How often do we resort to the psalms in prayer to reflect how we feel? When we feel contrite, we invariably recite psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, for I have sinned against thee”; when we wish to praise God, the last psalm 150 readily comes to mind, “O praise God in his holiness”; when we ponder on the majesty of God our minds turn to psalms like psalm 90, “Before the mountains were created or you had formed the earth and its surface, from eternity to eternity you are God”; and when we reach our end, psalm 23 is our comfort, “Though I walk in the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, for you are with me." When we want to express our trust in God,, nothing is better than psalm 121, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help: my help cometh from the Lord who has made heaven and earth." When we want to explode with our thanks, psalm 136 is appropriate. "O give thanks uinto the Lord, for he is gracious: and his mercy endureth for ever."When we feel that God has forsaken us nothing is better than psalm 38, "put me not to rebuke O Lordm in thine anger: neither chasten me in thy heavy displeasure.". 

     The origin of the word psalm is from the Greek Word  psalmos;.the Hebrew word Tehillim is the title of the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible that means “songs of praise.”
    From the Hebrew word zmr, meaning "to pluck"; i.e., taking hold of the strings of an instrument with the fingers, it implies that the psalms were originally composed to be accompanied by a stringed instrument, for example, the lyre and therefore in the strictest sense the psalms are lyric poems. Hence it has been thought that David and others originally wrote the psalms to be sung to the accompaniment of the harp. Accordingly in the N.T. we are told to sing the psalms to the accompaniment of the “heart” as we find in the Ephesian letter "...singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ep 5:19).

It is important to recognize from the outset that the psalms are both poetry and prayer. The poetry is intended to be set to music and then prayed in worship. In ancient Israel, no less than in the modern world, poetry and music are the means by which people express the deepest of human feelings and emotions, the most profound of insights, and the most tragic and joyous of human experiences. It is no accident that after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt on the banks of the Reed Sea the people sang, led by Miriam and her women with their tambourines (Exod. 15:1-18) or that Hannah lapsed into song at the dedication of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1-10;  Lk. 1:46-55)! Or that David mourns Saul and Jonathan in a heartfelt elegy after their deaths at Mt. Bilboa (2 Sam. 1:19-27).
Augustine:exclaimed, “How loudly I cried out to you, my God, as I read the psalms of David, songs full of faith, outbursts of devotion with no room in them for the breath of pride! … How loudly I began to cry out to you in those psalms, how I was inflamed by them with love for you and fired to recite them to the whole world, were I able, as a remedy against human pride!” (Confessions IX. 4.8).

The psalms span over a thousands years of Jewish history. Psalm 90 is probably the oldest reflecting the time of Moses whilst the last one written is probably psalm 26 as it was compiled after the Jews have returned from captivity in Babylon in the 5th century B.C. Many of the psalms such as 78 and 89 tell of the history of God's chosen people.

Who wrote the psalms? Even though we refer to the "Psalms of David" not all were written by him obviously. Not all the psalms have a known author and even those attributed to a person or persons may not be the author. Here is a breakdown as they occur in the psalter:
   A. DAVID 
 The Davidic collections of psalms are 3 - 41, 51 - 70, 108 - 110, 138 – 145.
      He was the music director during the reigns of David and Solomon. His collection is psalms 73 – 83.
      These were Levites who served in the Temple. They supposedly wrote psalms 42, 44- 49,  84 – 85, 87 – 88. Perhaps too they wrote the psalms of Ascent 120 -134 and the Hallel psalms 113- 118 and psalms 146 – 150.
      Two psalms are attributed to him (72, 127). But that he wrote many more is stated in 1Kgs 4:29-32
      He is credited with psalm 90.
      He was a contemporary with David and Asaph, and is known as "the singer" and wrote psalm 88.
      He was a companion with Asaph and Hemen in the Temple worship and wrote psalm 89.
Forty-Eight (48) of the Psalms have no named author.

The psalms are arranged in five parts to imitate the five books of the Pentateuch.
Book 1. – Psalms  1-41. These reflect an early collection of David’s hymns.
Book 2   - Psalms 42-72 . These reflect the northern kingdom of hymns.
Book 3  -  Psalms 73-89. These are a collection of hymns from the temple singers.
B ook 4 – Psalms 90-106. These are a collection from royalty, perhaps for the New Year.
Book 5 – Psalms 107- 150 These are a second collection of David’s hymns.

