Understanding The Bible
The Book of Psalms

Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible


The Hebrew name of the book of Psalms is "Tehillim," which means to make a joyful noise, or praise.  It is, therefore, a book of praises.  The English work "psalms" is the Anglicized form of a Greek word, "psalmoi," which means a song or poem set to music.  The book is sometimes called "The Psalter," from the Greek word "psalterion," a harp or stringed instrument.

  1. The Authorship of the Psalms
    Much discussion has arisen concerning the authorship of the psalms.  Some modern critics contend that none of the psalms which have come down to us were written by David.  To them the titles are no indication of authorship.  The general tendency of skeptical criticism is to deny that anybody wrote anything (which the text or tradition assigned to them."  However, it is clear that the titles are part of the ancient text and the two stand or fall together.  According to these titles, David is assigned 75 (i.e., half of the 150 psalms,) of which 73 or in the O.T. titles (3-9; 11-41, except 33; 51-70; 86; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 138-145,) and two more are assigned to him by the NT (Ps. 2 by Acts 4:25, and Ps. 95 by  Heb. 4:7.)  Asaph is assigned 12 (50, 73-83 ;) Sons of Korah, 11 (42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 88 ;) Solomon 2 (72, 127 ;) Heman, 1 (88 ;) Ethan, 1 (89 ;) Moses 1 (90, and probably 91 also.)  Thus 103 are assigned, leaving 47 anonymous.  Although some think that the last mentioned author wrote the psalms with the blank headings which follow until another author is mentioned, this is by no means a proven theory.  David may also be the author of the psalms assigned to Solomon and the Sons of Korah for the titles read "for" rather than "by."

  2. The Divisions of the Book of Psalms
    Although the psalms comprise one book with an order and unity of their own, they have been divided into five books, each ending with a doxology.  These books are as follows:

    1. Psalms 1-41
      In this book the name of Jehovah occurs more than 250 times, while the name Elohim (God) only about 47 times.  For this reason this section has been called the Jehovah or Covenant psalms.  It sets for t Jehovah as the Coming One, the Helper of his people.

    2. Psalms 42-72
      In this division the name of God, Elohim, is found nearly 200 times, while the covenant name, Jehova', occurs only about 27.  Hence, it has been called Elohim section.  It sets forth the God of Israel as the great Wonder-worker.

    3. Psalms 73-89
      This section is made up of about 57 Elohim and 46 Jehovah names.  The two names are here combined.  In Psalms 73-82, the name of God occurs about 40 times and the name Lord not more than 10.  But, in 83-89, we have LORD 33 times and God about 17.  The almost equal use of the names of the Covenant-God of Israel, and the review of Israel's history found in some of the psalms, would indicate the realization of the greatness of God and His relation to His covenant people.  This section closes not with a doxology, but with a double amen.

    4. Psalms 90-106
      The name Jehovah occurs in every psalm, in two of them as many as 11 times.  The section begins with the psalm of Moses.  It speaks of man's future (Ps. 90 ;) his hope in the Most High (Ps. 91 ;) the enthronement and reign of the Great King Jehovah (Ps. 93-100 ;) and the worship of His people (Ps. 95, 96, 100-106.)  The section ends with a doxology, and amen, and a hallelujah.

    5. Psalms 107-150
      Jehovah is again the predominant name, occurring in every psalm but two, in some many times--236 in all.  This is THE book of praise.  It calls upon the redeemed of the Lord to praise Him for His goodness (Ps. 107;) speaks of the exaltation and priesthood of Christ (Ps. 110,) the Word of God (Ps. 119,) narrates the experiences of God's chosen ones (Ps. 120-133,) their worship and praise (Ps. 134-145,) and ends with the five hallelujah psalms (146-150,) called the "Hallelujah Chorus," of which the last is the final doxology--the universal chorus of complete redemption. 

  3. The Pentateuch of Moses and the Pentateuch of David
    The Jews were fond of comparing the five books of Moses and David.  They were called the "five-fifths" of Moses and the "five-fifths" of David.  The likeness is not fanciful.

    1. In the Genesis portion (Ps. 1-41) we have the first Adam and the last Adam contrasted and the last Adam bringing salvation (22) and glory (8) to the race.

    2. In the Exodus portion (Ps. 42-72) we have a people in trouble -- the same people Israel-- but in the end-time.  Christ (72) will "lead them out" (i.e., Exodus.)

