What are psalms?
The Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms is 'Praises' or 'Prayers'. The English word is from the Greek, meaning a poem to be sung accompanied by stringed instruments.
The Psalms are primarily man's word to God in praise, prayer, lament or thanksgiving, spoken to God or about God. They were not originally God's word to men. They were expressions of faith by individuals, or by the nation as a whole, expressed to God and inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is important to remember that, although they certainly contain doctrinal truth, they are not to be taken as a theological treatise, but they are poems expressing spiritual realities real in the author's experience.
Original use of the Psalms
The Psalms were originally written to be used in worship, either by individuals, or as part of the corporate worship in Jerusalem. Each psalm was written as a whole and should be read as a whole, as each psalm forms a complete literary unit. We need to be careful when taking individual verses out of their original context.
When the ark was brought into Jerusalem, David introduced a whole new system of worship, using groups of singers and musicians (1 Chr 15). He appointed singers to play loudly on musical instruments, on harps, lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy (v16) and priests to blow the trumpets before the ark of God (v24). "So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord, with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets and cymbals and made loud music on harps and lyres" (v28). Priests were appointed to "minister before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel" (16:4). The ark was surrounded by singing and the sound of harps, cymbals and trumpets day and night. David had an orchestra of four thousand, using instruments he had made himself (1 Chr 23:5). The following musical instruments were used: string instruments - lyre or harp, and psaltery (like a harp); wind instruments - flute or pipe, horn and trumpet; percussion instruments - timbrel (tambourine) and cymbals.
On the day the ark was brought up to Jerusalem a psalm was sung by Asaph and the brethren (based on Ps 105, 96 and 106). It is written out in full in the book of Chronicles (1 Chr 16:7-36), a book which has great emphasis on worship and the temple. The time of David is seen as a golden age in the worship of God. Each different type of psalm had its correct place in the worship life of Israel. A lament allowed individuals or group to express grief to the Lord and ask for help. A psalm of thanksgiving allowed the expression of joy in the mercy shown to them by God.
Use of the Psalms for worship in the New Testament
Jesus and his disciples knew the Psalms well, as they were part of their worship. After the Lord's supper, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn, probably Psalm 118, the psalm used at the end of the Passover meal (Mt 26:30). Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi singing hymns (Acts 16:25). One of the fruits of being filled with the Spirit should be the worship of God using psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all the heart (Eph 5:19). As a result of letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly, we should be singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God (Col 3:16). James also gave an exhortation to sing psalms when cheerful (James 5:13). The Psalms have been used in worship down the centuries of church history and continue to be used in worship today, as many modern choruses and hymns are based on them.
Devotional use of the Psalms
The Psalms were also used as a devotional tool, and continue to used devotionally today by Christians. For many people, they are the most accessible part of the OT. Their message concerning our relationship with God is relevant to all generations and all ages. They form a model of how we can express ourselves to God, with both positive and negative thoughts and emotions.
One of the purposes of the Psalms is to help us face reality, how to deal with suffering, injustice, sin or loneliness. They help us deal with negative emotions, avoiding the alternatives of either letting them run wild, or bottling them up, trying to ignore them. The Psalms let us express them to God and get his perspective. No aspect of our lives is outside our relationship with God.
Literary characteristics of the Psalms
The Psalms are written in poetry. They do not rhyme in sound as traditional poetry does, but instead rhyme in thought or meaning, which is known as 'parallelism'. This is when a poetic line consists of two or three parts which run parallel to each other. It can be known as 'thought rhyme', balancing thought against thought.
There are two basic forms of parallelism: the first is synonymous parallelism, when the second line of a poetic verse repeats the thought of the first line, but using different words. Sometimes there are differences in the second line, so it does not parallel every point in the first line. Synonymous parallelism is found extremely frequently in the Psalms and in the prophets. One example is:
"The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork." (Ps 19:1)
The second form is antithetic parallelism, when the two portions of a verse stand in contrast. Often the second line is a negative statement giving strong contrast to the positive affirmation in the first line. The second line often starts with 'but'. This is particularly common in Proverbs, an example is:
“A soft answer turns away wrath
but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Prov 15:1)
There are some more complex forms of synonymous parallelism including synthetic parallelism, when the second line develops or completes the thought of the first line:
"Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you". (Ps 51:13)
Another form is emblematic parallelism when one line is literal and the other is a metaphor or simile:
"As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him". (Ps 103:13)
A more developed form is climactic parallelism where part of the first line is repeated, but the emphasis comes where there is a departure from the pattern, leading to a climax.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength". (Ps 29:1-2)
"He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead." (Judges 5:27)
The most complex is introverted or chiastic parallelism which involves four or six lines which are arranged that the first corresponds to the fourth and the second to the third:
"Make the mind of this people dull, (A)
and stop their ears, (B)
and shut their eyes, (C)
so that they may not look with their eyes, (C)
and listen with their ears,(B)
and comprehend with their minds, (A)
and turn and be healed." (Is 6:10)
Meter is the rhythm of the words in poetry, which is very clear in the original Hebrew, but is mostly lost in translation. The lines are mostly in pairs, with several words being stressed. The commonest rhythm is 3:3 (three stresses in each line).
“Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and mind.” (Ps 26:2).
A 3:2 rhythm is often used in laments, (three stresses in the first line, and two in the second), making a sad sound.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1)
Strophe is the way lines of a psalm are grouped into a stanza. These vary in length through a single psalm. It is often difficult to distinguish where one stanza finishes and the next begins. Most modern translations leave a space between the stanzas.
4. Acrostic Poems
In an acrostic poem, each verse, or group of verses, starts with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This helped people to memorise the psalm, but is lost in the English translation. Acrostic Psalms include: Ps 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145, as well as Proverbs 31:10-31, Lamentations ch 1-4 and Nahum ch 1.
These are repeated lines, which give structure to the psalm. These are some examples: 42:5 & 11 & 43:5, 46:7 & 11, 49:12 & 20, 56:4 & 10 & 11, 57:5 & 11, 59:6 & 14, 62:2 & 6, 80:3 & 7 & 14.
Inclusio is a special type of refrain, when the same line is repeated at the beginning and end of the psalm. Psalm 8 is a good example, "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Ps 8:1,9)
7. Technical interjections
These are words inserted into the text of the psalm, which mean little to us today. The most common is 'Selah', found seventy-one times in Psalms, and three times in Habakkuk. The meaning is uncertain, perhaps being a sign for an musical interlude, or a pause in the musical accompaniment. The root of the word is to lift up, or to raise up. It often occurs at a division in the psalm, but sometimes in the middle of a sentence. Other possible meanings are to raise the voice in pitch or loudness, or to repeat from the beginning. Another interjection is 'higgaion' (Ps 9:16, 19:14, 92:3, Lam 3:62), which also has an unknown meaning, possibly being an instruction to the instruments to play more quietly.
8. Emotion and imagery
Poetry uses very emotional language which is full of imagery, which makes it very memorable. Hyperbole is often used for dramatic effect, so it is necessary to guard against an overly literal interpretation.
In Hebrew poetry, human characteristics are often ascribed to inanimate objects, and to God himself. This gives dramatic and memorable descriptions, which are certainly not to be taken literally. Examples are: "And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Is 55:12), and “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up” (Ex 15:8), and “in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge” (Ps 57:1).
The divisions of the Book of Psalms
The Psalms are divided into five distinct books
Book I (Ps 1-41)
This mostly consists of personal psalms by David, ending with a doxology by David (41:13), and was probably collected by Solomon around 970 BC.
Book II (Ps 42-72)
These psalms are mostly of more national interest. The doxology (Ps 72) is by Solomon who probably compiled the book around 930 BC. Otherwise it could possibly have been compiled during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC) for his reforms, or by the Korahites.
Book III (Ps 73-89)
These psalms often focus on national suffering, sometimes referring to the destruction of Jerusalem (Ps 84:28-52, 74 and 79). The doxology in Ps 89 is by Ethan (1 Chr 15:19, 2 Chr 5:12). Some are by Asaph. They were possibly collected by King Hezekiah around 700 BC.
Book IV (Ps 90-106)
These are mostly by David (96, 101, 103, 105-106) There is a Psalm of Moses (Ps 90), and several are anonymous. They appear mostly to be for liturgical use. It is an older collection than Book III, perhaps dating from around 970 BC.
Book V (Ps 107-150)
Some are by David, and some are anonymous, others are post exilic (107:2-3, 108), and were probably compiled by Ezra and Nehemiah around 444 BC.
The final complete Book of Psalms as we have it was probably brought together after the exile, by Ezra. Psalm 1 forms an introduction (probably by David or Solomon) and Psalm 150 forms a conclusion to the complete book. The complete compilation of the Book of Psalms took over five hundred years, from the time of David (1000 BC) to the time of Ezra (500 BC).
