1. Author and Time of Writing
The book of the Psalms is probably the best known part of the Old Testament (OT). It is a collection of 150 poems or songs by various authors and it is divided into five books (similar to the Pentateuch).
David wrote 73 Psalms. They are mainly to be found in the first, second and fifth book. Twelve Psalms bear the name of Asaph, the conductor of David's choir of the temple (1 Chron. 16:7; 2 Chron. 29:30). Asaph's Psalms are Psalm 50 and 73-83. Ten Psalms are written by the sons of Korah (Ps. 42; 44-49; 84; 85; 87), two by Solomon (Ps. 72 and 127), one each by Moses (Ps. 90), Ethan (Ps. 89) and Heman (Ps. 88). The remaining 50 Psalms bear no author's name.
The following Psalms are also ascribed to David in the New Testament (NT): Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25) and Psalm 95 (Heb. 4:7). Together with the Psalms that bear David's name they add up to 75, which means David has written exactly half of all the Psalms.
David was very suitable for this. He was an able poet, player (of an instrument) and singer (1 Sam. 16:18; 2 Sam. 23:1). He was filled with the Spirit of God (1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Sam. 23:2) and had gone through many experiences with God in his life of faith. Many references of Scripture tell us that David was very active in spiritual poetry and music (e. g. 1 Sam. 18:10; 2 Sam. 1:17-18; 6:5; 1 Chron. 6:31; 16:7; 25:1; 2 Chron. 7:6; 29:30; Ezra 3:10; Neh. 12:24, 36, 45; Amos 6:5).
In some places David mentions the occasion or the reason for the composition of a Psalm in the heading: Psalm 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142. One of these occasions is described in 2 Sam. 22. This is where we find a nearly word-by-word parallel to Ps. 18.
Psalm 90 is probably the oldest psalm: "A prayer of Moses the man of God". Moses lived in the 15th century BC. Most of the Psalms however have been written at the time of David who introduced the singing in the temple (1 Chron. 25). At the time of Hezekiah (2 Chron. 29:25-30) reference is made to that (".according to the commandment of David") and to the Psalms of David and Asaph. These psalms therefore had already been joined to a sort of collection. The last Psalms were written in the days of Ezra (5th century BC). Psalm 137 clearly refers to the Babylonian captivity. According to many researchers it was Ezra, the priest and scribe, himself who completed the final collection of the Psalms (Ezra 3:10).
2. Purpose of Writing
The book of Psalms is the first and main book of the third part of the Hebrew Bible, of the "writings" (hebr. ketubim). The reference in Luke 24:44 "psalms" probably means the whole third part of the OT. The Hebrew title is "tehillim" (hebr. hillil, which means "to praise"; compare hallelujah) and signifies "praises". The name "psalm" for a singular praise originates from the Greek and means "singing with instrumental accompaniment" or "playing a stringed instrument".
The Psalms particularly speak to the Bible-reader because the sentiments of God fearing men are expressed more than in other books of the Scriptures, be it in prayer, in confession, in praises or in grief. In many of these situations the Bible reader finds himself and therefore is especially attracted and spoken to by the Psalms.
b) Prophetic Character of the Psalms
But this does not yet exhaust the substance of the Psalms. For the psalmists not only described their own feelings. The Spirit of Christ was working in them and was sharing in their distresses and joys and was at one with them (compare Is. 63:9; 1 Pet. 1:11). This is why we find Christ everywhere in the Psalms and not only in the so-called "messianic psalms", e. g. Ps. 16, 22, 24, 40, 68, 69 and 118. Christ is very distinguished in the "messianic psalms" but many psalms are referred to Him in the NT (and these are not the so-called messianic psalms). The following Psalms ought to be mentioned especially:
Many more references could be added. Nearly half of all messianic references in the NT originate from the Psalms.
If we see this spiritual link of Christ with the believing Israelites (who wrote the Psalms) the true character of the book, which is a prophetic character, opens up before our eyes. The Spirit of Christ unites with the experiences and feelings of these believing Israelites. This is why the sufferings of the Lord and His feelings as true and perfect man are described in the book in such touching manner, for they are a proof of His interest in His earthly people.