    3. In the Leviticus section (Ps. 73-89) we have the psalms of the clean heart, of devotion and consecration.  The psalms of Asaph, psalms of the sanctuary.

    4. Psalms 90-106.  The Numbers section (wilderness wandering) begins with the psalm of Moses.  They all died in the wilderness ("we are consumed by thine anger," etc., Ps. 90:7.)  Note:  Ps. 90, the old man, Ps. 91, the new man -- Christ.  The critics say this does not refer to Christ, but the Devil knew better and quoted it to Him at the time of His great temptation (Ps. 91:11-12.)

    5. Psalms 107-150.  The Deuteronomy section shows how He brought His people into the land.  It is also a rehearsal of the marvelous record of God bringing Israel back (Ps. 107:1-8.)  Why?  Because vv. 10-14.  What's going to happen to Israel?  There is to be a coming deliverance of Israel out of the wilderness of nations.

  4. The Compilation of the Psalms
    It is generally agreed that Ezra put the psalms together, not chronologically, but in consecutive progress of thought as in John or Romans.  A hymn book, arranged logically into various themes, is a fairly appropriate analogy.  They are arranged in an artistic way, as a jeweler would make up a necklace from various stones or jewels.  We believe Ezra was guided by the Spirit in this task.

  5. We Obtain Further Insight to the psalms from the Ascriptions Appearing at the Head of the Chapters.

    1. Aijeleth Shahar appears only in Psalm 22.  It means "hind (animal-like gazelle) of the morning."  The horns glisten in the sunlight.  Thus, the Spirit very beautifully shows that the death of Christ made possible the dawn of the morning when He comes back again.

    2. Alamoth, in Psalm 46, means "maidens or virgins."  Thirtle, in his book The Titles of the Psalms, has an interesting theory.  He says the musical inscription at the head of a psalm should have gone with the preceding psalm, the literary title alone remaining at the head of the psalm.  The theory works well in this instance with "virgins" in the preceding Psalm 45.

    3. Al-taschith, "destroy not" - Ps 57-59, 85

    4. Gittith, "winepresses" - Ps. 7, 80, 83

    5. Jeduthun, "Praise-giver" - Ps. 39, 42, 57

    6. Mahalath, "sickness"  - Ps. 53, sing in "piano" (soft)

    7. Mahalath-leannoth, "sickness-humiliation: - Ps. 88

    8. Maschil, "instruction - Ps. 22, 42, 44, 74, 78, 88, 89, 142

    9. Michtham, "engraven" - Ps. 15, 46-60

    10. Muth-labben, "death of the son" - Ps. 9

    11. Nigonoth, "smitings" - Ps. 4, 6, 54, 55, 61, 67, 76

    12. Nihiloth, "possessions"  - Ps. 5

    13. Sheminith, "an octave" - Ps. 6, 12

    14. Shiggaion, "loud crying" - Ps. 7

    15. Shoshannim, "lilies"  - Ps. 45, 69

    16. Shoshannim-eduth, "lilies of the testimonies" - Ps. 60, 80

    17. Selah -- not simply a music symbol -- used 71 times.  Has two meaning:

      1. Stop, pause

      2. Lift up (after you have stopped and thought it over, you WILL lift up your voice in praise)

  6. The Alphabetical or Acrostic Psalms
    This was a favorite form of song, but these psalms were usually incomplete (e.g., Ps. 9, 10, 25, 37, 111, 112.)  However, some are complete acrostics, and Psalm 119 is the most elaborate acrostic, with 8 verses beginning in their first letter with each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, this making 8x22=176 verses.

  7. Hebrew Poetry
    (See not on this preceding the book of Job.)

  8. The Threefold Prophetic Message of the Psalms (after A. C. Gaebelein)
    "We use the psalms mainly for personal, spiritual help and for devotional reading, etc.  I remember meditating over Psalm 50:15 as a small boy.  It has had a great effect on my whole life.  Yet, however important this is, we must remember (or if we were not aware of it before, we must note) that the psalms are preeminently prophetic.  Now the leading prophetic message of Scripture is Christ, so psalms should then be full of prophecy about Christ (Rev.  19:10; Jn. 5:39, "the Scriptures are they which testify of me.") Do we find Christ here?  Most certainly.

