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The Book of Psalms (Hebrew: תְּהִלִּים or תהילים Tehillim meaning "Praises"), commonly referred to simply as Psalms or "the Psalms", is the first book of the Ketuvim ("Writings"), the third section of the Hebrew Bible. The English title is from the Greek translation, ψαλμοί psalmoi, meaning "instrumental music" and, by extension, "the words accompanying the music." There are 150 psalms in the Jewish and Western Christian tradition (more in the Eastern Christian churches), many of them linked to the name of King David, but his authorship is not accepted by most modern Bible scholars.
The Book of Psalms is divided into five sections, each closing with a doxology (i.e., a benediction) – these divisions were probably introduced by the final editors to imitate the five-fold division of the Torah:
Many psalms (116 of the 150) have individual superscriptions (titles), ranging from lengthy comments to a single word. Over a third appear to be musical directions, addressed to the "leader" or "choirmaster," including such statements as "with stringed instruments" and "according to lilies." Others appear to be references to types of musical composition, such as "A psalm" and "Song," or directions regarding the occasion for using the psalm ("On the dedication of the temple," "For the memorial offering," etc.). Some carry the names of individuals, the most common being David, and thirteen of these relate explicitly to incidents in the king's life.
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Most of the Psalms carry some sort of title or subheading, mostly but not always including an attribution such as of David or of Asaph. Most authorities question the naive reading of these attributions as statements of authorship. However they are generally accepted to be ancient in origin.
Numbering of the Psalms differs — mostly by one digit, see table — between the Hebrew (Masoretic) and Greek (Septuagint) manuscripts. Protestant translations (Lutheran, Anglican, Calvinist) use the Hebrew numbering, but other Christian traditions vary:
For the remainder of this article, the Hebrew numbering is used, unless otherwise noted.
The variance between Massorah and Septuagint texts in this numeration is likely enough due to a gradual neglect of the original poetic form of the Psalms; such neglect was occasioned by liturgical uses and carelessness of copyists. It is admitted by all that Pss. 9 and 10 were originally a single acrostic poem; they have been wrongly separated by Massorah, rightly united by the Septuagint and Vulgate. On the other hand Ps. 144 is made up of two songs — verses 1–11 and 12–15. Pss. 42 and 43 are shown by identity of subject (yearning for the house of Jahweh), of metrical structure and of refrain (cf. Heb. Ps. 42:6, 12; 43:5), to be three strophes of one and the same poem. The Hebrew text is correct in counting as one Ps. 146 and Ps. 147. Later liturgical usage would seem to have split up these and not a few other psalms. Zenner (Die Chorgesange im Buche der Psalmen, II, Freiburg im Br., 1896) ingeniously combines into what he deems were the original choral odes: Pss. 1, 2, 3, 4; 6 + 13; 9 + 10; 19, 20, 21; 156 + 157; 69 + 70; 114 + 115; 148, 149, 150. A choral ode would seem to have been the original form of Pss. 14 + 70. The two strophes and the epode are Ps. 14; the two antistrophes are Ps. 70 (cf. Zenner-Wiesmann, Die Psalmen nach dem Urtext, Munster, 1906, 305). It is noteworthy that, on the breaking up of the original ode, each portion crept twice into the Psalter: Ps. 14 = 53, Ps. 70 = 40:14–18. Other such duplicated psalms are Ps. 108:2–6 = Ps. 57:8–12; Ps. 108:7–14 = Ps. 60:7–14; Ps. 71:1–3 = Ps. 31:2–4. This loss of the original form of some of the psalms is allowed by the Biblical Commission (1 May 1910) to have been due to liturgical uses, neglect of copyists, or other causes.
The Septuagint bible, present in Eastern Orthodox churches, includes a Psalm 151; a Hebrew version of this was found in the Psalms Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some versions of the Peshitta (the bible used in Syriac churches in the Middle East) include Psalms 152–155. There are also the Psalms of Solomon, which are a further 18 psalms of Jewish origin, likely originally written in Hebrew, but surviving only in Greek and Syriac translation. These and other indications suggest that the current Western Christian and Jewish collection of 150 psalms were selected from a wider set.
