Corresponding to the book of Proverbs, itself a select library containing Israel's best gnomic literature, is the Psalter, the compendium of the nation's lyrical songs and hymns and prayers. It is the record of the soul experiences of the race. Its language is that of the heart, and its thoughts of common interest to worshipful humanity. It reflects almost every phase of religious feeling: penitence, doubt, remorse, confession, fear, faith, hope, adoration, and praise. Even the unlovely emotion of hatred is frankly expressed in certain of the imprecatory psalms. The Psalms appeal to mankind in every age and land because, being so divine and yet so human, they rest on the foundations of universal experience. Whenever a heart is breaking with sorrow or pulsating with thanksgiving and adoration, its strongest emotions find adequate expression in the simple and yet sublime language of the Psalter.
[Sidenote: Influence of the prophets upon it]
In the familiar doings of Mary and Zacharias, found in the opening chapters of Luke, we may trace the beginnings of the hymn literature of the early Christian Church, a literature which later became one of the Church's most valued possessions. If the canon of the New Testament had been closed in 1000 instead of 400 A.D., its books would doubtless have included a hymnal which would have corresponded closely to the Psalter of the Old. Just as the Psalms represent the application of the great doctrines of the Hebrew prophets in the spiritual life of the community, so this new hymnal would represent the personal application of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to the religious life of the Church and the individual. The Psalter is also what it is because its background is a period of stress and severe trial. In the hot furnace of affliction and persecution the psalmists learned to appreciate the truths which they so confidently and effectively proclaim. Then the spiritual teachings of the earlier prophets, which were contemptuously rejected by their contemporaries, were at last appropriated by the community. The Psalter as a whole appears, therefore, to be one of the latest and most precious fruits of the divine revelation recorded in the Old Testament.
[Sidenote: Evidence of distinct collections of psalms]
In its present form, the Psalter is divided into five books or collections. At the end of each collection there is a concluding doxology (xli., lxxii., lxxxix., cvi). The last psalm (cl.) serves as a concluding doxology, not only to the fifth collection, but also to the Psalter as a whole. Certain psalms are also reproduced in two different collections with only slight variations. For example, xiv. is practically identical with liii., except that in the first Jehovah is always used as the designation of the Deity, and in liii. Elohim or God; again Psalm xl.13-17 is reproduced in lxx.; lvii.7-11 and lx.5-12 are together practically equivalent to cviii. These and kindred facts indicate that the Psalter, like the book of Proverbs, is made up of collections originally distinct. The division into exactly five groups appears to be comparatively late, and to be in imitation of the fivefold division of the Pentateuch.
[Sidenote: The oldest collection]
The genesis of the book of Proverbs is exceedingly helpful in tracing the closely analogous growth of the Psalter. The prevailing form of the superscriptions and the predominant use of the name Jehovah or Elohim also aid in this difficult task. Psalms i. and ii. are introductory to the entire book. Psalms iii-xli. all bear the Davidic superscription and use the designation Jehovah two hundred and seventy-two times, but Elohim only fifteen. The form and contents of these psalms, as well as their position, suggest that they are the oldest collection in the book. In the Greek version all the psalms of the collection found in li-lxxii., excepting Psalm lxvi., which is anonymous, and lxxii., which is attributed to Solomon, have also the Davidic superscription. Although certain subsequent psalms are ascribed to David, as, for example, lxxxvi., ci., and ciii., the close of the collection, is the significant epilogue (lxxii.20), the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.
