Authorship, date, and background The book of Psalms has followed the tradition of the Septuagint for its name. The Greek rendering Psalmoi means, literally, "song to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument." The Hebrew title for the book is Tehillim, which means Praise Songs. Psalms contains 150 chapters or psalms and has been divided into five segments, each division ending with a doxology. The division is as follows: Book I: Psalms 1-41; Book II: Psalms 42-72; Book III: Psalms 73-89; Book IV: Psalms 90-106; Book V: Psalms 107-150.
The date and the authorship of this book is unique in that some of the authors are known and others are not, and the dates for the composition of the various psalms go back to Moses and forward to the period of the Exile and shortly thereafter. The Psalms have been dated from ca. 1400 to 500 B.C. Seventy-three of the psalms are ascribed to David, two to Solomon, one each to Ethan and Heman, one to Moses, and twenty-three to Levitical clans of Asaph, leaving forty-nine psalms whose authors cannot be ascertained. Rationalist critics have vigorously denied the Davidic authorship of a number of the psalms attributed to him. They have also opted for a late dating of virtually all of the psalms. Interestingly, this seems to be quite inconsistent, because some of the instructions for the singing of the psalms were written in language which had already become untranslatable in the sixth century B.C.
Characteristics and content The psalms vary widely in their purposes. Scholars have noted eight different categories of psalms (1) personal psalms; (2) prayer psalms; (3) liturgical psalms; (4) historical psalms; (5) praise psalms; (6) penitential psalms; (7) Messianic psalms; (8) psalms which bespeak the majesty and might of God. Some psalms fit neatly into a particular category; others might fit into several categories. The book of Psalms has always occupied a unique place in the hearts of all believers. The range of human emotions includes heavenly praises as well as imprecatory petitions for God to smite the enemy. Some of the sayings spoken by Christ on Calvary are found in psalms, the greatest of which is the cry: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (22:1). Nowhere in scripture does any sinner more eloquently confess his transgressions and seek the mercy the of God in forgiveness than does David in Psalm 51. It was written after Nathan the prophet pointed an accusing finger at him and pronounced the judgement of God upon him for his adultery with Bath-sheba and the murder of Uriah the Hittite, her husband.
The psalms not only praise the Creator; they also explore nature with respect to the universe and to its occupants. The heavens, the earth, the seas, the abyss, reptiles, sheep, pastures, deer, sparrows, and the night seasons are mentioned. In historical matters, the Exodus from Egypt, the travels of Israel during the years of wandering, the covenants of God with his people, and the redeeming and delivering hand of God are referred to. Other psalms speak about man in all of his social relationships. The Messianic psalms tell of the humiliation and glory of David's Son, Jesus Christ, of his eternity, his priesthood and ascension, his incorruption, his passion, his incarnation; and in Acts 1:20, two psalms are quoted with regard to Judas who betrayed him (69:25: 109:8). The Shepherd's Psalm (23) will remain fixed forever in the affections of God's people everywhere.