The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 songs, poems and prayers. These songs have been a great source of inspiration for believers throughout the centuries, and they still are today.
Dating and authorship
The psalms collected in the Bible have been written by various authors from different periods in Israelite history, roughly between 1400 BC (during Israel’s journey through the wilderness) and 400 BC (at the time of Ezra, after Israel returned from exile). About half of the psalms are attributed to King David. Other authors are Asaph, the sons of Korah, Moses, Solomon, Heman and Ethan. About one third of the psalms do not mention the poet at all.
There are all kinds of poems in the book of Psalms. Some are songs of praise or thanksgiving. Others are songs of lament, expressing pain and confusion, or have a didactic tone. Still other psalms express the poet’s confession of sin. Some record historical details, others are more timeless. Let me mention some examples:
- Song of praise: Psalm 150.
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”
- Song of lament: Psalm 13.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?”
- Song of confession: Psalm 38.
“I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!”
- Didactic psalm: Psalm 49.
“Hear this, all peoples!
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together!
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.”
- Historical psalm: Psalm 105.
“Remember the wondrous works that He has done,
His miracles, and the judgments He uttered,
O offspring of Abraham, His servant.”
Personal or public?
Many of these Psalms have a very personal tone and are based on particular personal experiences and emotions of the poets. Nevertheless, other people can often identify with their feelings and use the same words to express their own questions, praise and emotions. Many Psalms were explicitly devoted to the “worship leader” to be used in the temple, so in public worship meetings. Take Psalm 51, for example, which starts like this:
“To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” (Psalm 51:1).
David wrote this song after he had committed adultery and then murdered a man to cover up his sin, but was confronted by God. He was deeply aware of his sins and cried out to God for mercy and forgiveness: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me … Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities” (Psalm 51:3; 51:9). Even though most of us will not be in exactly the same situation as David was, we can surely identify with his feelings of guilt and his longing for forgiveness and restoration of his relationship with the Lord God, whenever we have sinned. His words are meaningful even today, and can be sung or recited by Christians all over the globe since they express such timeless emotions and truths.
Another example is Psalm 89, where Ethan the Ezrahite cries out to the Lord. The situation of his people seems hopeless, and very different from God’s earlier promises. The royal line of David has been cut off, Jerusalem lies in ruins and the people are forced to live in Babylon, far from their home country. Against this background, Ethan asks God:
“How long, O Lord? Will You hide yourself forever?
Lord, where is Your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness You swore to David?” (Psalm 89:46; 89:49)
His words echo the despair of people who find themselves in a difficult situation and don’t understand why God lets this happen. They may not have been exiled like Ethan was, they may not belong to the people of Israel, but the discrepancy between the brokenness of this world and God’s glorious promises is a general theme, independent of specific circumstances. Therefore, this song still speaks to the hearts of many.
Lessons for present day believers
The book of Psalms is a great “hymn book”, but it’s more. This book gives us an intimate view of the poets’ spiritual life. It makes clear that believers often experience confusion and disappointment. It shows that there are so many hard things in life, and that we can cry out to God for help. Many Psalms express a solid hope in God’s promises despite difficult circumstances. Others point to His many interventions in history, giving us hope for the future as well. Songs of praise just burst out in joy and thankfulness for God’s greatness.
All these emotions and experiences are part of a life in relationship with God. We are not the first ones going this journey and asking hard questions. The book of Psalms reminds us that we are part of an ancient, worldwide community of people who seek to love and obey the Lord God in all kinds of different circumstances, emotions and experiences.