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Psalms (Tehilim תהילים, in Hebrew) is a book of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. Because of its original meaning as a song or chant, the word psalm can be used to mean any religious chant or poem of praise. This article, however, deals specifically with the Psalms (with upper-case P) as the book of Scripture.

The Islamic redaction of the book of Psalms is called the Zabur, and is believed to be one of the holy books revealed by Allah prior to the Qur'an, the others being Tawrat (Torah) and Injil (Gospels).

In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms are counted among the "Writings" or Ketuvim (one of the three main sections into which the books are grouped). In Luke 24:44 the word "psalms" refers the Writings as a whole.

The Book of Psalms, especially if printed separately and set for singing or chanting, is also called the Psalter.


Composition of the Book of Psalms

The Book of Psalms is divided into 150 Psalms, each of which constitutes a religious song or chant, though one or two are long and may constitute a set of related chants. When the Bible was divided into chapters, each Psalm was assigned its own chapter. Psalms are sometimes referred to as chapters, though their individuality antedates the chapter assignments by at least 1,500 years.

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain more than 150 Psalms, including the "canonical" 150 Psalms and several "non-canonical" Psalms.

The organization and numbering of the Psalms differs slightly between the (Masoretic) Hebrew and the (Septuagint) Greek manuscripts:

Hebrew Psalms Greek Psalms
9-10 9
11-113 10-112
114-115 113
116 114-115
117-146 116-145
147 146-147
  • Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew are together as Psalm 9 in the Greek
  • Psalms 114 and 115 in the Hebrew are Psalm 113 in the Greek
  • Psalms 114 and 115 in the Greek appear as Psalm 116 in the Hebrew
  • Psalms 146 and 147 in the Greek form Psalm 147 in the Hebrew

Christian traditions vary:

  • Protestant translations are based on the Hebrew numbering;
  • Eastern Orthodox translations are based on the Greek numbering;
  • Roman Catholic official liturgical texts follow the Greek numbering, but modern Catholic translations often use the Hebrew numbering, sometimes adding, in parenthesis, the Greek numbering as well.

Most manuscripts of the Septuagint also include a Psalm 151, present in Eastern Orthodox translations; a Hebrew version of this poem was found in the Psalms Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Psalms Scroll presents the Psalms in an order different from that found elsewhere, and also contains a number of non-canonical poems and hymns.

For the remainder of this article, the Hebrew Psalm numbers will be used unless otherwise noted.

Authorship and ascriptions

Traditionally the Psalms were thought to be the work of David, but many modern scholars see them as the product of several authors or groups of authors, many unknown. Most Psalms are prefixed with introductory words (which are frequently different in the Masoretic and Septuagint traditions) ascribing them to a particular author or saying something about the circumstances of their composition; only 73 of these introductions claim David as author. Since the Psalms were written down in Hebrew not before the 6th century BCE, nearly half a millennium after David's reign (about 1000 BCE), they doubtless depended on oral tradition for transmission of any Davidic material.

Psalms 39, 62, and 77 are linked with Jeduthun, to be sung after his manner or in his choir. Psalms 50 and 73-83 are associated with 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 Korathite singers. Hebraist Joel M. Hoffman suggests that Psalm 49 may be an anti-corruption Psalm, not "for Korah" but "against Korah." 1

Psalm 18 is found, with minor variations, also at 2 Samuel 22, for which reason, in accordance with the naming convention used elsewhere in the historic parts of the Bible, it is known as the Song of David.

1My People's Prayer Book Volume 9. (Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed.) 2004. ISBN 1580232620.

Sections of the book

In Jewish usage, the Psalter is divided, after the analogy of the Pentateuch, into five books, each closing with a doxology or benediction (For the Orthodox Christian division into twenty kathismata, see Eastern Orthodox usage, below):