    1.  The first message of the psalms if the MESSAGE ABOUT CHRIST as spoken of in 1 Peter 1:10-11:  (a) The SUFFERINGS; (b) The GLORY.  As a groundwork we find that David is called a prophet by the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:30 and Christ Himself expounded the psalms, among the other prophecies, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:26-27, 44-46,) in showing "that He should have suffered these things and enter into His glory," i.e., our two divisions mentioned in 1 Peter 1:10-11.

      What did Christ pray when He used to go up on a mountain and pray all night?  It is not recorded, so that leads me to believe that the book of psalms was Christ's prayer book.  The Holy Spirit anticipated the emotions of His holy soul (e.g., Ps. 22.) I therefore believe we are perfectly justified in reading Christ into the psalms generally.  However, we must have caution not to do it where sin and hatred are expresses.

      We are especially concerned in his first message of the psalms with the Messianic psalms, which the critics hate so heartily. (See sections IX and X.)"

    2. The second prophetic message is summed up in the IMPRECATORY PSALMS, which have been a bone of contention always.  "burn them up like stubble," etc.  Some commentators try to save the psalms by saying that David didn't know any better, lived in barbarous times; however, they forget that in so saying they are stating that the Holy Spirit didn't know any better.  No, these psalms belong to the en-history of the people of Israel, as it is yet to be written.

      God called Israel to be a nation and they are not to be cast off (Jer. 31:35-40.)  As this age is closing, God is taking them back to Palestine.  There will be a return to political power.  Then the Anti-Christ will break his covenant and turn against them.  Thus, these psalms are prophetically the prayers, tears, et. of Israel during the last 3 1/2 years of the 70th Week.

      For instance, in Psalm 42, at the beginning of the "Exodus" section, prophetically we have Israel turning back to God.  In Psalm 43, we see the Anti-Christ (v2.) In Psalm 44, the cry is "God help us" (v. 2,) and in Psalm 45, the prayer is answered, for in verse 3 the King is viewed as come.  In Psalm 46, we have "therefore will we not fear" (v. 2.)  "The Prince of Peace" wins the victory."

    3. The third prophetic message of the book of Psalms depicts the coming glories of the Millennium in store for Israel, the nations, and the earth.  In Psalm 67:1 we have "cause His face to shine upon us."  According to the Talmudical record, the Jews have always thought of Jehovah's face as being expressed by Messiah's (Christ's) face.  After Christ has come and established His Kingdom, then all the earth is in blessing."

  9. The Subject of the Psalms
    The book of Psalms has been classified sometimes according to the subject in the psalms.  Angus, in his Bible handbook, has a convenient classification of this character which I copy in part, giving the subject and in each case the numbers of a few psalms illustrating it.  For examples, there are psalms of:

    1. Instruction - 1, 19, 39

    2. Trust - 3, 27, 31, 46, 56, 62, 86

    3. Praise - 8, 29, 93, 100

    4. Distress and sorrow - 4, 13, 55, 64, 88

    5. Thanksgiving  - 30, 65, 103, 107, 116

    6. Aspiration - 42, 63, 80, 84, 137

    7. Penitence  - 6, 32, 38, 51, 143

    8. History  - 78, 105, 106

    9. Messianic - (see below)

  10. The Messianic Psalms
    The decision as to which psalms are Messianic is oftentimes very easy because of New Testament confirmation that Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecy (e.g., Ps. 110:1; Mt. 22:41-46.)  There are others which are very clear, even thought not quoted in the NT (e.g., Psalms 1 and 23.)  Undoubtedly there are others which refer to Christ and apprehension of this may vary with the degree the Spirit's mind is understood by the individual student.

    The usual list of Messianic psalms is given below.  Those quoted in the NT are without parentheses.  Thos not quoted are in parentheses.  These should be memorized.

    1. (1), 2, 8, 16 - (the first not quoted)

    2. 22, (23), 24 - (the second not quoted)

    3. 40, 41, 45, 68, 69  - (All quoted)

    4. (72,) (89,) (97) - (none quoted)

    5. 102, 110, 118 - (All quoted)

  11. Brief Summary of the Messianic Psalms
    We should see Christ in all the psalms (Lk. 24:44.) eg., in Psalm 1, we should see Christ, the Perfect Man (His humanity.) But some psalms are specifically quoted in the New Testament of Christ or give especially clear view of Him and are therefore designed "Messianic psalms."  The chief of them are:

Psalm 1 - THE LORD JESUS CHRIST AS MAN (First Coming)
Happy is THE Man!
The Happy Man described

1.  Negatively - 1
2. Positively - 2
3. Pictorially - 3
4. Contrastively - 4-6

(Christ is the only Man who has or could have ever filled out this picture fully, However, in proportion as God's grace makes us Christ like, these characteristics are apparent in us.)

