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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature

Psalms Book of

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This collection of sacred poetry received its name in consequence of the lyrical character of the pieces of which it consists, as intended to be sung to stringed and other instruments of music.

In we find all the preceding compositions (Psalms 1-72) styled Prayers of David, because many of them are strictly prayers, and all are pervaded by the spirit and tone of supplication.

All the Psalms, except thirty-four, bear superscriptions. The authority of the titles is a matter of doubt. By most of the ancient critics they were considered genuine, and of equal authority with the Psalms themselves, while most of the moderns reject them wholly or in part. It deserves to be noticed, however, that they are received by Tholuck and Hengstenberg in their works on the Psalms. Of the antiquity of the inscriptions there can be no question, for they are found in the Septuagint. They are supposed to be even much older than this version, since they were no longer intelligible to the translator, who often makes no sense of them.

A good deal may be plausibly said both for and against the authority of these titles, but on the whole it seems the part of sober criticism to receive the titles as historically valid, except when we find strong internal evidence against them.

The design of these inscriptions is to specify either the author, or the chief singer, or the historical subject or occasion, or the use, or the style of poetry, or the instrument and style of music. Some titles simply designate the author, as in Psalms 25, while others specify several of the above particulars, as in Psalms 51. The longest and fullest title of all is prefixed to Psalms 60, where we have the author, the chief musician (not by name), the historical occasion (comp. 2 Samuel 8), the use or design, the style of poetry, and the instrument or style of music. It is confessedly very difficult, if not impossible, to explain all the terms employed in the inscriptions and hence critics have differed exceedingly in their conjectures. The difficulty, arising no doubt from ignorance of the Temple music, was felt, it would seem, as early as the age of the Sept.; and it was felt so much by the translators of our Authorized Version, that they generally retained the Hebrew words, even though Luther had set the example of translating them to the best of his ability.

Of the terms left untranslated or obscure in our Bible, it may be well to offer some explanation in this place, taking them in alphabetical order for the sake of convenience.

Aijeleth shahar, 'hind of the morning,' i.e. the sun, or the dawn of day. This occurs only in Psalms 22, where we may best take it to designate a song, perhaps commencing with these words, or bearing this name, to the melody of which the psalm was to be sung.

Alamoth, Psalms 46, probably signifies 'virgins,' and hence denotes music for female voices, or the treble.

Al-taschith, 'destroy thou not,' is found over Psalms 57, 58, 59, 75, and signifies, by general consent, some well-known ode beginning with the expression, to the tune of which these compositions were to be sung.

Degrees appears over fifteen Psalms (Psalms 120-134), called Songs of Degrees, and has been explained in various ways, of which the following are the chief. 1. The ancients understood by it stairs or steps; and in accordance with this, Jewish writers relate that these Psalms were sung on fifteen steps, leading from the court of Israel to the court of the women. This explanation is now exploded. 2. Luther, whom Tholuck is inclined to follow, renders the title a song in the higher choir, supposing the Psalms to have been sung from an elevated place or ascent, or with elevated voice. 3. Gesenius and De Wette think the name refers to a peculiar rhythm in these songs, by which the sense advances by degrees, and so ascends from clause to clause. 4. According to the most prevalent and probable opinion, the title signifies song of the ascents, or pilgrim song, meaning a song composed for, or sung during the journeyings of the people up to Jerusalem, whether as they returned from Babylon, or as they statedly repaired to the national solemnities. Journeys to Jerusalem are generally spoken of as ascents, on account of the elevated situation of the city and temple (see , and especially ). This explanation of the name is favored by the brevity and the contents of these songs.

Gittith appears over Psalms 8, 81, 84, and is of very uncertain meaning, though not improbably it signifies an instrument or tune brought from the city of Gath. In the opinion of not a few the word denotes either an instrument or a melody used in the vintage.

Higgaion is found over , and probably means either musical sound, according to the opinion of most, or meditation, according to Tholuck and Hengstenberg.

Jeduthun is found over Psalms 39, 62, 77, and is generally taken for the name of choristers descended from Jeduthun, of whom we read in; , as one of David's three chief musicians or leaders of the Temple music.

Jonath-elem-rechokim, 'the mute dove among strangers,' found only over Psalms 56, may well de-note the subject of the song, viz., David himself, 'when the Philistines took him in Gath;' or it is the name or commencement of an ode to the air of which this psalm was sung.

