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Psalms Book of


Psalms, Book of. The present Hebrew name of the book is Tehillim, “Praises”; but in the actual superscriptions of the psalms the word Tehillâh is applied only to one, Ps. 145, which is indeed emphatically a praise-hymn. The LXX entitled them ψαλμοιʹ or “psalms,” i.e., lyrical pieces to be sung to a musical instrument. The Christian Church obviously received the Psalter from the Jews not only as a constituent portion of the sacred volume of Holy Scripture, but also as the liturgical hymn-book which the Jewish Church had regularly used in the temple.

Division of the Psalms.—The book contains 150 psalms, and may be divided into five great divisions or books, which must have been originally formed at different periods. Book I is, by the superscriptions, entirely Davidic; nor do we find in it a trace of any but David’s authorship. We may well believe that the compilation of the book was also David’s work. Book II appears by the date of its latest psalm, Ps. 46, to have been compiled in the reign of King Hezekiah. It would naturally comprise, first, several or most of the Levitical psalms anterior to that date; and second, the remainder of the psalms of David previously uncompiled. To these latter the collector, after properly appending the single psalm of Solomon, has affixed the notice that “the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” Ps. 72:20. Book III, the interest of which centres in the times of Hezekiah, stretches out, by its last two psalms, to the reign of Manasseh: it was probably compiled in the reign of Josiah. It contains seventeen psalms, from Ps. 73-89—eleven by Asaph, four by the sons of Horah, one (86) by David, and one by Ethan. Book IV contains the remainder of the psalms up to the date of the captivity. There are seventeen, from Ps. 90-106—one by Moses, two by David, and the rest anonymous. Book V, the psalms of the return, contains forty-four, from Ps. 107-150—fifteen by David, one by Solomon and the rest anonymous. There is nothing to distinguish these two books from each other in respect of outward decoration or arrangement, and they may have been compiled together in the days of Nehemiah.

Connection of the Psalms with Israelitish history.—The Psalm of Moses, Ps. 90, which is in point of actual date the earliest, faithfully reflects the long, weary wanderings, the multiplied provocations and the consequent punishments of the wilderness. It is, however, with David that Israelitish psalmody may be said virtually to commence. Previous mastery over his harp had probably already prepared the way for his future strains, when the anointing oil of Samuel descended upon him, and he began to drink in special measure, from that day forward, of the Spirit of the Lord. It was then that, victorious at home over the mysterious melancholy of Saul and in the field over the vaunting champion of the Philistine hosts, he sang how from even babes and sucklings God had ordained strength because of his enemies. Ps. 8. His next psalms are of a different character; his persecutions at the hands of Saul had commenced. When David’s reign has begun, it is still with the most exciting incidents of his history, private or public, that his psalms are mainly associated. There are none to which the period of his reign at Hebron can lay exclusive claim. But after the conquest of Jerusalem his psalmody opened afresh with the solemn removal of the ark to Mount Zion; and in Ps. 24-29, which belong together, we have the earliest definite instance of David’s systematic composition or arrangement of psalms for public use. Even of those psalms which cannot be referred to any definite occasion, several reflect the general historical circumstances of the times. Thus Ps. 9 is a thanksgiving for the deliverance of the land of Israel from its former heathen oppressors. Ps. 10 is a prayer for the deliverance of the Church from the high-handed oppression exercised from within. The succeeding psalms dwell on the same theme, the virtual internal heathenism by which the Church of God was weighed down. So that there remain very few, e.g., Ps. 15-17, 19, 32 (with its choral appendage, 23), 37, of which some historical account may not be given. A season of repose near the close of his reign induced David to compose his grand personal thanksgiving for the deliverances of his whole life, Ps. 18; the date of which is approximately determined by the place at which it is inserted in the history. 2 Sam. 22. It was probably at this period that he finally arranged for the sanctuary service that collection of his psalms which now constitutes the first book of the Psalter. The course of David’s reign was not, however, as yet complete. The solemn assembly convened by him for the dedication of the materials of the future temple, 1 Chron. 28, 29, would naturally call forth a renewal of his best efforts to glorify the God of Israel in psalms; and to this occasion we doubtless owe the great festal hymns Ps. 65-68, containing a large review of the past history, present position and prospective glories of God’s chosen people. The supplications of Ps. 69 suit best with the renewed distress occasioned by the sedition of Adonijah. Ps. 71, to which Ps. 70, a fragment of a former psalm, is introductory, forms David’s parting strain. Yet that the psalmody of Israel may not seem finally to terminate with him, the glories of the future are forthwith anticipated by his son in Ps. 72. The great prophetical ode, Ps. 45, connects itself most readily with the splendors of Jehoshaphat’s reign. Ps. 42-44, 74, are best assigned to the reign of Ahaz. The reign of Hezekiah is naturally rich in psalmody. Ps. 46, 73, 75, 76, connect themselves with the resistance to the supremacy of the Assyrians and the divine destruction of their host.