Psalm 2 - THE LORD JESUS AS GOD (Second Coming)
In this psalm we have the return of the rejected king.
(See Acts 4:25; 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5)
There are four actors or speakers (3 verses each)

1.  The nations speak - 1-3
2. The Father speaks - 4-6
3.  The Son speaks - 7-9
4.  The Spirit speaks (through David)  - 10-12

Psalm 8 - GOD'S PLAN FOR MAN'S DOMINION (Heb. 2:6-8)

1.  A little lower than the angels -- but crowned with glory - 1-5
2.  The earth put under Him - 6-8
3.  The resulting praise - 9

Psalm 16 - THE OBEDIENT ONE RESURRECTED (Acts 2:25-28; 13:35)

1.  Dependent upon God - 1-3
2.  The path He trod  - 4-8
3.  Death and resurrection  - 9-11

(The Good Shepherd, ,Jn. 10:11)
(Mt. 27:43, 46, etc.)

1.  Alone -- forsaken of God - 1-3
2. Rejected of men - 4-8
3.  Nevertheless He still depends upon God - 9-11
4.  The completeness of His sufferings - 12-18
5.  Final Prayer - 19-21a
6.  Its answer - 21b
7.  Resurrection chant of victory - 22-31

Psalm 23 - THE GREAT SHEPHERD (Heb. 13:20)
"The Lord is my Shepherd.  What more do I want?"

1.  Assurance - 1-3
2.  Comfort - 4-6

Psalm 24 - THE CHIEF SHEPHERD (1 Pet. 5:4)

1.  The earth is the Lord's  - 1-2
2.  the character of those who may approach Him - 3-6*
3.  Christ, as King of Glory, acclaimed by the host of heaven - 7-10

*Christ was all this and more.  He is fit for Do's presence.  He has the right to enter as a perfect human.  But, He is more -- He is one with the Father, and has earned the right to the title "King of Glory," and to return to heaven as Victory through His Cross and resurrection to be acclaimed and honored by all in heaven.

See Colossians 2:14-15; Ephesians 4:8-10; cp. 68:18; cp. Judges 5:12-13; Revelation 5:5, 9, 12

Psalm 40 - OUR LORD'S BIRTH ANTHEM (vv. 6-8; Heb 10:5-9)

Psalm 41 - THE BETRAYED ONE'S COMFORT (v. 9: Jn. 13:18)

Psalm 45 - CHRIST, OUR GLORIOUS KING (vv. 6-7; Heb. 1:8-9)

Psalm 68 - HYMN OF HIS ASCENSION (v. 18; Eph. 4:8)

Psalm 69 - THE PLAINT OF THE REPROACHED ONE  (v. 9; Jn. 2:17)


1.  A King who reigns in righteousness - 1-4
2.  He rules from sea to sea - 5-11
3.  The blessings of His kingdom - 12-20


Psalm 97 - HIS GLORIOUS REIGN (The Righteous Lord Reigns)

Psalm 102 - PLEA TO THE UNCHANGING GOD (vv. 25-57; Heb. 1:10-12, cp. Heb. 13:8

Psalm 110 - THE PSALM OF THE KING - PRIEST (v. l; Mk 12:36, etc.; v. 4; Heb. 5:6; 6:20, etc.)

1.  His person, exaltation and waiting - 1
2.  His coming in glory - 2
3.  His reception by those (Israel) who once rejected Him - 3
4.  His judgment of His enemies and Anti-Christ - 4-6
5.  His exaltation the result of His death (Phil. 2:8-9) - 7

(Cp. Mt. 21:42; Mk. 12:10; Lk. 20:17; Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20; I Pet. 2:4, 7)

1.  Praise for resurrection deliverance - 1-18
2.  Christ -- rejected by Israel, but made Headstone of the corner (in resurrection), will finally be received by Israel (v. 26)  - 19-29


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