Overview of the Book of Psalms

Overview of the Book of Psalms

Overview of the Book of Psalms

Author: Moses, David, Solomon, the sons of Korah, the sons of Asaph, Ethan the Ezrahite, and various unknown authors.

Date: c. 1440-400 B.C.


To provide Israel with a collection of songs for worship appropriate for a variety of situations.

Key Truths:

  • God deserves praise.
  • God protects and rescues the righteous when they are in need.
  • God will bless the obedient and judge the disobedient.
  • God's revelation should be the foundation for worship.
  • Genuine worship entails a broad range of emotions that stem from experiences of life.

Authorship and Titles:

Title of the Book

The title found in English versions of the book, Psalms, derives from the early Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is also the name found in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20). This Greek title may be rendered "Songs" and corresponds to the Hebrew term mizmor (translated "psalm" in the NIV84, from a verbal root "to sing" or "to pluck an instrument"), which occurs frequently in individual psalm titles.

The Hebrew title is "Book of Praises," which is striking since psalms using the literary form of lament significantly outnumber those using the literary form of hymn. However, almost all the laments express confidence in the Lord at the end, while in the book as a whole there is a movement away from the lament form and toward an increasing number of hymns of praise.

Individual Psalm Titles

Many, though not all, of the psalms begin with titles. Most English versions, including the NIV84, do not assign a verse number to the titles, giving the impression that these titles are not part of the Hebrew text. In truth, however, the titles are usually the first verse of the psalm in the standard Hebrew text, and they also appear in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). The titles, therefore, are either part of the inspired text or at least stem from early tradition.

The titles may be divided into five basic types: authorship, historical, musical notations, genre and worship instructions. Interestingly, Habakkuk 3 presents an isolated psalm that contains titles both before and after the text of the poem. The titles of authorship and genre appear before the psalm (Hab. 3:1) but the instructions regarding the one who is to make use of the psalm ("the director of music," Hab. 3:19) and instrumentation ("On my stringed instruments," Hab. 3:19) appear at the end. This is an indication that similar titles in the psalms may belong at the end of the psalm preceding the one for which they are listed.

Authorship Titles

A majority of the titles link the psalm with a particular individual or group, using a single Hebrew preposition that may denote dedication ("to David") or subject matter ("concerning David") or authorship ("of David"). However, in one of the few psalm titles that provides an expanded context (that of Psa. 18:1-50) there is no doubt that the title intends to identify the composer of the psalm. David is by far the most frequently cited author, most of his psalms being found in the first two books (see "Structure"), though there is also a small collection of Davidic psalms at the very end (Pss. 138-145). The tradition that associates David with singing and psalm composition is so strong that, in principle, there is little room for argument over his authorship of the psalms that bear his name in the titles (see, for instance, 1 Sam. 16:14-23; 2 Sam. 1:17-27; cf. 2 Sam. 22 with Psa. 18; 2 Sam. 23:1; 2 Chron. 6:31; 15:16; 16:7; Amos 6:5).

Authors other than David appear in psalm titles: Moses (Psa. 90), Solomon (Psa. 72), the sons or Korah (Pss. 42-49; 84-85; 87-88), the sons of Asaph (Pss. 50; 73-83), and Ethan the Ezrahite (Psa. 89). A fair number of psalms have no authorship designation (e.g., Psa. 1); these are often referred to as "orphan" psalms.

Historical Titles Far fewer psalms have historical titles than have authorship titles (see Pss. 3; 7; 18; 30; 34; 51; 52; 54; 56; 57; 59; 60; 63; 142). The authenticity of the historical titles has also been debated. There is no textual evidence that they were added later. However, some believe that the apparent disharmony between psalm and title (as in Psa. 30) or between title and historical books (Psa. 56 compared with 1 Sam. 21:10-15) indicates that their origin is late and artificial. Others argue that, if the historical titles were add-ons, it is likely that the later editors who supplied them would assure a close connection between title and psalm. Why, for instance, would a later editor connect Psalm 30 with the dedication of the Temple since there is no mention of the Temple in the psalm?

