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PSALMS are ancient Hebrew songs addressed to or invoking the deity; the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament in the Christian scriptures, includes a book of 150 of these religious songs. In ancient and later Jewish tradition, the book is known in Hebrew as Tehillim ("Praises"), although only one of the songs (Psalm 145) is so designated within the biblical text. The English title Psalms derives from the Greek rendering of the Hebrew mizmor (a song accompanied by string plucking), a label that introduces fifty-seven of the Hebrew psalms. In Christian circles, the Book of Psalms is often referred to as the Psalter, a name taken from the psaltery, a stringed instrument that accompanied the singing of many of the psalms. Use of the word psalter also implies that the Book of Psalms has been used as a hymnal, an official collection of religious songs, since ancient times.

In the Jewish canon, Psalms is the first book in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings. In the Christian canon, Psalms appears among the so-called wisdom books, between Job and Proverbs.

Apart from the canonical psalms, which seem to have been accorded official status in the second century bce, there are many other ancient Hebrew songs of the psalm type. Within the Hebrew Bible are the song of triumph in Exodus (15:1-18), the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel (2:110), the song of thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 22 (which is nearly identical with Psalm 18), the prayer of Hezekiah in Isaiah (38:1020), the thanksgiving psalm in Jonah (2:310), and the prayer of Habakkuk. The Psalms of Solomon in the pseudepigrapha, dated to the first century bce, comprises eighteen hymns, personal pleas for salvation in particular, which resemble certain biblical psalms. Although only versions in Greek and Syriac are extant, the pseudepigraphical psalms clearly reflect Hebrew originals.

In addition, seven noncanonical psalms have been recovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. They appear interspersed with a number of canonical psalms in the large manuscript of psalms from Qumran cave 11. Of these seven, one is included as Psalm 151 in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), one is contained in the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira, and two have been preserved in ancient translations. A fifth appears in another Dead Sea Scroll, so that only two of the seven compositions are "new." As many as four Dead Sea psalters, dating from no later than the first century ce, include noncanonical psalms; this suggests that ancient hymnals were not restricted to the biblical Book of Psalms. A lengthy Dead Sea composition, the Hodayot (Songs of praise and thanksgiving), contained over forty hymns patterned after and drawing phrases from the Book of Psalms. The canonical psalms, then, served as models for ancient Jewish hymnody. At least two psalms within the New Testament, the Magnificat of Mary (Lk. 1:4655) and the Benedictus of Zechariah (Lk. 1:6879), similarly drew upon and emulated canonical prototypes.

Formation of the Psalter

In its canonical form, Psalms comprises five sections or "books": Psalms 141, 4272, 7389, 90106, and 107150. The fivefold structure may have been patterned after the Pentateuch. The first four books end with a doxology, or call to praise the Lord, and the fifth ends with an entire psalm (Psalm 150) that constitutes a doxology. It has been noted that books 1, 4, and 5 tend to employ the unvocalized personal name of God in the Hebrew Bible, YHVH (traditionally and in this article rendered as "the Lord"), while books 2 and 3 refer to God as Elohim, suggesting that divergent theological traditions, or schools, may have compiled the different books.

There are a number of indications that the psalms had formerly been organized differently. Psalm 135 concludes with a doxology, and Psalm 72 ends with an attribution to a special collection of "David." These two, then, may have once designated the close of earlier collections. A number of psalms are attributed in their titles or openings to various types or collections: the psalms of David (Ps. 39, 1132, 3441, 5165, 6870, 86, 101, 103, 108110, 124, 133, 138145a total of seventy-two); the psalms of the sons of Kora (Ps. 42, 4449, 84, 85, 87, 88); the psalms of Asaph (Ps. 50, 7383); the psalms of maʿalot, usually rendered "ascents" (Ps. 120134); and the "hallelujah" psalms (Ps. 104106, 111113, 115117, 135, 146150). Because psalms of similar attribution generally occur in blocks, because very similar psalms appear in more than one collection (Ps. 14 and 53; parts of 40 and 70; 57 and 60 and 108), and because the attributions seem to refer to liturgical compilations (Kora and Asaph were eponymous names of priestly guilds) or functions ("ascents" and "hallelujah" psalms), it is likely that the canonical books were formed from earlier groups of psalms, with psalms from one group interpolated into sets of psalms from other groups.

