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Old Testament: Psalms

Summary

The book of Psalms contains the prayers, hymns, and meditations of Israel, 150 of them now gathered in a collection that includes joyful songs of praise and thanksgiving as well as sad songs of lamentation and distress. The prayers and songs are addressed to God, usually either pleading for help or bearing witness to God's gracious acts on behalf of God's people, which is an important function of Israel's praise. Because of the scope of human emotion and divine activity in the psalms, believers in every generation have found them applicable to their own life and worship.

So What?

The psalms have served believers in every generation as a biblical source of prayer and praise and as models for their own response to God. The book is an invaluable resource for worship. The people of God have also heard God addressing them in the psalms, as the prayers and hymns bear witness to the nature and work of God. The Psalter is unique, bringing together human word and word of God in an inseparable unity.

Where Do I Find It?

Countless generations of children were taught to find the book of Psalms by opening their Bibles "in the middle," and this often works. In Christian Bibles, Psalms is the nineteenth book of the Old Testament; it comes between Job and Proverbs in a collection of "writings" (Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) that fall between the historical books and the prophets.

Who Wrote It?

Many of the psalms are said in their titles to be "of David," who was remembered by the tradition as a musician and patron of Israel's worship. Still, because of their wide-ranging historical backgrounds, it is not possible for David himself to have written all the psalms ascribed to him. The psalms were written or gathered from other sources by the temple priests and associated with David as the great singer of Israel (1 Chronicles 16:7, 37-43; Sirach 47:8-10).

When Was It Written?

Psalms were written and collected throughout the history of ancient Israel. Moses and Miriam sang at the sea (Exodus 15:1-21), and the title of Psalm 30 ("A Song at the dedication of the temple") probably indicates its use at the dedication (Hanukkah) of the temple after the Macabbean revolt (164 B.C.E.). The book of Psalms contains prayers and songs from every period of Israel's history.

What's It About?

The book of Psalms is the hymnbook or prayer book of the Bible, containing 150 poems, addressed to God and varying widely in content and tone; included are cries of lament, shouts of praise, and other liturgies and meditations on Israel's life before God.

How Do I Read It?

The psalms are, first and foremost, poems and should be read as such--enjoying the figurative and metaphorical language, the emotional and rhythmic character, and the expansive and evocative style that invite the reader, as Martin Luther said, to "find in it [the Psalter] also yourself…as well as God himself and all creatures" (Luther's Works 35:257). Second, the psalms are poems that were, for the most part, meant to be sung; they are the hymns and liturgies of the temple from which we learn about Israel's worship and which now serve as elements of present worship. Third, these poems and prayers have been read since antiquity for meditation and instruction, by individuals and communities. They continue to offer solace--providing words of comfort and hope, lamentation and praise.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

I. Book I (Psalms 1-41)
Psalms 1 and 2 serve to introduce the entire book. All but two of Psalms 3-41 are termed psalms "of David" (Psalms 10 and 33 are the exceptions), and several of the titles refer to events in David's life (for example, Psalms 3 and 18); other psalms do this as well, later in the Psalter. Most of the psalms in Book I are individual psalms of lament, though other types are interspersed. Book I closes with a doxology, found as Psalm 41:13, though this is not really a part of that psalm.

II. Book II (Psalms 42-72)

Here are psalms ascribed to the Korahites, a group of temple singers (Psalms 42-49), to Asaph, a temple musician (Psalm 50), to David (Psalms 51-65; 68-70), and to Solomon (Psalm 72). Individual laments predominate, with a few more community laments and other types. Book II closes with a doxology (found as Psalm 72:18-19) and with an announcement that the "prayers of David" are ended (Psalm 72:20).

III. Book III (Psalms 73-89)
Book III begins with psalms of Asaph (73-83) and includes songs of other singer guilds (84-85; 87-89) and one "prayer of David" (86). Now, along with a mixture of other types, there is an approximately equal number of individual and community laments. The book closes with a brief doxology (found as Psalm 89:52).

IV. Book IV (Psalms 90-106)
This book includes the only "prayer of Moses" (90) and two psalms attributed to David (101; 103), but many psalms are associated with no person or group or have no title whatsoever. Several of the hymns sing of God as "king" (93; 95-99). Psalms 105 and 106 review the history of Israel under God. With Book IV, the tone of the Psalter turns primarily to praise. As usual, a doxology closes the book (at Psalm 106:48).

