AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME |  Place in the Canon: General Title. | The Titles of Individual Psalms. | Titles containing musical directions. | Titles containing the names of popular melodies. | Some other terms occurring in titles. | Collections embodied in the Psalter. | The Dates of the Psalms. | Types of Psalms. | The Psalms as Liturgical Documents. | The Psalms as part of a World‑Literature. | The Hebrew Text and the Septuagint.


In the Hebrew Bible the Psalms heads the list in the third division of the Canon, called Kethubim, "Writings" - (Hagiographa).

There are many religious poems in the historical and prophetical books; but with the exception of Lamentations, this is the only book that consists exclusively of such poems. (The Song of Songs does not contain religious poems.)

The title of our book in the Hebrew Bible is Tehillim, the plural of Tehillah, meaning a "hymn of praise". This title is inappropriate, for most of the psalms cannot be called hymns of praise; and though, this word occurs in the body of a number of psalms, there is only one that is called a Tehillah (cxlv). (On the masculine form of this noun see Gesenius-Kaitzch, 87, I p.)

At the conclusion of Ps.lx a note is added:

"The prayers of David the son of Jesse, are ended."

This suggests that at one time the general title of these seventy-two psalms had been "Prayers", in Hebrew Tephilloth. But this title, too, would have been inappropriate, for not many of these psalms are in the nature of prayers, and only a single one is called a "prayer" (xvii). (Ps.lxxxvi is also called a "prayer.")

In the Septuagint the book is called βίβλος ψαλμῶν - biblos psalmon ("Book of psalms"), or ψαλμοί psalmoi ("Psalms"), or ψαλτήριον - psalterion ("Psalter"); this last means primarily "stringed instrument", i.e. psaltery; then it comes to mean the song sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. The Greek title comes, no doubt, from the Hebrew word mizmor, which is the most common title for individual psalms; its root meaning is to "pluck", i.e. taking hold of the strings with the fingers, and thus connotes singing to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.  (Fifty-seven psalms are so called in their titles.)


While these titles are in all probability due to editors, there are good grounds for believing that in many cases they reflect some traditional use in regard to particular psalms, and some interesting points arise in this connexion.

To deal exhaustively with the subject would be out of place here; we are concerned only with giving a few illustrations. (For details see e.g., Briggs, The Book of Psalms, pp.lvii-lxxxviii (1906).)

i. Titles containing musical directions.

(It should be pointed out that Briggs holds these musical directions in the titles indicate collections from which the psalms were taken, while Mowinkel believes that they have cultic significance. We are unable to concur with either of these views.)

Apart from mizmor the most frequently occurring musical term in the titles is Lammenaseah (fifty-five times). It is rendered in the RV: "For the Chief Musician", which is as unsatisfactory as a number of the other various explanations that have been offered. The term is undoubtedly a puzzle, as it was, too, to the ancient translators. What would appear to be the most acceptable explanation, though this also has its difficulties, is that suggested by Haupt, (American Journal of Semitic Languages (1917).) and tentatively followed by Gunkel. (Die Psalmen (1926); see the rendering of the titles below.) By a change in the vowel points he reads the word Lamminsah (לַמּ,נְצַח), which would mean: "regarding the musical rendering". (Cp. I Chron.xv.21, where the verb means, "to render music," or something similar.) If this meaning is applied to the term a reasonable sense is obtainable in a large number of titles in which indications are given as to how the psalm is to be sung. Thus, e.g., in the titles of Pss.iv, vi, liv, Iv, lxi, lxvii, lxxvi, the musical direction is Lamminsah bineginoth,

"regarding the musical rendering: with stringed instruments"

(probably of some special kind), i.e. the psalm was to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. Similarly it is directed that Ps.v, so far as its musical rendering is concerned, is to be sung with flute accompaniment (cp.; Pss.Ivii, Iviii, lix, lxxv are to be sung to the tune of "Destroy not" (on this see below). In a large number of psalms mizmor is added to Lamminsah, which would presumably mean that these psalms were to be rendered in the ordinary way, mizmor being the most common designation of a psalm sung to the accompaniment of the simplest stringed instruments. A difficulty arises when Lamminsah is followed by the name of David, which occurs in the titles of several psalms (e.g. xxi, xxxi, xl and others); possibly this means that the psalm is to be sung in the Davidic style, i.e. in some archaic mode (but see III (a)).

In the titles to, the term 'al hash-sheminith occurs: the RV renders this:

"set to Sheminith", marg. "the eighth".

