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Psalms, Book of


The book of Psalms, or Psalter, is unique in the Bible. It is a collection of prayers, for the most part without reference to date or specific events or persons. Thus, more than any other part of the Bible, it is timeless.

The Book

Text and Versions. The primary text used in study and translation of the book of Psalms is the traditional Hebrew version, called the Masoretic Text. Other versions that are most helpful in determining the meaning of the psalms are the Septuagint, the Greek translation made around the 2d century b.c., and the three Latin translations made by Jerome in the late 4th century a.d.: the Roman Psalter, translated from the Old Latin with an eye on the Septuagint; the Gallican Psalter, translated from the Greek with an eye on Origen's Hexapla; and the Hebrew Psalter, translated from the Hebrew text. The Gallican Psalter is included in the Vulgate.

The best extant copies of the Masoretic Text are from the 10th to the 11th century a.d., but the discovery of several scrolls and fragments at the Dead Sea has provided versions of Hebrew psalms from the period between the 2d century b.c. and the 1st century a.d. These scrolls have helped to explain difficult words or phrases, but they have also provided new questions. For example, a scroll from Cave 11 at Qumran has many psalms from the last half of the Psalter, but they are in a different order than the one found in the Masoretic Text or the Septuagint (see qumran community.)

Structure of the Book. The most notable feature regarding the structure of the book of Psalms is its division into five books of unequal length. Each of these books is marked off by a doxology at the end (see Ps 41.14; 72.18;89.53; 106.48; 150). These doxologies are a later addition to these psalms to give the book a fivefold structure like the Pentateuch.

The book of Psalms is a collection of collections. These collections were apparently formed before the book reached its final stage. The psalms of David (Ps 341; 5172) may include some psalms written by David the king. The attribution, however, is honorary, recognizing David as the patron saint of the Psalms. Other attributions categorize the psalms by groups of singers: Asaph (Ps 50; 7383) and the Korahites (Ps 4249; 8485; 8788). There is a collection entitled Songs of Ascent, probably pilgrimage psalms (Ps 120134), a couple of collections of Hallel Psalms (Ps 113118; 146150; see also Ps 104106; 111112), and a collection of psalms celebrating the Lord's kingship (Ps 9399).

A further characteristic indicates different collections or origins. The psalms from 141 frequently use the proper name of Israel's God, Yahweh. Ps 4289 most often use the generic term "Elohim" for God. A comparison of Ps 14 and 53 demonstrates the difference.

Superscriptions. More than half the psalms begin with a verse or two that gives information about the collection and the performance of the psalm. Musical notes indicate the melody (e.g., "according to Lilies," Ps 45; 69; 80) and the instrumentation ("strings," Ps 4; 6; 54; 55; 61; 67; 67; "flute," Ps 5). Liturgical notes suggest the proper day for the psalm (e.g., Ps 92 on the Sabbath) or the special event (Ps 38 for the memorial sacrifice). Some superscriptions in the David collection connect a psalm to an event (e.g., "when David fled from Saul into the cave," Ps 57). These notes suggest the occasion and mood for praying a psalm.

Numbering. The numbering of the psalms has been a particular problem. The problem begins with Ps 910, which are two psalms in the traditional Hebrew Bible but one psalm in the Greek translation, the Septuagint. Thus from Ps 10 on, each psalm has two numbers, a higher one in the Hebrew Bible and a lower one in the Greek (and Latin) Bible. This situation continues until Ps 146147, which are two psalms in the Septuagint but one psalm in the Hebrew Bible. There is also a minor confusion around Ps 114116. Hebrew Ps 114 and 115 are combined in the Septuagint as Ps 113; Hebrew Ps 116 is divided in the Septuagint into Ps 114 and 115. Virtually all recent translations use the Hebrew numbering.

There is also a divergence in verse numbering. The King James Bible and those that follow its tradition (New Revised Standard Version [NRSV], Revised English Bible) do not number the superscriptions, whereas the New American Bible (NAB) follows the Hebrew verse numbering (so too the Septuagint and the Vulgate). Thus Ps 51 has 21 verses in the NAB and only 19 in the NRSV.

Canonization. The earlier consensus that the book of Psalms reached its final form around the 4th century b.c. has been challenged because of discrepancies found in scrolls at the Dead Sea. The question of when the Psalter was included in the canon of Scripture is also debated. It seems to have been included in the Hebrew Scriptures at least by the 2d century a.d., and perhaps sooner (see, for example, the references to "the law, the prophets, and the psalms;" Lk 24.44). Christian writers as early as the 2d century also presume that the Psalms are a part of Scripture (see clement of alexandria; irenaeus; justin martyr).


