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Holman Bible Dictionary

PSALMS, BOOK OF

A collection of songs of praise that are theological statements and poetically represent human dialogue with God. The Psalms is the most complete collection of Hebrew poetry and worship material in the Hebrew Bible. The Psalms give clues for understanding Israelite worship on both a corporate and individual level. The psalms typify different responses to God's actions and word.

The Psalms as a collection is found in the third division of the Hebrew canon known as the Writings (Hebrew, ketubim). In its present canonical form, the Psalter has five divisions in the current Hebrew text. These divisions have been compared with the division of the Pentateuch into five books. Each book concludes with a doxology or closing formula. The books follow this division: (1) Psalms 1-41; (Psalms 2:1) 42–71; (3) 73–89; (4) 90–106; and (5) 107–150. Psalms 150:1 closes off both book five and concludes the collection of psalms; just as Psalms 1:1 serves as an introduction to the psalter. Other divisions or collections appear in the Psalms. The Elohistic Psalter (Psalms 42-83) regularly uses the Hebrew elohim for the divine name (compare Psalms 14:1; Psalms 53:1). The Songs of Ascent or pilgrimage psalms (Psalms 120-134) make a collection. Two different guild collections are included in the Psalms of the sons of Korah (Psalms 42-49) and the Psalms of Asaph (Psalms 73-83). Psalms has been understood as both the “hymnal” and prayerbook of the postexilic congregation of Israel with its final compilation and its inclusion within the canon.

An important key for reading and interpreting different psalms is to understand the nature of Hebrew poetry. Psalms are poetic in contrast to being narrative. See Poetry.

As the twentieth century began, Hermann Gunkel brought a new approach to the Psalms, seeking to discover the type or form of literary material in each Psalm and the worship situation behind each. Gunkel categorized several main types of psalms and understood that not all psalms fit neatly into one category. They might be a combination of types and thus belong to a category of mixed psalms. Following Gunkel, scholars have proposed several systems to categorize the Psalms. Most include the different types: (1) the hymn; (2) songs of thanksgiving; (3) the community laments; (4) the individual laments; (5) the individual songs of thanksgiving; (6) the royal psalms; and (7) wisdom psalms.

Clear-cut categorization is not possible for every psalm, nor does every psalm fit a particular category. Also, every cultic or original life situation is not discernible. The issue for the reader and interpreter of the psalms is to appreciate the artistry of a poet which created and crafted timeless poetic expressions which fit into many contexts of worship or an individual's life situation in different cultures and traditions.

A reader of the Psalms will find that different psalms can be grouped by similarities of form, content, and pattern. Yet, variations do occur, and each psalm is unique in both message and content. The following is descriptive of the various psalm types.

A lament is expressed both by the community (for example, 44; 74; 79) and by the individual (22; 38; 39; 41; 54). Both types of laments are prayers or cries to God on the occasion of distressful situations. Of the two forms, differences are related to the types of trouble and the experiences of salvation. For the community the trouble may be an enemy; with an individual it may be an illness. The basic pattern includes an invocation of God, a description of the petitioner's complaint(s), a recalling of past salvation experiences (usually community laments), petitions, a divine response (or oracle), and a concluding vow of praise.

The thanksgiving or psalms of narrative praise are also spoken by the community (see 106; 124; 129) and the individual (see 9; 18; 30). These psalms are related to the laments as they are responses to liberation occurring after distress. They are expressions of joy and are fuller forms of the lament's vow of praise.

The hymn (see 8; 19; 29) is closest in form to a song of praise as sung in modern forms of worship. These psalms are uniquely liturgical and could be sung antiphonally, some have repeating refrains (see Psalms 8:1). The hymn normally includes a call to praise. Then the psalm describes the reasons for praising God. The structure is not as clear-cut as other types of psalms. Creation psalms (usually reflecting a mixed form) include Psalms 8:1; Psalms 19:1; Psalms 104:1; and Psalms 139:1. These psalms are concerned with praising God and describe Him as Creator. Emphasis may be placed on God as Creator of heaven and earth, as Creator of humanity, or as the Creator of different elements of creation. The psalms affirm God who is Creator as the Lord of history.

Some psalms reflect more specific liturgical events. The liturgical psalms may include antiphonal responses or dialogue. There may be exhortations to listeners to prostrate themselves or to walk in a procession. These psalms include instructions for sacrifice, worship, processionals, or may invoke blessings on the worshipers. These are usually regarded as psalms of mixed type as they share similarities with the hymns. This designation includes those psalms which may have been sung by pilgrims on their way to the sanctuary (see the songs of ascents, 120–134). Songs of Zion (such as 46) call for God's protection of the city of God. Some psalms are considered royal psalms (see 2; 18; 20). These psalms are concerned with the earthly king of Israel. Again, these are usually understood as mixed psalms. They were used to celebrate the king's enthronement. They may have included an oracle for the king. In some cases (such as Psalms 72:1), prayers were made to intercede on behalf of the king. Another mixed type are the enthronement psalms which celebrate Yahweh's kingship (see Psalms 96-99). They are closely related to the hymns and to the creation psalms. However, the main difference is a celebration of Yahweh as king over all creation.

