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The word psalms is derived from the Greek: Psalmoi, originally meaning "songs sung to a harp", from psallein "play on a stringed instrument", Ψαλμοί.
Composition and numbering
The Book of Psalms consists of 150 psalms, each of which constitutes a religious song, though one or two are atypically 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 referenced as chapters, despite chapter assignments postdating the initial composition of the "canonical" Psalms by at least 1,500 years.
|Hebrew Psalms||Greek Psalms|
- Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew are combined into Psalm 9 in the Greek
- Psalms 114 and 115 in the Hebrew are combined into Psalm 113 in the Greek
- Psalm 116 in the Hebrew is divided into Psalms 114 and 115 in the Greek
- Psalm 147 in the Hebrew is divided into Psalms 146 and 147 in the Greek
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.
For the remainder of this article, the Hebrew Psalm numbers will be used unless otherwise noted.
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 other psalms found in some versions of the Peshitta see Psalms 152–155.
Authorship and ascriptions
Jewish and Muslim traditions posit that the Psalms are the work of David (seventy-three Psalms are with David's name), basing himself on the writings of ten ancient psalmists (including Adam and Moses). Many modern scholars see them as the product of several authors or groups of authors, many unknown.:5 Most Psalms are prefixed with introductory words—"superscriptions"—(which are frequently different in the Masoretic and Septuagint traditions, or missing in one while present in the other) ascribing them to a particular author or saying something, often in fairly cryptic language, about the circumstances of their composition or use; only 73 of these introductions claim David as author. Modern scholars often attribute the works to various authors from different time periods in Israel's history-ranging from the time of David (approx. 1100-900 BCE) to the intertestimental period (300-50 BCE).
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; 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."
Psalm 18 is also found, with minor variations, at Song of David., for which reason, in accordance with the naming convention used elsewhere in the historic parts of the Bible, it is known as the
Sections of the book
In Jewish usage, the Book of Psalms 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):
- 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.
- The second book consists of the next 31 Psalms (42–72). Eighteen of these are ascribed to David. Psalm 72 begins "For Solomon", but is traditionally understood as being written by David as a prayer for his son. The rest are anonymous.
- 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.
- The fourth book also contains seventeen Psalms (90–106), of which Psalm 90 is ascribed to Moses, and Psalms 101 and 103 to David.
- The fifth book contains the remaining 44 Psalms. Of these, 15 are ascribed to David, one (Psalm 127) as a charge to Solomon.
Psalm 136 is generally called "the great Hallel", but the Talmud also includes Psalms 120–135. Psalms 113–118 constitute the Hallel, which is recited on 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.
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 also have alphabetical arrangements. These psalms are believed to be written (rather than oral) compositions from the first, and thus of a relatively late date.
Psalm 117 is the shortest Psalm, containing but two verses.
Scholars have determined that there are groups of psalms that can be classified together because of similarities. The main forms are:
- Imprecatory Psalms
- Individual Laments
- Communal laments
- Songs of Trust
- Individual Thanksgiving Psalms
- Royal Psalms
- Wisdom Psalms
- Pilgrimage Psalms
- Liturgical Psalms
Psalm forms or types also include:
- Songs of Zion – Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, 122, 134;
- Historical Litanies – Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136;
- Pilgrim Liturgies – Psalms 81, 21;
- Entrance Liturgies – Psalms 15, 24;
- Judgment Liturgies – Psalms 50, 82;
- Mixed Types – 36, 40, 41, 68
Use of the Psalms in Jewish ritual
In the Pentateuch (or Torah), Moses leads the Jews in two songs of praise: upon the splitting of the Red Sea (Exodus 15) and before his death (Deuteronomy 32). Also, the Jews sing upon miracles done for them with the well (Numbers 21). Other Jewish figures would sing songs to celebrate miracles, including Joshua and Deborah. It is David, though, who is known as the "sweet singer of Israel".
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. Tehillah is also the singular of the name of the book in Hebrew, Tehillim.
- Six Psalms (16, 56–60) have the title (Hebrew) michtam.
- Psalm 7 and Habakkuk 3 bear the title (Hebrew) shiggaion.
Psalms are used throughout traditional Jewish worship. Many complete Psalms and verses from Psalms appear in the morning services. Psalm 145 (commonly referred to as "Ashrei", which is really the first word of 2 verses appended to the beginning of the Psalm), 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 tractate "Tamid."
When a Jew dies, a watch is kept over the body and Tehillim (Psalms) are recited constantly by sun or candlelight, until the burial service. Historically, this watch would be carried out by the immediate family – usually in shifts – but in contemporary practice, this service is provided by an employee of the funeral home or Chevra kadisha.
