Psalms (Tiberian: Təhillîm; Modern: Tehillim, תְהִלִּים, or "praises") is a book of the Hebrew Bible. Taken together, its 150 sacred poems "express virtually the full range of Israel's religious faith."
The word psalms is derived from the Greek Ψαλμοί (Psalmoi), perhaps originally meaning "songs sung to a harp", from psallein "play on a stringed instrument".
Composition and numbering
The Book of Psalms consists of 150 psalms, each of which constitutes a religious song, though one or two are atypically long and may constitute a set of related chants. When the Bible was divided into chapters, each Psalm was assigned its own chapter. Psalms are sometimes referenced as chapters, despite chapter assignments postdating the initial composition of the "canonical" Psalms by at least 1,500 years. Though most of the psalms are believed to have been intended for singing (some even include instrumentation and the names of tunes to sing to), the meaning of the cantillation marks which indicate the tune has been lost.
The organization and numbering of the Psalms differs slightly between the (Masoretic) Hebrew and the (Septuagint) Greek manuscripts:
Christian traditions vary:
Catholic official liturgical texts follow the Greek numbering, but modern Catholic translations often use the Hebrew numbering, sometimes adding, in parenthesis, the Greek numbering as well.
Eastern Orthodox translations are based on the Greek numbering;
- in the Syriac Orthodox Church Peshitta tradition there are 155 Psalms.
Protestant translations are based on the Hebrew numbering;
For the remainder of this article, the Hebrew numbering is used unless otherwise noted.
Most manuscripts of the Septuagint also include a Psalm 151, present in Eastern Orthodox translations; a Hebrew version of this poem was found in the Psalms Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Psalms Scroll presents the Psalms in an order different from that found elsewhere, and also contains a number of non-canonical poems and hymns in the same style as the canonical Psalms, suggesting that the current collection of 150 may have been selected from a wider set.
Some versions of the Peshitta also include Psalms 152–155.
Authorship and ascriptions
Jewish tradition posits that the Psalms are the work of David (seventy-three Psalms are with David's name), based on the writings of ten ancient psalmists (including Adam and Moses).
In the New Testament, six of the Psalms (2, 16, 32, 69, 95, and 110) are specifically identified as the work of David (in, respectively, Acts 4:25; Acts 2:31; Rom. 4:6; Rom. 11:9; Heb. 4:7; and Matt. 22:43 and corresponding verses in the other Synoptic Gospels, as well as Acts 2:34).
Muslim tradition maintains that the Psalms, known as Zabur in the Quran, were revealed to David by God in the same way that the Torah was revealed to Moses and the Quran to Muhammad.
Many modern scholars see them as the product of several authors or groups of authors, many unknown.:5 The majority of Psalms are prefixed with introductory words—"superscriptions", which are frequently different in the Masoretic and Septuagint traditions, or missing in one while present in the other. In the Masoretic text, 101 bear in the headings the name of a specific person or group; 73 of these refer to David. The ascription to David usually takes the form לדוד, with the preposition "le-" attached to David's name. This can mean "of," "by," "for," or "concerning". Hence, while the traditional interpretation is that these Psalms were written by David, Michael Goulder argues that the psalms were written in David's lifetime, probably by one of his sons, "in response to situations in which he found himself."
Additionally, thirteen Psalms have headings that refer to some event in the life of David. These Psalms are 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63 and 142. Some of the references involved are quite ambiguous or obscure.
Other scholars think the Psalms is a post-Exilic collection of poems, the work of several authors from differing dates. These scholars assert that many of the Psalms could have been composed as early as the Monarchy, when they honored successions of Davidic kings. The early poems may have been used in worship at the temple.
Psalms 39, 62, and 77 are linked with Jeduthun, to be sung after his manner or in his choir. Psalms 50 and 73–83 are the Psalms of Asaph, associated with Asaph, as the master of his choir, to be sung in the worship of God. The ascriptions of Psalms 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87, and 88 assert that the "sons of Korah" were entrusted with arranging and singing them; 2 Chronicles 20:19 suggests that this group formed a leading part of the Korathite singers. Hebraist Joel M. Hoffman suggests that Psalm 49 may be an anti-corruption Psalm, not "for Korah" but "against Korah."
Psalm 18 is also found, with minor variations, at 2 Samuel 22, for which reason, in accordance with the naming convention used elsewhere in the historic parts of the Bible, it is known as the Song of David. Portions of Psalms 105, 96, and possibly 106 appear in 1 Chronicles 16 under the ambiguous heading (in the Douay translation), "In that day David made Asaph the chief to give praise to the Lord with his brethren."