Evidence from the Dead Sea psalters suggests that books 1 and 2 were standardized by the second century bce but that the order of psalms in the last three books remained flexible as late as the first century ce. At that time, the canonical Psalter was fixed within the Jewish community of ancient Judaea.

Attribution of the Psalms

Most psalms bear headings that serve either to attribute them to certain authors or collections (David, Kora, Asaph, Moses, Solomon), to describe their type (accompanied song, chant, prayer), to prescribe their liturgical use (Psalm 92 is assigned for Sabbath worship), or to direct their musical performance.

Nearly half the canonical psalms are attributed to David, king of the Israelite empire in the tenth century bce. Few of the psalms, however, are dated by scholars to so early a period. The attributions to David are generally held to stem from a later attempt to enhance the authority of the psalms by ascribing their origin to Israel's most famed singer and psalmist, David. David is represented as a musician in 1 Samuel 16, and within the narrative of 2 Samuel he is credited with three songs: an elegy for Saul and Jonathan (2 Sm. 1:1727), a psalm of thanksgiving for his having been delivered from enemies (2 Sm. 22), and a reflection on the covenant between YHVH and David (2 Sm. 23:17). Some of the psalm headings place the following psalm in a specific situation in the life of David. For example, Psalm 34 begins: "Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, and he chased him out, and he went." (This ascription is clearly inauthentic, however, for it was Achish of Gath, not Abimelech, who chased out David; see 1 Sm. 21:1016.) The attribution of psalms to David manifests a later interest; in fact, the ancient Greek translation inserts references to the life of David where the Hebrew has none.

Large groups of psalms are attributed to Kora and Asaph. According to Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, they were the ancestral heads of the priestly functionaries in the Second Temple in Jerusalem (c. 515 bce70 ce), the Levites. Chronicles further credits David with establishing the Levitical functions in the Temple (see 1 Chr. 1516). It would seem, then, that the attributions to David, Kora, and Asaph refer historically to collections of psalms among Second Temple personnel. The fact that 1 Chronicles 16 incorporates a psalm virtually identical with Psalm 105 supports this conclusion.

Beginning in the second century bce with the apocryphal 2 Maccabees (2:13), Christian and Jewish sources (e.g., Heb. 4:7; B.T., B.B. 14b) attribute the entire Book of Psalms to David. A noncanonical composition toward the end of the large Psalms Scroll from Qumran cave 11 credits David not only with the 150 canonical psalms, but with a total of 4,050 (150 × 33) psalms and songs. Jewish and early Christian tradition ascribe all the laws to the classic biblical lawgiver, Moses; the wisdom books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, to Solomon, a king celebrated for his sagacity; and, accordingly, the sacred songs to David. Although certain Christian and Jewish savants in the Middle Ages questioned the Davidic authorship of all the psalms, it was not until the writing of Barukh Spinoza in the seventeenth century and that of critical scholars in the nineteenth century that David was no longer held to have composed even those psalms ascribed to him in the Bible. Fundamentalists continue to believe in the Davidic authorship.

Date and Provenance of the Psalms

Although modern scholarship has abandoned the belief that David authored all the psalms, their date and provenance has been variously determined. Nineteenth-century scholars tended to date the composition of the psalms to the period in which their use was first explicitly attested, following the return of Judahites from the Babylonian exile in the fifth century bce and later. Similarities between the psalms and the prophetic literature were explained as the influence of the prophets on the psalmists. A number of factors led twentieth-century scholars to conceive earlier datings. One was the discovery of hymns and prayers from ancient Egypt, Hatti (in Asia Minor), and Mesopotamia, which often display themes, motifs, and formulas similar to those of the biblical psalms. Likewise, the recovery of Ugaritic (northern Canaanite) texts shows that they exhibit a language and prosodic style similar to that of the psalms. Since psalmody is attested in the ancient Near East as early as the third millennium bce, there is no reason to think Israel did not develop it until a late stage in its history. A second factor is thematic. If most psalms are postexilic or from the period of the Second Temple, it is surprising that they are not preoccupied with the return from the exile and the restoration of a Davidic king. A third factor is cultic or liturgical. If, as most scholars believe, many psalms functioned in the Temple cult, it is likely that a large number had already served such a function in the First, preexilic, Temple (see further below).