It appears that each book was originally circulated separately, as some psalms or portions of psalms are repeated in more than one book: Ps 14 (Book 1) repeated as Ps 53 (Book 2), Ps 40:13-17 (Book 1) repeated as Ps 70 (Book 2), Ps 57:7-11 (Book 2) repeated as Ps 108:1-5 (Book 5), Ps 60:5-12 (Book 2) repeated as Ps 108:6-13 (Book 5), and Ps 144 (Book 5) repeated as Ps 18 (Book 1). The Psalms were probably originally collected in small groups: the Psalms of David, Asaph and the Sons of Korah. Some psalms were in more than one collection, so some are repeated. Some smaller collections are grouped together in larger groups.
Each of the five books end with a doxology, giving glory to God: Book I (41:13), Book II (72:18-20), Book III (89:52), Book IV (106:48), and Book V (Ps 150). Some psalms have been divided from an original single psalm (Ps 9 & 10, Ps 42 & 43, Ps 105 & 106, Ps 133 & 134).
The arrangement seems haphazard, but there are some groupings by author, common themes or common use. For example, Psalms 3,4 & 5: Ps 3 - morning prayer, Ps 4 - evening prayer and Ps 5 - morning prayer.
Other psalms in the Old Testament
Psalms and songs are found throughout the OT, when people express their praise to God, or utter a lament. Some of these consist of portions of the Psalms. This is a selection of the different songs: the songs of Moses and Miriam (Ex 15), the song of Deborah (Judges 5), Hannah's song (1 Sam 2:1-10), David's lament over Saul's death (2 Sam 1:19-27), David's last words (2 Sam 23:2-7), Nehemiah's penitential psalm (Neh 9:6-39), Isaiah’s prophecy over Judah and Jerusalem (Is 2:2-4), Hezekiah's psalm of praise (Is 38:10-20), Hosea’s song of repentance and restoration (Hos 6:1-3), Jonah's prayer from the belly of the whale (Jon 2) and Habakkuk's psalm, in wrath, remember mercy (Hab 3:1-15).
Grouping the Psalms
Because the Psalms were the 'hymn book' of Israel there is not a structure of the book in the normal sense. Each psalm should be taken on its own. However, there are some distinct groupings of psalms which had particular associations in the temple liturgy: The Egyptian Hallel (Ps 113-118) was sung at Passover, so Jesus and the disciples sang Psalm 118 at the Last Supper. The Great Hallel (Ps 120-136), includes the fifteen 'Songs of Ascent' (Ps 120-134). The Final Hallel (Ps 146-150) are all psalms of praise.
Classification of Psalms
There are a number of ways of classifying the psalms by literary type, or by use, or by content. Some of these categories overlap, so one psalm may fall into two or more categories.
The largest group are laments, with over sixty psalms. These can be individual laments, giving an honest expression of personal crises, struggles, sufferings or disappointments to God (Ps 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 120, 139, 142), or corporate laments, where the nation expresses grief as a result of a national disaster, either impending or one that has already happened (Ps 12, 44, 80, 94, 137).
Another large group are the hymns of praise which are given in response to God's character, in which God is praised as Creator, the protector of Israel, or Lord of history (Ps 8, 19, 33, 66, 100, 103, 104, 111, 113, 114, 117, 145-147, 148, 149). They contain praises describing who God is and what he does in a general sense. There are also a number of psalms of thanksgiving in which praise for God is declared for something specific he has done. They again can be individual psalms of thanksgiving, when a person comes to the sanctuary to give thanks for a specific blessing from God (Ps 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138), or corporate psalms of thanksgiving (Ps 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136).
Salvation history psalms review the history of God's saving works among the people of Israel, especially their deliverance from bondage in Egypt and their creation as a nation, from whom Jesus the Messiah was born (Ps 78, 105, 106, 135, 136). Penitential psalms are prayers of repentance for sin, crying for forgiveness, depending only on God's mercy and grace (Ps 6, 25, 32, 38, 39, 51, 102, 130, 143). Wisdom psalms reflect on the virtue of wisdom and a godly life and anticipate blessing for obedience (Ps 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, 133). They have a similar message as the Book of Proverbs (Prov 8). Songs of trust declare that God can be trusted, even in times of despair, and help us express our trust in God, whether we are having good or bad times (Ps 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131). Two psalms are classified as covenant renewal liturgies (Ps 50, 81), giving the words to be used in a renewal of the covenant made on Mt. Sinai, perhaps in a service of commitment to God.
