Let us break their bands asunder,
or contrasted with it, as --
Jehovah knows the way of the righteous,
the resulting parallelism is essentially simple, and the Hebrew poet can express his profoundest thoughts and feelings with lucidity and freedom. It is the depth and sincerity of its emotion, coupled with this unrivalled simplicity of expression that has given the Psalter its abiding-place in the religious history of humanity.
With the partial exception of Psalm xlv., which is a marriage song, the songs of the Psalter are exclusively religious. Indeed most of the poetry of the Old Testament is religious; the Song of Deborah, e.g. (Jud. v.), or the Psalm of Hezekiah (Isa. xxxviii.). But, from scattered hints it is abundantly plain that, especially before the exile, Hebrew poetry must have ranged over a wide variety of themes. So far as we know, the Hebrews never had an epic; and though a certain epic power is occasionally suggested by the extant literature, it may be doubted whether the Hebrew genius, which was essentially lyrical, would have been capable of the long sustained effort demanded by a great epic. But the lyrical genius of the Hebrew found abundant opportunity in life's common joys, sorrows and activities. Victories in battle were celebrated in ballads, which made the blood leap, love songs were sung at weddings, and dirges were chanted over the dead. The labour of drawing water, of reaping the fields or gathering the vintage, was relieved by snatches of song. There was all this and more, but it has nearly all perished, leaving little more than an echo, because the men who compiled and edited the Old Testament were dominated by an exclusively religious interest.
But if the interest of the Psalter be exclusively religious, we have no reason to complain of its variety. From the deepest despair to the highest exaltation, every mood of the soul is uttered there. Many a classification of the Psalter has been attempted, e.g. into (a) psalms of gladness, such as thanksgiving (xlvi.), adoration (viii.); (b) psalms of sadness, such as lamentation (lxxiv.), confession (li.), supplication (cii.); (c) psalms of reflection, such as the occasional didactic poetry (cxix.), or discussions of the moral order (lxxiii.). But in the nature of the case, no classification can ever hope to be completely satisfactory, if for no other reason than that the psalms, being for the most part lyrics, are often marked by subtle and rapid changes of feeling, passing sometimes, as in Psalm xxii., from the most touching laments to the most daring expressions of hope and gladness. The following classification, though exposed, as all such classifications must be, to the charge of cross-division, will afford a working basis for the study of the Psalter: --
(1) Psalms of Adoration, including (a) adoration of God for His revelation in nature, viii., xix.1-6, xxix., civ.; (b) adoration of Him for His love to His people, xxxiii., ciii., cxi., cxiii., cxv., cxvii., cxlvii.; (c) praise of His glorious kingdom, cxlv., cxlvi., ending with the call to universal praise, cxlviii., cl.
(2) Psalms of Reflection (a) upon the moral order of the world, ix., x., xi., xiv., xxxvi., xxxvii., xxxix., xlix., lii., lxii., lxxiii., lxxv., lxxxii., xc., xcii., xciv.; (b) upon Divine Providence, xvi., xxiii., xxxiv., xci., cxii., cxxi., cxxv., cxxvii., cxxviii., cxxxiii., cxxxix., cxliv.12-15; (c) on the value of Scripture, i., xix.7-14, cxix.; (d) on the nature of the ideal man, xv., xxiv.1-6, l.
(3) Psalms of Thanksgiving, most of them for historical deliverances, e.g. from the exile, or from the Syrians in the second century B.C., xxx., xl., xlvi., xlviii., lxv., lxvi., lxvii., lxviii., lxxvi., cxvi., cxviii., cxxiv., cxxvi., cxxix., cxxxviii., cxliv.1-11, cxlix.
(4) Psalms in Celebration of Worship, v., xxiv., 7-10, xxvi., xxvii., xlii.-xliii., lxxxiv., cxxii., cxxxiv.
(5) Historical Psalms (a) emphasizing the unfaithfulness of the people, lxxviii., lxxxi., cvi.; (b) emphasizing the love or power of God, cv., cxiv., cxxxv., cxxxvi.