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 (which he did not see as significant), but by bringing together psalms of the same genre (Gattung) from throughout the Psalter. Gunkel divided the psalms into five primary types:
In addition to these five major genres, Gunkel also recognised a number of minor psalm-types, including: communal thanksgiving psalms, in which the whole nation thanks God for deliverance; wisdom psalms, reflecting the Old Testament wisdom literature; pilgrimage psalms, sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem; entrance and prophetic liturgies; and a group of mixed psalms which could not be assigned to any category.
The composition of the psalms spans at least five centuries, from Psalm 29, adapted from early Canaanite worship, to others which are clearly from the post-Exilic period. The majority originated in the southern kingdom of Judah and were associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, where they probably functioned as libretto during the Temple worship. Exactly how they did this is unclear, although there are indications in some of them: "Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar," suggests a connection with sacrifices, and "Let my prayer be counted as incense" suggests a connection with the offering of incense.
Seventy-three of the 150 psalms in the Bible are attributed to King David, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QPsa) attributes 3600 tehilim (songs of praise) plus other compositions to him. Nevertheless, there is no hard evidence for Davidic authorship of any of them. "Davidic authorship is not accepted as historical fact by modern scholars," note Adele Berlin and Marc Vzi Brettler in the Jewish Study Bible, but is seen rather as the way in which the ancients "confirm[ed] the divine inspiration and authority" of the writings by linking them to well-known biblical figures.
Seven other Psalms are attributed to David elsewhere in the Bible:
The biblical poetry of Psalms uses parallelism as its primary poetic device. Parallelism is a kind of rhyme, in which an idea is developed by the use of repetition, synonyms, or opposites. Synonymous parallelism involves two lines expressing essentially the same idea. An example of synonymous parallelism:
Two lines expressing opposites is known as antithetic parallelism. An example of antithetic parallelism:
Most individual psalms involve the praise of God – for his power and beneficence, for his creation of the world, and for his past acts of deliverance for Israel. The psalms envision a world in which everyone and everything will praise God, and God in turn will hear their prayers and respond. Worst of all is when God "hides his face" and refuses to respond, because this puts in question the efficacy of prayer, which is the underlying assumption of the Book of Psalms.
Some psalms are called "maskil" (maschil) because in addition they impart wisdom. Most notable of these is Psalm 142 which is sometimes called the "Maskil of David", others include Psalm 32 and Psalm 78. The term derives from maskil meaning "enlightened" or "wise".
Individual psalms were originally hymns, to be used on various occasions and at various sacred sites; later, some were anthologised, and might have been understood within the various anthologies (e.g., ps.123 as one of the Psalms of Ascent); finally, individual psalms might be understood within the Psalter as a whole, either narrating the life of David or providing instruction like the Torah. In later Jewish and Christian tradition, the psalms have come to be used as prayers, either individual or communal, as traditional expressions of religious feeling.
Some of the titles given to the Psalms in their ascriptions suggest their use in worship:
Psalms are used throughout traditional Jewish worship. Many complete Psalms and verses from Psalms appear in the morning services ("Shacharit"). The pesukei dezimra component incorporates Psalms 30, 100 and 145 – 150. Psalm 145 (commonly referred to as "Ashrei", which is really the first word of 2 verses appended to the beginning of the Psalm), is read three times every day: once in shacharit as part of pesukei dezimrah, as mentioned, once, along with Psalm 20, as part of the morning's concluding prayers, and once at the start of the Afternoon service. On Festival days and Sabbaths, instead of concluding the morning service, it precedes the Mussaf service. Psalms 95–99, 29, 92, and 93, along with some later readings, comprise the introduction ("Kabbalat Shabbat") to the Friday night service. Traditionally, a different "Psalm for the Day" – Shir shel yom – is read after the morning service each day of the week (starting Sunday, Psalms: 24, 48, 82, 94, 81, 93, 92). This is described in the Mishnah (the initial codification of the Jewish oral tradition) in the tractate "Tamid". According to the Talmud, these daily Psalms were originally recited on that day of the week by the Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem. From Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, Psalm 27 is recited twice daily following the morning and evening services. There is a Minhag (custom) to say Psalm 30 each morning of Chanukkah after Shacharit: some say this “instead” of the regular "Psalm for the Day", others say this additionally.