Because the psalms contain within them few historical references, the most scientific method for establishing the date and provenance of the individual psalms is linguistic. Psalms, like liturgical literature generally, tend to archaize. Even taking this into account, texts such as Psalms 18, 29, 68, 132, and others appear, by dint of their somewhat primitive content, affinities to Canaanite literature, and outmoded linguistic features, not merely to archaize but to be old. On the other hand, Psalms 103, 117, 119, 124, 125, 133, 144, 145, and, perhaps, others betray distinctively postexilic linguistic characteristics, making their Second Temple dating reasonably certain. Psalm 137 relates directly to the experience of exile, but most others cannot with certainty be dated before or after the sixth-century bce exile. As regards provenance, as will be suggested below, certain psalms manifest clear origins in the ritual cult, some appear to have been commissioned by the monarchy, and others probably derive from scribal or unofficial circles.

Types of Psalms

Before discussing the ancient and later uses of the psalms, it will be helpful to describe their types. The prosodic form of the psalms, their language, and their motifs are for the most part highly conventional, suggesting they were composed according to typical patterns.

Their predominant form is comprised of parallelismthe formation of couplets and, occasionally, triplets of lines, through the repetition of syntactic structure and/or semantic content. For example, Psalms 92:23:

Good it is to give thanks to the Lord,
and to make song to your name, O one on high:

To tell in the morning of your devotion,
and of your faithfulness in the nights.

Several phrases and lines, such as "Give thanks to the Lord, for his devotion is eternal," "Chant to the Lord a new chant," "Do not in your wrath reprove me," "He has saved me from the enemy," and the like, abound in Psalm s, such that most psalms appear contrived of common vocabulary and images. A number of psalms are arranged by artificial devices such as the alphabetic acrostic (Psalms 25, 34, 119, 145, and, more or less, others).

Many of the most common themes in the psalms also appear in the hymns and prayers of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Psalm 104, for example, in which the deity's all-encompassing wisdom is compared to the sun and manifested in creation, bears sriking similarities to the fourteenth-century bce Egyptian hymn to Aton (the sun disk) as well as to a Babylonian hymn to Shamash, the sun god. The Israelite victory hymn in Exodus 15 shares a number of motifs with the thirteenth-century Egyptian song of the pharaoh Merneptah. Both exalt the deity among the other gods; both describe the submission of other peoples witnessing the triumph. Prayers of Egypt, Hatti, and Mesopotamia praise the gods, as the Hebrew psalms praise YHVH, for protecting and upholding the poor, the feeble, the widow, and the orphan. All fear the god turning away his (or her) compassionate face; all ask undeserved forgiveness for the suppliant's sins; all assert that the righteous will prevail, that evildoers will stumble; all ask vengeance on enemies. As in Psalms 27:4, an Egyptian prayer seeks acceptance by the deity, the opportunity to gaze upon the image, or presence, of the god. The Hebrew psalms even share the typical outcry, "How long, O Lord," with Babylonian supplications. Although very few ancient Canaanite hymns or prayers have yet been discovered, the biblical psalms attest divine titles, such as "rider of the clouds" (Ps. 68:5), and entire verses, such as Psalms 92:10 and 145:13, which vary little from mid-second-millennium bce Canaanite (Ugaritic) lines of epic. Considering these and many other parallels, and the Phoenician locale and archaic Canaanite style of Psalm 29, it would seem that Israelite psalmists drew upon, perhaps even borrowed, common Canaanite material and patterns for their own hymns and prayers.

The conventional nature of so many biblical psalms and their relations to ancient Near Eastern hymnody in general have led scholars to delineate specific types of psalms and to associate those types with specific social or cultic circumstances in which they were presumably used in ancient Israel. In the early twentieth century, Hermann Gunkel isolated five major, as well as some minor, psalm types:

  1. Hymns, liturgical songs of praise to the deity, sometimes beatifying God's power in nature (e.g., Ps. 29, 33, 34, 92, 100, 104, 105, 111, 114, 134136, 145, 146)
  2. Personal songs of praise or thanksgiving, similar to hymns but ostensibly offered by individuals (e.g., Ps. 18, 30, 32, 34, 41, 56, 116, 118, 138)
  3. Communal laments (e.g., Ps. 28, 86, 106, 115)
  4. Individual laments or supplications (e.g., Ps. 6, 25, 26, 38, 41, 91)
  5. Songs for the king (e.g., Ps. 2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132)

Several psalms mix different types; Psalm 18, for example, is both a royal song and an individual thanksgiving. Some psalms recount God's redemptive acts in Israelite history in the context of a hymn or other psalm type (e.g., Ps. 78, 105, 106, 136). Among the minor psalm types are didactic songs which teach piety and divinely favored conduct (e.g., Ps. 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133); meditations (e.g., Ps. 23, 27, 90); and communal thanksgivings (e.g., Ps. 67, 124).

