(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The English title Psalms derives from the Greek word Psalmoi, the book’s title in the Septuagint version, which dates from the second century b.c.e. In its original Hebrew language, the title of Psalms is Tehillim, meaning “praises.” The Psalms, however, are not uniformly praises; they also include other genres such as lament, wisdom, and historical recital songs.

In the Hebrew Bible, Psalms is the first book in the Writings, the third part of the Hebrew canon, and in the English Bible, Psalms is the first of the poetical books. The 150 Psalms are organized into five divisions (called “books”), each ending in a doxology: book 1, Psalms 1-41; book 2, Psalms 42-72; book 3, Psalms 73-89; book 4, Psalms 90-106; and book 5, Psalms 107-150. It has been suggested that the five books may represent stages in the collection process; they may be thematic groupings that move from lament to praise; or they may be an attempt to parallel the five books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy).

David is credited with the authorship of seventy-three Psalms. The remaining seventy-seven are attributed to a variety of authors, including Moses (Psalm 90), Solomon (Psalms 72 and 127), Heman (Psalm 88), and Ethan (Psalm 89). A number of Psalms are attributed to musical guilds known as the Sons of Korah and the Sons of Asaph, while still other Psalms are of anonymous origin.

Of the 150 Psalms, 116 have headings (often called “superscriptions”) containing one or more of the following: the author’s name, the traditional setting of the Psalm, typological designation, musical accompaniment, and other musical instructions. For example, the heading of the Third Psalm reads, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” Although the scholarly consensus maintains that these headings are not a part of the original composition, the presence of the headings in both the Septuagint and in the Qumran scrolls suggests that they are at least very ancient. Furthermore, the fact that headings are found on the imbedded Psalms that begin at 2 Samuel 23:1 and Habakkuk 3:1 may show that the practice of attaching a heading was a normal part of composition.

The Psalms are lyric poetry and exhibit the universal features of poetry. Although poetry may take many forms, it can be distinguished from prose by its concentration on figurative language and word play, its combination of word sounds, its utilization of meter, and its terseness within a verse structure. The poetry of Psalms takes full advantage of metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and other figures of speech. The most famous metaphor in the Bible is “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1).

The verse structure of Hebrew poetry is based on parallelism of lines. A verse may consist of one, two, or three lines, but most often it will be two lines, with the second line related in some fashion to the first line. The second line may restate the thought of the first...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1984. A postcritical approach to the Psalms in which the precritical devotional approach and the historical critical approaches balance and correct each other.

Eaton, J. H. The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation. London: T & T Clark, 2003. Includes a helpful summary of the theology of the Psalms and the interpretation of Psalms through history. Applies each Psalm to Christian spirituality.

McCann, J. Clinton. A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1993. Exegetical and theological commentary from a Christian context, including a chapter on Jesus Christ and an appendix on the singing of the Psalms.

Mays, James. Psalms. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1994. Perceptive theological commentary that appreciates the canonical context of the Psalms and their use by New Testament writers and later Christian interpreters.

Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003. Critical and theological commentary rich in Ancient Near Eastern references and useful bibliographic sources. A scholarly yet passionately expressive volume.