The Book of Psalms – Overview & Structure

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Psalms Overview Structure

Wednesday 5/01/24

Title: The Book of Psalms – Overview & Structure

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The Book of Psalms – Overview & Structure


Tonight in our continuing trek ‘Thru the Bible’ we are beginning the book of Psalms.

Unlike the book of Revelation, which is often called RevelationS plural, this book really is in the plural because like the Bible, the book of Psalms, is really a collection of individual works from many authors over the span of about 500 years. 

These individual Psalms were gradually collected over time but remained unnamed most likely due to the fact that the subject matters vary so greatly. 

But before we get into that, you might be wondering, what precisely is a Psalm

Well like you no doubt have presupposed – a Psalm is a song, making Psalms a book of songs. However, it is also a book containing poetry, liturgies and even wisdom literature. That a great deal of them, if not all of them, were to be read, recited or sung to the accompaniment of music is also true.

Eventually this collection came to be called Sepher Tehillim which is “Book of Praises”. 

The Septuagint titled it Psalmoi which means poems sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments.

As such this book has served as more or less the hymnal for the Jewish and Christian communities for thousands of years and is still being used as the basis of songs of worship and praise today. 

So, since this is a collection of songs written over the span of at least 500 years, one would think that there could be no real flow or structure to the book since it was not composed by a single author from a single time period.

Nevertheless, before embarking on this study I was hoping to discover some sort of structure and flow which would help me teach them in a more meaningful way. And to be honest I somewhat anticipated that such a structure existed.

Now, let me just interject that this would not typically be anticipated! 

I mean, in any other book no one would likely even look for overarching themes and points to such a collection of works. Certainly no clear structure or flow would be expected, but we are NOT dealing with just any literary work. 

This collection of works is within the Holy and inspired scriptures! 

God has so inspired its writing and collection so that it would actually seem odd and out of place if there were no structure and flow.

This places us in the unique position of looking for and even anticipating structure and overarching purposes where naturally one would think none is likely to exist.

As it turns out, in my search I found that there are a good number of like minded people out there who have done a great deal of scholarly work in discovering, if not pretty clearly identifying such a structure and flow. Part of this structure was already done for us since the book was divided into five individual collections (or books within the book) long ago in the greater Hebraic community.

  • Book I is comprised of chapters 1-41 This division begins with Psalms 1 & 2 which function much like an introduction to the entire collection of Psalms
    • Psalm 1 – Focuses on the Torah, the Law, the godly vs. the ungodly and begins with “happy is the one who…”.
    • Psalm 2 – Focuses on the coming Messiah, grace, unfruitfulness versus fruitfulness and ends with “happy are those who
    • Psalm 3 actually begins the content of Book I which starts off with turmoil in that it eludes to Absolom’s attempt to divide his father David’s kingdom. As it turns out, a good number of the Psalms in the first three books take the form of laments – kind of like Lamentations. It covers the time period of David’s life 1020-970 BC
  • Book II is Psalms 42-72 – It covers the Exodus, Deliverance and Redemption. The focus is largely upon hope for restoration and God’s fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. This book and book III together cover the time period between Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah 970-610 BC.
  • Book III is Psalms 73-89 – It covers the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and the future Messianic kingdom. Both this book and books 4 cover the time period between the Babylonian exile and their post-exile return to around 430 BC just before the time of God’s silence. 
  • Book IV is Psalms 90-106 – Begins with Moses’ Psalm which is actually a prayer praising God for His protection, a call for God to teach them wisdom and to learn from their failings and finally for Him to return His favor to them. As the book continues it begins to gradually elevate our gaze towards the Lord being our king. Both in this book and Book 5 there are still problems, adversities and trouble but they also acknowledge the presence of the Lord as worthy of praise and gratitude. These books go on to focus largely on the Sovereign rule of God. 
  • Book V is Psalms 107-150 – Predominant focus on God’s kingdom – especially the future Messianic Kingdom.
    • The last 5 chapters of book 5 (Chapters 146-150) are the other bookend to Psalms 1 & 2 and function like a doxology.

Psalm Overview graphic

Each of these 5 books possess a type of internal structure which flows throughout from beginning to end. Each Psalm in each book makes use of words and phrases which interconnect them within that book division.

These all generate a flow of themes which do their role of weaving further cohesion into the Book of Psalms establishing a structure to this collection of songs.

The individual topics mentioned in the Psalms touch on every aspect of life which has greatly contributed to their popularity even among the lost. As such, in most cases, the Psalms are all very approachable.