When a Jew dies, a watch is kept over the body and Tehillim (Psalms) are recited constantly by sun or candlelight, until the burial service. Historically, this watch would be carried out by the immediate family – usually in shifts – but in contemporary practice, this service is provided by an employee of the funeral home or Chevra kadisha.
Many Jews complete the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis. Each week, some also say 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 service, on the Sabbath preceding the calculated appearance of the new moon.
The reading of psalms is viewed in Jewish tradition as a vehicle for gaining God's favor. They are thus often specially recited in times of trouble, such as poverty, disease, or physical danger; in many synagogues, Psalms are recited after services for the security of the State of Israel. Note that Sefer ha-Chinuch states that this practice is designed not to achieve favor, as such, but rather to inculcate belief in Divine Providence into one's consciousness – as consistent with Maimonides' general view on Providence. (Relatedly, the Hebrew verb for prayer – hitpalal התפלל – is in fact the reflexive form of palal פלל, to judge. Thus, "to pray" conveys the notion of "judging oneself": ultimately, the purpose of prayer – tefilah תפלה – is to transform ourselves; for the relationship between prayer and psalms – "tehillah and tefillah" – see S. R. Hirsch, Horeb §620. See also under Jewish services.)
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New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, and the Psalms have remained an important part of worship in most Christian Churches. The Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran 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.
Paul the Apostle quotes psalms (specifically Psalms 14 and 53, which are nearly identical) as the basis for his theory of original sin, and includes the scripture in the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 3.
Several conservative Protestant denominations sing only the Psalms (some churches also sing the small number of hymns found elsewhere in the Bible) in worship, and do not accept the use of any non-Biblical hymns; examples are the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Presbyterian Reformed Church (North America) and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).
New translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced. An individually printed volume of Psalms for use in Christian religious rituals is called a Psalter.
Orthodox Christians and Greek-Catholics (Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine rite), have long made the Psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. The official version of the Psalter used by the Orthodox Church is the Septuagint. To facilitate its reading, the 150 Psalms are divided into 20 kathismata (Greek: καθίσματα; Slavonic: каѳисмы, kafismy; lit. "sittings") and each kathisma (Greek: κάθισμα; Slavonic: каѳисма, kafisma) is further subdivided into three stases (Greek: στάσεις, staseis lit. "standings", sing. στάσις, stasis), so-called because the faithful stand at the end of each stasis for the Glory to the Father....
At Vespers and Matins, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year and on different days of the week, according to the Church's calendar, so that all 150 psalms (20 kathismata) are read in the course of a week. During Great Lent, the number of kathismata is increased so that the entire Psalter is read twice a week. In the twentieth century, some lay Christians have adopted a continuous reading of the Psalms on weekdays, praying the whole book in four weeks.
Aside from kathisma readings, Psalms occupy a prominent place in every other Orthodox service including the services of the Hours and the Divine Liturgy. In particular, the penitential Psalm 50 is very widely used. Fragments of Psalms and individual verses are used as Prokimena (introductions to Scriptural readings) and Stichera. The bulk of Vespers would still be composed of Psalms even if the kathisma were to be disregarded; Psalm 119, "The Psalm of the Law", is the centerpiece of Matins on Saturdays, some Sundays, and the Funeral service. The entire book of Psalms is traditionally read out loud or chanted at the side of the deceased during the time leading up to the funeral, mirroring Jewish tradition.
Several branches of Oriental Orthodox and those Eastern Catholics who follow one of the Oriental Rites will chant the entire Psalter during the course of a day during the Daily Office. This practice continues to be a requirement of monastics in the Oriental churches.
The Psalms have always been an important part of Catholic liturgy. The Liturgy of the Hours is centered on chanting or recitation of the Psalms, using fixed melodic formulas known as psalm tones. Early Catholics employed the Psalms widely in their individual prayers also; however, as knowledge of Latin (the language of the Roman Rite) became uncommon, this practice ceased among the unlearned. However, until the end of the Middle Ages, it was not unknown for the laity to join in the singing of the Little Office of Our Lady, which was a shortened version of the Liturgy of the Hours providing a fixed daily cycle of twenty-five psalms to be recited, and nine other psalms divided across Matins.