Leannoth, in the title of Psalms 88, means to sing, denoting that it was to be sung in the way described.

Mahalath occurs in Psalms 53, 88, and denotes, according to some, a sort of flute; according to Gesenius, in his last edition of his Thesaurus, a lute; but in the opinion of Fürst, a tune, named from the first word of some popular song. Upon Mahalath, Leannoth, Psalms 88, is accordingly a direction to chant it to the instrument or tune called mahalath.

Maschil is found in the title of thirteen psalms. According to Gesenius, De Wette, and others, it means a poem, so called either for its skillful composition or for its wise and pious strain. The common interpretation, which Tholuck and Hengstenberg follow, makes it a didactic poem.

Michiam is prefixed to Psalms 16, 56, 60, and is subject to many conjectures. But the true explanation is most likely that offered by Gesenius, De Wette, Rosenmüller, and Tholuck, who hold it to signify a 'writing' or 'poem.'

Muth-labben (Psalms 9) presents a perfect riddle, owing to the various readings of MSS., and the contradictory conjectures of the learned. Some explain it as the subject or occasion of the song, but most refer it to the music. Gesenius, in his last edition, renders it—with virgins' voice for the boys, i.e. to be sung by a choir of boys in the treble.

Neginoth, Psalms 4 and four others. This name clearly denotes 'stringed instruments' in general.

Nehiloth (Psalms 5) denotes 'pipes' or 'flutes.'

Selah is found seventy-three times in the Psalms, generally at the end of a sentence or paragraph; but in; it stands in the middle of the verse. While most authors have agreed in considering this word as somehow relating to the music, their conjectures about its precise meaning have varied greatly. But at present these two opinions chiefly obtain: first, that it signifies a raising of the voice or music; or, second, a pause in the singing. Probably selah was used to direct the singer to be silent, or to pause a little, while the instruments played an interlude or symphony. In it occurs in the expression higgaion selah, which Gesenius, with much probability, renders instrumental music, pause, i.e. let the instruments strike up a symphony, and let the singer pause. By Tholuck and Hengstenberg, however, the two words are rendered meditation, pause, i.e. let the singer meditate or reflect while the music stops.

Sheminith (Psalms 6, 12) means properly eighth, and denotes either, as some think, an instrument with eight chords, or, more likely, music in the lower notes, or bass.

Shiggaion (Psalms 7) denotes, according to Gesenius and Fürst, a song or hymn; but Ewald and Hengstenberg understand by it 'error or wandering,' supposing that the aberrations of the wicked are the subject of the Psalm. According to Rosenmüller, De Wette, and Tholuck, it means a 'plaintive song or elegy.'

Shushan (Psalms 60), and in plural shoshannim (Psalms 45, 49, 80). This word commonly signifies lily, and probably denotes either an instrument bearing some resemblance to a lily (perhaps cymbal), or a melody named lily for its pleasantness.

Respecting the authors of the Psalms, many of the ancients, both Jews and Christians, maintained that they were all written by David: which is one of the most striking proofs of their uncritical judgment. The titles and the contents of the Psalms most clearly show that they were composed at different and remote periods, by several poets, of whom David was only the largest and most eminent contributor. According to the inscriptions we have the following list of authors:—

1. David, 'the sweet Psalmist of Israel' (). To him are ascribed seventy-three Psalms in the Hebrew text; and at least eleven others in the Sept., namely, Psalms 33, 43, 91, 94-99, 104, 137; to which may be added Psalms 10, as it forms part of Psalms 9 in that version. From what has been advanced above respecting the authority of the titles, it is obviously injudicious to maintain that David composed all that have his name prefixed in the Hebrew, or to suppose that he did not compose some of the eleven ascribed to him in the Sept., and of the others which stand without any author's name at all. We cannot feel sure that Psalms 139 is David's, for its Chaldaisms (;; ) betray a later age; and Psalms 122 can scarcely be his, for its style resembles the later Hebrew, and its description of Jerusalem can hardly apply to David's time. Besides, it is worthy of notice that the Sept. gives this and the other Songs of Degrees without specifying the author. Of those which the Sept. ascribes to David, it is not improbable that Psalms 99, 104 are really his; and of those which bear no name in either text, at least Psalms 2 appears to be David's.

