What are the Psalms?

The Book of Psalms was compiled over a period of hundreds of years. It contains five collections or ‘books’ of psalms (religious songs and prayers) written by many different authors including Moses and King David.

A parchment scroll (Willy Horst)

The psalms in Book 1 (Psalms 1 to 41) probably originated in the southern kingdom of Judah (as the psalmist uses the name ‘Yahweh’ – often translated ‘Jehovah’ or ‘the LORD’ – when refering to God). Those in Book 2 (Psalms 42 to 72) probably came from the northern kingdom of Israel (as the divine name used is ‘Elohim’ or ‘God’). (See the section on Who wrote the Old Testament?)

 

 

The psalms were originally written
on parchment scrolls  (Willy Horst)

 

 

Occasionally, the same psalm is found in both collections, so the combined Book of Psalms contains some almost identical psalms (apart from the different word used for ‘God’). Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, for instance, are nearly identical, while Psalm 70 is virtually the same as Psalm 40:13-17. Some of the psalms were written for Levitical guilds – professional choirs who sang during times of worship. In Book 3 (Psalms 73-89), for example, many of the songs are dedicated to the ‘Sons of Korah’, or are ‘Songs of Asaph’.

The Book of Psalms include songs of praise and worship, pleas for God’s protection and forgiveness, and prayers requesting justice and the punishment of wrongdoers. Some were written for special occasions such as the King’s accession (Psalm 2 & Psalm 110), a royal wedding (Psalm 45) or the celebration of a victory (Psalm 18).

 

The site of the Temple in Jerusalem

Many psalms were sung by Jewish pilgrims going up to Jerusalem

 

Many of the later psalms in Book 5 (Psalms 120-134) were written as pilgrim songs, sung joyfully by Jewish families as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.

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