The Book of Psalms

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The poems that make up the Book of Psalms were composed by many hands over a period of half a millennium, from the tenth to the fifth centuries b.c.e. By the third century b.c.e., when the Hebrew Bible was translated in Alexandria, Egypt, into Greek as the Septuagint, the Book of Psalms was virtually complete: Only one psalm was added thereafter. More precise dating of these poems often is difficult. Psalm 137, which refers to the rivers of Babylon, reflects the exile of the Jews of Judea by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 b.c.e. Psalm 80 mentions the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh and calls on God to restore them. This prayer thus suggests a date of composition after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 b.c.e.

The introductions to some psalms offer a specific historical context. Psalm 3, for example, states that it was composed when David fled from his son Absalom, who attempted to seize the throne of Israel from his father. Psalm 18 is supposedly David’s prayer of thanksgiving after escaping from his enemies, including King Saul; the same poem appears in 2 Samuel 22 with the same etiology offered. The opening of Psalm 34 alludes to the account in 1 Samuel 21:4 of David’s feigning madness to escape the Philistines. Robert Alter, author of The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, denies the historical validity of such statements. He regards the claims as editorial interpolations attempting to link the poems to David, the supposed author of all 150 psalms. References to the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles reveal that this claim of Davidic authorship cannot be true, even if David is a historical rather than a mythical figure.

The Book of Psalms is divided into five parts: Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150, each section ending with praise to God. Because Psalms 14 and 53, as well as Psalms 40:14-18 and 70, are virtually identical, Alter argues that each of the five units began as an independent anthology. Indeed, the second section concludes with the statement that the prayers of David, son of Jesse, are now complete (Psalm 70:20), indicating that this poem was the last of the collection. Alter suggests that the five books of the Psalms were assembled to mirror the five books of Moses and so enhance the poems’ canonical standing. Within each unit, Alter notes smaller groupings, such as those beginning with “Hallelujah” (praise God); these psalms appear only in sections four and five. Another group of psalms in part four is attributed to Asaph. Psalms 120-134 are songs of ascent, whatever that may mean. As Alter explains, these psalms may have been recited by pilgrims as they ascended to Jerusalem, but the ascent might be musical rather than physical.

The songs of praise that make up the Book of Psalms are written in Hebrew verse. As Alter writes in his highly informative introduction, Hebrew prosody ignores rhyme and meter. Rather, lines divide in half, or occasionally in thirds, with parallel syntax, meaning, and, at times, number of stressed syllables. For example, Psalm 6:2 reads, in Alter’s translation, “Lord, do not chastise me in Your wrath,/ do not punish me in Your fury.” Here, the half-lines exhibit similarity of structure and express the same idea. The next verse repeats this pattern: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am wretched./ Heal me, for my limbs are stricken.” For some reason, Alter’s translation omits “Lord” from the original second half-line, even though including it would heighten the parallelism. In the Hebrew, verse 6:2 divides into half-lines of eleven and ten syllables; Alter is able to balance them at nine syllables each. Verse 6:3 in Hebrew contains half-lines of eleven and thirteen syllables (assuming that...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 30, 2007, p. 8.

The New Republic 237, no. 11 (December 10, 2007): 52-55.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 18 (November 22, 2007): 20-22.

The New Yorker 83, no. 29 (October 1, 2007): 94-97.