In times like these we need to turn ourselves frequently to the Psalms. In them there is an intoxication with “the world above the world,” an acknowledgment of God at every step, a quest of the soul for the living God. In this questing, too, there is always the element of wonder; stretched out and yearning, the souls of the psalmists never fully comprehend Yahweh’s genius in creation nor his loving kindness toward men who sink in “deep mire, where there is no standing” (Psalm 69:2).

Moreover, there are in the Psalter taproots for growing tall, beauteous souls—souls that, unlike cut flowers, will bloom steadily and lustily through this life into the next. And if our newest weapons give us the jitters, the Psalms will give us balm and poise.

Kings and peasants, sages and saints, the tormented and the confident—they all speak out in these diaries of the heart. In their cries in the night and their hallelujahs at noonday they speak with peculiar relevance to believers in our time.

Piety Of The Psalms

Not a system of reasoned ideas; not what the Greeks would have given us. “The pearls here all lie loose and unstrung …” says John Paterson (The Praises of Israel, p. 24). Paterson also suggests: “Joy here is too abounding and sorrow is too passionate to be compressed within the moulds of a logical system” (ibid. p. 153).

What we have in the Psalter is a distilled piety. “In it beats the very heart of the Old Testament and of all spiritual religion” (W. T. Davidson, The Praises of Israel, p. 1). “What the heart is in man, that the Psalter is in the Bible” (Joh. Arnd; see Delitzsch’s Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, 1894, I, p. xvii). To use Paterson again, he says: “The Psalter finds us in the deepest parts of our being, and those songs speak a universal language to the heart of all mankind” (op. cit. p. 4).

Harold A. Bosley suggests something similar. Of this heart history he writes, “It is composed of the deepest, truest, most luminous insights we have into the universal and permanently important experiences of the human spirit” (Sermons on the Psalms, p. 10). He also speaks of the Psalter as “… one of our longest, steadiest, deepest looks into the depths of life” (ibid., p. 1). That is what John Calvin was referring to when he called these bits of glory written out “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul” (Commentary on the Psalms, I, Preface, p. xxxvii).

Doubts, fears, penitence, confidence, thanks, praise—these all figure in this heart literature. And our souls run together with the souls of the writers of the Psalms. Their joys are ours, and their distresses; their confidence, and their moans of contrition. Pens dipped in divine inspiration point right at us. We go forward for prayer in Psalm 51, water our couches with tears in Psalm 6, recount our blessings in Psalm 103, pant after God as does a thirsty hart after the water brooks in Psalm 42, pillow our heads in Psalm 23.

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Origin Of The Psalter

Many of us would agree with W. E. Barnes that “for the Psalms questions of date and historical occasion are relatively unimportant (The Psalms, I, p. viii). The date and occasion of Daniel, for example, are far more important than they are for a given Psalm or series of Psalms. Yet it is of consequence who wrote the Psalms, when, and why.

Some men such as Duhm have tried to tell us that most of them originated in the Maccabean age. Most scholars, such as Gunkel, Oesterley, Paterson, and Snaith date them, in general, considerably earlier. The tendency during the last three decades or so is toward earlier dating. It is probably not without bearing that in all printed editions of the Hebrew Bible the Psalms are the first book among the “Writings,” for there seems to have been an attempt to arrange the books chronologically within each of the three divisions of the Jewish canon. Moreover, in the Hebrew manuscripts it never appears later than second among the Writings.

In the Hebrew the inscription le-David appears above 73 of the Psalms. It is rendered “A Psalm of David” in the AV and RV. (In the Septuagint, besides these 73 instances of the Davidic title, there are 15 others.) Most scholars would agree that the Hebrew could be rendered “A Psalm to (or for) David,” or even “after the manner of David” (Barnes, op. cit., p. xxiii). Paterson suggests “after the style of David” (op cit. p. 19).

This much is certain: (1) that the Hebrew scribes quite early understood the le-David as referring to actual authorship, since they frequently added to those psalm headings references to incidents in David’s life which occasioned the songs; and (2) that the le-David headings are quite early since they appear in the oldest extant texts of the Septuagint.

Some critics say that David of the Psalm inscriptions is not the king David of the historical books (see excellent response to this in Barnes, op. cit., pp. xxv ff). Yet many suggest that the Psalms reflect David’s life as given in those books (cf. Alexander Maclaren, The Life of David as Reflected in His Psalms, reprinted 1955).

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Quite certainly the Septuagint is incorrect in ascribing 88 Psalms to David. Take, for example, Psalm 137, one of its 15 extra Davidic Psalms. That Psalm is surely the song of a subjected Hebrew in exile. Moreover, most would question a number of the 73 Davidic titles in the Hebrew, understanding that the later “title-makers” were not inspired, as were the psalm writers themselves. Alexander Maclaren suggests that 45 Psalms are quite certainly from David (ibid., p. 11).

Whether a given Psalm originated within the soul of David, Moses, Solomon or someone else, Christians and Jews alike agree that “the words of the Psalter are alive with the awareness of an Other” (E. Leslie, The Psalms, p. 18).