  1. The first book comprises the first 41 Psalms. All of these are ascribed to David except Psalms 1, 2, 10, and 33, which, though untitled in the Hebrew, were also traditionally ascribed to David. While Davidic authorship cannot be confirmed, this probably is the oldest section of the Psalms.
  2. The second book consists of the next 31 Psalms (42-72). Eighteen of these are ascribed to David and one to Solomon (Psalm 72). The rest are anonymous.
  3. The third book contains seventeen Psalms (73-89), of which Psalm 86 is ascribed to David, Psalm 88 to Heman the Ezrahite, and Psalm 89 to Ethan the Ezrahite.
  4. The fourth book also contains seventeen Psalms (90-106), of which Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses, and Psalms 101 and 103 to David.
  5. The fifth book contains the remaining Psalms, 44 in number. Of these, 15 are ascribed to David, and one (Psalm 127) 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 (Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles), at the new moon, and on the eight days of Hanukkah. A version of Psalm 136 with slightly different wording appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm. It is composed of 176 verses, in sets of eight verses, each set beginning with one of the 22 Hebrew letters. Several other Psalms too have alphabetical arrangements.

Psalm 117 is the shortest Psalm, containing but two verses.

Psalm forms

Scholars have determined that there are a groups of psalms that can be classified together because of similarities. The main forms are:

Individual Laments
Community Laments
Songs of Trust
Individual Thanksgiving Psalms
Royal Psalms
Wisdom Psalms

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 singing 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:

  • Some bear the Hebrew designation shir (Greek ode, a song). Thirteen have this title. It means the flow of speech, as it were, in a straight line or in a regular strain. This title includes secular as well as sacred song.
  • Fifty-eight Psalms bear the designation (Hebrew) mizmor (Greek psalmos, a Psalm), a lyric ode, or a song set to music; a sacred song accompanied with a musical instrument.
  • Psalm 145, and many others, have the designation (Hebrew) tehillah (Greek hymnos, a hymn), meaning a song of praise; a song the prominent thought of which is the praise of God.
  • Six Psalms (16, 56-60) have the title (Hebrew) michtam.
  • Psalms 7 and Habakkuk 3 bear the title (Hebrew) shiggaion.

Psalms are used throughout traditional Jewish worship. Several Psalms appear as part of the morning services; Psalm 145 (commonly referred to as "Ashrei," which is really the first word of each of the last 2 verses of Psalm 144), is read during or before services, three times every day. Psalms 95-99, 29, 92, and 93, along with some later readings, comprise the introduction ("Kabbalat Shabbat") to the Friday night service.

Traditionally, a different "Psalm for the Day" is read after the morning service each day of the week (starting Sunday, Psalms: 24, 48, 82, 94, 81, 93, 92). This is described in the Mishnah (the initial codification of the Jewish oral tradition) in the section "Tamid."

When a Jew dies, a watch is kept over the body and Tehillim (Psalms) are recited constantly by sun or candlight, until the burial service. Historically, this watch would be carried out by the immediate family usually in shifts but what usually happens today is that the funeral home or Chevra kadisha will offer someone to keep this vigil.

Many Jews complete the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis, and say, each week, a Psalm connected to that week's events or the Torah portion read during that week. In addition, many Jews (notably Lubavitch, and other Chasidim) read the entire Book of Psalms prior to the morning (Shachrit) service, on the Sabbath preceding the calculated appearance of the new moon.

The 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament show that they were familiar to the Judean community at the time of Jesus.

The Psalms in Christian worship

New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, and the Psalms 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 weeks. In the early centuries of the Church, it was expected that any candidate for bishop would be able to recite the entire Psalter from memory, something they often learned automatically during their time as monks. Today, new translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced. Several conservative denominations sing only the Psalms (and the small number of hymns found elsewhere in the Bible) in worship, and do not accept the use of any non-Biblical hymns; an example is the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.

Some Psalms are among the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular church-goers. In particular, the 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is My Shepherd", 22nd in the Greek numbering) offers an immediately appealing message of comfort and 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", called the Miserere from the first word in its Latin version) 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 102/103 ("Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!") is one of the best-known prayers of praise. 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; the Orthodox church often uses this hymn during Lent. In popular music, the U2 song "40" is based on Psalm 40 ("I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.")

