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Introducing the Psalms

Dennis Bratcher

The Psalms are some of the most widely read portions of the Old Testament. They have a long history of popularity in the Christian tradition, so much so that often the Book of Psalms has been bound with the New Testament in pocket editions. Such popularity reflects sensitivity to the fact that the psalms are about people, the struggle and joy of living life under God. While too often the psalms are seen as a sort of spiritual "pick-me-up," a view reflecting the distorted "feel-good" mentality of modern society, their message goes far deeper addressing the entire range of human existence.

It is important to recognize that the psalms are not doctrinal statements, creeds, or history but that they are both poetry and prayer, poetry intended to be set to music and prayed in worship. In ancient Israel, no less than in the modern world, poetry and music were the means by which people expressed the deepest of human feelings and emotions, the most profound of insights, and the most tragic and joyous of human experiences. It is no accident that after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt on the banks of the Reed Sea the people sang (Exod. 15:1-18)! Or that Hannah lapses into song at the dedication of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1-10; note Lk. 1:46-55)! Or that David mourns Saul and Jonathan in a beautiful poetic elegy (2 Sam. 2:19-27). Much of the language of the Psalms is metaphorical and symbolic, the language of the poet.

The Psalter, as the Book of Psalms is often called, is actually a collection of different kinds of poetry spanning many centuries of history (from c. 1100 BC, Pss. 29, 68, to c. 400 BC, Ps. 119) and reaching essentially its present form around 300 BC. Evidences of the collective nature of the Psalter are seen in its division into five 'books' (for example, Ps. 72:20), the references to various authors (for example, Psalm 89), as well as the different time periods represented (Ps. 137 is clearly from the period of Exile, c. 550 BC).

There are four basic collections within the Psalter: the Davidic collections (3-41, 51-70, 108-110, 138-145), the Asaph Psalms (73-83), the Korah Psalms (42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88), and the Songs of Ascent (120-134), to which might be added the Hallel, or Praise (doxology), Psalms (113-118, 146-150). Although the exact process of compilation is not known, a comparison can be drawn between the Psalter and hymnbooks of today. Hymnals contain many different types of songs written by different people in different countries over a period of centuries, preserved within a particular community because they communicate a truth in a memorable way. In this way, songs like Charles Wesley's And Can It Be have become important confessions of faith. So the Psalter grew out of the life of a community of faith as the people used their songs and poetry to worship God.

David is traditionally seen as the author of most of the psalms. Yet, it is better to understand the Psalter, not primarily in terms of individual authorship, but as the product of this community of faith who composed, collected, and passed on their prayers, hymns, songs, and liturgy as a witness to their experience as the people of God. While there were obviously authors of these poems, someone who actually put the words on paper (or animal hides), the significance of the psalms lies not in who wrote them, but in what they communicate about God's revelation of Himself to His people and the people's response to Him. Even then, given what we know about ancient cultures, the writings were likely rearranged, add to, edited, and expanded across the centuries. This makes the modern notion of "author" not really relevant to these writings.

Even though there is a wide diversity of material in individual psalms, they can be grouped by style and content into three basic categories (See Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms and a chart of the Types of Psalms). Most psalms within a certain category follow a similar pattern. Lament psalms are the most numerous. These psalms are a cry to God from distress, pain or sorrow, either from the individual (13, 22) or the community (74). Often they begin with the question "Why?" and end in an affirmation of faith in God from the midst of the pain.

 Thanksgiving psalms express thanks and praise to God in response to some action or circumstance in which God's faithfulness and love have been experienced (18, 138, 107). Hymns offer praise to God simply for who He is, as Creator of the Universe and Lord of History (8, 66, 113).

Other types of psalms are: Salvation History psalms celebrating God's saving actions on behalf of His people (105-106), Songs of trust affirming God's faithfulness (23, 131), Wisdom psalms extolling the merits of the wise life (36, 73), and Liturgical psalms used in public ceremonies or services of worship (2, 50, 122).

The psalms were used by the Israelites in the context of worship to provide a structure in which they could bring their praises, thanks, hurts and grief honestly and openly before God. The Psalms were not thundered from Sinai or received in a vision. They are the prayers and praises of God's people preserved by the community of faith. As such, they have become authoritative for us: a guide for worship, an example of honesty before God, and a demonstration of the importance of prayer and meditation.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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