The book of the Psalms has been rightly regarded as the "Hebrew Praise Book". It occupies a central place in Scripture and is its longest book, occupying even greater space than the book of Ezekiel. It is a book that speaks to the heart and soul, awaking deep emotions to a greater extent than any other Old Testament book. Sorrow, sadness, joy, happiness and praise are all to be found within its pages. It meets, therefore, every varied need of the reader. History and prophecy are found there; the personal experiences of godly men are writ large on the text; the sure confidence in their God is seen in every word that they penned. There is wealth in the text that enriches the soul.
The poetic nature of the psalms, like all poetry, allows an expression of mood, an emphasis of meaning and an aid to memory that surpasses that of prose. Asaph, David, Heman, Solomon, Moses, and the sons of Korah are known to be the authors of some of the psalms but the writers of many are not known. It should be noted that although David was the main author of the Psalms he was not glorified in these writings. His was a life of great achievement, but the purpose in writing was not to exalt him in any way. The book was not written to contain a paean of praise to David, no matter how great his triumphs.
John Calvin stated, "This book I am wont to style an anatomy of all parts of the soul: for no one will discover in himself a single feeling whereof the image is not reflected in the mirror. Nay, all griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, anxieties-in short, all these tumultuous agitations wherewith the minds of men are wont to be tossed-the Holy Ghost hath here represented to the life".
Considering the first psalm, we note that the opening word, "Blessed", sums up the purpose of the book. The word means "happy", and it is no coincidence that the Sermon on the Mount commenced with the word "Blessed". The question, "Where is happiness found?", a question that natural man has been unable to resolve, is answered clearly in the Psalms, and in the teaching that the Lord gave to those who listened on the mountain top (Mt 5.1-7.29).
The psalms are divided into five books. Expositors over the years have likened the five books of the psalms to the first five books of the Bible.
Psalms 1-41 The Genesis book
Psalms 42-72 The Exodus book
Psalms 73-89 The Leviticus book
Psalms 90-106 The Numbers book
Psalms 107-150 The Deuteronomy book.
This division has been in place since the days of the Chronicles. The quotation from the doxology of the fourth book, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting: and let all the people say, Amen. Praise ye the Lord", is found in 1 Chronicles 16.35-36.
It has already been noted that the book of Psalms open with "Blessed", and it is remarkable to note that the first psalm finds God blessing man and the final psalm finds man praising God. There is a climax of growing praise, seen in the closing words of the last five psalms, "Praise ye the Lord" (Ps 146.10; 147.20; 148.14; 149.9; 150.6), but with every phrase of the last (Ps 150) occupied with praise. Note that the end of each of the five books is clearly marked. The words "Amen, and Amen" close the first three books (41.13; 72.19; 89.52), the fourth ends with, "Amen. Praise ye the Lord" (106.48) and the fifth with, "Hallelujah (150.6, JND).
"There is language here, somewhere, to express the thoughts and feelings and desires of every child of God. There are dispensational Psalms, devotional Psalms, doctrinal Psalms, penitential Psalms, prophetical Psalms, practical Psalms, and imprecatory Psalms, with comfort and correction, instruction and direction, encouragement and reproof".1
It is also helpful to keep in mind the differing aspects of the psalms. They have, first, to be studied to see their historical background; second, they have to be studied to learn the prophetical teaching; third, they have practical lessons to impress on us; fourth, they teach the reader to enjoy that which is devotional.
The question that arises is when the psalms were gathered together as they are in Scripture. Perowne2 suggests that apart from four of them the first book consists mainly of the psalms of David. The four exceptions (Psalms 1,2,10,33) have no name attached them. It is thought that these psalms were gathered together in the days of Solomon. The second and third books appear to have been gathered together during the reign of Hezekiah. The fourth and fifth books contain psalms that point to the time of Israels exile indicating that they may have been gathered together at that time or later.
It should be noted that Hezekiah established a group of scribes (Prov 25.1) to collect and preserve the portions of Hebrew literature. Consequently, the arrangement of some of the Psalter may have been their work. Hezekiah also wrote a psalm after he had recovered from the illness that would have been fatal. Isaiah the prophet brought the "lump of figs" which was used of God to effect his recovery. Hezekiahs psalm of praise for his deliverance is found in the book of Isaiah (38.9-20).
Inscriptions of the Psalms
There are mainly three differing inscriptions. Perowne summarises them:
Those which mark their musical and liturgical character.
These psalms bear such inscriptions as "For the Precentor"; or "To the Chief Musician".
Those which assign them to particular authors.
This is clearly seen in the names of David, Solomon, Asaph etc. which are placed in the inscription.
Those which designate the particular circumstances under which a psalm was composed.
Examples of this are "Michtam of David, when he fled from Saul in the cave" (57.1) and "Michtam of David, when the Philistines took him in Gath" (56.1).
Some of the key descriptive words
Psalm: Praise, song.
Song: 30 psalms have this in their superscription. This word, unlike "psalm" is found in secular songs.
Prayer: Found in the titles of 5 psalms (17,86,90, 102,142).
Prayers: At the end of Psalm 72: "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended". Some think that this applies to the second book, others that it applies to the whole Psalter up to that point.
Praise: In the title of Psalm 145.
Maschil: Occurs 13 times. Psalms of instruction, particularly for the wise in troubled times.
Michtam: In 6 psalms. Doubtful meaning - precepts of faith worthy to be engraved on the memory.
Song of degrees: Songs of going up. A number of suggestions have been made as to the significance of this title. Some claim that it was the psalms sung on the return from Babylon. Others place them as the psalms that were sung as the people went to keep the feasts at Jerusalem.
For the chief Musician: The Lord Jesus is typified in this expression. He is the leader of the praise (Ps 22.22), and He is the object of all worship. These psalms were possibly the special collection of the leader of the praise. This is found 55 times and always in the psalms of David.
Selah: Pause or lift up. It calls attention to a connection of contrast or amplification between what precedes and what follows.
Hallelujah: Never in the psalms of David. "Praise ye the Lord" - an invitation to all to join in the public responses.
There are sixteen psalms (Ps 2,8,16,22,24, 40,41,45,68,69,72,89,91,102,110,118) which are generally recognised as being Messianic psalms. These psalms are a "must" to read and consider as we contemplate the Person of the Lord Jesus. How can the reader fail to be touched when the opening words of Psalm 22 are read: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (v.1)? How can the soul be unmoved as Psalm 110 is considered: "The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies" (v.2)? How can the heart not be thrilled as in Psalm 68 the supreme authority of Messiah is declared: "Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee" (v.29)? Let us ensure that we do not miss the benefit that is enjoyed by those who read and carefully consider the Psalms.
1Flanigan, J. What the Bible Teaches: Psalms.
2Perowne, J J Stewart. The Book of Psalms.