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Old Testament Notes

The Book of Psalms

Psalms - The Book of Psalms is really a Hymn Book - the Psalms were the Hymns that were sung in the Temple or by individual worshippers in Old Testament times, and are still sung by Jews and Christians at the present day. Please note that one only says or writes "Psalms" when referring to more than one Psalm. eg. "Psalm 23", "Psalms 145 & 146" (not "Psalms 23")
Also, the Book does not contain Chapters, but Psalms (just as one does not refer to the Hymns in a Hymn Book as Chapters).

The Book of Psalms itself is a collection of five Hymn Books, each with a concluding doxology :

  1. Psalms 1 - 41
  2. Psalms 42 - 72
  3. Psalms 73 - 89
  4. Psalms 90 - 106
  5. Psalms 107 - 150

The main literary types encountered in the Psalms are :

Hebrew Poetry did not depend on rhyme, but on a rhythm of stressed syllables and on parallelism, which may extend to reiteration (repetition), or antithesis.
Parallelism is the term used for the echoing of a thought or expression from one line to the next, eg.
"The mirth of tabrets ceaseth,
The noise of them that rejoice endeth,
The joy of the harp ceaseth.
- Isaiah 24:8
In repetition or reiteration the same phrase is repeated on successive lines, eg
"My leanness, my leanness, woe unto me!
The treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously,
Yea, the treacherous dealers have dealt very treacherously."
- Isaiah 24:16
In antithesis there is a contrast between two parallel statements, eg
"Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry;
Behold, my servants shall drink, but ye shall be thirsty;
Behold, my servants shall rejoice, but ye shall be ashamed;
Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart, but ye shall cry for sorrow of heart,
and shall howl for vexation of spirit."
- Isaiah 65:13-14

Poetry in the Old Testament is not confined to the Book of Psalms, but examples are found in the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament also, eg. Exodus 15:1-19, Jeremiah 9:1-3

The word "Selah" occurs from time to time in the Psalms, but we do not know for sure what it means. One theory is that it is an instruction for the musicians, such as "Pause". Other directions are also occasionally found in the texts of the Psalms, or in the introductory headings which some Bibles print at the head of some of the Psalms. These headings are not part of the original text, but are very ancient and occur in both the Masoretic Hebrew text and also in the Septuagint (with some variations). They appear to be mainly dedications or ascriptions to musicians; some may refer to the name of a tune which was to be used, or to the instruments to be played; others refer to specific events in the life of David.

