Lesson 3 of 5
In Progress

Background of Psalms

The book of Psalms contains songs and prayers collected over the life of Israel. Some seem ancient and reflect rites and ceremonies from the earliest days (for example, Psalm 68). Others apparently cry out over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. (for example, Psalm 74), while yet others know of the return from Babylon (538 B.C.E.) and the life of the postexilic community (for example, Psalm 107). The collection process continued even into the intertestamental period, as indicated by the inclusion of Psalm 151 in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and Psalms 151-155 in the Dead Sea scrolls. In other words, the book of Psalms reflects many authors, collectors, and revisers throughout Israel’s history.

The titles or superscripts of the various psalms are generally thought to be added late in the process of collection. Most frequently, they indicate liturgical and musical information, often thought to reflect the worship of the Second Temple (after 515 B.C.E.). The duties and divisions of priests described in 1 Chronicles probably comes from this postexilic period as well, and many of those “in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 6:31) are named both in Chronicles and in the psalm titles. This no doubt accurately reflects a significant role of the priests in the authorship, gathering, and singing of psalms.

While the psalms reflect Israel’s temple worship and assume some knowledge of the activities there, they also assume a relation to the life of David and Israel’s sacred history. Songs (or psalms) are included often in the historical material of the Bible (for example, the song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15:1-21; the song of Deborah in Judges 5:1-31; the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10). Psalm 18 occurs both in the Psalter and in its assumed historical context, 2 Samuel 22:2-51. Israel turned to God in song and prayer in response to God’s steadfast love shown in Israel’s history.

As written in a book, the psalms became also a basis for meditation and instruction. They could now be read and prayed apart from formal worship and thus received another important function, especially in the synagogue. First used as songs and prayers addressed to God, they came to be received as part of Holy Scripture, bringing God’s word to God’s people. Psalm 1’s counsel to “meditate” on God’s law “day and night” already reflects this use.