History and Psalm Composition

The historical titles may give us an indication of the origins of the psalms, but they generally provide little help in interpretation. That is, while a psalm may have been written in relation to a particular historical event, the composer was usually careful not to be too specific in the body of the poem. Thus, though the title of Psalm 3 includes "When he fled from his son Absalom," the psalm itself begins "O LORD, how many are my foes!" rather than "O LORD, Absalom rises up against me!" One reason for this is that psalmists wrote their poetry for use during formal and public worship. They made certain to express thoughts and emotions that others could share.

Nevertheless, the historical titles do give us a glimpse into psalm composition. They also provide historical illustrations of the messages of the psalms, since, after all, the events mentioned in the titles were the original motivations for composition (e.g., Psa. 51 and David's sin with Bathsheba). However, it is not necessary for interpreters to reconstruct the historical background of every psalm (a practice of many earlier psalm commentators) in order to make practical application and use of it.

Genre Titles

A number of the terms in the titles classify the psalms into different literary types. It is difficult for us to gain a precise understanding of many of these terms. Some are quite general and appear often: mizmor ("psalm"; see Psa. 139) and shir ("song"). Others occur rarely and with uncertain meaning: shiggaion (see Psa. 7). Two such terms may occur in a single psalm title (see Psa. 30). While this ancient classification is interesting, and we wish we had a clearer understanding of the terms, present-day genre distinctions are drawn from the mood and content of the psalms.

Musical Notations

Some of the genre terms are also musical notations, most notably mizmor ("psalm," from a verbal root "to sing") and shir ("song"). There are others as well, often uncertain in terms of meaning. A common term appears to dedicate the psalm to the musical ministry of the formal worship establishment ("For the director of music," see Psa. 140). Others appear rarely and are probably names of tunes (NIV84 makes this explicit; e.g., Psa. 60: "To the tune of Lily of the Covenant.' ")

Another apparently musical term that occurs frequently outside the title is the word Selah. Again, no one today is certain of its meaning or function.

Worship Instructions

Occasionally the title indicates how the psalm functioned in the formal worship of Israel. The best known of these are the "songs of ascent" (Pss. 120-134; see "Introduction" to Psa. 120) and the psalm "for the Sabbath day" (Psa. 92).


During the time of the Old Testament, from Moses (Psa. 90) to the postexilic period (Psa. 126), new psalms were added to the book of praise. The resulting structure of the book is difficult to discern. There is no overarching principle of order that is explicit throughout the book. Nonetheless, a few striking features are noteworthy.

Early tradition divides the Psalter into five books, paralleling the five books of Moses. Each closes with a doxology and has other characteristics that separate it from the others (see "Outline"). There are also minigroups of psalms bound together either by common authorship (e.g., Pss. 73-83, by the sons of Asaph), common usage (e.g., Pss. 120-134, songs of ascent) or common theme (e.g., Pss. 93; 96-100). It also appears that Psalms 1-2 were intentionally placed at the beginning of the Psalter to serve as a kind of entryway into the sanctuary of the Psalms, much as Psalms 146-150 serve at the end as a magnificent doxology, a veritable fireworks of praise.


There are 150 separate poetic compositions in the Psalter, each one containing unique beauty and power. However, there are also some similarities among the songs that allow them to be grouped together in various ways. These notes will sometimes refer to the following genre classifications:

(1) Hymns of Praise. Hymns are easily recognized by their exuberant praise of the Lord. God is praised for who he is and for his actions of power and mercy. Hymns of praise commonly include the following elements: a call to praise, a reason for praise, and a demonstration of faith. (cf. Pss. 8; 24; 29; 33; 47; 48).

(2) Laments (Complaints or Petitions). Laments are at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from hymns. In a lament, the psalmist honestly unveiled to God the innermost confidences of his heart - a heart often filled with anguish, fear, bitterness and/or anger. Common petitions in laments include requests for God to save or offer refuge and for him to exact vengeance on enemies. In Hebrew poetry laments typically include the following elements: an address to God, an expression of the author's emotional complaint, an expression of confidence in the Lord, a petition for God's help, and an expression of praise to the Lord. When appropriate they often included a confession of guilt as well. Given these fairly standard elements, it should not be surprising when laments include groups of verses that sound like hymns of praise. (cf. Pss. 25; 39; 51; 86; 102; 120).