V. Book V (Psalms 107-150)
Book V includes thirteen more psalms of David (108-110; 124; 131; 138-145) and one psalm of Solomon (127). The major collection in this section is the Songs of Ascents (120-134). Here, too, is the lengthy Torah psalm (119). Though the book contains several laments, including the sharp community lament of Psalm 137, the overall tone remains praise. Unlike the previous four books, there is no brief closing doxology; instead, five hymns (146-150) close the entire five books of the Psalter with glorious songs of praise.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

The book of Psalms contains songs and prayers collected over the life of Israel. Some seem ancient and reflect rites and ceremonies from the earliest days (for example, Psalm 68). Others apparently cry out over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. (for example, Psalm 74), while yet others know of the return from Babylon (538 B.C.E.) and the life of the postexilic community (for example, Psalm 107). The collection process continued even into the intertestamental period, as indicated by the inclusion of Psalm 151 in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and Psalms 151-155 in the Dead Sea scrolls. In other words, the book of Psalms reflects many authors, collectors, and revisers throughout Israel's history.

The titles or superscripts of the various psalms are generally thought to be added late in the process of collection. Most frequently, they indicate liturgical and musical information, often thought to reflect the worship of the Second Temple (after 515 B.C.E.). The duties and divisions of priests described in 1 Chronicles probably comes from this postexilic period as well, and many of those "in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord" (1 Chronicles 6:31) are named both in Chronicles and in the psalm titles. This no doubt accurately reflects a significant role of the priests in the authorship, gathering, and singing of psalms.

While the psalms reflect Israel's temple worship and assume some knowledge of the activities there, they also assume a relation to the life of David and Israel's sacred history. Songs (or psalms) are included often in the historical material of the Bible (for example, the song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15:1-21; the song of Deborah in Judges 5:1-31; the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10). Psalm 18 occurs both in the Psalter and in its assumed historical context, 2 Samuel 22:2-51. Israel turned to God in song and prayer in response to God's steadfast love shown in Israel's history.

As written in a book, the psalms became also a basis for meditation and instruction. They could now be read and prayed apart from formal worship and thus received another important function, especially in the synagogue. First used as songs and prayers addressed to God, they came to be received as part of Holy Scripture, bringing God's word to God's people. Psalm 1's counsel to "meditate" on God's law "day and night" already reflects this use.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

Alphabetical or acrostic psalms. Some psalms have an alphabetical acrostic pattern in which each verse begins with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet--including, as it were, everything "from A to Z" (or alef to tav, in Hebrew). The simplest of these have twenty-two verses, each beginning in order with a different letter (Psalms 25; 34; 145--though the present manuscript of 145 lacks a verse for "n" [Hebrew nun]). The fact that Psalms 9 and 10 together form an acrostic is a strong indication that they are to be read as a unit (as they are in the Septuagint). The lengthy Psalm 119 is a complex acrostic in which each of the twenty-two stanzas has eight lines, each of which begins with the same Hebrew letter, the stanzas following in Hebrew alphabetical order (thus, the 176 verses: eight times twenty-two). This intricate structure has a kind of mathematical precision that seems to match the psalmist's delight in God's decrees (Psalm 119:14). The use of all the letters of the alphabet is one way to point to the fact that "all [God's] commandments are right" (v. 172).

Dance. Three psalms make reference to dance (Psalms 30:11; 149:3; 150:4), the latter two explicitly calling for dance as an element of worship. Israel danced for joy both in victory (Exodus 15:20) and in the presence of God (2 Samuel 6:5). When God makes all things new, people will dance (Jeremiah 31:4, 13). Israel's worship involved all the senses. Just as all creation claps and sings in praise of God (Psalm 98:8; 148), so also God's people join in that song and dance (Psalms 149 and 150).

David's life. Several of the psalm headings make explicit reference to an event in the life of David (3; 7; 18; 34; 51; 52; 54; 56; 57; 59; 60; 63; 142). The best known of these is Psalm 51's association with David's sin with Bathsheba. These headings were no doubt later additions, but they serve to link the Psalter to the life of David and the history of the monarchy. Worship is not dissociated from the world for Israel. The link with David builds on the tradition's memory of David as singer and musician (1 Samuel 16:16-23; 1 Chronicles 16:7, 37-43; Sirach 47:8-10). More, it reads the psalms as prayers of God's anointed king, the "messiah," thus supporting a messianic orientation of the Psalter.

