The Psalter

"The poetry of a vivid
and passionate people"

The Psalter is Israel’s hymnbook. It includes prayers for every occasion in the nation’s life: for the solemn Temple liturgy as well as private, meditative prayer; prayers after victory and defeat, in joy and in sorrow; prayers of thankful praise and prayers of sad entreaty.

Many are royal prayers, at an enthronement or royal wedding, and show the messianic hopes centred on David’s line; others celebrate the kingship of Yahweh. Although the historical data given in the italicised titles are later and unreliable, historical allusions in the psalms themselves and the language show a vast range of dates, spreading from David’s time right down to the Maccabaean era. The tradition of David’s own association with the liturgy and the psalms is so strong that some may even stem from him. Some were composed for different schools of Temple singers, and other earlier, partial collections existed, which explains some duplication and overlap.

This is the poetry of a vivid and passionate people. It uses colourful, even wild, imagery of despair, of God’s intervention, of hopes for future prosperity, and prays for violent revenge on opponents, protesting innocence and guilt with similar whole-hearted sincerity. 1

Jewish Prayers

Jewish Prayers
by Viera Szabo 1

Types of Psalms

Psalms of Praise generally focus on the nature of God and not on specific things He has done. They tell about God's attributes and encourage the believer to praise Him for his goodness, righteousness, judgement, and wisdom. They often refer to playing music or singing and rejoicing.

Psalms of Lament respond to a crisis, grief, or despair. They are intended to move a believer from hurt to joy. This type of Psalm expresses that God is present even when human beings cannot discern His presence in the world due to their own sufferings.

Royal Psalms express the belief that God does His will and good works through the authority a king. Sometimes, Royal Psalms celebrate the coronation or good works of an earthly king. Other Psalms compare God to an earthly king and even point to the coming of God's son, Jesus.

Psalms of Thanksgiving are also called the 'toda" psalms. They offer praise and thanksgiving for what God has done. Sometimes it is specific. At other times they praise God's goodness in general for His humanity, goodness, holiness, and strength

Psalms of Wisdom contain teachings and wise advice that are similar to the book of Proverbs, but in the form of a psalm. In studying the Psalms, we must remember that they were originally intended to be heard aloud, and perhaps set to music. These general principles are meant to instruct believers on how to live a Godly life. 2

Hallel Banner

The Hallel consists of six Psalms (113–118), which are said as a unit, on joyous occasions. On those occasions, Hallel is usually chanted aloud as part of Shacharit (the morning prayer service) following the Shacharit's Shemoneh Esreh ("The Eighteen", the main prayer). It is also recited during the evening prayers the first night of Passover, except by Lithuanian and German Jews, and by all communities after the Grace After Meals in the Passover Seder service. The first two psalms (113 and 114) are sung before the meal and the remaining four are sung after the meal.

Psalm 136, which in Jewish liturgy is called "the Great Hallel", is recited at the Passover meal after the "Lesser Hallel". It is punctuated by the refrain, 'for his faithful love endures for ever' , that emphasizes God's loving kindness is everlasting. These Psalms are used antiphonally in Jewish liturgy. 3

David Writes the Psalms

David Writes the Psalms
Artist: Unknown 2

Types of Prayer

Adoration Prayers express the believer's love of God and reverence for His goodness, wisdom, might, power, love, awe-inspiring nature. This is sometimes considered the purest and highest form of prayer.

Prayers of Thanksgiving express the believer's gratitude to God for specific blessings He has given to the individual or humanity, or for His goodness, holiness, and strength.

Contrition Prayers express sorrow for sins that the believer has committed. They are an important part of Catholic history, often used in the sacrament of penance. Prayers of thanksgiving express the believer's gratitude to God for specific blessings He has given to the individual or humanity, or for His goodness, holiness, and strength.

Prayers of Supplication express the believer's wish that God provide him or her with something he or she needs or desires. This is the most common form of prayer. Often a prayer of supplication requests health and healing for the sick. 4

Psalm 106: 9-10

"At his rebuke the Sea of Reeds dried up, he let them pass through the deep as though it were desert, so he saved them from their opponents' clutches, rescued them from the clutches of their enemies." 5

Moses Parting the Red Sea

Moses Parting the Red Sea
by Leonardo Da Vinci 3

Byzantine Tempera Psalter, 12th century

Byzantine Tempera Psalter, 12th century 4

The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs and prayers. Each has a poetic character with frequent use of parallelism. Headings in many of the Psalms provide musical references to melodies that would have been well-known; however, no musical notation has survived.