Each of the psalm types exhibits certain characteristic traits. Within the most common type of psalm, the individual supplication, for example, in both the biblical and the extrabiblical specimens we find most of the following features: a description of the suppliant's ailment; a characterization of the suppliant as somehow disadvantaged in society; a plea for divine succor, often accompanied by a vow to the deity; and praise for the deity and/or an expression of trust that the deity will heed the plea. It is also widespread in this type for the suppliant to refer both to a physical distress and to mortal foes, on whom the suppliant seeks retribution. Note, for example, these excerpts from Psalm 6 (vv. 3, 6, 8, and 9):

Show grace, O Lord, for languishing am I,
Heal me, O Lord, for my limbs have been trembling.

For in death there is no mind of you.
In Sheʾol [the netherworld] who will praise you?

My eye from vexation has grown sore,
It has pined from all my adversaries.

Turn away from me, all evildoers!
For the Lord hears my crying voice.

The stereotyped nature of so many psalms suggests they may have been composed to fit into a particular, probably liturgical, function.

The Settings of the Psalms

Some of the psalms cannot readily be associated with any specific historical or cultic setting. This is especially so for didactic and meditative compositions. In many other cases, the content of the psalm suggests a likely usage. Psalm 24, for example, does seem like an appropriate text for a ceremony in which the ark was conveyed to Jerusalem. Psalm 45 sounds like an ode to be chanted at the wedding of a king. Psalms 114 and 136 pertain to the Exodus from Egypt and would have served well as texts for the spring festival of Pesa (Passover), which celebrates Israelite freedom from Egyptian bondage.

There are a number of reasons for thinking that many, if not most, of the biblical psalms functioned within the daily and special occasional rituals of the Israelite Temple cult. It is likely that the later use of psalms in Jewish and Christian worship continued ancient practice. Ritual literature from ancient Near Eastern societies outside Israel, such as Babylon, prescribe the recitation of prayers and hymns similar to those of the Bible within various cultic ceremonies. One may infer that the biblical psalms served a similar function.

Indeed, references and statements within Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible suggest a liturgical usage. This is clear in Second Temple times, as Ezra (3:1011) and Chronicles (1 Chr. 16:836) cite the singing of Psalms 117, 96, 105, and 106. Some psalms speak of chanting psalms in the sanctuary (Ps. 11:4, 134:2, 150:1), and several allude to worship in the sanctuary (e.g., Ps. 17:15, 18:7, 23:6, 26:8, 27:4). Psalms 66 and 135 display a liturgical nature, and the numerous references to singing and musical accompaniment in Psalms bespeak a liturgical usage.

Preexilic biblical texts such as Isaiah 30:29 and Amos 5:23 link music to worship. Not only do many psalms describe instrumental accompaniment (e.g., Ps. 43:4, 71:22, 81:24, 92:3, 150:35), but several psalm headings also appear to direct the method of chanting or playing the psalm. Several psalms are introduced by the ascription la-menatsea, which, on the basis of 1 Chronicles 15:21, refers to the conductor of stringed instruments in the liturgy. Psalms 57, 58, 59, and 75 were to be chanted to the tune of a popular song, "Destroy Not"; Psalms 45 and 80, to the tune of "Roses"; Psalm 22, to "Gazelle of Dawn"; and Psalm 56, to "Dove of the Distant Terebinths." A number of the headings appear to prescribe the manner of, or instruments for, playing a psalm, although the precise meaning of the terms cannot be defined: neginot (stringed instruments?); sheminit (on the octave?, eight-stringed instrument?); ʿalamot (soprano?); neilot (reed pipe?); and gittit (vintner song?).

Psalms 4243 (which comprise a single piece) and 107 feature refrains that may well have served as responses for a chorus, and Psalm 136 presents the same phrase after each new line, suggesting a choral or congregational response. The fact that the refrain "Blessed is the Lord and blessed is his name forever and ever" follows each verse of Psalm 145 in the Dead Sea Scroll from cave 11 supports the view that at least some, if not most, of the psalms played a role in the Temple liturgy.

