Practical Reflections on the Psalms
Before we begin our study of individual psalms there are introductory matters that must be covered. These are of two types. First, we must discuss the nature of the psalms themselves. Second, it will be helpful if we indicate the nature of this book, God-Centred Praise and Prayer – what it will and will not do for the reader.
The nature of the Psalter
Names and number
We generally hear this book referred to as “The Book of Psalms.” This title should help us to understand that it is a collection of documents, not a single work by a single author. Each psalm is a separate unit. The Book of Psalms is different from other biblical books in this respect. The others were written or assembled from beginning to end. They were later divided into chapters and verses. The psalms, on the other hand, were separate units right from the start.
To remind ourselves of this we should speak differently when using the psalms. When referring to just one psalm, we should say “psalm” not “psalms.” For example, if asking people to open their Bibles to the 23rd psalm, we should say, “Turn to psalm 23.” It indicates carelessness when someone says, “turn to Psalms 23.” We should be careful to use the singular when referring to one and should use the plural only when referring to more than one. “Psalms 91 to 100” is correct because ten psalms are being mentioned. “Psalms 21” is not correct, because the plural form has been used when referring to just one.
Another title we sometimes hear for the book is “The Psalter.” This is another way of saying the same thing. “The Psalter” is the collection of psalms.
Type rather than date
As a general rule, we seek to understand the background situation of a book of the Bible before studying that book. As a first step in our study of Romans (for example), we would ask, “When was this book written? By whom was it written? Who were the intended readers? What was the situation in their lives at the time?” These are all excellent questions with Romans, and with most biblical books. But none of these questions has a single answer when we study the psalms.
The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 separate poems. They were written at various times by several different authors. It is unfortunate that so many people assume that David wrote all the psalms. We know that is not true. Less than half of them carry headings attributing them to David (73 of 150). We are not sure who put those headings on the psalms, what exactly they mean, or how accurate they may be. The person who speaks as if David wrote all the psalms has not been paying attention when he reads his Bible.
We might be able to talk about the date of the collection of the psalms, but we cannot speak of the date of the writing of this book. There must have been hundreds of years between the earliest of the psalms and the latest of them. Psalm 137, for example, was written during the Babylonian exile (see 137:1-3). Psalms written by David would have been written much earlier, since David died nearly 400 years before the exile.
With a book like Romans, we try to picture the situation in which the book was written. What we find out about that situation applies to the whole book. But with the psalms we need to consider each psalm separately. Rarely are we able to determine a date. Instead, we must consider the type of psalm we are reading and what its intended purpose seems to be.
The most common psalm is the individual lament. In this type of psalm, the writer cries out to God for relief from an illness, an enemy, or for deliverance from sin.
When there is an enemy involved, the individual lament sometimes becomes an imprecatory psalm. That means that the worshipper asks God to punish or even to destroy his enemies. Psalms 58:6-9 and 69:22-24 would be examples. Such requests bother many people today. Many Christians ask, “Are we not supposed to forgive our enemies? How can such demands of vengeance be right?”
Closely related to the individual lament is the corporate lament. In the corporate lament, a group of worshippers is calling for deliverance from their problems.
A lament that is focused on the worshiper’s sorrow for his own sin, is called a penitential psalm. Several penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) are also called “Pauline psalms.” This term is used because the understanding of God’s grace and human unworthiness expressed in these psalms seems far in advance of certain other psalms. It has seemed to some readers as if the writer of these psalms had Paul’s understanding that we are saved by grace not by works.
Many of the psalms are simply songs of praise or hymns designed to honour God. These often begin, and may end, with a call to praise God. God is to be praised for his majesty, his power, or any of his wonderful attributes.
Closely related to hymns would be psalms of thanksgiving. The difference is that in a psalm of thanksgiving the people (or person) is giving thanks for a special act or gift of God, rather than simply praising his greatness in a more general way. Perhaps the difference would best be understood by looking at two examples. Psalm 8 would be an example of a hymn praising God. Psalm 30 would be an example of thanksgiving given in response to an act of deliverance.
