Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

The Book of Psalms. Collection of some hundred and fifty songs, prayers, and various other less easily classified compositions that forms the nineteenth book of the ot. Ascribed by tradition to King David, the Psalms have, since late antiquity, played a central role in synagogues and churches; not only have they figured prominently in Jewish and Christian liturgies, but they have, by their style and their words, inspired later writers to compose psalmlike prayers and hymns, both for public worship and private piety. Probably no book of the Bible was known so well to medieval Christendom as the Psalms, and even today this book enjoys a unique place in the hearts of all readers of the Bible.

Diversity: By any standard, these prayers and songs are a heterogeneous lot, differing widely in such matters as date of composition, style, literary form, and original purpose and life-setting. This great variety was, for centuries, obscured not only by their collective attribution to David, but by the very fact of their having been grouped together in a single book and unified under a single name. ‘Psalm’ goes back to the Greek psalmos, used by translators to render the Hebrew mizmor, ‘song,’ a word that appears in the titles of some psalms. In Hebrew the book is known most commonly as sefer tehillim, ‘book of praises,’ a convenient catch-all. Another name for the book, ‘Psalter,’ goes back to the Greek psalterion, a stringed instrument. As modern scholarship has continued to study the Psalms, however, the differences between them have more and more become the focus of inquiry.

To be sure, some differences had always been apparent. On the most basic level, some psalms have a clearly celebrative quality, glorifying God’s powers or historic deeds or offering thanksgiving for a particular intervention (recovery from illness [e.g., Ps. 30], for example, or triumph over ‘enemies’ [e.g., Pss. 30, 54]). Others are, equally clearly, of a petitionary character, lamenting the speaker’s dire straits and appealing for divine help (e.g., Pss. 6, 140). Some psalms seem to be intended for recitation by an individual, a particular ‘I’ who appears in the text (e.g., Pss. 23, 130), while in others the words are apparently to be sung or recited by a group, a choir, or the community as a whole (e.g., Pss. 113, 132). But so long as the Psalms were attributed to David (or occasionally to other ancient figures), these differences—to the extent that they were noticed—were ascribed to circumstances in the author’s own life: one psalm was composed upon a happy occasion, another in time of distress; in one David speaks on his own behalf, in another on behalf of his people, etc. In fact, early, anonymous scribes apparently sometimes added a brief phrase at the beginning of a psalm, seeking in that way to connect it to some event in the life of its presumed author (see, e.g., Pss. 34:1; 51:2).

Authorship and Date: This approach to the Psalms as personal, occasional lyrics showed remarkable resilience even after the mid-nineteenth century, when the tradition of Davidic authorship came to be widely questioned. With the steady advance of biblical scholarship, however, and especially with the availability of comparative material from ancient Egyptian and Babylonian literature, such notions eventually began to be abandoned. Not only did scholars now hesitate or refuse to date psalms to the time of David (in general they were dated much later, some writers at the turn of the twentieth century even denying the possibility that any of the psalms predated the Babylonian exile), but they began increasingly to treat the Psalms as ‘stock’ compositions, composed by anonymous bards to be recited again and again by individuals or communal choirs either as part of community worship or in times of private joy or distress.

The general lines of this approach have continued to be pursued by contemporary scholars, albeit with some revision. In particular, the matter of dating has undergone another radical shift, due in part to certain striking resemblances discovered between the language of some psalms and that found in the ancient literature of Ugarit, a city somewhat to the north of biblical Israel. On this basis, compositions such as Psalms 29 and 68 have not only been dated far earlier than before but are now believed by some to be among the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible. By contrast, certain other parts of the Psalter (e.g., Pss. 1, 119) bespeak an entirely different age and mentality: some have dated them among the youngest parts of Hebrew Scripture.

Types: The Psalter is thus a heterogeneous collection or, more likely, a collection of subcollections spanning many centuries. The editorial note at Ps. 72:20 is one visible seam, perhaps indicating the existence of an earlier smaller ‘psalter’ called ‘the Prayers of David son of Jesse.’ More fundamentally, the fifteen ‘Songs of Ascents’ (Pss. 120-34) present a discernible subgroup, as do the psalms attributed to the ‘sons of Korah’ (Pss. 42, 44, 47, 48, 49, 84, 87), Asaph (Pss. 50, 73-83), and the like. Moreover, the predominance of reference to God by the word ‘Elohim’ in Psalms 42-83 has led scholars to view this group as being of distinct provenance or editing, especially in view of the overlap between some of its psalms and those that precede it in our Psalter (thus, Ps. 53 is a doublet of Ps. 14; Ps. 70:2-6 = Ps. 40:14-18; Ps. 71:1-3 = Ps. 31:2-4; cf. Ps. 108, which is a doublet of Pss. 57:8-12 and 60:7-14). It has been theorized that all these materials, which had originally been written at different times and for different purposes, were gradually gathered together into collections by various groups in several locations and were still later combined into a single Psalter.