Royal psalms were originally written for some special occasion in the life of the Davidic king or praising their function as God's intermediary in the Jewish kingdom (Ps 2, 18, 20, 21, 35, 40, 45, 72, 101, 110, 144). Many of these have a messianic theme as well. Enthronement psalms (Ps 24, 29, 47, 93, 95-99) were used in celebrations of the yearly enthronement of Israel's king. Songs of Zion (Ps 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122) were songs to celebrate the holy city of Jerusalem as the centre of worship of God, symbolising God's presence on earth.
Messianic psalms are those which contain prophecies of Jesus. There are a total of fifty-nine predictions of Jesus and various aspects of his life and ministry. The Book of Psalms is quoted in the New Testament more than any other book. The following psalms are classed as Messianic: (Ps 2, 8, 16, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 35, 40, 41, 45, 68, 69, 72, 78, 87, 89, 102, 109, 110, 118, 132).
Imprecatory psalms are those which contain expressions of extreme emotions, which we often find hard to accept in the scriptures. One rather extreme example is this, "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks" (Ps 137:9). They contain expressions of anger to God about other people, often invoking curses, or showing malice or hatred. They often seem harsh and vengeful, gloating over the enemy's downfall. They contain cries for God's vengeance on the wicked, who have broken the covenant and who oppose God. They are the cry of the righteous for judgment in an unjust world. They are not written from a personal hatred of enemies, but seeing the unrighteousness of the enemy as a challenge to God. The enemies of the psalmist and of Israel are first of all enemies of God. They always recognise that the vengeance belongs to God and do not take matters into their own hands. On a personal level, through these psalms, God allows us to be angry without sinning (Ps 4:4), to express anger without allowing the anger to harm the other person. They help us express our anger or frustration to God. Some complete psalms are classed as imprecatory: (Ps 35, 58, 59, 69, 83, 109 and 137), others contain a few imprecatory verses, for example: (Ps 5:10, 6:10, 12:3, 52:5-6, 70:13, 140:10). There are even some imprecatory statements in the New Testament: "If anyone is preaching a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:9), and "If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed" (1 Cor 16:21).
Structural elements found in psalms
The most common categories of psalms are laments and psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Both of these have particular structural elements which are normally apparent. However, there is great flexibility, as these elements may appear in a different order, or the same element may appear more than once through the psalm.
The following structural elements are often found in laments, although there are often significant differences: They begin with an introductory cry to God. This is followed by a lament or complaint, stating the reason for the psalm. It often gives a description of the writer’s situation, which gives the historical setting for the psalm. They may be troubled in their own thoughts or actions, or complaining about the actions of others, or feeling abandoned by God. They may be experiencing two or even all three of these (Ps 42). The third part is a petition or prayer, followed by a statement of trust and confidence in God. The psalm ends with the author making a promise to praise God, or an actual statement of praise. Laments may also contain confession of sin, proclamations of innocence, or even cursing of enemies.
Psalm 22 is a good example of a lament. It begins with a cry to God (v1-2), followed by a declaration of trust (v3-5). He then gives his complaint (v6-8), and again declares his trust in God (v9-10). He they prays (v11), followed by a complaint about his enemies (v12-18). He then prays again (v19-21), and concludes with praise (v21b-31).
2. Psalms of Praise
These normally have three main sections: The first is a call to praise, which may contain an exhortation to sing, a naming of the person or group who is called to sing and the mode of praise, perhaps the instruments to be used, or a call to sing a new song. The second section states the reason God is to be praised. The conclusion is a call to praise, or the expression of a desire to praise, or a declaration of trust in God.
An example of a psalm of praise is Psalm 33. It begins with a call to praise (v1), and the mode of praise, listing the instruments (v2-3). This is followed by the reason for praising God as the Creator enthroned in heaven (v4-19), concluding with a declaration of trust (v20-22).
3. Psalm of thanksgiving
A psalm of thanksgiving has similarities with a psalm of praise, but is more personal. It begins with a call to praise, or blessing, followed by a testimony to God’s goodness. It may look back and describe the time of need, perhaps restating the lament, and giving a report of God’s deliverance. The psalm finishes with a renewed vow of praise and a statement of praise and trust in God.
