Psalms — Introduction

Old Testament Jews referred to the collection of Psalms as “The Book of Praises.” It was called Psalms in the Septuagint — from a Greek word for “songs sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.”

Titles and Technical Terms —All but 34 of the psalms have titles or superscriptions which normally comprise the first verse of the Hebrew text. They are editorial titles, added after the psalms were written, but are historically accurate. The two most frequently used technical terms are: (1) Selah (occurring 71 times in the Psalms and three times in Habakkuk), which is probably a musical notation signaling an interlude of change of musical accompaniment; and (2) To the chief Musician (choir director), which is attached to 55 psalms (and Habakkuk 3:19), suggesting that a collection of psalms existed for the choir director, possibly for use on special occasions. — Ryrie, page 810


The heading or superscription may contain any or all of the following categories of information: identification with a person, association with a historical event, musical and liturgical details, and the type or genre of the psalm. — Barker, page 790


Most of the psalms were written during the times of David and Solomon — the 10th century B.C.

  • David’s name is listed at the beginning of 73 of them.

  • Solomon wrote two.

  • The Sons of Korah wrote 12. (See Numbers 16 and Numbers 26:9-11.)

  • Asaph wrote 12. (See Ezra 2:41.)

  • Heman wrote 1. (See 1 Kings 4:32.)

  • Ethan wrote 1. (See 1 Chronicles 15:19.)

  • Moses wrote 1.

Of the remaining psalms for which no headings are supplied, three may be definitively ascribed to David in view of New Testament testimony — to wit: Psalms 1 and 2, since the latter is ascribed to David in Acts 4:25 and both psalms were clearly intended as a single unit; and Psalm 95, which is ascribed to David in Hebrews 4:7. Three more (Psalms 96, 105 and 106) are likely to have been written by David on the testimony of 1 Chronicles 16:7-36, which ascribes to David (“David gave …”) a psalm of thanksgiving selectively derived from those three (i.e., all of Psalm 96, 105:1-15, and 106:1, 47-48). Considering, moreover, the definitive and probably Davidic attribution of these six, it is certainly not unreasonable to suppose that several, if not most, of the remaining 43 anonymous psalms were likewise written by David — the headings have been omitted, perhaps, since those psalms were intended to be sung “as a piece” (i.e., as part of a medley) with the previous one (s). — Wechsler, pages 6-7


Psalms is subdivided into five distinct “books.” Though the individual psalms were written by different people at different times, they were, through divine guidance, eventually compiled and organized around this five-book framework in a manner clearly intended to parallel the identical five-book subdivision of the Torah. That this is so is affirmed not only by early Jewish tradition, but also by the thematic parallels in the content of the corresponding books of the Torah and Psalms …

  • Genesis: God’s sovereign creation of man and election of Israel

  • Book One (Psalms 1-41): expressions of worship focusing on God’s sovereign election.

  • Exodus: God’s protection of His nascent national son, Israel, and His provision of the fundamental/general laws intended for their material and spiritual nurture.

  • Book Two (Psalms 42-72): expressions of worship focusing on God’s protective nurture.

  • Leviticus: God’s granting of specific laws intended to instruct the people in the importance and obligation of holiness.

  • Book Three (Psalms 73-89): expressions of worship (of which all but Psalm 86 are attributed to Levites) focusing on God’s instruction in holiness.

  • Numbers: God’s paternal chastisement of His national son Israel over the course of their 40-year sojourn in the desert.

  • Book Four (Psalms 90-106): expressions of worship focusing on God’s paternal chastisement.

  • Deuteronomy: God’s prologue to the fulfillment of His promise concerning the Land of Israel, and His final preparation of the people to enter in faith.

  • Book Five (Psalms 107-150): expressions of worship looking ahead to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises.

In addition to each of the five books of Psalms being explicitly indicated in the Hebrew text by the headings “Book One,” “Book Two,” etc. (the Hebrew Bible always spells numbers out), the ending of each book is indicated by a clear doxology, the first four of which are variations on the formula “Blessed be … the Lord/His name … forever/to everlasting” (Psalms 41:13; 72:19; 89:53; 106:48), and the last of which is, appropriately, expressed by the all-encompassing exhortation, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6). The individual unity of each of the five books is also underscored (often in quite subtle and sophisticated ways) by the use of similar literary forms and language. — Wechsler, pages 2-3.


In addition to the technique of “inclusio” (or “bookending”  — a literary technique in the Hebrew Bible whereby the identical term of expression [at the beginning and end of a passage] is intended to highlight the main theme of the “framed” unit), another important feature of the Psalms — and a ubiquitous feature of all biblical Hebrew poetry — is parallelism. Generally speaking, parallelism is of three types: synonymous parallelism, in which consecutive lines (each of which is usually a half-verse) present the same or similar idea in different words, as in Psalm 113:7.

He raises the poor from the dust,
and He lifts the needy from the ash heap.

Another type is antithetical parallelism, in which consecutive lines present contrasting or opposite ideas, usually revolving around a shared point of contact, as in Psalm 145:20, where the shared/identical point of contact is the notion of God’s recompense.

The LORD keeps all who love Him,
but all the wicked He will destroy.

The third type is synthetic parallelism, in which consecutive lines present different, yet complementary ideas, which together provide a fuller and more specific idea than either line alone, as in Psalm 18:34.

He trains my hands for battle,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

More than representing a central structural feature of biblical poetry, parallelism can also play a significant role in interpretation, for in those instances where the meaning of one line is unclear, the meaning of the parallel line(s) will often serve to elucidate the other. Even where the meaning of both lines is fairly clear, a juxtaposition of the parallel ideas will often bring the collective point of both lines into even greater focus. — Wechsler, pages 9-10.

The resources I’m using for this study are as follows:

Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, by Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III — Zondervan Publishing House, 1994

The New Bible Commentary, by D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer — William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970

The Psalms Outlined, by Arthur Emerson Harris — The Judson Press, 1925

F.B. Meyer on the Psalms, by F.B. Meyer — Zondervan Publishing House

Notes on the Psalms, by G. Campbell Morgan — Fleming H. Revell Company, 1947

Christ in the Psalms, by William L. Pettingill — Fundamental Truth Publishers, 1937

Exploring the Messianic Psalms, by O.E. Phillips — Hebrew Christian Fellowship, Inc. 1967

The Ryrie Study Bible (NKJV), by Charles Caldwell Ryrie — Moody Press, 1985

Commentary on Psalms, by M.G. Wechsler — a study guide prepared by the author (a professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute) for use by his students.

Complete Bible Commentary, by George Williams

When I quote from one of these books, I will use the author’s name and the page number(s).

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