Benjamin Urrutia wrote a brief article on the Egyptian religious ritual of the Opening of the Mouth. In it, he traces common themes between the Opening of the Mouth and Psalm 51, such as opening the mouth (or of the lips, in Psalm 51), healing of broken bones, and washing the inner organs with special cleansing spices.
Sections of the book
In Jewish usage, the Book of Psalms is divided, after the analogy of the Pentateuch, into five books, each closing with a doxology or benediction (For the Orthodox Christian division into twenty kathismata, see Eastern Orthodox usage, below):
- The first book comprises the first 41 Psalms. All of these are ascribed to David except Psalms 1, 2, 10, and 33, which, though untitled in the Hebrew, were also traditionally ascribed to David. While Davidic authorship cannot be confirmed, this probably is the oldest section of the Psalms.
The second book consists of the next 31 Psalms (42–72). Eighteen of these are ascribed to David. Psalm 72 begins "For Solomon", but is traditionally understood as being written by David as a prayer for his son. The rest are anonymous.
The third book contains seventeen Psalms (73–89), of which Psalm 86 is ascribed to David, Psalm 88 to Heman the Ezrahite, and Psalm 89 to Ethan the Ezrahite.
The fourth book also contains seventeen Psalms (90–106), of which Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses, and Psalms 101 and 103 to David.
- The fifth book contains the remaining 44 Psalms. Of these, 15 are ascribed to David, one (Psalm 127) as a charge to Solomon.
Psalm 136 is generally called "the great Hallel", but the Talmud also includes Psalms 120–135. Psalms 113–118 constitute the Hallel, which is recited on the three great feasts, (Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles); at the new moon; and on the eight days of Hanukkah. A version of Psalm 136 with slightly different wording appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Psalms 120–134 are referred to as Songs of Ascents, and are thought to have been used as hymns of approach by pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm. It is composed of 176 verses, in sets of eight verses, each set beginning with one of the 22 Hebrew letters. Several other Psalms also have alphabetical arrangements. These psalms are believed to be written (rather than oral) compositions from the first, and thus of a relatively late date.
Psalm 117 is the shortest Psalm, containing but two verses.
Hermann Gunkel's pioneering form-critical work on the psalms sought to provide a new and meaningful context in which to interpret individual psalms – not by looking at their literary context within the Psalter (which he didn’t see as significant), but by bringing together psalms of the same genre (Gattung) from throughout the Psalter. The main genres are:
- Royal Psalms
- Thanksgiving Psalms
- Wisdom Psalms
- Smaller Genres and Mixed Type
Psalm forms or types also include:
- Songs of Zion – Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, 122, 134;
- Historical Litanies – Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136;
- Pilgrim Liturgies – Psalms 81, 21;
- Entrance Liturgies – Psalms 15, 24;
- Judgment Liturgies – Psalms 50, 82;
- Mixed Types – 36, 40, 41, 68
Generally these psalms consist of praise and can be subdivided into 1)Hymns of Divine Kingship (ie Psalm 29), 2) Creation Hymns (ie Psalm 104), and 3) Hymns celebrating divine action in Israel's history (ie Psalm 105 and 106) . These psalms describe the relationship between the Israelite people and Yahweh and recognizes his power and majesty, a theme that is found in other wisdom literature. Gunkel also described a special subset of Eschatological Hymns which includes themes of future restoration (Psalm 126) or of judgment (Psalm 82) .
The Lament/Complaint Psalms can be subdivided into two categories 1) the individual and 2) communal lament. Both types of laments typically but did not always include the following elements nor is there a systematic order in which they appear in body of the Lament Psalm; 1) an address to God, 2) A description of suffering, 3) Cursing of the party responsible for suffering, 4) Protestation of innocence or admission of guilt, 5) A petition for divine assistance, 6) Faith in God's receipt of prayer, 7) Anticipation of divine response, and 8) A song of thanksgiving . In general, the difference between the two subtypes can be distinguished by the use of the singular "I" or the plural "we". However, the "I" could also be characterizing an individual's personal experience that was reflective of the entire community .
Walter Brueggemann suggests another way of categorizing the Psalms: Orientation, Disorientation, Reorientation.
