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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable


- Psalms

by Thomas Constable



The title of this book in the Hebrew Bible is Tehillim, which means "praise songs." The title adopted by the Septuagint translators for their Greek version was Psalmoi meaning "songs to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument." This Greek word translates the Hebrew word mizmor that occurs in the titles of 57 of the psalms. In time the Greek word psalmoi came to mean "songs of praise" without reference to stringed accompaniment. The English translators transliterated the Greek title resulting in the title "Psalms" in English Bibles.


The texts of the individual psalms do not usually indicate who wrote them. Psa_72:20 seems to be an exception, but this verse was probably an early editorial addition referring to the preceding collection of Davidic psalms of which Psalms 72 was the last. [Note: See Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 439.] However, some of the titles of the individual psalms do contain information about the writers. The titles occur in English versions after the heading (e.g., "Psalms 1") and before the first verse. They were usually the first verse in the Hebrew Bible. Consequently the numbering of the verses in the Hebrew and English Bibles is often different, the first verse in the Septuagint and English texts usually being the second verse in the Hebrew text when the psalm has a title.

". . . there is considerable circumstantial evidence that the psalm titles were later additions." [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 241.]

However, one should not understand this statement to mean that they are not inspired. As with some of the added and updated material in the historical books, the Holy Spirit evidently led editors to add material that the original writer did not include. Two examples are the city name "Dan" in Genesis, and the city name "Rameses" in Exodus. Some critics of the Psalms have concluded that the titles are not reliable. Conservative scholars have adequately refuted these views [Note: E.g., Archer, pp. 440-45.] This is the only really reliable information we have as to who composed these psalms, though the commentators have their theories. Only Psalms and Proverbs in the Old Testament claim composite authorship for themselves.

"The best solution is to regard the titles as early reliable tradition concerning the authorship and setting of the psalms. The titles, however, should not be taken as original or canonical." [Note: Longman and Dillard, p. 242.]

Not all the titles contain information about authorship. Students of the psalms sometimes refer to those without writer information in their titles as anonymous or "orphan" psalms. The ones that do contain this information refer to the following writers. Moses wrote Psalms 90. David composed at least 73 psalms, mostly in the first two books of the Psalter (i.e., Psalms 1-72). Asaph wrote 12 (Psalms 50, 73-83). Korah’s descendants were responsible for 10 (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 87-88). Solomon wrote one or two (127 and perhaps 72). Heman the Ezrahite wrote one (Psalms 88), and Ethan the Ezrahite composed one (Psalms 89). There is some difference in the numbering of the psalms among versions. This is because some translations, such as the Protestant English versions, come from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text. Others, such as the Roman Catholic English versions, followed the Septuagint (Greek) text.


Of these psalms, the earliest would have been the one Moses wrote (Psalms 90), and it probably dates from about 1405 B.C. Those David composed would have originated between about 1020 and 975 B.C. Asaph was a contemporary of David, so we can date his in approximately the same period. Solomon’s psalm(s) seem to have been produced about 950 B.C. Korah’s descendants, as well as Heman and Ethan, probably lived after Solomon, but exactly when we cannot identify. Since Heman and Ethan are connected with Ezra as Ezrahites, they probably lived and wrote after the Babylonian exile.

We can date some of the psalms that do not contain information about their writers in the title, if they have a title, by their subject matter. For example, David seems to have written Psalms 2, 33 even though his name does not occur in the superscriptions (cf. Act_4:25). Likewise Psalms 126, 137 must have been late compositions dating from the time the Jews returned from Babylonian exile or shortly after that.

"An analogy between the Psalter and a contemporary hymnbook is instructive. Many modern hymns arose as a result of a specific event in the life of a hymn writer, but the event remains hidden (at least without historical research) from the person who sings the song today. The hymn was written in such a way that it allows all who sing it to identify with it." [Note: Ibid., pp. 244-45.]

Most of the Psalms, then, were written between 1000 and 450 B.C. Eugene Merrill narrowed these dates to 970 and 550 B.C. [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "Psalms: Human Response to Divine Presence," in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 404.] The one by Moses was composed considerably earlier and a few may have been written later, but probably not much later, than 450 B.C.

