The Book of Psalms numbers 150 psalms. It consists of five collections of liturgical poems, divided as indicated below.a Each of the first four sections concludes with a doxology or formulaic expression of praise to God. For example, the first section ends with this typical doxology:

“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel From everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.” (Psalm 41:14)

The last section of the Psalter has no closing doxology of its own, probably because the final psalm in that section, Psalm 150, was regarded as a climactic doxology for the entire collection as well as for the final section.

The rabbis saw a parallel between the five books of Moses and the five sections of the Psalter. In a Midrashb to Psalms, it is said that “Moses gave the five books of the Torah (the Pentateuch) to Israel, and David gave the five books of the Psalms to Israel.”

The first three sections of psalms seem to have existed originally as independent collections. The break between the fourth and fifth section, however, is artificial, with the doxology after the fourth section inserted somewhat arbitrarily into the sequence in order to make five books. Moreover, the first three sections appear to be considerably older than the final two sections.

Whatever the collections of psalms that were used to create the canonical Psalter, it is clear that each collection itself had a complicated redactional history. And the scheme of five sections with concluding doxologies is obviously a late arrangement The present five-part division is the culmination of a long and complex compositional and editorial process.

Nineteenth-century critical scholarship tended to assign late dates (c. second century B.C.) to all the individual psalms as well as to the final form of the Psalter. But recent scholarship has done an almost complete turnabout.

The dating of individual psalms is a complex, technical and almost always uncertain endeavor, but there are several considerations that, at the very least, allow for an earlier dating. In the first three sections, there is an almost complete absence of certain concepts which we would expect to find in Exilic (after the Babylonian Exile in the early sixth century) or later compositions. There are no prayers for the restoration of the Davidic kingship or the ingathering of the exiles. There are no references to prophetic eschatological concepts like the “end of the days,” In the later sections, we find aspects of Exilic wisdom literature, references to the Babylonian Exile (Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept”), but still no themes or concepts that would suggest a later composition.

Archaeology has provided remnants of a vast psalm literature throughout the ancient Near East, some of it not only very similar to the tone, theme and language of the canonical Hebrew Psalter, but also preceding the establishment of the Israelite monarchy by several hundred years.c

Did King David write the psalms? Of the 150 psalms in the Psalter, nearly half (73) bear the superscription in Hebrew le-David; that is, the Hebrew letter lamed is attached to the name David as a prefix.

There is uncertainty as to what this le-originally meant. It could mean “by” David, indicating authorship. Or it could mean “to” David, indicating it was dedicated to the king who himself was closely associated with music and song. Or it could also mean “concerning” David, referring to some event in David’s life; some of the psalms have narrative headings that do seem to refer to events in the life of David. There are several other possibilities for interpreting le– which fertile scholarly creativity has produced.

Despite all these possibilities, however, it is clear that at a very early stage le-David was understood to refer to Davidic authorship. The end of the second section of psalms specifically concludes, “The prayers of David, son of Jesse, are ended” (Psalm 72:20). In 2 Maccabees 2:13, we read of “the writings of David” in apparent reference to the Psalter. In a text found at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden, an entire library of 3,600 psalms is attributed to David. In the New Testament, Psalm 2, anonymous in the Hebrew Bible, is credited to David (Acts 4:25) (see also pp. 23–26); so too is Psalm 95 in Hebrews 4:7.

That at least some of the psalms were actually composed by David is a reasonable possibility. There is certainly no reason to exclude it The core of the first two sections of the Psalter are collections associated with the name of David, Psalms 3–41 and 51–71. Of the 73 le-David ascriptions, 56 appear in the first two sections of the Psalter, which at one time must have comprised two separate collections of Davidic psalms.

Just as we find ascriptions le-David, we find ascriptions to others as well: Moses (Psalm 90), Solomon (Psalm 72), Ethan, Heman, Asaph and the Korahites. The names of Korahite families who, according to the Bible (e.g., 1 Chronicles 6:16, 24), were temple functionaries, have appeared on inscribed potsherds found at Arad in the Negev, which attests to the reality of Korahites in the period of the monarchy.

The psalms have been divided into a number of types, but the definitions are often vague and overlapping.

In the first two sections, the Davidic collections, the individual complaint predominates. These are poignant prayers wrung from personal crisis, such as severe sickness or persecution, from which the victim seeks to be “delivered.” They usually culminate in a promise of thanksgiving when the prayer is answered by a change in the human situation, and anticipates a divine assurance of this change through a priest or prophet.

In communal complaints God is implored to intervene in national disasters, like invasions or plagues (Psalms 44, 74, 79, 80).

Songs of individual thanksgiving express gratitude for specific answers to prayer (Psalms 18, 30, 116 36, 138).

Another key category is the hymn, which praises God for less immediate reasons than the thanksgiving song. Hymns are more prevalent in the latter half of the Psalter, so that the overall effect of the Book of Psalms is a progression from prayer grounded in human need to praise of God’s glory. In Hebrew, the entire Psalter is called tehillim (often shortened to tillim), “praises” or “hymns.” Israel’s hymns praise God for a variety of reasons. Some, such as Psalms 105 and 114, celebrate his grace in choosing and delivering his people. Others, such as Psalm 8, celebrate his work as creator and sustainer of the world.

There are many other categories to characterize groups of contiguous or disparate psalms, such as the so-called royal psalms (among them, Psalms 2, 20, 45 and 89), in which the earthly king is the center of attention.

It has been said that the Psalter is Israel’s theology set to music. Many Old Testament theologies have been written, but the Psalter was the first. It is a theological microcosm that echoes the varied themes of the Old Testament: God’s power created and sustains the world. His grace is such that he chose and delivered his people Israel and has entered into a covenant of mutual commitment with them. He is the transcendent God of heaven and yet the God who is near in the sanctuary and in human life, using his power to bless and keep from harm, and when necessary, to save from crisis. Israel’s sure hope is that he will manifest his universal reign.

The psalms are grounded in basic human situations and express a spiritual relationship with God as Lord of the individual, of the religious community and of the world. John Calvin called the Book of Psalms “the anatomy of all parts of the soul, for not an affection will anyone find in himself whose image is not reflected in its mirror.” When life is going well, there are psalms to praise God as the giver of all good things and meditate on his being. When crises break, despair and depression find an outlet and begin to find their resolution. When the crisis is over, the songs of thanksgiving bend relief and renewed optimism into grateful praise to a God who answers prayer. At whatever juncture in life we find ourselves, the Psalter preserves the voices of men and women who have been there before us. (See Perspective)

BR is grateful for the assistance of Dr. Leslie Allen, Fuller Theological Seminary, Oakland, California, and Professor Emeritus Nahum Sarna of Brandeis University in preparing “The Psalter at a Glance.”