Doxologies. A doxology is an expression of praise, usually related to worship. The first four books of the Psalter are marked at the end by a brief doxology. Although now incorporated into the final psalm of the book (41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48), these are actually liturgical closings for the book itself, not part of a particular psalm. Book V closes with a longer doxological unit (Psalms 146-150), those five psalms perhaps matching the five books of the Psalter. Psalm 150 is entirely a call to praise and serves to close both Book V and the whole book of Psalms.

The Five Books. The Psalter is now divided into five books, each ending with a doxology or utterance of praise. Most students understand this to correspond to the five books of Moses (the Torah or Pentateuch). An early Jewish commentary (Midrash Tehillim) says, "As Moses gave five books of laws to Israel, so David gave five books of Psalms to Israel." Some modern readers have used the analogy of the sermon hymn: the Old Testament has five books of hymns to match its primary five books of sermons (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Some recent scholarship has suggested that the content of the five books of psalms relates to the main periods of Israel's history, Books I-III (with many laments) corresponding to the failures that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. and Books IV-V (with more hymns) proclaiming, in response, the hope of God's reign.

Genres or types of psalms. Although each psalm is unique (except Psalm 53, which essentially duplicates Psalm 14), many fall into recognizable categories or types-sometimes according to literary form, sometimes according to similar content. Most prevalent are the psalms of lament in which pray-ers individually or communally cry to God for help in times of need (see the analysis of Psalm 6, below). Related to the laments are the psalms of trust in which the pray-er expresses confidence in God despite the present distress (see Psalm 23, below).There are also songs of thanksgiving that praise God for an experience of healing or deliverance (see Psalm 30, below). The hymns offer more general praise to God for the steadfast love shown both in creation and history (see Psalm 113 and 148, below). Several royal psalms speak of Israel's earthly king (the "messiah" or "anointed one") and lend a messianic orientation to the book (see Psalm 72, below). Some readers also identify wisdom or torah psalms that derive from Israel's tradition of wisdom and teaching (see Psalms 19 and 73, below). Songs of Zion sing of the security to be found at Zion or Jerusalem because of the protecting presence of God (see Psalm 46, below). There are psalms of mixed type and psalms with particular liturgical elements, such as the procession of Psalm 68 and the entrance liturgies of Psalms 15 and 24 (see Psalm 24, below). The identification of types of psalms is one fruit of the scholarship called "form criticism" that seeks to understand the nature and use of different types of biblical literature.

Hallelujah. "Hallelujah" means "Praise the Lord!" "Halal" is the Hebrew verb to praise ("hallelu" is a plural imperative form), and "Jah" is a shortened form of God's Hebrew name, Yahweh. This is one of the most characteristic terms in the Psalter, especially toward the latter part. It frequently begins and ends a particular psalm (including Psalms 146-150). The term functions grammatically as an imperative call to praise God, but it comes to be a shout of praise itself (Psalm 111:1; Revelation 19:6). Some linguists believe that the word may have derived from the repetitive ha-la-la-la-la sound of ululation, a typical cry of praise and joy among many peoples.

Inclusio or inclusion. Many psalms begin and end with the same or very similar words. Psalm 8, for example, begins and ends with "O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" Scholars call this repetition an inclusion or inclusio (the Latin form). It is one typical feature of Hebrew poetry, which serves, among other things, to provide "bookends" that tie together a poetic unit. The inclusio can surround an entire psalm or a portion of a psalm (for example, "blot out" in 51:1 and 9, marking the beginning and end of the first stanza of that psalm).

Melodies. Several psalm headings seem to many readers to indicate the melody to which the psalm would have been sung or played. Examples include "Muth-labben" or "Death of the Son" (Psalm 9), "The Deer of the Dawn" (Psalm 22), "Lilies" (Psalms 45 and 69), "The Dove on Far-off Terebinths" (Psalm 56), "Do Not Destroy" (Psalms 57-59); and "The Lily of the Covenant" (Psalm 60; see also Psalm 80). The titles are intriguing, the more so since we no longer know how they would have sounded. Essentially untranslatable terms like "Gittith" (for example, Psalm 8) and "Sheminith" (for example, Psalm 6) might also refer to tunes or instrumentation.