Genre. Through the 20th century, influenced by Hermann Gunkel, the primary way of interpreting the psalms was by considering their genre. The whole gamut of human emotions is covered by the various categories of psalms. The lament (e.g., Ps 22, 51) is a cry for help in suffering and a complaint to God who allows this to happen. Most laments, however, turn toward hope. Two categories develop from this turn. The psalm of thanksgiving (e.g., Ps 18, 107) captures the moment after pain. When God delivers the sufferer, the story must be told. The storytelling itself is thanksgiving. The repeated experience of God's deliverance leads to trust, which is expressed in the psalms of confidence (e.g., Ps 23, 27). Then there are moments when the focus turns to God alone. All creationhuman and otherwiseis called to join the song of praise, the hymn (e.g., Ps 100, 146).

The two major genreslament and hymnare distinguished by form as well as content. The lament usually begins with a cry to God. A middle section may contain any of these elements: a description of suffering, a complaint, a prayer for vengeance, a promise to offer sacrifice in thanksgiving. The lament usually concludes with a

prayer of thanksgiving or confidence. Most hymns begin with a call to prayer, a call for help in giving praise to God. Those called may be one's own being, faithful people, all nations, angels, or other created things such as animals, sun and stars, musical instruments. Ps 148 shows a rich variety of those called to help give praise. The call to praise in a hymn is followed by the reasons for praise. For example, God is just, compassionate. God delivers those in trouble, feeds the hungry. Ps 117 is a perfect example of a hymn with call to praise (v. 1) and reasons for praise (v. 2).

Each of these genres is found either as the prayer of an individual or as a communal prayer. Other minor categories are distinguished by content alone: historical psalms, wisdom psalms, songs of Zion, liturgies.

Shape and Shaping. Toward the end of the 20th century scholarly interest turned to the Psalter as a book. Questions were raised concerning the editorial purpose of the arrangement of the psalms and the effect of that arrangement.

Ps 12, without superscriptions and set off by beatitudes at beginning and end, were recognized as the introduction to the Psalter. Ps 1 sets a wisdom tone and praises the one who ponders God's law day and night. Ps 2 is a recognition of God's action in history especially through the anointed king, the messiah. Ps 150 is the great concluding doxology. There are more lament psalms at the beginning of the Psalter and more hymns at the end.

The concluding psalms of books 2 and 3, Ps 72 and 89, are royal psalms. Ps 72, which concludes the David collection, paints a glowing picture of the king. In Ps 89 the monarchy is in trouble. Book 4 begins with a Psalm of Moses, the pre-monarchical leader, and continues with the collection acclaiming God as the king.

Other studies have been made of the positioning of the various collections and their relationship to other parts of the Old Testament. Michael D. Goulder, for example, links the Psalms of Asaph to the Pentateuch and the psalms in Book Five to Ezra-Nehemiah and the return from exile.

Translations. New translations of the Psalms continue to appear. Many are revisions of previous translations, e.g., the NRSV, and the revised psalms of the NAB. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) prepared a Psalter for liturgical use, using the principle of dynamic equivalence rather than that of formal correspondence. Dynamic equivalence is an attempt to capture the meaning in idiomatic English without echoing specifically the Hebrew grammar. Compare, for example, Ps 51.3 in the ICEL translation ("Have mercy, tender God, forget that I defied you") with the NAB translation ("Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense").

Theology of the Psalms

The psalms portray God as the creator, ruling over and delighting in all that exists. They also portray God as the redeemer who works in history and delivers the people from their enemies. There is a strong sense of awe in the presence of the divine as well as a confidence that anyone in need can call upon God. God is especially solicitous for the helplessthe poor, the widow, the imprisoned, the oppressed.

In the psalms human beings are presented in all their diversity and fallibility. Sin is acknowledged but innocence is also claimed. The gamut of emotions is represented from joy to despair, anger to love. The physical body is significant in the psalms: bones ache, the throat is dry, the heart rejoices, the body rests. It is impossible to pray the psalms as disembodied spirits.

The psalms are a communal prayer. There are communal laments, communal thanksgivings, and the narration of the people's history. But even the individual psalms turn frequently to the community. For example, both Ps 130 and 131 end with a prayer for Israel.

Christians pray the psalms in the spirit of Christ. The New Testament shows Jesus praying in the words of the psalms (see Mt 27.46; Mk 15.34; Lk 23.46). Early Christian writers heard the psalms as Christ's prayer, as prayer to Christ, or as meditation on Christ.