There is some internal evidence in the Book of Psalms that the Jews collected the individual psalms and compiled them into groups in various stages and that this process took many years. [Note: See Duane L. Christensen, "The Book of Psalms within the Canonical Process in Ancient Israel," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39:3 (September 1996):421-32.] We would expect this because some psalms date hundreds of years after others. Psa_72:20, for example, seems to mark the end of a collection of David’s psalms that antedated the Psalter we now have, but which editors incorporated into the larger work. Psalms 1 appears intended to introduce this collection and, probably later, the entire Psalter. The writer of most of the first 72 psalms (Books 1 and 2 of our modern editions) was David. Editors may have added those by Asaph and Korah’s descendants (Psalms 42-50) to this collection later. Seventeen psalms after Psalms 72 claim that David wrote them. Solomon (2Ch_5:11-14; 2Ch_7:6; 2Ch_9:11; Ecc_2:8), Jehoshaphat (2Ch_20:21-22), and Jehoiada (2Ch_23:18) all organized temple singing and may have had a hand in compiling some of the psalms. Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.; 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), one of Judah’s best kings and one who led his people in returning to Scripture, may have added to and organized part of the Psalter (cf. 2Ch_29:25-28; 2Ch_29:30; 2Ch_30:21; 2Ch_31:2; Pro_25:1). So may Josiah, another reforming king of Judah (640-609 B.C.; 2Ki_22:1 to 2Ki_23:30; 2 Chronicles 34-35; cf. 2Ch_35:15; 2Ch_35:25). The last two books (sections) of Psalms (chs. 90-106 and 107-150) contain more miscellaneous psalms dating from Moses to the return from exile. It seems likely that Ezra, the great renovator of postexilic Judaism, may have been responsible for adding these and perhaps putting the whole collection in its final form.

As is true of modern hymnals, there are smaller collections of Psalms within the larger collections. These smaller collections include songs of ascent (Psalms 120-134), the writings of Asaph (Psalms 73-83), the psalms of Korah’s descendants (Psalms 42-49), and the hallelujah psalms (Psalms 113-118, 146-150).

"The picture that emerges is a mixture of order and informality of arrangement, which invites but also defeats the attempt to account for every detail of its final form. There is some chronological progression, with David most in evidence in the first half, and a clear allusion to the captivity towards the close of Book V (Psalms 137). But David reappears in the next psalm (138), and by contrast, the fall of Jerusalem had been lamented as far back as Psalms 74." [Note: Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, p. 6.]

Each of the five books or major sections of the Psalter ends with a doxology, and Psalms 150 is a grand doxology for the whole collection. The earliest evidence of the fivefold division of the Book of Psalms comes from the Qumran scrolls, which scribes copied early in the first century A.D. At least 30 partial or complete manuscripts of the Book of Psalms were found, the largest manuscript collection of any Bible book found there. Undoubtedly the Psalter was in its final form by the close of the Old Testament canon, namely, by 400 B.C. The fivefold division may have been an intentional attempt to replicate the fivefold division of the Torah (Law, Pentateuch), which was the foundation of Israelite life and faith. [Note: C. Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, p. 58.]


Historically the psalms cover a period of about 1000 years, from the time of Moses (ca. 1400 B.C.) to the Israelites’ return from exile (ca. 450 B.C.).


In terms of subject matter, the psalms deal with selected events of that millennium (1400-450 B.C.). They provide us with the thoughts and feelings of those who went through the experiences recorded, especially their God-directed thoughts and feelings. [Note: For a survey of approaches to the Psalter that view it holistically, see S. Jonathan Murphy, "Is the Psalter a Book with a Single Message?" Bibliotheca Sacra 165:659 (July-September 2008):283-93.]

"Of all the books in the Old Testament the Book of Psalms most vividly represents the faith of individuals in the Lord. The Psalms are the inspired responses of human hearts to God’s revelation of Himself in law, history, and prophecy. Saints of all ages have appropriated this collection of prayers and praises in their public worship and private meditations." [Note: Allen P. Ross, "Psalms," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 779.]


