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Bible Commentaries

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- Psalms

by Editor - Joseph Exell




Book of Praise

1. The Hebrew title is “Tehillim” (plural of “Tehillah,” praise or hymn), Praises or Songs of Praise; or “Sepher Tehillim,” Book of Praise, expressive of the character and object of the book, namely, “to declare the Glory of God.”

2. The title given in New Testament (Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20) is “Book of Psalms,” and in all Christian versions it is the same, or collectively “The Psalter,” a name derived from a musical stringed instrument (1 Kings 10:12) made of wood, in the style of a harp and in shape like a Greek delta. (E. J. Boyce.)


Another name, given not to the whole Psalter, but to a portion of it, is “Tephilloth,” Prayers. At the end of Psalms 72:1-20, there is appended a notice, which applies probably to the whole collection up to that point, “The Prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended”; and in the later Books a few other Psalms (Psalms 86:1-17; Psalms 90:1-17; Psalms 102:1-28; Psalms 142:1-7) are entitled “Prayers.” The title is justified by the contents of most of the Psalms. Psalms, it is true, like Psalms 1:1-6; Psalms 2:1-12; Psalms 33:1-22; Psalms 37:1-40, contain no address to God; and many others, which contain petitions and supplications, are not throughout in the form of prayers. And yet, if prayer be the eye of the heart turned towards God, then each Psalm is a prayer. Thus the very names of the Psalms, “Praises and Prayers,” not only tell us what they are, but remind us “in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, to make known our requests unto God.” (Bishop Perowne.)


We are accustomed to speak as if the Psalter were a single book; but, accurately, it is five books drawn up at different times and placed side by side. In Revised Version this division is rightly maintained, and even in Authorised Version it may be traced by means of the doxology with which each book closes. Book I comprises chapters 1-41; Book II, chapters 42-72 Book III, chapters 73-89; Book IV, chapters 90-106; Book V, chapters 107-150. There is some reason to believe, however, that originally the books were three, and that they were altered into five in imitation of the Pentateuch; the original divisions being--

(1) 1-41,

(2) 42-89,

(3) 90-150.

There can be no doubt that these books were compiled in the order in which they come down to us; yet we are not to imagine that all the early Psalms were comprised in the first book, and none but late Psalms in the fifth. An analogy with “Hymns Ancient and Modern” may help us here. A few years ago an appendix was issued, and this contains many hymns written since the first edition was published; but also it goes over exactly the same ground as the original edition, and contains a sprinkling of ancient hymns. It is tolerably certain that originally the compilations were distinct, and that the various editors worked quite independently. This is shown by the remarkable fact that the same Psalms, with slight variations, occur more than once, just as nowadays we may find the same hymn, with or without a slight change, in, say, “Hymns Ancient and Modern” and “The Hymnal Companion.” Thus Psalms 53:1-6 in Book II is the same as Psalms 14:1-7 in Book I, and Psalms 70:1-5 the same as Psalms 40:13-17. And in Book V Psalms 108:1-13, consists of five verses of Psalms 57:1-11, added to six verses of Psalms 60:1-12, these verses, of course, belonging to Book II. Clearly, if the compilers of the later books were endeavouring merely to supplement the earlier they would never have incorporated into their collections Psalms which they knew had already appeared. Another proof of the independence of the various compilations is found in the fact of the varying use of the two names of God--Jehovah and Elohim. It would appear that there were periods when one name was customarily in use, and periods when opinion favoured the other name. Thus in Book I. Jehovah occurs nearly twenty times as often as Elohim; in Book II. Elohim five times as often as Jehovah; in Books IV and V, the name Jehovah alone occurs. And the curious thing is, that if the Elohim editor incorporated any Psalm or part of a Psalm from a book which prefers to speak of God as Jehovah, he deliberately changes the name to Elohim. These facts help us to see clearly what the history of the Psalms has been. The several books were plainly quite independent collections of praise songs, made at different periods, and based upon a still larger number of compilations. About 150 B.C. an editor placed the five books side by side, and perhaps added Psalms 150:1-6 as a kind of final doxology. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.)

