At Sinai God gave Moses the worship system for ancient Israel. It consisted of a stated place for worship, a priesthood, sacrifices and offering for various purposes and occasions, and so on. When David brought the ark of the covenant the tent on Mount Zion (1 Chron. 15–16) he preserved Mosaic worship, of course, but he added a musical dimension. Now the offerings were accompanied by singing and musical instruments and were in many ways made a festive occasion. This is the setting of the Psalms, and evidence of it is pervasive.
This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. The Book of Psalms Has No (Original) Title
The Hebrew Bible provides no title to the book of Psalms. Old Testament books in the Hebrew text are sometimes named according to the first words of the book. For example, the title of Genesis is In the Beginning, the title of Exodus is These Are the Names, and the prophetic books are named after the prophet himself. But the book of Psalms has no title in the Hebrew text.
Psalm 72:20 may hint of an early collection of some of the psalms when it says, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” It may be that an early collection of psalms was named The Prayers of David.
The title of the book in Rabbinic and subsequent Hebrew literature is Book of Praises or simply Praises (tehillim). Although this word (in the singular) is used to title just one psalm (Ps. 145), its later use as a title for the book itself derives from its content—the book of Psalms is a book of praises. Psalms of all specific genres, even laments, are regularly couched in praise.
The Hebrew word for psalm occurs dozens of times in the book, and the Septuagint (Codex Vaticanus) picks this up in the plural as the title of the book: Psalmoi. In Codex Alexandrinus, the title given is Psalterion (an ancient stringed instrument) from which we have the name Psalter. Then, in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, it became Libra Psalmorum, The Book of Psalms. So the English title, The Book of Psalms, comes to us from the Greek through the Latin. The Hebrew word psalm denotes a liturgical song sung to an instrumental accompaniment, but because the note of praise is so dominant in these psalms, the word has come to denote simply a song of praise, a sacred song, or a hymn.
2. The Book of Psalms Is a Universal Favorite
The evidence for this assertion is overwhelming and has been so from the church’s earliest days. Jesus and his apostles cited verses from the Psalms so frequently and with such ease and immediate grasp that they appear to have spent their lives in the Psalter. In the early centuries of the church, ministers memorized the entire collection. And all throughout the history of the church, the Psalms has been among the first books of the Bible translated and the most commonly read and memorized. Many verses from the Psalms seem lodged in the memory of virtually all Christians, and Psalm 23 is probably the most well-known text in the world. From Jesus to us, the Psalter has been the treasure of God’s people everywhere.
3. Psalms Are Poetry, and They Must Be Read as Such
Poems are not narrative, and we can’t read the Psalms (profitably) if we read them like we read, say, the books of Samuel or Acts. We read narrative linearly, following the story along rather common lines of thought (protagonist, antagonist, challenge or threat, etc.) to the climactic end. Poetry is not laid out quite that way. The lines are brief and compact and often convey the message only subtly and with figures of speech. And with Hebrew poetry in particular, like the psalms, the verses consist of parallel lines to convey the thought. If the verse has two lines, the second in some way informs the first. If the verse has three lines, the send and third inform the first. To read a psalm profitably we cannot just gloss over the lines quickly to the end, or much will be missed. We must pay attention to the details. We must ponder the figures of speech to grasp the reality they reflect, and we must consider thoughtfully how the compressed lines inform one another.
It has been said that you can tell it’s poetry by all the white space on the page. There is not as much to read, but ironically the compacted details demand closer attention.
4. Psalms Have a Variety of Recognizable Forms
It has long been recognized that not all the psalms are alike. There are different moods and varying circumstances reflecting every human emotion brought before God. Some psalms are given to praise, and some are given to lament and petition. Some are given to express trusting confidence in the Lord of providence, and some look back with grateful praise for what he has done. And then there is Psalm 110, pure prophecy.
What has not always been recognized is that some of the psalms follow common forms. Just as English poetry has some standard genres (cf. the limerick), so also certain types of psalms follow common forms with common components. The praise psalm typically has 1) a call to praise, 2) a cause or reason for praise, and then 3) a renewed call to praise. The lament psalm typically consists of 1) a direct address (“O God!”), and this often with an introductory lament and/or call for help; 2) the lament; 3) an expression of the psalmist’s confidence or trust; 4) the psalmist’s petition; and 5) a conclusion or praise.
There are other psalm forms also, such as songs of trust and individual psalms of grateful praise.