The biblical poetry of Psalms uses parallelism as their primary poetic device. Parallelism is a kind of rhyme, in which an idea is developed by the use of repetition, synonyms, or opposites . Synonymous parallelism involves two lines expressing essentially the same idea. An example of synonymous parallelism:
- The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)
Two lines expressing opposites is known as antithetic parallelism. An example of antithetic parallelism:
- The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:6)
Use of the Psalms in Jewish ritual
In the Pentateuch (or Torah), Moses leads the Jews in two songs of praise: upon the splitting of the Red Sea (Exodus 15) and before his death (Deuteronomy 32). Also, the Jews sing upon miracles done for them with the well (Numbers 21). Other Jewish figures would sing songs to celebrate miracles, including Joshua and Deborah. It is David, though, who is known as the "sweet singer of Israel".
In Jewish tradition, the Psalms were actually sung in front of the Tabernacle, and then later during the reign of King Solomon, when the Temple was completed, they were sung from the steps of the Temple. The singers all came from the tribe of Levi (Levites), and it was exclusively their privilege - no non-Levites were allowed to sing in that area of the Temple. Levites played musical accompaniment on various instruments, some mentioned within the Psalms themselves. While the Psalms are used extensively in worship and prayer, the original intent was as a vehicle to teach, explain, encourage, and communicate with the individual listener as well as the entire people, hence their public performance. Today we have some knowledge as to which Psalms were sung on specific days or occasions, but we do not know the entire schedule.
Some of the titles given to the Psalms in their ascriptions suggest their use in worship:
Some bear the Hebrew designation shir (Greek ode, a song). Thirteen have this title. It means the flow of speech, as it were, in a straight line or in a regular strain. This title includes secular as well as sacred song.
Fifty-eight Psalms bear the designation (Hebrew) mizmor (Greek psalmos, a Psalm), a lyric ode, or a song set to music; a sacred song accompanied with a musical instrument.
Psalm 145, and many others, have the designation (Hebrew) tehillah (Greek hymnos, a hymn), meaning a song of praise; a song the prominent thought of which is the praise of God. Tehillah is also the singular of the name of the book in Hebrew, Tehillim.
Six Psalms (16, 56–60) have the title (Hebrew) michtam.
Psalm 7 and Habakkuk 3 bear the title (Hebrew) shiggaion.
Psalms are used throughout traditional Jewish worship. Many complete Psalms and verses from Psalms appear in the morning services. Psalm 145 (commonly referred to as "Ashrei", which is really the first word of 2 verses appended to the beginning of the Psalm), is read during or before services, three times every day. Psalms 95–99, 29, 92, and 93, along with some later readings, comprise the introduction ("Kabbalat Shabbat") to the Friday night service.
Traditionally, a different "Psalm for the Day" is read after the morning service each day of the week (starting Sunday, Psalms: 24, 48, 82, 94, 81, 93, 92). This is described in the Mishnah (the initial codification of the Jewish oral tradition) in the tractate "Tamid". According to the Talmud, these daily Psalms were originally recited on that day of the week by the Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem.
From Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, Psalm 27 is recited twice daily by traditional Jews.
When a Jew dies, a watch is kept over the body and Tehillim (Psalms) are recited constantly by sun or candlelight, until the burial service. Historically, this watch would be carried out by the immediate family – usually in shifts – but in contemporary practice, this service is provided by an employee of the funeral home or Chevra kadisha.
Many Jews complete the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis. Each week, some also say a Psalm connected to that week's events or the Torah portion read during that week. In addition, many Jews (notably Lubavitch, and other Chasidim) read the entire Book of Psalms prior to the morning service, on the Sabbath preceding the calculated appearance of the new moon.
The reading of psalms is viewed in Jewish tradition as a vehicle for gaining God's favor. They are thus often specially recited in times of trouble, such as poverty, disease, or physical danger; in many synagogues, Psalms are recited after services for the security of the State of Israel. Note that Sefer ha-Chinuch  states that this practice is designed not to achieve favor, as such, but rather to inculcate belief in Divine Providence into one's consciousness - as consistent with Maimonides' general view on Providence. (Relatedly, according to some people, the Hebrew verb for prayer - hitpalal התפלל - is in fact the reflexive form of palal פלל, to judge. Thus, "to pray" conveys the notion of "judging oneself": ultimately, the purpose of prayer - tefilah תפלה - is to transform ourselves ; for the relationship between prayer and psalms - "tehillah and tefillah" - see S. R. Hirsch, Horeb §620. See also under Jewish services.)
Psalms may also be read by a group of people who divide up the psalms between them to allow for a complete reading of the book.
