My understanding of the Psalms

Wow! I finally finished the psalms. It is only fitting that I complete my work on psalms on the last day of 2015. What a great mult-month experience this has been. I reviewd all these individual psalms with all their colorful but sometimes repetitive language. While the richness is unbelieveable, there are some common dominant themes, such as the steadfast love of Yahweh, praise for Yahweh, and help against enemies.

This Book of PsalmsTehillim, hymns of praise, is commonly referred to simply as the Psalms. This is the first book of the Hebrew Ketuvim, the Writings, which is the third section of the Hebrew Bible.  In the Christian Bibles, like the Bible of Jerusalem, Psalms comes after Job in the so-called poetic or wisdom literature.   The English title Psalms is derived from literal translation of the Greek psyalmoi, meaning instrumental music, as these words were accompanied with music.

This biblical book of the Psalms is an anthology of 150 individual Hebrew psalms.  Some have a title or musical indications at the beginning of them. Some are called songs, while others indicate the author or time of usage. When people speak about reading the Bible, they most likely refer to reading these psalms. These psalms have been part of Jewish and Christian worship services for thousands of years. A few psalms are long, but most are short, between 10-15 verses, with quite a few less than 10 verses long.

These psalms are usually identified by a sequence number, often preceded by the abbreviation Ps. The numbering of the psalms differs, mostly by one digit, because of Psalms 9 and 10. Everyone admits that Psalms 9 and 10 were originally a single acrostic poem. However, they have been separated by the Hebrew Masoretic text (600-900 CE), but rightly united by the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate. As usual, the Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox follow the Greek numbering of the Septuagint (200-132 BCE) and its translation by Jerome (347-420 CE). However, most Catholic modern translations often use the Hebrew numbering.

The Greek Septuaging bible, used in Eastern Orthodox churches, includes Psalm 151.  A Hebrew version of this psalm was also found in theDead Sea Scrolls.  Some versions of the bible used in the Syriac churches in the Middle East, include Psalms 152-155.  There are also the Pslams of Solomon, which are 18 psalms of Jewish Hebrew origin, but they only survive in Greek and Syriac translations. These and other indications suggest that the current Western Christian and Jewish collection of 150 psalms were selected from a wider set of psalms.

Most people consider the psalms the work of King David (1040-970 BCE). Although some titles carry the names of other individuals, the most common title mentioned 73 times was of course “of David.” However, this is only a little less than half of the 150 psalms. 13 of these references to David indicate an explicit incident in his life.  15 others have the title “Songs of Ascent.” Other people named include Asaph (12 times), the Korahites or sons of Korah (11 times), Solomon (2 times), and even Moses (1 time). Still many more have no title. Many titles indicate the use of stringed instruments or choral leaders.

What does it mean to say “of David”? The natural way to understand this is a claim of authorship to David. At minimum it might mean part of his collection of psalms. However, it could also mean ‘to David’ or ‘about David’. Finally, it could be a misguided claim to a Davidic authorship, added by a later editor. In fact, all the titles are later additions. There is some truth in all these views. Many scholars now accept that some psalms or parts of psalms may be by David, but there is no hard evidence for Davidic authorship of any particular psalm. However, the early Christian Greek writers of the New Testament directly attributed at least 6 pslams to David, Psalms 1, 16, 32, 69, 95, and 110.

The composition of the psalms in this Book of Psalms spans at least five centuries. The oldest may be Psalm 29, a hymn to Yahweh’s power in storms, which may have been adapted from an old local Canaanite hymn to Baal. Other psalms are clearly from the post-exilic period. The majority originated in the southern kingdom of Judah and are associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, where they probably functioned as songs during the Temple worship. Exactly how they did this is unclear,

This Book of Psalms is divided into five sections, each closing with a doxology. These divisions were probably introduced by the final editors to imitate the five-fold division of the Torah in the post-exilic period. The psalms are mostly praising or thanking Yahweh, as well as individual or collective supplications, prayers, or laments.

Most psalms are hymns. These are songs of praise for God’s work in creation or in history. They typically open with a call to praise, describe the motivation for praise, and conclude with a repetition of the call. They celebrate the enthronement of Yahweh as king and glorify Mount Zion, God’s dwelling-place in Jerusalem.

There are also many communal laments about some communal disaster.  These laments also have a generic structure. First they address God. Then they give a description of their suffering. There is then usually a curse or condemnation of the person or group responsible for their suffering. They either maintain their innocence or admit their guilt. Then they ask for divine assistance. They trust that God will receive their prayer. Thus they expect a divine response. Usually they end with a song of thanksgiving.  The difference between the individual and communal laments can be distinguished by the use of the first person singular “I” or the first person plural “we.” Individuals lament their own fate. They open with an invocation of Yahweh, followed by the personal lament itself. In particular, they expresses confidence that God will deliver them from evils and their enemies.

The opposite of these individual laments are individual thanksgiving psalms. The psalmist thanks God for deliverance from some personal distress. There are also some royal psalms dealing with the king’s coronation, marriage and battles.  None of them mention any specific king by name. There are also communal thanksgiving psalms, wisdom psalms, and pilgrimage psalms. The poetry of the psalms uses parallelism, a kind of rhyme as its primary poetic device, but most of the psalms are songs and not pure poetry. The individual psalms involve the praise of God, his power, his creation of the world, and his past acts of deliverance for Israel. The psalms envision a world in which everyone and everything would praise God. God in turn would hear their prayers and respond. Worst of all for them was when God hid his face, and refused to respond. Some psalms are called ‘maskil’, meaning enlightened or wise, because they impart wisdom.

Some psalms were originally hymns used on various occasions and at various sacred sites. There is a 15 psalm anthology of the psalms of ascent or pilgrimage. Individual psalms might be understood as narrating something about the life of David or providing instruction. In later Jewish and Christian traditions, the psalms have come to be used as prayers, either individual or communal, as traditional expressions of religious feelings.

Many Jewish people read the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis. The reading of psalms is viewed in Jewish tradition as a way to gain God’s favor. They are thus often specially recited in times of trouble, such as personal poverty, disease, or physical danger.

The earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, so that the Psalms have remained an important part of worship in most Christian Churches. Paul and the other New Testament writers often quoted the various psalms in their writings. Over the centuries, Christian monks and nuns have used psalms in their daily prayer life, in what has become known as the liturgy of the hours. New translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced today. An individually printed volume of Psalms for use in Christian religious rituals is called a psalter. Greek Orthodox Christians have long made the psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. In their worship service, they would recite all the psalms in a week. Some Christains today say all the psalms during a month.

The Psalms have always been an important part of the Roman Catholic liturgy known as the Holy Office. In the Middle Ages, some laity prayed the Little Office of Our Lady, a shortened version of the Liturgy of the Hours. Until Vatican II (1962-1965), priests recited or read the psalms on a one-week cycle using what was called a breviary. The revised breviary after Vatican II has the psalms distributed over a four-week cycle. Catholic Monastic usage varies widely since some use the monthy cycle while others use the weekly cycle.

The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (1971), sanctioned three modes of singing or recitation for the Psalms. It can be done directly with all singing or reciting the whole psalm. It also can be antiphonally sung or recited with two choirs or sections of the congregation in alternate reciting or singing the verses. Finally there is responsorial method with a cantor or choir singing or reciting the verses while the congregation sings or recites a response after each verse. The most common method is the antiphonal mode.

With the revision of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Mass after Vatican II, there was a reintroduction of the the singing or recitation of a substantial section of a psalm after the first Reading from Scripture in the Liturgy of the Word. This responsorial psalm, is usually sung or recited.

After the sixteenth century reformation movement, many psalms were set to musical hymns by the reformers, expecially the Calvinists. Martin Luther’s hymn ‘A mighty fortress is our God’ is based on Psalm 46. The first book printed in North America was a collection of psalms, the Bay Psalm Book of 1640. The psalms have been very popular for private devotion among many Protestant Reform groups. Some people still read one psalm and one proverb a day. Anglicans have also used a psalter of psalms in their Book of Common Prayer.

Many musical presentations of the psalms have existed over the years. People like Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach, and Brahms have used psalms for many of their musical works. Contemporay musicians have also used psalms or part of psalms. The musical ‘Gospell’  had music based on the psalms. Thus the biblical psalms are an important part of western culture.

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