An example of a thanksgiving psalm is Psalm 33. It begins with a declaration of praise (v1a). Then most of the psalm is taken up with the author’s testimony (v1b-12a), ending with a vow of praise (v12b). In the testimony he describes his time of need (v1b-3), he gives a call to worship (v4-6), a description of his situation before the problem (v6-7), restates his lament (v8-10), and gives testimony to God’s deliverance (v11-12a).
The titles of the Psalms
All but thirty-four psalms have some title or heading, which gives useful information about the psalm. They are not considered as being inspired scripture, having been added later, probably in the time of Ezra, as instructions for the use of the psalm in worship. In the Hebrew Bible, they are counted as one of the verses of the psalm. Some titles may actually belong to the end of the previous psalm.
A full title consisting of six parts is only found in Psalm 60: 'To the leader' (assignment), 'According to the Lily of the Covenant' (music), 'A Miktam' (literary type), 'Of David' (author), 'For instruction' (purpose), 'When he struggled etc.' (Occasion = 2 Sam 8:13).
Fifty-five psalms (and Hab 3:19) are assigned to the leader, choirmaster or chief musician. These are directions to the choirmaster, concerning musical directions, or a choirmaster's collection of psalms.
These instructions indicated which instruments were to be used to accompany the singing of the psalm and which tune was to be used. The following musical instruments are named: “With stringed instruments” (Ps 4, 6, 54, 55, 67, 76) - the psalm is to be sung with accompaniment of stringed instruments; “For the flutes” (Ps 5) - the psalm is to be sung with accompaniment of flutes or other wind instruments; “According to The Sheminith" (Ps 6,12) - treble range or soprano, sung by women; “According to Alamoth” (Ps 46, 1 Chr 15:20) - tenor or bass, sung by men, possibly an eight stringed lute played one octave lower than the Alamoth; “According to Mahalath” (Ps 53,88) - the name either of a tune or an instrument. It is a female name in Gen 28:9 and 2 Chr 11:18. It may possibly be a ritual for the sick, or a lament as the word means sickness or grief.
The names of tunes are rather obscure to us, but were probably names of popular tunes of that time or specific types of music. Seventeen psalms have a tune assigned to them: “According to Muth-labben” (Ps 9) means “about the death of a son”; “According to The Deer of the Dawn" (Ps 22) is probably a tune sung at daybreak. Other tunes are: “According to Lilies” (Ps 45,69,80, Song of Solomon 2:1) and “According to the lily of the covenant” (Ps 60). “According to the Dove on Far-off Terebinths” (Ps 56) may refer to the previous psalm, where there is reference both to doves and the far distance (55:6-7). It could identify a tune by a well-known phrase of a song, sing Ps 56 to the tune of Ps 55. It may possibly be a reference to Lev 14:5-7, when one bird was sacrificed, and one bird released. “Do not Destroy” (Ps 57-59,75) was a popular saying (Is 65:8), perhaps from a vintage song (Dt 9:26). “According to The Gittith” (Ps 8,81,84) could be a term connected with the wine vintage, sung at the feast of Tabernacles, or a reference to the journey of the ark from the Gittite's house to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:11), or an instrument or tune from Gath in Philistia.
3. Literary type
A number of different literary types are found. The most common is 'A Psalm', meaning a religious song with a musical accompaniment. It describes seventy-seven of the psalms (Ps 3-6, 8-10, 12-13, 15, 18-32, 34-41, 46-51, 61-70, 72, 73, 75-77, 79-85, 87-88, 92, 98, 100, 101, 103, 108-110, 138-141, 143-144). Some are known as 'A Song', which is a more general term for a secular or religious song, not necessarily accompanied with music. It is found in fifteen psalms (Ps 18, 30, 46, 48, 65-68, 75, 76, 83, 87, 88, 92, 108). 'A Song of Ascents' are the literary type of fifteen pilgrim songs (Ps 120-134), sung on the way to Jerusalem on the processional ascent of the hill of the Lord (Is 30:29), or processional songs for festivals, probably sung by the exiles returning from Babylon. They were to be chanted by the Levites on the fifteen steps separating the court of men from the court of women in the temple, with one psalm sung on each step. The meaning of 'A Maskil' is uncertain, perhaps being a contemplative or meditative psalm, for making a person wise or skilful, or a prayer for help, or elaborate music. There are thirteen psalms with this title (Ps 32, 42, 44-45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89, 142). The meaning of 'A Miktam' is also uncertain. The root of the word miktam is to cover, so perhaps a psalm for atonement of sin, or otherwise a silent prayer. There are six of them (Ps 16, 56-60). Five psalms have the title 'A Prayer' (Ps 17, 86, 90, 102, 142). One psalm is titled 'Praise' (Ps 145), one 'A Covenant' (Ps 80), and one 'A Shiggaion' (Ps 7), which may either be wild ecstatic poetry stirring the emotions with irregular rhythm, or some connection with the sin offering. The remaining thirty-three psalms are unclassified (Ps 1, 2, 11, 14, 33, 71, 91, 93-97, 99, 104-107, 111-119, 135-136, 146-150).
