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“The Psalms especially use the language of earth, water, fire, and wind to describe God, to give insight into the multiplicity of God’s qualities, and to celebrate a God who can be found within the matrix of creation.” --- Christine Valters Paintner, PhD Water, Wind, Earth, & Fire: The Practice of Praying with the Elements They also contain the whole range of human emotions.
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A Brief Introduction to the Psalms
As important as the Book of the Psalms is to Jewish and Christian spirituality, scholars continue to debate on the exact nature of the Psalms. Some consider it a Jewish liturgical (worship) handbook containing prayers, chants, and hymns used in the Temple in Jerusalem. Others consider it more of a compilation of personal devotions. In fact, we no longer know whether the Book of the Psalms was an official “publication” used in the Temple or more of a devotional tract. It is possible that the use of the Psalms changed over time, starting out as being closely connected to the Temple and official state religion and gradually becoming more a book used for personal devotions.
There has also been an ongoing debate over the authorship of the psalms contained in the book. Tradition and contemporary conservative biblical scholars consider King David to be the author of most of them, but modern mainline scholarship claims that we simply do not know who wrote them. They note, for example, that the heading “A Psalm of David” attached to many of the psalms could just as correctly be translated as, “A Psalm for David,” meaning a psalm dedicated to a king of the House of David. By the same token, it is no longer possible to unearth the original dates and circumstances of the individual psalms in the book. James L. Kugel observes, “In short, the great chronological and geographical span indicated by the Psalms’ language ruled out a single author or even a single period: the Psalms were written in different places and over a long span of time.” [Kugel, 462]
Apparently, the Book of the Psalms that we have today was created out of several older collections of psalms that came from a variety of sources. Those older collections were themselves assembled out of still smaller collections. As best we can tell today, the whole process of putting the present Book of Palms together was centuries’ long and carried out by an unknown but probably large number of editors (a.k.a. “redactors”). Given all of this, the historical context of individual psalms is impossible to recover, and what we have for better or for worse is a blend of diverse time periods, theologies, and concerns. Whatever their connection to the Temple in Jerusalem, the psalms reflected both the individual voices of their original authors and the blending of those voices by later editors who shaped them for more general use by the many worshippers who used them [Kugel, 464].
The Book of the Psalms divided into five sections:
- Chapters 1 – 41
- Chapters 42 – 72
- Chapters 73 – 89
- Chapters 90 – 106
- Chapters 107 - 150
Each section ends with a doxology, and the whole book ends with a set of six doxologies, Psalms 145-150.
The types of classifications of psalms in the Book of Psalms includes:
- Hymns of praise
- Enthronement psalms, which emphasize God’s royal rule
- Royal psalms, which celebrate the kings of Israel in their relationship to God
- Prayers in times of trouble including laments of various kinds
- Songs of thanksgiving to God
- Wisdom psalms, which provide counsel concerning the problems of life
- Affirmations of faith
In the 21st century, the Psalms continues is used in a variety of ways including as a source for hymns, prayers, and responsive readings in worship as well as the starting point for personal devotions. In this guide, we are primarily concerned with the devotional and personal spirituality uses of the Psalms. The fact is that we know so little about their origins and original uses that we have the freedom to treat them in a modern way, seeking to hear the way God speaks through them to us in our day.
Brueggemann, Walter. Introduction to the Old Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
Hempel, J. “Psalms, Book of.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. III, 942-958. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962.
Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York: Free Press, 2007.
Mays, James L. Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.
Rhodes, Arnold B. The Book of the Psalms. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1960.
Weiser, Arthur. The Psalms: A Commentary. Trans. by Herbert Hartwell. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1962.
Wilson, Gerald H. “The Shape of the Book of Psalms.” Interpretation 46, 2 (April 1992): 129-142