The psalms are all prayers written in Hebrew poetry.

"The leading characteristic of poetry is terseness or conciseness. . . .

"Parallelism is almost always present in poetry, but it is also a linguistic ornament that is occasionally found in prose contexts. Thus parallelism alone is not a sufficient criterion to define poetry. Wherever there is a high proportion of parallel lines, however, we can be certain that we are dealing with a poetic passage. . . .

"Terseness, parallelism, and imagery are the most common characteristics of Hebrew poetry. [Note: Longman and Dillard, pp. 26, 27, 28.]

The most frequent types of parallelism are the following. In synonymous parallelism, the writer repeats the thought of the first line in the following line (e.g., Psa_24:1-3). Antithetic parallelism is the reverse: the second line expresses a contrasting thought compared to the first line (e.g., Psa_1:6; Psa_37:9). In synthetic parallelism, the second line explains or expands the thought expressed in the first line (e.g., Psa_19:7-9). When the second line completes the thought of the first line, we have climactic parallelism (e.g., Psa_29:1). It is important to observe parallelism because failure to do so can result in erroneous interpretation. For example, one might conclude that the writer is making an important distinction when all he is doing is restating the same idea in different words, in the case of synonymous parallelism. [Note: For further discussion of Hebrew poetry see S. C. Yoder, Poetry of the Old Testament, and G. B. Gray, The Forms of Hebrew Poetry.]


Types of psalms are sub-genre classifications. What is now the most common way of classifying the psalms originated with the German scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) at the beginning of the twentieth century. [Note: Hermann Gunkel, Ausgewahlte Psalmen; ibid., The Psalms: A Form-Critical Approach.] He was one of the founders of the form critical school of scholarship that sought to understand a given portion of Scripture by analyzing the form in which the writer composed it. Scholars then compared that form with other biblical and contemporary literature from the ancient Near Eastern countries that were Israel’s neighbors, particularly Egypt and Mesopotamia. Gunkel classified the psalms into various categories or types (Germ. gattungen) by trying to identify the general situation in life (Germ. sitz im leben) that brought them into existence, rather than by their content. He proposed seven types: hymns, community laments, songs of the individual, thank offering songs, laments of the individual, entrance liturgies, and royal psalms. Gunkel concluded that most of the psalms were postexilic. Many scholars have followed this form critical approach in their study of the Psalms as well as in other portions of the Old Testament. More recent scholars of the form critical school include Mowinckel, Eissfeldt, Bentzen, Engnell, Oesterley, Robinson, Leslie, Westermann, and Gerstenberger.

Sigmund Mowinckel followed Gunkel but took a more radical approach and proposed that virtually all of the psalms were composed for liturgical or cultic purposes. [Note: Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship.] Claus Westermann, following Mowinckel, took a more mediating position and simplified the types of psalms into two: psalms of lament and psalms of praise. He further subdivided the psalms of lament into either communal or individual, depending on the speaker, and he subdivided the psalms of praise into declarative (communal or individual) or descriptive, depending on the subject matter. [Note: Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms.] Walter Brueggemann refined this form critical approach further. He divided the psalms into those that express orientation to the status quo, those that express disorientation with it, and those that present a new orientation to a better, future life. [Note: WalterBrueggemann, The Message of the Psalms.] Longman and Dillard, though not form critics, followed the same basic division but labeled these three types: hymns of joy, laments, and thanksgivings. Other less common types they called psalms of confidence, psalms of remembrance, wisdom psalms, and kingship psalms-which they further divided into psalms that extol God as king, and psalms that extol the ruler of Israel as king. [Note: Longman and Dillard, pp. 246-52.]

Most form critical scholars speculated about the origins of the various psalms and concluded that priests wrote most of them late in Israel’s history. This has led many conservatives to reject form criticism completely. Nonetheless this school of interpreters has given us some helpful information, namely, the various literary types of psalms that appear in the book.