We are now brought to a series of psalms of peculiar interest, springing out of the political and religious history of the separated ten tribes. In date of actual composition they commence before the times of Hezekiah. The earliest is probably Ps. 80, a supplication for the Israelitish people at the time of the Syrian oppression. All these psalms—80-83—are referred by their superscriptions to the Levite singers, and thus bear witness to the efforts of the Levites to reconcile the two branches of the chosen nation. The captivity of Manasseh himself proved to be but temporary; but the sentence which his sins had provoked upon Judah and Jerusalem still remained to be executed, and precluded the hope that God’s salvation could be revealed till after such an outpouring of his judgments as the nation had never yet known. Labor and sorrow must be the lot of the present generation; through these mercy might occasionally gleam, but the glory which was eventually to be manifested must be for posterity alone. The psalms of Book IV bear generally the impress of this feeling.

We pass to Book V. Ps. 107 is the opening psalm of the return, sung probably at the first feast of tabernacles. Ezra 3. A directly historical character belongs to Ps. 120-134, styled in our Authorized Version “Songs of Degrees.” Internal evidence refers these to the period when the Jews under Nehemiah were, in the very face of the enemy, repairing the walls of Jerusalem, and the title may well signify “songs of goings up upon the walls,” the psalms being, from their brevity, well adapted to be sung by the workmen and guards while engaged in their respective duties. Ps. 139 is a psalm of the new birth of Israel, from the womb of the Babylonish captivity, to a life of righteousness; Ps. 140-143 may be a picture of the trials to which the unrestored exiles were still exposed in the realms of the Gentiles. Henceforward, as we approach the close of the Psalter, its strains rise in cheerfulness; and it fittingly terminates with Ps. 147-150, which were probably sung on the occasion of the thanksgiving procession of Neh. 12, after the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem had been completed.

Moral characteristics of the Psalms.—Foremost among these meets us, undoubtedly, the universal recourse to communion with God. Connected with this is the faith by which the psalmist everywhere lives in God rather than in himself. It is of the essence of such faith that his view of the perfections of God should be true and vivid. The Psalter describes God as he is: it glows with testimonies to his power and providence, his love and faithfulness, his holiness and righteousness. The Psalms not only set forth the perfections of God: they proclaim also the duty of worshipping him by the acknowledgment and adoration of his perfections. They encourage all outward rites and means of worship. Among these they recognize the ordinance of sacrifice as an expression of the worshipper’s consecration of himself to God’s service. But not the less do they repudiate the outward rite when separated from which which it was designed to express. Similar depth is observable in the view taken by the psalmists of human sin. In regard to the law, the psalmist, while warmly acknowledging its excellence, feels yet that it cannot so effectually guide his own unassisted exertions as to preserve him from error. Ps. 19. The Psalms bear repeated testimony to the duty of instructing others in the ways of holiness. Ps. 32, 34, 51. This brings us to notice, lastly, the faith of the psalmists in righteous recompense to all men according to their deeds. Ps. 37, etc.

Prophetical character of the Psalms.—The moral struggle between godliness and ungodliness, so vividly depicted in the Psalms, culminates, in Holy Scripture, in the life of the Incarnate Son of God upon earth. It only remains to show that the Psalms themselves definitely anticipated this culmination. Now there are in the Psalter at least three psalms of which the interest evidently centres in a person distinct from the speaker, and which, since they cannot without violence to the language be interpreted of any but the Messiah, may be termed directly and exclusively Messianic. We refer to Ps. 2, 45, 110, to which may perhaps be added Ps. 72. It would be strange if these few psalms stood, in their prophetical significance, absolutely alone among the rest. And hence the impossibility of viewing the psalms generally, notwithstanding the historical drapery in which they are outwardly clothed, as simply the past devotions of the historical David or the historical Israel. The national hymns of Israel are indeed also prospective; but in general they anticipate rather the struggles and the triumphs of the Christian Church than those of Christ himself.