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Psalms, An Introduction

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 TEXT:  Psalms, An Introduction

TOPIC:  Before the Baptist Hymnal, An Expositional Study of Psalms

Pastor Bobby Earls, First Baptist Church, Center Point, Alabama

August 19, 2007, Message 1

Introduction to Psalms

          No other book of the Bible compares with the wonder of the sacred collection of inspired worship songs known as the Psalms.  For many Psalms is the most beloved portion of the Bible.  No wonder when the Psalms cover the soul-stirring heights of praise to the heart-rending depths of despair. 

          Written nearly 3000 years ago, the Psalms remain as relevant and practical today as then because they direct the reader’s heart to its highest end—ascribing praise to the God of creation.

          More than any other portion of Scripture, the Book of Psalms has influenced the public worship and private devotions of God’s people through the centuries, leading them to seek him more diligently, to love him more deeply, and to trust him more fully.

          But in order to fully understand the Psalms we need a basic orientation to each psalm’s historical background, literary style, and figures of speech.


          Psalms is one of the most unusual books of the bible.  For example,

·        Psalms is the largest book in the Bible, containing 150 psalms.

·        If each psalm is considered a chapter, then Psalms contains the most chapters of any book in the Bible, with its 150 psalms.  The Book of Isaiah is a distant second with 66 chapters.

·        Psalm 119 is the largest chapter in the Bible with 176 verses.

·        Psalm 117 is the shortest chapter in the Bible with only 2 verses.

·        Psalm 117 is also the middle chapter of the Bible, the very center of the 1,189 chapters found in Genesis through Revelation.

·        Psalm 118:8 is the absolute center of the 31,173 verses contained in the Bible.

·        Psalms is written by more authors than any other book of the Bible.

·        Psalms is the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament.  Of the 360 O.T. quotations in the N.T., 112 are from the Psalms.

·        Psalms contains more messianic prophecies than any other Old Testament book.


          The word psalms comes from a Greek word which means “the plucking of strings.”  It means a song to be sung to the accompaniment of a plucked or stringed instrument such as a harp or lyre.  Thus Psalms served as the earliest known collection of songs to be sung to God in worship and praise accompanied by musical instruments.  This collection of 150 psalms into one book served as the first hymnbook for God’s people. 


          Most biblical books have a single author.  Just a few have multiple authors, i.e. Proverbs.  Psalms on the other hand is a joint effort of many different authors with diverse backgrounds.

·        David, the second king of Israel, often called “the sweet psalmist of Israel,” is the primary author of Psalms.  2 Samuel 23:1, Now these are the last words of David.

Thus says David the son of Jesse; Thus says the man raised up on high,

The anointed of the God of Jacob, And the sweet psalmist of Israel:

     David is credited with writing 75 of the 150 psalms. (Ps. 2-9; 11-32; 34-41; 51-          65; 68-70; 86; 95; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138-145).

·        Asaph, a priest who served as the worship leader of ancient Israel wrote twelve psalms, (Ps. 50; 73-83).

·        The sons of Korah, a guild of singers and composers of music, are credited with writing ten psalms, (Ps.42; 44-49; 84-85; 87)

·        Solomon, David’s son, the third king of Israel, accounted for two psalms, (Ps. 72, 127).

·        Moses, Deliverer and prophet of Israel, wrote one psalm, (Ps. 90).

·        Heman, a wise man, musician, an Ezrahite, a son of Korah, and founder of the Korahite choir wrote one psalm, (Ps. 88).

·        Ethan, another wise man and Ezrahite, probably a Levitical singer wrote one psalm, (Ps. 89).

·        Anonymous authors account for the remaining forty-eight psalms.

·        Ezra, scribe and priest of Israel, is thought to be the author of some of the anonymous psalms.



          Because many different authors wrote the Psalms, the writing of these sacred songs occurred at different times, spanning a period of time of about nine hundred to one thousand years. 

·        The first psalm written, Psalm 90, was composed by Moses during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wanderings, (1445 – 1405 B.C.)  Probably written near the end of the wilderness wanderings a season of severe testing.

·        The vast majority of the psalms were written during the kingly reigns of David (1020-970 B.C.) and Solomon (970-931 B.C.) around 1000 B.C.

