Composition of the Book of Psalms



Approximate date: 1400s B.C.E. to 500s (Right, conservative-moderate; Left)

Time period: varied throughout the history of Ancient Israel

Author: various authors (Right, conservative-moderate, Left)

Location of author: varied locations due to varied authorship

Target audience and their location: people of Israel, later people of Judah and Southern Kingdom exiles (Right, conservative-moderate, Left)

reproduced from A Survey of the Tanach for the Practical Messianic

Theological Summary: Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, and is frequently one of the most examined. Psalms differs substantially from any other book of Scripture, as some modern theologians have described it as Ancient Israel’s “hymnbook.” This is certainly justified as Psalms is composed of various songs, prayers, laments, cries of thankfulness, and pleas for vindication—all of which were used within the worship of Ancient Israel. Psalms actually consists as a collection of five groupings of material: Book One (Psalms 1-41), Book Two (Psalms 42-72), Book Three (Psalms 73-89), Book Four (Psalms 90-106), and Book Five (Psalms 107-150), all of which are usually designated in most English Bibles.

The Hebrew title of Psalms is actually Tehellim, meaning “praises.” Our English title is derived from the Greek Psalmoi or “twangings [of harp strings]” (Payne, NIDB).[1] This is a good indication that many of the psalms were intended to be recited or sung to music. Psalms is placed first among the Writings in the Jewish order of the Tanach, and among the Wisdom books in the Christian theological tradition. Both Jewish and Christian theology generally give a very high place to the value of the Book of Psalms.

Psalms is an atraditional book of Scripture because not all the psalms were composed by a single author. Thirty-four psalms do not have postscripts identifying the composition. Seventy-four psalms in the Hebrew Masoretic tradition are afforded to David (with more attributed to him in the Greek Septuagint).[2] Other notable composers of psalms that are identified include: Asaph (70; 73-83), the sons of Korah (42-49; 84-85; 87-88), Moses (90), Solomon (127), Heman (88), and Ethan (89). It is suspected by some theologians that a few of these names may have been added later, surely something that is a debate in Biblical scholarship.[3] Notable for us to consider is that the Apostles ascribe Davidic authorship to Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25, which would otherwise be anonymous. Many commentators and teachers are unsure of what to use, and simply designate the default author to be the Psalmist or the Psalter.

The material seen in Psalms likely dates all the way from the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt to the Babylonian Dispersion, a period of 800-1,000 years. Ancient evidence from Babylon, Egypt, and Ugarit all indicate important parallels in literary style and composition between the Psalms and other Ancient Near Eastern hymnody.[4] Jewish tradition in the Jerusalem Talmud divided Psalms into only 147 compositions (Shabbat 16),[5] even though Jewish Bibles today follow the more consistent 150 Psalm division. There is a slight difference among verse divisions between Jewish and Christian Bibles,[6] but nothing extremely significant. The material of Psalms in its more final form likely comes from the Third Century B.C.E., even though an Apocryphal Psalm 151 dating from the Second Century B.C.E. was found at Qumran. This psalm is considered canonical by sectors of the Eastern Orthodox Church[7] and can be found in many ecumenical study Bibles.

There is no “one” conservative or liberal position on the Book of Psalms today, as “the book as a whole and the individual psalms…were open to adaptation during the whole Old Testament period” (Dillard and Longman).[8] There are, however, some important things to keep in mind when examining conservative and liberal examinations of Psalms.

Many conservatives feel that Psalms was assembled in its final form after the Babylonian exile, mostly incorporating pre-exilic material.[9] Many liberals, in contrast, consider Psalms to have been composed entirely after the exile, including the writing of many of the psalms themselves.[10] Conservatives widely accept the designated authorship of the individual psalms, whereas liberals widely doubt them,[11] although there can never be complete certainty about the authorship of every single psalm.[12] A great deal of debate on authorship surrounds the meaning of the Hebrew proposition l’, as it can mean “by,” “of,” “about,” and “for” (Dillard and Longman).[13] Considering this, was a psalm by a particular person, about that person, or compiled for that person?

