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What's in the Book of Psalms?

Updated on October 5, 2013

From Antiquity to Modernity


Psalm Translations

The psalms and other prayers, in fact the whole Bible as most Americans and English-speaking people know it, was translated from ancient texts written in the language of scholars from bout 3000 years ago. In fact all translations of the Bible come from these lost languages. The special languages in the antique manuscripts were the ones in vogue at the time among the very small percentage of people living back then who comprised the upper class, which was allowed to have the education necessary to be literate.

But what does the word "psalm" itself mean in those old languages in which the psalms were written by various Hebrew authors? There is a far distant expression in the early history of mankind, which today we would attempt to spell in English, so as to produce a close phonic sounding of the word, "psalmoi." As the scholars attempted to unravel this Greek, they noted that the word meant "music," but a specific type of music which today we would call "instrumental music."

When this is connected with the obvious fact that the psalms, if they are supposed to be music, are the words to the music, the "lyrics," the scholars extended the meaning of "psalmoi" to stand for specifically what today in the music world would be called music played by an accompanying musician. Therefore, "psalm" means words accompanied by music. It might as well be called a song.

While some psalms were written originally in the Hebrew language, any surviving manuscripts of those psalms might be ancient translations into other languages such as Syrian or Greek due to the conquering of Israel by other countries through the centuries and the imposition of other preferred languages for scholarly religious texts. The Roman Empire, for example, preferred Greek because it was traditionally considered the highest stage of intellectual development.

As the centuries passed, the psalms were read and used in different ways by various nations and religious organizations. When Protestantism began, the psalms were written with musical scores showing notes on a scale. They were considered hymns. Various melodies were written by composers to accompany the words of the psalms.

Religions have their own favorite translations. There are Jewish and Christian translations. There's the King James version of the psalms. There are translations of a few psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls (Psalms 151-154).

The psalms therefore should be read with the fact in mind that none of them were written originally in English. A translation from an ancient language might be imperfect. Although each translator has a way of doing a good job of coming close to the exact meaning, the translation itself is more of an art than an absolute rendering of unchallengeable perfection.

The key meaning or message of a psalm, however, is one of praise and thanks to God. This, any religious person can appreciate and use as inspiration.

Common Themes Found in Psalms


Psalms Connect With Bible Stories

The Book of Psalms was written over the ages by Hebrew authors, although some religious people will say Moses wrote one psalm, David wrote many psalms, Solomon wrote one, and temple singers wrote others. While the Gideons' Bible and many other versions of the Bible will show the psalms organized into five "books" ancient publications did not show them written that way. For sure, about half the psalms were written by David or a Hebrew author speaking the mind of David, who was the central hero of the two Books of Samuel and was a very religious man. He slew Goliath but was later pursued by the envious King Saul. The existence of David hasn't been proven to everyone yet beyond a reasonable doubt, but it would be tactless to say this to a religious person or anyone truly inspired by the story of King David's life.

The opening lines to the more than 70 pages of psalms tell us that "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night." The Old Testament was very much oriented toward strict laws rather than individual choices we now call freedom of religion.

The psalms forever are talking about "enemies...rising up against me." King David, before he succeeded King Saul, was pursued relentlessly by Saul. David would have had to pray to God for help.

Always giving thanks to God for rescuing a believer and hearing prayers, the psalms constantly ask God for mercy, pledge faith and trust in God, and express fear of God's anger. A common theme of the Bible is to fear God's wrath. At the same time, the psalms repeatedly praise God's perfection and rejoice in God, but lament that there is so much evil among men. The psalms, decidedly Hebrew, often speak of the "salvation of Israel," making it clear that the Bible was written by, for, and about the Hebrew people. Only in the letters of Saint Paul and the Acts of the Apostles of the New Testament is there any active effort to go beyond Israel, although the psalms express a wish for all people to praise God.

While pleading with God to hear the cry of men and promising to love and honor God, a psalm often will express despair, such as by lamenting, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Psalm 22) These words also were spoken by Jesus when He was crucified, just before He died. In fact much of the "Old" Testament (a term coined by the Christians) becomes woven into the "New" Testament of Christianity, the entire Bible being basically Jewish.

The most famous psalm is Number 23, in which the wonderful, familiar prayer is found: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..." These eloquent words and thoughts find favor with billions of people all around the world.

But there is a defensive and self-righteous nature to some to the psalms, as they express the frustration of good people, like David, who cannot understand why God delays answering his prayers, when he says, "Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity. I have also trusted in the Lord." (Psalms 26 and 43)

The essence of religious faith is expressed concisely in Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" The author of Psalm 28, whether David or a Hebrew writer imagining how the possibly fictitious character David must have thought, writes, "The Lord is my strength and my shield." The theme of battle and military is often present in the psalms, suggesting the life of King David. A constant theme is to plead, "O Lord...fight against those who fight against me." (Psalms, Book One)

But there is great compassion in the psalms, not only talk of war and battles. The psalms contain words later spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in which the beatitudes are given. "The meek shall inherit the earth." (Psalm 37) "Blessed is he who considers the poor." (Psalm 41)

Book One of the five books into which psalms are organized in many Bibles closes with the words, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and amen." (Psalm 41) This reinforces the fact that the Bible was written for the Jewish people, and that it is their concept of God as an invisible power which is a definition of a Higher Power that now is most commonly accepted all over the world. But the question remains whether the Hebrews invented this concept or whether it was something in the thoughts of many people, but finally expressed with eloquence and storytelling skills by great Hebrew writers from more than three thousand years ago.

There were atheists even back then. But the psalms express disdain for such people. "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 53)

Book Two of the psalms continues with the theme of asking God for assistance in escaping from dangerous, pursuing enemies, just as David had to hide with his friends and warriors from the relentless pursuit of Saul and his army. "Be merciful to me O God, for man would swallow me up; fighting all day he oppresses me." (Psalm 56) David is constantly pleading and stating a case for himself as warranting God's mercy and help for his righteousness. He pleads with God to "Hear my voice, O God, in my meditation; preserve my life from fear of the enemy." (Psalm 64) Such words reflect the modern concept of praying silently, contacting God only in our thoughts expressed through words conceived within the privacy of our minds, just as Jesus advised his followers to pray silently while alone and not always make a proud showing of their piety by going in public to the temple. David was forced to hide in caves in the wilderness where there was no temple.

David and the authors of the psalms show signs of wanting to evangelize their religion beyond the confines of Hebrew society as they write, "Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth." (Psalm 66)

Book Two ends with an explicit reference to David, showing that the psalms indeed were based in great part on the story of his life, particularly the period when he had to keep moving, in hiding with his followers, as the envious Saul with his soldiers sought to find him and kill him: "Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck..." (Psalm 69) "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended." (Psalm 72)

The beginning of Book Three appears to have been written by Solomon, or some Hebrew author imagining a prayer the real or fictional character of Solomon could have said. King Solomon was David's son, who succeeded David to the throne and was known for his wisdom and his opulence and gold. "God is good to Israel...but as for me, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked." (Psalm 73)

The psalms always represent the Hebrew point of view. They were God's people. "You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron." Book Three recounts the legend of the journey out of Egypt into the Promised Land of Israel. But the psalms also repeat the constant chastising of the Hebrew people for times when they lost their faith, and mention how Jerusalem was laid to waste as the Jews didn't believe in God, although God "brought them back out of captivity," (Psalm 84) referring to the Babylonian captivity of the surviving Jerusalem residents following the destruction of the city by the armies of Babylon to the east of Israel.

