons of Asaph, and to the sons of Korah, seem to indicate smaller collections of psalms within the Psalter of 150 psalms. There are 73 psalms in the Davidic Collection, 12 in the Asaphic Collection, and 11 in the Korahite Collection. The superscriptions to 55 of the psalms contain the phrase “To the chief Musician,” Heb. lamnas\s\each; “To the choirmaster” (RSV), as if this collection were dedicated or entrusted to the “overseer” of the choir (see 2 Chron. 2:2, 18; 34:13 for the use of menas\s\each as “overseer”). Lamnas\s\each is translated “to the chief singer” (KJV), “to the choirmaster” (RSV), in Hab. 3:19. Some suggest the definition “for liturgical purposes.”
b. Types. Key words or phrases in the superscriptions of numerous psalms seem to indicate the nature or type of the psalm thus introduced. They are as follows:
1. Psalm. Heb. mizmor, a song to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. It occurs in the superscriptions of 57 psalms, always qualified with other words, as “of David.” Mizmor comes from the root zamar, meaning “to sing,” “to praise,” “to play an instrument.” The LXX translates mizmor by psalmos (from psallein, “to pluck”).
2. Song. Heb. shir. This word appears in the superscription of 29 psalms. In the superscription of Ps. 18, the word “song” is translated from shirah, the feminine form of shir. The phrase “A song of loves” (KJV), “a love song” (RSV), introduces Ps. 45. In the superscriptions of Ps. 120–134 the word “song” is followed by the phrase “of degrees” (see p. 625).
3. Michtam. A transliteration of the Heb. miktam. This word appears in the superscriptions of six psalms (16, 56–60). Its meaning is unknown. One conjecture derives the word from an Akkadian root, katamu, “to cover,” and suggests that the psalms so designated may be considered atonement psalms, that is, psalms concerned with the covering up of sins. The word may be a musical title.
4. Maschil. A transliteration of the Heb. masЊkil, derived from the root sЊakal, “to be prudent.” Its presence in the superscriptions of 13 psalms (32, 42, 44, 45, 52–55, 74, 78, 88, 89, and 142) seems to indicate that these psalms are instructional or didactic poems. MasЊkil is translated “with understanding” in Ps. 47:7. Since, however, the idea of instruction, rigorously applied, does not suit all of these psalms, masЊkil may indicate a kind of musical performance.
5. Prayer. Heb. tephillah. This word appears in the superscriptions of Ps. 17, 86, 90, 102, and 142 (see Hab. 3:1).
6. Praise. Heb. tehillah. This words occurs in the superscription of Ps. 145, its only appearance in a superscription in the Psalter. A masculine plural form tehillim is the Hebrew title of the whole collection (see p. 615).
7. Shiggaion. Heb. shiggayon. This word appears in the superscription of Ps. 7 (and elsewhere in the plural, in Hab. 3:1). Its meaning is uncertain. It has been explained as meaning an irregular ode of wild and impassioned nature. The Heb. root word is probably shagah, “to wander,” “to stray,” “to stagger,” suggesting ecstatic rhythm with frequent change.
8. To teach. Heb. lelammed. The phrase occurs in the superscription of Ps. 60 and suggests that the psalm was intended for teaching purposes. Perhaps the Levites were entrusted with the responsibility of teaching it to the people.
9. To bring to remembrance. Heb. lehazkir. The phrase appears in the superscription of Ps. 38 and 70. From the Heb. Хazkarah, “offering of incense,” some have conjectured that this phrase indicates that these psalms were intended to be sung while that part of the sacrificial service took place. In 1 Chron. 16:4 the word “record,” “invoke” (RSV), is translated from Heb. lehazkir.
10. Of praise. Heb. lethodah. This phrase appears in the superscription of Ps. 100. Possibly this psalm was intended to be sung at the time of the thank offering (Lev. 7:11–15). Ps. 100 is a psalm of thanksgiving.
c. Melodies. Several phrases in the superscriptions suggest melodies to accompany the psalms, probably tunes well known in their original use. Popular melodies may have been adapted to public worship.
1. Muth-labben (Ps. 9). Its meaning is uncertain. Some Hebrew manuscripts combine Фal, translated “upon” (KJV), with muth, thus yielding the word Фalmuth. But even this combination remains an unexplained technical note. The LXX follows this combination and translates the phrase, Фalmuth labben, “concerning the hidden things of the son.” Some suggest that the phrase is the title or first phrase of a tune and translate it “Die for the son.”