The most obvious meaning of this would seem to be, "on the octave", and this is the most usual explanation given. It is, however, practically certain that the ancient Jewish scale was not an octave. We have here the traditional, as distinct from the more modern, music of the Arabs to go upon; and all authorities are agreed that the Arabs - at any rate, until very recent times - have retained unchanged their customs of millenniums ago. This would certainly apply to music, and more especially to religious music. It is also agreed on all hands that we must picture the music of the Hebrews as very similar to that of the primitive type of Arab music that can be heard at the present day. Now it is well known that the Arabs recognize quartertones as well as semitones, therefore they have no octave consisting of eight tones and thirteen semitones; and the same applies to ancient Hebrew music. Therefore the term 'al hashsheminith cannot mean "on the octave," i.e. that the musical instruments played, or the male voices sang, an octave lower. (In I Chron.xv.21 the term is used in reference to harps.) Whatever the term meant - and it is quite uncertain what is to be understood by it - it cannot have meant this. Some authorities think it may refer to the place of the psalm in a particular collection, i.e. the eighth; but in this case it might well be expected that some other psalms would have had their place in a collection designated; but this is not the case. In this connexion mention should also be made of the expression 'al 'alamoth (RV "set to Alamoth"), which occurs in the title of Ps.xlvi; the word means "maidens", and is usually held to refer to high-pitched, or soprano voices. (Probably also in that of xlix originally; it figures now as the last word in xlviii.) This is not likely to be correct, since it is used, like Gal hash-sheminith, in reference to stringed instruments (i Chron.xv.20). It is clear that both these terms indicated something in connexion with the musical rendering of the psalm; but what this was it is now not possible to say with certainty.

ii. Titles containing the names of popular melodies.

Of greater interest are the cases in which a psalm is directed to be sung to some well-known melody. A few of these may be noted. Three psalms (viii, lxxxi, lxxxiv) have in their titles "According to Gittith " (RV "Set to Gittith"). This has often been held to refer to some kind of instrument that took its name from the Philistine city of Gath, and to the accompaniment of which the psalms in question were to be sung. This is improbable, for there is no reason why the Israelites should have borrowed an instrument from the Philistines, nor is there anywhere the slightest hint to this effect. The Old Testament gives the names of a number of musical instruments - percussion, wind, and string - but there is never any mention of an instrument of this kind. The only reason apparently why this explanation of "Gittith" has been offered is because it is said in the Targum to the Psalms that "Gittith" refers to an instrument that came from Gath. But this is only a guess suggested by the fact that the form "Gittith" is equivalent to "Gath-like", or "Gathic". This, however, is equally true of the Hebrew word gath, which means a "wine-press". This is how the Septuagint understood the word, and it is so explained in the Midrash on the Psalms, where reference is made to Joel iv.(RV iii)13:

"Put ye in the sickle, for the vintage is ripe; come, tread ye, for the winepress (gath) is full, the fats overflow."

It is, therefore, possible that "according to Gittith" means "wine-press-like", i.e. the melody to which the psalm was to be sung was the tune of a vintage song. This is supported by another interesting title at the head of Pss.Ivii, Iviii, lix, lxxv. It is directed that these are to be sung to the tune of 'al-tashheth, which means, "Destroy (it) not" - these are the opening words of the first line of a popular vintage song which is quoted in Isa.lxv.8:

" ... As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one saith" - then comes the quotation - " 'Destroy it not ('al-tashbeth), for a blessing is in it'..."

This song was thus so well known that it could be referred to by its opening words; and to the tune of this song the psalms in question were to be sung.

Another case of this kind occurs in the title of Ps.Ivi. Here it is directed that the psalm is to be sung to the tune of "The dove of the far-off terebinths". (Reading the אֵילִס, "terebinths, for the meaningless אֵלֶם, "in silence.") Possibly there is a quotation from this song in, 7:

"Oh that I had wings like a dove; then would I fly away and be at rest."

Ps.x, again, is, according to the title, to be sung to the tune of the song known as 'Ayyeleth hash-shahar, "The hind of the morning". Here also it is possible that this song is quoted in Ps.xlii.1:

"As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God". (Some authorities would read the fem. אַיֶּלֶח, "hind, for אַיָּלּ, "hart," as giving a better rhythm.)

There are other affinities between these two psalms. A number of other illustrations could be given (e.g. in the titles of Pss.ix, xviii, xxxvi, xIv, Iiii, lx, Ixix, lxxx). They show that the Israelites took over the melodies of popular folk-songs for use in the Temple worship; and it is interesting to note that this custom was continued in the Synagogue worship until well into the Middle Ages. (See the Introductory volume to the Oxford History of Music, pp.55 ff. (1929).)

iii. Some other terms occurring in titles.

