The book of Psalms (often referred to as the “Psalter”) is an anthology of 150 songs, prayers, and poems written over a span of several hundred years of Israel’s history. This time period stretches from the monarchy into the period of the exile in Babylon and even much later. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that the exact number of psalms included in this collection was still fluid at the time of Jesus. Many of the psalms were likely used in Israel’s worship, though we cannot be sure. The Hebrew title of this book is tehillim, “praises,” which suggests a worship context, but not all psalms fit this description.
The psalms cover the gamut of human experience from anger towards God and others to loss, anguish, sorrow, self-pity, ecstatic joy, wonder and delight in God’s creation, lament, bewilderment, gratitude and thanksgiving, and hope and frustration. In this sense, virtually every emotion that a human can experience, the writers of the psalms relate to in their songs. In addition, these prayers span a range of topics, from petition to intercession, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penance and oblation. As such, this models the diversity of prayer that Christians are encouraged to use when building a relationship with God. For these reasons, the book of Psalms has historically been the backbone of the liturgical traditions of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians.
Contrary to the impression many readers might have, the psalms are not thrown together haphazardly but arranged with a clear overall design in mind. There are five “books” to the psalter: 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. Each “book” ends with a doxology (or blessing) and the final psalm’s ending may be intended as a conclusion for the collection as a whole. These five books are clearly intended to mimic the five books of the Pentateuch.
There are also other smaller units in the Psalter. For example, Psalms 120-134 are known as the “Songs of Ascents.” These were songs that pilgrims would sing as they made their way up to the temple mount. Other units are formed based upon a similar thematic connection, a common word or catch phrase, or a common historical setting. There are several clear examples of this phenomenon for mentioning (1) Psalms 93-99 are thematically related through their common focus on Yahweh’s kingship, (2) the “Hallel” psalms (104-106; 111-113; 135; 146-50) consistently begin or end with the Hebrew halleluyah, which means “Praise Yah[weh],” or more commonly in English “Praise the Lord.” (3) Psalms “of the sons of Korah,” are songs of the ancestor of a line of priests who led the Israelites in singing (Psalms 42-49; 84, 85, 87, 88). (4) Psalms 42-83 are called the “Elohistic Psalter” by scholars because the divine name Elohim is use far more frequently than Yahweh, as opposed to the rest of the Psalter where the situation is the opposite.
In addition to these divisions, the Psalter can also be divided by the topic of the psalm. Most psalms include a lament, either by an individual or the community. Many also include some word of praise, trust, adoration, petition, or thanksgiving to God. Other topics include God’s kingship, creation, wisdom, and psalms that celebrate God’s acts in Israel’s history. In many cases, these categories overlap.
Note that most psalms have a title of some sort. These titles either give an author, a musical annotation, or say something about the historical circumstances that gave rise to the psalm (e.g., Psalm 51 is a psalm of repentance of David for his sin with Bathsheba). Most scholars agree that these titles were added when the psalms began to be collected into an anthology. As such, they may not tell us much about the original circumstance, but more about later editorial opinion or tradition. For example, David had a reputation for being a poet and this may have led later editors to attribute certain psalms to him. We know of this tendency to attribute more and more psalms to David from other ancient Jewish and Christian literature. For example, Psalms 2 and 95 are attributed to David in Acts 4 and Hebrews 4 even though no author notation is given.
The Psalter is more than a collection of songs. The fact that it is divided into five books suggests that as a whole, the Psalter is making a grander statement. It is a diverse anthology of Israel’s experiences of God, a statement of how Israel sees itself as the people of God.
– Peter Enns