[Sidenote: Meaning and value of the superscriptions ]
Before the approximate date of these collections can be determined the significance of the Davidic title needs interpretation. In the Hebrew version, this title is borne by seventy-three psalms. Two are ascribed to Solomon (lxxii. and cxxvii.), one to Moses (xc.), and twenty-four to the members of the post-exilic guilds of temple singers. The superscriptions of the Greek and Syrian versions contain many variations from those in the Hebrew. This is probably due to the fact that superscriptions are usually added by later scribes in whose minds the question of authorship first became prominent. In earlier Hebrew the phrase commonly translated Psalm of David would more naturally mean a psalm for David or dedicated or attributed to David. The latter appears to have been its original significance. Like the title, Proverbs of Solomon, it was used to distinguish an ancient poem, which, being a psalm, was naturally ascribed to David, and to him later Judaism, in common with the New Testament writers, attributed all psalm literature. A detailed study of the superscriptions soon demonstrates that the majority of them represent only the conjectures of scribes who were guided by current traditions or suggestions embodied in the psalms themselves. In this manner, to Solomon, the builder of the temple, is ascribed Psalm cxxvii., because it refers to the building of the house in its opening verse. The Greek version even attributes to David Psalm xcvi., which, it states, was written when the temple was being built after the captivity.
[Sidenote: David's relation to the psalter]
Since the superscriptions to the Psalter were only very late additions, the question still remains, What was the basis of the late Jewish tradition that makes David the father of the psalm literature, as was Solomon of the wisdom, Moses of the legal, and Enoch of the apocalyptical? The other Old Testament books give no direct answer. They tell us, however, that the warrior king was skilled in playing the lyre, and we are aware that to this, in antiquity, an improvised accompaniment was usually sung. We also have the account of David's touching elegies over the death of Saul and Jonathan and of Abner (II Sam. i., iii.33, 34). Moreover, the early historical books vividly portray the faults of David, the limitations which he shared in common with his contemporaries, and his deeply religious spirit; but they leave the question of his relation to the Psalter to be settled by the testimony of the individual psalms. Here the evidence is not conclusive. It is clear that many of the psalms attributed by tradition to him were written in the clearer light of later prophetic teaching and amid very different circumstances from those which surrounded Israel's early king. Still it would be dogmatic to assert that nothing from his lips is to be found in the Psalter; and to point out with assurance those passages and psalms which must be Davidic is quite as unwarrantable.
[Sidenote: Evidence of pre-exilic elements in the Psalter]
The Psalter is clearly the repository of that which was best in the earlier spiritual life and thought of the race. While there are no direct references to songs in connection with the pre-exilic Jewish temple, Amos (v.23) found them in use at the sanctuary at Bethel; and from Psalm cxxxvii.3, 4 it would appear that the exiles in Babylonia were acquainted with certain songs of Zion or songs of Jehovah. Treasured in the hearts of the people, and attributed, perhaps even by the time of the exile, as a whole to David, they constituted the basis of the earliest collections of psalms, which, as we have noted, practically without exception bear the Davidic superscription. The date of each individual psalm, however, must be determined independently on the basis of its own testimony, although the historical allusions are few and the data in many cases are far from decisive.
[Sidenote: Approximate date of the earliest collections]
Just when the earliest collections, found in iii.-xli. and li.-lxxii., were made is a comparatively unimportant yet difficult question to decide. Probably the rebuilding of the temple in 516 B.C. was one of the great incentives. The example of the Babylonians, who possessed a large and rich psalm literature, may also have exerted an indirect influence. At least it is certain that the guilds of temple singers and the song service became increasingly prominent in the religious life of the Jewish community which grew up about the restored temple. The presence of alphabetical psalms, as, for example, ix., x., xxv., xxxiv., xxxvii., in the earliest collection suggests also the leisure of the exile. The historical background of many of these psalms is clearly the exile and the long period of distress that followed. They voice the experiences of the poor, struggling band of the pious, who, living in the midst of oppressors, found in Jehovah alone their refuge and their joy. Some of these psalms also reflect the prophetic teachings of Jeremiah (e.g., xvi., xxxix) and of Isaiah xl.-lxvi. In general their attitude toward sacrifice is that of the prophets:
For thou desirest not sacrifice;
Religion is defined in the terms of life and acts. Ceremonialism has not yet cast its chilling influence over the heart of the nation. Therefore the earliest collections may, with considerable assurance, be assigned to a date not later than the days of Nehemiah (about 400 B.C.).