A few other terms call for a brief notice. Maskil figures in the titles of thirteen psalms. (Pss. xx, xliv, xlv, lii-lv, lxxviii, lxxxviii, lxxxix, cxlii.) The word comes from a root meaning to have "insight" or to show "prudence" (cp. Am.v.13). And the form of the verb from which Maskil is derived has a causative sense, so that the word would mean "insight-giving". And in reference to a psalm it would be one that by its contents taught insight. But there is another possibility; in ii the verb, in its causative form, is used in reference to the Levites, and may therefore be applied to the quality of their singing or of their instrumental playing. In this case a Maskil psalm would be one that was accompanied by some special kind of music. It is, however, more probable that the former explanation is right, especially as this is borne out by the contents of the psalms in question.

Regarding the term Miktam, occurring in the titles of six psalms (Pss.xvi, lvi-lx.), there is much difference of opinion. The root meaning of the word is uncertain, and it seems impossible to come to any definite conclusion as to what the term means.

Pss.cxx-cxxxiv are called "Songs of Ascents". These were no doubt sung by pilgrims as they ascended up to Jerusalem, the city on a hill; hence the title.

Ps.vii is called a Shiggaion in the title. This, again, is explained in a variety of ways, to all of which there are objections. It is impossible to feel any certitude as to its meaning. (Possibly Shigionoth (Hab.iii.1) comes from the same root & has the same meaning.)

In the title to Ps.xcii this psalm is called a "song for the Sabbath day". The Mishnah (Tamid vii.) tells us that there was a special psalm for each day of the week. They are given thus: xxiv, xlviii, lxx, xciv, lxxxi, xciii, and for the Sabbath xcii; with the exception of the third and fifth days, for which no psalm is given, this agrees with the titles in the Septuagint.

Two psalms (xxxviii and lxx) have in their titles the word Lehazkir, meaning, "to bring to remembrance"; it can also mean "to make confession", which would be very appropriate for xxxvii, but not for lxx; some commentators hold, with good reason, that the word should be read, 'azkarah - "memorial", which is the technical word used in Lev.ii.2, 9 for the meal offering. It is, therefore, probable that these two psalms were sung during the offering of the Minhah, as the meal offering was called in post-exilic times. This is how the Targum understood the term.

Some other elements in the titles will be considered in III.

Finally, though not occurring in the title of any psalm, a word must be said about the term Selah. That this must be a musical direction of some kind is suggested by the fact that it nearly always occurs in psalms that have Lamminsah in their titles.

The term Selah figures almost always at the end of a strophe or of a section, and, as a rule, (It is found seventy-one times in the Hebrew of the Psalms, in the Septuagint more frequently; in the psalm of Hab.iii it occurs three times; twice in the middle of the verse, once at the end, though not at the end of the section.) it is not included in the strophic rhythm, though sometimes it is, and disturbs the metre. (On the metrical system of the Psalms, see above, pp.142 ff.)

Its meaning has been much disputed. Unfortunately the two most scientific explanations make it mean two directly opposite things: The root meaning of the word is to "lift up" (סלל), but the "lifting up" can refer either to the voices or to the musical accompaniment. The Septuagint, which may well have retained an echo of traditional liturgical usage, renders it διάψαλμα - diapsalma. It is uncertain what this word means, but it is obviously connected with ψάλλειν - psallein, which, as already pointed out, refers to stringed instruments. It is, therefore, probable that Selah refers to these.

In this case the word might indicate that the music was to be "lifted up", i.e. the voices ceased, and the instruments played alone; this is supported by the fact that Selah usually comes at the end of a strophe, i.e. a halt in the words, and therefore a cessation of the voices. (Briggs, on the other hand, holds that Salah "calls for the lifting up of the voice in praise" (op. cit., p.lxxxv). On the whole subject of these titles see Mowinkel, Psalmenstudien iv (1923).)


In its present form the Psalter is divided into five books: i-xli; xlii-lx; lxi-lxxxix; xc-cvi; cvii-cl. Each of the first four closes with a doxology. In the case of the fifth,, being itself a doxology, makes a fitting close. That these five divisions are artificial, made probably on the pattern of the five books of Moses, is evident, for on closer examination divisions of a very different kind are to be discerned.

In the first place, it will be seen that by the different use of the divine name three large groups of psalms are separated off: Thus in Pss.i-xli (Book I) Yahweh is used; In Pss.xlii-lxxxix (Books II, III) for the most part Elohim is used; And in Pss.xc-cl (Books IV, V) Yahweh is again used. Whatever may have been the reason for this varying use of the divine name, the present point is that by this means three large divisions were marked off.

