The Psalms provide a literary insight into the history of Israel, dating from the time of David. We can learn much about the highest aspirations of the Israelites by studying the Psalms as a historical resource.
There could be no psalms without a written script for the Hebrew language. This was invented / created during the reign of King David, or in the period just before his reign. Our best indicator that this was the period of the invention of this script is found in the detailed content of the history found in the books of Samuel. This is a continuous and extended narrative, which is an achievement that required “heart-language” literacy. This work shows that literacy in Hebrew had been achieved around the time of the events described. We can compare that work withÂ the encapsulated oral traditions found in Judges, which are single stories that are rather loosely connected. Even the book of Ruth, David’s ancestor, is a single well-told story, rather than being the kind of extended, complicated narrative found in the books of Samuel.
David is revealed in 1 Samuel as a gifted poet and singer, who was able to calm the troubled spirit of King Saul. As a result, we should not be afraid to attribute to him many of the psalms assigned to him. However, not every psalm with his name was written by him. This is not even claimed in Psalms themselves, since a headline attribution, “A psalm of David,” is actually a shorthand for the Hebrew which says, “A psalm related (somehow) to David.”
The writing of psalms was a way of expressing religious ideals, just as writing Christian songs is a way of expressing Christian ideals, including devotion to God and encouragement to a stronger faith and commitment. New psalms would continue to be composed and written down right up to the time the canon was effectively closed, around the time of Ezra, the priest and scribe, and a law-maker for Israel.
Book 1 – Psalms 1-41
The psalms in this book were either written by David, or about David, or written with a messianic emphasis.
While David lived in the present (as expressed in Psalm 7), his life encouraged the Israelites to think of the possibility of a better future. This is beautifully expressed in Psalm 2, which expresses the hope that Yahweh’s rule would cover the whole earth.
During his lifetime, David even had to flee from his son, Absalom, who wanted to take his throne from him by force. This idea has inspired Psalm 3. Even before this, David had to flee from Saul, so in Psalm 18, David declares his innocence and his righteousness before Yahweh, and also celebrates his later victories over the surrounding nations.
Certainly, David expected Yahweh would preserve him and would not allow him to be undone by the false accusations of his enemies. This is an idea that finds expression in psalms 7 and 17.
After David took Jerusalem from the Jebusites, David made that city-on-a-hill his capital. Here he set up the Tent of Meeting, being a central place of worship for the Israelites. Psalm 24 recorded David’s joy at that event, declaring,
“Who may ascend the hill of Yahweh?
Who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.
He will receive blessing from Yahweh and vindication from God his Saviour.
Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.”
Book II – Psalms 42-72
Most psalms in this book look like very personal psalms of David. However, the book begins with the psalms written by, and associated with, the Sons of Korah. According to a very late source, 1 Chronicles, it is claimed that David appointed singers, descendants of Korah, who served in the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps this is true, or perhaps this claim is a reconstruction from the psalms themselves.
This book also includes a psalm associated with Asaph, who is reported in 2 Chronicles to have sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple, but whose message here is much later.
Psalm 47, “of the Sons of Korah,” can be most easily dated to the times of King David or King Solomon. Nothing seemed impossible in those days.
How awesome is Yahweh, Most High, the great King over all the earth!
He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet.
He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Jacob, whom he loved.
Psalm 45 can most easily be placed in the time of King Solomon, perhaps during an occasion when he married one of the princesses from the surrounding nations.
Listen, O daughter, consider and give ear: forget your people and your father’s house.
The king is enthralled by your beauty; honour him, for he is your lord.
The Daughter of Tyre will come with a gift, men of wealth will seek your favour.
Psalm 50, “of Asaph,” brings in ethical teachings that were a strong emphasis of the Mosaic covenant (which is found in the E Source). Whereas the J Source account of the flood has Yahweh pleased with the odour of the sacrifice offered by Noah, this song-writer is not impressed with that idea.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?
Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfil your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honour me.
The song-writer goes on the declare that the people have failed to live up to the ethical demands of the covenant, for which God rebukes them most strongly.
Soon after this psalm was written, the leaders of the kingdom of Judah, and all the priests, were sent into exile. This situation is reflected in Psalm 44, referring to the nation of Israel being scattered among the nations. The song-writer considered this to be a gross injustice:
All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness.
Despite the feeling of personal innocence and injustice, the song writer still expressed his hope in Yahweh:
Rise us and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.
This is the other side of the coin of “Asaph’s” criticism of the Israelites for their failure to live up to the words of the Mosaic covenant.
The book ends with a psalm entitled “of Solomon.” It could reflect David’s prayer for his son, Solomon, or an early aspirational hope for Solomon’s reign. It was a promise that found bitter disappointment in Solomon’s actual reign. Hopes for the future are not always satisfied, as the Israelites discovered.
Book III – Psalms 73-89
This book includes psalms “of Asaph,” “of the Sons of Korah,” one “of David,” one “of Heman the Ezrahite” and one “of Ethan the Ezrahite.”
Some were written during the kingdom of Judah, others following the exile.
Psalm 89, associated with the ancient figure of Ethan the Ezrahite, is the most messianic. Despite the trials of the past, and failures of the people (which led to the exile), the writer of this psalm was still confident that Yahweh’s purposes would be fulfilled, even though he could not imagine how this would be worked out in practice.
Book IV – Psalms 90-106
It is ironic that these psalms, probably all written during the exile in Babylon, or during the early days of the return to Israel, express supreme confidence that vindication for Israel would come from Yahweh despite the difficulties they had endured. The religion of Israel had been transformed from one centred on “facts on the ground” to one that was located in heaven.
Psalm 92 captures this idea:
The senseless man does not know, fools do not understand, that though the wicked spring up like grass and evildoers flourish, they will be for ever destroyed.
But you, O Yahweh, are exalted for ever.
Psalm 104 is a special case. Scholars have noticed the similarity of this psalm to the hymn of Pharoah Akhenaten, the so-called heretic of Egyptian religion – Akhenaten was born during Joseph‘s lifetime. Whereas Akhenaten’s hymn was written in praise of his solar deity – Aten (and in praise of himself as Aten’s mouthpiece), Psalm 104 transforms this into a psalm in praise of Yahweh, ascribing the order that is obvious in creation to him.
Since Akhenaten’s religious vision was excoriated from Egyptian history by later pharaohs, the appearance of this hymn among the Israelites in Babylon 700 years later should be a troubling situation for those historians who claim there is no evidence of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, or for Joseph’s high role in that society. Let them come up with their own explanations, if they can. However, assuming Joseph’s historicity, a plausible explanation for the survival of Akhenaten’s hymn among the Israelites is that a record of it made its way to Israel with the other Akkadian tablets relating to Israel’s Patriarchs. Under this scenario, these tablets were lodged in the Tent of Meeting (and later temple), and they all eventually found their way to Babylon.
Book V – Psalms 107-150
The book contains many psalms in praise of God. It begins with Psalm 107:
Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; his love endures for ever.
It includes psalms that have a messianic reading, such as Psalm 110:
Yahweh says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”
It includes lessons in virtuous living, like the alphabet psalm, Psalm 119.
Some psalms use a recounting of history to sing Yahweh’s praises, such as psalms 135 and 136.
Psalm 137 is a shameless call for vindication and revenge.
The book ends with five psalms of praise of Yahweh:
Let everything that has breath praise Yahweh.
There is much that is human in the psalms; not everything is divine.
These creative works show that the Israelites were striving to understand God’s interaction with their nation, as well as reflecting God’s call upon them to respond to him in an appropriate manner. Many of the psalms use the past, both recent and distant, in an effort to bring the people to focus on Yahweh’s demands upon them.