[Sidenote: Later collections]
Psalms xlii.-l. and lxxiii-lxxxiii. constitute a collection of Levitical hymns. If we may follow the indications of their superscriptions, they consist of two originally distinct groups, the one, xlii.-xlix., associated with and possibly at first collected and preserved by the post-exilic guild of temple singers, known as the sons of Korah, and the other, l., lxxiii.-lxxxiii., similarly attributed to Asaph, the guild of temple singers, mentioned first in the writings of the Greek period. In these two groups the priests and Levites and the liturgy are prominent. Psalms lxxxiv.-lxxxix. constitute a short Levitical supplement. The remainder of the Psalter is also made up of originally smaller collections, as, for example, the Psalms of Ascent or the Pilgrim Psalms (cxx.-cxxxiv.), and the Hallelujah Psalms (cxi.-cxiii. and cxlvi.-cl.). Some of the latter come perhaps from the Jews of the dispersion. Each collection appears to represent a fresh gleaning of the same or slightly different fields, incorporating ancient with contemporary psalms, and, as has been noted, not infrequently including some already found in earlier collections.
[Sidenote: Completion of the Psalter]
Certain of the psalms, such as lxxiv., lxxix., lxxxiii., seem clearly to reflect the horrors of the Maccabean struggle (169-165 B.C.). Later Jewish literature bears testimony that in the last two centuries before Christ psalm writing increased rather than decreased (cf. e.g., Psalms of Solomon). Certainly the experiences through which the Jews passed during the middle of the second century were of a nature to evoke psalms similar to those in the Psalter. The probabilities, therefore, are that the Psalter, in its final form, is, like the book of Daniel, one of the latest writings in the Old Testament. It was possibly during the prosperous reign of Simon, when the temple service was enriched and established on a new basis, that its canon was finally closed.
[Sidenote: The book of Lamentations]
The fact that they all gather about a definite event in Israel's history, and probably antedate the majority of the psalms in the Psalter, explains why the little collection of lyrical poems, known as the book of Lamentations, never found a place beside the kindred psalms (e.g., Pss. xlii., xliii) in the larger book. Their theme is the Babylonian exile and the horrors and distress that it brought to the scattered members of the Jewish race. Their aim is prophetic, that is, to point out and confess the guilt of the nation and its dire consequences. They reflect the teachings of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel. While it is not strange that later tradition attributed the collection to the first of these prophets, its contents do not support the conjecture. Four out of the five poems are alphabetical, and distinctly different points of view are represented. Chapters ii. and iv. probably come from the middle of the Babylonian exile, and to the remainder must be assigned a still later period.
[Sidenote: The national and individual element in the Psalter]
The Psalter, with its natural appendix, the book of Lamentations, was the song and prayer book of the Jewish community. A majority of the psalms, and especially those in the latter part of the book, were doubtless originally intended for liturgical use. Many, particularly where the first person singular is used, are to be interpreted collectively, for here, as often in the book of Lamentations, the psalmist is speaking in behalf of the community. Others have been adapted to liturgical ends. But in the final analysis it is the experience and emotions of the individual soul that find expression throughout all the psalms. Since these experiences and emotions were shared in common by all right-minded members of the community, it was natural that they should in time be employed in the liturgy.
[Sidenote: E pluribus unum]
Again, as we review the history of the Psalter, we are impressed with the many sides of Israel's life and human experience that it represents. Not one, but perhaps fifty or a hundred, inspired souls, laymen, prophets, priests, sages, kings, and warriors, have each clothed the divine truth that came to them or to their generation in exquisite language and imagery, and given it thus to their race and humanity. Successive editors have collected and combined the noblest of these psalms, and the Psalter is the result. The exact date of each psalmist and editor is comparatively unimportant, for though differing widely in origin and theme, they are all bound together by a common purpose and a common belief in the reality and the immediate presence of God. All nature and history and life are to them but the manifestation of his justice and mercy and love. In direct communion with the God whom they personally knew, they found the consolation and peace and joy that passeth all understanding, even though the heathen raged and their foes plundered and taunted them. To that same haven of rest they still pilot the world's storm-tossed mariners.