Our Amazing Book of Psalms

psalm1-smThe Book of Psalms is one of the most beautiful in our bibles. In its 150 chapters, we find wisdom, comfort, hope, and a poetic appreciation of God that is nearly unique in the Hebrew Bible. It is no wonder that Jews and Christians have read and studied it for hundreds of years. After reading stories of law and prophets and of the Jewish ancestor’s struggles to accept and obey God, turning to psalms is frequently a relief and a comfort.

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalms 1:1-2

A full study of the psalms would take a lifetime, but there is much that we can say about this amazing book. Who wrote the psalms? What are they for? Scholars still debate these questions, but there is so much that we can learn about the psalms from the psalms themselves. Read on for more.

An illustrated manuscript featuring Psalm 7.
An illustrated manuscript featuring Psalm 7.

How Many Psalms Are There?

The Book of Psalms that most of us use is divided into 150 “chapters”, rough breaks which were added to the entire bible long after it was first written down. In our case, each chapter of the psalms were intended to mark off one individual psalm and that leaves a good starting answer: there are 150 psalms. However, bible scholars now believe that some of the chapter breaks were not placed correctly and some psalms have been split into two or more. There is little consensus, but Psalm 9 and 10 are generally assumed to be one work, as are 42 and 43. As not all psalms have a clear starting or ending point, even this is a guess. Some bibles split up psalms which most bibles have combined– for example, some split psalms 116 and 147 into two.

Protestants and Roman Catholics each have 150 psalms in their psalter, but this is not true of all Christians. Greek Orthodox and other Eastern churches have 151 psalms, and a few African churches have five or six more. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that there were yet other psalms in use at different times.

Since not all bibles agree on the number of psalms and disagree whether a group of lines is one psalm or two, the numbering of the psalms is very confusing. For this post, I will use the Jewish numbering which has been adopted by Protestants. Other bibles may be slightly different but most today will include the Jewish numbering as well as their own system.

The Psalms Introductions

Unlike most every other part of the Hebrew Bible, the psalms tell us something about who wrote them, what they were written for, and how they should be used. These brief introductions can be found in most bibles, though not all give them line numbers. For example, here is the introduction to Psalm 57:

For the director of music. To the tune of “Do Not Destroy.” Of David. A miktam.When he had fled from Saul into the cave.
Psalms 57:0

Let’s break down this introduction:

For the Director of Music.

First, “For the director of music” is a funny thing, but it tells us a lot. It tells us that this psalm (and perhaps all psalms) were intended to be sung or accompanied by an instrument. Who was this “Director of Music”? The bible does not say, but it is implied that it was someone responsible for the music or liturgy in the Temple service in Jerusalem. This is actually pretty neat– this is a “liner note” instruction, a little hint at what Jewish worship was like two thousand years ago, when the temple still stood in Jerusalem.

55 of our psalms include this note or something very similar. You can find a table at the end of this post which lists them.

To the tune of…

A "Rock Dove". Notice how much less serene "A Pigeon on Distant Oaks" sounds.
A “Rock Dove”. Notice how much less serene “A Pigeon on Distant Oaks” sounds.

In an era before written sheet music, it may have been difficult to express how to perform a song. While written music has existed since well into the biblical age (around 2000 years ago), it may be that the writers of the bible did not know it or did not want to take space explaining the notes to a song that everyone already knows. Today, 11 of the psalms include information on what song it should have been sung or played to:

  • “A Dove on Distant Oaks” – Psalm 56
  • “Do Not Destroy” – Psalm 57, 58, 59, and 75
  • “Doe of the Morning” – Psalm 22
  • “Lillies” – Psalm 45 and 69
  • “The Death of the Son” – Psalm 9
  • “The Lilies of the Covenant” – Psalm 80
  • “The Lily of the Covenant” – Psalm 60

These of these songs refer to lilies and many scholars believe that all three referred to a single work, known by different names. Of course, while these songs were universally known in the biblical period, we no longer know them today. In recent years, folk singers have composed songs with the same names as these, but these works are not related on an understanding of the original music.

