Psalms Overview: Wisdom in Worshipping


1. Name
The Hebrew title is sepher tehillim “Book of Praises.” tehillim and its singular form tehillah occur more than twenty times in the book. The verb root behind the word occurs over 70 times. Some rabbis used the term mizmoroth. This was derived from the term mizmor, the technical term for a song sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments, and which occurs 57 times in titles of individual psalms. The Setpuagint title psalmoi is derived from a word meaning “to pluck a stringed instrument” and means “Songs.” The New Testament also uses this name to refer to the Book of Psalms (Lk.20:42; 24:44).
2. Purpose
To provide a God-inspired and God-approved hymnbook for God’s people to worship God exclusively.
3. Theme
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
4. Key Verse
O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand (Ps.95:6,7).
5. 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.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 803.[/footnote]  

I. Author(s)

Although the text of the Psalms do not indicate authorship, the psalm titles and superscriptions do seem to make claims regarding authorship. Authorship according to the Psalm title and superscriptions may be tabulated:

David 73
(plus 2 more according to NT)
David’s singers 25
Korah’s descendants
(a guild of singers and composers 2 Chr.20:19)
Asaph (priest who headed the music service 1 Chr.15) 12
Heman 1
Ethan 1
Hezekiah 10
Solomon 2
Moses 1
Anonymous (some probably by David, some attributed to Ezra) 40

There are, however, some difficulties when we come to consider authorship. We will consider three of these.

A. The Reliability of the Titles

Before considering the reliability of the titles, we shall briefly survey the five different categories of Psalm title.

1. Five different titles

a. Authorship

The titles make various attributions of authorship. These will be considered in greater detail below.

b. Historical setting

These are titles which refer to David’s life and experience.

c. Literary features

These are words which describe the literary character of the psalm. They include the terms mizmor (to pluck), shir (song), maschil (meditative psalm, didactic psalm), michtam (song of covering, atoning psalm), shiggaion (no clear meaning), tephillah (prayer), tehillah (praise).

d. Liturgical use

These titles highlight certain psalms which were attached to special days and festivals in the religious calendar. The Songs of Ascent (Ps.120-134) were sung as the pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the three annual feasts. Psalm 92 was for the Sabbath Day.

e. Musical notations

Titles which indicate musical setting or arrangement. Lamnatseach (to the chief Musician), Selah (used at end of section, unknown meaning), Neginoth (stringed instruments), ‘Al hashsheminith (unknown meaning), ‘Al ‘alainoth (unknown meaning), Gittith (unknown meaning), Nechiloth (with wind instruments), Machalath (sickness or grief). There are other words which may indicate the melodies and tunes a Psalm is to be sung to.

2. Critical View

Critical scholars highlight two problems. First of all, there are some differences between the titles in the oldest Hebrew manuscripts and the Septuagint. Secondly, they argue that the historical background in the Psalm differs from that historical claims in the title. From this they argue that the Hebrew titles are later unreliable additions.

3. Evangelical View

a. It is difficult to understand why “later rabbis” would attach historically inappropriate or manufactured titles to the Psalms

b. The titles are much earlier than the Septuagint. When the Greek translation was made (c. 150-100 BC), the meanings of some of the technical Hebrew had been forgotten.

c. The “later rabbis” did not entitle some title-less Psalms which have enough historical information to suggest a suitable title.

d. It was normal practice for poets to entitle their compositions (Isa.38:9; Hab.3; 2 Sam.1:17f.; 2 Sam.23:1 and Num.24:3).

e. The titles in the Hebrew Bible are counted as part of the original text with longer titles being numbered as separate verses.