The work of Bishop Richard Challoner in providing devotional materials in English meant that many of the psalms were familiar to English-speaking Catholics from the eighteenth century onwards. Challoner translated the entirety of the Lady Office into English, as well as Sunday Vespers and daily Compline. He also provided other individual Psalms such as 129/130 for prayer in his devotional books. Challoner is also noted for revising the Douay-Rheims Bible, and the translations he used in his devotional books are taken from this work.
Until the Second Vatican Council the Psalms were either recited on a one-week or, less commonly (as in the case of Ambrosian rite), two-week cycle. Different one-week schemata were employed: most secular clergy followed the Roman distribution, while Monastic Houses almost universally followed that of St Benedict, with only a few congregations (such as the Benedictines of St Maur) following individualistic arrangements. The Breviary introduced in 1974 distributed the psalms over a four-week cycle. Monastic usage varies widely. Some use the four-week cycle of the secular clergy, many retain a one-week cycle, either following St Benedict's scheme or another of their own devising, while others opt for some other arrangement.
Official approval was also given to other arrangements (see "Short" Breviaries in the 20th and early 21st century America for an in-progress study) by which the complete Psalter is recited in a one-week or two-week cycle. These arrangements are used principally by Catholic contemplative religious orders, such as that of the Trappists (see for example the Divine Office schedule at New Melleray Abbey).
The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 122 sanctions three modes of singing/recitation for the Psalms:
Of these three the antiphonal mode is the most widely followed.
Over the centuries, the use of complete Psalms in the liturgy declined. After the Second Vatican Council (which also permitted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy), longer psalm texts were reintroduced into the Mass, during the readings. The revision of the Roman Missal after the Second Vatican Council reintroduced the singing or recitation of a more substantial section of a Psalm, 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.
Following the Protestant Reformation, versified translations of many of the Psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition, where in the past they were typically sung to the exclusion of hymns. Calvin himself made some French translations of the Psalms for church usage, but the completed Psalter eventually used in church services consisted exclusively of translations by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze, on melodies by a number of composers, including Louis Bourgeois and a certain Maistre Pierre. Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress Is Our God is based on Psalm 46. Among famous hymn settings of the Psalter were the Scottish Psalter and the paraphrases by Isaac Watts. The first book printed in North America was a collection of Psalm settings, the Bay Psalm Book (1640).
By the 20th century, they were mostly replaced by hymns in church services. However, the Psalms are popular for private devotion among many Protestants and still used in many churches for traditional worship. There exists in some circles a custom of reading one Psalm and one chapter of Proverbs a day, corresponding to the day of the month.
Metrical Psalms are still very popular among many Reformed Churches.
Anglican chant is a method of singing prose versions of the Psalms.
In the early 17th century, when the King James Bible was introduced, the metrical arrangements by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins were also popular and were provided with printed tunes. This version and the New Version of the Psalms of David by Tate and Brady produced in the late seventeenth century (see article on Metrical Psalter) remained the normal congregational way of singing psalms in the Church of England until well into the nineteenth century.
The version of the Psalter in the American Book of Common Prayer prior to the 1979 edition is a sixteenth-century Coverdale Psalter. The Psalter in the American Book of Common Prayer of 1979 is a new translation, with some attempt to keep the rhythms of the Coverdale Psalter.
The Psalms are one of the most popular parts of the Bible among followers of the Rastafari movement. Rasta singer Prince Far I released an atmospheric spoken version of the psalms, Psalms for I, set to a roots reggae backdrop from The Aggrovators.
Psalms have often been set as part of a larger work. The psalms feature large in settings of Vespers, including those by Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote such settings as part of their responsibilities as church musicians. Psalms are inserted in Requiem compositions, such as Psalm 126 in A German Requiem of Johannes Brahms and Psalms 130 and 23 in John Rutter's Requiem.
There are many settings of individual psalms, which are generally mentioned in the article devoted to the particular psalm. They include:
Bach treated complete psalms in German paraphrasing as chorale cantatas:
There are also multiple contemporary popular artists, such as Soul-Junk, Robbie Seay Band, Shane and Shane, Enter the Worship Circle, Sons of Korah, and Abunoah III, who have set multiple psalms to music on various albums.
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