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Psalms (Tehilim תהילים, in Hebrew) is a book of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, and of the "Old Testament" of the Christian Bible. Because of its original meaning as a song or chant, the word psalm can be used to mean any religious chant or poem of praise. This article, however, deals specifically with the Psalms (with upper-case P) as the book of Scripture.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms are counted among the "Writings" or Hagiographa (one of the three main sections into which the books are grouped). In Luke 24:44 the word "psalms" refers the Writings as a whole.

The Book of Psalms, especially if printed separately and set for singing or chanting, is also called the Psalter.


Composition of the Book of Psalms

The Book of Psalms is divided into 150 Psalms, each of which constitutes a religious song or chant, though one or two are long and may constitute a set of related chants. It is incorrect to speak of these as chapters, since their individuality antedates by at least 1500 years the division of the other books of the Bible into chapters.

The organization and numbering of the Psalms differs slightly between the (Masoretic) Hebrew and the (Septuagint) Greek manuscripts:

Hebrew Psalms Greek Psalms
9-10 9
11-113 10-112
114-115 113
116 114-115
117-146 116-145
147 146-147
  • Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew are together as Psalm 9 in the Greek
  • Psalms 114 and 115 in the Hebrew are Psalm 113 in the Greek
  • Psalms 114 and 115 in the Greek appear as Psalm 116 in the Hebrew
  • Psalms 146 and 147 in the Greek form Psalm 147 in the Hebrew

Christian traditions vary:

  • Protestant translations are based on the Hebrew numbering;
  • Eastern Orthodox translations are based on the Greek numbering;
  • Roman Catholic official liturgical texts follow the Greek numbering, but modern Catholic translations often use the Hebrew numbering, sometimes adding, in parenthesis, the Greek numbering as well.

Most manuscripts of the Septuagint also include a Psalm 151, present in Eastern Orthodox translations; a Hebrew version of this poem was found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.

For the remainder of this article, the Hebrew Psalm numbers will be used unless otherwise noted.

Authorship and ascriptions

Traditionally all the Psalms were thought to be the work of David, but modern scholars recognise them as the product of several authors or groups of authors, many unknown. Most Psalms are prefixed with introductory words (very different in the Masoretic and Septuagint traditions) ascribing them to a particular author or saying something about the circumstances of their composition; only 73 of these introductions claim David as author. Since the Psalms were written down around the 6th century BC, nearly half a millenium after David's reign (about 1000 BC), they doubtless depended on oral tradition for transmission of any Davidic material.

Psalms 39, 62, and 77 are linked with Jeduthun, to be sung after his manner or in his choir. Psalms 50 and 73-83 are associated with Asaph, as the master of his choir, to be sung in the worship of God. The ascriptions of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88 assert that the "sons of Korah" were entrusted with arranging and singing them; 2 Chronicles 20:19 suggests that this group formed a leading part of the Korathite singers.

Sections of the book

The Psalter is divided, after the analogy of the Pentateuch, into five books, each closing with a doxology or benediction:

  1. The first book comprises the first 41 Psalms, all of which are ascribed to David except 1, 2, 10, and 33, which, though anonymous, were also traditionally ascribed to him. While Davidic authorship cannot be relied on this probably is the oldest section of the Psalms
  2. Book second consists of the next 31 Psalms (42-72), 18 of which are ascribed to David and 1 to Solomon (the 72nd). The rest are anonymous.
  3. The third book contains 17 Psalms (73-89), of which the 86th is ascribed to David, the 88th to Heman the Ezrahite, and the 89th to Ethan the Ezrahite.
  4. The fourth book also contains 17 Psalms (90-106), of which the 90th is ascribed to Moses, and the 101st and 103rd to David.
  5. The fifth book contains the remaining Psalms, 44 in number. Of these, 15 are ascribed to David, and the 127th to Solomon.

Psalm 136 is generally called "the great Hallel." But the Talmud includes also Psalms 120-135. Psalms 113-118, inclusive, constitute the "Hallel" recited at the three great feasts, at the new moon, and on the eight days of the Feast of Dedication.