Christian Use of the Psalms

Liturgical Use. The primary place the Catholic Christian meets the psalms is in the Liturgy of Word in the Eucharist. The responsorial psalm that follows the first reading distills the message of the readings and allows the participant to enter into them. For example, on the feast of Christ the King Year A the first reading is from the book of Ezekiel. In the reading God who chastises the selfish leaders of the people and declares: "I myself will look after my sheep." The congregation claims God's care by singing Ps 23: "The Lord is my shepherd." In the first reading of the Twelfth Sunday of Year A Jeremiah complains to God about his enemies. The congregation sings Ps 69 in the voice of Jeremiah: "Lord, in your great love, answer me." An excellent way to meditate on the readings from the Sunday liturgy is to begin with the responsorial psalm and to read the other readings through its lens.

The other major Christian use of the psalms is in the liturgy of the hours, the daily prayer of the Church. At morning and midday, evening and night, Christians sanctify time through prayer. The bulk of this prayer consists of the psalms, arranged in a regular order, so that within a set period of timeanywhere from one to four weeksthe whole Psalter is prayed. A few psalms that are particularly violent are often omitted: Ps 58, 83, and 109.

Personal Prayer. Many Christians use the psalms for personal prayer. Ps 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," has become a favorite for believers across denominations, as demonstrated by its use for occasions as different as a Fourth of July celebration and a funeral. Psalm books are published listing psalms to be prayed in sickness, in trouble, in thanksgiving, at times of joy, and so on. Often the Psalter is published alone with the New Testament, showing its preferred status among the Old Testament books.

Problems. Praying the psalms is not without difficulty, however. Three problems are critical: the difficulty caused by the age and cultural presuppositions of the psalms; a contemporary distaste for lament; and the violence and desire for vengeance expressed in the psalms.

The psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, a language that ceased to be a living language in the last few centuries b.c. They reflect the culture of the first millennium b.c., a primarily agrarian milieu in the Middle East. Many of the images and practices reflected in the psalms are foreign to a reader in the third millennium a.d. Nonetheless, the effort to understand is well rewarded. The human situation reflected in the psalms and the relationship of the believer to God remain remarkably similar.

Most of the psalms are laments. Contemporary culture frowns on lament or any demonstration of weakness and vulnerability. The bitter complaints, the hot anger, and the attempt to "persuade" God by whatever means are all distasteful to people today. Psychologists and spiritual directors, however, point out that the inability to lament is a sickness in our society and makes individuals sick as well. The lament psalms are good teachers and healthy prayers.

One characteristic of the lament in particular is difficult for believers: the prayer or wish for vengeance against enemies. One who prays the psalms regularly discovers phrases such as "Crush their teeth in their mouths" or "May they dissolve like a slug in the sun." These prayers seem in direct contradiction to the command to love one's neighbor. It is possible simply to avoid the difficult psalm. It is also possible to consider what today's enemies are. One can pray against cancer: "Crush its teeth." Or against homelessness, "May its memory disappear from the earth." Or against war: "Wipe it out from the earth." These psalms reflect the spirit of the quintessential Christian prayer, which concludes, "Deliver us from evil." This prayer is the necessary corollary to "Thy kingdom come."

The psalms are central to Christian prayer. As the New Testament bears witness, they are the prayer of Jesus.

Bibliography: Commentaries and General Studies of the Psalter. b. w. anderson with s. bishop, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak to Us Today (3d ed. rev.; Louisville, Ky. 2000). r. davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, Mich./Cambridge, Eng. 1998). w. l. holladay, The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis 1993). j. l. mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville, Ky. 1994). j. d. pleins, The Psalms: Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice (Bible and Liberation Series; Maryknoll, N.Y. 1993). Genre and Form. h. gunkel, Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel, completed by j. begrich; tr. j. d. nogalski (Macon, Ga. 1998). Shape and Shaping of the Psalter. m. d. goulder, The Prayers of David (Ps 5172): Studies in the Psalter II (Sheffield, Eng. 1990); The Psalms of Asaph and the Pentateuch: Studies in the Psalter III (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 233; Sheffield, Eng. 1996); The Psalms of the Return (Book V, Ps 107150): Studies in the Psalter IV (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 258; Sheffield, Eng. 1998). j. clinton mccann, jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah (Nashville 1993). Biblical Prayer and the Liturgical Use of the Psalms. p. d. miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis 1994). i. nowell, Sing a New Song: The Psalms in the Sunday Lectionary (Collegeville, Minn. 1993). t. p. wahl, The Lord's Song in a Foreign Land: The Psalms as Prayer (Collegeville, Minn. 1998).

[i. nowell]

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