Some of the more important types of psalms by literary form are the following. Individual laments are psalms by individuals calling on God for help from distress. [Note: See Brian L. Webster and David R. Beach, "The Place of Lament in the Christian Life," Bibliotheca Sacra 164:656 (October-December 2007):387-402.] National or communal laments are similar but voice a corporate cry for help in view of some national situation. Typically laments begin with a complaint, contain a statement of trust, and end with praise of God.

"Laments outnumber every other kind of psalm in the Psalter; almost a third of the psalms belong to this category." [Note: Edward M. Curtis, "Ancient Psalms and Modern Worship," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:615 (July-September 1997):290.]

Likewise an individual, rather than a group, spoke the great majority of the psalms. Thanksgiving psalms-sometimes also called psalms of declarative praise-center on some act of deliverance God granted His people. Descriptive praise psalms offer praise to God for Himself or for His general working rather than for a specific instance of His working. The poets wrote the pilgrim psalms, also called songs of ascent, for singing by the Israelites as they made their thrice-yearly pilgrimages up to Jerusalem for the required festival observances there. Royal psalms are those in which the king of Israel is the chief character. Some event in his reign is being described, such as his coronation, wedding, or departure for battle. The enthronement psalms speak of the Lord as the great king fulfilling His role in some way such as reigning or coming to judge.

The messianic psalms are perhaps the most commonly known type. They predict the coming of a messiah. Traditionally interpreters have considered a psalm messianic if, having little or no relationship to its historical context, it anticipated the Messiah or predicted the Messiah. [Note: Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms, p. 67.] Franz Delitzsch broke these psalms down into five kinds. The first is the purely prophetic, which predicts that a future Davidic king would be the Lord (Psalms 110). Second, the eschatological psalms predict the coming of Messiah and the consummation of His kingdom (Psalms 96-99, et al.). Third, we have the typological-prophetic in which the writer describes his own experience but goes beyond that to describe what became true of the Messiah (e.g., Psalms 22). Fourth, there are the indirectly messianic psalms composed for a contemporary king but having ultimate fulfillment in Messiah (Psalms 2; Psalms 45; Psalms 72). Fifth, we have the typically messianic in which the writer was in some way typical of Messiah, but all he wrote in the psalm did not describe Him (e.g., Psa_34:20; Psa_109:8 as used in Act_1:20). [Note: Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms , 1:68-71.] The following seem to be messianic psalms in whole or in part: 2 (cf. Mat_3:17; Act_13:33; Heb_1:5; Heb_5:5; Heb_7:28; 2Pe_1:17); 8 (Mat_21:15-16; Heb_2:6-9); 16 (Act_2:25-28; Act_13:35); 22 (Mat_27:46; Mar_15:34); 34; 40; 41; 45 (Heb_1:8-9); 68; 69 (Joh_2:17; Joh_15:25); 72; 96-99; 102; 109; 110; and 118 (Mat_21:42). [Note: See Archer, p. 452.] Other psalms that some writers identify as messianic include 23, 24, and 89. [Note: See The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 601.]

Some interpreters think of the imprecatory psalms as a distinct type on the basis of their subject matter. These psalms contain imprecations, or curses, on God’s enemies. Most of the imprecations in the psalms occur in only one or two verses in a given psalm. However, there are a few psalms that are almost entirely imprecatory (e.g., Psalms 35, 69, , 109). Bullock wrote that there are at least seven psalms that fall into the category of imprecatory psalms: Psalms 35, 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137. [Note: Bullock, p. 228.] Of these, Psalms 35, 69, 109 are the most intense. One writer argued that the imprecations were prophetic judgment proclamations. [Note: Alex Luc, "Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42:3 (September 1999):395-410.]

