March 13, 2022

The Book of Psalms

Written by:
Rev (Dr) Prabhudas Koshy

Two weeks ago, we started a new sermon series during the Lord’s Day morning worship services from the Book of Psalms. We shall endeavour to study the Book of Psalms, as the LORD enables us by His Spirit, and at the same time praying for great blessings of these truths upon our lives.

Some Facts About the Book of Psalms

  • In the Hebrew Bible, this book is entitled “The Book of Praises” (sēpher tehillîm). The English title “Psalms” (the Psalter) is derived from the title of this book found in the Greek New Testament (“the book of Psalms” – Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20). The book was known as “Psalms” among the Greek-speaking Jews, as the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Septuagint (LXX), has the title “The book of Psalms”. The verbal form of the Greek noun “psalms” signifies “plucking or twanging of strings”, thus suggesting the use of the psalms with musical accompaniment. It has been the inspired ‘hymnbook’ (the Psalter) of God’s people, ancient Israel and the N.T. church (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
  • The 150 psalms in the Psalter are organised into 5 books as follows:
    • Book 1: Psalms 1–41
    • Book 2: Psalms 42–72
    • Book 3: Psalms 73–89
    • Book 4: Psalms 90–106
    • Book 5: Psalms 107-150
  • Each of these books ends with a doxology (Psalms 41:13; 72:18-20; 89:52; 106:48; 150:6).
  • Superscriptions or titles are found in 116 psalms. They are written in small print at the beginning of the psalms in our English Bible. They are part of the inspired text of the psalms. The original Hebrew texts include these titles with the verses themselves. The New Testament treated these superscriptions, and the information they provide, as sacred, inspired writings (Mark 12:35–37; Luke 20:42; Acts 2:29ff., 34ff.; 13:35–37). Those titles convey various, accurate information about the psalms, such as their authorship, historical occasions, liturgical instructions (e.g. the kind of music, musical accompaniment, what tune to use, as well as instruction to the choir director and other technical instructions of uncertain meaning due to their great antiquity).
  • The Spirit of God has used several human authors to pen those inspired ancient sacred hymns. More than 7 composers have been identified as contributors to the Book of Psalms. Chief among them is David, the king, who wrote at least 75 psalms. Others are Asaph (12 psalms), the sons of Korah (10 psalms), Solomon (2 psalms), Moses (1 psalm), Heman (1 psalm), and Ethan (1 psalm). Nevertheless, the authorship of 48 psalms is not mentioned. Some scholars attribute some psalms to Ezra, as their contents refer to exilic and post-exilic events (e.g. Psalms 126, 137).
  • The time range of the Psalms extends from Moses who wrote Psalm 90 (about 1410 B.C.) to the post-exilic author(s) of Psalms 126 and 137 (late 6th Century B.C.). So, the Book of Psalms must have been compiled over a span of about 900 years of Israel’s history.
  • The Book of Psalms is the largest book in the Bible. While Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the entire Bible, Psalm 117 is the shortest chapter (comprising only 2 verses), which incidentally is also the middle chapter (out of 1,189 chapters) in the Bible.
  • Various literary types or genres are identified in the Psalter. Some of them are: (i) Praise or thanksgiving psalms; (ii) Penitential psalms (confessing of sins); (iii) Royal psalms (depicting messianic, theocratic rule); (iv) Wisdom psalms that provide instruction for godly living; (v) Pilgrimage or Ascension psalms of those who travelled to Mt. Zion for worship; (vi) Imprecatory psalms invoking God’s curse on the ungodly; and (vii) Lament psalms that are cries to God for help in times of individual or communal crises.
  • Unparalleled Hebrew poetic literary styles or characteristics, known as ‘poetic parallelism’, are found in the Book of Psalms. This Hebrew poetic parallelism is not based on rhyme and meter (like that of English poetry), but on a logical (or thought) arrangement of lines. Some of the frequent types of parallelisms are: (i) Synonymous (the thought of the second line restates that of the first with similar or synonymous words); (ii) Antithetic (the thought of the second line contrasts the first); (iii) Synthetic (the second and any subsequent lines advance the thought of the first line in a ‘stair-step’ fashion); (iv) Climactic (the second line completes the first by repeating words or phrases of the first line and then adding to it), (v) Emblematic (the second line explains the figure of speech used in the first line), (vi) Alternate (‘A-B-A-B’ pattern, where the third line repeats the thought of the first line, and the fourth line repeats the thought of the second line), (vii) Chiastic (or Introverted ‘A-B-B-A’ pattern, where the second line advances the thought of the first, then repeats the thought of the second in the third, and the thought of the first in the fourth.)
  • Some psalms, from the first to the last verse, utilise an acrostic or alphabetical arrangement. This can be only seen in the Hebrew text, where the first letter of the first word of every verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order until all the 22 Hebrew letters are used. Acrostics occur in Psalms 111 and 112, where each letter begins a line; in Psalms 25, 34 and 145, where each letter begins a half-verse. Psalm 119 has the most fascinating demonstration of the acrostic device, where in each section of eight verses, the same opening letter is used, and the twenty-two sections of the psalm employ the Hebrew alphabet, letter after letter. Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145 are recognised as either complete or incomplete acrostics. Such a literary device (mnemonic device) was used to help with the memorisation of the psalm. It is also thought to be a poetic way of indicating a total coverage of the main subject discussed in the said psalm.

(God willing, more on the Psalms next week…)

Gethsemane Bible-Presbyterian Church adheres to the system of faith commonly known as the “Reformed Faith” as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
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