The most familiar author named in psalm titles is David, who wrote about half of the Book of Psalms, and the whole collection of psalms tends to be ascribed to David. He was called the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Sam 23:1), and the inventor of musical instruments (Amos 6:5). David is named as author of seventy-three psalms (Ps 3-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 138-145). The New Testament attributes two other psalms to David: Ps 2 (Acts 4:25), and Ps 95 (Heb 4:7). David also composed other psalms in the OT, including a lament for Saul (2 Sam 1:19-27), and his last words (2 Sam 23:1-7).
Twelve psalms were written by The Korahites, who are the sons of Korah (Ps 42-49, 84-85, 87-88). These were a Levitical family, and the guild of temple singers (1 Chr 6:16-48). They were descendants of Korah, the grandson of Levi, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron, and were swallowed up by the earth, with Dathan and Abiram (Num 16, 26, Jude 11). Korah's sons were spared, and later one part of the family became the temple door-keepers and guardians (1 Chr 9:17), the other part of the family became singers and musicians of the temple choir, founded under David by Heman the Ezrahite.
Another twelve psalms were by Asaph (Ps 50, 73-83), who was a temple musician appointed by David as a leading singer and head of the choir (1 Chr 16:4,7). The sons of Asaph were a family choir, founded by Asaph (Neh 7:44).
Two psalms were by King Solomon (Ps 72, 127), the composer of 1005 songs (1 Kg 4:32, and writer of 3000 proverbs. Several people wrote only one psalm. One was Ethan the Ezrahite (Ps 89), who was probably the same person as Jeduthan, the founder of three choirs and one of the chief musicians appointed by David to lead public worship (1 Chr 16:41, 25:1-3). He is also mentioned in the titles of Ps 39, 62, 77. Another was Heman the Ezrahite (Ps 88), who was the founder of the choir known as the Sons of Korah, and was famed for his wisdom (1 Kg 4:31). One psalm was written by Moses (Ps 90). Psalm 91 may also be by him. One psalm was written by an anonymous author who described himself as 'One afflicted' (Ps 102).
The remaining forty-eight psalms have an unknown author (Ps 1-2, 33, 66-67, 71, 91-100, 104-107, 111-121, 123, 125-126, 128-130, 132-137, 146-150). Some may have been written by David. The Septuagint gives David as the author of Ps 33, Jeremiah as the author of Ps 137, and Haggai and Zechariah as the authors of Ps 146 and 147. Ps 119 has been attributed to Ezra, and the 'Songs of Ascents' (Ps 120-134) to Hezekiah.
Only five psalms have a stated purpose, Ps 60 - 'For instruction', Ps 38, 70 - 'For the memorial offering remembrance', Ps 92 - 'For the Sabbath', Ps 102 - 'For one afflicted'.
Each psalm had an occasion, an event which led to the composition of the psalm, similar to the letters. Fourteen psalms have the occasion stated in the title, all are events in the life of David. These are listed here in the order of events in David’s life:
||Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him (1 Sam 19:11)
||The Philistines seized him in Gath (1 Sam 21:11)
||He feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away (1 Sam 21:13)
||He was in the cave (of Adullam) (1 Sam 22:1)
||When Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, "David has come to the house of Ahimelech" (1 Sam 22:9)
||When the Ziphites went and told Saul, "David is in hiding among us" (1 Sam 23:18)
||When he fled from Saul, in the cave (1 Sam 24:3)
||Which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjaminite (1 Sam 24:9)
||Addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul (2 Sam 7:1)
||When he struggled with Aram.., and when Joab on his return killed 12,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt (2 Sam 8:13-14)
||When the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:13-14)
||When he fled from his son Absalom (2 Sam 15:16)
||When he was in the Wilderness of Judah (2 Sam 16:2)
||At the dedication of the temple (2 Sam 24:25)