This is why the Psalms have been referred to as…

  • The mirror of the souls
  • The anatomy of the soul – John Calvin 

These aspects of life are all rooted in actual historical events which include the Creation, the calls of God to His people and to individuals within the Jewish nation, the patriarchy, the brief time of the theocratic rule of God, the monarchical period, the exiles and even the early part of the post-exile period.

Perhaps this is why the Biblical book of Psalms has been referred to as… 

  • the little Bible by Martin Luther
  • the Bible within the Bible.

When one takes a 30,000’ view of the book – taking all of the Psalms and their book divisions into consideration four overarching points of focus can been seen throughout:

  • The Law
  • The Messiah
  • The Creation 
  • and the Creator’s sovereignty over all nations and all things.

And in each of the five divisions within the book of Psalms the Lord’s kingship is clearly given testimony to!

As to the authors and relative time periods of the Psalms

  • David wrote 73 Psalms (though he may have contributed to some of the 50 unauthored Psalms). He lived around 1000 BC and most likely composed the majority of his Psalms on a lyre which was a type of harp. He authored the entire first book of Psalms except Psalms 1 & 10. In addition to these he wrote Psalms 51-65; 68-70; 86; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 133 and 138-145.
    • Just a little side note. While Psalm 2 does not have a title and therefore does not list David as its author, in Acts 4:25 the early church referenced Psalm 2 and attributed it to David.
    • Acts 4:23-31, “(23) When they were released, Peter and John went to their fellow believers and reported everything the high priests and the elders had said to them.  (24)  When they heard this, they raised their voices to God with one mind and said, “Master of all, you who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them,  (25)  who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things?  (26)  The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against his Christ.’  (27)  “For indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, Whom You anointed,  (28)  to do as much as Your power and Your plan had decided beforehand would happen.  (29)  And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to Your servants to speak your message with great courage,  (30)  while You extend Your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.”  (31)  When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously.”
  • Asaph and sons wrote 12 (Psalms 50; 73-83).  Asaph was a prophet who was a descendant of Gershon the son of Levi and he is identified as a member of the Levites. He is also known as one of the three Levites commissioned by David to be in charge of singing in the house of Yahweh. He lived in the same time period as David.
  • Solomon wrote 2 (Psalms 72, 127). He lived around 960 BC.
  • Korah’s sons wrote 11 (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87 & 88). Korah himself was of the Kohathite division of Levites who were responsible for carrying the holy articles of the temple. He took part in a revolt against Moses and Aaron and was destroyed by God, His sons however were spared (Numbers 26:9-11). 7 generations later Samuel the prophet was born who was from the lineage of Korah (1 Chronicles 6:31-38; 1 Samuel 1:1,20). Once settled in the promised land there was no longer a need to transport the Ark of the Covenant or the other holy items of the temple and so the Kohathites became doorkeepers and custodians of the temple (1 Chronicles 9:19-21). When David became king, one division of the Kohathites essentially became anointed minstrels, and became leaders of music in the temple. These are the sons here mentioned.    
    • Psalm 88 specifically mentions Heman (the Ezrahite) who was a musician as well as a Korathite (1 Chronicles 2:6). He evidently collaborated with the sons of Korah in the writing of this Psalm)
  • Ethan (the Ezrahite) wrote Psalm 89. He was of the Merari division of Levites who took care of the frames, crossbars, posts, bases, tent pegs and such relating to the mobile temple in the wilderness. Both he and Heman mentioned above were integral in the services of praise and thanksgiving when the Ark of the Covenant was brought back to Jerusalem. David formed an elaborate organization for song writing, instrumental music, and prophesying through these men.
  • Moses wrote Psalm 90 and of course lived around 1446 BC.
  • Other anonymous contributors – 50

A bit of a window into the past which mentions both David and Asaph as composers of Psalms and which illustrate their common use as songs of worship and praise can be found in 2 Chronicles 29:25-30. As you remember, King Hezekiah was one of those kings who had both his high and low points. However, even as just a 25 year old boy, this king hit the ground of his new administration running. In his first month as King he had the doors to the temple repaired, cleansed the temple and restored temple worship. So this moment was at a high point in King Hezekiah’s reign.

It says…

“(25) Hezekiah stationed the Levites in the LORD’s temple with cymbals and stringed instruments, just as David, Gad the king’s prophet, and Nathan the prophet had ordered. (The LORD had actually given these orders through his prophets.)  

(26)  The Levites had David’s musical instruments and the priests had trumpets.  

(27)  Hezekiah ordered the burnt sacrifice to be offered on the altar. As they began to offer the sacrifice, they also began to sing to the LORD, accompanied by the trumpets and the musical instruments of King David of Israel.  

