Introduction to the Psalms

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 30 July 3013


Commentary: Psalm 1 | 2 | 19 | 23 | 27 | 37 | 90 | 91 | 103 | 139

Definitions | Structure of the Psalms | Literary Character | Authorship | Message



Bible Organization

· Torah (Instruction), 5 books of Moses

· Neviim (Prophets), 8 books

· Ketuvim (Writings), 11 books (contains Psalms)

· Tanakh – acronym for the three divisions


· Hebrew scrolls, compiled 1500 to 400 BC

· Masoretic Text (MT) produced 500 – 900 AD

· Septuagint (LXX), Greek, c. 100 BC

· Targums, Aramaic, c. 100 BC – AD 135


What’s a Psalm?

A Psalm (Heb. mizmor), e.g., Ps 3:1

· A poetic melody sung in praise of God, often with instrumental accompaniment.

· The word occurs 81 times in the Book of Psalms.

A Song (Heb. shir), e.g., Ps 18:1

· A song composed for a variety of occasions

· Not necessarily accompanied

· The word occurs 15 times in the Book of Psalms.

Structure of the Psalms

The Book of Psalms


· Heb. Sefer Tehillim, “Book of Praises”

Interesting Facts

· Both MT and LXX contain 150 psalms

· Psalms is the longest book in the Bible and has the longest chapter in the Bible (119)

· 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet

· “Hallelujah” occurs 22 times in Psalms

· First occurrence of the verb “hallel” is 22:22.

· Psalm 119 has 176 verses in 22 stanzas


Arrangement of the Psalms


· Book 1: Psalms 1–41

· Book 2: Psalms 42–72

· Book 3: Psalms 73–89

· Book 4: Psalms 90–106

· Book 5: Psalms 107–150


· Davidic Group I: 3–41

· Sons of Korah Collection I: 42–49

· Davidic Group II: 51–65

· Asaph Group: 73–83

· Sons of Korah Collection II: 84–88

· Hymns Collection I: 95–100

· Hallelujah Collection: 111–117

· Songs of Ascent to Jerusalem: 120–134

· Davidic Group III: 138–145

· Hymns Collection II: 146–150


Psalm Superscriptions


· All except 34 psalms

· Stands outside of text

· Probably inserted by an editor

· Numbered as first verse in the MT


· Identifies authorship

· Preserves historical traditions

· Suggests worship usage

· Well known before Jesus


Psalms Composition

Authorship Ascribed

· David – 73

· Asaph – 12, Music director under David and Solomon (1 Chron 16:1-7)

· Sons of Korah – 11, Levites serving in the Temple (1 Chron 26:1-19)

· Solomon – 2 (Ps 72; 127)

· Moses – 1 (Ps 90)

· Heman – 1 (Ps 88); a singer & King David’s seer, 1 Chron 6:33; 25:5

· Ethan – 1 (Ps 89); Companion with Asaph and Heman, 1 Chron 15:19

· Orphan – 49 (no author ascribed)

Literary Character

Description of Hebrew Poetry


Imaginative and concrete in matter

Emotional and rhythmic in form


· Rhythm

   No rhyme or meter like modern poetry

   Division into lines of about the same length

· Parallelism

   Balance of thought, not of sound or syllable

   Use of repetition, contrast or response


Parallelism – Major Forms

· Synonymous: repetition in similar or synonymous words, Ps 19:1; 24:1; 25:4

· Antithetical: second line presents opposition or contrast, Ps 1:6; 30:5; 90:6

· Synthetic or constructive: completes or compares, Ps 1:1-2; 119:11, 153


Figures of Speech in the Psalms


· Attributing human traits to God

· the “eyes of the Lord,” Ps 34:15


· Exaggerations

· “ten thousand,” Ps 91:7

Idiomatic expressions

· “behold His face,” Ps 11:7

· i.e., be the object of favor

“If-then” argument

· Logical consequences, Ps 66:18; 119:92


· Comparing two unlike things

· God is a shield and a rock, Ps 18:30-31


· Attributing human traits to material things

· “the heaven's declare,” Ps 50:6

Rhetorical question

· Asking “why” questions, Ps 10:1

· Asking “if-then” questions, Ps 11:3


· Praising God’s attributes, Ps 119:72

· "better than thousands of gold”


· Attributing animal traits to God

· “under his wings,” Ps 91:4


Authorship-Dating of Book of Psalms

Traditional View

· Orthodox Jewish view = the Book of Psalms is the book of David, just as the Torah (Pentateuch) is the book of Moses.