But both the five-book division and the three-group division belong to later times. Gathering together a number of independent collections originally formed the Psalter. These collections were as follows:

a. Psalms of David iii-ix; xi-xx; xxxiv-xli; li-lxv; lxviii-lxx; lxxxvi; ci; ciii; cviii-cx; cx; cxxiv; cxxi; cxxxviii-cxlv. 72 psalms.
b. Psalms of Korah xlii; xliv-xlix; lxxxiv; lxxxv; lxxxvii; lxxxviii. 11 psalms.
c. Psalms of Asaph. l; lxi-lxxi. 12 psalms.
d. The Ma'aloth, "Songs of Ascents". cxx--cxxxiv. 15 psalms.
e. The Hallelujah psalms. civ-cvi; cxi-ci; cxv-cxvii; cxxxv; cxlvi-cl. 15 psalms.

In each case there are a certain number of psalms with the same ascription running consecutively, which points to their having at one time belonged, respectively, to separate collections.

Further, as we have seen, at the end of Ps.lx occur the words: "The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended"; that clearly points to a completed collection. But as there are many other psalms besides these that are ascribed to David, there was, presumably, at one time another collection of "Davidic" psalms.

Another thing pointing to separate collections is that some psalms occur twice over with only small variations; thus, xiv is the same psalm as Iiii with one or two minor differences; the same is true of xl.13-17 and lxx; and lvii.7-11 together with Ix.5-12 (Hebr.7-14), make-up cviii. Obviously, a psalm would not figure twice in the same collection, whereas this is easily comprehensible if several collections were amalgamated, for a favourite psalm might well have been preserved by more than one person in his collection.

It is, therefore, clear that a number of collections have been incorporated in the Psalter; and these collections were of gradual growth, for the individual psalms were not written with the object of forming a collection.

Many authors wrote psalms, and long after their composition they were collected. This process was repeated in the case of many other psalms that were current. Ultimately, all these collections were gathered together, and thus the Psalter, as we now have it, came into being.


In dealing with this subject it must be recognized that, generally speaking, the nature of the content of most of the psalms makes the assigning of dates precarious. Certain indications will, not infrequently, help to decide within what period a particular psalm is likely to have been written, and in most cases this is as near as we can get with any feeling of certitude to the date of a psalm. The matter is also complicated by the fact that so many psalms have been subjected to revision. Such revision may sometimes make a psalm appear to be of later date than it is in its origin. And there are other problems that present themselves in seeking to assign dates.

But in spite of difficulties it is possible, within certain limits, to come to some definite conclusions on the subject.

Starting from the lower limit, it may be pointed out that there is no reason why the collection known as the "Psalms of Solomon" (circa 50BC) . (It is generally recognized that these psalms were originally written in Hebrew.) should not have been included in the Psalter, (which was not the case), unless the Canon had been closed by this time. Indeed, since this collection emanated from the Pharisees, who were by now the dominant party, it would certainly have been incorporated in the Psalter had this been possible. It is, therefore, clear that by the middle of the first century BC the Psalter had assumed its present form

Next, in the words of Swete (Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, p.254 (1900).):

"The division of the Psalter into books seems to have been already made when it was translated into Greek, for though the Greek codices have nothing to answer to the headings ספר ראשון ('Book the first'), etc., which appear in the printed Hebrew Bible, the doxologies at the end of the first four books appear in the Greek as well as in the Massoretic text." 

It follows, therefore, that at the latest the close of the Psalter had taken place by the end of the second century BC.

In other words, the task of gathering together the various collections of psalms circulating among the Jews was finished, at the latest, about 100BC. So that it is not until this date that we can even begin to consider the question of the dates of the different collections, let alone the dates of the individual psalms comprised in these collections. The latest psalms, therefore, were written before 100BC.

To go back one step farther, Kittel (Die Psalmen, p.xxi (1929).) has shown that the collections of the "Korah" and "Asaph" psalms belong approximately to 300BC, i.e. to the early part of the Greek period. The detailed proof of this would take us too far afield, but there is every reason to believe in the correctness of this estimate.

It would be out of the question to discuss here the dates of individual psalms; it must suffice to say that, with some exceptions, Pss.lxi-cl (i.e. Books III-V) belong largely to the Greek period and later, though a certain number must be assigned to the Persian period (circa 500-300 BC.).

The reason for believing that some psalms belong to this period is that while they are clearly post-exilic, they contain elements that demand a date before the Greek period. It is also probable that there are some psalms in Book II (xlii-lx), and even isolated ones in Book I, which are post-exilic.

Our next step must be to give reasons for the contention, that a large number of psalms in Books I, II are pre-exilic.

  1. There is at least a prima facie probability that some psalms must be pre-exilic. The Temple with its services had existed for about three centuries before the Exile. That songs of praise were sung is demonstrable (see below), and it is incredible that these should have been forgotten during the Exile when the loss of sacrificial worship enhanced the importance of other forms of worship.
  2. There are a number of passages in the Old Testament, which show that in pre-exilic times there was singing with musical accompaniment as an act of worship. Apart from such passages as Judg.v.1ff., - The song of Deborah; Exod.xv.1-18, the psalm ascribed to Moses; Exod.xv.20, 21, the reference to Miriam's song; Exod.xx.17ff, the singing during the worship of the golden calf - there is an obvious reference to singing with accompaniment of musical instruments in worship in Am.v.21-23:

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though ye offer me your burnt offerings and meal offerings I will not accept them. ... Take away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols."