The 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament show that they were familiar to the Judean community in the first century of the Christian era.
Taken together, the Psalms express virtually the full range of Israel's faith.
The Psalms in Christian worship
St. Florian's psalter, XIV/XV c., Old Polish Translation
Children singing and playing music, illustration of Psalm 150 (Laudate Dominum).
New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, and the Psalms have remained an important part of worship in most Christian Churches. The Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican Churches have always made systematic use of the Psalms, with a cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more weeks. In the early centuries of the Church, it was expected that any candidate for bishop would be able to recite the entire Psalter from memory, something they often learned automatically during their time as monks.
Paul the Apostle quotes psalms (specifically Psalms 14 and 53, which are nearly identical) as the basis for his theory of original sin, and includes the scripture in the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 3.
Several conservative Protestant denominations sing only the Psalms (some churches also sing the small number of hymns found elsewhere in the Bible) in worship, and do not accept the use of any non-Biblical hymns; examples are the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Free Church of Scotland.
Some Psalms are among the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular church-goers.
Psalm 22 is of particular importance during the season of Lent as a Psalm of continued faith during severe testing.
Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, offers an immediately appealing message of comfort and is widely chosen for church funeral services, either as a reading or in one of several popular hymn settings;
Psalm 51, Have mercy on me O God, called the Miserere from the first word in its Latin version, is by far the most sung Psalm of Orthodoxy, in both Divine Liturgy and Hours, in the sacrament of repentance or confession, and in other settings;
Psalm 82 is found in the Book of Common Prayer as a funeral recitation.
Psalm 103, Bless the Lord, O my soul, is one of the best-known prayers of praise;
Psalm 137, By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, is a moody meditation upon living in slavery, and has been used in at least one spiritual, as well as one well-known reggae song; the Orthodox church often uses this hymn during Lent.
New translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced. An individually printed volume of Psalms for use in Christian religious rituals is called a Psalter.
Orthodox Christians and Greek-Catholics (Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine rite), have long made the Psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. The official version of the Psalter used by the Orthodox Church is the Septuagint. To facilitate its reading, the 150 Psalms are divided into 20 kathismata (Greek: καθισματα; Slavonic: каѳисмы, kafismy; lit. "sittings"), and each kathisma (Greek: καθισμα; Slavonic: каѳисма, kafisma) is further subdivided into three stases (Greek: στασεις, staseis' lit. "standings", sing. στασις, stasis), so-called because the faithful stand at the end of each stasis for the Glory to the Father....
At Vespers and Matins, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year and on different days of the week, according to the Church's calendar, so that all 150 psalms (20 kathismata) are read in the course of a week. During Great Lent the number of kathisata are increased so that the entire Psalter is read twice a week. In the twentieth century, some lay Christians have adopted a continuous reading of the Psalms on weekdays, praying the whole book in four weeks.
Aside from kathisma readings, Psalms occupy a prominent place in every other Orthodox service including the services of the Hours and the Divine Liturgy. In particular, the penitential Psalm 50 is very widely used. Fragments of Psalms and individual verses are used as Prokimena (introductions to Scriptural readings), and Stichera. The bulk of Vespers would still be composed of Psalms even if the kathisma were to be disregarded; Psalm 119, "The Psalm of the Law", is the centerpiece of Matins on Saturdays, some Sundays, and the Funeral service. The entire book of Psalms is traditionally read out loud or chanted at the side of the deceased during the time leading up to the funeral, mirroring Jewish tradition.
Several branches of Oriental Orthodox and those Eastern Catholics who follow one of the Oriental Rites will chant the entire Psalter during the course of a day during the Daily Office. This practice continues to be a requirement of monastics in the Oriental churches.
The Psalms have always been an important part of Catholic liturgy. The Liturgy of the Hours is centered on chanting or recitation of the Psalms, using fixed melodic formulas known as psalm tones. Early Catholics employed the Psalms widely in their individual prayers also; however, as knowledge of Latin (the language of the Latin Rite) became uncommon, this practice ceased among the unlearned. However, until the end of the Middle Ages it was not unknown for the laity to join in the singing of the Little Office of Our Lady, which was a shortened version of the Liturgy of the Hours providing a fixed daily cycle of twenty-five psalms to be recited, and nine other psalms divided across Matins.