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 stasi (sing. stasis) as follows (using the Greek chapter numbering):

  • Kathisma 1: Psalms 1-3, 4-6, 7-8
  • Kathisma 2: 9-10, 11-13, 14-16
  • Kathisma 3: 17, 18-20, 21-23
  • Kathisma 4: 24-26, 27-29, 30-31
  • Kathisma 5: 32-33, 34-35, 36
  • Kathisma 6: 37-39, 40-42, 43-45
  • Kathisma 7: 40-48, 49-50, 51-54
  • Kathisma 8: 55-57, 58-60, 61-63
  • Kathisma 9: 64-66, 67, 68-69
  • Kathisma 10: 70-71, 72-73, 74-76
  • Kathisma 11: 77, 78-80, 81-84
  • Kathisma 12: 85-87, 88, 89-90
  • Kathisma 13: 91-93, 94-96, 97-100
  • Kathisma 14: 101-102, 103, 104
  • Kathisma 15: 105, 106, 107-108
  • Kathisma 16: 109-111, 112-114, 115-117
  • Kathisma 17: 118:1-72, 73-131, 132-176
  • Kathisma 18: 119-123, 124-128, 129-133
  • Kathisma 19: 134-136, 137-139, 140-142
  • Kathisma 20: 143-144, 145-147, 148-150

At vespers, 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. In the 20th century, some lay Christians have adopted a continuous reading of the Psalms on weekdays, praying the whole book in four weeks, three times a day, one kathisma a day.

Aside from kathisma readings, Psalms occupy a prominent place in every other Orthodox service including the services of the Hours and the Divine Liturgy. In particular, the penitential Psalm 50 is very widely used. Fragments of Psalms and individual verses are used as Prokimena, or introductions to other Scripture readings. The bulk of Vespers is composed of Psalms even if the kathismata are disregarded; Psalm 118, "The Psalm of the Law," is the centerpiece of Matins. The entire book of Psalms is traditionally read out loud or chanted at the side of the deceased during the time leading up to the funeral.

Roman Catholic usage

The Psalms have always been an important part of Roman Catholic liturgy. The Liturgy of the Hours is centred on chanting or recitation of the Psalms. Early Catholics employed the Psalms widely in their individual prayers also; however, as knowledge of Latin (the language of the Latin rite) became uncommon, this practice ceased among the unlearned. Over the centuries, the use of the Psalms in the liturgy declined as well. The Tridentine Mass preserved only isolated verses that, in some cases, were originally refrains sung during recitation of the whole Psalm from which they were taken.

When the Second Vatican Council permitted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy, certain Psalms again became well known even to the laity. Until the Council the Psalms were either recited on a one week or less frequently (as in the case of Ambrosian rite) a two week cycle. The Breviary introduced in 1974 distributed the psalms over a four-week cycle. Monastic usage varies widely. Some use the four week cycle of the secular clergy, many retain a one week cycle, either following St Benedict's scheme or another of their own devising, while others opt for some other arrangement.

Official approval was also given to other arrangements (see "Short" Breviaries in the 20th and early 21st Century America for an in-progress study) by which the complete Psalter is recited in a one or two-week cycle. These arrangements are used principally by Catholic contemplative religious orders, such as that of the Trappists (see for example the Divine Office schedule at New Melleray Abbey).

The 1970 revision of the Roman Missal (see Mass of Paul VI) reintroduced the singing or recitation of a more substantial section of a Psalm, and in some cases an entire Psalm, after the first Reading from Scripture. This Psalm, called the Responsorial Psalm, is usually sung or recited responsorially, although the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 61 permits direct recitation.

The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 122 sanctions three modes of singing/recitation for the Psalms:

  • directly (all sing or recite the entire psalm);
  • antiphonally (two choirs or sections of the congregation sing or recite alternate verses or strophes); and
  • responsorially (the cantor or choir sings or recites the verses while the congregation sings or recites a given response after each verse).

Protestant usage

The psalms were extremely popular among those who followed the Reformed tradition.

Following the Protestant Reformation, verse paraphrases of many of the Psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition. Calvin himself made some French translations of the Psalms for church usage. Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress is Our God is based on Psalm 46. 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).

But by the 20th century they were mostly replaced by hymns in church services.

Anglican usage

Anglican chant is a way of singing the Psalms that remains part of the Anglican choral tradition. The version of the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer is an older translation (from the Great Bible) than that included in the King James Version of the Bible.

Musical settings

Old 100th
Miserere by Gregorio Allegri
Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 by Monteverdi
Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein
Tehillim by Steve Reich

External links

This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.

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