Quite clearly this eighth-century prophet is speaking here in reference to singing and instrumental music in public worship. Isaiah, too, has in mind the Temple worship when he says:

"Ye shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of Yahweh" (xxx.29).

In Ps.Cxxxvii.3, there is a reference to the Temple songs sung before the Exile:

"For there they that led us captive required of us songs ... sing us one of the songs of Zion. ... How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"

The implied refusal to sing these holy songs before Gentile strangers must be balanced by the words which follow:

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget,"

i.e. how to play the stringed instrument accompaniment.

These passages, and they are not exhaustive, show then that the singing of songs in worship with instrumental accompaniment was familiar to the Israelites in pre-exilic times. Such songs would not have been forgotten, and it is certain that a number of them have been preserved in the Psalter, though not, it may well be, in their original form.

  1. There are many religious conceptions expressed in some of the psalms that mark them as pre-exilic; this applies especially to the doctrine of God. Thoughts and expressions occur in reference to Yahweh that cannot possibly have originated after the Exile, e.g. Ps. xviii. 7-10; the only way of explaining the presence of such crude ideas is that they were retained just because the psalms in which they occur had been handed down for many generations, and the tenacity of traditional use refused them.
  2. Finally, there is the presence of the "royal psalms" in the Psalter, i.e. those in which reference is made to the king; these are: ii, xviii, xx, xxi, xxviii, xl, Ixi, Ii, lx, cx, cxx. These may not in every case refer to an Israelite king.

And while we may not wholly agree with what Sellin (Introduction to the Old Testament, p.200 (1923).) says on the subject, there is a good deal of truth in his words:

"The desperate attempts, there is no other word for it, to interpret these (i.e. passages in which the king is mentioned) as referring to a future Messiah, a foreign king, or a Maccabaean prince, must be regarded as, one and all, complete failures. The prince is always a real personage of the present world, though, no doubt, in ii, xxi, xlv, lx-cx, a personality in whom the poet also celebrates the expected Saviour, the divine deliverer. This excludes a foreign king as completely as the title ' king' ... excludes a Simon, or other prince, of the Maccabaean family."

While, therefore, the great majority of the psalms must be regarded as post-exilic, there is an appreciable number which should be assigned to some period before the Exile, and possibly some which were written during the Exile.

Indications as to the period to which individual psalms belong may be summarized thus: -


the presence of "primitive" ideas about Yahweh; references to the king; references to the northern kingdom, though the mention of "Israel" does not always denote the northern kingdom; references to Yahweh as king point to a psalm being pre-exilic in origin, though its present form may be later.

Exilic period:

references to the Dispersion may in some cases point to this period; similarly, the mention of the enmity of Edom (cp. Ezek.xxv.12-14, xxxv), though this will usually point to a later period. It is also possible that where affinity with the thought of prophetical teaching occurs, the psalm in question may be exilic. The possibility of a similar date, or even a later one, must be recognized for a psalm in which eschatological thought is expressed. And the possibility applies to a dirge psalm.


to this period belong psalms in which personal devotion to Yahweh is expressed, and in which the problem of the suffering of the righteous is dealt with; also those in which the Law and the oral tradition are mentioned, and in which a universalistic note is struck. To a late post-exilic date may be assigned those psalms which exhibit literary development in one form or another, such as acrostic psalms; also the sapiential psalms; and, finally, those in which there is a reference to atheism (Greek period).


In reading one or other of the English versions of the Psalter the meaning of any particular passage seems, as a rule, to be perfectly straightforward and simple. And therefore it is by no means always realized how difficult it often is to grasp the full meaning of a psalm in its Hebrew form. Nothing illustrates this more convincingly than the large variety of interpretations offered by commentators. If the essential meaning of a psalm, or a passage in a psalm, were always clear, a consensus of opinion would soon be established, and there would not be so many different explanations offered.

One reason for the difficulty of understanding the real meaning of so many verses in the psalms is that the metrical structure of Hebrew poetry is characterized by verbal exiguity. The sentences are extremely short and consist often of three, sometimes of only two, words; and such sentences follow one another without any indication of their logical connexion.

Gunkel (Einleitung in die Psalmen, pp.1 ff (1928).), in drawing attention to this, gives a simple illustration: The Hebrew poet writes:

"Yahweh is my shepherd, I shall not want".

