Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Psalms is a book of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, and of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Because the book consists of songs or chants, a psalm can be used to mean any religious chant or poem of praise. This article, however, deals with the book of scripture.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms are counted among the "Writings" or Hagiographa (one of the three main sections into which the books are grouped). In Luke 24:44 the word "psalms" means the whole of the Writings, one of the sections into which the Jews divided the Old Testament.

A book containing the Psalms, usually set for singing or chanting, is called a Psalter.

Table of contents
1 Chapters of the book
2 Authorship and ascriptions
3 Sections of the book
4 Use of the Psalms in Jewish ritual
5 The Psalms in Christian worship

Chapters of the book

The Book of Psalms is divided into 150 chapters, each of which constitutes a religious song or chant (though one or two are long and may constitute a set of related chants). The numbering of the chapters of the Book of Psalms differs slightly between the Hebrew (Masoretic) and Greek (Septuagint) manuscripts. Most Protestant translations are based on the Hebrew numbering, while most Catholic and Orthodox translations are based on the Greek numbering. The differences are as follows: {| border=1 cellspacing=0 ! Hebrew Psalms ! Greek Psalms |- | 1-8 | 1-8 |- | 9-10 | 9 |- | 11-113 | 10-112 |- | 114-115 | 113 |- | 116 | 114-115 |- | 117-146 | 116-145 |- | 147 | 146-147 |- | 148-150 | 148-150 |}

Most manuscripts of the Septuagint also include an additional 151st Psalm; a Hebrew version of this poem was found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. For the remainder of this article, the Hebrew chapter numbers will be used unless otherwise noted.

Authorship and ascriptions

Traditionally all the Psalms were thought to be the work of David, but modern scholars recognise them as the product of several authors or groups of authors, many unknown. Most of the psalms start with an introductory verse which ascribes them to an author or says something about their circumstances, and only 73 of these introductions claim David as author. In any case it is clear that the Psalms were not written down until around the 6th century BC, and since David's reign is dated to around 1000 BC, so any Davidic material must have been preserved by oral tradition for centuries.

Psalms 39, 62, and 77 are addressed to Jeduthun, to be sung after his manner or in his choir. Psalms 50 and 73-83 are addressed to Asaph, as the master of his choir, to be sung in the worship of God. The ascriptions of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88 assert that the "sons of Korah" were entrusted with arranging and singing them; (2 Chronicles 20:19 suggests that this group formed a leading part of the Kohathite singers.

Sections of the book

The Psalter is divided, after the analogy of the Pentateuch, into five books, each closing with a doxology or benediction:
  1. The first book comprises the first 41 Psalms, all of which are ascribed to David except 1, 2, 10, and 33, which, though anonymous, were also traditionally ascribed to him. While Davidic authorship cannot be relied on this probably is the oldes section of the Psalms
  2. Book second consists of the next 31 Psalms (42-72), 18 of which are ascribed to David and 1 to Solomon (the 72nd). The rest are anonymous.
  3. The third book contains 17 Psalms (73-89), of which the 86th is ascribed to David, the 88th to Heman the Ezrahite, and the 89th to Ethan the Ezrahite.
  4. The fourth book also contains 17 Psalms (90-106), of which the 90th is ascribed to Moses, and the 101st and 103rd to David.
  5. The fifth book contains the remaining Psalms, 44 in number. Of these, 15 are ascribed to David, and the 127th to Solomon.

Psalm 136 is generally called "the great hallel." But the Talmud includes also Psalms 120-135. Psalms 113-118, inclusive, constitute the "hallel" recited at the three great feasts, at the new moon, and on the eight days of the feast of dedication.

Psalms 120-134 are referred to as Songs of Degrees, and are thought to have been used as hymns of approach by pilgrims.

Use of the Psalms in Jewish ritual

The Mosaic ritual set out in the books of the Pentateuch or Torah makes no provision for the service of song in the worship of God. The earliest references to the use of song in Jewish worship are in relation to David, and to this extent the ascription of the Psalms to him may express a general if not a specific truth.

Some of the titles given to the psalms in their ascriptions suggest their use in worship:

The Psalms have continued to be important in Jewish worship. The 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament show that they were familiar to the Palestinian community at the time of Jesus. They are still used in Jewish worship to this day.

The Psalms in Christian worship

New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the psalms in worship, and they have remained an important part of worship in virtually all Christian churches. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have always made systematic use of the psalms, with a cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more years. In the early centuries of the Church, it was expected that any candidate for bishop would be able to recite the entire book of Psalms from memory, something they often learned during their time as a monk. Following the Reformation, translations of many of the psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition. Among famous hymn settings of the Psalter were the Scottish Paraphrases and the settings by Isaac Watts. The first book printed in North America was a collection of psalm settings, the Bay Psalm Book (1640). New translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced.

Some of the Psalms are among the best-known, and best-loved, passages of scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular church-goers. In particular, Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd") offers an immediately appealing message of comfort, and it is widely chosen for church funeral services, either as a reading or in one of several popular hymn settings, and Psalm 50/51 ("Have mercy on me O God", sometimes called the miserere from its Latin rendition) is by far the most sung psalm of Orthodoxy, in both Divine Liturgy and Hours, in the "sacrament of repentance" or confession, and in other settings. Psalm 137/136 ("By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept") is a moody, yet eventually triumphant, meditation upon living in slavery, and has been used in at least one spiritual, as well as one well-known reggae song.

Eastern Orthodox Usage

Eastern Orthodox Christians have long made the Psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. To facilitate its reading, the 150 Psalms are divided into 20 kathismata, and each kathisma is further subdivided into three antiphons as follows (using the Greek chapter numbering): At vespers prayer services, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year and on different days of the week within the same part of the year, according to the church's calendar.

Initial text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897. Partially updated and some additional material added, but still not making full use of modern scholarship