The conclusion can only be that the Hebrew psalm titles were either part of the original text of the various psalms, or were added during the final collection of the psalms in the days of Ezra-Nehemiah.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

B. The Meaning of Lamedh

The titles of the Psalms include the Hebrew preposition lamedh prefixed to a person’s name. This preposition may mean “of, to, about, for.” If the name is David, the Hebrew may be translated “of David,” “to David,” “about David,” or “for David.” In other words it may mean that David wrote it, or that it was part of his collection, or it was dedicated to him, or for his use. As it is the context alone which can give us the exact meaning, and as the immediate context of these titles is minimal, it is difficult to come to a definite conclusion.

However, there are two other pieces of biblical evidence which supports the use of lamedh to denote authorship.

1. Habakkuk 3

This chapter uses the lamedh formula to clearly indicate Habakkuk’s authorship. The phrase “a prayer of Habakkuk” means “a prayer by Habakkuk” and not “a prayer about Habakkuk.”

2. Psalm 18:1

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, the servant of the LORD, who spake unto the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul (Ps.18:1).

This expanded title clearly indicates that “A Psalm of David” means authorship by David.

This psalm title provides the expanded literary context that is lacking in the other titles and that enables us to see the function of the preposition in the titles.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 216.[/footnote]

C. Davidic Psalms

We will consider four areas which the critics focus on to deny Davidic authorship of the Psalms.

1. Third person references

a. Criticism

Some Psalms attributed to David speak of the king in the third person rather than the first person (Ps 20, 21 etc.).

b. Answer

This was a common technique of ancient writers. Even God speaks of Himself in the third person at times (see the ten commandments).

2. Temple references

a. Criticism

Although the Temple was not constructed until after David’s death, some of David’s Psalms speak of it as already standing (Ps 5, 27, etc).

b. Answer

The Hebrew words translated “sanctuary,” “house of God” and “temple,” were used long before David to describe the tabernacle (Josh 6:24; Judg.18:31; 1 Sam.1:9).

3. Aramaic references

a. Criticism

Some of David’s Psalms reveal Aramaic influences, and this indicates the much later time when Aramaic was the international language.

b. Answer

The Bible indicates that David had extensive contact with the Aramean states. Earlier texts, such as the Ras Shamra (Ugaritic) texts, reflect the influence of the Aramaic language.

4. David’s Unsuitability

a. Criticism

David would not have the time nor the inclination to compose poetry.

b. Answer

The psalm titles, and the historical and prophetic books testify to the importance of music and poetry in the career of David (1Sa,.16.14-23; Amos 6:5). Psalm 18 is very similar to David’s song of thanksgiving in 2 Sam.22. He was called “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1). The New Testament supports Davidic authorship of the Psalms, even of two which are not attributed to David in the Psalter (Acts 2:25-28; 4:25; Ro,.4:6-8; 11:9ff)

Doubt concerning the possibility of Davidic authorship of any of the psalms is a carryover from the beginning of the century when it was felt that the type of piety that finds expression in the psalms could come about only in the postexilic period. Such rigid evolutionist approaches to the development of Israel’s religion have been discarded, and increasing numbers of scholars are recognizing that many of the psalms are considerably earlier than previously thought.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 216.[/footnote]

This tradition of Davidic authorship, we may conclude, is founded upon fact. The witness of the New Testament abundantly establishes that point. This does not mean that David composed every Psalm in the Psalter. The Psalter itself does not make such a claim. It does mean, however, that the book of Psalms is basically Davidic, and that there is no sufficient ground for denying that those Psalms which claim to come from David are, as a matter of fact, his compositions.[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: Tyndale Press, 1953), 289-290.[/footnote]

5. Conclusion

Although the Psalm titles may not be directly inspired there are good arguments for accepting them as reliable helps to discovering authorship, historical situation and musical information.


II. Date(s)

The dating of the Psalms relies on the authenticity of the Psalm titles.
Earliest date: The earliest Psalm was probably Psalm 90 which was composed by Moses about 1405 BC. The old Liberal view that dated the psalms to the Maccabean period between the two Testaments has been discredited by the discovery of ancient Ugaritic texts which reveal an advanced poetic tradition in Canaan centuries before David.