Each sentence consists of only two words in Hebrew. A Greek writer would have made it clear that the second sentence was the logical result of the first; but the Hebrew poet omits a "therefore". In the case of this simple illustration it may be said that the connexion is so obvious that no connecting link is needed. But there are very many instances in which the absence of any indication of the nature of the connexion between two laconic sentences makes it difficult to decide what the poet really meant. Often several interpretations seem possible, but there is no guarantee as to which is the right one.

Another difficulty arises on account of the Hebrew use of tenses. The formation of Hebrew sentences, especially in poetry, is of a somewhat "primitive" order. And the tenses are exceedingly variable in their meaning. So that, as Gunkel says, such a thing may occur as that commentators differ on the point as to whether a psalm is to be interpreted as a lament over some present calamity, or as a thanksgiving for a happy deliverance from some past trouble (cp. Pss.xli, cxvi, Isa.xxxviii.10-20).

The only way whereby a true interpretation is to be obtained - and it is Gunkel's great merit to have discovered this - is by recognizing to what type or family (Gattung) a psalm belongs, and by elucidating it in the light of other psalms belonging to the same type or family. It is, as he says, "a fundamental, scientific principle that nothing can be understood apart from its milieu (Zusammenhang)." Therefore, if psalms that by their nature, content, and special terms, can be shown to belong to the same type, are grouped together and compared, it is evident that this must facilitate their understanding, and the purpose for which, and the occasion on which, they were written. Gunkel has done this, and the following are the types into which he divides the psalms (one example of each is given in brackets)

Finally, it appears that in some psalms there has been a deliberate mixing up of subject matter in which psalms of more than one type are represented (xv). For the justification of what has been said, Gunkel's Introduction and his Commentary must be consulted.


The Psalter is sometimes spoken of as the hymnbook of the second Temple.

This is a misleading title, for there can be little doubt that a large number of the psalms cannot be described as liturgical documents, i.e. they were not used in the public worship of the Temple, nor were they ever intended to be.

It is certain that the worship of the early synagogue was based on the Temple Liturgy. (See, e.g. Zunz, Die Gottesdienstlichen Entwickelung, p.29 and passim (1913).)

And if we are to be guided, as we justifiably may be, by early synagogal usage, it may be concluded that not more than about half of the psalms in the Psalter were used in public worship, or can be described as liturgical documents? [About seventy of the psalms are used in the modern synagogue, but the number in use is now larger than was originally the case, see the present writer's The Jewish Background of the Christian Liturgy, pp.73 ff. (1925).]

Apart from musical directions and the like in the titles, it is very rarely that the liturgical character of a psalm is indicated in a title ( is "for the Dedication of the House", and Ps.xcii is a "Song for the Sabbath Day"). And even in those psalms that are demonstrably liturgical it is not always immediately apparent from their content that they should be so described.

In order to discern which psalms are to be designated as liturgical documents two lines of investigation must be followed: Indications in the individual psalms themselves, and the evidence to be derived from early post-biblical Jewish literature, above all from the Mishnah and the tractate Sopherim. (One of the smaller treatises of the Talmud, which contains, however, much early valuable material, see Muller's edition (1878).)

To indicate all those psalms which bear marks of their liturgical character, and to adduce the evidence afforded by the Jewish literature mentioned, would obviously be quite out of the question here; but a few illustrations may be offered: Thus, the liturgical character of Ps.lxxxi is shown in verse 3(4):

"Blow the shophar (ram's horn) at the new moon, at the full moon on the day of our feast."

As the feast is mentioned without further designation it is the feast of Tabernacles that is meant, the feast par excellence (cp. i Kgs.viii.2; Ezek.xlv.25; ii Chron.vii.8). This was celebrated at the full moon of the seventh month, which was New Year's Day. On the first day of this month, i.e. the new moon, the shophar was blown (Num.x.10, xxix.1), so that, according to this psalm, the two weeks preceding New Year's Day were observed as a kind of preparation for the great feast. (Cp. Ezra iii.6: "From the first day of the seventh month began they to offer burnt offerings")

This psalm was thus one of the special ones sung at the feast of Tabernacles; and this is further borne out by the evidence of later Jewish literature. For the Targum to this psalm speaks of the "new moon" here mentioned as that of the month Tishri, i.e. the seventh month, in which New Year's Day occurred, and refers to Num.xxix.1.

