The Psalms

Arend Remmers

150 Psalms

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

a) General

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:

  • Psalm 2:7 - "Thou art my Son: this day have I begotten thee" (Acts 13.33)
  • Psalm 8:6 - "Thou hast put all things under his feet" (Heb. 2:6-10)
  • Psalm 41:9 - "Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me." (John 13:18)
  • Psalm 45:6 - "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever." (Heb. 1:8)
  • Psalm 110:1 - "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand."(Mat. 22:44)

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.

Book I

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).

Book II

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.

Book III

The third book describes the return of Israel as a people and God's mercy towards His people.

Book IV

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.

Book V

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).

3. Peculiarities

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

Psalm 1 The Just and the Unjust

Psalm 2 God's King: the Messiah

Psalm 3 David's Confidence in the Unchangeable God

Psalm 4 David's Confidence in the Special Care of God

Psalm 5 Jehovah Hears the Cry of His People

Psalm 6 Plea for Mercy

Psalm 7 Prayer for Just Punishment of the Oppressor

Psalm 8 Reign of the Son of Man

Psalm 9 Praising God for Victory over the Enemies

Psalm 10 Plea for Salvation from the Wicked

Psalm 11 The Just in the midst of Wickedness

Psalm 12 The Confidence of the Just in the midst of Wickedness

Psalm 13 Ditto

Psalm 14 General Ruin of Mankind

Psalm 15 Marks of the True God-Fearing

Psalm 16 Christ as Perfect Man

Psalm 17 Prayer of the Just for Protection

Psalm 18 Praise of God

Psalm 19 Testimony of God in Creation

Psalm 20 Help from the Sanctuary

Psalm 21 Royal Song of Victory

Psalm 22 Christ's Sufferings and Glory

Psalm 23 Christ, the Good Shepherd

Psalm 24 Christ, the King of Glory

Psalm 25 Plea for Salvation and Forgiveness

Psalm 26 Prayer of an Upright Man

Psalm 27 Desire for God's Presence

Psalm 28 Cry in Distress

Psalm 29 God's Might is Above Everything

Psalm 30 Praise for God's Help

Psalm 31 Salvation from the Enemy

Psalm 32 Blessing of Forgiveness

Psalm 33 Worship of the Creator

Psalm 34 Experience of Those who Love God

Psalm 35 Cry for Help of the One in Distress

Psalm 36 Mind of the Wicked and the Goodness of God

Psalm 37 Confidence in God in the midst of a Wicked World

Psalm 38 Sufferings of the Believers for their Sins

Psalm 39 Every Man is Vanity

Psalm 40 Christ the Obedient Servant of God

Psalm 41 Confidence, Betrayal and Triumph

Second Book (Psalm 42-72): The Sufferings of the Just

Psalm 42 Desire of the Just for God

Psalm 43 Continuation of Psalm 42

Psalm 44 The People of God in Distress Cry for God

Psalm 45 Christ, King and Bridegroom

Psalm 46 God is Refuge and Strength

Psalm 47 God's Reign as King

Psalm 48 The City of God

Psalm 49 Vanity of Earthly Riches

Psalm 50 The Just Judgment of God

Psalm 51 Confession of Sins and Repentance

Psalm 52 Condemnation of the Wicked

Psalm 53 Apostasy of the Wicked

Psalm 54 The Cry of the God-fearing for Salvation

Psalm 56 Confidence in the Faithfulness of God

Psalm 57 Confidence in the Salvation of God

Psalm 58 God Reveals Himself in Judgment

Psalm 59 Help for the Helpless

Psalm 60 Lamentation in Great Distress

Psalm 61 God is the True Refuge

Psalm 62 God Only Saves

Psalm 63 Thirst for God

Psalm 64 The Fate of the Enemies

Psalm 65 The Rich Blessing of God

Psalm 66 Acknowledgement of Just Intervention of God

Psalm 67 Outlook on the Blessing

Psalm 68 Liberation is Accomplished

Psalm 69 Lamentation of the Rejected Messiah

Psalm 70 Cry for Salvation