(6) Imprecatory Psalms, lviii, lix., lxix., lxxxiii., cix., cxxxvii.
(7) Penitential Psalms, vi., xxxii., xxxviii., li., cii., cxxx., cxliii.
(8) Psalms of Petition (a) prayers for deliverance, preservation or restoration, iii., iv., vii., xii., xiii., xvii., xxv., xxxi., xxxv., xli., xliv., liv., lv., lx., lxiv., lxxi., lxxiv., lxxvii., lxxix., lxxx., lxxxv., lxxxvi., lxxxviii., cxx., cxxiii., cxxxi., cxl., cxli., cxlii; (b) answered prayers, xxii., xxviii., lvi., lvii.
(9) Royal Psalms (a) king's coronation, xxi.; (b) marriage, xlv.; (c) prayers for his welfare and success, xx., lxi, lxiii.; (d) his character, lxxii., ci.; (e) dominion, ii., xviii., cx.; (f) yearning for the Messianic King, lxxxix., cxxxii.
(10) Psalms concerning the universal reign of Jehovah, i.e. Messianic psalms in the largest sense of the word, xlvii., lxxxvii., xciii., xcv., xcvi., xcvii., xcviii., xcix., c.
The Psalter has plainly had a long history. In its present form it obviously rests upon groups, which in turn rest upon individual psalms, that are no doubt often far older than the groups in which they stand. Like the Pentateuch, and perhaps in imitation of it, the Psalter is divided into five books, whose close is indicated, in each case, by a doxology (xli., lxxii., lxxxix., cvi.), except in the case of the last psalm, which is itself a doxology (cl.). This division appears to have been artificially effected. Psalm cvii., which starts the last book, goes naturally with cv. and cvi., which close the fourth book; and the circumstance that the number of psalms in the fourth book corresponds exactly with that of the third, raises a strong suspicion that the break was deliberately made at Psalm cvi. It is very probable, too, that the doxology at the close of Psalm cvi. (cf.1 Chron. xvi.36), which differs somewhat from the other doxologies, was originally intended as a doxology to that psalm only, and not to indicate the close of the book. In any case, the contents of books 4 and 5, which are very largely liturgical, are so similar that they may be practically considered as one book.
Books 2 and 3 may also be similarly regarded; for whereas in books 1, 4 and 5 the name of the divine Being is predominantly Jehovah, in books 2 and 3 it is predominantly Elohim (God), and there can be no doubt that these two books, at least as far as Ps. lxxxiii., have been submitted to an Elohistic redaction. Psalm xiv., e.g., reappears in the 2nd book as Psalm liii. in a form practically identical, except for the name of God, which is Jehovah in the one (xiv.) and Elohim in the other (liii.); the change is, therefore, undoubtedly deliberate. This is also made plain by the presence of such impossible phrases as "God, thy God," xlv.7, 1.7, instead of the natural and familiar "Jehovah, thy God." Whatever the motive for the choice of this divine name (Elohim) may be, it is so thoroughly characteristic of books 2 and 3 that they may not unfairly be held to constitute a group by themselves. In this way the Psalter falls into three great groups -- book I (i.-xli.), which is Jehovistic, books 2 and 3 (xlii.-lxxxix.), which are Elohistic, and books 4 and 5 (xc.-cl.), which are Jehovistic..
These greater groups rest, however, upon other smaller ones, some formally acknowledged, e.g. the so-called Psalms of Ascent or Pilgrim psalms (cxx.-cxxxiv.), the Psalms of David, Psalms of the Korahites (xlii.-xlix., etc.), Psalms of Asaph (lxxiii.-lxxxiii., etc.), and others not so obvious in a translation, e.g. the Hallelujah Psalms, cxi.-cxiii., cxlvi.-cl. These groups must often have enjoyed an independent reputation as groups, and even been invested with a certain canonical authority, for occasionally the same psalm appears in two different groups (xiv.=liii., xl.13-17=lxx., cviii.=lvii.7-11 +lx.6-12). Such repetition proves that the final editors did not consider themselves at liberty to make any change within the groups. The principle of the arrangement of individual psalms within the group was probably not a scientific one: e.g. xxxiv. and xxxv. seem to be placed together for no other reason than that both refer to "the angel of Jehovah," xxxiv.7, xxxv.5. Sometimes a psalm has been wrongly divided into two (cf. xlii., xliii., originally one psalm) and occasionally two psalms have been united, usually for reasons that are transparent (so perhaps xix., the revelation in the heavens and the revelation in the Scriptures, and xxiv., the entrance of Jehovah into His temple, and the essential conditions for the entrance of man).