·        The final psalm composed, Psalm 126, is thought to have been recorded after the time of Israel’s Babylonian exile, during their return to the land of Judah, around 500 B.C. or earlier, (430 B.C. by Ezra the priest). 


          The psalms were written to guide believers in the proper worship of God and to be sung in public worship or private devotions.  They may be sung devotionally, prayed fervently, preached evangelistically, and taught expositionally. 


          More than three-fourths of the psalms, 116 to be exact, have a superscription added to the beginning of the psalm that provides an editorial notation identifying its author, historical context, and how it should be sung.  These were added after the writing of the psalm and were intended to assist the worship leader and congregation in understanding and singing these praise songs.  Among the various kinds of information that these editorial additions provide are:

·        Historical information, (i.e. Ps. 3, “A psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.”

·        Musical instructions, intended for the music leader, indicating what kind of psalm it is and how it was to be sung, (i.e. Ps. 4, “For the director of music, with stringed instruments.  A psalm of David).

·        Important pauses, The word selah has been added seventy-one times to the Psalms, serving as a later editorial addition that signaled a brief interlude in the psalm, either for a change of musical accompaniment, a brief interlude with stringed instruments, a call to pause and reflect upon the truth just stated, (i.e. Ps. 3:4 To the Lord I cry aloud, and He answers me from His holy hill.  Selah!


          Various types of psalms determined by their literary type:

·        Wisdom psalms – instructive psalms for godly living and practical guidelines for righteous living in the pursuit of God’s will, (Ps. 1).

·        Royal psalms – describe the coming reign of Christ as Messiah and Sovereign ruler over heaven and earth, (Ps. 2).

·        Lament psalms – highly emotionally charged psalms portray the writer’s heart cry to God for divine deliverance from personal trouble and struggles, (Pss. 25-28).

·        Imprecatory psalms – are motivated by fiery zeal for God’s glory, these provocative, often controversial psalms invoke God’s wrath and judgment upon the psalmist’s adversaries who were God’s enemies, (Pss. 7; 35; 40).

            Psalm 35:4-8, Let those be put to shame and brought to dishonor

      Who seek after my life; Let those be turned back and brought to confusion Who plot my hurt. 5         Let them be like chaff before the wind, And let the angel of the Lord chase them. 6 Let their way be dark and slippery, And let the angel of the Lord pursue them.              7 For without cause they have hidden their net for me in a pit,

      Which they have dug without cause for my life. 8 Let destruction come upon him unexpectedly, And let his net that he has hidden catch himself; Into that very destruction let him fall.

·        Thanksgiving psalms – express a profound awareness of and deep gratitude for God’s abundant blessings, (Pss. 8; 18, 19).

·        Pilgrimage psalms – are festive psalms which promote a celebrative mood of praise for God as Israel recalled his goodness to them as they traveled to Jerusalem for their annual feasts, (Pss. 120-134).

·        Enthronement psalms – are awe-inspiring majestic psalms that describe the majesty of God’s sovereign rule over all His creation and the providential care by which He sustains, controls, and directs all He has made, (Pss. 48; 93; 96-99).


          Because Psalms was assembled over an extended period of time, the Book of Psalms is divided into five distinctive books.

1.     Book I, Psalms 1 – 41, probably gathered during the early stages of Israel’s monarchy rule under David and Solomon. (GENESIS) David’s Pentateuch

2.     Book II, Psalms 42 – 72, collected some 300 years later under the reign of King Hezekiah or perhaps King Josiah. (EXODUS)

3.     Book III, Psalms 73 – 89, gathered around the same time period, includes eleven consecutive psalms written by Asaph, a Levite, focused primarily on the temple and temple worship. (LEVITICUS)

4.     Book IV, Psalms 90 – 106, written 200 to 300 years later collected during the Postexilic days of Ezra and Nehemiah.  Appropriately begin with Psalm 90 represent the theme of the Book of Numbers, which is ruin, repentance, restoration.

5.     Book V, Psalms 107 – 150 are also postexilic and focus on the sufficiency of God’s word (Ps. 119) and the universal praise due to the Lord’s name, much like the book of Deuteronomy focuses on God and His word.


          The Psalms were written in a literary style called Hebrew Poetry, a form of communication that is quite different from the other genres used in Scripture, (i.e. narrative, prophecy, epistles, parables, legal writings).  Using highly figurative language, Hebrew poetry conveys God’s message in potent expressions that are colorful, emotional, vivid, picturesque, and concise.

