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Theology of the Psalms

RELS101D Wiki project on the Pslams

The title ‘Psalms’ is derived from the Greek word ‘psalmos’, referencing a stringed instrument. When used as rabbinic literature in a Hebrew context, Psalms is referred to as ‘Sefer Tehillim’, which translates to “Book of Praises” (Longman, 2008, p. 578).

Timeline / Social Context — Jay Lutz

The Psalms were set in Jerusalem, with most of the general focus being the temple and the worship there. There are many books within the Psalms that have not had confirmed authorship, but many of them were written by King David and others within the temple. Some of the earliest books of the Psalms were written by Moses, and as such the authorship of the Psalms spanned a large time period (Dano, 2000). This time period appears to be span approximately 900 years. Much of the social context of this time was of hurt and brokenness within the Jewish community, and thus the Psalms were somewhat of a collective prayer of the people (much of them were used in this way).


King David playing the harp

King David playing the harp

Author and Composition of the Psalms - Bryn Berg

The book of Psalms (often referred to as the Psalter) is organized into five divisions:

-Book 1- Psalms 1-41

-Book 2- Psalms 42-72

-Book 3- Psalms 73-89

-Book 4- Psalms 90-106

-Book 5- Psalms 107-150

(Steussy, 2004, p.1)

While the authorship of Psalms is up for debate, the general consensus is that King David was at least one of the authors. Evidence to support this lies in the fact that several quotes from the Psalms in the N.T. are attributed to David; that the events of many of the songs reflect the events of his experiences; and that he was part of the prophetic lineage of Jesus, something also reflected in his praise and worship (Eaton, 2008, p.7). A total of 73 psalms have headings which seem to indicate David as their author, (for example, “A Psalm of David”), but other headings include but are not limited to: Solomon, Moses, and Asaph. Not only is it a logical conclusion, but it was widely accepted during the N.T. that David was an author. A note on a Dead Sea Scroll, details the number of his compositions at 4050 “through prophecy given him from before the Most High” (Eaton 2008, p.6).   

However, due to the differences in style and composition, it is most likely that there were more than just one individual who authored the rest of the Psalms. For example, Asaph, one of David’s seers and Chief of the Levites, is either the author of, or associated with, Psalm 50, and 73-83. It could be that it was written in the style of his family, or by one of his descendants (Aubrey Buster). Other evidence to support the idea of other authors attributed to the writing of Psalms is that they were dated after completion of the whole David dynasty (Eaton, 2008, p.7).

Some modern scholars have completely rejected the concept of David’s authorship, as they do not see strong enough evidence to individual linking. Archaeologists have discovered prayers and thanksgivings from the Ancient Near East, which reveal specific names and circumstances, but this is not relevant in the case of Psalms (Eaton 2008, p.7).


Cedars of Lebanon (Psalm 104:16-17)

Cedars of Lebanon (Psalm 104:16-17)

Themes of God’s Character Revealed through Metaphorical Symbols - Alexa Huebner

Throughout the books of Psalms various metaphorical symbols reveal the character of God as a Holy king, a Creator, and a Refuge for all people.

Ancient Near Eastern culture attributed the role of the king with the nation’s primary god (Walton et. all., 2000, p. 515); therefore, imagery pertaining to God as a ‘king’ in Psalms was a way of recognizing his sovereignty over gods of foreign nations (2000, p. 515). In the closing lines of chapter 45, the eternal kingdom of God is declared: “the nations will praise you (i.e., the king) for ever and ever” (Broyles, 1999, p. 207). Because God’s “royal scepter is a scepter of equity” and justice, the appointed human king, who was King David at the time, must reflect God’s love of righteousness and hatred for wickedness (Psalm 45:6). The direct reference to “all you nations”, and not just the Israelites in Psalm 47, (1999) is unique to this chapter and signifies God as the exalted king over all the earth.

The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23:1-4)

The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23:1-4)

Symbols representing God as a Creator reveal His beauty reflected in nature , His dynamic involvement in the present, and His provision for creation. Psalm 104 is full of creation centered metaphors to exemplify the beauty of God implanted on the world we live in. He is wrapped in a garment of light like the sun, and “unfolds “the skies” as through they were a mere tent” (1999, p. 398). Verse 16 presents God as a gardener: “the cedars of Lebanon that he planted” (Psalms 104: 16). By imagining God as a gardener, we can begin to understand God as a Creator who “personally oversees the promotion of life and order” (1999, p. 399) and provides abundantly “grass, plants, and trees for cattle, man, and birds” (vv. 14-18) (1999, p. 399). Additionally, the metaphorical role of a ‘builder’ in Psalm 147 unites themes of God as a Creator with His plan to restore Jerusalem. Just as He counts and collects the stars in the sky, God will gather the exiles of Israel (104:2-4).

Perhaps the most appealing metaphorical images presented in the Psalms are those that convey God as a Refuge. In virtually every context, particularly situations of distress and death (Strawn, n.d.), symbols of God as a Shepherd (Psalm 23) and being a Rock or Fortress (Psalms 18:2, 31, 19:24, 62:2, 89:26, 95:1, 144:1), provide divine comfort. Psalms 23 portrays the unwavering providence and safety we find through an intimate relationship with God that is not based on our earthly circumstances. Verses 1-4 present God as a shepherd that “provides for and protects ‘the sheep’ but… does not fabricate a world free from hardship” (Broyles, 1999, p. 123). The portrayal of God as a shepherd (vv. 1-4) connects to the image of God as a temple host (vv. 5-6) because God is in a role of providing safety and nourishment in both (1999). The comfort of God’s rod and staff “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalms 23:4) communicate provision of protection and safety along the journey of life.