Describing the history of the Jewish remnant in the last days reflects the prophetic character of the Psalms. But again not the outward events are described but the inward feelings. This would also explain the pleas for punishment or for vengeance on the enemies (e. g. Ps. 137:9), which are difficult to understand for many a reader. The feelings explained in these Psalms are feelings of believers but not of Christians living in the household of grace (compare Rom. 12:17-21). They are feelings of believing Jews living in the coming last days. These Jews will await God's salvation and the just punishment of their oppressors, and especially of the Antichrist.
c) Structure of the Psalms
Taking the prophetic viewpoint we will find a fairly clear division of the book. All other divisions are more or less unsatisfactory. The similar structure of the Psalms and of the Pentateuch is also remarkable and one can state certain parallels. The first Psalm of each book contains so to speak the "heading" and the last Psalm of each book concludes with praises.
The first book of the Psalms puts forward the principle of separation of the just from the unjust among the people of God. Connected with it the Messiah is seen as Son of God (Ps. 2), as Son of man (Ps. 8), as suffering servant (Ps. 22) and as true offering (Ps. 40). The prevailing name of God in this book is His covenant name Jehovah (which is mentioned approximately 275 times).
In the second book we find the sufferings of the just ones, who - separated from any blessing - live in great tribulation and who cry to God (Elohim is mentioned roughly 200 times) in their distress.
The third book describes the return of Israel as a people and God's mercy towards His people.
The fourth book begins with the reign of Jehovah (app. 100 times) after introducing the firstborn into the habitable world (JND translation). With this begins the reign of the glorified Son of man in the Millennium after the salvation of the whole of Israel.
The fifth book contains the summary of all Jehovah's ways with His people Israel as well as the praise, which is due to Him for His mercy (Ps. 111-113; 146-150).
a) Hebrew Poetry
Rhyme, rhythm and metre as well as partially the division into verses play an important role in classical European poetry. The Hebrew poetry is entirely different. Rhyme and metre are totally unknown. A division into verses, as we know it today is entirely unknown. Nevertheless we find a sort of division in Psalm 119, which 22 paragraphs of eight verses each are beginning with the same Hebrew letter continuously, that is verses 1-8 are starting by the letter aleph, verses 9-16 by the letter beth, etc. (acrostic).
In saying this we have already mentioned one style of Hebrew poetry, which is alliteration. Alliteration means that the beginning of words is similar and not the ending of words. One variety of alliteration is to have each verse begin with the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as we find it in Ps. 9, 10, 25, 34, 47, 111, 112, 145 as well as in Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lam. 1-4 (compare also Ps. 119). The often very pictorial comparisons are a further element of Hebrew poetry (see Ps. 1:3; 22:12-16).
The most important characteristic however is parallelism. Parallelism means that a statement is stressed or extended by repetition. One distinguishes three kinds of parallelisms:
a) Synonymous parallelism, for example Ps. 49:1 "Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world." - The same thought is expressed twice with different words.
b) Antithetic (contrasted) parallelism, for example Ps. 1:6 "For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish." - The thought of the first sentence is stressed by the contrast in the final clause.
c) Synthetic (connecting) parallelism, for example Ps. 22:4 "Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them." - The final clause completes and expands the thought of the first sentence.
b) Heading of the Psalms
With the exception of a few Psalms all Psalms bear a heading. The 34 Psalms without heading are: Ps. 1, 2, 10, 43, 71, 91, 93-97, 99, 104-107, 111-119, 135-137, 146-150 (The words "Praise ye the Lord" are not headings but belong to the text).
The most important headings are:
Maschil 13 Psalms bear this heading (Ps. 32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, 142). Maschil probably signifies teaching or instruction.
Poem Psalms 16 and 56-60 are headed "poem" (hebr. michtam).
Song of Degrees Psalms 120-134 are songs of degrees that is songs of going up. It is assumed that they were to be sung either on journeys to great feasts in Jerusalem or going up to the hill where the temple stood.
To the Chief Musician 55 Psalms of David's time bear this indication in the heading. The chief musician was certainly the conductor of the choir in the temple. In this we may see a hint to the Lord Jesus who Himself will sing praise in the midst of the assembly (compare Ps. 22:22; Heb. 2:12).
Any further expressions have no need of special explanation or are explained in the various editions of the Bible.
4. Overview of Contents
First Book (Psalm 1-41): Separation of the Just from the Unjust
Second Book (Psalm 42-72): The Sufferings of the Just
Third Book (Psalm 73-89): Return of the People and God's Goodness
Fourth Book (Psalm 90-106): Jehovah's Government in the Millennium
Fifth Book (Psalm 107-150): Summary of Jehovah's Ways with His People