The original order of the groups themselves appears to have been dislocated. Whoever added the subscription to Psalm lxxii. can hardly have been aware of the eighteen psalms which, in the subsequent books of the Psalter, are ascribed to David; nor is it natural to suppose that the Asaphic (l.) and Korahitic psalms (xlii.-xlix.) stood in the second book when that subscription was written. It is not improbable that Psalms xlii.-l. originally belonged to the third book, along with the Asaphic group, lxxiii.-lxxxiii., and that lxxii.20, "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended," was intended as the subscription of all the Davidic psalms that had then been collected (Book I, except Pss. i., ii., x., xxxiii., and book 2, Pss. li.-lxx.). The first two books originally represented a Davidic hymn-book; they probably represent, as a whole, the oldest part of the Psalter. [Footnote 1: Psalms i. and ii. were placed at the beginning as prefatory to the whole Psalter. They deal with the two cardinal points of Judaism -- the law and the Messianic hope. Psalms ix. and x. originally constituted one alphabetic psalm, and xxxiii. is ascribed to David in the Septuagint.]
The problem of the authorship of the Psalms is one of the thorniest in the Old Testament. One hundred psalms are ascribed to definite authors: one is ascribed to Moses (xc.), seventy-three to David, two to Solomon (lxxvii., cxxvii.); and yet there are not a few scholars who maintain that, so far from any psalm being Mosaic, or even Davidic, there is not a single pre-exilic psalm in the Psalter, and the less radical critics do not allow more than thirty or forty. The question must be settled entirely upon internal evidence, as the superscriptions, definite as they often are, are never demonstrably reliable, while some of them are plainly impossible. To begin with, doubt attaches to the meaning of the Hebrew preposition in the phrase, "Psalm of David." It is the same preposition as that rendered by for in the phrase, "For the chief musician," and as in this phrase authorship is out of the question, it may be seriously doubted whether it is implied in the phrase rendered "Psalm of David." This doubt is corroborated by the phrase, "Psalms of the sons of Korah." Plainly all the Korahites did not cooperate in the composition of the psalms so superscribed; and the most natural inference is that the phrase does not here designate authorship, but that the psalm is one of a collection in some sense belonging to or destined for the Korahitic guild of temple-singers.  In that case the phrase would have a liturgical sense, and the parallel phrase "of (or for) David," might have to be similarly explained. It must be confessed, however, that whatever the actual origin of the superscription, "of (or for) David," it certainly came to be regarded as implying authorship -- the many historical notices in the superscriptions of Psalms li.-lx. are proof enough of that; and no other explanation is possible of the superscription "of Moses" in Psalm, xc (cf. Is. xxxviii.9, the writing of Hezekiah). [Footnote 1: It is not absolutely impossible that the phrase might point to a collection composed by this guild, cf. "Moravian brethren." But the other supposition is more likely.]