Some psalms focus on the king. These could be addressed to the king by one of his subjects (Ps 45, for example) or they could be psalms written from the point of view of the king (Ps 18 would be an example). Psalms focused on the king are called royal psalms.
There are a few psalms that seem to be designed to teach. These are not just the repeating of facts, but they call on the reader to look at the facts in a certain way – to use wisdom in understanding the facts. These are called wisdom psalms.
There are other types of psalms, and some psalms seem to mix different types of material. Knowing the different types of psalms is not a magic key that will unlock all of the meaning. But those who take the time to consider what type of psalm they are reading usually will gain a clearer understanding. Those who read every psalm exactly the same way will often miss much of the meaning.
Situation rather than author
For many of the psalms, we are given no inspired indication of authorship. Some psalms have headings that may indicate authorship. Seventy-three psalms have headings containing the name David. Twelve psalms have headings with the name Asaph. Eleven psalms have headings referring to “the sons of Korah.” One psalm (Ps 90) is called “the prayer of Moses.” Heman, Solomon, and Ethan are also mentioned in headings.
Asaph is frequently referred to in the Chronicles as someone David appointed to lead the temple musicians. His descendants, or sons, are mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah as leading in worship after the exile. There was a Korah who rebelled against Moses and was killed in the wilderness. But the “sons of Korah” referred to in the psalm headings would be descended from different a Korah, the one mentioned as serving in the tabernacle (1 Chron 1:35; 2:43; 6:22, 37; 9:19; 26:1).
The difficulties with the psalm headings are complex.
In many cases, we do not know what the headings mean. Some scholars believe that the Hebrew word (le) often translated “psalm of” or “song of” could mean psalm (or song) “in honour of” or “in the style of” rather than “written by.” Willis says that le normally means “to” rather than “by” or “of.”1 Following this same understanding, the Revised English Bible consistently translates le “for.”
We also face the difficulty of not knowing who added these headings. We do not know when they were added. We do not know if they were intended to be understood as inspired parts of the text, or merely suggestions of a possible time.
On a few occasions, the heading does not seem to fit the psalm to which it is attached or does not fit if an indication of authorship was intended. For example, when we read in Psalm 90:10 that we live 70 or 80 years, we are made to wonder if this could have been written by Moses (as the heading is normally understood). Moses lived 120 years. His brother was even older, 123 years, when he died. Another example of questionable fit would be psalm 3. The heading for this psalm connects it with Absalom’s rebellion against David. But the tone of the psalm is very different from the attitude that David took toward his son at that time (see 2 Sam 18).
So it seems that we ought not to rely too much on the headings.
On the other hand, there must be no great harm in the headings. The Lord has allowed them to remain in the Bible for centuries. He surely would not have done so if they are going to lead his people completely astray. We should however remember that the headings are suggestive rather than authoritative. They allow us to picture a possible situation in which the psalm may have been written.
Trying to picture the nature of the situation in which each psalm was composed is often helpful in deepening our understanding of it. In some cases, it is also helpful to then consider why, at a much later date, those who assembled the psalms included a given psalm. It is universally agreed that the psalms were not assembled into their current order until after the exile. Why include royal psalms when they no longer had a king? This is a valuable question that will help us reach a deeper understanding when studying royal psalms.
Ultimately, the Christian desires to look at each psalm from a New Testament perspective. But the original situation and the situation at the time of the psalms were collected are valuable aids when trying to see the full range of meaning.
Careful readers will have noticed that the Psalter is divided into five “books.” Psalms 1-42 are labelled “Book One.” Psalms 43-72 are labelled “Book Two.” Psalms 73-89 are labelled “Book Three.” Psalms 90-106 are labelled “Book Four.” Psalms 107-150 are labelled “Book Five.”