  When reciting the psalms one should notice there are some parallels, especially between books 1 and 2. For example psalm 14 and psalm 53. This is because one book comes from the Judah tradition (younger) and the other from the other, Israel tradition (older),and  denoted especially by the name for God. In the older tradition the name used is Elohim and in the younger Yahweh which also featured in the Pentateuch. When the Hebrew bible was finally compiled it kept both traditions, often side by side as we also see in the two accounts of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis.  
Then there are the psalms or parts of psalms that are duplicates of passages of Scripture. e.g. ps. 105. Verses 1-15 match I Chronicles 16. 8-22, and parts of psalm 18 with II Sam.22.   

The psalms are just one aspect of the tradition that we have inherited from the Jewish religion and way of life. For example at Passover the Hallel psalms 113-118 were always sung; at a wedding it would have been psalm 45; if they wanted to recite their history of deliverance it would have been psalms such as 78, 105 and 106 and if they were going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the main feasts such as to celebrate the feast of booths, the Passover and sukkoth it would have been those psalms of ascent, psalms 120-134 they would have recited. Imagine the joy that would have swelled inside, as the opening verse of that first ascent psalm, rang out across Mt. Sion, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: from whence cometh my help. My help is from the Lord who has made heaven and earth.”

Our Lord would have known and loved the psalms  as He went on pilgrimage with His family to Jerusalem yearly, and at the end his life He quoted or the evangelists put on His lips verses from the psalms such as twenty-two and thirty-one.  We can imagine Jesus in those times alone on mountain tops or in a deserted place singing some of the psalms to His Father as prayer. The psalms would have been Our Lord's prayer book. (Perhaps this is the reason that in the monastic tradition  the psalms form the backbone of the daily offices as sung by the monks/nuns seven times a day).  

Whether the psalms reflect the older or younger traditions of Hebrew history, they have left us a collection that is probably the most cherished book of the bible. Christians adapted them for their own use, and down through the ages have become associated with penitence, thanksgiving, praise, lament and commendation. On the last of these as the sun gives way to the moon words of the ninety first psalm are recited as the last words of the day. “Whoso dwell under the defence of the most High: will abide under the shadow of the Almighty./ I will say unto the Lord, ‘you are my hope, and my strong hold, in him will I trust.’ /For he will deliver you from the snare of the hunter: and from the noisome pestilence.’ He shall defend you under his wings, and you shall be safe under his feather: his faithfulness and trust shall be your shield and buckler./ You will not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flies by day.”  And so we can say confidently at Compline, “I will lay me down in peace, and take my rest: for it is you Lord, only who makes me dwell in safety.”

Yet Christians are not the only ones who sing from the psalter daily. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do precisely that, and they have been doing it much longer than we Christians. They have continued to chant the same psalms as Jesus and His contemporaries sang in the synagogues. Before the Temple was destroyed, the Levites chanted the set psalms daily in this precint.  
The Jews pray 3 times a day: The morning – Shaharit - shah-khah-reet;  the afternoon - Mincha  ˈminxa– and in the evening – Aarvit.  All Jewish worship is included in the Siddur, their equivalent to the Prayer Book or the Breviary. As a preliminary to Shaharit, Jews recite what are known as the daily Hallel psalms, 145- 150 as distinct from the festive Hallel psalms, 113-118, recited e.g. at Passover.  Very briefly the DailyHallel Psalms praise Adonai. “Each and every day I bless you, I praise your  name forever and ever.” -  What a wonderful way to begin the day and perhaps these psalms are the equivalent to our Venite, “O come let us sing unto the Lord” that begins the Morning Office.
The set psalm for Sunday is the 24th; Monday 48, Tuesday 82, Wednesday 94, Thursday 81, Friday 93 and Saturday 92.
One of the first things that a Jew recognises is that the daily recitation of the appointed morning psalm recapitulates respectively the daily events of creation as set out in Genesis. In these daily psalms the overriding theme is that Adonai, the creator of the universe, has guided His people throughout their history and will continue to do so, despite the displays of evil in its many forms.

For the individual Christian the psalms are an important part of our lives and a worthwhile practice is to learn some of them off by heart as we can then pray them in time of difficulties and simply to be a companion in daily activities.

To Different types of Psalms

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​Marianne Dorman

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