Psalms 120-134 are referred to as Songs of Degrees, and are thought to have been used as hymns of approach by pilgrims.

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm. It is composed of 176 verses, in sets of 8 verses, each set beginning with one of the 22 Hebrew letters. Several other Psalms too have alphabetical arrangements.

Use of the Psalms in Jewish ritual

The Mosaic ritual set out in the books of the Pentateuch or Torah makes no provision for the service of song in the worship of God. The earliest references to the use of singing in Jewish worship are in relation to David, and to this extent the ascription of the Psalms to him may express a general if not a specific truth.

Some of the titles given to the Psalms in their ascriptions suggest their use in worship:

  • Some bear the Hebrew designation shir (Greek ode, a song). Thirteen have this title. It means the flow of speech, as it were, in a straight line or in a regular strain. This title includes secular as well as sacred song.
  • Fifty-eight Psalms bear the designation (Hebrew) mitsmor (Greek psalmos, a Psalm), a lyric ode, or a song set to music; a sacred song accompanied with a musical instrument.
  • Psalm 145, and many others, have the designation (Hebrew) tehillah (Greek hymnos, a hymn), meaning a song of praise; a song the prominent thought of which is the praise of God.
  • Six Psalms (16, 56-60) have the title (Hebrew) michtam.
  • Psalms 7 and Habakkuk 3 bear the title (Hebrew) shiggaion.

Psalms are used in traditional Jewish worship. Several Psalms appear as part of the morning services; Psalm 145 (commonly referred to as "Ashrei," which is really the first word of each of the last 2 verses of Psalm 144), is read during or before services, three times every day. Additionally, at the eve of the Sabbath, various Psalms are read in the pre-Sabbath service ("Kabalas Shabbos").

Traditionally, a "Psalm for the Day" is read after the service each day. This is described in the Mishnah (the initial codification of the Jewish oral tradition) in the section "Tamid."

Many Jews complete the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis, and say, each week, a Psalm connected to that week's events or the Torah portion read during that week. In addition, many Jews (notably Lubavitch, and other Chasidim) read the entire Book of Psalms prior to the morning (Shachris) service, on the Sabbath preceding the calculated appearance of the new moon.

The 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament show that they were familiar to the Judean community at the time of Jesus.

The Psalms in Christian worship

New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, and the Psalms have remained an important part of worship in virtually all Christian Churches. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches have always made systematic use of the Psalms, with a cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more weeks. In the early centuries of the Church, it was expected that any candidate for bishop would be able to recite the entire Psalter from memory, something they often learned automatically during their time as monks. Today, new translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced. Several conservative denominations sing only the Psalms (and the small number of hymns found elsewhere in the Bible) in worship, and do not accept the use of any non-Biblical hymns; an example is the RPCNA church which sings Psalms exclusively.

Some Psalms are among the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular church-goers. In particular, the 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is My Shepherd", 22nd in the Greek numbering) offers an immediately appealing message of comfort and is widely chosen for church funeral services, either as a reading or in one of several popular hymn settings; and Psalm 50/51 ("Have mercy on me O God", called the Miserere from the first word in its Latin version) is by far the most sung Psalm of Orthodoxy, in both Divine Liturgy and Hours, in the sacrament of repentance or confession, and in other settings. Psalm 102/103 ("Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!") is one of the best-known prayers of praise. Psalm 137/136 ("By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept") is a moody, yet eventually triumphant, meditation upon living in slavery, and has been used in at least one spiritual, as well as one well-known reggae song. In popular music, the U2 song "40" is based on Psalm 40 ("I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.")