Liberals see some psalms dominated by usage of the Divine Name YHWH, and others using Elohim, which they may attribute to the so-called J and E sources[14] used in their JEDP documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch (see Genesis entry for a summarization of the JEDP documentary hypothesis), and this decidedly affects their interpretation of certain passages.[15] Some liberals have assumed that the bulk of the psalms date from the Maccabean era,[16] perhaps calling Psalms the “hymnbook of the Second Temple” (Harrison)[17] and/or that their ideas represent religious concepts appropriated during the Jewish exile to Babylon.[18]

The Hebrew Masoretic Text of Psalms generally reflects a strong tradition of preservation. Necessary comparison with the Dead Sea Scrolls on some Messianic passages such as Psalm 22:16 is required from time to time, where the DSS and Greek Septuagint likely reflect a more proper rendering.[19] Harrison notes that on the whole “during the process of transmission, the MT is incomparably superior to that of the LXX, which preserved some curious readings.”[20] More Greek copies of Psalms in the LXX are available than any other Septuagintal documents.[21] In consulting the Septuagint version of Psalms one must also consider divergent liturgical traditions between the Judean and Diaspora Jewish communities,[22] and that the LXX division is slightly different than that found in the MT.[23]

There are a variety of different types of psalms, and classifying psalms according to a particular genre can frequently help us in proper interpretation. Psalms requires the interpreter to focus careful attention on its literary devices. Close observation and rereading is necessary for adequate exegesis[24] and for noticing poetic forms or meter.[25] These aspects of the psalms give us important pictures into the varied social lives of the people of Israel.[26] Some psalms are set against historical backdrops, while others are just songs of praise, petitions before God, or laments with no specific background to be deduced.[27]

German theologian Hermann Gunkel helped spearhead the idea that it may be futile for interpreters to try to figure out the historical background circumstances of every single psalm, and that it is more important for us to figure out its central idea.[28] “Gunkel perceived that the Psalms did not originate as literary works, but arose in worship” (IDBSup),[29] something that can truly be said for a great many of the psalms. He divided Psalms into five distinct Gattungen or literary types: hymns, communal laments, royal psalms, individual laments, and individual psalms of thanksgiving. Scholars today will often provide more categories and subcategories for the Book of Psalms.[30] In spite of Gunkel’s being a liberal,[31] his categorization of Psalms has been adopted by many conservative theologians.[32] More contemporary examination of Psalms is sometimes guided by some kind of rhetorical criticism.[33]

Some broad themes to be considered when reading through Psalms are God’s majesty, our required relationship with God, a contrasting of the wicked and righteous, and the promise of God to send a Messiah-deliverer.[34] Readers of the psalms can examine themes as being a response to God, an invitation to worship, or simple Scripture to reflect upon. Psalms is definitely concerned with Heilsgeschichte or salvation history.

Psalms features quite prominently in the teachings of Yeshua and theology of the Apostles. Psalms 2 and 110, in particular, are some of the most frequently quoted texts in the Apostolic Scriptures.[35] In addition to these, Psalms 16, 22, and 69 all profoundly affect our view of Yeshua’s Messiahship.[36] Psalms was used to explain the ministry of Yeshua, as well as His crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation, and present rule.[37]

Psalms features prominently in the Jewish liturgy of the siddur and in ritual Jewish prayer. Not all of the psalms are intended to be sung aloud.[38] Many of the psalms, or pieces of them, were used in praises and prayers offered to God in the Tabernacle/Temple service[39] and for other worship traditions. The application of Psalms as a distinct way to commune with God and experience His presence is almost infinite.

More than any other book of the Tanach, Psalms has greatly influenced Christian theology.[40] Luke 22:44 attributing Psalms as the most important book among the Writings has no doubt influenced this. Psalms teaches us about the great balance between God’s Law and God’s grace. Many Christian moves focused on intimacy between a person and God are focused around Psalms, and certainly a great number of Christian hymn writers have appropriated words from Psalms for centuries. Christian theologians today are recognizing the strong need to train pastors in the skills they need to properly teach from Psalms, lest we lose the treasure that they truly are.[41]

Messianics today are generally sound in their examination of most psalms, even though there is certainly room for some fine tuning and refinement. We can probably make greater consideration for the different types of psalms available, as well as for the wider historical period of a psalm (when an historical period is clearly identifiable or deducible from the text). One of the strides we can make improvement in is removing any theological interjections into Psalms relating to end-time speculation (like thinking that each psalm represents a year on God’s so-called “prophetical calendar.”) Reclaiming some of the worship of Psalms via liturgical prayer is something that should also not be ignored by today’s Messianics. It is also possible that a great amount of congregational preaching is missed because of an overemphasis on the Torah, and not enough emphasis on texts such as Psalms.