Age and Authorship

A large proportion of the Psalms are connected, in the titles prefixed, with the names of various individuals, namely, Moses (1), David (73), Solomon (2), the sons of Korah (11, including one to which the name of Heman is also attached), Asaph (12), and Ethan (1); whilst of the Psalms bearing the name of David, some are associated with particular incidents in his lifetime. But the contents of many of these last are inconsistent with the statements in the titles. In 5:7, 27:4, and 65:4 the allusion to a temple does not suit David’s reign. In 51, which in the title is brought into relation with David’s intrigue with Bathsheba, the writer is conscious (Psalms 65:4) of sin against God only (not man), and the closing verses are a prayer for the building of the walls of Jerusalem. Psalms 34:1-22., assigned to the time when David feigned madness at the court of Gath (1 Samuel 21:13), is avowedly intended to give instruction “in the fear of Jehovah” In 51, which the title connects with Saul’s attempt to kill David at his own house (1 Samuel 19:11), the prayer to God to arise and visit the nations (Psalms 34:5; Psalms 34:8) is inappropriate to the supposed situation. In these cases the value of the titles is discredited, and doubt, in consequence, is cast upon others which are not so obviously in error. The internal evidence, however, though sufficing to disprove many of the conclusions expressed in the titles, is for the most part too vague to supply others as precise but more correct. Nevertheless, there is great probability that some Psalms proceed from David, though much uncertainty as to which they are,-- Psalms 18:1-50; Psalms 24:1-10 perhaps having as good a claim as any to be considered his. Others, by their allusions to the king, may have been composed at any time within the period of the monarchy (Psalms 2:1-12; Psalms 20:1-9; Psalms 21:1-13; Psalms 45:1-17; Psalms 61:1-8; Psalms 63:1-11; Psalms 72:1-20); and to these should be added Psalms 47:1-9; Psalms 48:1-14; Psalms 7:1-17; Psalms 76:1-12, the language of which, though more or less suitable to any occasion when the nation had experienced a great deliverance, is peculiarly appropriate to the time of Sennacherib’s overthrow in the reign of Hezekiah. Many are fixed, by their allusions to the captive and distressed condition of the people and the desolation of the temple, to the Exile, or to some later calamity like the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes (163 B.C.), which roused the resistance of the Maccabees (Psalms 74:1-23; Psalms 79:1-13; Psalms 80:1-19; Psalms 89:1-52). Psalms 126:1-6, expresses the outburst of joy excited by the return from captivity; whilst Psalms 85:1-13, seems to reflect the despondency which afterwards supervened. A certain number of Psalms are liturgical in character (Psalms 115:1-18; Psalms 135:1-21), and these must proceed from times when the temple services were carefully organised. It is not, however, improbable that many which exhibit traces of late origin contain an earlier nucleus, old material having been adapted to subsequent needs. The alterations and combinations to which writings of this kind were liable is clearly evidenced by a comparison of Psalms 108:1-13, with Psalms 57:1-11 and Psalms 60:1-12, and of Psalms 70:1-5 with Psalms 40:1-17. (G. W. Wade, D. D.)

Are there any Davidic Psalms? I can only say frankly that I am unable to answer Yes, and am not, with my present light, willing to say No. My reluctance is not due to hesitation to accept the demonstrated results of criticism, but to my uncertainty whether there may not be Davidic Psalms, or fragments, in the collection which later ages looked upon as so surely a production of the Bethlehemite king.

1. The earliest germane testimony is in Amos 6:5, which shows that David was famed as an inventor of musical instruments; but it is secular music which is referred to, and the devising of these instruments is mentioned as a reproach.

2. Ancient testimony shows that David was a skilled player, but says nothing about his singing or composing (1 Samuel 16:18).

3. Nevertheless, David was a poet (2 Samuel 1:19-27; 2 Samuel 3:33-34).

4. But the Davidic poetry in Samuel is altogether unlike the poetry in the Psalms. The lament over Saul and Jonathan offered a fine opportunity for the expression of religious emotion, but the poem expresses only human feelings. The assured Davidic poetry corresponds to his musical instruments in its secular character. This is the more remarkable because David was intensely religious.

5. True, David is called in 2 Samuel 23:1, “The sweet Psalmist of Israel”; but the passage is obscure in the original.

6. It is difficult, with any degree of confidence, to assign individual Psalms to David; for the internal evidence rarely agrees with his date or his life. Ewald assigned about a dozen Psalms, or parts of Psalms, to David; but since his day the tendency of critical opinion has steadily been growing less favourable to the theory of Davidic authorship. (L. W. Batten, Ph. D.)