Psalms known to have been written during or shortly after the Maccabean period – those found in the Qumran library – indicate significant linguistic, stylistic, structural, thematic, and theological departures from the biblical psalms.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Latest Date: The latest Psalms were post-exilic (Ps.126, 127). It is thought that the final book of 150 Psalms was compiled by Ezra about 450 BC at the time of the second temple

III. Historical Analysis

Although the titles may give some idea of authorship and even, in some cases, of historical events, on the whole it is difficult to find the historical context of most Psalms.

A description of the historical background of the Psalms is difficult to provide, for two reasons. First, the book is obviously a collection rather than a unified composition. Second, the individual psalms themselves are historically non-specific.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 214.[/footnote]

Some scholars have dedicated themselves to recovering the historical situation of the Psalms in order to aid understanding of the content. However, such attempts fail to appreciate that the Psalms’ vagueness regarding historical situation suits them better as the continued hymnbook of Israel and the Church.

It is true that the lack of historical specificity may at times make the precise meaning of a verse more difficult. On the whole, however, this characteristic of the psalms probably has enhanced rather than detracted from their value in worship.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

Although the psalms arose out of a historically specific situation, they are purposely devoid of direct reference to it. Thus it is to work against the intention of the psalmist to interpret a psalm in the light of a reconstructed original event. The psalms are historically non-specific so that they may be continually used in Israel’s corporate and individual worship of God. The psalms are always relevant to the needs of the nations as well as to individual Israelites.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 216-217.[/footnote]


IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative Outlines

In the Hebrew text, the Psalter is divided into five books.

Book 1.      Psalms 1-41.
Book 2.      Psalms 42-72.
Book 3.      Psalms 73-89.
Book 4.      Psalms 90-106.
Book 5.      Psalms 107-150.

The first four books are concluded with a doxology (i.e. Ps.41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48), and the fifth section concludes with a series of doxologies (Ps.146-150).

It has been argued that there is a general distinctiveness to each book:

Book 1: Nearly all the Psalms in this book were written by David and almost exclusively use the name Jehovah.

Book 2: Most of these Psalms are either from David or to or for the sons of Korah, and the predominant name of God is Elohim.

Books 3 and 4: These are smaller collections each containing the same number of Psalms (17). The Psalms in Book 3 are mainly prayers and are largely attributed to Asaph or the sons of Korah. All the Psalms of the fourth book, again largely prayers, are anonymous.

Book 5: Various and mostly anonymous Psalms.

Other attempts have been made to structure the Psalms according to keywords, themes, liturgy, etc. There is evidence of limited grouping. Psalms 113-118 are known as the “Hallel Psalms.” Psalms 120-134 are all entitled “a song of ascent” and suggests that they were used as pilgrims approached Jerusalem or the Temple. Psalms 93 and 95-99 each proclaim God as King of the universe. However, larger groupings are difficult to support.

Certain psalms are grouped together on the basis of similarity in authorship, content, or function. Nonetheless, these groups are occasional, and no overall organizational structure to the book may be observed. The last word has not yet been said. While an overall, formal structure may not be discovered in the Psalter, there are what appear to be intentional movements and placements within the book as a whole.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 226.[/footnote]

The Book of Psalms is an anthology, whose movement or structural unity cannot be analysed precisely…The age of this fivefold division and the reasons for it are disputed. Perhaps it reflects the Pentateuch, a suggestion supported by the fact that the Pentateuch was divided into 153 sections for synagogue reading. Certainly, however, this somewhat artificial division indicates the anthological character of the whole and its gradual compilation.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 245.[/footnote]