Structure Of The Psalms

We English readers often expect rhyme and meter in our poetry. But not all peoples have this feature in their poetic literature. The Anglo-Saxons, for example, looked for alliterated line beginnings instead of rhymed endings; this is another form of regularity, and regularity is what most distinguishes poetry from prose. Hebrew poetry often has a regularity of ideas in what we call its parallelisms—synonymous as in Psalms 15:1 and 67:3, antithetical as in Psalm 1:6, and in its stair-step arrangement as in Psalms 29:1–2 and 24:7–10.

Also, frequent use is made of repetition; in Psalm 136 each of its 26 verses contains the refrain, “for his mercy endureth forever.” More important, there are those passionate, luminous words and expressions found in all poetic literature. Most scholars would agree with W. E. Barnes that the Hebrews had “… a genius for religious poetry” (op. cit., I, p. vii). While some consider the threshold Psalm to be a prose introduction to the Psalter, the Hebrew genius is at work at least from Psalm 2, through those paeans of praise in Psalm 150 with its ten-fold “hallelujah” (praise ye the Lord) with which the Psalter is closed and which constitutes a fitting doxology to the whole. All of these Psalms together are called “Praises” in the Hebrew Bible. They were called “Psalms” in the Septuagint, and we have been influenced by that early Greek version here as on many other points.

In his Old Testament Essays (1927) pp. 118–142, Hermann Gunkel suggested that there are four main classes of Psalms: National hymns of praise, private hymns of thanksgiving, national hymns of sorrow and private hymns of sorrow. Some were thought of as mixed types. Bosley (op. cit., p. 10) gives a four-type summary also, but of a different sort. To him the types are penitence, hate, adoration and simple faith.

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Regarding the Psalms of “hate,” we may surely understand that the enemies in some of them are nations, and that when they are individuals they are the psalmists’ enemies because they are God’s. Robert F. Pheiffer supposes that the “righteous” are often the Pharisees, and the “sinners” the Sadducees (Introduction to the Old Testament, 1948, p. 620). In any case, the psalmists lived in times when many thought it right to hate their enemies. Jesus showed that when he said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy” (Matthew 5:43). Not until Jesus came was that principle radically repudiated.

According to the Midrash on the Psalms, an ancient Jewish commentary, Moses gave the Israelites the five books of the Law, and to correspond to them David gave them the Psalms in five books. Although no one would now believe that David compiled the five books of the 150 psalms now in our Psalter, some believe there is a correspondence between the Law and the Psalms. Harry A. Ironside (Psalms, p. 406) believed that the dominant subject of each of the five books of the Pentateuch is duplicated in each of the five books in the Psalter. Norman Snaith argues more convincingly for a correspondence between them (Hymns of the Temple, pp. 18 ff). It might well be that just as a portion of the Law was read each Sabbath, with something from the Prophets, so a Psalm was read. The reading of Psalm One, in which the blessed man meditates on the Law day and night, would be most fitting on the day, each three years, when a new beginning was made in the public reading of the Law. It is intriguing that, with the way the Jews distributed portions of the Law over two-month periods, Psalms 1, 42, 73, and 90, the first psalms in each of the first four books of the Psalter, would be read as each of the first four books of the Law was begun. There is even plausible reason, too intricate for mention here, for the lack of correspondence in the case of the beginning of the last book of Psalms, which starts with Psalm 107.

Useful Psalm Studies

Useful material on the Psalms, somewhat in order of priority for the minister:

A work midway between the very technical and the too popular is John Paterson’s The Praises of Israel (Scribner’s, 1950). It would whet one’s appetite for more thorough works such as W. E. Barnes’ two-volume The Psalms, (Dutton, n.d.); W. Graham Scroggie’s three-volume Psalms (Pickering & Inglis, rev., 1949); and Elmer A. Leslie’s The Psalms (Cokesbury, 1949). One of the very thorough studies, which would be still more adequate for detailed information on a given psalm, is the three-volume Commentary on the Psalms by Prof. Delitzsch (Hodder & Stoughton, 1894). A quite careful study is Joseph Alexander’s The Psalms, (Zondervan, repr. 1864 ed.). Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David has a continuing relevancy (Zondervan, repr. 1881 ed.).

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A very commendable specialized work on six psalms, with a general introduction, is Norman Snaith’s Hymns of the Temple (SCM, 1951). Somewhere, one ought to have a look at T. H. Robinson’s The Poetry of the Old Testament (Duckworth, 1947). Pertinent applications are found in Harold Bosley’s Sermons on the Psalms, (Harper, 1956). Specially rich in devotional thoughts is F. B. Meyer on the Psalms (Zondervan, repr. n.d.).

Within commentary sets, of course, there are indispensable studies. Calvin’s commentaries, urged even by James Arminius for all his students, include five volumes on the Psalter (Eerdmans, repr., 1949). An excellent study is in Charles Simeon’s Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible, Vols. 5 & 6 (Zondervan repr., 1956). Most important is the up-to-date treatment in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 4 (Abingdon, 1955).

Three of the scheduled 55 volumes of Luther’s Works are now published, two of which (Vols. 12 & 13) are on the Psalms—and against the papists: (Concordia, 1955–56).


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