Book Four gives accurate perspective to our human lives, emphasizing the ephemeral brevity of mankind's existence. "A thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past." (Psalm 90) This is an attempt to see humanity from God's broader point of view. But the prayers continue to call upon a God who can be very destructive when provoked to anger: "God, to whom vengeance belongs...render punishment to the proud." (Psalm 94)

As the psalms themselves were meant to be sung in the temple, many of them begin with words such as, "Sing to the Lord a new song." (Psalms 96 and following) The psalms are full of praise; God is everything. The story of the Hebrew people, going back more than three thousand years into the past, is reflected in psalms that summarize the ancestry of the current Jewish global family. "The covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, 'To you I will give the land of Canaan as the allotment of your inheritance.'" (Psalm 105)

To grasp God's perspective is almost incomprehensible. The psalmists attempt to depict the magnificence of God compared to the smallness of humans: "Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? Who can declare all His praise?" (Psalm 106) As astronomers continue to discover new galaxies, adding to the billion already seen, each containing a billion stars like our sun, the wonder of the universe created by God becomes mind-boggling, just as it was centuries ago to the authors of the psalms.

Recounting the events from Egyptian slavery to the Exodus led by Moses, Book Four ends by repeating, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting!" (Psalm 106)

The final book, Five, contains continuous praise of God and pleas for God to intervene to deal punishment to enemies. The friction, ever present in the Old Testament, between Hebrews and Gentiles (meaning the rest of the world except Jews) is evident in the psalms. "Why should the Gentiles say, 'So where is their God?' But our God is in heaven...Their idols are silver and gold...They have ears but they do not hear." (Psalm 115) But the psalm writers want conversion of other societies to the Jewish way of conceptualizing God: "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples. For His merciful kindness is great toward us..." (Psalm 117) Now that Christianity has incorporated the Old Testament into its Bible and religion, and Islam also has interwoven Moses and Jesus into their faith, could it be that Western culture has grown out of this Hebrew concept of an invisible God and morality expressed by Hebrew authors thousands of years ago?

The psalms seem to sum up religious faith as defined by the ancient Jews. "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people...For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous reach out their hands to iniquity." (Psalm 125) The Old Testament is full of stories of the Hebrew people going back and forth between periods of great faith followed by loss of faith, and the rewards and punishments that corresponded to each.

But the psalmists also write of their concern for the opinions of the Gentiles who see the Hebrews from a perspective outside Jewish society: "When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion...they said among the nations, 'The lord has done great things for them.'" (Psalm 126) Similarly, a great concern of modern Jews is that they must live honorable lives and not bring disrepute upon their worldwide family, now spread across many countries beyond Israel, the original land of Canaan, the Promised Land sought by Moses.

The real or fictional character of King David was a model of religious faith to the Hebrews. "Lord remember David and all his afflictions." (Psalm 132)

The deep, perceptive psychology of strongly religious people is evident in the psalms. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Psalm 139)

Although the wisdom of the psalms applies to everyone, the world was much less democratic three thousand years ago. References to the common man or woman's relationship to God were few. Much of the teachings of the psalms and the Old Testament of the Bible had to be set in the context of monarchs, similar to many of Shakespeare's plays. "Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle--who subdues my people under me. Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow." (Psalm 144) This seems to be the thinking of King David, deeply meditating on the wide perspective between God and mankind. The phrase "son of Man" was used centuries later by Jesus, according to the Gospel writers, to refer to himself, as well as "son of God." Much of Jesus' preaching was based on, and borrowed phrases from, the old Jewish religion of the Old Testament. Jesus came for the Jews; he was a Jew; but He made clear that his words should carry also into the whole world eventually. Thus Saint Paul spread the gospel to the Gentiles and all the the Roman Empire from which the Americas claim ancestry. All the religious thought originated in the the same concepts found in the Hebrew psalms.

David's psalms state, "I will sing a new song to You...the One who gives salvation to kings, who delivers David, His servant from the deadly sword." (Psalm 144)

The Book of Psalms ends by saying repeatedly, "Praise the Lord...Let everything that has breath praise the Lord." (Psalm 150)


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