2. Structural Analysis

We have seen above that the Book of Psalms has a five part structure. It is also helpful to note the various internal structures of the individual Psalms. David Dorsey highlights a number of these.[footnote]D Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 173-186.[/footnote]

a. Acrostic Psalms

These are arranged according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet, with each successive line beginning with the appropriate letter of the alphabet (eg. Ps.9-10; 25, 34, 37). Psalm 119 has 176 verses arranged in 22 stanzas of eight verses each, with all eight verses in each stanza beginning with successive letters of the alphabet.

b. Three part symmetries (Ps.6, 15, 57, 72, 79)

The opening and closing units underline certain points and bracket the main emphasis of the central unit.

a Cry to God for help (Ps.57:1-5)

b Report of deliverance (Ps.57:6)

a’ Praise to God for His help (Ps.57:7-11)

c. Four part symmetries (Ps. 1, 2, 3, 8, 26, 70, 137, 139)

The Psalmist uses this structure to underline themes and points by the use of matched repetition, with the main emphasis being the opening and the close.

a Righteous kept separate from the wicked (Ps.1:1-2)

b Fruitful, secure state of the righteous (Ps.1:3)

b’ Barren, insecure state of wicked (Ps.1:4)

a’ Wicked will be kept separate from the righteous on judgment day (Ps.1:5-6)

d. Five part symmetries (Ps.22, 27, 51, 54, 56, etc)

This is the most common structure in the Psalter and is used, like the three part chiasmus, to emphasize certain points by matched repetition and to highlight the main point by its central position.

a Introductory complaint: God does not hear my cries for help (Ps.22:1-8)

b Appeal for help (Ps.22:9-11)

c Description of dire situation (Ps.22:12-18)

b’ Appeal for help (Ps.22:19-21)

a’ Concluding praise: God has heard my cry for help (Ps.22:22-31)

Seven part symmetries may also be found in Ps.7, 11, 18, 25, 30, 86

e. Parallel patterns (Ps.44, 100, 126, 130)

The repetitions help to underscore the Psalmists’ thoughts. The Psalm’s main point may be found in an unmatched final unit.

a Report of past restoration (Ps.126:1)

b Report of past resultant joy (Ps.126:2-3)

a’ Prayer for present restoration (Ps.126:4)

b’ Prayer for present resultant joy (Ps.126:5-6)

f. Linear patterns (Ps.148)

This is the simplest of structures in the Psalter, with the Psalmists’ thought progressively developing until the culmination and climax at the end.

a Call to everything in heaven to praise Yahweh (Ps.148:1-6)

b Call to everything on earth to praise Yahweh (Ps.148:7-13a)

c May Yahweh be the praise of his people Israel (Ps.148:13b-14)

3. Genre

All the psalms are lyric poems, that is brief poems that express the thoughts or feelings of the poet. They are, therefore, personal and subjective, reflective and affective. These lyric poems, however, may be divided into a number of different genres. Before considering these in more detail, it should be remembered that some Psalms do not neatly fit into any of the main types and some Psalms may contain more than one genre.

a. Hymns of praise

Definition: Songs of exuberant praise to God for who He is and what He has done, is doing and will do.

Elements: A call to praise
A reason for praise (God’s acts and attributes: general rather than specific)
A demonstration of faith (usually a prayer)

Examples: Ps. 8, Ps. 24, Ps. 29, Ps. 33, Ps. 47, Ps. 48

b. Laments

Definition: Lament over personal, community or church condition

Elements: Address to God
Statement of lament (anguish, fear, anger, contrition: general rather than specific)
Request for divine help
Expression of confidence in God
Affirmation of praise

Examples: Ps 39, Ps. 51, Ps. 86, Ps. 120

c. Thanksgiving

Definition: When the lament was answered, the Israelite responded with a song of thanksgiving.