And the Talmud also states that it was sung on this day (Rosh Hashshana 30b, referred to by Elbogen, op. cit., p.147.). Another interesting illustration is Ps.xlvii. Its liturgical character is seen by the reiterated call to praise God. But at first sight there does not seem to be any indication as to the occasion on which it was sung; indeed, this was not realized until within recent years, but, as has been shown by Mowinckel, Gunkel, and others, the occasion is indicated clearly enough in verses 5-8 (Hebr.6-9):

"God is gone up with a shout, Yahweh with the sound of the shophar ... For God is the king of all the earth, Sing ye praises with understanding; God reigneth over the nations, God sitteth upon His holy throne;"

i.e. it is a psalm commemorating the enthronement of Yahweh, sung on New Year's Day, which, as just pointed out, was the first day of the feast of Tabernacles. In accordance with this the tractate Sopherim (xix.2) records that Ps.xlvii was one of the special psalms for this feast. (See, further, Myth & Ritual, ed. S H Hooke, pp.122 ff. (1933).)

One other illustration, of a number, may be given. The liturgical character of Ps.cxxxv is very clearly indicated in the first three verses. And in this case the occasion on which the psalm was sung is not difficult to discern. Verse 4 tells of the election of Israel, verse 5 of Yahweh's power, verse 6 of the fulfilment of His will, and verse 7 of His lordship over Nature; then in verses 8, 9 reference is made to what happened to the Egyptians at the Exodus. All these points immediately suggest what happened at the beginning of the history of the nation; and thus, as a special psalm for the Passover feast, nothing could be more appropriate. The psalm is certainly not one of the early ones, and in all probability additions have been made to it. But that it was originally composed for Passover hardly admits of doubt; and in any case we have the evidence of Sopherim xviii.2, where it is said that this was the morning psalm sung at this feast.

These are but a very few examples of the psalms as liturgical documents; in many cases, as we have said, their liturgical character is not immediately discernible, in others it is fairly obvious. But without the evidence afforded by post-biblical literature it would sometimes be difficult to indicate the occasion on which a psalm was sung.

On the other hand, it must be repeated that many of the psalms, probably the majority, were not originally liturgical. This does not mean to say that they were not said in the Temple. Individuals in the Temple for a variety of purposes said them; and, possibly, they were said privately during divine service. But they must not, on that account, be regarded as liturgical documents. For these partake of an official character, and it is one of the glories of the psalms that they are, in the main, human documents, that is, they express the thoughts, the aspirations, the joys, the sorrows, the hope, the faith, of the individual heart. As such, we must welcome, rather than be surprised at, the fact that most of the psalms are non-liturgical.


While it is but right and fitting that the Psalms should be treated primarily as the product of Hebrew religious thought, it must be recognized that the The Hebrews were in some notable respects unique, but they lived in contact with other peoples, and were not uninfluenced by the world of their surroundings. How far the Hebrews were affected in the composition of their psalms-literature by external influences it would be difficult to say. But in this and other respects they exhibited an individuality which witnesses to a striking independence, even though they may, to some extent, be indebted to others for thought and literary structure.

As is natural enough, two opposing views are held regarding this matter; it is maintained, on the one hand, that the Hebrew psalmists were largely indebted to Babylonia and Egypt, and, on the other, that no external influence is to be discerned in the Psalms.

Sacred poetry is a means of expressing the relationship between man and the Deity - the nature of the Deity may, for the moment, be left aside. The belief in this relationship was common to the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and others, as well as to the Hebrews. All alike felt impelled to approach their deities with petitions for wants, with the thanksgiving for petitions granted, with prayers for help in time of need, and for averting evil, with the offering of propitiatory gifts, and also for the purpose of honouring them with praise.

With such a background common to all there would seem to be no reason for postulating any borrowing of one from the other; the initial impulse was universal. [See, on the other hand, Birkeland, 'Ani und 'Anaw in den Psalmen (1933), & Die Feinde des Individuums in der israelitischen Psalmenlieratur (1933).]

On the other hand, while each individual race would, according to its own genius, in course of time build up its own literature of sacred lyric, contact between the peoples would bring to each some knowledge of their respective literatures.

In such circumstances influence of some kind, conscious or unconscious, could hardly fail to exercise itself. And when as in the case of Babylonia and Egypt, their literatures were much older than that of the Hebrews. It is within the bounds of probability that, in some respects, the early Hebrew psalmists would have been indebted to the more ancient compositions.

We have, moreover, the analogy of Babylonian sacred legends and of the Egyptian and Babylonian Wisdom literature to go upon. (See pp.161 ff.)

These are factors that should be taken into consideration in this connexion. Without going into further detail here, it may be said that the conclusion to which a comparison of Babylonian and Egyptian hymns with the Hebrew psalms leads, is that both in thought and expression Hebrew psalmody is often indebted to a Babylonian or an Egyptian prototype. But that, owing to the religious genius of the Hebrews being of a vastly higher order than that of any other people of antiquity, the psalms are in their real essence independent of external influences.