Each psalm represents its own unique little world that is just waiting for us to enter in and uncover it for its wonders.

Berlin, Adele, and Marc Zvi Brettler. “Psalms,” in Jewish Study Bible, pp 1280-1446.
Craven, Toni, and Walter Harrelson. “The Psalms,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible, pp 749-892.
Crenshaw, James L. “Psalms, Book of,” in EDB, pp 1093-1096.
Dillard, Raymond B., and Tremper Longman III. “Psalms,” in An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 211-234.
Harrison, R.K. “The Book of Psalms,” in Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 976-1007.
M’Caw, Leslie S., and J.A. Motyer. “The Psalms,” in NBCR, pp 446-547.
Hempel, J. “Psalms, Book of,” in IDB, 3:942-958.
Limberg, James. “Psalms, Book of,” in ABD, 5:522-536.
Payne, J. Barton. “Psalms, Book of,” in NIDB, pp 832-835.
Prinsloo, Willem S. “The Psalms,” in ECB, pp 364-436.
Ridderbos, N.H., and P.C. Craigie. “Psalms,” in ISBE, 3:1029-1040.
VanGemeren, Willem A. “Psalms,” in EXP, 5:3-880.
Westermann, C. “Psalms, Book of,” in IDBSup, pp 705-710.


[1] J. Barton Payne, “Psalms, Book of,” in NIDB, 832.

[2] N.H. Ridderbos and P.C. Craigie, “Psalms,” in ISBE, 3:1031.

[3] J. Hempel, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDB, 3:943-943.

[4] C. Westermann, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDBSup, 709; Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 987-990; Payne, “Psalms, Book of,” in NIDB, 833; Ridderbos and Craigie, “Psalms,” in ISBE, 3:1039-1040.

[5] Cf. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 987.

[6] Hempel, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDB, 3:943.

[7] James Limberg, “Psalms, Book of,” in ABD, 5:524; Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson, “The Psalms,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 749; Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, “Psalms,” in Jewish Study Bible, 1280.

[8] Dillard and Longman, 213.

[9] Ridderbos and Craigie, “Psalms,” in ISBE, 3:1030.

[10] James L. Crenshaw, “Psalms, Book of,” in EDB, 1094.

[11] Berlin and Brettler, in Jewish Study Bible, 1282.

[12] Dillard and Longman, 214.

[13] Ibid., 215.

[14] Hempel, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDB, 3:943.

[15] Ibid., 3:955.

[16] Leslie S. M’Caw and J.A. Motyer, “The Psalms,” in NBCR, 446.

[17] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 976.

[18] Westermann, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDBSup, 705; Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 995-996; Payne, “Psalms, Book of,” in NIDB, 835.

[19] Hempel, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDB, 3:944.

[20] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 999.

[21] Limberg, “Psalms, Book of,” in ABD, 5:523.

[22] Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in EXP, 5:19.

[23] Crenshaw, “Psalms, Book of,” in EDB, 1093.

[24] M’Caw and Motyer, in NBCR, 447.

[25] Hempel, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDB, 3:944-954; VanGemeren, in EXP, 5:9-12; Limberg, “Psalms, Book of,” in ABD, 5:528-530.

[26] Ridderbos and Craigie, “Psalms,” in ISBE, 3:1033-1034.

[27] Dillard and Longman, 211.

[28] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp 991-993; Payne, “Psalms, Book of,” in NIDB, 834; Ridderbos and Craigie, “Psalms,” in ISBE, 3:1034.

[29] Westermann, “Psalms, Book of,” in IDBSup, 705.

[30] Limberg, “Psalms, Book of,” in ABD, 5:531-534.

[31] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 983.

[32] Dillard and Longman, pp 219-225.

[33] Crenshaw, “Psalms, Book of,” in EDB, 1095.

[34] VanGemeren, in EXP, 5:15-18.

[35] Ridderbos and Craigie, “Psalms,” in ISBE, 3:1038.

[36] Dillard and Longman, 233.

[37] VanGemeren, in EXP, 5:8.

[38] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 986.

[39] Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 980; Crenshaw, “Psalms, Book of,” in EDB, 1093.

[40] M’Caw and Motyer, in NBCR, 446; Payne, “Psalms, Book of,” in NIDB, 832.

[41] VanGemeren, in EXP, 5:6.