Time Period: Approximately 1050-950 b.c.
The book of Psalms is somewhat like a modern hymnbook. Both are a collection of songs and prayers written by several people over a long period of time. Both describe the worshipers' response of praise because of God's power and love, their words of hope based on God's promises for the future, and their cries for God to rescue them from the troubles of life. Both collections of songs were used by believers in their private devotions as well as the public worship of God's people. Psalms were sung in the temple (Ps. 100:4—"enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise") and by the early church (Col. 3:16—"admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord"). When a psalm was sung ("Great is the Lord" from Ps. 48), the singer was testifying to God's greatness, the listener was hearing how God had worked in another person's life, and everyone was encouraged to trust in God's power. The psalms were filled with the emotions of fear and anguish because of persecution, as well as trust and love because of God's protection in the past. These prayers describe the close personal relationship that can exist between God and each one of us.
Many of the psalms were written to music, thus the heading of Psalm 4 includes the direction, "for the choir director, (to be played) on stringed instruments," or the heading to Psalm 5 has "for the choir director, for flute accompaniment." Psalm 3 has the word "Selah" at the end of verses 2, 4, and 8. This word means "to lift up," but it is not clear whether this referred to increasing the volume of the instruments or some sort of musical interlude. Several of the psalms encourage singing (Ps. 95:1, 2; 96:1, 2; 98:1, 4-6) and others promote the playing of instruments while people sang the praises of God (Ps. 98:5, 6; 108:1, 2; 150:3-5). The psalms were arranged into five subdivisions or books (1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150). This follows the fivefold division of the Pentateuch and may reflect the process of collecting these songs and prayers into Israel's hymnbook. Most of the psalms in the first two books were from David (3-41; 51-71), while many psalms in book three were written by Asaph (73-83). Songs of Ascent (120-134) and Hallelujah psalms (146-150) were grouped together in the fifth book. This suggests that the first two books may have been collected by David, the third and fourth by Solomon or Hezekiah, and the fifth by Ezra. The earliest psalm of praise is attributed to Moses (Exod. 15), but it is not included in the book of Psalms. The headings suggest Moses wrote one psalm (Ps. 90), that 72 psalms are related to David, two psalms are by Solomon, and a large group to the Levitical singers Asaph, Heman, Ethan, and Korah (1 Chron. 15:16-24; 25:1-8). David appointed these Levites to sing and play musical instruments at the temple worship services. Some psalms were written while the people of Israel were in exile by the rivers of Babylon (Ps. 137). In the New Testament, Peter claims that David wrote Psalm 16 and 110 (Acts 2:25-35) and Hebrews 4:7 connects him to Psalm 95.
Many of the psalms have two settings—the original historical experience of the author who wrote the psalm (David out on a hill taking care of his sheep) and the later setting of the psalm as it was sung in the temple in Jerusalem on a feast day. Some headings suggest the original historical situation which caused the author to write the psalm. Psalm 3 was connected to the events surrounding David fleeing from his rebellious son Absalom (see 2 Sam. 13:34-18:33), Psalm 18 fits the context of David fleeing from Saul (2 Sam. 21-22), Psalm 30 commemorates the dedication of the place where God's house would be built (2 Sam. 24), and Psalm 51 was Davids prayer after his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11-12). Other psalms contain no historical information about the situation of the author in their heading, but have clues within the psalm itself. Psalm 45 is connected to a wedding, while 27:1-3 pictures the author surrounded by evildoers, adversaries, and a host of enemies.
The people who sang these songs many years later in the temple services or in the early church did not always know the situation of the original author. Nevertheless, they could identify with the feelings of hopelessness portrayed in these songs because they had experienced similar emotions in their own lives. Other psalms were primarily written to sing the praise of God in the temple or at a feast day. These psalms frequently deal with universal problems or common reasons for joy that affect people in all cultures.
The psalms can be put into several different groups that have a similar topic, structure, or use. There are messianic psalms (Ps. 2; 110), wisdom psalms (Ps. 1; 73), royal psalms (Ps. 96-99), Zion songs (Ps. 46; 48), and historical psalms (Ps. 105; 106). The next chapter will look at many of these different kinds of psalms, but here the most popular types will be examined: the lament and the hymn of praise.