Of David.

An image of David dictating the psalms, circa 1000 CE.
David dictating the psalms, circa 1000 CE.

Unlike most of the books of the bible, the individual Psalms often tell us who wrote them. This one, like 72 others, are attributed to David. But were they written by David? Or are they merely attributed to David? That is a difficult question. Modern scholarship rejects these attributions as pseudonymous, one author increasing the respect or value of his work by attributing it to a famous teacher or figure. Today this practice rings false, but it was common in the ancient world– even some of the New Testament is known to not be written by the person that it is attested to. That does not mean that the work is a “forgery” or that it is unworthy of study, only that we should not take what is written at face value. It is undeniable however that the author wanted us to associate the psalm with David, and that can tell us a great deal.

David is not the only “author”, although he is the most well-attributed:

  • David – 73
  • Asaph – 12
  • The “sons of Korah” – 11
  • Solomon – 2
  • Moses – 1
  • Ethan the Ezrahite – 1

Another figure, Heman the Ezrahite, is also listed as co-author on Psalm 88 with the Sons of Korah, the only psalm to be given more than one author. That leaves 48 psalms without an attributed author. Of those, the New Testament ascribes several of them to David.

Who are these guys? We should recognize kings David and Solomon, of course, as well as Moses. Asaph, Korah, Ethan, and Heman were all minor figures, usually musicians or musician-prophets in the books of Chronicles or Kings. I’ll dig more into Asaph in an upcoming post as he is the father of one of my series on “Josephs of the Bible”.

A miktam.

The "Psalms of Ascent" adapted for a set of stairs in St. Mary's Church in London
The “Psalms of Ascent” adapted for a set of stairs in St. Mary’s Church in London

Although we refer to all of the chapters in the Book of Psalms as “psalms” (from a Greek word meaning “with musical accompaniment”), the book itself does not. (The Hebrew word that is used is better translated as “praises”.) Instead, many of the psalms tell us what they are in the introductions. Only 58 of them actually identify as “psalms”, and a good number identify as something else.

This specific psalm and five others are a “miktam”. What is that? No one knows. It’s a Hebrew word that clearly meant a kind of song, or a style, or a genre. But scholars do not know what it really means.

The types of psalms are:

  • 29 are called “songs”, and two different types of songs are listed. 15 of these are “songs of ascent” and 1 is a “wedding song”. The songs of ascent are believed to be special songs for coming into Jerusalem or ascending into the Temple.
  • 14 are called “maskils”. Some bibles translate this term as  “contemplations.” They are psalms that inspire deep thought.
  • 6 are “miltams”, like this one.
  • 5 are “prayers.”
  • 2 are “petitions.”
  • 1 is a “shiggalion”, another term that we know little about except that it appears to be a type of song.

I think of these terms the same way we think of types of music today. If someone were to tell you that a specific song was “jazz” or “hip-hop”, you would know what that means and what it must sound like. But in thousands of years, will we still know these words for types of contemporary music? Perhaps not.

 When he had fled from Saul into the cave.

"Bathsheba im Bade" by Francisco Hayez, 1834.
“Bathsheba im Bade” by Francisco Hayez, 1834.

There is something special about 13 of the Psalms of David: they each refer to an event in David’s life in the introduction. We are to assume that he wrote them during these terrible events, giving us an insight into his thoughts. Connecting these psalms together also give the reader an opportunity to reflect on David’s life and struggles– perhaps something akin to the “stations of the cross” in Christianity.