Parallelism. Psalms are poems, and the most characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The poet says something once, and then says it again-or adds a second line that is clearly related to the first in a variety of possible ways: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, / and all that is within me, bless his holy name" (Psalm 103:1); "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1). Parallelism has been called a rhyme of meaning, rather than the rhyme of sound that is characteristic of much English poetry. One line develops, enhances, and extends the thought of the other line. It might do this by using a similar grammatical construction (Psalm 103:10), rewording the thought in another way (Psalm 69:3), balancing a positive idea with a negative one (Psalm 37:21), or pairing commonly associated words-"people" in one line, for example, and "nations" in the next (Psalm 111:6), or "justice" and "righteousness" (Psalm 72:1). Parallelism may have served as a memory device or to enable musical or responsive use of the psalms in worship, but it is also part of the aesthetic beauty of the poetry and a contribution to its rhythmic effect on the hearer. The biblical word becomes richer and stronger through this repetition and extension. Parallelism can function not only within individual verses (or neighboring verses) but also over longer units of a text.


The penitential psalms. The early Christian church identified seven "penitential psalms" that were found to be particularly applicable for times of repentance and contrition (Psalms 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143), especially during the season of Lent. Of the seven psalms, Psalm 51 contains the fullest confession of sin.

The psalms in Christian worship. The psalms-prayers and songs of the Jewish temple and synagogue-have been used in every generation of Christian worship as well, beginning already in the New Testament church (Ephesians 5:19). St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.) and other early teachers of the church speak frequently of their joy in singing the psalms. Psalms chosen for the day have served as essential elements of Sunday worship since early times, a practice carried over from Catholicism and Orthodoxy by many churches of the Reformation. Christian religious communities have regularly prayed and meditated upon psalms, often moving in order through the entire Psalter. Some Protestant traditions sang only psalms in worship rather than other hymns, translating or paraphrasing the psalms and setting them to melodies for congregational use. An example of this is William Kethe's "All People That on Earth Do Dwell," based on Psalm 100. Less direct psalm paraphrases have been the basis for many other hymns as well, including Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (from Psalm 46) and Isaac Watts's "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (Psalm 90). Throughout history, psalms have been used in private and group devotions as a primary resource for meditation and prayer.

Psalm pairs. Recent studies have noted that certain psalms seem deliberately to have been placed back to back, enhancing or playing off of one another in a variety of ways. Psalms 1 and 2, for example, work together to introduce the book (see below). Another obvious example is the combination of Psalms 103 and 104. Both begin and end with "Bless the Lord, O my soul," which occurs nowhere else. The combination expands our basis for praising God by joining God's works of mercy in Psalm 103 ("who forgives all your iniquity, and who heals all your diseases"-v. 3) with God's wonderful work of creation in Psalm 104 ("You set the earth on its foundation, so that it shall never be shaken"-v. 5).

Selah (and other rubrics for worship). Selah is perhaps the most prominent of the many liturgical or musical notations that accompany the psalms, because it occurs (74 times) within the psalms themselves rather than in the headings. It is almost certainly some kind of rubric or instruction for worship, but its actual meaning remains uncertain. The other most frequent worship note is "to the leader" (55 times in headings; for example, Psalm 4), which seems to indicate some kind of priestly leadership role. Psalm headings also sometimes make reference to the use of particular musical instruments (Psalms 4 and 5, for example). All of these liturgical references are the clearest evidence for the Psalter's use as a kind of "hymnbook" for the worship of ancient Israel.