The imprecatory psalms have created a problem for some Christians, since Jesus Christ taught His disciples to bless their enemies and not to curse them (Mat_5:43-44; Luk_6:27-28; cf. Rom_12:14). In the progress of revelation, it was not easy for the writers of the psalms to see the details of the future distinctly. They could not feel the peace about God’s ultimate establishment of justice that modern believers who know their Bibles do. Consequently, when they witnessed injustice and oppression, they did not usually know how God would deal with it, so they called on Him to vindicate Himself immediately. With the coming of Jesus Christ and the added revelation He provided, believers now have a fuller picture of how God will balance the scales of justice. It is therefore inappropriate for us to pray imprecations of the sort we find in the Old Testament. [Note: See Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 880.] God has recorded them for our benefit, not as examples to follow in their wording but in their spirit of zeal for God’s glory. Another writer believed that at times it is legitimate for Christians to pray prayers of imprecation. [Note: John N. Day, "The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics," Bibliotheca Sacra 159:634 (April-June 2002):166-86.] Some people believe that the psalmists sometimes (not always) went "over the top" and said things they really should not have said in their anger and zeal. We have other examples of such language in Job. The fact that Scripture records what people said and did, even though this went beyond God’s will, does not mean that God approved their words and deeds. [Note: For further study of imprecations see H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, pp. 18-20; Kidner, pp. 25-32; Archer, pp. 452-53; Chalmers Martin, "Imprecations in the Psalms," in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, pp. 113-32; Roy B. Zuck, "The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms" (ThM thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1957); J. Carl Laney, "A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms," Bibliotheca Sacra 138:549 (January-March 1981):35-45; Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "A Theology of the Psalms," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 257-304; and Bullock, pp. 228-38.]

Another type of psalm, based on the form in which the writer set it rather than on the subject matter, is the acrostic. In these psalms each verse, or group of verses in the case of Psalms 119, begins with the succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalmists adopted this style so the Israelites could memorize and remember the psalm easily. This form also suggests a complete or exhaustive expression of the psalmist’s mind on his subject. The acrostic psalms are these: 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145. [Note: Ross, p. 781.]


The New Testament writers quoted the Book of Psalms more frequently than any other Old Testament book. The "Index of Quotations" in the United Bible Societies’ fourth edition of the Greek New Testament lists just over 400 quotations from the Psalter, including phrases as well as complete verses. In comparison, this New Testament identified 47 quotations from Isaiah, the second most frequently quoted Old Testament book. Of the 150 psalms, the New Testament quotes 35 of them.


The psalms deal primarily with God, man (especially Israel as a covenant community and the individuals in that community), and the resolution of the tension between a holy, transcendent God and sinful, alienated, finite human beings. [Note: Merrill, pp. 405-6. For a deeper though not overwhelming discussion of introductory matters, see VanGemeren, pp. 3-39.]


In addition to the Psalms’ value to the New Testament writers, their value as Old Testament texts persists today.

"The Psalms mirror the faith of Israel. In them we receive windows that enable us to look out on our brothers and sisters in the faith of more than twenty-five hundred years ago. The Psalms invite us to experience how God’s people in the past related to Him. [Note: Willem A. VanGemeren, "Psalms," in Psalms-Song of Songs, vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 5.]

"The Psalter bridges the gap between then and now, the ancient world and the present world, probably better than any other book of the Bible." [Note: Patrick D. Miller Jr., Interpreting the Psalms, p. 22.]

"If God’s people before the Incarnation could have such a faith in the Lord, witnessing to his greatness and readiness to help, how much more should this be true among twentieth-century Christians? The Book of Psalms can revolutionize our devotional life, our family patterns, and the fellowship and the witness of the church of Jesus Christ." [Note: VanGemeren, p. 5.]

"We are in danger of losing the Psalter in our churches; indeed, many have already lost it, and so it is no accident that many people in our congregations do not know how to pray." [Note: Elizabeth Achtemeier, "Preaching from the Psalms," Review and Expositor 81 (1984):443.]


Some scholars have attempted to explain a single holistic structure that they believe the entire Book of Psalms demonstrates. [Note: E.g., G. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter; idem., Psalms, in The NIV Application Commentary.] These attempts have so far not convinced most other Psalms scholars. [Note: See the discussion in Longman and Dillard, pp. 252-55.]


I.    Book 1: chs. 1-41 (the book of personal experience)

II.    Book 2: chs. 42-72 (the book of Elohim)

III.    Book 3: chs. 73-89 (the dark book)

IV.    Book 4: chs. 90-106 (the book of the King)

V.    Book 5: chs. 107-150 (the book of praise)


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