          Unlike English poetry which is based upon rhyming and meter, Hebrew poetry is based upon rhythm and parallelism.  Poetic parallelism states an idea in the first line and then reinforces it with an array of literary devices in the second line.

·        Synonymous parallelism – the most common type of Hebrew parallelism.  The second line repeats or restates the central idea of the first line.  Ps. 3:1, O Lord, how many are my foes!  How many rise up against me!

·        Antithetical parallelism – states a truth in the second line that contrasts with the idea of the first line.  The word but often signals the contrast that is to follow.  For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish, Ps. 1:6.

·        Synthetic parallelism – after the proposition stated in the first line, the second line advances the idea and develops the central idea further.  (Ps. 1:1, Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.

·        Emblematic parallelism – portrays the main idea in the form of a figure of speech known as a simile.  This type of parallelism is easy to detect because the words like or as are used.  As the deer pants for the streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God, Ps. 42:1.


          The language of the Psalms uses many different figures of speech or literary devices that paint pictures in the reader’s mind.

·        Simile – comparison between two realities by using the words like or as, (like a tree, like chaff).

·        Metaphor – makes a direct comparison between two realities without using the words like or as, (The Lord is my shepherd).

·        Allegory – develops a series of extended metaphors which are built around a central theme, (Israel is a “vine” “planted” that “took deep root” Ps. 80).

·        Hyperbole – conveys a truth by making an exaggerated statement, intended for dramatic effect, in order to arrest the reader’s attention to the greatness of a matter, (flood my bed….with tears; Ps. 6:6).

·        Anthropomorphism – speaks of God as having a human body in order to convey an important truth about His character in familiar humanlike ways that can be easily understood, (Arise O Lord, lift up your hand, O God.  Do not forget the helpless. Ps. 10:12).


          The first letter of the first word of a line, verse, or stanza begins with the next, successive Hebrew consonant in the alphabet and advances progressively in order throughout the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew letters.  Served in memorization and order of the Psalms.

·        Psalms 25 and 34 – These are the only two psalms which build with the acrostic of the entire Hebrew alphabet of all twenty-two letters.

·        Psalms 111 and 112 – each of these psalms has ten verses with twenty-two lines on which each letter builds.

·        Psalm 119 – This is the most advanced psalm, having twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each, each stanza beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.


          Charles Haddon Spurgeon called his study of Psalms, “the treasury of David.”  His prayer was that God would use his exposition of Psalms to strengthen and change the lives of all those who came to hear him preach through this inspired and inspirational book.

          Let me close with this story of such a changed life.

          On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg and ignited the spark that began the Reformation.  In years preceding the Reformation, Luther was chiefly studying and teaching two books for the Bible.  Almost everyone associates Martin Luther with the Book of Romans, particularly Romans 1:17 which reads, The just shall live by faith, (KJV).  But Luther was converted not only by his study of Romans but also by his study of the Psalms.  On August 16, 1513, he began lecturing on the first book of Scripture that he had ever taught—the Book of Psalms.  These two books of inspired Scripture—Romans and Psalms—radically changed the direction of his life.

          While Romans formulated Luther’s doctrinal convictions about the purity of the true gospel, Psalms gave him the courage to proclaim these truths fearlessly.  His personal study of the Psalms instilled within him such a high view of God that he developed a devil-defying boldness to stand alone against the world for the truth of the gospel of God’s grace.  The Psalms gave Luther an unconquerable spirit and indomitable will to trust God, no matter what happened to him.

          In his latter years, during the traumatic days of the Reformation, Luther often became discouraged, suffering bouts of despair and even depression.  The entire world, he felt, was against him.  But in those dark and difficult hours, he would turn to his beloved coworker Philip Melanchthon and say, “Come, Philip, let us sing the psalms.”  They would often sing a version of Psalm 46 set to music:

          A sure stronghold our God is He,

          A timely shield and weapon;

          Our help He’ll be and set us free

          From every ill can happen.

          We know this song today as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” perhaps the greatest hymn of the church.  A masterpiece of heart-moving truth written by Martin Luther, this famous hymn is drawn from the inspired text of Psalm 46.

          “We sing this psalm,” Luther reflected, “because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.”

          May God use this study of the Psalms to instill such boldness, confidence and faith within each one of us as well.

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