Setting in Life. One of the goals of the study of the types or categories of psalms (a method called "form criticism"), pioneered by the German scholar Hermann Gunkel early in the twentieth century, was to identify the "setting in life" of the various psalm types. Generally, this meant determining how the psalm was used in the worship life of Israel. While there has never been agreement about the worship setting for individual laments, Hannah's story seems to suggest a place for bringing personal concerns before God in the presence of a priest (1 Samuel 1:1-18). The Bible gives clearer directions for community lamentation in catastrophic times (1 Kings 8:33-40; Joel 2:1, 12-17). Songs of thanksgiving include sacrifices and bearing witness to the congregation of God's personal deliverance of an individual (Psalm 66:13-20). The hymns of praise were thought to accompany the sacrifices and festival worship of all the people (Psalm 100). Royal psalms apparently were used to celebrate special events such as a coronation (Psalm 2) or a royal wedding (Psalm 45). The kingship of God is praised in the enthronement psalms (especially 93; 96-99), which may have been sung at the festivals to accompany the celebration of God's great acts in Israel's history. Other psalms reflect other liturgical practices, such as entrance into the temple grounds (15; 24), a blessing ceremony (67), or thanksgiving for the harvest (65).

Songs of Ascents. The Songs of Ascents comprise one obvious collection within the Psalter (Psalms 120-134). Many understand these to be psalms that would have been used during the times of Israel's "ascent" or "going up" to Jerusalem for festival worship (see Deuteronomy 16:16; Psalm 24:3). Though they are psalms of various types, they make frequent reference to the security found in Jerusalem and Zion (especially 122; 125; 134) and to the kind of protection needed by pilgrims on a long and possibly dangerous journey (especially Psalm 121). Because of this emphasis on God's protection and the many references to the ordinary affairs of life (Psalms 127-128; 131; 133), these psalms still function well as prayers for believers in their own life journeys.

Tehillim. The title of the book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible is "Tehillim," which means "songs of praise." This may seem odd for a book made up primarily of songs of lament, especially in the first part of the collection, but it reflects the fact that, fundamentally, worship in Israel was about the praise of God. Just as particular lament psalms often move finally to praise, so also does the entire Psalter. Laments characterize the first three books of psalms, praise characterizes the last two. The book itself takes the reader or pray-er from lament to praise, just as do individual psalms. Worship provides the opportunity for the person in distress to come before God in prayer, to find comfort, and to be restored to the community's praise of God (Psalm 22:25).

Titles or superscripts. Most of the psalms (116 of them) have titles or superscripts. These headings are generally thought to have been added when the psalms were collected into the book, thus not a part of the original poem. The titles contain different kinds of information, such as a connection with a person or group (for example, David, Solomon, the Korahites), a particular time in David's life, an indication of the type of psalm (psalm, song, prayer, miktam), the use in worship ("for the memorial offering"), and musical or liturgical instructions ("to the leader"; "for the Gittith"; "according to the Deer of the Dawn"). Some of these terms are clear to us; others are obscure. They provide information about the use of the psalms in the period of the Second Temple.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

Bonhoeffer on the Psalms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian martyred by the Nazis in 1945, used the psalms regularly in his own devotional life and with his students at the Finkenwalde seminary of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. He wrote: "Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power" (Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005] 162). Bonhoeffer understood the psalms to be given to Christians as the prayers of Christ.


Christ and the Psalms. Jesus died with psalms on his lips, quoting from or referring directly to Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34), Psalm 31 (Luke 23:46), and Psalm 69 (John 19:28). On Holy Thursday, Jesus and the disciples left for the Mount of Olives after "they had sung the hymn" (Mark 14:26), which was certainly a psalm. As faithful Jews, Jesus and the disciples regularly sang and prayed the psalms. The New Testament repeatedly uses verses from the psalms to describe or interpret the ministry of Jesus.


Enemies. Many of the psalms include prayers against "enemies," often sounding so harsh that present readers are shocked or repulsed. Sometimes the pray-er asks God for protection in the face of enemies (69:14); sometimes the petition is for retribution against them (69:23-29). The enemies are sometimes close and personal (41:5, 9); sometimes they are public and political--enemies of the people (74:4, 22-23) or of the king (45:5).


"Glory be to the Father.…" Over the centuries, many Christians have ended their use of psalms in worship with a doxology: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit." This brief hymn serves as a witness to the trinitarian understanding of God in the Christian community--the God to whom they believe the psalms bear witness. Christians do not thereby deny that they have "borrowed" the psalms from the Jewish people of God, who continue to pray them regularly and faithfully, but Christian believers acknowledge the gift of the psalms to them through Christ.