Psalm 1 - a "Wisdom Psalm", in which the differences between right and wrong are described.
Psalm 2 - a "Royal Psalm", relating to the Davidic Royal house, and containing references to the Messiah
Psalm 3 - traditionally associated with the rebellion of Absalom (II Samuel, chapters 15-18)
Psalm 4 - traditionally associated with the time when Saul was hunting David with intent to kill him (I Samuel, chapters 19-27)
Psalms 9 & 10 - are combined as one Psalm (called Psalm 9) in the Septuagint, and also in some translations of the Bible. From this point on there is a discrepancy between the Hebrew and the Greek versions in the numbering of individaul Psalms (eg Psalm 10 in the Greek version corresponds to Psalm 11 in the Hebrew text). This discrepancy continues until Psalm 147 (Hebrew version), which the Greek divides into two Psalms, calling them 146 (v.1-11) and 147 (v.12-20). So from Psalm 148 onward the two versions are in step with each other again. Western Protestant Churches usually use the Hebrew numbering; the Greek Orthodox Church uses the Greek numbering. Roman Catholic Bibles also sometimes use the Greek numbering.
These notes will use the Hebrew numbering.
Psalm 16:10 - "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell" - at the time this psalm was composed the Hebrews thought of Sheol (translated "hell") as a place of shadows where one went after death, rather than as a place of punishment or torture.
Psalm 18 - traditionally associated with the time when David was delivered from Saul's persecution.
Psalm 18:10 - " rode upon a cherub" - a cherub (pural - cherubim) is a composite creature, often depicted with the head of a lion, a man, or an ox, the body of an ox or some other four-legged animal, and the wings of an eagle.
Psalm 19 - this Psalm has been set to music by many composers, including Beethoven. v.14 is a good one to remember for times when one has to speak about something.
Psalm 22 - this was the Psalm which Jesus quoted from the Cross (Mark 15:34). He was speaking Aramaic (a later development of Hebrew), but it is recognizably the same as the Hebrew version : "Eli" (my God), "Eli" (my God), "la-mah" (for why ?), "yazachtani" (you have deserted me).
Psalm 34 - the introductory heading for this Psalm states that it is a Psalm of David, "when he changed his behaviour before king Abimelech; who drove him away" - which seems to refer to David's visit to the Philistine king Achish (I Samuel 21:10-22:1).
Psalm 37 - a Wisdom Psalm, contrasting the righteous and the wicked.
Psalm 42 - is one of the Psalms dedicated to the sons of Korah. Korah himself led a revolt against Moses, and died in the wilderness, but his children were spared (Numbers 16:1-35 & 26:9-11). The Korahites were Levites, and were dedicated to the service of the Tabernacle (and, later, the Temple); one of their chief duties was to sing during worship services.
Psalms 42 & 43 - share a common refrain (Ps. 42:5 &11, Ps.43:5 ). It may be that they represent different sets of words to be sung to the same tune.
Psalm 45 - a Royal Psalm, probably for use at a Royal marriage.
Psalm 50 - traditionally associated with Asaph, a Levite who was appointed as a singer by David, and who later served in Solomon's Temple (I Chron. 6:31-32,39, & 16:4-7; II Chron. 5:11-14). Asaph also composed Psalms himself (II Chron. 29:30) and this may be one of them.
Psalm 51 - traditionally associated with the time when Nathan rebuked David for his adultery with Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:1-15)
Psalm 52 - traditionally associated with the time when Doeg the Edomite betrayed David and Ahimelech to Saul (I Samuel 21:1-7 & 22:9-23).
Psalm 54 - traditionally associated with the time when Saul was persecuting David, and the men of Ziph told Saul where David was (I Samuel 23:1926).
Psalm 55 is attributed to David, and probably reflects the events of Absalom's rebellion (2 Samuel, chapters 15-17)
Psalm 56 - traditionally associated with the time when David was with the Philistines in Gath (I Samuel 21:10-15)
Psalm 57 - traditionally associated with the time when David hid in a cave at En Gedi to escape from Saul (I Samuel 24:1-22)
Psalm 59 - traditionally associated with the time Saul sent men to kill David at his house (I Samuel 19:11-18)
Psalm 60 - traditionally associated with the time David and Joab defeated the Edomites by the Dead Sea (II Samuel 8:13-16)
Psalm 63 - traditionally associated with the time when David was hiding in the wilderness of Judah, while Saul hunted him with intent to kill him (I Samuel 22:5)
Psalm 72 - traditionally understood to be a prayer of David for Solomon
Psalms 73 - 83 are traditionally ascribed to Asaph (see Psalm 50)
Psalm 78 - recounts the mighty acts of God when He brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness (verses 12-53), how God brought the Israelites into the Promised Land (vv. 54-55) where they deserted God to join in the heathen Canaanite rituals (vv.56-59) and even condoned immorality at God's tabernacle at Shiloh (vv.60-64, see I Samuel 2:12-36 & 4:3-22). Then the Psalm closes with an account of God's choice of David to be king of Israel (vv.67-72)