2. Shoshannim (Ps. 45 and 69). Literally, “lilies,” probably the title or key word of a melody. The superscription of Ps. 60 includes the phrase “Shushaneduth,” literally, “lily of witness,” and the superscription of Ps. 80 “Shoshannim-Eduth,” literally, “lilies, the witness.” Perhaps these phrases all suggested the same well-known love tunes. The lily is the anemone of Palestine. Or, Eduth may be a place name.
3. Aijeleth Shahar (Ps. 22). Literally, “the doe [of a fallow deer] of the dawn.” “The Hind of the Dawn” (RSV). According to the Targums this psalm was sung during the offering of the lamb at the time of morning sacrifice, but how early this custom was introduced is not known.
4. Jonath-elem-rechokim (Ps. 56). The meaning of this phrase is unknown. By conjecturally emending the text, reading Хalim for Хelem, the RSV translates the expression, “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths.” Some suggest that there may be a quotation from, or a reference to, the song cited in Ps. 55:6, 7. Others suggest an allusion to David’s years of wandering.
5. Al-taschith (Ps. 57–59, 75). Literally, “Do not destroy.” Possibly the first words of the vintage song quoted in part in Isa. 65:8.
d. Several phrases in the superscriptions seem to indicate the kind of orchestral instruments used to accompany the singing or chanting of the psalms.
1. On Neginoth (Ps. 4, 6, 54, 55, 67, 76). Probably meaning, “with stringed instruments” (RSV). The word is used in the singular in the superscription of Ps. 61. Neginoth is rendered “stringed instruments” in Isa. 38:20 and Hab. 3:19. The Hebrews had three kinds of stringed instruments, the harp (Heb. nebel), the lyre (Heb. kinnor), and the zither (Heb. ФasЊor). On these instruments see pp. 33–37.
2. On Nehiloth (Ps. 5). Probably meaning, “for the flutes” (RSV).
3. Upon Sheminith (Ps. 6, 12). A phrase of uncertain meaning. The marginal reading “upon the eighth” found in some editions of the KJV, if “eighth” is intended to refer to the octave, is meaningless, for there is no evidence that the Hebrews knew the octave. In 1 Chron. 15:21 the phrase is used in connection with harps. Josephus says that the harp (Heb. nebel) had eight strings.
4. Upon Gittith (Ps. 8, 81, 84). A musical term the exact meaning of which is unknown. Jewish tradition says that it refers to a harp that David brought from Gath. The form of the word may imply “after the Gittite manner,” that is, in a manner borrowed from the Gittites, as we speak of music in the Italian manner, or in the Chinese mode, etc. But probably a better meaning derives from the Heb. gath, “wine press,” in which case “upon Gittith” may possibly refer to a vintage melody.
5. Upon Alamoth (Ps. 46). The meaning of the phrase is unknown. The translation “for the maidens” (established by Aquila and Jerome) appears improbable, for women apparently took no part in the Temple services. In 1 Chron. 15:20 the phrase appears in connection with psalteries. Possibly the harps were to be tuned to follow the lead of the lyres.
6. Upon Mahalath (Ps. 53, 88). The meaning is uncertain, although the suggestion that the psalm is to be sung in a sad, mournful manner is consonant with the mood of these psalms, especially the latter, identified by some as the darkest in the Psalter.
e. Authorship and Occasion. The superscriptions of 14 of the psalms (3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) refer to episodes or circumstances in the life of David. For a discussion of these superscriptions see p. 617 and the introductions to the several psalms.
D. Selah A transliteration of the Heb. selah. This word appears 71 times in the Psalter: 17 times in Book One, 30 times in Book Two, 20 times in Book Three, and 4 times in Book Five. There are no occurrences in Book Four. Selah appears in only 39 of the 150 psalms; 28 of these psalms have for their superscription “To the chief Musician.” The word is of uncertain meaning and has been variously interpreted to indicate a pause in the reading, an interlude for stringed instruments, a change of melody, emphasis (like “Amen”), etc. The LXX renders the term diapsalma (“interlude”), suggesting a musical notice in the liturgical redaction of the psalm. Despite many conjectures, the word is of doubtful signification. “Selah” occurs within psalms of a distinctly hymnlike nature, and usually appears at the close of a section of thought.