The hiddenness of God. Many of the psalms cry in distress over the perceived hiddenness, absence, or silence of God (for example, 13:1; 22:1-2)--a significant element of the lament psalms. Although the psalmists confess God's faithfulness and steadfast love (25:10), they recognize that sometimes God seems far off.


The king in the Psalms. Many psalms speak directly about Israel's earthly king, sometimes called the "anointed" one (Hebrew: messiah) (2; 18; 20; 21; 72; 89; 101; 110; 132; 144). Many mention David in the headings. These references show that the king played a major role in the worship life of Israel, not just the political life ("temple" and "palace" are the same word in Hebrew). The role of the king gives the psalms a messianic orientation, making them part of the biblical literature that looks forward to the future in messianic hope.


Luther on the Psalms. For Martin Luther, Holy Scripture proclaims Jesus Christ, and the Psalter was no exception. "It promises Christ's death and resurrection so clearly," he wrote, "…that it might well be called a little Bible….I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short Bible…so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book." Unique to the Psalter, however, is that one can find there not only Christ but also oneself: "Everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his ease, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not have put it better himself." So, Luther said, in the Psalter "you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself…as well as God himself and all creatures" (Luther's Works, vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960] 253-257.)


The name of God. Almost one hundred times, the psalms praise or appeal to the "name" of God. Psalm 75:1 understands why: "We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks; your name is near." Israel worships at the temple because that is where God has promised to be present for them (Deuteronomy 16:11).

The New Testament and Psalms. Many Christians have carried pocket versions of "The New Testament and Psalms." This unique connection of one particular Old Testament book with the New Testament marks the importance of the book of Psalms for the Christian church. The book was the prayer book and hymnbook of ancient Israel, and it has taken over that same function for Christians.


Prophetic critique of worship. On many occasions, the Old Testament prophets condemned worship when it became hypocritical or manipulative, as though acts and words could themselves secure God's favor apart from faith and service; sometimes, this critique apparently condemned even the use of psalms (Amos 5:21-24). Based on this, some students of the Old Testament have suggested a sharp distinction between the religion of the prophets and that of the priests, but the psalms themselves include the same kind of critique of false worship (Psalm 50:7-15; Psalm 51:15-17).


The psalms as word of God. Unique among biblical literature, the book of Psalms, virtually in its entirety, is directed "upward" toward God rather than "downward" from God to humans. Though the individual psalms are songs and prayers addressed to God, the reader or hearer can find in this address testimony to the nature and work of God. Because they proclaim God, the psalms, once gathered into a book, can be read for meditation and inspiration; they can serve as texts for preaching and even function prophetically, pointing forward, for example, to the work of God in Christ (see, for example, Mark 12:35-37; Hebrews 2:5-9).


Sacrifice in the psalms. Many of the psalms make reference to sacrificial offerings--animal sacrifices (20:3), cups of libation (drink offerings, 116:13), or offerings of thanksgiving (50:23) and prayer (141:2). Psalms like these, no doubt, were sung to accompany sacrificial offerings in the temple. Sacrifice was done in a spirit of giving, along with prayer and praise, signs of faith in the grace of God.


Sheol (the Pit). Several psalms pray for deliverance from Sheol or the Pit. Sheol was understood as the abode of the dead--not "hell" as the destiny of the wicked, but the place of all the dead, good or evil; the Pit was a synonym for Sheol or for the grave. For ancient Israel, death was the end of life worthy of the name, for in Sheol there was no relationship with God (6:5; 30:9). Psalm 139's confession that "if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there" (v. 8) seems to be something of a breakthrough, recognizing there is no place cut off from God's presence.


The soul. There are 144 occurrences in the Psalter of the Hebrew word for "soul" (nefesh). In the Bible, the "soul" is not something that exists apart from the body, but is rather the "self," that which is most particularly and most fully "me"--all of "me," including body, soul, and spirit. This frequent use of "soul" calls attention to the deeply personal character of the psalms.


The steadfast love of God. While the psalmists know well the troubles of human existence and the experience of God's distance or anger, finally they give thanks for the enduring presence of God's "steadfast love." The Hebrew term (khesedh) refers to God's faithfulness and loyalty. Israel can rely on God's goodness and kindness, because this is who God has promised to be. The term occurs more than 120 times in the book of Psalms.

AUTHOR: Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament

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