(28)  The entire assembly worshiped, as the singers sang and the trumpeters played. They continued until the burnt sacrifice was completed.  

(29)  When the sacrifices were completed, the king and all who were with him bowed down and worshiped.  

(30)  King Hezekiah and the officials told the Levites to praise the LORD, using the psalms of David and Asaph the prophet. So they joyfully offered praise and bowed down and worshiped.”

So there you have a practical example of David and Asaph’s songs being preserved down through the ages. Their instruments used and their Psalms being sung in worship and praise to God over 300 years after their compositions.

Now each of the 5 book divisions ends with a doxology of sorts.

In particular Psalms 146-150 are all a type of doxology to themselves,yet having no stated titles they function as one culminating in Psalm 150 which ends with the great doxology, 

“Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! ”

Now next week we will begin actually reading and working through the Psalms, but in closing I thought I’d play a few videos.

The first two are from The Bible Project which I have largely stopped using in our trek ‘Thru the Bible’ because I found a number of key topics, specifically touching the fall of mankind, sin and God’s redemptive plan which were either somewhat fringe, misleading or all together wrong. Nevertheless I decided to give their take on the book of Psalms a chance and found they share the same views I have come to have. In fact some of their wording implies they referenced some of the same resources I did.

So we will watch these two which will review what I’ve already said as well as introduce a little of where we are going.

Then to wrap things up I will play two more short videos in which a certain curiosity is mentioned. It isn’t one I place a lot of faith in personally, but it is interesting nonetheless.

It regards the possibility that many sections in the scriptures including the book of Psalms contain in them notes and chords to help singers and musicians know in what key and perhaps even which instruments to use in the singing of these songs.  – Video about Chords

The first of these two videos addresses this possibility and the second video shows how a couple is now working to recreate harps built to the ancient specifications of those used in temple worship so long ago.

Blessings!

Hi my name is Mark and though I am opposed to titles, I am currently the only Pastor (shepherd/elder) serving our assembly right now.

I have been Pastoring in one capacity or another for nearly 30 years now, though never quite like I am today.

Early in 2009 the Lord revealed to me that the way we had structured our assembly (church) was not scriptural in that it was out of sync with what Paul modeled for us in the New Testament. In truth, I (like many pastors I am sure) never even gave this fundamental issue of church structure the first thought. I had always assumed that church structure was largely the same everywhere and had been so from the beginning. While I knew Paul had some very stringent things to say about the local assembly of believers, the point of our gatherings together and who may or may not lead, I never even considered studying these issues but assumed we were all pretty much doing it right...safety in numbers right?! Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong!

So needless to say, my discovery that we had been doing it wrong for nearly two decades was a bit of a shock to me! Now, this "revelation" did not come about all at once but over the course of a few weeks. We were a traditional single pastor led congregation. It was a top-bottom model of ministry which is in part biblical, but not in the form of a monarchy.

The needed change did not come into focus until following 9 very intense months of study and discussions with those who were leaders in our church at the time.

We now understand and believe that the Bible teaches co-leadership with equal authority in each local assembly. Having multiple shepherds with God's heart and equal authority protects both Shepherds and sheep. Equal accountability keeps authority and doctrine in check. Multiple shepherds also provide teaching with various styles and giftings with leadership skills which are both different and complementary.

For a while we had two co-pastors (elders) (myself and one other man) who led the church with equal authority, but different giftings. We both taught in our own ways and styles, and our leadership skills were quite different, but complimentary. We were in complete submission to each other and worked side-by-side in the labor of shepherding the flock.

Our other Pastor has since moved on to other ministry which has left us with just myself. While we currently only have one Pastor/Elder, it is our desire that God, in His faithfulness and timing, may bring us more as we grow in maturity and even in numbers.

As to my home, I have been married since 1995 to my wonderful wife Terissa Woodson who is my closest friend and most trusted ally.

As far as my education goes, I grew up in a Christian home, but questioned everything I was ever taught.

I graduated from Bible college in 1990 and continued to question everything I was ever taught (I do not mention my college in order to avoid being labeled).

Perhaps my greatest preparation for ministry has been life and ministry itself. To quote an author I have come to enjoy namely Fredrick Buechner in his writing entitled, Now and Then, "If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that He speaks to us largely through what happens to us...if we keep our hearts open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear Him, He is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, His word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling." ~ Fredrick Buechner

Well that is about all there is of interest to tell you about me.

I hope our ministry here is a blessing to you and your family. I also hope that it is only a supplement to a local church where you are committed to other believers in a community of grace.

~God Bless!

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