Psalm 71 Revival of People of God

Psalm 72 Announcement of Reign of Peace

Third Book (Psalm 73-89): Return of the People and God's Goodness

Psalm 73 An Enigma and its Solution

Psalm 74 Destruction of the Sanctuary

Psalm 75 God's Coming into Action by Judgment

Psalm 76 Victorious Might of God

Psalm 77 Retrospect in Faith

Psalm 78 God's Dealings in the History of Israel

Psalm 79 Prayer at Destruction of Jerusalem

Psalm 80 Prayer of the People in Their Distress

Psalm 81 The People Gather Fresh Hope

Psalm 82 God's Judgment of the Judges

Psalm 83 Prayer at the Attack of the Enemy

Psalm 84 Taking Pleasure in the Sanctuary of Jehovah

Psalm 85 The People of God Enjoy the Promised Blessing

Psalm 86 The God-fearing Soul in Humble Prayer to God (This is the only Psalm of David in the third book.)

Psalm 87 Zion, the City of God

Psalm 88 A Prayer coming from Deepest Distress

Psalm 89 Covenant of God and His Faithfulness

Fourth Book (Psalm 90-106): Jehovah's Government in the Millennium

Psalm 90 The Eternal God and Mortal Men (of Moses; probably the oldest Psalm)

Psalm 91 Exemplary Confidence of Man In God

Psalm 92 Song of Praise in the Sanctuary

Psalm 93 Jehovah Reigns in Majesty

Psalm 94 Cry for Justice and Vengeance

Psalm 95 Praise of Jehovah as Creator and Saviour of His People

Psalm 96 Praise of Jehovah as Creator and Judge of the Earth

Psalm 97 Appearing of Jehovah as King

Psalm 98 Praise of Jehovah, the King

Psalm 99 Jehovah's Reign

Psalm 100 Worldwide Worship of Jehovah

Psalm 101 Principles of Jehovah's Government

Psalm 102 God Revealed in Flesh

Psalm 103 Israel's Praise over Ways of God

Psalm 104 Praise of Creator-God

Psalm 105 Historical Retrospective: God's Faithfulness toward Israel

Psalm 106 Historical Retrospective: Israel's Unfaithfulness toward God

Fifth Book (Psalm 107-150): Summary of Jehovah's Ways with His People

Psalm 107 Jehovah Saves Out of Every Difficulty

Psalm 108 The Coming Salvation

Psalm 109 Hostility to Christ

Psalm 110 Christ as Priest and King

Psalm 111 Praise of the Wonderful Works of Jehovah

Psalm 112 Jehovah's Blessing for the God-fearing

Psalm 113 Praise of the Name of Jehovah

Psalm 114 The Might of the God of Jacob

Psalm 115 Honour Is Due to God Only

Psalm 116 Praise of God for His Help in Distress

Psalm 117 Praise of the Nations (This is the shortest Psalm.)

Psalm 118 Israel Recognises the True Corner-stone (This Psalm is the one most frequently quoted in the NT.)

Psalm 119 Praise of the Word of God (the longest Psalm)

Psalm 120 Solemnity of the God-fearing

Psalm 121 God as Protector of Israel

Psalm 122 House and City of God

Psalm 123 Israel's Fountain of Help in Tribulation

Psalm 124 Salvation in Distress

Psalm 125 Perfect Security

Psalm 126 Sowing in Tears and Reaping with Rejoicing

Psalm 127 Blessing over the House

Psalm 128 Blessing over the Family

Psalm 129 God's Mighty Hand

Psalm 130 Repentance and Forgiveness

Psalm 131 Rest and Satisfaction

Psalm 132 Habitation of Jehovah in Zion

Psalm 133 Blessing of Brotherly Fellowship

Psalm 134 Worship in the Sanctuary

Psalm 135 Knowing and Worshiping the True God

Psalm 136 Praise of God's Eternal Mercy

Psalm 137 Reminiscences of the Exile

Psalm 138 Praise of God for His Salvation

Psalm 139 The Heart-searching Presence of God

Psalm 140 Jehovah, the Fountain of Help for the Just

Psalm 141 Prayer of the Just amidst the Wicked

Psalm 142 Jehovah, the Refuge of the Lonely Ones

Psalm 143 Prayer out of Deepest Distress

Psalm 144 The True Fountain of Strength

Psalm 145 Praise of God in the Millennium

Psalm 146 Personal Praise of the Just

Psalm 147 Praise of the People of God

Psalm 148 Praise of the Whole Creation

Psalm 149 Praise by a New Song

Psalm 150 End: Summary of God's Praises