The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Books of Ketuvim
Song of Solomon

Psalms (Tehilim תהילים, in Hebrew) is a book of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, and of the "Old Testament" of the Christian Bible. Because the book consists of songs or chants, a psalm can be used to mean any religious chant or poem of praise. This article, however, deals with the book of scripture.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms are counted among the "Writings" or Hagiographa (one of the three main sections into which the books are grouped). In Luke 24:44 the word "psalms" means the whole of the Writings.

A book containing the Psalms, usually set for singing or chanting, is called a Psalter.


Chapters of the book

The Book of Psalms is divided into 150 chapters, each of which constitutes a religious song or chant (though one or two are long and may constitute a set of related chants). The numbering of the chapters of the Book of Psalms differs slightly between the Hebrew (Masoretic) and Greek (Septuagint) manuscripts. Most Protestant translations are based on the Hebrew numbering, while most Catholic and Orthodox translations are based on the Greek numbering. The differences are as follows:

Hebrew Psalms Greek Psalms
1-8 1-8
9-10 9
11-113 10-112
114-115 113
116 114-115
117-146 116-145
147 146-147
148-150 148-150

Most manuscripts of the Septuagint also include an additional 151st Psalm; a Hebrew version of this poem was found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. For the remainder of this article, the Hebrew chapter numbers will be used unless otherwise noted.

Authorship and ascriptions

Traditionally all the Psalms were thought to be the work of David, but modern scholars recognise them as the product of several authors or groups of authors, many unknown. Most of the psalms start with an introductory verse which ascribes them to an author or says something about their circumstances, and only 73 of these introductions claim David as author. In any case it is clear that the Psalms were not written down until around the 6th century BC, and since David's reign is dated to around 1000 BC, any Davidic material must have been preserved by oral tradition for centuries.

Psalms 39, 62, and 77 are addressed to Jeduthun, to be sung after his manner or in his choir. Psalms 50 and 73-83 are addressed to Asaph , as the master of his choir, to be sung in the worship of God. The ascriptions of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88 assert that the "sons of Korah" were entrusted with arranging and singing them; (2 Chronicles 20:19 suggests that this group formed a leading part of the Kohathite singers.

Sections of the book

The Psalter is divided, after the analogy of the Pentateuch, into five books, each closing with a doxology or benediction:

  1. The first book comprises the first 41 Psalms, all of which are ascribed to David except 1, 2, 10, and 33, which, though anonymous, were also traditionally ascribed to him. While Davidic authorship cannot be relied on this probably is the oldest section of the Psalms
  2. Book second consists of the next 31 Psalms (42-72), 18 of which are ascribed to David and 1 to Solomon (the 72nd). The rest are anonymous.
  3. The third book contains 17 Psalms (73-89), of which the 86th is ascribed to David, the 88th to Heman the Ezrahite, and the 89th to Ethan the Ezrahite.
  4. The fourth book also contains 17 Psalms (90-106), of which the 90th is ascribed to Moses, and the 101st and 103rd to David.
  5. The fifth book contains the remaining Psalms, 44 in number. Of these, 15 are ascribed to David, and the 127th to Solomon.

Psalm 136 is generally called "the great hallel." But the Talmud includes also Psalms 120-135. Psalms 113-118, inclusive, constitute the "hallel" recited at the three great feasts, at the new moon, and on the eight days of the feast of dedication.

Psalms 120-134 are referred to as Songs of Degrees, and are thought to have been used as hymns of approach by pilgrims.

Use of the Psalms in Jewish ritual

The Mosaic ritual set out in the books of the Pentateuch or Torah makes no provision for the service of song in the worship of God. The earliest references to the use of song in Jewish worship are in relation to David, and to this extent the ascription of the Psalms to him may express a general if not a specific truth.

Some of the titles given to the psalms in their ascriptions suggest their use in worship:

  • Some bear the Hebrew designation shir (Greek ode, a song). Thirteen have this title. It means the flow of speech, as it were, in a straight line or in a regular strain. This title includes secular as well as sacred song.
  • Fifty-eight Psalms bear the designation (Hebrew) mitsmor (Greek psalmos, a Psalm), a lyric ode, or a song set to music; a sacred song accompanied with a musical instrument.
  • Psalm 145, and many others, have the designation (Hebrew) tehillah (Greek hymnos, a hymn), meaning a song of praise; a song the prominent thought of which is the praise of God.
  • Six Psalms (16, 56-60) have the title (Hebrew) michtam.
  • Psalms 7 and Habakkuk 3 bear the title (Hebrew) shiggaion.

Psalms are used in traditional Jewish worship. Several psalms appear as part of the morning services; Psalm 145 (commonly referred to as "Ashrei," which is really the first word of each of the last 2 verses of Psalm 144), is read during or before services, three times every day. Additionally, at the eve of the Sabbath, various Psalms are read in the pre-Sabbath service ("Kabalas Shabbos").

