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Introduction to the Psalms (Part II)

A continuation of part one . . .

E.             The Groupings of the Psalms

The Psalter is divided into five books: 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150. Most believe the five books were created to parallel the five books of Moses (Pentateuch). Each of the five books concludes with a doxology (cf. 41:13). Each of the five books also shows a preference for a particular version of the divine name.

Book I                   Yahweh (272x), Elohim (15x)

Book II                 Yahweh (74x), Elohim (207x)

Book III               Yahweh (13x), Elohim (36x)

Books IV,V       Yahweh (339x), Elohim (7x)

Most of the Davidic psalms are found in the first two books of the Psalter. Psalm 72 closes with these words: "This concludes the prayers of David, son of Jesse" (v. 20). However, a number of psalms before Ps. 72 are non-Davidic and a number of psalms after Ps. 72 are Davidic. Evidently through time both Davidic and non-Davidic psalms were added to the psalter in a way that ignored this grouping.

One grouping of psalms is based on their function: Psalms 120-134 are what are called songs of ascent. These were probably songs sung by the people of Israel as they ascended the temple mount.

We should also note the interesting fact that as we move through the psalter we move from mourning to joy, from lament to hymns of praise. The last seven psalms are not only hymns of praise, they are psalms in which the whole of creation is invited to participate in the worship and celebration of God.

It is difficult to reconstruct the history of how the psalter was formed, but Bruce Waltke has suggested these four stages:

First stage (individual poems) - It all began with poems and songs by individuals (a prayer by Moses, a song by David, etc.). Some of these were selected for use in regular worship while others were not. For example, the song of Miriam (Ex. 15), the song of Moses (Deut. 32), the song of Deborah (Judges 5), the lament of David (2 Sam. 1), the hymn by Jonah (Jonah 2), never became part of the anthology of songs used in the hymn book of the temple. On the other hand, a prayer by Moses (Ps. 90), a song by David (cf. 2 Sam. 22:1 and Ps. 18; 1 Chron. 16:7ff. With Ps. 105:1ff.) were adopted for use in public worship and made their way into the psalter.

Second stage (collection of poems) - These songs were then collected. Evidence for an early collection of Davidic songs is found in Ps. 72:20. In 2 Chron. 29:30 we read that "Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer." This suggests that two collections existed in Hezekiah's time: "the words of David" and "the words of Asaph."

Third stage (the collection into the extant books) - The collection of these smaller anthologies into the books as we now know them was the third stage. This probably took place by different people in successive periods spread over quite a space of time.

Fourth stage (the work of the final editor) - The final collection of psalms as we know it reflects the work of one mind giving shape and definition to the many songs. We have no record of who this person(s) might have been.

The Hebrew Bible contains 150 psalms and Protestant versions have followed this. The Greek Bible has an additional psalm at the end of the book. Also, two of the Hebrew psalms have been subdivided in the Septuagint (LXX; followed also by the Latin Vulgate), and twice a pair of psalms in Hebrew have been fused into one. See the chart at the end of the lesson taken from Bullock (112).

F.             The Uses of the Psalms

The principal use of the psalms was, of course, for the private and public worship of the faithful within Israel. The so-called psalms of ascent, noted earlier, were procession hymns, i.e., hymns sung by worshipers as they approached Jerusalem and the temple. Often specific acts of worship are mentioned in conjunction with a psalm:

"But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple" (5:7).

"I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble" (66:13-14).

"I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you" (63:2-3).

The notation "For the director of music" or "For the choir director" occurs in 55 psalms and "serves probably as a musical addition, marking the psalm to be a part of temple worship or to be recited by the leader of the choir" (VanGemeren). The psalms truly were the "OT Hymnbook"! They were meant not merely to be read, but to be sung.

G.            The Christian (NT) Perspective on the Psalms

With the coming of Jesus and his death and resurrection, the psalms are read in a new light. See especially Luke 24:25-27 and compare it with 24:44. The reference to the "Psalms" in this latter text is inclusive of the third section of the Hebrew canon, often called The Writings. Clearly Jesus believed that the psalter anticipated and spoke about his ministry, suffering, and glory. Indeed, the Psalms are quoted in the NT more often than any other OT book (more than 400x!).

What about the so-called Messianic psalms? A messianic psalm, in the general sense, is any psalm that alludes to the coming of Messiah. Scholars have identified five categories.

(1)           Typically messianic psalms - These are psalms in which the author "gives expression in lyric verse to prominent typical events and features of his life" (Delitzsch). In other words, something in the psalm, while true of the psalmist, is typical of and finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. See Ps. 16:10; 34:20.

(2)           Typico-prophetically messianic psalms - These are psalms in which the poet, "describing his outward and inward experiences, --- experiences even in themselves typical, --- is carried beyond the limits of his individuality and present condition, and utters concerning himself that which, transcending human experience, is intended to become historically true only in Christ" (Delitzsch). This kind of psalm differs from the former in that its language is hyperbolic (exaggerated) when applied to the psalmist, but literal when applied to Jesus (e.g., Ps. 22).