Not all scholars agree on which bible verses each psalm connects to, but these are from my research:

  • Psalm 59 – 1 Samuel 19 – While David was relaxing with Saul, who had come to peace with him, an evil spirit suddenly overcame Saul and he tried to pin David to the wall with a spear. David fled for his life and Saul placed spies to watch over David’s house, to kill him when he returned.
  • Psalm 56 – 1 Samuel 21 – David fled from Saul to Achish, the king of Gath. His reputation preceded him and he was taken to the king.
  • Psalm 34 – 1 Samuel 21 – To escape from the king of Gath, he feigned madness– scratching at walls and drooling– so that the king released him in pity.
  • Psalm 57 – 1 Samuel 22 – After leaving Gath, David hid himself in the cave of Adullam.
  • Psalm 142 – 1 Samuel 22 – David was fearful in the cave.
  • Psalm 52 – 1 Samuel 22 – Doeg the Edomite reveals to Saul that David was helped in his escape by the priest Ahimelech (in the previous chapter), and Saul ordered all the conspiring priests killed.
  • Psalm 54 – 1 Samuel 23 – David had fled to the Desert of Ziph, and was betrayed by the Ziphites. (Or perhaps a similar story of betrayal in 1 Samuel 26.)
  • Psalm 18 – 2 Samuel 1 (?) – David rejoices because he is free of Saul either because he hears of his death (in 2 Samuel 1), or one of the several previous times where they had made peace (for example, 1 Samuel 26).
  • Psalm 60 – 1 Chronicles 19 (?) – After David becomes king, he wars against neighboring tribes and defeats a group (with his general Johab) of Edomites. The Chronicles account differs in some of the details and the Psalm may have referred to another battle in this period.
  • Psalm 51 – 2 Samuel 12 – Much later in David’s life, after he had become king, David commits adultery with Bathsheba and kills her husband. The prophet Nathan rebukes David and god kills David’s son to her.
  • Psalm 3 – 2 Samuel 15 – David’s third son, Absalom leads a revolt against his father. David and his court flee.
  • Psalm 63 – 2 Samuel 17 (?) – David flees into the Judean wilderness away from Absalom.

The final of this type of psalm, Psalm 7, refers to a time when David prays to God about a Benjaminite named Cush. This account is not in the bible. The 151st psalm, given in some Eastern Orthodox bibles (with versions in the Dead Sea Scrolls) refers to David’s slaying of Goliath and might fit as the first of the psalms in this cycle. If so, it would be the first one, corresponding to a story in 1 Samuel 17.

Less common introductory items

Some of the psalms have information different than what I describe above:

  • Seven of the psalms specify an instrument to be used: six stringed instruments and one psalm that is to be sung with the pipes.
  • Eight psalms have “According to” notations, believed to be further musical notation of some kind but no longer understood.
  • Three psalms are dedicated to Jeduthun, David’s master of music (39, 62, and 77).
  • Palm 30 was written or used for the dedication of the Temple depicted in 2 Chronicles 7.
  • Psalm 92 is a psalm for the dedication of the Sabbath/Shabbat.

When Were the Psalms Written?

Having just said all that, can we say when the Psalms were written? If we accept the historicity of the attributions, then the earliest psalm might be Psalm 90, the one claimed to be written by Moses. The majority of the Psalms appear to have been written around the time of the dedication of the temple, but some of the (such as Psalm 137) are from much later– the Babylonian captivity. Modern scholarship accepts none of these dates and all we can say for sure is that the final form of the Book of Psalms may still have been being finalized around the time of Jesus. The Jews who studied the Dead Sea Scrolls had psalms which may possibly have been earlier versions of psalms in bibles studied today.

There are so many more things we can say about the psalms and they way that they color our understanding of the rest of the bible. For example, Psalm 19 and others give us new insights into the Genesis account. That will have to wait for another time.

I hope you enjoyed this look into the Book of Psalms with me. The following table is a full breakout of the detail that I have described above, for those of you that love a good spreadsheet.

Up next will be either a look at a type of commentary in the Dead Sea scrolls, or the long awaited look at Joseph, son of Asaph– depending on which I finish first!