(3) Thanksgiving Psalms. These were sung, appropriately, after the Lord had answered the psalmist's earlier lament. Indeed, the first three psalm types form a kind of triad. The psalmist sang hymns when he felt right with the Lord, laments when he was out of harmony with him and then gave thanks when the relationship was restored. (cf. Pss. 18; 66; 107; 118; 138).

(4) Songs of Confidence (or Trust or Mercy). While many hymns and even laments express trust in God, some psalms are dominated by this theme. They are often brief and contain a striking metaphor depicting the psalmist's trusting attitude. (Pss. 23; 121; 131).

(5) Kingship Psalms. Since God, the King of the universe, is the subject of the psalms and since David, the human king, was both writer and subject of many psalms, kingship is an important institution and concept in the Psalter. However, a few psalms so intensely focus on either God's kingship (Pss. 24; 47; 95) or on the human king (Pss. 20; 21; 45) that they stand out from the others.

(6) Wisdom Psalms. In thinking of Biblical wisdom, we normally consider books like Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Some of the themes in the wisdom books are also prominent in the wisdom psalms. For instance, the strong contrast between the righteous and the wicked that we find in the book of Proverbs is also prominent in Psalm 1. For other examples, see Psalms 37 and Psalm 49. For a treatment of interpretive issues peculiar to wisdom literature, see "Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books."

Poetic Style and Devices

Poetry is a form of written communication that pays particular attention to how its message is communicated to the reader. The poets enjoyed using language in a way that stretches not only the mind but also the imagination and emotions. To read "The LORD is my shepherd" (Psa. 23:1) does more than inform; it evokes a picture and touches emotions in a way that surpasses nonfigurative language. For a treatment of interpretive issues peculiar to poetry, see "Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books."

Parallelism. This literary device is by far the most prevalent in all Hebrew poetry. It is used to connect words or phrases to one another in order to nuance meaning. See Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books" for a detailed explanation and examples.

Acrostics. Another literary device that appears occasionally in the psalms bears specific mentioning here: acrostic. An acrostic is a relationship between the first letters of different lines of verse. For example, in an acrostic based on the alphabet, each line would begin with the successive letters of the alphabet. Acrostics may also be used to form words, or even to demonstrate unity by beginning each line with the same letter. A good example of acrostic is Psalm 119, in which the stanzas are arranged according to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with each line in any given stanza beginning with the letter of the stanza.

Theology of the Psalms:

Just as the formation of the Psalter took place during the Old Testament period as a whole, so the theology of the Psalter is as extensive as that of the entire Old Testament. Martin Luther called the Psalms "a little Bible, and the summary of the Old Testament."

Theological truths, however, are not presented systematically or abstractly in Psalms; the realities conveyed here were related to life and spoken in the context of a covenant faith.

Christ in Psalms:

Christian readers of the Psalms rightly see Christ revealed throughout the Psalter. The entire Old Testament, including the Psalter, looked forward to Jesus' person and work, including not only those associated with his first advent but also those that the New Testament assigns to his return. Jesus himself and the New Testament writers took psalm after psalm upon their lips to express such things as Jesus' suffering (e.g., Matt. 27:46) and glorification (e.g., Matt. 22:41-46). In addition, for the Christian Jesus becomes the object of the worship of the Psalter. The song-prayers of the Psalms are directed to God. Jesus Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, is also the proper object of the hymns and laments of the Psalms. Jesus is at once singer (Heb. 2:12) and subject of the songs. Believers in Christ can sing to him their praise (hymns), turn to him with their complaints and petitions (laments) and thank him when he answers their prayers (thanksgivings). Furthermore, they remember what he accomplished for them on the cross (psalms of remembrance) and extol him as their king (kingship psalms). He is the source of their trust (psalms of confidence) and the embodiment of God's wisdom (wisdom psalms).

Even the psalms that include imprecations, or cursing, find fulfillment in Christ. These psalms cry out for the vindication of the righteous and for God's judgment on the wicked (e.g., Psa. 69:22-29). Such prayers reflected the calling of Israel to holy war as God's instruments of judgment. With the coming of Christ to bear God's judgment, the nature of the warfare of God's people has changed. It is now more intense, but directed first and foremost against the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12). When Christ returns in glory, the time of mercy will be ended and the imprecations of the psalms will be fulfilled against all the enemies of God.

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).