Many Jews complete the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis. Each week, some also say 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 service, on the Sabbath preceding the calculated appearance of the new moon.
The reading of psalms is viewed in Jewish tradition as a vehicle for gaining God's favor. They are thus often specially recited in times of trouble, such as poverty, disease, or physical danger; in many synagogues, Psalms are recited after services for the security of the State of Israel. Note that Sefer ha-Chinuch  states that this practice is designed not to achieve favor, as such, but rather to inculcate belief in Divine Providence into one's consciousness - as consistent with Maimonides' general view on Providence. (Relatedly, it is noted that the Hebrew verb for prayer - hitpalal התפלל - is in fact the reflexive form of palal פלל, to judge. Thus, "to pray" conveys the notion of "judging oneself": ultimately, the purpose of prayer - tefilah תפלה - is to transform ourselves ; for the relationship between prayer and psalms - "tehillah and tefillah" - see S. R. Hirsch, Horeb §620. See also under Jewish services.)
Psalms may also be read by a group of people who divide up the psalms between them to allow for a complete reading of the book.
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 most 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.
Several conservative denominations sing only the Psalms (some churches also sing the small number of hymns found elsewhere in the Bible) in worship, and do not accept the use of any non-Biblical hymns; examples are the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Free Church of Scotland.
Some Psalms are among the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular church-goers.
- Psalm 22 is of particular importance during the season of Lent as a Psalm of continued faith during severe testing.
- Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd, 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;
- Psalm 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 103, Bless the Lord, O my soul, is one of the best-known prayers of praise;
- Psalm 137, By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, is a moody 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.
New translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced. An individually printed volume of Psalms for use in Christian religious rituals is called a Psalter.
Eastern Orthodox Christians and Greek-Catholics (Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine rite), 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 (Greek: καθισματα; Slavonic: каѳисмы, kafismy; lit. "sittings"), and each kathisma (Greek: καθισμα; Slavonic: каѳисма, kafisma) is further subdivided into three stases (Greek: στασεις, staseis' lit. "standings", sing. στασις, stasis).
At Vespers and Matins, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year and on different days of the week, according to the Church's calendar, so that all 150 psalms (20 kathismata) are read in the course of a week. In the twentieth century, some lay Christians have adopted a continuous reading of the Psalms on weekdays, praying the whole book in four weeks.
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 (introductions to Scriptural readings), and Stichera. The bulk of Vespers would still be composed of Psalms even if the kathisma were to be disregarded; Psalm 118, "The Psalm of the Law", is the centerpiece of Matins on Saturdays, some Sundays, and the Funeral service. 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, mirroring Jewish tradition.
Roman Catholic usage
The Psalms have always been an important part of Roman Catholic liturgy. The Liturgy of the Hours is centered on chanting or recitation of the Psalms, using fixed melodic formulas known as psalm tones. 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. However, until the end of the Middle Ages it was not unknown for the laity to join in the singing of the Little Office of Our Lady, which was a shortened version of the Liturgy of the Hours providing a fixed daily cycle of twenty-five psalms to be recited, and nine other psalms divided across Matins.
The work of Bishop Richard Challoner in providing devotional materials in English meant that many of the psalms were familiar to English-speaking Catholics from the eighteenth century onwards. Challoner translated the entire of the Lady Office into English, as well as Sunday Vespers and daily Compline. He also provided other individual Psalms such as 129/130 for prayer in his devotional books. Challoner is also noted for revising the Douay-Rheims Bible, and the translations he used in his devotional books are taken from this work.
Until the Second Vatican Council the Psalms were either recited on a one week or less frequently (as in the case of Ambrosian rite) a two-week cycle. Different one-week schemata were employed: all secular clergy followed the Roman distribution, while Monastic Houses almost universally followed that of St Benedict, with only a few congregations (such as the Benedictines of St Maur) following individualistic arrangements. 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 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).
Of these three the antiphonal mode is the most widely followed.
Over the centuries, the use of complete Psalms in the liturgy declined. 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. After the Second Vatican Council (which also permitted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy) longer psalm texts were reintroduced into the Mass, during the readings. The revision of the Roman Missal after the Second Vatican Council reintroduced the singing or recitation of a more substantial section of a Psalm, 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 psalms are extremely popular among those who follow 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, where in the past they were typically sung to the exclusion of hymns. 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 Psalter 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. However, the Psalms are popular for private devotion among many Protestants and still used in many churches for traditional worship. There exists in some circles a custom of reading one Psalm and one chapter of Proverbs a day, corresponding to the day of the month.
The version of the Psalter in the American Book of Common Prayer prior to the 1979 edition is a sixteenth century Coverdale Psalter. The Psalter in the American Book of Common Prayer of 1979 is a new translation, with some attempt to keep the rhythms of the Coverdale Psalter.