· The superscriptions contain reliable historical information. By this count, David wrote almost half the psalms in the book.

· Other psalms without a David's name may be as ascribed to him based on other sources. For example, the Talmud states that Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 composed one chapter (Ber. 9b). The apostle Peter attributes Psalm 2 to David (Acts 4:25). Psalm 9 and 10 are combined in the MT, making Psalm 10 belong to David also. The LXX and Targum ascribes Psalm 91 to David.

· David compiled psalms and organized collections

“King Hezekiah and the officials ordered the Levites to sing praises to the LORD with the words of David and Asaph the seer.” 2 Chron 29:30

Liberal Scholarship

· Denies Davidic authorship of nearly all psalms bearing his name.

· Dates the collection after the Exile.


Dating Conclusion

· The bulk of Psalms were written during David's reign.

· Dating cannot be determined exactly for psalms identified with the "Sons of Korah" and the orphan psalms.

· Post-Exilic: poss. Ps 85; 126; 137.

· Final form edited and organized after the exile.


David the Psalmist


· True worshipper of God, 1 Sam 13:14

· Imbued with the Spirit, 1 Sam 16:13


· Musician, 1 Sam 16:23; 18:10; 2 Sam 6:5, 15

· Singer, 2 Sam 1:17; 22:50

· Poet, 2 Sam 23:1 (described as the “sweet psalmist of Israel”)

· Composer, 2 Chron 29:30; Amos 6:5

· Editor, compiled psalms, 2 Chron 29:30

Worship Leader

· Organized worship teams, 1 Chron 16:4

· Chose Asaph as chief musician, 1 Chron 16:5

· Commissioned Levites to create and provide music, 1 Chron 16:7-36; 25:1-3; 2 Chron 29:25

· Made or commissioned the creation of musical instruments, 2 Chron 7:6


Arguments Against Davidic Writing

Grammar – “Person”

Claim: Some psalms speak in the third person (Ps 20; 21; 61). However, this literary construction was common in ancient documents and for Hebrews an indication of humility.


Mention of temple

Claim: Some psalms of David mention a “temple” (Ps 5; 27; 28) and there was no temple in the time of David. However, the Hebrew word translated “temple” are also used to refer to the Tabernacle (Ex 28:43; Josh 6:24; Judg 18:31; 1 Sam 1:9; 3:3). In Psalm 27:5 the “temple” is also referred to as a tent. The word used for temple, Heb. hekal does not refer to the Holy Place, but the entire structure, the palace of God. The psalms that use hekal do not assert the actual existence of the temple later built by King Solomon or the restored temple after the exile. Since the word "temple" hints at a hard structure and the tabernacle was a tent, why would David speak of a temple?


Edersheim in his commentary on 1 Samuel 3 provides historical information that would explain how the tabernacle could be called a temple:

"The sanctuary in Shiloh had become permanent, and we are warranted in inferring that "the dwelling," which formerly was adapted to Israel's wanderings, had lost somewhat of its temporary character. The "curtains" which in the wilderness had formed its enclosure, had no doubt been exchanged for buildings for the use of the priesthood in their ministry and for the many requirements of their services. Instead of the "veil" at the entrance to the outer court there would be doors, closed at even and opened to the worshippers in the morning." (416)

The same analysis and information is provided by C.F. Keil in his commentary on 1 Samuel 3:12:

"Originally, when the tabernacle was simply a tent, traveling with the people from place to place, it had only curtains at the entrance to the holy place and court. But when Israel had become possessed of fixed houses in the land of Canaan, and the dwelling-place of God was permanently erected at Shiloh, instead of the tents that were pitched for the priests and Levites, who encamped round about during the journey through the desert, there were erected fixed houses, which were built against or inside the court, and not only served as dwelling-places for the priests and Levites who were officiating, but were also used for the reception and custody of the gifts that were brought as offerings to the sanctuary. These buildings in all probability supplanted entirely the original tent-like enclosure around the court; so that instead of the curtains at the entrance, there were folding doors, which were shut in the evening and opened again in the morning. It is true that nothing is said about the erection of these buildings in our historical books, but the fact itself is not to be denied on that account. In the case of Solomon’s temple, notwithstanding the elaborate description that has been given of it, there is nothing said about the arrangement or erection of the buildings in the court; and yet here and there, principally in Jeremiah, the existence of such buildings is evidently assumed." (Keil 395)

Presence of Aramaisms

Claim: The presence of Aramaic words in Psalm 139 indicate post-exilic composition. However, Aramaic was an early language and absorbing words from another language was a common occurrence. Just consider history of English.


Historical data

Claim: A superscription doesn’t match the history of David. However, titles may represent independent historical knowledge. The title may refer to a different event than supposed from the historical record and the editor was likely aware of the circumstances.



Claim: David wouldn’t have had time in his busy life to write so many psalms. However, Scripture indicates a very active composition practice for David, as well as creating and supervising choirs (1 Sam 16:23; 18:10; 2 Sam 1:17; 6:5, 15; 22:50; 23:1; 1 Chron 16:4-5; 2 Chron 7:6; 29:25; Amos 6:5). In reality David had considerable more free time than modern people who busy themselves with numerous entertainments. If you centered your life around God how much time could you devote to him?


Psalm Title

Claim: The Heb. l'David ("leh-Dah-veed"), translated as "of David" is ambiguous; the preposition “of” might mean: (1) “by” in the sense of authorship; (2) “belonging to” as included in the Davidic collection; (3) “dedicated to” David or to the Davidic king; (4) “for the use of” David or the Davidic king or (5) “concerning/about” David (Broyles 27-28). However, the Hebrew preposition used here ordinarily refers to personal possession. There would be no reason to write “of David” if the editor did not mean King David. King David was known as the “sweet psalmist of Israel.” Jews might speak of the “city of David” and the “throne of David,” but not a “Davidic psalm.”


Psalm Religious Elements

· Affirmation of a personal creed.

· Anticipation of the rule of God's anointed king.

· Celebration of God’s power and goodness.

· Confession of wrongdoing; plea for mercy.

· Guidance for living.

· Petitions for personal needs.

· Prayers for the nation.

· Wrestling with personal or national suffering.


Important Concepts in the Psalms

God’s Throne

· God sits in heaven and rules the earth unseen.

God’s Instruction

· The Torah provides guidance for an abundant life.

The Land

· The Land of Israel, Ps 16:3; 37:3. The meaning might be obscured if given as “earth.”

The Nations

· The Gentile nations, who usually oppose Israel, are under God’s authority though they do not know it.

The Two Ways

· Psalms exhort virtue and warn against vice.

· Righteousness does not prevent suffering.


Importance of the Psalms

Divine inspiration

· Yeshua called Psalms “Torah” (Law), John 10:34, quoting Ps 82:6

· Yeshua called Psalms “Word of God” & “Scripture,” John 10:35

· Psalms are inspired as "Scripture," 2 Tim 3:16

Besekh usage

· “Psalms,” "hymns" & "songs" mentioned: Mark 14:26; Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33, 35; 16:25; 1 Cor 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16

· 61 individual Psalms quoted; most quoted (3 or more times) – 2, 8, 22, 34, 69, 106, 118, 132

· 12 psalms quoted as Messianic proofs (2, 8, 16, 22, 34, 40, 41, 45, 68, 69, 110, 118)

· Luke 24:44 includes the Psalms in the Scripture that prophesies the coming Messiah.

Works Cited




Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.


Craig C. Broyles, Psalms. New International Biblical Commentary. Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.


Alfred Edersheim, Bible History Old Testament (1876-1887), Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1995. Also online.


C.F. Keil, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel. Commentary on the Old Testament (C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, 1866-1891), Vol. 2. Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.


Copyright © 2013 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.