The book of Psalms is quoted more often by New Testament writers than any other Old Testament book—over 115 times. The Apostle Paul said, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.’ ( Eph. 5:18–19 .) “The psalms in Hebrew are called Tehillim, a word coming from the Hebrew word halal, “to praise” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 3:199). The same root forms the word hallelujah , meaning “praise to Yah” (Jehovah). Unlike some modern songs that tend to depress the spirit, the psalms have the power to lift one toward God. The psalms are a collection of some of the very finest of the world’s inspirational literature.”
The Psalms comprised a major portion of the Tanach, or Jewish Bible. The three portions of the Tanach were the law, the prophets, and the writings. Psalms are part of the writings.
Anciently the Hebrews divided the one hundred and fifty psalms into five separate books that included, in today’s Bible, Psalms 1 through 41 , 42 through 72 , 73 through 89 , 90 through 106 , and 107 through 150 . At the end of each division, the break is marked with a doxology, or formal declaration of God’s power and glory (see Psalms 41:13 ; 72:19 ; 89:52 ; 106:48 ). Psalms 150 is itself a doxology, using the Hebrew Hallelujah , “praise ye the Lord,” at its beginning and end, as well as the word praise eleven other times. It is a fitting conclusion to the Tehillim , “songs of praise.”
Scholars attribute seventy-three of the Psalms to David. Others are attributed to Solomon (2); Asaph, a musician in David’s court (12); the sons of Korah, who were Levites (11); Heman, a leader of temple music (1); Ethan, a leader of temple music (1); Moses (1). Eighteen of the psalms are unattributed.
“Although modern critics . . . customarily deny the Davidic authorship of the Psalms, there is ample internal evidence that David, the great poet and musician of Israel, was the principal author of the Psalter. This position, despite the contention of negative criticism, is indicated by the following reasons: (1) David’s name is famous in the O. T. period for music and song and is closely associated with holy liturgy ( II Sam. 6:5–15 ; I Chron. 16:4 ; II Chron. 7:6 ; 29:30 ). (2) David was especially endowed by the Holy Spirit ( I Sam. 23:1, 2 ; Mark 12:36 ; Acts 2:25–31 ; 4:25, 26 ). (3) David’s music and poetical gifts appear indelibly interwoven on the pages of O. T. history. He is called ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel’ ( II Sam. 23:1 ). He was a skilled performer on the lyre ( I Sam. 16:16–18 ). He was the author of the masterful elegy written upon the death of Saul and Jonathan ( II Sam. 1:19–27 ). He is referred to as a model poet-musician by the prophet Amos ( Amos 6:5 ). (4) Much internal evidence in the psalms themselves point to David’s authorship. Most of the songs attributed to him reflect some period of his life, such as Psa. 23 , 51 and 57 . In line with this evidence of Scripture, a number of the psalms indicate Davidic authorship. (5) Certain psalms are cited as Davidic in Scripture in general. Acts 4:25, 26 so cites Psalm 2 . Acts 2:25–28 so cites Psalm 16 . Romans 4:6–8 cites Psalm 32 . Acts 1:16–20 thus refers to Psalm 69 . Also, Rom. 11:9, 10 . [See also] Acts 1:20 with Psalm 109 ; Matt. 22:44 ; Mark 12:36, 37 ; Luke 20:42–44 ; Acts 2:34 with Psalm 110 .” (Unger, Bible Dictionary , s.v., “Psalms,” pp. 898–99.)
“Degrees” are mentioned often in song instructions in the psalms. This term has been speculated upon by scholars. It seems to mean “song of the ascents, or pilgrim song, meaning a song composed for, or sung during the journeying of the people up to Jerusalem, whether as they returned from Babylon, or as they statedly repaired to the national solemnities. . . . Journeys to Jerusalem are generally spoken of as ascents, on account of the elevated situation of the city and temple [see Ezra 7:9 ; Psalm 122:4 ]. This explanation of the name is favored by the brevity and the contents of these songs.”
Sometimes, the psalmists call upon the Lord to avenge them of their enemies. This can distance the modern reader. Remember that the psalmists were no strangers to God’s vengeance upon the wicked, and also no strangers to the miracles performed by the Lord on behalf of the righteous. They also had a sense of the contrast between good and evil and the consequences of each. Also, David was a political figure who knew battle and political intrigue; life was often precarious, enemies were all around, and he certainly fared best when the Lord was helping him.
The psalms include both history and prophecy, and many prophesy of the Messiah to come, Jesus Christ.
“Although the Psalter is largely composed of devotional hymns, heartfelt praise and personal testimonies of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, yet many of these poetic gems give far-reaching predictions and are prophetic as well as devotionally didactic. Psalm 2 is a magnificent prophetic panorama of Messiah’s redemptive career and His return as King of Kings. Psalm 22 is an amazingly detailed prophecy of the suffering and death of Christ in His first advent. Psalm 110 is a far-reaching prophecy of Christ as a perpetual Priest. Psalm 16 heralds His future resurrection; Psalm 72 envisions the coming millennial kingdom. Psalm 45 brings into view a vast prophetic perspective. In all the O. T. there is no more practical, instructive, beautiful or popular book than the Psalms.” (Unger, Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Psalms,” p. 899.)
“The primary meaning of the psalms is always to be sought first of all in their immediate, historical context. But this does not exhaust their significance. No one can read the psalms without becoming aware that certain psalms and individual verses have a deeper, future significance beyond the simple meaning of the words. The Messiah is not mentioned by name, but his figure is foreshadowed, as later generations of Jews came to realize. And the New Testament writers are quick to apply these verses to Jesus as the prophesied Messiah.
“Some psalms, particularly the ‘royal psalms’ (of which 2 , 72 , 110 are the most striking) picture an ideal divine king priest judge never fully realized in any actual king of Israel. Only the Messiah combines these roles in the endless, universal reign of peace and justice envisaged by the psalmists.
In some psalms David uses words uttered in the future by Christ Himself. In others he cites events in the Savior’s life. The following links to the Psalms can take you to specific prophetic instances:
- Ps. 22:1 — “Why hast thou forsaken me”?
- Ps. 27:7–8 — Let the Lord deliver him
- Ps. 22:9–14 — “I am poured out like water.”
- Ps. 22:15–18 — “They part my garments among them.”
- Ps. 31:13 — “They devised to take away my life…”
- Ps. 41:9 — “‘Mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me (referring to Judas).”
- Ps. 69:21 — “They gave me vinegar to drink.”
- Ps. 31:5 — “Into thine hand I commit my spirit.”
*This article was adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament manual.