Traditionally, a "Psalm for the Day" is read after the service each day. This is described in the Mishnah (the initial codification of the Jewish oral tradition) in the section "Tamid."

Many Jews complete the Book of Psalms on a weekly or monthly basis, and say, each week, a Psalm connected to that week's events or the Torah portion read during that week. In addition, many Jews (notably Lubavitch, and other Chasidim) read the entire Book of Psalms prior to the morning (Shachris) service, on the Sabbath preceding the calculated appearance of the new moon.

The 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament show that they were familiar to the Judean community at the time of Jesus.

The Psalms in Christian worship

New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the psalms in worship, and they have remained an important part of worship in virtually all Christian churches. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have always made systematic use of the psalms, with a cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more years. In the early centuries of the Church, it was expected that any candidate for bishop would be able to recite the entire book of Psalms from memory, something they often learned during their time as a monk. New translations and settings of the Psalms continue to be produced. The RPCNA church sings Psalms exclusively, as well.

Some of the Psalms are among the best-known, and best-loved, passages of scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular church-goers. In particular, Psalm 22/23 ("The Lord is my shepherd") offers an immediately appealing message of comfort, and it is widely chosen for church funeral services, either as a reading or in one of several popular hymn settings, and Psalm 50/51 ("Have mercy on me O God", sometimes called the miserere from its Latin rendition) is by far the most sung psalm of Orthodoxy, in both Divine Liturgy and Hours, in the "sacrament of repentance" or confession, and in other settings. Psalm 102/103 ("Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!") is one of the most well-known prayers of praise. Psalm 137/136 ("By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept") is a moody, yet eventually triumphant, meditation upon living in slavery, and has been used in at least one spiritual, as well as one well-known reggae song.

Eastern Orthodox usage

Eastern Orthodox Christians have long made the Psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. To facilitate its reading, the 150 Psalms are divided into 20 kathismata, and each kathisma is further subdivided into three antiphons as follows (using the Greek chapter numbering):

  • Kathisma 1: Psalms 1-3, 4-6, 7-8
  • Kathisma 2: 9-10, 11-13, 14-16
  • Kathisma 3: 17, 18-20, 21-23
  • Kathisma 4: 24-26, 27-29, 30-31
  • Kathisma 5: 32-33, 34-35, 36
  • Kathisma 6: 37-39, 40-42, 43-45
  • Kathisma 7: 40-48, 49-50, 51-54
  • Kathisma 8: 55-57, 58-60, 61-63
  • Kathisma 9: 64-66, 67, 68-69
  • Kathisma 10: 70-71, 72-73, 74-76
  • Kathisma 11: 77, 78-80, 81-84
  • Kathisma 12: 85-87, 88, 89-90
  • Kathisma 13: 91-93, 94-96, 97-100
  • Kathisma 14: 101-102, 103, 104
  • Kathisma 15: 106, 107-108
  • Kathisma 16: 109-111, 112-114, 115-117
  • Kathisma 17: 118:1-72, 73-131, 132-176
  • Kathisma 18: 119-123, 124-128, 129-133
  • Kathisma 19: 134-136, 137-139, 140-142
  • Kathisma 20: 143-144, 145,147, 148-150

At vespers prayer services, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year and on different days of the week within the same part of the year, according to the church's calendar. In the 20th century, some lay Christians have adopted a continuous reading of the psalms on weekdays, where the whole book is prayed throughout ever four weeks, three times a day, one kathisma per day.

Presbyterian/Reformed usage

The psalms were extremely popular among those who followed the reformed tradition.

Following the Reformation, verse paraphrases of many of the psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition. Calvin himself made some French translations of the psalms for church usage. Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress is Our God is based on Psalm 46. Among famous hymn settings of the Psalter were the Scottish Paraphrases and the settings by Isaac Watts. The first book printed in North America was a collection of psalm settings, the Bay Psalm Book (1640).

But by the 20th century they were mostly replaced by hymns in church services.

Anglican usage

Anglican chant is a way of singing the psalms which remains part of the Anglican choral tradition. The version of the psalter contained in the Book of Common Prayer is an older translation (from the Great Bible) than that included in the King James Version of the Bible.

Roman Catholic usage

In the Latin Church psalms are regularly used in the Eucharistic liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours. There are three forms of use of the psalms:

  • antiphonal, with two choirs alternate;
  • responsorial, with soloist and choir alternate;
  • direct if the psalm is sung by the choir or the soloist alone.


A married lady, alluding in conversation to the 148th Psalm, observed, that while "young men and maidens, old men and children," were expressly mentioned, not a word was said about married women. An old clergyman, whom she was addressing, assured her that they had not been omitted, and that she would find them included in one of the preceding verses under the description of vapours and storm.

See also

This entry incorporates text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897, with some modernisation.
Partially updated and some additional material added, but still not making full use of modern scholarship

Last updated: 02-08-2005 10:42:25
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55