The Psalter was Israel’s hymn book. In it, we move from the suffering and sobs of Job to the songs of the singer. This does not mean there is not suffering and grief in the songs of the Psalms. The expressions of sorrow found in its 150 songs have made the Psalms a refuge for believers down through the ages who have found that the writer has been able to articulate the burden of their own hearts in a far better manner than they themselves could have. Solace and comfort have been afforded by the words of David and others to countless millions through the centuries. In the end, it may be that there are more expressions of sorrow than of joy in the Psalms, as burdened Israelites called out to God amidst their perplexity and grief. What is clear is that as the Psaltery continues through its 150 songs, the notes of triumph increase until we arrive at a grand crescendo and doxology in Psalms 146-150.
There are 150 Psalms divided into five books, which can be seen to correspond to the five books of Moses. Each section ends with a doxology, marking it off from the succeeding section. The oldest record we have of this division into five sections is from one of the Dead Sea scrolls, which is dated from the first century A.D.
- Book I (Psalms 1-41)
- Book II (Psalms 42-72)
- Book III (Psalms 73-89)
- Book IV (Psalms 90-106)
- Book V (Psalms 107-150)
The title of the book in the Hebrew Bible is “Tehillim,” which means “praise songs.” When the translators of the Septuagint named it, they called it the “Psalmoi,” or songs to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. Hence, it has come down to us as the Psalms.
There are 73 Psalms ascribed to David, 12 to Asaph, 12 to the Sons of Korah, and one each to Heman, Ethan and Moses, making 100. There are 50 which are anonymous.
Then there are inscriptions to many of the Psalms. There are 30 with no title or inscription. 52 have short titles; 14 have historical titles. There are 39 with special titles and four Psalms written with a purpose (Psa 38,70,92,102). There are 15 Psalms known as the Songs of Degrees, or the “goings up.” There are 16 “Maskil” Psalms and four “Lily” Psalms. There are “Michtam,” or golden Psalms (Psa 16,56-60), and Psalms sent to the Chief Musician upon a variety of names, which may indicate a particular meter or manner of singing.
There are many different types of Psalms. There are Psalms of adoration and praise, and Psalms of thanksgiving. There are lamentations and penitential Psalms. There are Psalms which we call imprecatory, which call upon God to intervene and to judge the wicked (Psa 35,58,69,83,109,137). There are the beautiful Messianic Psalms (Psa 2,16,22,24,40,45,69,72,110). It is in these Psalms that we gain insights into the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. The student, however, needs to carefully discern the experience of the psalmist and where that experience ends and the feelings of the Lord Jesus begin. There are as many divisions and classifications of the Psalms as there are commentators.
I can do no better than to quote Arthur G. Clarke in his excellent book:
- Calling upon God in direct address with a petition or praise
- Communion of the soul with God in which its emotions and experiences are expressed
- A Celebration of the works of God in nature and history
- A Cogitation upon the perplexing problems in life in relation to divine government in the world
Though it is almost exclusively a man speaking to God, that does not mean that the Psalms are devoid of theology. It presents God in all His greatness as creator (Psa 8,19). There are Psalms which speak of God’s greatness in redeeming His people in the past (Psa 78,105,106,135,136). There are Psalms which tell of God’s coming Kingdom and the exaltation of Zion (Psa 2,24,48,122), and Psalms which celebrate other aspects of God’s character.
Just taking the 15 Psalms of Degrees, we learn the theology of the writer (Hezekiah?). The 15 Psalms can be divided into five groups of three each. There is a recurring theme in each set of three of trial, trust, and triumph. The psalmist is extolling the virtue of trust in God and the faithfulness of God to His covenant people.
Many Psalms wrestle with the problem of God’s government in the seeming impunity with which the wicked seem to prosper and the godly suffer.
There is confessedly a timelessness to the Psalms. In every age and under all circumstances, believers have been able to find the words for which their hearts search to express their deepest emotions. In times of loneliness, they find a comforting presence. In days of trial, they have found a Rock upon which to rest. Amidst sorrow and grief, they have known solace; walking through the valleys of life, they have found a strong arm that carries. In days of triumph, there are the victorious strains of the psalmist which give utterance to the joy of the soul.
The sentiments and truth of the Psalms transcend time, cultures, ethnicities and geography to meet every believer exactly where life’s circumstances find them.
To be continued
 Arthur G. Clarke, Analytical Studies in the Psalms (Kilmarnock, UK: John Ritchie Ltd., 1975).