In later times, then, authorship was plainly intended by the superscriptions. But it is quite certain that the superscriptions themselves are no original and integral parts of the psalms. In the Septuagint they occasionally differ from the Hebrew, assigning psalms that are anonymous in the Hebrew (xcv., cxxxvii.) to David, or to other authors (e.g., cxlvi.-cxlviii. to Haggai and Zechariah.) The ease with which psalms were, without warrant, ascribed to David may be seen from the Greek superscription to Psalm xcvi. "When the house [i.e. the temple] was being built after the captivity; a song of David": in other words, an admittedly post-exilic psalm is ascribed to David. The superscriptions were added probably long after the psalms, and there is no reason to suppose that the Hebrews were exempt from the uncritical methods and ideas which characterized the Greek translators. That they shared them is abundantly proved by the historical superscriptions. One at least (Ps. xxxiv.) in substituting the name of Abimelech (Gen. xx.) for Achish (1 Sam. xxi.) shows either ignorance or carelessness, and casts a very lurid light on the reliability of the superscriptions. The contents of other psalms are manifestly irreconcilable with the assumed authorship: Asaph, e.g., whom the Chronicles regards as a contemporary of David (1 Chron. xvi 7), laments in Psalms lxxiv., lxxix. the devastation of the temple, which was not at that time in existence. The principles on which the superscriptions were added were altogether superficial and uncritical. Psalm cxxvii. is ascribed to Solomon, chiefly because its opening verse speaks of the building of the house, which was understood to be the temple. So Psalm lxiii. is described as "a psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah," simply on the strength of the words, "My soul thirsteth for thee in a dry and weary land where no water is" -- words which are taken literally, though they were undoubtedly intended metaphorically. A parallel case is that of the psalm inserted in Jonah ii., obviously a church psalm whose figurative language has been too literally pressed.
Enough has been said to show that the superscriptions are later than the psalms themselves, and often, if not always, unreliable; we are therefore wholly dependent upon internal evidence, and the criteria for Davidic authorship must be sought outside the Psalter. The only absolutely undisputed poems of David's are the elegy over Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel i. and the lament over Abner (2 Sam. iii.33, 34). There is no means of proving that 2 Samuel xxii. (=Ps. xviii.) and 2 Samuel xxiii.1-7 are David's, as they are interpolated in a section of Samuel which is itself an interpolation (xxi.-xxiv.), interrupting as it does the continuity of 2 Samuel xx. and I Kings i. The data offered by the elegy are much too slender to enable us to decide whether any particular psalm is David's or not. Some have ventured to ascribe a dozen psalms or so to him on the strength of their peculiar vigour and originality, but obviously all such decisions must be altogether subjective. What is certain is that David was an accomplished musician (1 Sam. xvi.18) and a great poet (2 Sam. i.), a man of the most varied experience, rich emotional nature and profound religious feeling, a devoted worshipper of Jehovah, and eager to build Him a temple; and it is not impossible that such a man may have written religious songs, but in the nature of the case it can never be proved that he wrote any of the songs in the Psalter. Psalm xviii. has been by many assigned to him with considerable confidence because of the support it is thought to receive from its appearance in a historical book; but besides the fact that this support, as we have seen, is slender, the psalm can hardly, at least in its present form, have come from David. The superscription assigns it to a later period in his life when he had been delivered from all his enemies; but at that time he could not have looked back over the past, stained by his great sin, with the complacency which marks the confession in vv.20-24. Others have supposed that xxiv.7-10, with its picture of the entrance of Jehovah through the "ancient gates," may well be his. It may be, if the gates are those of the city; but if, as is more probable, they are the temple gates, then the psalm must be long after the time of Solomon. In the quest for Davidic psalms we can never possibly rise above conjecture. Later ages regarded David as the father of sacred song, just as they regarded Moses as the author of Hebrew law.
There can be little doubt, however, that there are pre-exilic psalms or fragments in the Psalter. From Psalm cxxxvii.3, 4 we may safely infer that already, by the time of the exile, there were songs of Jehovah or songs of Zion. We cannot tell what these songs were like; but when we remember that for nearly two centuries before the exile great prophets had been working -- and we cannot suppose altogether ineffectually, for they had disciples -- it is difficult to see why, granting the poetic power which the Hebrew had from the earliest times, pious spirits should not have expressed themselves in sacred song, or why some of these songs may not be in the Psalter.
