Psalm 149, verse 3 – Let them praise his Name in the dance:  let them sing praises unto him with tabret and harp.

As noted in Part 2, the word ‘psalm’, or in Hebrew, mizmor, means literally a song, probably one accompanied by instrumental music.  What we call the Psalter includes 150 poems, hymns, laments, prayers, and songs of various types, most of which probably were used in the worship of the Jerusalem temple.  57 of these are called psalms in their titles.  We do not know what most of the musical directions and technical terms in the psalms really mean, but it is clear that the different songs and poems in the Psalter were used for a variety of religious occasions.  Think of the Psalter as a kind of hymnal, not unlike our modern hymnals:  these too contain a wide variety of works, appropriate for various occasions and rites and coming to us from many pens and many centuries.  If one takes away the musical notation from a modern hymnal, leaving just the words and a few directions on tempo and mood, one would be left with something rather like the Psalter as we have it in our Bibles or our Prayer Books, with the proviso that in the case of the Psalter we do not really understand even the few directions that are preserved.

As I have mentioned, the Psalter is divided into five books.  If you open the 1928 Prayer Book to page 392 you will see the end of Book I and the beginning of Book II.  Psalm 41, which ends Book I, concludes with a doxology:  ‘Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, world without end.  Amen.’  Each of the five books of the Psalter, to which we referred last week, ends with such a doxology (72:19; 89:51; 106:48; 150:6), with Psalm 150 as a whole being a doxology as well.  This fact suggests an impulse similar to that which causes Christians to end each psalm with the Gloria Patri.  It is quite likely that the five-fold division of the Psalter was meant to parallel the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible which are traditionally ascribed to Moses:  just as God’s law has a five-fold division, so do God’s praises. 

The psalms are the most important book in the third great division of the Hebrew Bible.  As you may know, the Hebrew Bible consists, first, of the Torah, the five Books of Moses.  The second part is the Nebiim or the Prophets, which in the Hebrew Bible includes both what we call the prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and so on — and also what we call the history books (or ‘former prophets’).  The third great division is the Ketubim or the Writings, which includes everything else, such as the Psalter, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.  This division is referred to by our Lord in Saint Luke 24:44 where, before he explains his Passion and Resurrection and the mission of the Church, he says to the Apostles,

These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.

Here ‘the psalms’ stands for the whole of the Ketubim

Historical-critical scholars of the Old Testament spend a great deal of time debating the authorship and date of the various psalms along with their original religious settings.  These debates have their place, no doubt, but are not of much interest to us here and now or indeed to most who read the Psalter for devotional purposes.  Therefore, I will pass over the normal historical-critical ‘introduction’, which is devoted to such concerns.  I am particularly willing to do this in that I believe, with Saint Augustine that, whatever the scholars may say, the psalms ultimately are the work of the Holy Ghost and that for Christians the ultimate meaning of the psalms lies in their ability to show us Christ and his Church.  It really does not matter to us, I think, who originally wrote a psalm or for what liturgical occasion in a temple that has long ceased to exist, because in all of the psalms Christ speaks.  Again I quote Saint Augustine:

I commend to you oftentimes, nor grieve I to repeat, what is useful for you to keep in mind, that [in the psalms] our Lord Jesus Christ often speaks of himself, that is in his own Person, which is our Head; often he speaks in the person of his Body, which we and his Church are; but he speaks so that the words come as from the mouth of one person….  (Augustine, on Psalm 41.1)

So, we may bracket the scholarly debates about author, origin, and original cultic or religious setting.  For the purposes of this avowedly Christian study, we may take all the psalms as the words of Christ about himself and his Church.  These typological meanings I will take up at much length in later lessons. 

The Church very early followed the synagogue in adopting the psalms as a hymn book for public worship.  I noted in the first post of this series that our Lord himself makes use of the psalter and that it is heavily quoted in the New Testament.  In addition, already in the first churches whose lives are reflected in the New Testament epistles, we find reference to the use of the psalms in worship.  Saint Paul tells the Corinthians that when they gather for worship ‘every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.  Let all things be done unto edifying.’  (I Corinthians 14:26)  Paul similarly exhorts the Ephesians to speak to themselves ‘in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ (5:19). 

Because the psalms enjoyed and enjoy constant liturgical use, faithful churchmen have always tended to become very familiar with and fond of them.  This in turn has produced a kind of conservatism in the matter of psalm transla­tion.  I will give you two examples of this conservatism.  First, the standard Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, was produced by Saint Jerome in the very late fourth century.  For most of the Old Testament Saint Jerome began with the original Hebrew and with ancient transla­tions of it and then produced his own fresh Latin translation.  In the case of the Psalter Jerome in fact did produce two such original translations of the Psalms.  Because, however, the old Latin translation had become so familiar to people by Jerome’s day, the Vulgate Bible reflects a modification of the older Latin translation rather than a more altered or entirely new translation by Jerome. 

