Psalms - Composition

All but 34 Psalms have titles which are sometimes printed, sometimes not, indicating: Author/collection; occasion; poetic characteristics; music setting; liturgical use. Although types of Psalms tend to group into 'books' this is not necessarily always so.

Bearing in mind varying opinions about authorship, the consensus that the composite Book of Psalms was assembled in 5th-4th Century BC must remain tentative. Alter says: "The decision to assemble the disparate Psalms in a book may have been motivated by the redaction of the Torah in the 5th Century BC as a canonical book intended for public reading".

The canonical collection is divided into five books:

1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150

with a redactor, prose Doxology, at the end of each book except the last where Psalm 150 serves this purpose. The first three books seem to have been independent, with the fourth and fifth apparently a single additional book. Psalms 1-2 are considered to be a prologue and not part of the first book. There are duplications which confirm that the books were initially separate ([passsage=Psalm 14]14[/passage] and [passsage=Psalm 53]53[/passage]; [passsage=Psalm 40:14-18]40:14-18[/passage] and [passsage=Psalm 70]70[/passage]). The end of [passsage=Psalm 72/] says "The prayers of David, son of Jesse, are ended". The five books are said to reflect the books of Moses.

There were perhaps almost 1000 years between the initial authorship and the fixing of the Masoretic text,  500-900 CE. There are more errors in the poetry than the prose because of its specialised vocabulary (words not in prose were more difficult for scribes). Some lines and sequences are almost unintelligible ([passsage=Psalm 9; Psalm 10]9-10[/passage] which appear in the Septuagint as one Psalm with a scrambled alphabetically acrostic base).

The Hebrew term for Psalms is mizmor, meaning something sung but they have never been called Mizmorim, rather, Tehilim or praises. Preponderant genres are Psalms of thanksgiving (overlapping with praise) and supplication: "Again and again the psalmists tell us that man's ultimate calling is to use the resources of human language to celebrate God's greatness and to express gratitude for His beneficent acts. This theme is sometimes given special urgency by being joined with an emphasis on the ephemerality of human life. Only the living can praise God."

Partly taken from:

Alter, Robert: The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton, 2007


Related Study Sheets…