None of the extant Psalms are the genuine work of David, who was doubtless a gifted musician and poet, but whose hymns were probably too little in accordance with later ideas of art and of religion to escape the great literary as well as political catastrophe of the Exile. Contrast the life of David in the Books of Samuel with the character sketched, evidently from life, in the so-called Davidic Psalms. Granting that David lived in the service of an ideal which he sought, but often failed, to realise, could that ideal have agreed with the picture presented to us in the Psalter? How much is there in the tone or the ideas or the implied circumstances of the Psalms which agrees with the tone or ideas of the traditional speeches of David and with his traditional history? Enough, perhaps, to permit us to regard him as a far-off adumbration of the nobler members of the post-exilic Church, and therefore also of Him who was the “root and offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16), but scarcely more than this. David was, in fact, the traditional founder of psalmody, and to some extent a precursor of the religion of the Psalter. Perhaps, too, Psalms which David really wrote may have been expanded by later writers. (T. K. Cheyne, D. D.)

In my judgment the evidence of tradition forces us to assign to David an important part in the development not merely of secular, but also of religious lyric poetry, between which the line that we now draw did not exist in the earlier times. On the other hand, I think it not improbable that Davidic Psalms have been so edited, adapted, added to, and subtracted from in the course of the centuries that it is doubtful whether we can hope ever certainly to identify his handiwork. (J. P. Peters, D. D.)

That some of the Psalms are of a composite character is certain, and this would, in any case, make it more difficult, to detect the authors. Even in “Hymns Ancient and Modern,” if we look at the list of writers, we find some hymns due to several hands. Thus “Oft in danger” is by Henry Kirk White, F.F. Maitland, and others; “Brightly gleams our Banner” was written by J.T. Potter, and altered by an unknown hand; several hymns have been changed or added to by the compilers, and so forth. We find the same peculiarities in the Psalter. In some cases new Psalms have been composed by taking verses of two previous compositions and piecing them together. Psalms 108:1-13, e.g., is made out of verses from Psalms 57:1-11; Psalms 60:1-12. Just as in the Rome of today comparatively modern buildings contain stones which may have formed part successively of the Rome of the ancient Republic, the Rome of the Christian emperors, and the Rome of the mediaeval popes, even so verses in the Psalms have been embedded in successive strata of Psalmody. Thus Psalms 144:1-15, is a perfect mosaic. The first eleven verses contain the following quotations: Psalms 18:1-2; Psalms 18:34; Psalms 18:47; Psalms 8:4; Psalms 18:9; Psalms 18:14-16; Psalms 18:50; Psalms 39:5-6; Psalms 12:2; Psalms 33:2-3; in fact, there is hardly a word that is not borrowed; then follow four verses which form in reality a quite distinct poem, and can hardly be made to blend with what precedes them by any legerdemain,--indeed, Bishop Perowne abandons the attempt, and prints these verses separately. If we consider these facts we see how hopeless must be the endeavour to discover the names of authors. And it is just as well that the Psalms should be disconnected from names and circumstances, for thus we learn that their teaching is of universal application, and that they express the aspirations and emotions not of this man and that man, but of all humanity. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.)

Historical Inscriptions

These are especially frequent in the first half of the collection designated “Prayers of David” (Psalms 51:1-19; Psalms 52:1-9; Psalms 53:1-6; Psalms 54:1-7; Psalms 55:1-23; Psalms 56:1-13; Psalms 57:1-11; Psalms 58:1-11; Psalms 59:1-17; Psalms 60:1-12; Psalms 61:1-8; Psalms 62:1-12; Psalms 63:1-11). An examination of these headings will show that they were taken from the historical books, and that the Psalms bear on the whole no relation to the events referred to. Apparently the title “Prayers of David” suggested to some Jewish scholar, who understood the title literally, to connect them with David’s history as related in the books of Samuel. He did not go all through the “Prayers of David” in this manner but only through the first half (Psalms 51:1-19; Psalms 52:1-9; Psalms 53:1-6; Psalms 54:1-7; Psalms 55:1-23; Psalms 56:1-13; Psalms 57:1-11; Psalms 58:1-11; Psalms 59:1-17; Psalms 60:1-12; Psalms 61:1-8; Psalms 62:1-12; Psalms 63:1-11). Afterwards his unfinished work found admirers, and his proposed identifications were placed at the heads of the Psalms he had annotated. In the first Book of Psalms, the Psalter of David, there are also three Psalms (Psalms 3:1-8; Psalms 7:1-17; Psalms 18:1-50) with historical headings. Psalms 18:1-50, appears again in the Book of Samuel, and its position there explains its title. Given the belief that David wrote Psalms 3:1-8, the reason of the present heading is apparent. Whence the heading of Psalms 7:1-17 is derived, or what is the event or individual referred to, has not yet been made out. There are, further, one or two Psalms near the close of the whole collection (Psalms 139:1-24; Psalms 140:1-13; Psalms 142:1-7) which have liturgical directions like those in the first part of the Psalter. These belong to a small collection of late date, entitled “Psalms of David,” consisting of Psalms 138:1-8; Psalms 139:1-24; Psalms 140:1-13; Psalms 141:1-10; Psalms 142:1-7; Psalms 143:1-12; Psalms 144:1-15; Psalms 145:1-21, which appear to have been modelled after and to have borrowed their headings, already unintelligible, from the “Psalms of David” in the older Psalter. (J. P. Peters, D. D.)

