The Psalms appears to be the hymn-book of the temple in Jerusalem, containing poems from more than one century, for many situations, and from both the northern and southern kingdoms. They offer us words suitable for the deepest despair to the highest praise of God. "They are poetry" but "Hebrew poetry does not use rhyme or the rhythms of speech, but derives its shape from the balancing of ideas." This can take various forms: repetition of an idea in different words; contrast with the opposite idea; or "Merismus", mention of opposite extremes such as rich and poor, meaning everybody[21 p.16–17].
The origins of the Psalms are generally not stated so almost all that is believed about them is deduced and could be wrong; but the general consensus is that they are "the hymn-book of the second temple". Sometimes the context can be found which is very helpful. It is assumed that the Psalms were first collected around the time of King David (though some are older than that) and used in Temple worship, and then finally edited around the time of the Exile or soon after. We assume the psalms were chanted or sung. Perhaps there was a group of professional musicians and poets who wrote and performed them. The Psalms provide clearest picture of what the Temple worship was like, though some Psalms may have been intended for individual rather than corporate worship.
Unlike modern worship, there are more laments than praise songs. Many (such as 44 and 89) show exilic origins by dealing frankly with the contrast between what was hoped for, because God seemed to promise it, and God is good anyway, and what has happened. there is no answer to these disappoinments and puzzlements, except to gaze on God and his glory, and perhaps plead for relief.
"Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes many of the psalms as having a common movement: from 'orientation' (knowing where you are, where you 'stand'), through 'disorientation' (being confused and thrown off course by circumstance), to 'reorientation' (finding a new, deeper way to see the world and God)." 
Gunkel saw five groups ("books") of Psalms within the whole:
|1.||Psalms 1–41||"Psalms of David" (the headings are not original[1 p.xxxix] and in Hebrew "le David" means "to David" or "for David" but not "by David", though Jesus ascribes Psalm 110:1 to David in Matthew 22:43 and 2 Samuel 23:1 calls David "the sweet psalmist of Israel")|
|2.||Psalms 42–72||Psalms of the Sons of Korah (using Elohist language). Psalm 65 mentions David in the heading but since it assumes the existence of the Temple, built after David's death, it does not seem to have been written in his lifetime. Psalm 53 is almost identical to Psalm 14 which is in the previous section.|
|3.||Psalms 73–89||Psalms of Asaph (using Elohist language)|
|4.||Psalms 90–106||Songs of Ascents|
|5.||Psalms 107–150||more "Psalms of David".|
Each of these "books" ends with a short refrain which does not form part of the psalm's content, but is printed in modern Bibles as if it did.
Within these books Gunkel found nine types:
Other categories can be used:
Royal Psalms: those that would only make sense if the king were present; these may date from King Solomon.
Primitive theology: e.g. Psalms 24, 104, 131 use pre-exile theology e.g. "Lord God of Hosts" and references to Shiloh. Some psalms definitely pre-date David e.g. Psalm 29:1 refers to "sons of gods" using the Canaanite word Baalim (though it is translated more acceptably in NIV).
It also seems that there are groups of Psalms in the editors mind that do not match the categories mentioned above; for example, Psalms 105 and 107 both review history in order to remind the hearer of how God has been seen at work in the past.
Note some pre-exile prophets seem to quote phrases from the Psalms (or vice versa).
Psalms 2 and 23 definitely date from King David's time. Psalm 18 = 2 Samuel 22 so we know these are David's words and we know the context. Some say Psalm 2 dates from David's coronation, but I disagree because it refers to Zion (= Jerusalem) which was not then conquered.
It is thought that the selection was done in the Southern Kingdom and reflects their wants, though some Northern psalms are included, e.g. Psalm 42:6–7, Psalm 53, and Psalms 80–81. Psalm 10 and 16 use a Northern dialect word for not: where we would expect to find the Southern word lo we find the Northern dialect word bal.
Psalm 45 is unique in not mentioning God. It may have been composed for the wedding of Ahab and Jezebel in 869 B.C.E., and makes use of a pun on Ahab's name: love is ahabh. Some Psalms are thought to be post-exile because like Ezekiel and 2nd Isaiah they dwell a lot on God's Glory (apparently hoping for a return to former glory); Psalm 103 resembles Isaiah 40–56.
Psalms need rhythm or metre. The usual forms of Hebrew poetry are found:
There are many terms which we do not understand e.g. Selah which some suggested was a pause but may be an action e.g. congregation to stand or turn round. This word is generally translated "side" but is given as "rib" in the second creation narrative in Genesis 2. (The fact that it appears right at the end of some psalms rules out some possible meanings such as a change of soloist, tune or key.) Seir seems to be a song with instruments; Maskill seems to be a didactic poem set to music.
© David Billin 2002–2023