Elements: Narrative of God’s deliverance
Praise for that deliverance

Examples: Ps. 18, Ps. 66, Ps. 107, Ps. 118, Ps. 138

d. Songs of confidence

Definition: An expression of crystal clear confidence in and composure before God

Elements: Striking metaphor (Ps23: God as Shepherd, Ps 91: God as mother bird)

Examples: Ps. 23, Ps. 121, Ps. 131

e. Remembrance psalms

Definition: A song which recalls God’s great acts in the past to build confidence in the present

Elements: A narrative of God’s historical dealings

Examples: Ps. 78, Ps. 105, Ps. 106, Ps. 136

f. Royal psalms

Definition: Songs celebrating Divine kingship and the Davidic king as God’s servant to rule His people

Elements: Praise to or prayer for the Divine king or for the Davidic king

Examples: Ps. 2, Ps. 20, Ps. 21, Ps. 24,Ps. 45, Ps. 47, Ps. 95

g. Wisdom psalms

Definition: General observations on life, and especially our relationship to God

Elements: Strong contrast between the good and the wicked
Questions regarding the prosperity of the wicked and suffering of the righteous

Examples: Ps. 1, Ps. 37, Ps. 49, Ps. 73

h. Messianic psalms (see New Testament Analysis)

Definition: Songs about the future Messiah’s person or ministry

Elements: Typical or prophetic descriptions of Christ and His two advents

Examples: Psalm 2, Ps. 22, Ps. 45, Ps. 69

i. Imprecatory psalms (see Thematic Analysis)

Definition: Call for God’s judgment against God’s enemies

Elements: Description of troubles inflicted by enemies
Prayer for God to vindicate His people and judge His enemies

Examples: Ps. 35, Ps. 69, Ps. 109

4. Beginning, Middle and Ending

Various scholars have noted the significance of the opening and closing Psalms as suitable for entering and leaving the sanctuary of worship.

Psalm 1 functions as the doorkeeper to the sanctuary. While the book of Psalms as a whole has no obvious overarching structure, it appears that Psalm 1 was intentionally placed in its present canonical position in order to introduce the book. It is a unique wisdom psalm that contrasts the righteous person with the wicked. This contrast is achieved by description; it is up to the reader to identify with one or the other. As the physical tabernacle had many safeguards to its holiness, so Psalm 1 functions to keep out the wicked. As at the beginning, so at the end. Five psalms are intentionally placed at the end to serve as the conclusion to the book (Ps.146-50). These five are characterized by exuberant praise and in particular by the admonition “Praise the LORD!” The section is climaxed by Psalm 150, which contains exhortation to praise the Lord. The literary sanctuary that is the Psalms is thus concluded by an appropriate doxology.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 248.[/footnote]

The movement in the Book of Psalms is thus from obedience to praise, indicating that obedience, exemplified by Psalm 1, leads finally to undivided praise (Ps. 150), although much human experience lies between the beginning and the end.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 250.[/footnote]

Brueggemann sees Ps 73 as pivotal in the canonical structure of the Psalter. It is the theological centre of the book. This psalm functions to introduce Books Three–Five just as Ps 1 introduced Books One–Two. Ps 73 begins with a reassertion of the thesis of Ps 1 that the obedient are blessed (Ps.73:1). Then the psalmist immediately begins to suggest that the wicked in fact do prosper at times (Ps.73:2–13). Then he goes to the sanctuary where he realizes that the wicked will surely one day perish (Ps.73:17–20). The psalm then moves toward radical faith in which communion with God is the supreme good which dwarfs all other issues (Ps.73:23–26 ).[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


V. Thematic Analysis

1. Difficulties

Two difficulties arise whenever we try to discuss the theology of the Psalter. Firstly, there is the variety inherent in 150 individual songs composed over a 1000 year period by a variety of authors in many different situations. This does not help us in systematizing the book’s theology. However, although it is not systematic it is extensive, so extensive that Martin Luther called it “a little Bible and summary of the Old Testament.” The second difficulty is that it is a book of prayers from men to God rather than a revelation of God to men. However, these prayers are as inspired as the prophets and reveal God implicitly rather than explicitly.