David's compositions are generally distinguished by sweetness, softness, and grace; but sometimes, as in Psalms 18, they exhibit the sublime. His prevailing strain is plaintive, owing to his multiplied and sore trials, both before and after his occupation of the throne. The celebrated singers who were contemporaries of David were men, like himself, moved by the divine afflatus not only to excel in music, but also to indite hallowed poetry. Of these Psalmists the names of several are preserved in the titles.

2. Asaph is named as the author of twelve Psalms, viz., Psalms 50, 73-83. He was one of David's chief musicians [ASAPH]. All the poems bearing his name cannot be his; for in Psalms 74, 79, , 80, there are manifest allusions to very late events in the history of Israel. Asaph appears from Psalms 50, 73, , 78, to have been the greatest master of didactic poetry, excelling alike in sentiment and in diction.

3. The sons of Korah was another family of choristers (see Korah, at the end), to whom eleven of the most beautiful Psalms are ascribed.

4. Heman was another of David's chief singers (): he is called the Ezrahite, as being descended from some Ezrah, who appears to have been a descendant of Korah: at least Heman is reckoned a Kohathite (), and was therefore probably a Korahite for the Kohathites were continued and counted in the line of Korah; see; [HEMAN]. Thus Heman was both an Ezrahite and of the sons of Korah. That Psalms 88 was written by him is not unlikely, though many question it.

5. Ethan is reputed the author of Psalms 89. He is doubtless the Levite of Merari's family whom David made chief musician along with Asaph and Heman (;; ). The Psalm could not, however, be composed by him, for it plainly alludes () to the downfall of the kingdom.

6. Solomon is given as the author of Psalms 72, 127 and there is no decided internal evidence to the contrary, though most consider him to be the subject and not the author of Psalms 72.

7. Moses is reputed the writer of Psalms 90 and there is no strong reason to doubt the tradition.

Jeduthun is sometimes, without just ground, held to be named as the author of Psalms 39. Many conjectures have been formed respecting other writers, especially of the anonymous psalms. The Septuagint seemingly gives, as authors, Jeremiah, (Psalms 137), and Haggai and Zechariah (Psalms 138). But these conjectures are too uncertain to call for further notice in this place.

The dates of the Psalms, as must be obvious from what has been stated respecting the authors, are very various, ranging from the time of Moses to that of the Captivity—a period of nearly 1000 years.

The Psalter is divided in the Hebrew into five books, and also in the Septuagint version, which proves the division to be older than B.C. 200.

The first book (Psalms 1-41) consists wholly of David's songs, his name being prefixed to all except Psalms 1, 2, 10, , 33; and it is evidently the first collection, having been possibly made in the time of Hezekiah, who is known to have ordered a collection of Solomon's proverbs (), and to have commanded the Levites to sing the words of David ().

The second book (Psalms 42-72) consists mainly of pieces by the sons of Korah (Psalms 42-49), and by David (Psalms 51-65), which may have been separate minor collections. It is not likely that this collection was made till the period of the Captivity, if interpreters are right in referring Psalms 44 to the days of Jeremiah.

The third book (Psalms 73-89) consists chiefly of Asaph's psalms, but comprises apparently two smaller collections, the one Asaphitic (Psalms 73-83), the other mostly Korahitic (Psalms 84-139). The collector of this book had no intention to bring together songs written by David, and therefore he put the above notice at the end of the second book. The date of this collection must be as late as the return from Babylon, for Psalms 85 implies as much.

The fourth book (Psalms 90-106) and the fifth (Psalms 107-150) are made up chiefly of anonymous liturgic pieces, many of which were composed for the service of the second temple. In the last book we have the Songs of Degrees (Psalms 120-134), which seem to have been originally a separate collection.

The inspiration and canonical authority of the Psalms are established by the most abundant and convincing evidence. They never were, and never can be, rejected, except by impious impugners of all divine revelation. Not to mention other ancient testimonies, we find complete evidence in the New Testament, where the book is quoted or referred to as divine by Christ and his apostles at least seventy times. No other writing is so frequently cited; Isaiah, the next in the scale of quotation, being cited only about fifty-five times.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Psalms Book of'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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