There are various theories about this division of the psalms into “books.” It seems very likely that the completed Book of Psalms was assembled by combining earlier and smaller collections that may have existed in various places. Perhaps the five “books” reflect that process.
Some of the books have a lot of psalms connected (by their headings) with David. Others have few with headings that refer to David. The first book (containing 41 psalms) has 37 (90%) with headings mentioning David. The second book (containing 31 psalms) has only 18 headings (58%) that mention David. The third book (containing 17 psalms) has only one (6%) that mentions David. The fourth book (containing 17 psalms) has 2 headings (11%) mentioning David. The last book (containing 44 psalms) has only 1 heading (2%) that mentions David.
The significance of this reduction in the mention of David as we move through the psalms is debatable. We mention it only in the hope that it will help the student will realise the need to study each psalm, to try to understand its context and situation. Just assuming that David wrote every psalm is rather inattentive and lazy. It may also cause us to miss insights we would gain if we read more carefully.
Date of Collection
As mentioned earlier, the Psalter contains some psalms at least as late at the exile (Ps 137, for example). It is likely that there were collections of psalms before the exile. But the collection of psalms as we have it is from the time of the exile or more likely from after the exile. Many suggestions have been made concerning who collected the psalms and when the process was completed. We will not join in those discussions.2
The important point to remember is that the final collection must have taken place after the destruction of the Jerusalem (ca 586 BC), and that it is more likely to have happened later than that – perhaps as the second temple was beginning to be used. At that time, the Jews had no king, and they certainly were not reigning over other nations.
This becomes an important applicational clue when reading some of the psalms. The question, “What value did the compliers see in this psalm when they chose to include it?” is a very helpful question at times.
The Nature of God-Centred Praise and Prayer
We turn now to a description of this book, God-Centred Praise and Prayer. We want you to know what to expect from this book.
This is not a detailed scholarly work. The author is not an expert on the Psalms. For detailed study of difficult passages in The Psalter, the student will need to seek out some of the better commentaries (some of which are listed at the bibliography).
The goal of this book is to help the reader develop a deeper appreciation of the relevance of the psalms for the 21st century Christian. In the lessons that follow, uses will be suggested for all 150 psalms. In every case there are other lessons and uses that would be legitimate. What is mentioned here is not exhaustive. Hopefully it will be found practical and useful. Hopefully in finding some practical uses of the Psalms, the student will be motivated to study them further and use them more.
We close this introduction with an observation about the title chosen for the book. Does the title, God-Centred Praise and Prayer, raise any questions in your mind? Are any readers asking, “Isn’t praise and prayer naturally God-Centred?”
Sadly, the answer is “no.” When sinful humans pray, the prayer is often far from being God-Centred. The Pharisee’s prayer (described by Jesus in Luke 18) was almost totally self-centred. And his praise was praise of himself. He did not praise God.
Times may have changed, but people have not. We still hear and offer many self-centred prayers. We often offer praise that is seriously flawed. We often hear people discussing their worship preferences instead of discussing what God has commanded and what he seeks in worship.
Even the psalmists sometimes begin their prayers with evident self-focus. But in most cases, as the psalm progresses, they reorient themselves into a God-centred frame of mind. This is something we all need. The study of the Psalms, and use of the Psalms in our daily lives, should help us to make a similar correction in our prayer and worship.3
1 John T. Willis, Insights from the Psalms, Vol 1 (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1974), p 20.
2 Those interested in deeper discussion of date, authorship, and related matters are referred to the standard reference works and commentaries. Some of these are listed in the bibliography. Beginning students of the Psalms are most likely to find Willis, Ash and Miller, Longman, Bullock, or Cragie helpful (in order from simplest to most complex).
3 The Hebrew term Selah occurs 71 times in the Psalms. No one knows for sure what this term means. The most common theory is that it is a musical term employed to indicate a crescendo in the singing of the psalm. Selah does not seem to relatein any way to the interpretation or understanding of the Psalms. It should be omitted when reading the Psalms. It will not be discussed in this book.