Table of Psalms

3PsalmDavidWhen he fled from his son Absalom.2 Samuel 15
4PsalmDavidDirector of MusicStringed
5PsalmDavidDirector of MusicPipes
6PsalmDavidDirector of MusicStringedAccording to sheminith.
7ShiggalionDavidwhich he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjamite??
8PsalmDavidDirector of MusicAccording to gittith.
9PsalmDavidDirector of MusicThe Death of the SonCombined 9-10
11DavidDirector of Music
12PsalmDavidDirector of MusicAccording to sheminith.
13PsalmDavidDirector of Music
14DavidDirector of Music
18DavidDirector of MusicHe sang to the Lord the words of this song when theLord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.??
19PsalmDavidDirector of Music
20PsalmDavidDirector of Music
21PsalmDavidDirector of Music
22PsalmDavidDirector of MusicDoe of the Morning
30Psalm/SongDavidFor the dedication of the temple.
31PsalmDavidDirector of Music
34DavidWhen he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.1 Samuel 21
36DavidDirector of Music
39PsalmDavidDirector of MusicFor Jeduthun
40PsalmDavidDirector of Music
41PsalmDavidDirector of Music
42MaskilSons of KorahDirector of MusicCombined 42-43
44MaskilSons of KorahDirector of Music
45Maskil/Wedding SongSons of KorahDirector of MusicLillies
46SongSons of KorahDirector of MusicAccording to alamoth.
47PsalmSons of KorahDirector of Music
48Psalm/SongSons of Korah
49PsalmSons of KorahDirector of Music
51PsalmDavidDirector of MusicWhen the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.2 Samuel 12
52MaskilDavidDirector of MusicWhen Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: “David has gone to the house of Ahimelek.”1 Samuel 22
53MaskilDavidDirector of MusicAccording to mahalath.
54MaskilDavidDirector of MusicStringedWhen the Ziphites had gone to Saul and said, “Is not David hiding among us?”1 Samuel 23
55MaskilDavidDirector of Music
56MiktamDavidDirector of MusicA Dove on Distant OaksWhen the Philistines had seized him in Gath.1 Samuel 21
57MiktamDavidDirector of MusicDo Not DestroyWhen he had fled from Saul into the cave.1 Samuel 22
58MiktamDavidDirector of MusicDo Not Destroy
59MiktamDavidDirector of MusicDo Not DestroyWhen Saul had sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him.1 Samuel 19
60MiktamDavidDirector of MusicThe Lily of the CovenantFor teaching. When he fought Aram Naharaim[c] and Aram Zobah,[d] and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.1 Chronicles 19
61DavidDirector of MusicStringed
62PsalmDavidDirector of MusicFor Jeduthun.
63PsalmDavidWhen he was in the Desert of Judah.??
64PsalmDavidDirector of Music
65Psalm/SongDavidDirector of Music
66Psalm/SongNoneDirector of Music
67Psalm/SongNoneDirector of MusicStringed
68Psalm/SongDavidDirector of Music
69DavidDirector of MusicLilies
70PetitionDavidDirector of Music
75Psalm/SongAsaphDirector of MusicDo Not Destroy
76Psalm/SongAsaphDirector of MusicStringed
77PsalmAsaphDirector of MusicFor Jeduthun
80PsalmAsaphDirector of MusicThe Lilies of the Covenant
81AsaphDirector of MusicAccording to gittith.
84PsalmSons of KorahDirector of MusicAccording to gittith.
85PsalmSons of KorahDirector of Music
87Psalm/SongSons of Korah
88Psalm/Song/MaskilSons of Korah/Heman the EzrahiteDirector of MusicAccording to mahalath leannoth.
89MaskilEthan the Ezrahite
92Psalm/SongNoneFor the Sabbath day.
100PsalmNoneFor giving grateful praise.
102PrayerNoneA prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.
109PsalmDavidDirector of Music
120SongNoneSong of ascents
121SongNoneSong of ascents
122SongDavidSong of ascents
123SongNoneSong of ascents
124SongDavidSong of ascents
125SongNoneSong of ascents
126SongNoneSong of ascents
127SongSolomonSong of ascents
128SongNoneSong of ascents
129SongNoneSong of ascents
130SongNoneSong of ascents
131SongDavidSong of ascents
132SongNoneSong of Ascents
133SongDavidSong of ascents
134SongNoneSong of Ascents
139PsalmDavidDirector of Music
140PsalmDavidDirector of Music
142Maskil/PrayerDavidWhen he was in the cave.1 Samuel 22
145PsalmDavidOf praise


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