For the last few years, I’ve taken time to study the largest book of the Bible — The book of Psalms. In Hebrew, the word for Psalm is “tehillim,” which means “praises,” while the Greek word “psalm” means “song.”
As to genre, the Psalms are poetry put to music, although we don’t have the musical score that would allow us to sing them.
I hope we can recover the musical key some day that would allow us to sing the Psalms as they were originally heard.
If we don’t discover the musical key that unlocks them in this life, then I would like a concert in the world to come with the resurrected King David during which he plays the entire Psalter.
Psalms are now interpreted in a different way than they were in the past. Let’s explore some of those changes, because they have strengthened our understanding of the Psalms.
The first question we should ask is, “When were the Psalms compiled?”
Take any songbook, in any church, and you have many songs written during several centuries, but the compilation date comes after the latest song written.
For the Psalms, the compilation date must be some time during or after the Babylonian exile, because Psalm 137 has its setting while Israel is in Babylonian captivity.
This Psalm would place the compilation date for the Psalter at some time during the sixth to fourth centuries BCE. While it’s only speculation, many scholars believe Ezra the scribe was the person responsible for compiling them.
When we speak of compilation, it may sound as if the 150 Psalms were all separate poems or songs that were waiting to be collected.
We know, however, that many of the Psalms were in smaller collections before they were compiled into the book we know today.
For instance, Psalms 120-134 are known as the “Psalms of Ascent” based on the superscription that heads each of them. They already were collections of Psalms used by pilgrims headed to Jerusalem before they were placed inside the larger collection.
Now let’s discuss some recent ways modern scholars have changed the landscape for Psalms study.
In times past, they were viewed as separate songs with little thought that the variant Psalms were speaking to or aware of the others.
The man who opened the gate for viewing the Psalms in a more canonical fashion is Brevard Childs. Before his time, most scholars looked at the Psalms as individual poems, categorized their genre, and interpreted them as isolated pieces of poetry.
Childs’ study connected the Psalms with each other more than previously thought.
Today, more scholars are taking longer looks and seeing the Psalms are speaking to and with each other with intentionality and design. For instance, look at Psalm One and Psalm Two which stand at the head of the collection.
The first clue that they are meant to be read as a united front comes when you realize that neither of them has a superscription like the majority of Psalms in the book. Further evidence comes from seeing that both Psalms share multiple significant words. The cluster means that whoever compiled the Psalter realized that Psalm One and Psalm Two shared words and theology that united them, so they were placed at the head of the Psalter with purpose and design.
I love good classical music by composers who have many different styles. The one thing a good composer does is to take his listener on a journey with many different moods and feelings throughout the piece.
Sometimes the music is soft, and that allows us to reflect. Other times, it sweeps us off our feet with a loud crescendo.
One of the more delightful discoveries of modern Psalm study is that the composer is taking us on a journey with a destination in sight.
If you read the Psalms in order, you will notice they start out with complaint to G-d (lament is the technical term), but then they end with a bombastic fury of praise.
More of the Psalms in the Psalter register complaints, but interestingly, the book is called “Tehillim” (praises), because praise is the ultimate destination to which they are headed.
While past studies viewed the individual Psalms as atomistic and isolated, I believe they are different movements in a wider symphony.
If we fail to read the Psalms from beginning to end, we miss the intention of the composer, who wanted us to hear the Psalms as one continual piece and have them move us along a spectrum.
Three things combined scream to me that the Psalms need to be more studied:
First, the book of Psalms was highly prized by the Dead Sea Scroll community based on the number of copies of Psalms they possessed.
Second, the book of Psalms is quoted and echoed multiple times in the Apostolic Scripture (New Testament).
Third, Yeshua (Jesus) quoted the Psalms but even more said they spoke about Him (Luke 24:44).
I have made the Psalms a book for lifetime study, and I hope more of my fellow believers will do the same.
If you have the time, we will study the book of Psalms (along with a smattering of Hebrew language) from 6:30 to 8 p.m. every Thursday at Peninsula Baptist Church in Gig Harbor.On Faith columnist Brent Emery can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.