A final type of psalm (see Psalms 1:1) is the wisdom psalm. They have poetic form and style but are distinguished because of content and a tendency toward the proverbial. These psalms contemplate questions of theodicy (73), or celebrate God's Word (the Torah, Psalms 119:1), or deal with two different ways of living—that of the godly person or the evil person (Psalms 1:1). The psalms are not neatly or easily categorized, as the mixed psalms indicate. However, such identification helps the reader to know that type of psalm is being read, with a possible original context or a fitting present context in worship.

Outline The Book of Psalms is divided into five sections just as the Pentateuch has five books. Each section of the Book of Psalms concludes with a doxology. See Psalms 41:13; Psalms 72:18-19; Psalms 89:52; Psalms 106:48; Psalms 150:1. Psalms 1:1 introduces the book by dividing people into two categories and describing the fate of each. Psalms 150:1 closes Psalms with a symphony of praise. Otherwise, a way to describe a theological structure for the book as a whole has not been found. What devoted students of God's Word have discovered is the limited number of types of prayer represented in the Psalms. A look at the major types helps us understand how many different functions prayer and praise can serve as we communicate with and worship God.

1. Psalms of lamentation or complaint cry out for help in a situation of distress or frustration. Psalmists protest their innocence or confess their sins. They vow to praise God and give thanks for deliverance. Such psalms show prayer as an honest communication with God in life's worst situations. The following psalms are laments: 3, 4, 6, 7, 12, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 35, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42–43, 44, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59,60, 61, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 74, 77, 79, 80, 83, 85, 86, 88, 90, 94, 102, 109, 123, 126, 130, 134, 137, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144.

2. Psalms of thanksgiving describe a situation of distress and how God delivered the psalmist. The psalmist promises to fulfill vows made to God during the distress and invites the congregation to join in thanksgiving and praise to God. These psalms show us our need to acknowledge God's work in our times of trouble and to witness to others of what God has done for us. Thanksgiving psalms are 9–10, 18, 30, 31, 32, 34, 66, 92, 107, 116, 118, 120, 124, 129, 138, 139.

3. Hymns lift the congregation's praise to God, describing God's greatness and majesty. In the hymn, worshipers invite one another to praise God and to provide reasons for such praise. These psalms are hymns: 8, 19, 29, 33, 65, 100, 103, 104, 105, 111; 113, 114, 117, 135, 136, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150.

4. Wisdom psalms probe life's mysteries to teach the congregation about itself and God. These include Psalms 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 36:1, Psalms 37:1, Psalms 49:1, Psalms 53:1, Psalms 73:1, Psalms 78:1, Psalms 112:1, Psalms 119:1, Psalms 127:1, Psalms 128:1, Psalms 133:1.

5. Kingship psalms detail the role of the human king in God's rule over His people. They also point ahead to the Messiah, who would inaugurate God's kingdom. From them we learn to pray for and respect the role of government officials as well as praise God's Messiah. These include Psalms 2:1, Psalms 18:1, Psalms 20:1, Psalms 21:1, Psalms 28:1, Psalms 45:1, Psalms 61:1, Psalms 63:1, Psalms 72:1, Psalms 89:1, Psalms 101:1, Psalms 110:1, Psalms 132:1.

6. Entrance ceremonies provide questions and answers to teach the expectations God has of His worshipers. Psalms 15:1 and Psalms 24:1 are entrance ceremonies.

7. Enthronement psalms praise Yahweh as the King enthroned over His universe. They include Psalms 47:1, Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:1, Psalms 97:1, Psalms 98:1, Psalms 99:1.

8. Songs of Zion praise God indirectly by describing the Holy City where He has chosen to live among His people and be worshiped. They show God lives among His people to protect and direct their lives. These are Psalms 46:1, Psalms 48:1, Psalms 76:1, Psalms 84:1, Psalms 87:1, Psalms 122:1, Psalms 132:1.

9. Psalms of confidence express trust in God's care for and leadership of His people. These appear in Psalms 4:1, Psalms 11:1, Psalms 16:1, Psalms 23:1, Psalms 27:1, Psalms 62:1, Psalms 125:1, Psalms 131:1.

10. Prophetic psalms announce God's will to His worshiping people. These are 50, 52, 58, 81, 82, 91, 95.

11. Liturgical psalms describe activities and responses of God's worshiping congregation. These appear in Psalms 67:1, Psalms 68:1, Psalms 75:1, Psalms 106:1, Psalms 108:1, Psalms 115:1, Psalms 121:1.

David M. Fleming


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'PSALMS, BOOK OF'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<http://classic.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T5135>. 1991.