What role they played in First Temple times can only be surmised. It is often assumed that, as in the postexilic period, psalms were chanted in conjunction with the daily cult of animal offerings and on Sabbaths and festivals. Individuals may have recited psalms privately, as 1 Samuel 2 represents of Hannah and Jonah 2 of Jonah. Many psalms are indeed spoken by a first-person singular "I." Such psalms, however, frequently refer to the speaker's enemies as "the nations" (e.g., Ps. 44, 60, 66, 74, 89, 94, 102, 118), which suggests that the "I" of these psalms is not an individual but the entire people of Israel. How many psalms served as texts for private prayer is, therefore, unclear.

In general, the psalms deal with broad themes of human anguish and need, the deity's grandeur and pathos, and the virtues and pleasures of piety. Many psalms touch on an array of themes. The nonspecific nature of so many psalms makes them, theoretically, applicable to a variety of occasions without limit to a particular time and place. For this reason, it is difficult, and perhaps inconsistent, to define the historical setting or function of any psalm in narrow fashion. Nevertheless, the presence of striking motifs in various series or groups of psalms has led some scholars to try to find for them a common ancient setting.

A number of psalms (e.g., Ps. 47, 93, 95100) speak of the kingship of the biblical god, YHVH. On the basis of festivals in Egypt (Min) and Babylonia (Akitu) in which the chief god is celebrated for vanquishing the god(s) of chaos and establishing order and is then enthroned and acclaimed as king, Sigmund Mowinckel and other twentieth-century scholars have hypothesized that ancient Israel acclaimed YHVH as king at the fall New Year, on Sukkot (Tabernacles, Feast of Booths). As many as forty psalms have been presumed to have been recited as part of this "enthronement" festival. During this festival, the primeval triumph of YHVH over the forces of chaos and his creation of the world would be recounted, YHVH would be declared king, his defeat of Israel's historical enemies would be anticipated, and he would be ensconced in his temple and adulated. Psalm 103, for example, ends with an exaltation of YHVH as king over all (v. 19), and it is followed by Psalm 104, which beatifies YHVH's majestic dominion over the entire world of nature. It has been held that such juxtapositions of theme are appropriate to an enthronement festival.

The hypothesis that ancient Israel had a fall New Year celebration of YHVH's kingship may be supported by the fact that early Judaism made the acknowledgment of the Lord as king an integral part of its New Year (Roʾsh ha-Shanah) liturgy. Without an explicit textual reference to such an enthronement festival, the use of psalms on such an occasion will remain conjectural. The wide use of psalms in later Jewish and Christian worship, however, does make their earlier liturgical use fairly assured.

Use of Psalms in Jewish Liturgy

In addition to the few, above-mentioned references in the later books of the Hebrew Bible, the use of psalms in Second Temple worship is attested in the Dead Sea and early rabbinic literature. At least thirty psalters have been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrollsmore than any other text, which suggests that a collection of psalms served the Jewish sectarians as a hymnal. The late second-century ce rabbinic code, the Mishnah, states that a specific psalm was chanted in the Temple each day (Tam. 7.4). According to Jewish tradition, the psalms corresponded to the order of creation as delineated in Genesis 1. On Sunday, the first weekday, the psalm commonly known as Psalm 24 was chosen, as it praises God's command of all creation; on the second day, Psalm 48, which exalts God for dividing the waters; on the third, Psalm 82, which refers to God's sitting as judge over the land; on the fourth, on which the sun, moon, and stars were created, Psalm 94, for it seeks vengeance on Israel's star-worshiping persecutors; on the fifth, Psalm 81, in which the marvels of creation evoke praise; on the sixth, Psalm 93, in which the wondrous creation of humankind elicits awe at God's majesty; and on the Sabbath, Psalm 92, which is assigned to that day by its title. Traditional Jewish liturgy to this day includes the recitation of these daily psalms.

On the basis of their content, Psalm 135 was prescribed for Pesa; Psalm 81, for Roʾsh odesh (the New Moon); and Psalms 120134, songs of "ascent," or pilgrim songs, for Sukkot, the joyous pilgrimage of the fall harvest. Psalm 136, the so-called Hallel ha-Gadol ("the great praise"), was recited on festive days, and Psalms 113118 comprised a varied series of hallelujah-songs for all festivals. The juxtaposition of these psalms in the Psalter may reflect their joint liturgical function. A number of other psalms form part of the daily morning service, Psalm 145 opens the afternoon service, and certain psalms are recited for penitence and in mourning. Altogether, some eighty-four of the biblical psalms form a regular part of the Jewish liturgy. Owing to their blending of praise and petition, the psalms are also traditionally recited on behalf of the seriously ill and dying.