People in Israel lamented and cried out to God for help for several reasons. Some psalms describe a situation in which the individual author or the whole nation is being attacked by some enemy. A city may seek for God's protection as an enemy army is marching against it (Ps. 44:4-16) or an individual like David might mourn his own personal situation when Saul had him trapped in a cave in the Judean desert (Ps. 142). At other times people lamented and confessed their sins (Ps. 51; 130), mourned because of a serious sickness (Ps. 6), or lamented the fact that they had been unjustly accused of some evil deed (Ps. 7; 17; 120). When people lamented, they frequently wept, fasted, and put on sackcloth and ashes (see Joel 2:12-17). These were not casual requests for God's blessing, but serious prayers because they did not have modern medicine, a strong army or police force to maintain law and order, or the money to fight someone who had falsely accused them. Their only hope was to depend on God for mercy and protection. The book of Psalms includes six or seven community laments and about 50 individual laments.
Most laments have the same general structure (our prayers also tend to follow similar patterns), although there is a good deal of individual freedom within these broad patterns. The lament structure usually includes:
Some laments do not contain all these structural parts and others may contain two sections of petition or two statements of confidence. Each prayer is an individual expression that follows a somewhat unique series of building blocks. The people were different, the situations were different, and their sense of hope or hopelessness varied based on the seriousness of the problem.
A regular pattern of reading or praying based on the psalms of lament will help us to pray with power and honesty. God is interested in our problems and Hebrews 4:14-16 states that Jesus is anxiously awaiting to intercede for us at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Prayer is a testimony to the importance of a personal talking relationship with God, our belief in the transforming power of prayer, and our desire to experience the joy of having our prayers answered.
Another large group of psalms are called hymns of praise. These fall into several sub-categories according to the structure, topic, or reason for praising God. Some hymns declare God's praise for answering the lament of a believer (at the end of the lament the worshiper usually promises to praise God for the answer to the lament). Psalm 9 is this type of declarative or narrative hymn of praise. God is praised (9:1-3; 7-11; 14) because the worshiper remembers how his enemies were destroyed by God (9:4-6; 12, 13; 15, 16).
A second group of hymns of ascent were sung as pilgrims or regular worshipers were coming to the temple. They refer to the joy of seeing the city of Jerusalem and being in the temple to worship God (Ps. 122).
A major group of hymns proclaim the glory of God and list a series of reasons why God should receive praise. The structure of these descriptive hymns of praise is quite simple.
This pattern may be partially or fully repeated in this simple formula. Psalm 100 is a well known hymn which follows this pattern. It begins with a call to praise God in 100:1, 2: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing." This is followed with a reason for praising God in 100:3, "Know ye that the Lord he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture." This pattern is repeated with another call to praise God in 100:4, "Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; be thankful unto him, and bless his name," and a second reason for praising God in 100:5, "For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations." Although the pattern is fairly simple, this brief psalm of praise contains a great deal of theology. The worshiper is recognizing the importance of coming to God's house to worship and praise God. This is not just a habit, the respectable thing to do, or an issue of obeying parents. Believers understand why God is praised, they have experienced His grace, their hearts are full of motivation for thanksgiving. God created them, God considers them His special people and He provides for their needs. He is good to them, He shows His love again and again, He is faithful in so many ways. He is worthy to be praised.
Sometime these declarative hymns of praise emphasize the call to praise God like Psalm 148:1-5a; 7-13a. It has only two very short sections (5b-6 and 13b-14) which give the reason why God should be praised. Other hymns have very brief calls to praise God (147:1a; 7; 12) but a very long list of reasons for praising Him (147:1b-6; 8-11; 13-20). These hymns fulfill one of the chief purposes for the existence of mankind on earth—the purpose of enjoying and glorifying God.
Since transportation was difficult in those days, people who lived a long way from Jerusalem were able to come to the temple and worship God only a few times each year. No wonder they were thrilled and excited about actually coming to the temple again. When the worshiper joined with the masses to sing the glory of God, it was an inspiring experience. As they sang through the hymn, they would be reminded of the many reasons they had to praise God. God had been good to them (by giving them good crops and plenty of food to eat), God had been faithful to them (by answering a prayer or by fulfilling a promise), God's love was very evident (by giving them good health or by giving them a new child in their family). God's grace was not ignored or taken for granted; it was celebrated to glorify Him and encourage others to put their trust in Him.