We appear to be on tolerably sure ground in at least some of the "royal" psalms. Doubtless it is often very hard to say, as in Psalms ii., lxxii., whether the king is a historical figure or the Messianic King of popular yearning; and possibly (cf. lxxii.) a psalm which originally contemplated a historical king may have been in later times altered or amplified to fit the features of the ideal king. Other psalms, again (e.g., lxxxix., cxxxii.), clearly are the products of a time when the monarchy is no more. But there remain others, expressing, e.g. a wish for the king's welfare (xx., xxi.), which can only be naturally referred to a time when the king was on the throne. It is not absolutely impossible to refer these to the period of the Hasmoneans, who bore the title from the end of the second century B.C.; but the history of the canon renders this supposition extremely improbable. The contents of these psalms are not above pre-exilic possibility, and their position in the first book would, generally speaking, be in favour of the earlier date. Psalm xlv. also, which celebrates the marriage of a king to a foreign princess, seems almost to compel a pre-exilic date.
Some scholars, struck by the resemblance between many of the sorrowful psalms and the poetry of Jeremiah, have not hesitated to ascribe some of them to him (cf. xl.2). Such a judgment is necessarily subjective, but there can be little doubt that Jeremiah powerfully influenced Hebrew religious poetry. The Greek superscriptions, again, which assign certain psalms to Haggai and Zechariah, though doubtless unreliable, are of interest in suggesting the liturgical importance of the period following the return from the exile. This period seems to have produced several psalms. Psalm cxxvi,, with its curiously complex feeling, apparently reflects the situation of that period, and the group of psalms which proclaim Jehovah as King, and ring with the notes of a "new song," were probably composed to celebrate the joy of the return and the resumption of public worship in the temple (xciii., xcv.-c., cf. xcvi.1). The history of the next three centuries is very obscure, and many a psalm which we cannot locate may belong to that period; but the psalms which celebrate the law (i., xix.7ff., cxix.) no doubt follow the reformation of Ezra in the fifth century.
It is not probable that there are many, if any, psalms later than 170-165 B.C. in the Maccabean period; some deny even this possibility, basing their denial on the history of the canon. But if the book of Daniel, which belongs to this same period, was admitted to the canon, there is no reason why the same honour should not have been conferred upon some of the psalms. The Maccabean period was fitted, almost more than any other in Israel's history, to rouse the religious passion of the people to song; and, as the possibility must be conceded, the question becomes one of exegesis. Exegetically considered, the claims of at least Psalms xliv., lxxiv., lxxix., lxxxiii. are indubitable. They speak of a desolation of the temple in spite of a punctilious fulfilment of the law, a religious persecution, a slaughter of the saints, a blasphemy of the holy name. No situation fits these circumstances so completely as the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B.C., and these psalms betray many remarkable affinities with passages in the first book of the Maccabees. As long ago as the fifth century A.D. the sharp-sighted Theodore of Mopsuestia believed that there were seventeen Maccabean psalms; Calvin admitted at least three. It may be safely concluded, then, that the Psalter brings us within about a century and a half of the Christian era.
The criteria for determining the date of a psalm are few and meagre. The Psalter expresses the piety of more than half a millennium, and even the century cannot always be fixed. The language is often general, and the thoughts uttered would be as possible and appropriate to one century as another. Nearly forty years ago Noldeke maintained that there were psalms of which we could not say with any definiteness to what period they belonged between 900 and 160 B.C. He himself referred Psalm ii. to Solomon, which had been referred by Hitzig to Alexander Jannaeus (105-78 B.C.). Even where the historical implications may seem fairly certain, there may be more than one legitimate interpretation. Psalm xlvi., e.g., which is usually regarded as a song of triumph sung after the departure of Sennacherib, is by some interpreted eschatologically; Zion is the ideal Zion of the latter days, and the stream that makes her glad is the stream of Paradise. Some psalms, of course, have their origin stamped very legibly upon them. Psalm cxxxvii. e.g., clearly implies that the exile is not long over. The presence of Aramaisms in a psalm is a fairly sure indication of a relatively late date. Within certain limits, also, its theological ideas may be a guide, though we know too little of the history of these ideas to use this criterion with much confidence. Still, so elaborate an emphasis on the omnipresence of God as we find in Psalm cxxxix. is only possible to a later age, and this inference is more than confirmed by its highly Aramaic flavour. Both these considerations render its ascription to David utterly untenable.