Some illustrative comparisons would have been instructive, but space does not permit of this. We must content ourselves with a reference to the following works: For Babylonian hymns and prayers: Zimmern, Babylonische Hymnen und Gebete (1905); Jastrow, Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens, vol.i.pp.393-552 (1905), vol.ii.pp.1-137 (1912); Langdon, Sumerian and Babylonian Psalms (1909); Stummer, Sumerisch-akkadische Parallelen zum Aufbau alitestamentlicher Psalmen (1922).

For Egyptian psalms and the like, Erman, Aegyptische Religion, pp.79ff(1909); Literatur der Aegypter, pp.183-193, 350-384 (1923).

A large collection of both Egyptian and Babylonian sacred literary pieces are given in Gressmann, Altorientalische Texte zum alten Testament, vol.ii (1926).

And see, too, the interesting chapters on Babylonian and Egyptian psalms by G. R. Driver and A. M. Blackman, respectively, in The Psalms, edited by D. C. Simpson (1926).


In addition to the vicissitudes through which the texts of the books of the Old Testament in general have passed, that of the Psalms has undergone special redactional treatment owing to their use in the Temple worship. Doubtless this applies less to the later psalms than to those that have a longer history behind them. In a few instances instructive textual variations are placed before us owing to the existence of a double form of certain psalms, and we are able to see how texts differed. By comparing: Ps.xviii with ii Sam.x; Ps.xiv with Ps.Iiii; Ps.lxx with Ps.xl.13-17; Ps.cviii with Pss.lvii.8-12 and Ix.7-14, it will be realized that the text must have been at one time in a fluid state, with the consequent inevitability for corruptions in the text to arise. When the Hebrew text is closely examined it is found that corruptions are very numerous. Sometimes these are deep-seated, so much so that in a certain number of passages it is difficult to extract adequate sense from the present form of the text (e.g. x.16(17) ; lxxxvii.7; lxxxix.48). In other cases (which are more frequent) there are minor corruptions, which are easily emended by the sense of the passage. That the text has come down in a somewhat unsatisfactory condition is only to be expected when the circumstances are borne in mind.

Briggs (Op. cit., pp.xxi ff.) has well expressed these when he says that the

"Psalms passed through the hands of a multitude of copyists, and of many editors who made changes of various kinds, partly intentional and partly unintentional. The Psalms were changed and adapted for public worship, just as has ever been the case with hymns, prayers, and other liturgical forms. The personal, local, and historical features were gradually effaced, and additions of various kinds were made to make them more appropriate for congregational use."

The Septuagint is of great value for the reconstruction of corrupt passages in the Massoretic text. (Of special value for the study of the Septuagint version of the Psalms is Rahlf's Septuaginta-Studien, 2. Heft, "Der Text des Septuaginta-Psalters" (1907).)

But special caution is called for in the case of the Psalms, because the many instances of fantastic renderings show that the translator could by no means always be relied upon for his knowledge of Hebrew. [Cp. Swete's words: " The Psalms, and more especially the Book of Isaiah, show obvious signs of incompetence" (op. cit., p.315); a well-known example is xxix.1.]

Not only so, but there are many cases in which Hebrew letters were misread. This has resulted in some very curious renderings being offered in the Septuagint. These are sometimes meaningless, but that does not seem to have troubled the translator. It is evident that the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint was translated differed greatly from the Massoretic text, but the condition of that early text was very variable. In a great many cases it was manifestly superior to that of our present Hebrew text, but in very many others it was certainly worse. Thus, while the Septuagint is quite indispensable for the study of the Psalms, great care must be exercised in weighing its evidence.

The numeration of the Psalms in the Septuagint is for the most part different from that of the Hebrew.

"This is due to certain consecutive Psalms in the Hebrew Psalter being counted as one in the Greek (ix and x in Hebr. = ix in the Sept.; cxiv and cxv in Hebr. = ci in the Sept.).

And certain of the Hebrew psalms being, vice versa, divided in the Greek into two (cxvi in Hebr. = cxiv and cxv in the Sept.; cxlvii in Hebr. = cxlvi and cxlvii in the Sept.)." (Swete, op. cit., pp.239 f.)

The Septuagint has a psalm, cli, which is clearly based on i Kgs.xvi.7, 11, 26, 43, 51; ii; ii Chron.xxix.26; Ps. lxxviii. 70, lxxxix. 20.

"Its resemblance to the Septuagint of those passages is not so close as to suggest a Greek original, but, on the other hand, there is no evidence that it ever existed in Hebrew." (Swete, op. cit., p253.)

These last words are particularly interesting, for in recent years a Syriac version of this psalm has been discovered, together with four others; there is strong evidence for regarding these last four as having been translated from a Hebrew original.

Not so, however, with the Septuagint cli psalm, which contains nothing pointing to a Hebrew original, but which seems certainly to have been composed originally in Greek. (These psalms are printed in the Syriac with the German translation and notes by Noth, in the ZATW for 1930, pp.1-23.)