The inscriptions of the Psalms are like the subscriptions to the New Testament Epistles. They are not of any necessary authority, and their value must be weighed and tested by the usual critical processes. (Bishop Perowne.)

Musical Inscriptions

We can all recollect the hymn books which had immediately after the number the name of the tune to which it should be sung. The same custom prevailed among the ancient Jews, and this is the explanation of some of the inscriptions which once puzzled commentators. Thus Psalms 22:1-31 is to be sung to tune “The Hind of the Dawn”; Psalms 56:1-13 to “The Silent Dove in Far-off Lands”; Psalms 57:1-11; Psalms 59:1-17; Psalms 75:1-10 to “Destroy Not”; Psalms 9:1-20 to “The Death of the Son”; and so forth. Comment has sometimes been made on the strangeness of those titles, but the New Zealander of 3000 A.D. may be just as puzzled on looking over the tunes which head the words in some of our hymn books, e.g., “Golden Sheaves,” “Old Martyrs,” “Showers of Blessing,” and “St. Joseph of the Studium.” In some hymn books the contents are distinguished as hymns, psalms, paraphrases, or anthems. The Jews similarly discriminated. The inscription translated “A Song” meant a Psalm to be sung with instrumental accompaniment; “Shiggaion,” an irregular ode; “A Song of Ascents,” probably a Psalm to be sung whilst going up to the yearly feasts at Jerusalem, and so forth. In some of our hymns we have verses to be sung by trebles only, others by men only: “Alemoth” (after the manner of a maiden) probably means soprano alone, and “Sheminith” (upon the octave below), men alone. Apparently there were no elaborate marks of expression such as we use; the oft-recurring “Selah” probably meant that either voices or instruments, or both, were to be raised, and if so it was equivalent to our forte. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.)

“Beginoth” apparently means “with string music.” “Mizmor” also may indicate an accompaniment of stringed instruments, while “Nehiloth” appears to mean “with wind instruments.” (J. P. Peters, D. D.)

“To the Chief Musician” means, probably, “For the Leader of the Choir,” and indicates that the original copy of the Psalm thus inserted in the book was one that had belonged to the chorister in the old temple. “Muthlabben” means “arranged for training the soprano voices.” Professor Murray supposes that this particular Psalm was used for rehearsal by the women singers. (W. Gladden, D. D.)

The Poetry of the Psalms

The poetry of the Psalms is “a poetry of friendship between the spirit of man and the spirit of God”; a poetry apparently ordained to leaven the poetry of the whole world, as the history of the Old Testament to be the “sun of all other histories.” (John Keble.)

Psalm after Psalm is a monologue of the soul with God, or a dialogue between it and God. There is a distinction between meditation, however devout, and real prayer. In meditation God is present, but, so to speak, in the third person only. In prayer God is present, but present in the second person, the personal “Thou” corresponding to the personal “I.” Bishop Ken’s line, “And thought to thought with Thee converse,” is the very expression of the spirit of the Psalms. Yet they are filled with a joy which is at once solemn and childlike. In spite of all their sighs and tears, for all their tender sympathy with the Passion of Christ and the sorrows of His people, “the power of light lives inexhaustibly” in them. One only (Psalms 88:1-18) begins and ends with a sob. In all the rest joy sparkles, if not on the crest of every wave, yet along the line of every tide. (Archbishop Alexander.)