Songs that can be identified as such include songs of thanksgiving (Ps 30), hymns of praise (Ps 117) and royal psalms, which may have been used in coronations and weddings. Identification of some psalms as prayers is also seen within the text, for example in the conclusion to Psalm 72, "The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended."

The largest category of Psalms, is that of lament (expressions of complaint and pleas for help from God). There appears to have been an instructional function of the psalms as seen in their references to the law (Psalms 1 and 119). The psalms are divided into five categories, which parallels the Torah. Other reasons for dividing the book in this way are unclear. 6

King David playing the Harp

King David playing the Harp
by Gerrit Van Honthorst 5

History / Dating

Dating of the individual compositions is difficult, and in some cases impossible. Many appear to have been written early in the history of ancient Israel (1000 BC or even earlier), while others may have been written after the exile to Babylon (sixth century BC) and as late as the Maccabaean era (164 BC. to 63 BC). 7


Some credit David as the author of seventy-two of the psalms. Eighteen describe events in David's life. However, actual proof of authorship is debatable. 8

Language / Form Analysis

Hermann Gunkel's pioneering form-critical work on the psalms sought to provide a new and meaningful context in which to interpret individual psalms – not by looking at their literary context within the Psalter, but by bringing together psalms of the same genre from throughout the Psalter.

The main genres are:

  1. Hymns / Praise
  2. Lament / Complaint
  3. Royal Psalms
  4. Thanksgiving Psalms
  5. Wisdom psalms
  6. Smaller genres and mixed type

Psalm forms or types also include:

  1. Songs of Zion:
    Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, 122, 134;
  2. Historical litanies"
    Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136;
  3. Pilgrim liturgies:
    Psalms 81, 21;
  4. Entrance liturgies:
    Psalms 15, 24;
  5. Judgment liturgies:
    Psalms 50, 82;
  6. Mixed types:
    Psalms 36, 40, 41, 68 9

A commentary on the Psalms
by St Ambrose

I shall sing in spirit, and with understanding

What is more pleasing than a psalm? David expresses it well: Praise the Lord, for a song of praise is good: let there be praise of our God with gladness and grace. Yes, a psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, a hymn in praise of God, the assembly's homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song. It is the voice of complete assent, the joy of freedom, a cry of happiness, the echo of gladness. It soothes the temper, distracts from care, lightens the burden of sorrow. It is a source of security at night, a lesson in wisdom by day. It is a shield when we are afraid, a celebration of holiness, a vision of serenity, a promise of peace and harmony. It is like a lyre, evoking harmony from a blend of notes. Day begins to the music of a psalm. Day closes to the echo of a psalm.

In a psalm, instruction vies with beauty. We sing for pleasure. We learn for our profit. What experience is not covered by a reading of the psalms? I come across the words: A song for the beloved, and I am aflame with desire for God's love. I go through God's revelation in all its beauty, the intimations of resurrection, the gifts of his promise. I learn to avoid sin. I see my mistake in feeling ashamed of repentance for my sins. What is a psalm but a musical instrument to give expression to all the virtues? The psalmist of old used it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to make earth re-echo the music of heaven. He used the dead gut of strings to create harmony from a variety of notes, in order to send up to heaven the song of God's praise. In doing so he taught us that we must first die to sin, and then create in our lives on earth a harmony through virtuous deeds, if the grace of our devotion is to reach up to the Lord.

David thus taught us that we must sing an interior song of praise, like Saint Paul, who tells us: I shall pray in spirit, and also with understanding; I shall sing in spirit, and also with understanding. We must fashion our lives and shape our actions in the light of the things that are above. We must not allow pleasure to awaken bodily passions, which weigh our soul down instead of freeing it. The holy prophet told us that his songs of praise were to celebrate the freeing of his soul, when he said: I shall sing to you, God, on the Lyre, holy one of Israel; my lips will rejoice when I have sung to you, and my soul also, which you have set free.

O God, all good things come from you. We ask you to grant us these gifts: that inspired by you, our thoughts may be righteous; that guided by you, our actions may match our thoughts.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. 10