The question was raised long ago and has been much discussed in recent times, whether the subject of the Psalter is the individual or the church; and till very recently the opinion has been gaining ground that the experience and aspiration of the Psalter are not personal and individual, but that in it is heard the collective voice of the church. Many difficulties undoubtedly disappear or are lessened on this interpretation, e.g., the bitterness of the imprecatory psalms, or the far-reaching consequences attached in other psalms (cf. xxii., xl.) to the deliverance of the singer. Till the exile, the religious unit was the nation, and the collective use of the singular pronoun is one of the commonest phenomena in Hebrew literature. The Decalogue is addressed to Israel in the 2nd pers. sing., in Deuteronomy the 2nd pers. sing, alternates with the pl., in the priestly blessing (Num. vi.24ff.) Israel is blessed in the singular. In Deutero-Isaiah, the servant of Jehovah is undoubtedly to be interpreted collectively, and in many of the psalms the collective interpretation is put beyond all doubt by the very explicit language of the context:
Much have they afflicted me from my youth up,
All this is true, and there are probably more collective psalms in the Psalter than we have been accustomed to believe. But it would be ridiculous to suppose that every psalm has to be so interpreted. Some of the psalms were originally written without any view to the temple service, and they must have expressed the individual emotion of the singer. Besides, Jeremiah had shown or at least suggested that the real unit was the individual; the teaching of Ezekiel and the book of Job are proof that the lesson had been well learned; and, although the post-exilic church may have felt its solidarity and realized its corporate consciousness as acutely as the pre-exilic nation, the individual, as a religious unit, could never again be forgotten. He had come to stay; and if, in many psalms, the general voice of the church is heard, it is equally certain that many others utter the emotions and experiences of individual singers. [Footnote 1: That Psalms, now collective, were originally individual, and subsequently altered and adapted to the use of the community is seen, e.g., in the occasional disturbance of the order in alphabetical psalms (ix., x.). ]
The Psalter, or part of it, was used in the temple service-witness the numerous musical and liturgical superscriptions (cf. superscr. of Ps. xcii.) -- though the people probably did no more than sing or utter the responses (cvi.48). It would be difficult to estimate the importance of the Psalter to the Old Testament Church. It was the support of piety as well as the expression of it; and, to a worship which laid so much stress upon punctilious ritual and animal sacrifice, the Psalter, with its austere spiritual tone, its simple passion for God, and its bracing sense of fellowship with the Eternal, would come as a wholesome corrective. Almost in the spirit of the older prophets (Hos. vi.6) animal sacrifice is relegated to an altogether subordinate place (xl., l., li.), if it is not indeed rebuked: the sacrifice dear to God is a broken spirit. Thus the Psalter was a mighty contribution in one direction, as the synagogue in another, to the development of spiritual religion. It kept alive the prophetic element in Israel's religion, and did much to counteract the more blighting influences of Judaism. The place of the law is occasionally recognized (i., xix.7ff.), once very emphatically (cxix.), but it is honoured chiefly for its moral stimulus. It is not, as in later times, an incubus; it is still an inspiration.
There are tempers in the Psalter which are anything but lovely-hatred of enemies, protestation of self-righteousness, and other utterances which prevent it from being, in its entirety, the hymn-book of the Christian Church. Historically these things are explicable and perhaps inevitable, but the glory of the Psalter is its overwhelming sense of the reality of God. The men who wrote it counted God their Friend; and although they never forgot that He was the infinite One, whose home is the universe and who fills the vast spaces of history with His faithfulness and His justice, He was also to them the patient and loving One, who preserves both man and beast, under the shadow of whose wings the children of men may rest with quietness and confidence, and before whom they could pour out the deepest thoughts and petitions of their hearts, in the assurance that He was the hearer of prayer, and that His tender mercies were over all His works. He was to them the source of all strength and consolation and vision. In His light they saw light; and in their noblest moments -- whatever they might lose or suffer -- with Him they were content. In Luther's fine paraphrase of Psalm lxxiii.25, "If I have but Thee, I ask for nothing in heaven or earth."