We may feel the pulses of our Psalmists’ passions beating in their ditties if we would lay our hearts unto them. As ethnic poets passions, expressed in their writings, bewray their experience in such matters as they write of,--as of their delight in love enjoyed, or of earthly sorrow for their exile, death of friends, or other like worldly crosses,--so do these sacred ditties witness their penmen’s experience in such matters as they profess--as of spiritual joy, comfort, fear, confidence, or any other affection. (Dean Jackson.)

Historical References

How great is the history of the Psalms! David sang them, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and all the Prophets. With Psalms Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah celebrated their victories. Psalms made glad the heart of the exiles who returned from Babylon. Psalms gave courage and strength to the Maccabees in their bravo struggles to achieve their country’s independence, and were the repeated expression of their thanksgivings. The Lord of Psalmists, and the Son of David, by the words of a Psalm, proved Himself to be higher than David; and sang Psalms with His Apostles on the night before He suffered, when He instituted the Holy Supper of His love. In His last awful hour on the Cross He expressed, in the words of one Psalm, “His fear and His need of God,” and in the words of another, gave up His spirit to His Father. With Psalms Paul and Silas praised God in the prison at midnight, when their feet wore made fast in the stocks, and sang so loud that the prisoners heard them. And after his own example, the Apostle exhorts the Christians at Ephesus and Colossae to teach and admonish one another with Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Jerome tells us that in his day the Psalms wore to be heard in the fields and the vineyards of Palestine, and that they fell sweetly on the ear, mingling the songs of birds and the scent of flowers in the spring. The ploughman as he guided his plough chanted the Hallelujah, and the reaper, the vine dresser, and the shepherd sang the songs of David. “These,” he says, “are our love songs, these the instruments of our agriculture.” Sidonius Apollinaris makes his boatmen, as they urge their heavily laden barge up stream, sing Psalms, till the river banks echo again with the Hallelujah, and beautifully applies the custom, in a figure, to the voyage of the Christian life. With the verse of a Psalm, “Turn again, then, unto thy rest, O my soul,” the pious Babylas, Bishop of Antioch, comforted himself while awaiting his martyrdom in the Decian persecution, saying, “From this we learn that our soul comes to rest when it is removed by death from this restless world.” Paulla, the friend of Jerome, was seen by those who were gathered around her in her last hour to move her lips, and when they stooped to listen they hoard the words, “How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts.” A Psalm (4) was the best utterance for the overflowing joy of Augustine’s heart at his conversion, and a Psalm (32) was his consolation when he lay upon his deathbed. With the words of Psalms, Chrysostom comforted himself in his exile, writing thus, “When driven from the city, I cared nothing for it. But I said to myself, If the empress wishes to banish me, let her banish me; ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.’” And again, “David clothes me with armour, saying, ‘I will speak of Thy testimonies before kings, and will not be ashamed.’” With the words of a Psalm, holy Bernard expired. With the words of a Psalm, Huss and Jerome of Prague gave up their souls, without fear, to God, in the midst of the fire. Chanting the twelfth verse of the 118th Psalm with voices that rose high above the din of battle, the Protestant army rushed to victory at Courtras. With the voice of a Psalm, Luther entered Worms, singing brave defiance to pope and cardinals, and all the gates of hell. With Psalms, that faithful servant of God, Adolphe Monod, strengthened himself to endure the agonies of a lingering and painful disease. In the biography of Bishop Blomfield no page possesses a deeper interest, a truer pathos, than that which records that for many years before his death the 51st Psalm had been his nightly prayer. What shall I say more? The history of the Psalms is the history of the Church, and the history of every heart in which has burned the love of God. It is a history not fully revealed in this world, but one which is written in heaven. It is a history which, could we know it, might teach us to hush many an angry thought, to recall many a bitter, hasty, uncharitable speech. The pages of that book have often been blotted with the tears of those whom others deemed hard and cold, and whom they treated with suspicion or contempt. Those words have gone up to God, mingled with the sighs or scarcely uttered in the heart-broken anguish of those whom Pharisees called sinners, of those whom Christians denounced as heretics or infidels, but who loved God and truth above all things else. Surely it is holy ground. We cannot pray the Psalms without realising in a very special manner the communion of saints, the oneness of the Church militant and the Church triumphant. We cannot pray the Psalms without having our hearts opened, our affections enlarged, our thoughts drawn heavenward. He who can pray them best is nearest to God, knows most of the Spirit of Christ, is ripest for heaven. (Bishop Perowne.)


Psalms 1:1-6

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