Besides considering the evolution of the Psalter as a book, modern scholars have especially concerned themselves with classifying the Psalms into different types, largely on the basis of the distinctions listed above (i.e., communal vs. individual psalms; ‘praise’ vs ‘petition/lament’), and with trying to pin down particular conventions, characteristic forms, phrases, or themes associated with each type.

Purpose or Use: Of special concern has been the question of how various types might have fit into the daily life of ancient Israel. Because of the frequent mention of God’s ‘house’ or ‘palace’ and sanctuary appurtenances, as well as of the psalmist’s appearing or bowing down ‘before God,’ many psalms have been thought to have been composed for one of Israel’s ancient religious sites and especially the Jerusalem Temple. Indeed, some scholars have asserted that virtually all the psalms in our Psalter were composed for worship at a religious site and constituted nothing less than the verbal equivalent or accompaniment to the offerings of incense and sacrificial animals that comprised Israel’s regular service of God. Objections have been advanced to this claim; nonetheless, the ‘liturgical connection’ is now widely accepted for many psalms. Numerous hymns, for example, appear by their wording intended for recitation at annual religious festivals (though the precise character of some of these observances is still in dispute). Similarly, it has been argued that some ‘psalms of the individual,’ both petitions and thanksgivings, were intended specifically to be recited at a sanctuary, the thanksgivings presumably accompanying an actual offering.

This, in turn, has caused critics to reassess the language of the Psalms. In the light of the proposed religious milieu of many of them, references to the ‘presence,’ ‘face,’ ‘protection,’ ‘wings,’ and the like of the Deity take on a new concreteness. So, more generally, the practice of many critics in approaching the words of particular psalms has been to seek to concretize them, to tie them down to processionals, priestly blessings, and other cultic regalia, or to link the requests for divine ‘goodness’ or ‘blessing’ to the somewhat mundane but vital concerns for adequate rainfall, a good harvest, and other necessities that might have shaped Israel’s communal worship. This approach has often proven quite convincing.

For much the same reason, the very vagueness of many petitions has aroused the suspicion of some critics: who, for example, are the otherwise unspecified ‘enemies’ from whom the psalmist seeks to be protected? And why is his salvation in psalms of thanksgiving so often presented in floridly metaphorical but hardly specific language? It has been argued that the language of many praises and complaints is left purposely vague so as to allow the composition to be reused by a variety of different speakers, each making reference to his particular case, but in language that gives more the illusion than the substance of specificity.

All this in turn has tarnished, at least in the eyes of some, the ‘spirituality’ of the Psalter, since many of its most sublime passages have had to be reunderstood (and in some cases retranslated) in somewhat less lofty terms. Part of this ‘de-spiritualization’ is an illusion created by the gap between worship in ancient Israel and worship in modern-day settings. The latter seems predicated on the very distance or elusiveness separating Deity and worshiper; the former, at least in its liturgical setting, was, on the contrary, based on the fact of divine presence, an absolute reality. What to moderns may seem mechanical and hopelessly concrete takes on quite a different aspect when restored to such a setting and mentality. Moreover, declarations of fealty, dependence, and so forth acquire a solemn significance when uttered publicly at the very ‘dwelling place’ of the Deity: they are indeed what many psalms seem to represent them as, verbal offerings, thus wholly comparable to sacrifices, tributes in the most concrete sense.

This notwithstanding, a liturgical setting cannot be posited for all the Psalms—many, especially those whose language suggests a late date of composition, seem clearly to belong elsewhere, to private piety or possibly to noncultic yet communal worship. Indeed, it has been argued that much material in the Psalter originally tied to public worship came gradually to have a life outside of it as well. Political events may have had a role in such an evolution. The destruction of old religious sites as well as the centralization of worship may have encouraged the establishment of nonsacrificial rites in the former places of sacrifice, with psalmody taking on an increased importance. Similarly, the Babylonian exile may have served to give the verbal component of worship a new independence. Whatever its causes, such a gradual shift might not only explain the scarcity of worship references in late psalms but would suggest that even originally cultic material may later have come to be ‘reread,’ understood in new ways and used in new circumstances.

Such a ‘rereading’ tendency seems amply attested not only in the latest parts of the Psalter but in such extrabiblical documents as the writings of the Qumran community that were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, the very existence of our present Psalter, with its integration of diverse materials, may be due to just this process: festive hymns, prayers, and songs that had once been designed for the sanctuary all eventually became ‘praises’ (tehillim) suitable for worship in any setting. In fact the Psalms were, in the apparent view of one manuscript from Qumran (11QPsa), now nothing less than revealed Scripture, ‘praises’ and songs spoken by David through divinely sent wisdom and even ‘in prophecy.’ And so they have remained.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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