Anglican chant is a method of singing prose versions of the Psalms.
In the early 17th century, when the King James Bible was introduced, the metrical arrangements by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins were also popular and were provided with printed tunes. This version and the New Version of the Psalms of David by Tate and Brady produced in the late seventeenth century (see article on Metrical Psalter) remained the normal congregational way of singing psalms in the Church of England until well into the nineteenth century.
Psalms in the Rastafari movement
The Psalms are one of the most popular parts of the Bible among followers of the Rastafari movement. Rasta singer Prince Far I released an atmospheric spoken version of the psalms, Psalms for I, set to a roots reggae backdrop from The Aggrovators.
Psalms set to music
Notable settings of multiple psalms as a single composition include:
- Chichester Psalms – Leonard Bernstein
- Melodie na psałterz polski – Mikołaj Gomółka
- Le Roi David - Arthur Honegger
- Tehillim – Steve Reich
- Symphony of Psalms – Igor Stravinsky
The psalms also feature large in settings of Vespers, including by Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Antonio Vivaldi who wrote such settings as part of their responsibilities as church musicians.
Most settings of individual psalms are indicated under the articles devoted to those particular psalms; settings for other psalms not in such articles include:
- Psalm 121, and Psalm 124 by Loys Bourgeois (c. 1500–1559)
- Levavi oculos meos (Psalm 121) by Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594)
- Psalm 1, Psalm 29, Psalm 121, and Psalm 150 by Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672)
- Beatus Vir (Psalm 112) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
- Psalm 121 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
- Psalm 148 by William Billings (1746–1800)
- Psalm 111 by Samuel Wesley (1766–1837)
- Psalm 42 (1837) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
- Psalm 150 by César Franck (1822–1890)
- Psalm 13 by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
- Psalm 13 by Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
- Psalm 18 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
- Psalm 148 by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
- Psalm 148 by Gustav Holst (1874–1934)
- Psalms 14, 24, 25, 42, 54, 90, 135, 150 by Charles Ives (1874–1954)
- Psalm 121 and Psalm 150 by Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967)
- Psalm 121 by Darius Milhaud (1892–1974)
- Psalm 24, 129 and 130 by Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
- Psalm 121 and Psalm 150 by Howard Hanson (1896–1981)
- Praise Ye the Lord (Psalm 147, 148, and 150) by Roger Sessions (1896–1985)
- Psalm 121 by Henry Cowell (1897–1965)
- Psalm 150 by Roy Harris (1898–1979)
- Two Motets (including Psalm 121) by Gerald Finzi (1901–1956)
- Psalm 28 by Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000)
- Psalm 29 by Hugo Weisgall (1912–1997)
- Psalm 150 (1962, op. 67) by Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
- Psalm 150 by George Rochberg (1918–2005)
- I Was Glad (Psalm 122) by Daniel Pinkham (1923–2006)
- A Psalm (13) and a Proverb by Ned Rorem (b. 1923)
- A Psalm of David (Psalm 13) by Robert Starer (1924–2001)
- Psalm 24, Psalm 40, Psalm 121, and Psalm 150 by Samuel Adler (b. 1928)
- Three Settings of the 13th Psalm by Edwin London (b. 1929)
- Psalm 143 by Yehudi Wyner (b. 1929)
- Psalm 4 by Alexander Goehr (b. 1932)
- Psalm 150 by William Mathias (1934–1992)
- Psalm 8 by John Corigliano (b. 1938)
- Psalm 6 and Psalm 92 by Mark Alburger (b. 1957)
- Psalm 73 by BarlowGirl
- Psalm 40 and Psalm 116 by U2
- Psalm 50 by Underoath
- Various psalms by Soul-Junk on various albums
- Biblical poetry
- Benefit of clergy (use of Psalm 51)
- Hallel (Psalms 113–118)
- Liturgy of the Hours
- Metrical Psalter
- Penitential Psalms
- They have pierced my hands and my feet
- ↑ Eaton, John (2005). The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary with an Introduction and New Translation. Continuum. ISBN 0826488951.
- ↑ My People's Prayer Book Volume 9. (Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed.) 2004. ISBN 1-58023-262-0.
- ↑ Footnotes for Psalm 120 in The King James Study Bible, p. 869, Zondervan, 2002, ISBN 9780310929932
- ↑ Brueggmann, Walter (2007). Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. Cascade Books. ISBN 1556352832.
- ↑ # 512 prohibition against incantations, on Deuteronomy 18:11
- ↑ Boney M. "Rivers Of Babylon" (1978)
- ↑ Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. "Tuning Hebrew Psalms to Reggae Rhythms". http://www.crosscurrents.org/murrell.htm. Retrieved 2008-02-11.