September 17, 2017
The Sanctuary | Hazelwood, Missouri
Ninety-nine of the psalms identify the author or authors in the superscriptions, which are included in the Hebrew text as the first verse rather than being separated from the psalms as frequently done in translation. The oldest is Psalm 90, identified with Moses and dating possibly from about 1500 bc. Seventy-three psalms are identified with David and would have been written in the tenth century bc. (See Psalms 3-9, 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138-145.) Psalms 72 and 127 are identified with Solomon. Asaph, a Levite and chief musician of David, is identified with twelve psalms. (See Psalms 50, 73-83.) Eleven psalms are attributed to the sons of Korah. Korah was a great-grandson of Levi. (See Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88.) Psalm 89 is identified with Ethan the Ezrahite. We are not certain of his identity, but this was the name of a wise man who lived in Solomon’s time as well as a Levitical musician contemporary with David.
Why the Book Is Called “Psalms”: The Book of Psalms takes its English title from the Septuagint title Psalmoi, a word that means “hymns” sung to musical accompaniment. Although the Hebrew mizmor, meaning “a song sung with musical accompaniment,” appears fifty-seven times in the superscriptions, the title of the book in the Hebrew text is Tehillim, meaning “praises.”
In addition to the title Tehillim, a portion of the book is identified as “the prayers (tefillot) of David.” (See Psalm 72:20.) This is an ancient title for a book comprised of Psalms 3-72.
Original Audience: A common view is that the Psalter was intended for use in corporate worship during the second temple period. A close reading of the text suggests, however, that it was also useful for individuals, not only for the community, and that a specific intended audience is those in exile or tribulation. For these readers, it is a source of hope and comfort.
Key Apostolic Insights: The New Testament quotes from, alludes to, or paraphrases the Old Testament in nearly 800 verses. The book most frequently appealed to is Psalms, which is referred to 206 times. The Psalms show that Christ, the promised Messiah, is the Son of God and the Son of Man. As the Son of God, the Messiah is God Himself in human existence. As the Son of Man, He is a physical descendant of David. The psalms foretell the Messiah’s birth, important events in His life, His betrayal, His sufferings, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, His second coming, and the Millennium. The Psalter also anticipates the proclamation of the gospel, the Messiah’s bride, and the gifts given to the New Testament church upon His ascension.
The Structure of the Psalter: Since the Psalter is a collection of psalms by a variety of authors, the structure of the book as we now have it is not original with any of the authors whose psalms appear in the book. Its structure is, rather, the result of composition done after all the individual psalms were completed. There were earlier collections, some smaller and some larger, but the result was a book intentionally shaped to serve a theological purpose. (See, e.g., Psalm 72:20.) The traditional outline of the book follows its division into five books by the Masoretic Text. A common explanation of this division is that these five books correspond in some way to the five books of the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch). The idea here is to read Psalms 1-41 in conjunction with Genesis; Psalms 42-72 with Exodus; Psalms 73-89 with Leviticus; Psalms 90-106 with Numbers; and Psalms 107-150 with Deuteronomy. It is difficult, however, to identify thematic links between the five books of the Pentateuch and the Psalter, and more recent scholarship questions whether these are the most significant structural features of the Psalter and whether the New Testament writers viewed the five-book division of the Psalms as significant for their purposes. More recent views of the structure of the Psalter include the following:
Canonical. Brevard Childs has suggested that we can dispense with discussion about any previous shape of the Psalter and focus on its present shape and structure. We do not need to be concerned with how the present shape came to be; all we need to be concerned with is that this is the shape found in the canon.
Compositional. The compositional approach sees the current shape of the Psalter as reflecting an inspired work bringing together previously existing materials in a form intended to advance a specific theological purpose. One compositional approach sees the Psalter as a collection of prayers for the Jewish people in exile, functioning as a replacement for temple worship.
A compositional/canonical approach seems most satisfying, because it recognizes the obvious facts concerning the variety of authors and evidence of previous collections now reshaped into the current canonical form. The following points seem evidently true:
- The Psalter is a composition with a specific purpose and literary strategy.
- The Psalter is composed for individuals, not only for the community.
- The Psalter is composed for those in exile or tribulation as a source book for hope and divine comfort.
- The framework of the Psalter is messianic: It focuses on Zion theology and the Kingdom of God, by which we mean the physical restoration of Davidic hope, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God made to David that the Messiah would descend physically from him to rule on David’s throne in Zion. The selection and arrangement of the psalms are intended to explore the relationship between the Law of Moses and Israel’s hope for the future, or, as we might say from the Christian perspective, the relationship between law and grace. The final form of the Psalter is also intended to explore the meaning of the Davidic Covenant in view of the apostasy and exile of the House of David.
Next Lesson: In our next lesson, we plan to examine why Psalms 1 and 2 form the introduction to the book of Psalms and cast the themes that are found throughout the book.