Use of Psalms in Christian Worship

Since ancient times, the psalms have held a prominent place in Christian hymnals. Early churches inherited the regular recitation and chanting of psalms from the Jewish synagogue. The ancient church fathers, however, pointed to Jesus' quotation of Psalms 22:2 when he was crucified (e.g., Mt. 27:46) and assumed as a matter of course that Jesus recited psalms. Christian practice would accordingly emulate Jesus by making Psalms central to its liturgy. Jerome, for example, in the late fourth century attests to the chanting of psalms in Latin, Greek, and Syriac at funeral processions.

In the Middle Ages, Psalms formed the larger part of all regular worship. Psalm 119, the longest in the canon, was recited daily by clerics, who were required to memorize the entire Psalter; over the course of a week all the psalms were systematically recited. The psalms functioned both as devotion and as guides to piety and inspiration.

Various Christian churches and denominations utilize different texts of the Psalter, most of them adapted for public worship from the Latin of Jerome. Many English versions today stem from revisions of the Great Bible produced in 15391541. In addition to public worship, modern Christians have recited psalms in school and at home for meditation and for insight into God's ways.

The Psalms as Revelation

Although the psalms have been understood in Jewish and Christian tradition to embody the reflection and devotion of David, that is, as the expression of human spirit, they have also been taken to contain divine revelation of the future of the pious, on the one hand, and of the wicked, on the other.

An early rabbinic midrash on Psalms says: "Rabbi Yudan states in the name of Rabbi Yehudah: All that David said in his book [i.e., Psalms ], he said with respect to himself, with respect to all Israel, and with respect to all times" (Midrash Tehillim 18.1). The fact that Psalms speaks in very general terms of the righteous and pious, who are favored by God, and of their enemies, the wicked, whom God will ultimately destroy, facilitates the traditional interpretation of Psalms as predictive of the respective fates of the good and the bad. Thus the Dead Sea sectarians, in their commentaries on Psalms, see themselves as the righteous and their personal opponents as the wicked; the Gentile nations that God will overturn, they, like the early rabbis, identify as the Romans. Christians see themselves as the true Israel, as the devotees of the Lord in the psalms. Acts 4:2328, for example, interprets Psalms 2:12 to refer to the Romans and Jews as enemies of Jesus. Jesus is said, according to Luke 24:44, to have told his disciples: "Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled."

Jews and Christians have found in a number of psalms (e.g., Ps. 2, 18, 67, 72, 75, 100) predictions of an eschatological age at which the legitimate, anointed king (the Messiah) would be reinstated or vindicated. Church fathers and rabbis adduced verses from Psalms in support of various doctrines, and in the Middle Ages Jewish and Christian clerics disputed doctrines, such as the authenticity of Jesus as the Messiah and the trinitarian character of the deity, on the basis of the psalms and other canonical texts. While Christians would seek in the psalms clues to the coming of the eschaton, Jews would more often find consolation in the assurances that the righteous would be saved and the Jewish Diaspora ended.

Theology of the Psalms

Historically, various psalms date from diverse periods and provenance, so that one finds in them a variety of perceptions of God and religious concerns. In Psalm 18, for example, the Israelite God responds to the outcry of his worshiper by flying down from the sky amid wind and cloud, casting out lightning bolts, and bellowing thunder. In Psalm 104, God as controller of all nature spreads the sky out as his tent, wraps himself in celestial light, and makes a chariot of the clouds. He dispatches the winds to push the waters back from covering the entire land. These bold naturalistic images contrast sharply with the more abstract God of Psalms 1 and 119, the source of wisdom and moral guidance.

In the Psalter as a whole, one encounters a deity who is here transcendent and awesome, there immanent and caring. Ultimately, the conception of God one will find in any given psalm depends upon the type and function of that psalm. In psalms of praise and thanksgiving, for example, one is apt to find a powerful creator god whose marvelous dominion even the phenomena of nature adore (e.g., Ps. 19:2). In psalms of supplication, however, the petitioner must express his confidence in a compassionate deity who listens to the prayers of his devotees. The worshiper may adduce a traditional doctrine of God's pathos (Exodus 34:6 is quoted in Psalms 86:15, 103:8, and 145:8), and he may allude to his God's saving acts for his people in the past. He may, as in Psalm 77, invoke the deity's prehistoric show of power by vanquishing the primordial forces of chaos and setting the world as we know it in order.