A similar conservative process has preserved our own Prayer Book’s Psalter.  When the Prayer Book first appeared in 1549 its psalms and lessons were taken from the Great Bible of 1539, which in turn for the psalms relied heavily on the work of Miles Coverdale.  The King James, or Authorized, Version of the Bible was published in 1611, over 60 years after the Prayer Book and over 70 years after the Great Bible.  When the Prayer Book was next revised in 1662 it included epistles and gospels from the new King James translation.  Englishmen, however, had become familiar and fond of the old Coverdale version of the psalms after more than a century of regular liturgical use, so the Prayer Book Psalter was left untouched in 1662.  Just as with Jerome’s work, a new Biblical translation was completed based on the best current scholarship, but an older version of the psalms continued for liturgical use.  The King James Version did include a new translation of the Psalter, but not for Prayer Book use. 

In 1928 about 100 changes were made in the Coverdale Psalter when the American Prayer Book was revised.  We still, however, are using in essence a Psalter that is almost a century older than even the King James Version of the Bible.  This is why, for instance, the Prayer Book version of Psalm 23 is slightly different from the King James Version that most of us memorized as children.  You might think that this is all just trivia, but I think it has an important lesson for us.  In both Saint Jerome’s day and in 17th century England, the Church took an essentially conservative position on the Psalter.  The Church preferred to keep a slightly dated version of the psalms because it was familiar and well-loved.  The Church is usually conserva­tive and tradition­ally-minded when it comes to worship, and the Psalter is properly treated as part of that conserva­tive liturgical tradition.  By way of repeating Hugh Barbour’s observation about the diminishing role of the psalms in Christian life, I would note that few Christians nowadays would note a change in Psalter translation, because few Christians notice the psalms much at all.  But this unfortunate fact is a relatively recent tendency.

While the Psalter is in essence simply the hymn book of Israel translated into the tongues of Christian worship, there is one important change.  The Church traditionally ‘baptizes’ the psalms by adding to each one of them the little Trinitarian hymn called the Gloria Patri.  Jewish hymns become Christian hymns when they conclude with the unvarying doxology to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Except when used in services for the dead, in the ferial Masses of Passiontide, and during the Triduum of Holy Week, the psalms have this constant addition.[1]

Since I have been using and will make further use of Saint Augustine’s commentary on the psalms, and some of you may investigate that book on your own, it may be helpful to mention one fact about the numberings of the psalms in the Latin as compared to the English Bible.  In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and Vulgate (post-Jerome Latin) translations of the psalms, Psalms 9 and 10 are joined as a single psalm.  Therefore the number of every psalm after Psalm 10 up to Psalm 113 is in those versions (and therefore also in Saint Augustine’s commentary) one less than in the Hebrew (and English) Psalters.  So, for example, the familiar Psalm 23 is in the Vulgate, Psalm 22.  After Psalm 112 is a somewhat confusing set of combined and divided psalms, with the Psalter nonetheless ending up with 150 psalms in both reckonings.  Psalms 10-112 and 116-145 (132 out of the 150) in Greek are numbered lower by one than the same psalm in Hebrew, while Psalms 1-8 and 148-150 (11 psalms in total) are numbered the same in both the Greek and Hebrew editions.  The rest are combined psalms in one or the other case.

A final observation about the psalms is worth noting.  Most poetry is extremely difficult to translate, as it depends on peculiarities of a given language that usually are not the same in other languages.  The central feature of Biblical poetry, however, and particularly that of the psalms, is parallelism, which can translate fairly easily.  Parallelism is saying the same thing in two (or sometimes more) ways:  ‘O God, the heathen are come into thing inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled, and made Jerusalem an heap of stones.’ (79:1)   Many commentators have noted the providential nature of this fact:  that the Psalter should be written for the universal Church in the one kind of poetry that translates well universally. 

Now that is all I am going to inflict upon you for the moment by way of history lessons.  My point is that the psalms are the Church’s hymn book.  The psalms are taken from the worship of Israel, but the Church makes them her own and fills them with Christian meaning and interpretation. 

Next I will take up the subject of allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the psalms in the particular case of the so-called cursing psalms.  This will provide a general example of such allegorical interpretation, which then can be deployed in other ways subsequently. 


[1] The omission of the doxology particularly at requiems and the Holy Week Triduum is an instance of Anton Baumstark’s observation that unusual or important occasions often preserve older liturgical usage.  The Trinitarian doxology became standard in the 4th century, but that is not particularly early in liturgical terms. 

3 thoughts on “The Psalms. 3. The History of the Psalter

  1. This is, of course, all necessary and useful information and I’m grateful that you include it … I’m just excited to jump into the Psalms themselves! Imagine me sitting at my desk, hands folded, waiting … (smile!)

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