(3)           Indirectly messianic psalms - These are psalms "in which . . . Messianic hopes are referred to a contemporary king [or to the house of David in general], but without having been fulfilled in him" (Delitzsch). They await their final fulfillment in Jesus (e.g., Pss. 2, 45, 72).

(4)           Directly messianic psalms - These psalms are purely prophetic, referring wholly to Jesus without any (or very little) application to the contemporary audience. Some question whether there is any such psalm, but Ps. 110 may well qualify.

(5)           Eschatologically Yahwistic psalms - These psalms refer to the coming of Yahweh and the consummation of his kingdom. They will find ultimate fulfillment in the person of Jesus (e.g., Pss. 96-99).

H.            Parallelism in the Psalms

The primary literary characteristic of the psalms is parallelism. For example, we read this in Psalm 6:1-2,

"O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,

or discipline me in your wrath.

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint;

Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony."

Observe the repetition in these two verses. In verse one, "rebuke" and "discipline" are parallel, as are the phrases "in your anger" and "in your wrath". In the second verse the psalmist calls on the Lord twice. He asks him to be "merciful" and to "heal" him, and in both cases a reason is given, "for . . ." This is poetic parallelism, which simply refers to the correspondence which occurs between the phrases of a poetic line.

There are three primary forms of parallelism in the psalms:

(1)           Synonymous parallelism - This is when there is repetition of the same thought in two different phrases using two different, but related, sets of words. A good example is Psalm 2:1-3.

"Why are the nations in an uproar,

And the peoples devising a vain thing?

The kings of the earth take their stand

And the rulers take counsel together,

Against the Lord

And against His anointed.

'Let us tear their fetters apart,

And cast away their cords from us!'"

Notice how each phrase is paralleled by a nearly synonymous phrase in the second part.

"Wash away all my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin" (Ps. 51:2).

"Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?" (Ps. 139:7)

"I pour out my complaint before Him; before Him I tell my trouble" (Ps. 142:2).

(2)           Antithetic parallelism

Again, the same thought is expressed in two lines, but this time the author uses antonyms (a word whose meaning is the opposite of another word). See Prov. 10:1 for an example ("A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother").

"For Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish" (Ps. 1:6).

"How blessed is the man who has made the Lord his trust, and has not turned to the proud, nor to those who lapse into falsehood" (Ps. 40:4).

"It was not by their sword that they won the land,

nor did their arm bring them victory.

It was your right hand, your arm,

and the light of your face, for you loved them" (Ps. 44:3).

(3)           Synthetic parallelism

In this case, the second phrase appears to complete or supplement or further explain the idea contained in the first phrase.

"But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night" (Ps. 1:2).

"Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart" (Ps. 73:1).

There are other, secondary forms of parallelism, such as:

(4)           Emblematic parallelism

In this case, one of the phrases will use a word of comparison ("like" or "as") to draw an analogy. Often one line conveys the main idea, while the second line illustrates it with an image. For example,

"As the deer pants for the water brooks,

so my soul pants for you, O God" (Ps. 42:1).

"Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow,

an undeserved curse does not come to rest" (Prov. 26:2).

"Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet" (Ps. 22:16).

See also Pss. 44:19,22.

(5)           Repetitive parallelism

Sometimes this is also called stairstep or climactic parallelism. It refers to those cases in which a statement in the first line is partially repeated in the second but is intensified or carried further than would be the case in synthetic parallelism.

"Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness" (29:1).

See also vv. 3-9.

I.              Other Literary Characteristics of the Psalms

(1)           Chiasm

This word comes from the Greek letter chi which looks like X. When written out, a chiastic line will take the form of an X. E.g., Psalm 1:1 is chiastic:

"Blessed is the man who does not walk

in the counsel of the wicked,

and in the way of sinners,

he does not stand."

(2)           Ellipsis

Often the second phrase in parallelism will omit a part of the first phrase on the assumption that the reader knows to insert it. Usually it is a verb that is omitted.

"You have put me in the lowest pit,

[you have put me] in the darkest depths" (88:6).

The italicized phrase is missing in the original text, but the author assumes you will read it as if it were there.

(3)           Inclusio

This involves repetition which opens and closes a poem in a way that binds its parts together. Note how Psalm 8 opens and closes with the phrase, "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" Inclusio provides us with a sense of closure in having read a complete poem.

(4)           Acrostic

An acrostic is a poem in which the first letter of each line forms a recognizable pattern, in most cases the alphabet. The most famous OT example is Psalm 119, in which each stanza has 8 lines which begin with the same letter of the alphabet. Thus the first eight verses of the psalm begin with words which have as their initial letter aleph (the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, corresponding to English A). This pattern continues through the next twenty stanzas. Examples of acrostic psalms are 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145.

Aside from the obviously aesthetic nature of such structure, the purpose of the acrostic psalm was most likely to facilitate memorization.

(5)           Figures of speech (see other material)