It is everywhere posited that God is just and, accordingly, shows special concern for the just and righteous. The occasional successes of the wicked, therefore, dismay the pious, but psalms such as Psalm 37 repeatedly affirm that God will confound the wicked:

The wicked plots against the righteous,
and he gnashes his teeth against him;

But my Lord smiles at him,
for he sees his day [of doom] is coming. (37:1213)

The pious trusts that God will "repay a man according to what he does" (Ps. 62:13). Nevertheless, out of an apparent impatience with the prosperity of the wicked and the foes of Israel, psalms often appeal to the deity to take vengeance on the enemies of Israel and its pious (e.g., Ps. 5:11, 31:18, 35:4, 40:15, 58:7, 104:35, 139:19). Such imprecations, which have disturbed many Christian theologians in particular, evince a frustration with God's temporary inaction:

O God of vengeance, Lord,
O God of vengeance, appear!

Raise yourself up, O judge of the earth,
Turn retribution on the arrogant!

How long will the wicked, O Lord,
How long will the wicked celebrate? (Ps. 94:13)

The psalmists hope that the deity's care for the world and its creatures, and the indigent and weak especially, will redound to them, that God will want them to live so as to acknowledge and praise their creator. The psalms present not a systematic theological picture but a confluence of themes and interests, of which Psalm 146 is an example:

Let me praise the Lord as I live,
let me make song to my God while I am.

Trust not in princes,
in a human who has not saving.

When his spirit leaves, he returns to the land,
on that day his deliberations vanish.
Happy is he whose aid is the God of Jacob,
whose succor is the Lord his God,

Maker of heaven and earth,
of the sea and of all that is in it,
faithful guardian forever;

Doing justice for the oppressed,
giving bread to the hungry

The Lord loves the righteous
but the path of the wicked he will pervert.

Let the Lord reign forever,
your God, O Zion, in every generation.

Halleluyah! (146:210)

The interplay of the individual and the people Israel, on the one hand, and of the transcendent and immanent deity, on the other, is fairly typical of many psalms, and of the Psalter in general.

Psalms as Literature

Owing to their liturgical origins and functions, many psalms display the sorts of stereotyped forms and wording, as well as the frequent refrains and repetitions, that characterize formal hymn singing and prayer. Their conventionality makes them easy to join; their repetitive rhythms and phrases can, when chanted, produce a mantra -like drive and intensity. When read as poems rather than prayers, many psalms do not feature the sophisticated configurations of words and deployment of tropes that are usually associated with poetry. The liturgical power of Psalms has, however, often been praised by readers, and certain of the psalms do exhibit artful arrangements of language and memorable images. A celebrated example is Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not lack.

In pastures of grass he has me lie down
along waters of stillness he leads me.

My spirit he revives.

He guides me on just courses
for his name's sake.

Even when I walk in a vale of darkness
I fear no evil,
for you are with me.

Your rod and your staff
they comfort me.

You set before me a table
opposite my adversaries.

You anoint with oil my head;
my cup overruns.

Aye, good and love will pursue me
all the days of my life;

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for a length of days.

The recurrent rhythm of short, asymmetrically balanced couplets, the contrast of the idyllic pasture and the confrontation of enemies, the fear of danger mitigated by the support of the divine shepherdthese and the psalm's various tropes have made this poem a classic statement of confidence.

See Also

Biblical Literature, article on Hebrew Scriptures; Music, article on Music and Religion in the Middle East.