Theology will come to us from them indirectly and implicitly; we expect the psalms to reflect theology, but hardly as liturgy to initiate it.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 252.[/footnote]

2. Praise of God

As the Psalms are primarily about praising God, and as God is the central character in the book, the book reveals God in a variety of ways.

Shield Ps.3:3 ; 28:7 ; 119:114
Rock Ps.18:2 ; 42:9 ; 95:1
King Ps.5:2 ; 44:4 ; 74:12
Shepherd Ps.23:1 ; 80:1
Judge Ps.7:11
Refuge Ps.46:1 ; 62:7
Fortress Ps.31:3 ; 71:3
Avenger Ps.26:1
Creator Ps.8:1 , 6
Deliverer Ps.37:39 , 40
Healer Ps.30:2
Protector Ps.5:11
Provider Ps.78:23–29
Redeemer Ps.107:2

[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

God’s transcendence and immanence are also highlighted. He is above all and yet involved with all. The end result of all this is the uniqueness of Yahweh when compared with dumb idols, a point specifically referred to in some Psalms. This was because throughout the Old Testament Israel was continually attracted to the gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East, particularly the Canaanite deities.

The great purpose of the Psalms is that God be worshipped (Ps.148) for who He is (Ps.103:1; 48:1), for what He has done and is doing for His creation (Ps.19:1; 8:1; 145:15-16), for what He has done and is doing for His people (Ps.103:2; 18:1-2; 98:1-2).

3. Man

Twice the question is asked, “What is man? (Ps.8:4; 144:3). The first question is in the context of comparing God’s world with man, and the second is the result of considering the brevity of man’s life. The Psalms present a realistic portrayal of man as a poor, weak, perishing sinner. “Sin” and “iniquity” occur at least 65 times. Judgment and associated words occur more than 100 times.

4. Christian experience

The Psalms cover every Christian experience and give us God-inspired words with which to describe our situations to ourselves, others and God. The subdued historical references assist the transference of the Psalm to others.

John Calvin said: “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 252.[/footnote]

There are psalms for every occasion in life and for every spiritual condition, and they form an ideal basis for personal devotional life. There is no experience of the believer that is not reflected here. There is the expression of distress, anguish of heart, fear, hope, joy, trust, comfort, thankfulness, devotion to God, deep repentance for sin and delight in God’s mercy, pardon and peace. There is a distinctly spiritual purpose behind all of these songs. They are designed to raise the mind above the things of the world, to lift the heart towards God, to inspire confidence in God, to provide comfort in times of trial and affliction and to point forward to a better life ahead for the people of God.[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 463.[/footnote]

Dillard and Longman argue that the Psalms reveal in a special way the covenant relationship between God and His people and therefore may be called a “Covenantal Prayerbook.”

The term covenant (berit) is explicitly used in only twelve psalms (it is a major theme in only Psalms 89 and 132). Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the fact that the psalmists speak out in the context of the covenant. These are people who speak to God and about God on the basis of being in a covenant relationship with him. Thus covenant is a concept that ties together many strands of the theology of the Psalms.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 228.[/footnote]

To support this view they highlight the Psalms’ covenant themes of Mt Zion (where the ark of the covenant was located), historical recitation, legal obligations, kingship and warfare. Yahweh, the covenant name of God is used over 500 times.

5. Imprecations

a. Definition

An imprecation is “an invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies who in these special cases are also simultaneously the enemies of God” (Kaiser, 1983, 294). Three Psalms are mainly imprecatory (Ps.35; 69, 109). Others have imprecatory verses (Ps.5, 7, 10, 28, 31, 40, 55, 58, 59, 70, 71, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 140).

b. The Problem

The calling down of curses upon one’s enemies seems to be contrary both to the spirit and letter of the New Testament (Matt.5:43-44)

c. The Answer

(i) Apart from the more frequently quoted Psalms of a strong Messianic nature (Ps.1, 22, 110, 118), the imprecatory Psalms 35, 69 and 109 are the next most frequently quoted Psalms in the New Testament, and they are quoted without any reserve or qualification.

