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by Peter Pett
The Book of Psalms (The Psalter)
A Commentary by Dr Peter Pett BA BD Hons London DD
Note: Throughout this commentary God’s Name is represented as YHWH in accordance with the Hebrew text. LXX represented it as ‘LORD’. It is in fact a name that was seen as so sacred that no one ever pronounced it. Thus how to do so has been forgotten. Yahweh is probably the nearest best guess, although others suggest Yohweh. Jehovah is a corruption of it.
The Book of Psalms divides up into five sections, each of which ends with a special ‘blessing, which are as follows:
· Book 1. Psalms 1-41, which ends with ‘blessed be YHWH the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting, Amen and Amen.’
· Book 2. Psalms 42-72 which ends with ‘Blessed by YHWH God, the God of Israel, Who only does wonderful things. And blessed be His glorious name for ever, and let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen.
· Book 3. Psalms 73-89 which ends with ‘Blessed be YHWH for evermore. Amen and Amen.
· Book 4. Psalms 90-106 which ends with ‘Blessed be YHWH the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting, and let all the people say, “Amen”. Praise you YHWH.’
· Book 5. Psalms 107-150 which ends with ‘Let everything that has breath praise YHWH’. Praise you YHWH.’
It is not my intention to go into detail at this stage about the book as a whole. There are many views which are helpful in encouraging thought, but interesting though they may be, much is speculation about things that we will never know the answers to, and are not necessary to the appreciation of the Psalms.
Suffice to say that Psalms (spiritual songs and prayers) were written from an early stage. See for example Exodus 15:1-18; Exodus 15:21 and Judges 5:0. Compare Numbers 10:35-36. They often arose from people’s experiences and would be in the forms of Hebrew poetry, and they were used for worship, prayer and praise. Israel’s covenant view of YHWH would demand such expressions of praise, as the song of Miriam demonstrates, and these would undoubtedly from the beginning include psalms referring to the Exodus deliverance which may well have been incorporated into some of the Psalms we now have. Such psalms were indeed part of the milieu of the time of Moses and later, and Canaanite examples from before the time of Moses are found at Ugarit.
Unless such ancient psalms and songs disappeared completely, something which must be considered very doubtful with regard to what would have been precious to many people, and would have been seen as of ancient tradition, we must consider the probability that many of them were incorporated in the later Psalms as we have them now.
1 Chronicles 6:31-32 makes clear that there was an official group of singers in the Tabernacle once the Ark had taken its due place there in the time of David. And they had to have something to sing. But it is doubtful if they were a total innovation. There would have been singers connected with the Tabernacle from the earliest days (as the song of Miriam demonstrates - Exodus 15:20-21).
So while it is reasonable to call the book of Psalms ‘the hymn book of the second temple’ if we do not interpret that too restrictively and literally, (for it certainly was that), we would have to assume, even if we had nothing else to go on, that many were written and used in public worship long before the days of the second temple. For most hymns were written for use as individual Psalms before they were introduced into a collection, and the same is true of many of these Psalms, and there are indications that there were possibly smaller collections before they were gathered into one large collection. We have no reason to doubt that some of them were originally used for worship in the Tabernacle, in the first Temple, and in the worship of the northern kingdom (see Isaiah 30:29; Amos 5:23). Similar works of worship and praise to their own gods were found from the earliest times among the Canaanites, as witnessed at Ugarit, and in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Therefore Israel’s stress on the fact that YHWH revealed Himself through historical deliverance and activity was even more likely to produce such songs of praise and worship.
Thus the one thing that we can be sure about is that the book grew from smaller beginnings, and developed over the centuries. As we shall see we have indications that a good number of them at least were set to music, and that some were seen as particularly suitable for certain musical instruments and for certain specific occasions. Some were connected with specific incidents, but in the end even these became generalised, for they were used for general worship.
With regard to authorship we must tread with care. In the case of some of them specific authorship is stated, but other ascriptions may be more general. Whereas David wrote many Psalms (see 2 Samuel 23:1 where he is called ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel’) the ascription ‘to (or ‘for’) David’ may not always be intended to indicate authorship. Some may simply have been dedicated to David by later composers, who admired him and saw themselves as following in his train, especially by such descendants of his as inherited his musical prowess, their works possibly then being seen as part of a smaller corpus ‘for David’. Many do, however, see the heading as indicating his authorship in view of the fact that the same appellation is used for psalms which are undoubtedly the work of David.
There is no reason intrinsically why a good number should not be attributed to him. Just as Moses wrote out the Law to meet the particular needs of a conglomerate group delivered from Egypt, so might David, with his poetic and musical soul, and as priest after the order of Melchizedek (Psalms 110:4), have felt a responsibility to add to the worship material available for the Tabernacle and for the Temple that it was his desire to build. He was after all the nation’s intercessor. And once he was refused permission to build the Temple he may well have devoted his talents to preparing for its building by writing psalms ready for its more formal worship, adapting some of his own compositions to that end. For as he grew older he regularly left the fighting to others (2 Samuel 11:1)
It is probable that some of the Psalms were to some small extent developed and changed by pious men, both for musical reasons and with the idea of ‘modernising’ them, and clarifying their meaning, or providing some extra element of worship, just as in modern hymnals hymns are altered in order to ‘improve’ and modernise them, with, in the latter case, a verse being added or taken away. The ancient Hebrew language was originally primitive, and, as with all languages, developed and grew through the centuries. It would have been very different in the time of Moses from the time of the Exile. So just as many of us find Chaucer difficult to understand because he wrote in ancient ‘English’, so would Israel find ancient Hebrew difficult to understand, especially in poetry. Thus in a book so constantly used in worship it is probable that an occasional modernising touch would be considered necessary in order to maintain the sense for the users.
But in the end we have here an inspired collection of sacred writings suitable for our use, and with many lessons to teach us, although we must ever remember that, while we can learn from them, they are not carefully worded doctrinal statements but ideas conveyed through vivid poetry. We must remember that we cannot justly treat a verse from a Psalm as analytically and as factually as we would a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
We must differentiate the headings, which are not a part of the text, from the Psalms themselves. They may provide valuable insights into the significance of a particular Psalm and many are clearly very ancient (by the time the LXX was translated in the three centuries preceding Christ’s coming the meaning of many of the terms had been long forgotten), and some contain information not known of from elsewhere. They cannot fairly be dismissed as just an attempt to fit the life of David in with the Psalms. They bear the evidence of ancient tradition. This is evidenced by the fact that LXX clearly did not understand the language of many of the titles. But whether these headings were seen as part of ‘the inspired word’ is doubtful. LXX did not hesitate to add further titles. They were probably rather seen as helpful notes.
The influence of David is everywhere obvious. The Psalms in the first section of the Book, apart from an occasional anonymous Psalm, are dedicated ‘to David’. We could almost call this ‘the Davidic collection, were it not for the fact that Psalms of David appear in all four of the remaining sections. In section 2 we have Psalms 51-65, 68-70, and it ends with a Psalm of Solomon. In section 3, mainly composed of Psalms of Asaph, with a few of the sons of Korah, we have Psalms 86:0, ‘a prayer of David’. In section 4 we have Psalms 101, 103, although apart from one by Moses most are anonymous. In section 5 we have Psalms 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138-145. So the influence of David pervades the whole Psalter. Many would have essentially been written by David himself, but it would soon become customary to dedicate Psalms ‘to David’ (the Davidic house) so that we must not be over dogmatic. What we must not do is allow such questions to interfere with our appreciation of the Psalms.
the Fifth Week after Easter