For a detailed summary of modern scholarship on the psalms, with attention to the individual psalms as well, see Leopold Sabourin's The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning, rev. ed. (New York, 1974). Recent approaches are surveyed in detail by David M. Howard, Jr., in "Recent Trends in Psalms Study," in The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches, edited by David W. Baker and Bill T. Arnold (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999), pp. 329368. The literary history of the canonical Psalter has been thoroughly analyzed in Gerald H. Wilson's The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Chico, Calif., 1985). The canonical shape of the Psalter is discussed in Brevard S. Childs's Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia, 1979), pp. 504525. The classic study of types of Psalms is Hermann Gunkel, Introduction to the Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel, completed by Joachim Begrich and translated by J. D. Nogalski, Jr. (Macon, Ga., 1998; first published in German in 1933). The ancient cultic functions of the Psalms are pressed by Sigmund Mowinckel's The Psalms in Israel's Worship, 2 vols., translated by D. R. Thomas (Oxford, 1962). For psalm by psalm commentary and bibliography see, for example, Erhard S. Gerstenberger's Psalms, Part 1, with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988); Psalms, Part 2, and Lamentations (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001). The development of prayers and hymns in postbiblical and especially Qumran literature is treated in detail by Bilhah Nitzan in Qumran Prayer and Religious Poetry, translated by Jonathan Chipman (Leiden, 1994). The liturgical uses of Psalms are discussed in W. O. E. Oesterley's A Fresh Approach to the Psalms (New York, 1937). On the literary incorporation of poetic songs and prayers within the narrative prose of the Bible, see Steven Weitzman, Song and Story in Biblical Narrative: The History of a Literary Convention in Ancient Israel (Bloomington, 1997). For a fairly comprehensive analysis of the religion and spirituality of the Psalms, with attention to their Near Eastern setting as well, see Patrick D. Miller, Jr.'s They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis, 1994). Near Eastern parallels to the Psalms, as well as specimens of liturgical texts, are found in Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed., edited by James B. Pritchard (Princeton, 1969).

Edward L. Greenstein (1987 and 2005)


views updated Jun 08 2018

psalm OE. (p)s(e)alm (reinforced in ME. from OF.), corr. to OHG. (p)salmo (G. psalm), ON. (p)salmr — late L. psalmus — Gr. psalmós plucking with the fingers, sounding of the harp, (in LXX and N.T.) song sung to the harp, f. psállein pluck, sing to the harp.
So psalmist XV. — Late L. psalmody (-Y3) XIV. — Late L. psalmōdia — Gr. psalmōidíā (see ODE). So psalter OE. (p)saltere, corr. to OHG. (p)salteri, ON. (p)saltari — Late L. psaltērium — Gr. psaltḗrion stringed instrument, (in ChrL. and ChrGr. writers) the book of Psalms of the O.T.; and ME. sauter — AN. sauter, OF. sautier (mod. psautier). psaltery ancient stringed instrument. XIII. ME. sautr(i)e — OF. sauter(i)e — L. psaltērium; all finally superseded by latinized forms in ps-, which have been exclusively used since 1600.


views updated Jun 11 2018

psalm / sä(l)m/ (also Psalm) • n. a sacred song or hymn, in particular any of those contained in the biblical Book of Psalms and used in Christian and Jewish worship: a delightful setting of Psalm 150. ∎  (the Psalms or the Book of Psalms) a book of the Bible comprising a collection of religious verses, sung or recited in both Jewish and Christian worship. Many are traditionally ascribed to King David.DERIVATIVES: psalm·ic / ˈsä(l)mik/ adj.

Psalms, Book of

views updated May 14 2018

Psalms, Book of (Gk., psalmoi, ‘songs accompanied by string music’). The first of the Writings in the Hebrew Bible and nineteenth book in the Christian Old Testament. The Hebrew title is Tehillim (‘songs of praise’), from the same root as the common refrain Alleluia. The 150 Psalms are numbered differently in Protestant (following the Hebrew) and Roman Catholic (following the Septuagint/Greek and Vulgate) Bibles.


views updated May 29 2018

psalm a sacred song or hymn, in particular any of those contained in the biblical Book of Psalms and used in Christian and Jewish worship. Recorded from Old English, the word comes via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek psalmos ‘song sung to harp music’, from psallein ‘pluck’.

Psalms is a book of the Bible comprising a collection of religious verses, many of which are traditionally ascribed to King David; their numbering varies between the Hebrew, Latin, and Greek versions of the Bible.

Psalms, Book of

views updated Jun 08 2018

Psalms, Book of Book of the Old Testament, consisting of 150 hymns, lyric poems, and prayers. The works were collected over a very long period, at least from the 10th to the 5th centuries bc, and probably achieved their final form before the 2nd century bc. Most carry titles added afterwards, and 73 are stated to have been composed or collected by King David.


views updated May 23 2018

psalm. Hymn acc. by harp or other str. instrs. But by the term is generally understood the Old Testament Book of Psalms. In Christian church services these are sung antiphonally to various chants. Verse paraphrases of the psalms are known as metrical psalms. There are countless settings of individual psalms by composers from Bach to Britten (and by earlier and later composers).


views updated May 29 2018

psalm Musical hymn or sacred poem. The most famous are contained in the Old Testament Book of Psalms.