(ii) David was the author of most of the imprecatory Psalms. Yet, both the historical books and the psalms themselves do not portray a vindictive man, but rather one who prayed for his enemies and sought to do them good (e.g., Ps 35:13; 109:4, 5).

(iii). The New Testament contains imprecations (Matt.24; Gal.5:12; 2 Tim. 4:14; Rev.6:10) and describes even more horrendous judgment on the unrepentant ungodly: eternal punishment.

(iv) The substance of the imprecatory Psalms is that justice be done and the innocent righteous vindicated, which is a New Testament theme also (Lk.18:1-8).

(v) As the king was God’s representative, God’s reputation was tied up with his own. Offending God’s anointed was equivalent to offending God.

(vi) The imprecations reflect the zeal of God’s people for the Kingdom of God and their passionate hatred of sin and evil.

(vii) The imprecation is a prayer for God to carry out His promised judgments on the hardened and impenitent ungodly. The Psalmist does not take vengeance himself.

(viii) Christians are to love their enemies and bless those who curse them and spitefully use them. Nevertheless they will desire at the same time the downfall of all evil and will pray for such.

(ix) Now our enemies are spiritual and we fight with spiritual weapons (Eph.6:12).

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., Ps 69:22-29). Such prayers reflected the calling of the Israelites 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 (curses) of the psalms will be fulfilled against all the enemies of God.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 805.[/footnote]

VI. New Testament Analysis

The book of Psalms is cited almost as frequently as Isaiah in the New Testament. These citations are largely, though not exclusively, Messianic (eg; Ps.31:4; Rom.3:4). When we classify a Psalm as Messianic, what we are saying is that it clearly points to or speaks of Christ. The table below presents a sample of Messianic Psalms and their New Testament fulfillment.

Psalm Description Fulfillment
Ps.2:7 The Son of God Matthew 3:17, Acts 13:33
Ps.8:2 Praised by children Matthew 21:15 , 16
Ps.8:3-5 Humanity of Christ Heb.2:5-9
Ps.8:6 Ruler of all Hebrews 2:8
Ps.16:10 Rises from death Matthew 28:7
Ps.22:1 Forsaken by God Matthew 27:46
Ps.22:7,8 Derided by enemies Luke 23:35
Ps.22:16 Hands and feet pierced John 20:27
Ps.22:18 Lots cast for clothes Matthew 27:35, 36
Ps.34:20 Bones unbroken John 19:32, 33, 36
Ps.35:11 Accused by false witnesses Mark 14:57
Ps.35:19 Hated without cause John 15:25
Ps.40:7, 8 Delights in God’s will Hebrews 10:7
Ps.41:9 Betrayed by a friend Luke 22:47
Ps.45:6 The eternal King Hebrews 1:8
Ps.68:18 Ascends to heaven Acts 1:9-11
Ps.69:9 Zealous for God’s house John 2:17
Ps.69:21 Given vinegar and gall Matthew 27:34
Ps.109:4 Prays for enemies Luke 23:34
Ps.109:8 His betrayer replaced Acts 1:20
Ps.110:1 Rules over His enemies Matthew 22:44
Ps.110:4 A priest forever Hebrews 5:6
Ps.118:22 The chief cornerstone Matthew 21:42
Ps.118:26 Comes in the name of the Lord Matthew 21:9

It should be remembered that all the Psalms may be understood in a Christological way – referring to His person and work at His first and second comings. Psalms which are directed to God are also directed to Jesus Christ, as the second person of the Godhead. Using the Psalms, Christians bring before Christ their worship, thanksgiving, laments, confidence, etc.

VII. The Message of the Psalms

Original Message: Israel should praise God for who He is, what He has done, is doing and will do.
Present Message: The Church should praise God for who He is, what He has done, is doing and will do.