The work of Bishop Richard Challoner in providing devotional materials in English meant that many of the psalms were familiar to English-speaking Catholics from the eighteenth century onwards. Challoner translated the entire of the Lady Office into English, as well as Sunday Vespers and daily Compline. He also provided other individual Psalms such as 129/130 for prayer in his devotional books. Challoner is also noted for revising the Douay-Rheims Bible, and the translations he used in his devotional books are taken from this work.
Until the Second Vatican Council the Psalms were either recited on a one-week or, less frequently (as in the case of Ambrosian rite), two-week cycle. Different one-week schemata were employed: all secular clergy followed the Roman distribution, while Monastic Houses almost universally followed that of St Benedict, with only a few congregations (such as the Benedictines of St Maur) following individualistic arrangements. The Breviary introduced in 1974 distributed the psalms over a four-week cycle. Monastic usage varies widely. Some use the four week cycle of the secular clergy, many retain a one week cycle, either following St Benedict's scheme or another of their own devising, while others opt for some other arrangement.
Official approval was also given to other arrangements (see "Short" Breviaries in the 20th and early 21st century America for an in-progress study) by which the complete Psalter is recited in a one or two-week cycle. These arrangements are used principally by Catholic contemplative religious orders, such as that of the Trappists (see for example the Divine Office schedule at New Melleray Abbey).
The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 122 sanctions three modes of singing/recitation for the Psalms:
- directly (all sing or recite the entire psalm);
antiphonally (two choirs or sections of the congregation sing or recite alternate verses or strophes); and
responsorially (the cantor or choir sings or recites the verses while the congregation sings or recites a given response after each verse).
Of these three the antiphonal mode is the most widely followed.
Over the centuries, the use of complete Psalms in the liturgy declined. The Tridentine Mass preserved only isolated verses that, in some cases, were originally refrains sung during recitation of the whole Psalm from which they were taken. After the Second Vatican Council (which also permitted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy) longer psalm texts were reintroduced into the Mass, during the readings. The revision of the Roman Missal after the Second Vatican Council reintroduced the singing or recitation of a more substantial section of a Psalm, in some cases an entire Psalm, after the first Reading from Scripture. This Psalm, called the Responsorial Psalm, is usually sung or recited responsorially, although the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 61 permits direct recitation.
Psalm 1 in a form of the Sternhold and Hopkins version widespread in Anglican usage before the English Civil War (1628 printing). It was from this version that the armies sang before going into battle
The psalms are extremely popular among those who follow the Reformed tradition.
Following the Protestant Reformation, verse paraphrases of many of the Psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition, where in the past they were typically sung to the exclusion of hymns. Calvin himself made some French translations of the Psalms for church usage. Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress is Our God is based on Psalm 46. Among famous hymn settings of the Psalter were the Scottish Psalter and the settings by Isaac Watts. The first book printed in North America was a collection of Psalm settings, the Bay Psalm Book (1640).
But by the 20th century they were mostly replaced by hymns in church services. However, the Psalms are popular for private devotion among many Protestants and still used in many churches for traditional worship. There exists in some circles a custom of reading one Psalm and one chapter of Proverbs a day, corresponding to the day of the month.
The version of the Psalter in the American Book of Common Prayer prior to the 1979 edition is a sixteenth century Coverdale Psalter. The Psalter in the American Book of Common Prayer of 1979 is a new translation, with some attempt to keep the rhythms of the Coverdale Psalter.
In Great Britain the Coverdale psalter still lies at the heart of daily worship in Cathedrals and many parish churches. The new Common Worship service book has a companion psalter in modern English.
Anglican chant is a method of singing prose versions of the Psalms.
In the early 17th century, when the King James Bible was introduced, the metrical arrangements by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins were also popular and were provided with printed tunes. This version and the New Version of the Psalms of David by Tate and Brady produced in the late seventeenth century (see article on Metrical Psalter) remained the normal congregational way of singing psalms in the Church of England until well into the nineteenth century.
Psalms Used Today
According to Coogan, the Psalms do not mention any of the Feast Days observed by the Israelites. As a result, they continue to attract people of all faiths as they can be applied to a variety of contexts that imply a relationship with God. As prayers that primarily deal with the state of human beings, they continue to be relative to the modern man.Joseph Williams OT 11-500 02:52, 30 September 2010 (UTC)
Psalms in the Rastafari movement
The Psalms are one of the most popular parts of the Bible among followers of the Rastafari movement. Rasta singer Prince Far I released an atmospheric spoken version of the psalms, Psalms for I, set to a roots reggae backdrop from The Aggrovators.
Psalms set to music
Notable settings of multiple psalms as a single composition include: