A scholarly overview of the psalms

Did you know that the Psalms are the OT book most quoted in the NT, with psalm 110 leading the way.

The Psalter is divided into 5 books (probably alluding to the Pentateuch), each ending in a benediction and ‘Amen’. Book 5 ends in an extended benediction comprising chapters 146-150 (the Hallelujah psalms).

The superscriptions identify David as author of 73 psalms, found mostly in books 1 and 2. Other authors include the Sons of Korah (11 psalms), Asaph (12 psalms), Solomon (possibly two psalms), and Moses (one). ‘Orphan psalms’ do not identify the author.

Psalm 1 introduces the whole Psalter. This psalm presents two models for life: the righteous man and the wicked man. This dual polarity is found elsewhere in the Bible— in Proverbs, listening to Lady Wisdom or Lady Folly; or, in Jesus’ words, the narrow gate and the wide gate, building on sand or on the rock, good trees producing good fruit and bad trees producing bad fruit. In this way, in addition to providing guidance to worship, the Psalms contribute to the overall theme of Scripture.

One way of classifying the psalms

1. Lament psalms

This category is the largest by far, including as much as a third of the whole Psalter. Examples: Psalms 12, 13, 54, 56.

Characteristics:

  • Address to God
  • Complaint
  • Confession of trust in God
  • Petition
  • Vow of praise/thanksgiving

Subcategories:

  • God-lament psalms: Where God is the problem: He seems absent, or distant, etc
  • Imprecatory psalms: Where others are the problem
  • Penitential psalms: Where the psalmist is the problem (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130)

2. Thanksgiving psalms

Example: Psalm 30

Characteristics:

  • Announcement of intent to give thanks to God
  • Recounting of psalmist’s experience: need, petition and deliverance
  • Conclusion

3. Hymns

Example: Psalm 113

Characteristics:

  • Call to worship: addressed to the congregation in imperative, e.g. “Give thanks to the Lord!”
  • Praise or motive for praise, usually God’s acts or attributes
  • Recapitulation

Subcategories:

  • Psalms on Yahweh’s kingship
  • Hymns of Zion (Yahweh’s dwelling place)

So what’s the difference between thanksgiving psalms and hymns? The former generally address specific needs and hymns are generally non-specific.

4. Royal psalms. Used at royal weddings, coronations, etc. Examples: Psalms 2, 20, 21.

5. Wisdom psalms. Used for giving instruction. Examples: Psalms 1, 19, 119

6. Other didactic psalms

  • Historical psalms e.g. 78, 105
  • Prophetic exhortation

Duplicate content in the Psalms

This probably results from the Psalter having been compiled over a period of time by different people.

  • Psalms 14 and 53 are virtually identical. One notable difference is that Psalm 14 uses ‘Yahweh’ (the LORD)  and Psalm 53 uses ‘Elohim’ (God). The former is a covenant name while the latter is generic. There is a preference for Yahweh in Book 1 and Elohim in Book 2. Why? No idea.
  • Psalm 40:13-17 and Psalm 70
  • Psalm 57:7-11 and 60:5-12 are found in Psalm 108

Messianic psalms: Categories

  1. Typological messianic psalms, in which there is correspondence and escalation. Something happens in history that corresponds to something else in history. The antitype (which comes later) is an escalation of the type. An example of this is Moses’ snake and Christ. Examples: Psalms 41 and 69
  2. Typical prophetic messianic psalms, which have typological and predictive characteristics. Example: Psalm 22
  3. Purely prophetic messianic psalms. Example: Psalm 110.

Imprecations in the psalms

Psalm 35:4-8; 58:6-8; 69:27-28; 83:13-15; 109:6-7; 137:8-9

These are hyperbolic rhetorical expression of the psalmist’s outrage. Characteristics:

  • The curses are pronounced on those who are against God, e.g. Psalm 5:10. Additionally, an attack on the king is an attack on God.
  • There is a focus on God’s name: Psalm 83:5, 16
  • They are pronounced against the incorrigible: Psalm 58:4-5
  • They seem to be aimed at proving God’s justice: Psalm 58:11
  • There seems to be a sense of just desert: Psalm 35:1, 7-8; 58:1-2,11; 109:16-20
  • The rejoicing is in the Lord’s justice and salvation: Psalm 35:9; 58:11

Sources: Gordon Wenham, Covenant Theological Seminary, ESV Study Bible.

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