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Old Testament | Psalms | Summary

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Summary

Headings in Psalms divide its contents into five major sections or "books." The first of these, Book 1, includes Psalms 1–41. The majority of the psalms in this section are attributed to David.

  • Psalm 1 contrasts the wicked with those who delight in the Torah of Yahweh.
  • Psalm 3 includes the first superscription attributing a song to David. Its individual prayer for deliverance is set in the time of David's conflict with his son Absalom.
  • Numerous other psalms in Book 1 express individual complaints or laments (Psalms 5–7, 13, 17, 22, 25–28, 32, 38, and 39). These typically express prayers to Yahweh for deliverance from enemies or other crises. All attributed to David.
  • Psalm 8 exemplifies the doxological emphasis of many psalms. It praises Yahweh for the creation of the world and humanity.
  • Psalms 9 and 10 together form a lengthy alphabetic acrostic poem—where each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet—expressing praise of Yahweh, a prayer for deliverance, and a lament at Yahweh's apparent delay in action.
  • Psalm 18, attributed to David, emphasizes Yahweh's protection and patronage of the righteous king.
  • Psalm 19, a hymn of praise, lauds the evidence of God's glory in the created world and in the Torah.
  • Psalm 22 is another individual petition for deliverance. In the New Testament gospels, Jesus prominently quotes its opening line during his crucifixion: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
  • Psalm 23, the most famous individual psalm in modern times, expresses confidence in Yahweh's provision and protection. "Yahweh is my shepherd, I shall not want."
  • Psalm 29 extols Yahweh's power in language that resonates strongly with traditional Canaanite storm god mythology.
  • At the end of Psalm 41, a brief doxological prayer concludes Book 1 of Psalms.

Book 2 includes Psalms 42–72.

  • Psalms 42–43 form a single poem that laments the individual's separation from Yahweh and his temple.
  • Psalm 44 is an example of a song of communal complaint. The people lament national losses in war and invoke Yahweh to come to their aid.
  • Psalm 45 is an example of a royal psalm. It appears to have originally been a song for the occasion of a king's marriage but is often reinterpreted theologically.
  • Psalm 49 is a wisdom poem. It instructs its readers to trust not in wealth but in Yahweh.
  • Psalm 51 is one of the most poignant penitential psalms. Its superscription casts it as a prayer of repentance by David after his affair with Bathsheba.
  • At the end of Psalm 72, a postscript states: "The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended." In spite of this statement, a number of songs attributed to David still appear after this in Psalms, a clue that the collection of psalms grew over time in multiple stages.

Book 3 consists of Psalms 73–89.

  • Psalm 74 clearly refers to the destruction of the First Temple, which means the song must have been written during the Babylonian exile. The psalm calls Yahweh to action in the present by reciting mythological language about Yahweh's past victory over the forces of chaos and subsequent acts of creation.
  • Several additional psalms in this section clearly have the crisis of the Babylonian exile in view, and most of the communal complaint psalms are found here (including Psalms 79, 80, 83, and 89).
  • Psalm 82 includes a brief description of Yahweh speaking to a "divine council" that includes other gods who are called sons of "Elyon," a name for the senior deity in the traditional Canaanite pantheon.
  • Psalm 89 appeals to a covenant between Yahweh and David to maintain the Davidic dynasty in perpetuity.

Book 4 includes Psalms 90–106.

  • Psalm 90 is the only psalm introduced as "a prayer of Moses." Despite this superscription, it appears to be a prayer for Yahweh to bring the punishment of the exile to an end.
  • Several psalms in this section (93, 96–99) share language declaring that "Yahweh is king" (or "Yahweh reigns"). These are often called "enthronement psalms."
  • Book 4 concludes with several hymns of praise and thanksgiving that prompt the worshipper to "bless," "praise," and "give thanks to" Yahweh (100, 103–6).
  • Psalms 105 and 106 retell Israel's history and end this section of Psalms with a plea for Yahweh to gather Israel back from exile.

Psalms 107–50 make up the fifth and final book of Psalms.

  • Psalm 107 begins the final section of Psalms with affirmations that Yahweh rescued his people from exile and gathered them back together. This suggests a setting after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem and reestablished the temple in Jerusalem.
  • Psalm 119 is the longest psalm, an elaborate alphabetic acrostic poem, featuring entire stanzas in which every line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. It celebrates the guidance provided by Yahweh in the Torah.
  • Psalms 120–34 all bear the superscription "a song of ascents." Traditionally this title has been associated with religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which does feature prominently in several of these psalms.
  • Psalms 135 and 136 are hymns of praise that celebrate Yahweh's past deeds, both in the history of Israel and in creation.
  • Psalm 137 stands out from the generally optimistic psalms around it as a vivid lament of the Judahites in exile. "By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion."
  • Psalms 145–50 end the book of Psalms with a series of hymns repeating the refrain "Praise Yahweh!" (hallelu-yah).

Analysis

Psalms is a diverse collection. It expanded over time in the postexilic period. Early translations of Psalms into other languages often changed the contents: the Greek version of Psalms adds one additional psalm. Syriac manuscripts add five more. And even more psalms circulated in antiquity. The headings that divide Psalms into five "books" are late editorial additions that may have been inspired by the five books of the Torah. Superscriptions included with the individual psalms include information about traditional attributions and historical settings as well as musical settings.

The Psalms vary considerably in genre and focus. Hymns express praise of God's attributes and actions. The subgroup of enthronement hymns affirm that "Yahweh is king!" Psalms of both individual and communal lament starkly describe problems in the world and beseech God to intervene. Psalms of thanksgiving express gratitude for actions that are perceived to be God's action. Wisdom psalms share language and emphases with wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible. In acrostic psalms, each line or stanza starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Several clues suggest that the current order of the psalms is roughly chronological. The first two books contain most of the psalms attributed to David and end with the notice in Psalm 72 that "the prayers of David son of Jesse are ended." Hymns of praise to Yahweh and individual prayers for deliverance or mercy are prominent in this first half of the collection. With the start of Book 3, clear references to the fall of Jerusalem and the exile suddenly become frequent. Book 4 mixes hymns of worship with exhortations for Yahweh to remember the people of Israel and gather them back from exile. Book 5 begins by affirming that Yahweh has remembered his people and gathered them back from exile. Subsequent psalms are at home in the restored worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. Psalms not only references most of the major theological themes of the entire Hebrew Bible, it also alludes to a major portion of the overall narrative arc.

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