The Hebrew name for this book is TEHILLIM, praises, though many of the psalms are rather elegiac. Most of the psalms have the superscription mizmor, a poem song. This word is rendered in the Septuagint by psalmos, that is, a song sung to music, a lyric poem. The Greek psalterion means a stringed instrument; hence by a metaphor the book of Psalms is called Psalter. For the poetical characteristics of the Psalms, see POETRY.
Classification. Some writers have classified the psalms according to their poetic character, into odes, elegies, etc. A preferable method is to divide them according to their contents. In this way they have been divided into six classes.
1. Hymns in praise of Jehovah; tehillim in the proper sense. These are directed to Jehovah as the God of all nature and the Creator of the universe, Psalm 8:1-9 104:1-35
; as the protector and patron of Israel, Psalm 20:1-9
, or of individuals, with thanksgiving for deliverance from evils, Psalm 18:1-50
:9 ; or they refer to the more special attributes of Jehovah, Psalm 90:1-17 139:1-24
. These psalms express thoughts of the highest sublimity in respect to God, providence, redemption, etc.
2. Temple hymns; sung at the consecration of the temple, the entrance of the ark, etc., or intended for the temple service, Psalm 24:1-10 132:1-18
. So also "pilgrim songs," sung by those who came up to worship in the temple, etc.; as for example, the "songs of degrees," Psalm 120:1-7
, etc. See DEGREES, PSALMS OF.
3. Religious and moral songs of a general character; containing the poetical expression of emotions and feelings, and therefore subjective: as for example, confidence in God, Psalm 23:1-6
; devotedness to God, Psalm 16:1-11
; longing for the worship of the temple, Psalm 42:1-43
:5 ; prayers for the forgiveness of sin, etc. To this class belong the seven penitential psalms, as they are termed, Psalm 6:1-10
. Also didactic song; the poetical expression of some truth, maxim, etc., Psalm 1:1-6
15:1-5 32:1-11 34:1-22
, etc. This is a numerous class.
4. Elegiac psalms, that is, lamentations, psalms of complaint, generally united with prayer for help.
5. Messianic psalms, as Psalm 3:1-8
69:1-36 72:1-20 110:1-7
6. Historical psalms, in which the ancient history manner, Psalm 78:1-72 105:1-45 106:1-48 114:1-8
But it is impossible to form any perfect arrangement, because some psalms belong in part to two or more different classes. Besides the proper Messianic psalms, predictions of the Messiah are widely scattered through this book, and the attention of the devout reader is continually attracted by passages foretelling His character and His works. Not a few of these are alluded to in the New Testament; and it is unquestionable that the language and structure of many others not quoted were intended to bear witness to the Son of God. David himself was an eminent type of the Savior, and many events of his life shadowed forth his son and Lord. The mention of these in the inspired writings is not undesigned; the recorded trials and victories of David find in their reference to the Messiah their highest claim to a place in the sacred writings. Lord Bacon has remarked that many prophetic passages in the Old Testament are "of the nature of their Author, to whom a thousand years are as one day; and therefore they are not fulfilled punctually at once, but have springing and germinant accomplishment through many ages, though the height or fullness of them may refer to some one age."
InscriptionsWith the exception of twenty-five psalms, hence called orphan psalms, all the rest have inscriptions of various kinds. They refer to the author, the occasion, different kinds of song, the melody or rhythm, the instrumental accompaniment, the choir who shall perform, etc. These are mostly very obscure, because the music and musical instruments of the Hebrews are almost unknown to us. They are of very high antiquity, if not as old as the psalms themselves; and in the Hebrew are not detached from the psalms, as in modern translations. They appear with numerous variations in the ancient Greek and Syriac versions. Many words in these inscriptions remain untranslated, and can only be conjecturally interpreted. See HIGGAION, MASCHIL, etc.
Authors and age of the Psalms. To David are assigned seventythree psalms in the Hebrew, and in the Septuagint eleven more. Psalm 90:1-17
is ascribed to Moses. As to the authorship of the other psalms, much diversity of opinion has prevailed among biblical critics.
The whole collection of the Psalms appears to have first existed in five books, after the example, perhaps, of the Pentateuch. Each book closes with a doxology.
One psalm occurs twice, Psalm 14:1-7
; compare Psalm 53:1-6
. Some occur as parts of other psalms; as for example, Psalm 70:1-5
forms also a part of Psalm 40:1-17
. So also some psalms are repeated from other books of Scripture; thus Psalm 18:1-31 2 Samuel 22:1-51
. The final arrangement of the whole is generally referred to Ezra, 450 B. C.
These invaluable sacred songs exhibit the sublimest conceptions of God, as the creator, preserver, and governor of the universe; to say nothing of the prophetical character of many of them, and their relation to the Messiah and the great plan of man's redemption. They present us with the most perfect models of child-like resignation and devotedness, of unwavering faith and confidence in God. They are an inspired epitome of the Bible, for purposes of devotion; and are peculiarly dear to the people of God, as expressing every phase of religious experience. Luther, in his prefaces to the Psalter, has the following beautiful language; "Where canst thou find nobler words of joy, than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There thou mayest look into the hearts of all good men, as into beautiful and pleasant gardens, yea, as into heaven itself. How do grateful and fine and charming blossoms spring up there from every kind of pleasing and rejoicing thoughts towards God and his goodness! Again, where canst thou find more deep or mournful words of sorrow, than in the psalms of lamentation and woe? There thou mayest look again into the hearts of all good men, as upon death, yea, as if into hell. How dark and gloomy is it there, from anxious and troubled views of the wrath of God! I hold, however, that no better or finer book of models, or legends of saints and martyrs, has existed, or can exist on earth, than the Psalter. For we find here, not alone what one or two saints have done, but what the Head of all saints has done, and what all holy men still do; in what attitude they stand towards God and towards their friends and enemies; and how they conduct themselves in all dangers and sufferings. And besides this, all sorts of divine doctrines and precepts are contained in it. Hence it is that the Psalter is The Book of all good men; and every one, whatever his circumstances may be, finds in it psalms and words suited to his circumstances, and which are to him just as if they had been put there on his very account, and in such a way that; he himself could not have made or found or wished for better."
In Luke 24:44
, the word "psalms" denotes one of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible, the Hagiographa or devotional writings. See BIBLE. With regard to alphabetical psalms and psalms of degrees, see DEGREES, PSALMS OF, and LETTERS.