Psalm 79 reflects the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians
Psalms 84 & 85 - are traditionally dedicated to the sons of Korah (see Psalm 42)
Psalm 86 - traditionally called a "Prayer of David"
Psalms 87 & 88 - are traditionally dedicated to the sons of Korah
Psalm 88 - traditionally ascribed to Heman the Ezrahite. Heman and Ethan were evidently respected as wise men, but were surpassed by Solomon (I Kinggs 4:31)
Psalm 89 - traditionally ascribed to Ethan the Ezrahite
Psalm 90 - traditionally titled "A Prayer of Moses the man of God"
Psalm 92 - traditionally titled "A Psalm or Song for the sabbath day"
Psalm 101 - traditionally ascribed to David
Psalm 102 - traditionally titled "A Prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord"
Psalm 103 - traditionally ascribed to David
Psalm 105 - recalls and gives thanks for the acts of God in calling Israel to be His people, in spite of their occasions of unfaithfulness
      Psalm 105:9 see Genesis 12:1-3, 14:1-21, 17:1-21, 26:2-5 & v.24
      Psalm 105:10 see Genesis 35:9-15, 46:1-4
      Psalm 105:15 see Genesis 20:1-18, 31:29
      Psalm 105:16 see Genesis 41:30-32 & 54-57
      Psalm 105:17-24 see Genesis, chapters 37 & 39-47
      Psalm 105 24-39 see Exodus, chapters 1 & 5-14
      Psalm 105:40-41 see Exodus 17:1-7, Numbers 11:4-6 & 31-34, Numbers 20:2-13
Psalm 106 - recounts the mighty acts of God at the time of the Exodus
      Psalm 106:9-12 see Exodus, chapters 14 & 15
      Psalm 106:16-18 see Exodus, chapter 16
      Psalm 106:19 see Exodus, chapter 32
      Psalm 106:23 see Exodus 32:11-13 & 3 1-33
      Psalm 106:28 see Numbers, chapter 25
      Psalm 106:30 see Numbers 25:7-13
      Psalm 106:32-33 see Numbers 20:1-13
      Psalm 106:34-46 see the Book of Judges
Psalms 108-110 - traditionally ascribed to David
Psalm 108:7-10 - see the maps in the text-book. Shechem, Succoth, Gilead, Manasseh, Ephraim, Judah are all regions of the land occupied by the Israelites. Moab, Edom, Philistia are lands bordering Israel
Psalm 110:4 - "a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" see Genesis 14:18-20 and Hebrews, chapters 5 & 6
Psalms 113-118 are associated with the Feasts of Tabernacles and Passover. Psalms 113 and 114 are sung before the Passover meal, and Psalms 115-118 after the meal.
Psalm 119 the longest of the Psalms, and one of the "Wisdom Psalms" this is also an Acrostic - there are 22 sections, each corresponding to one of the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. In each section, the first word of each line begins with the letter of the alphabet corresponding to that section (eg. vv. 1-8 each start with words beginning with the letter aleph, corresponding to our "A")
Psalms 120-134 are titled "Songs of degrees" or "Songs of Ascents", probably meaning "Songs of Steps" and are traditionally associated with pilgrimages to Jerusalem. when the pilgrims climbed the mountainous roads on their way to worship in the Temple
Psalm 135 gives thanks and praise to God for His mighty acts in Israel's history
      Psalm 135:8-9 refers to the Plagues of Egypt at the time of the Exodus - see Exodus, chapters 11 & 12
      Psalm 135:11 - see Numbers 21:21-26 and Deuteronomy 31:3-6
Psalm 136 is known as "the Great Hallel" (Hallel is Hebrew for Praise). It gives thanks and praise to God for His mighty acts in Creation and in Israel's history
      Psalm 136:5-9 - see Genesis 1:1-19
      Psalm 136:10-11 - see Exodus, chapters 11 & 12
      Psalm 136:13-15 - see Exodus, chapter 14
      Psalm 136:17-22 - see Numbers 21:21-26 and Deuteronomy 31:3-6
Psalm 137is a lament of the Jews when they were in exile in Babylon
Psalms 138-145 are traditionally ascribed to David
Psalm 142 traditionally titled "Maschil of David; A Prayer when he was in the cave." The meaning of Maschil is now uncertain; it is similar to the Hebrew word for "understand, ponder", and may imply instructions for a godly life, or may be an instruction to the musicians as to how they were to play for the Psalm. For times when David sheltered in a cave see I Samuel 22:1 & 24:3-10
Psalms 145-150 have a common theme of Praise to God, and were probably used in pubic worship in the Temple. They are part of Jewish daily prayer to this day
Psalms 146-150 all begin with "Hallelu-jah", Hebrew for "Let us praise Jah", using the word for God which has given us "Javeh" or "Yaweh" in English (Hebrew "J" is pronounced "Y").
Psalm 150 is the concluding doxology (Song of Praise) for the Book of Psalms

Copyright © 1999 Shirley J. Rollinson, all Rights Reserved

Dr. Rollinson

Department of Religion
Portales, NM 88130

Last Updated: April 9, 2008

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