By acknowledging themes of Gods character in metaphorical imagery, the Psalms collectively praise God who is seated on his heavenly throne and extending refuge to the earth He created.


The Purpose of Psalms - Kirsten Van Garderen

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Psalms holds various forms of theological truth which may be revealed through each psalmist’s use of poetical language. Like any literature, it is important to understand what the genre is intending to say; this allows the modern reader to see how normal writing conventions work, and understand what makes each passage unique and applicable- it helps us see the purpose. For example, the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell is classified as a dystopian novel; it is written in the context of WWII. When reading this material, both genre and context of the novel allows the reader to discern the meaning and intentions of the author. Mark Sneed states that “genres are necessary for the production of meaning[1]”. The poetry of Psalms is designed to use t bring meaning into the readers life through its evocative language[2]. Arguably, in light of the form critical categories found in Psalms: we may see that there are several forms of poetry in which we may find theological truth. Also, subgenres allow us to understand how Psalms is meaningful to the Jewish communities[3]. Examples of subgenres of wisdom literature include: psalms of lament, royal/enthronement psalms, and thanksgiving psalms. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament notes that Psalms “addresses such a wide span of human emotions, life experiences and personal situations.[4]” For example, Rebecca Hays (2016), author of the article Trauma, Remembrance and Healing: The Meeting of Wisdom and History in Psalm 78, argues that Psalms seventy-eight evokes “wisdom[5] (Hays, 2016, p. 183) and “healing” (p. 183) onto a “traumatized community” (p. 183) through its “pattern” (p. 183) of writing.



Psalms Throughout Church History - Rachel Doornink

Psalm 44 Chant Manuscript - c 1460-90 CE

Psalm 44 Chant Manuscript - c 1460-90 CE

The Psalms have historically played a musical role in the life of the church. The word choice and poetic meter indicate the Psalms were sung, not spoken (Jacobson, 2016, p. 23). There are also references to horns, trumpets, percussion, and stringed instruments (Jacobson, 2016, p. 29). These indications of music helped establish a tradition of psalmody that continues to this day. The Psalms are one of the most quoted Old Testament books in the New Testament and are mentioned in reference to singing (Burkholder, 2014, p. 24). In the Jewish life, Psalms were sung domestically and for rituals but were only read in the temple (Smith,1984, p. 6). In the early church, singing Psalms were seen as being good for the soul, turning your mind toward spiritual things, and building Christian community (Burkholder, 2014, p. 24). In medieval times, a central part of the lives of monks was memorizing and singing all the Psalms in chant (Dyer, 1989, p. 535). The singing of Psalms was also a part of the Catholic Mass (Burkholder, 2014, p. 58). During the time of the Reformation, Psalms were used by the Protestants in hymns and metrical psalms (Burkholder, 2014, p. 220). The tradition of singing the Psalms continues to this day, though the formats vary throughout different denominations.


Bibliography

Broyles,
Craig C. New International Biblical Commentary. Psalms. Peabody,
Massachusetts:     Hendrickson
Publishers, 1999.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. 9th   ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Buster, Aubrey. Asaph and the Psalms. Accessed October 21, 2018.         https://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/ask-a-scholar/asaph-and-the-psalms

Dano, B. (2000, December 07). Retrieved October 20, 2018, from http://kukis.org/Psalms/Psalm_order.htm

Declaissé-Walford, Nancy., Jacobson, Rolf A., and Tanner, Beth L. “The Book of Psalms,”in      New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: William B.         Ferdmans Publishing Company, 2014): p. 42-43

Dyer, Joseph. "The Singing of Psalms in the Early-Medieval Office." Speculum64, no. 3 (1989):  535-78. doi:10.2307/2854183.

Eaton, John. 2008. The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction         and New Translation, Old Testament Guides. London: Continuum. Book.

Hays, Rebecca Whitten P. “Trauma, Remembrance, and Healing: The Meeting of Wisdom     and History in Psalm 78,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 41, no. 2 (2016):        p. 183-204.

Jacobson, Joshua R. "Decoding the Secrets of the Psalms." The Choral Journal56, no. 7            (2016): 20-31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24643147.

Smith, J. A. "The Ancient Synagogue, the Early Church and Singing." Music & Letters 65, no. 1    (1984): 1-16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/736333

Sneed, Mark R. “Is the ‘wisdom tradition’ a tradition?,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73,     no. 1 (2011): p. 50-71.


Steussy, Marti J. 2004. Psalms, Chalice commentaries for today: St. Louis, Mo. : Chalice Press,  2004. Book.

Strawn, Brent A. "The Lord Is My Shepherd (Ps 23) by Brent A. Strawn." Lord Is My Shepherd  (Ps 23). Accessed October 21, 2018. http://www.bibleodyssey.com/passages/mainarticles/lord-is-my-shepherd.

Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, Victor Matthews, and Dr Mark W.        Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL:     InterVarsity Press, 2000.