Eastern Orthodox usage

Eastern Orthodox Christians have long made the Psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. To facilitate its reading, the 150 Psalms are divided into 20 kathismata, and each kathisma is further subdivided into three antiphons as follows (using the Greek chapter numbering):

  • Kathisma 1: Psalms 1-3, 4-6, 7-8
  • Kathisma 2: 9-10, 11-13, 14-16
  • Kathisma 3: 17, 18-20, 21-23
  • Kathisma 4: 24-26, 27-29, 30-31
  • Kathisma 5: 32-33, 34-35, 36
  • Kathisma 6: 37-39, 40-42, 43-45
  • Kathisma 7: 40-48, 49-50, 51-54
  • Kathisma 8: 55-57, 58-60, 61-63
  • Kathisma 9: 64-66, 67, 68-69
  • Kathisma 10: 70-71, 72-73, 74-76
  • Kathisma 11: 77, 78-80, 81-84
  • Kathisma 12: 85-87, 88, 89-90
  • Kathisma 13: 91-93, 94-96, 97-100
  • Kathisma 14: 101-102, 103, 104
  • Kathisma 15: 105, 106, 107-108
  • Kathisma 16: 109-111, 112-114, 115-117
  • Kathisma 17: 118:1-72, 73-131, 132-176
  • Kathisma 18: 119-123, 124-128, 129-133
  • Kathisma 19: 134-136, 137-139, 140-142
  • Kathisma 20: 143-144, 145,147, 148-150

At vespers prayer services, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year and on different days of the week within the same part of the year, according to the Church's calendar. In the 20th century, some lay Christians have adopted a continuous reading of the Psalms on weekdays, praying the whole book in four weeks, three times a day, one kathisma a day.

Roman Catholic usage

The Psalms have always been an important part of Roman Catholic liturgy. The Liturgy of the Hours is centred on chanting or recitation of the Psalms. Early Catholics employed the Psalms widely in their individual prayers also; however, as knowledge of Latin (the language of the Latin rite) became uncommon, this practice ceased among the unlearned. Over the centuries, the use of the Psalms in the liturgy declined as well. The Tridentine Mass preserved only isolated verses that, in some cases, were originally refrains sung during recitation of the whole Psalm from which they were taken.

When the Second Vatican Council permitted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy, certain Psalms again became well known even to the laity (particularly in versions such as the Grail translation ( To facilitate recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, a new arrangement of the Psalms was introduced, distributing them in a four-week cycle. Official approval was also given to other arrangements,[1] ( by which the complete Psalter is recited in a one or two-week cycle. These arrangements are used principally by Catholic contemplative religious orders, such as that of the Trappists [2] (

The 1970 revision of the Roman Missal (see Novus Ordo Missae) reintroduced the singing or recitation of a more substantial section of a Psalm, and in some cases an entire Psalm, after the first Reading from Scripture. This Psalm, called the Responsorial Psalm, is usually sung or recited responsorially, although the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 61 permits direct recitation.

The General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours, 122 sanctions three modes of singing/recitation for the Psalms:

  • directly (all sing or recite the entire psalm);
  • antiphonally (two choirs or sections of the congregation sing or recite alternate verses or strophes); and
  • responsorially (the cantor or choir sings or recites the verses while the congregation sings or recites a given response after each verse).

Protestant usage

The psalms were extremely popular among those who followed the Reformed tradition.

Following the Protestant Reformation, verse paraphrases of many of the Psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition. Calvin himself made some French translations of the Psalms for church usage. Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress is Our God is based on Psalm 46. Among famous hymn settings of the Psalter were the Scottish Paraphrases and the settings by Isaac Watts. The first book printed in North America was a collection of Psalm settings, the Bay Psalm Book (1640).

But by the 20th century they were mostly replaced by hymns in church services.

Anglican usage

Anglican chant is a way of singing the Psalms that remains part of the Anglican choral tradition. The version of the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer is an older translation (from the Great Bible) than that included in the King James Version of the Bible.

See also

External links

This entry incorporates text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897, with some modernisation.
Partially updated and some additional material added, but still not making full use of modern scholarshipde:Buch der Psalmen

es:Salmos fr:Livre des Psaumes ko:시편 id:Mazmur it:Salmi he:תהלים la:Liber Psalmorum nl:Psalmen (Hebreeuwse bijbel) ja:詩篇 pl:Księga Psalmów pt:Salmos ru:Псалом sv:Psaltaren


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