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The Organization of the Book of Psalms

This week we started reading in the Psalms as part of our 4-Year Bible Reading Plan at Faith Church. Psalms is the longest book of the Bible with 150 chapters; if you read 6 chapters a week, it would take you 25 weeks (that’s half a year) to get through it...and that’s if you read the longest chapter in the Bible -- Psalm 119, at 176 verses -- all in one day. If a pastor decided to preach one Psalm a week, it would take him nearly three years to get through the whole book (again, that would be if he preached the entire Psalm 119 in one week, which might be quite the challenge!).

While the Book of Psalms is one book, there are actually five sections in it: chapters 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. These are not divisions made by translators or editors (like the chapter and verse numbers), but are in the text itself; the concluding Psalm in each of these units has something indicating it is wrapping up a section. Therefore, it seems natural to use these divisions as we read through the book of Psalms (in the Bible reading plan, we will read through book 1, jump over to another part of the Bible, go back to book 2, go to another book of the Bible, etc.). But the fact that there are five sections in the Book of Psalms does raise a question about how Psalms is organized -- is there a particular rhyme and reason or is it just random? 

Ways That Psalms Is NOT Organized

Pastors and scholars often note that there are several different types of Psalms. The exact breakdown might vary, but the major types often pointed out are:

  1.  Hymns (praising God and giving Him thanks),
  2.  Laments (crying out to God in the midst of a trial and trusting Him),
  3.  Imprecations (calling for judgment on one’s enemies),
  4.  Confessions (acknowledging one’s sins),
  5.  Wisdom (Psalms that talk about how life works), 
  6.  Royal (talking about the king), and
  7.  Messianic (Psalms that look forward to the work of the Messiah).

These categories are useful ways to help understand Psalms, but like all tools, it breaks down at certain points, as some Psalms might have elements that include more than one type. In addition, the Book of Psalms is not divided according to these types; there is not one book that is lament, one is praise, etc. as they are mixed together (though there are many chapters in the beginning with laments and many with songs of praise at the end). 

There are also many different authors in the Book of Psalms. David wrote around 70 of them, Asaph wrote 12, Korah 11, Solomon 2, and Moses, Ethan, and Heman (not the Master of the Universe action figure -- a different Heman!) each authored one Psalm.  In addition, a number of Psalms are anonymous, so they are not grouped together according to author (though those by certain authors do seem bunched together). 

Psalms is also not organized in other ways you might expect. For example, Paul’s letters are essentially in descending order of length (longest to shortest, first to churches and then to individuals), but this is not true of the Psalms. Similarly, it is not in chronological order as you see the song of Moses in the middle of Psalms (Psalm 90) and David’s songs spread throughout the book.  Hymn books are often organized according to topic, but again this does not seem to be the case for the Book of Psalms, as they come back to the same topics in different places (though there is a sense in which certain themes seem prominent in particular sections and there are groups linked together like the Songs of Ascent going from 120-134). We are also used to “countdowns” in terms of popularity (think of the Top 40); while these are songs, they are not in order of popularity (as Psalm 23 would seem to be number one, and Psalm 110 is one of the most quoted Psalms by the authors of the New Testament). 

Then How Are the Psalms Organized?

In some ways, it is easier to point out how the Psalms are not organized than to consider how they are organized, as scholars have debated this question for years (as you might have guessed). Something to note is that the book seems to have a very intentional beginning, with the opening Psalms pointing to the blessing that comes as we look to God’s Word (Psalm 1) and as we look to His anointed, the Messiah (Psalm 2). These set the frame for the whole book. The Psalms then seem to take us on a bit of a journey from despair to hope, as a number of the early Psalms are David’s songs of lament (like Psalm 3), while the last few Psalms highlight God’s praise (Psalm 146-150). The journey from despair to hope, though, is not a linear one, as Psalm 89, which stands at the end of book 2, is the only Psalm of lament that does not seem to end in confidence. 

If you look a bit more closely at the whole book, there seems to be an interesting flow. Books 1 and 2 have a lot of Psalms of David and thus seem to be about his life, beginning with him calling out for help again and again (as he did when he was running from Saul) and then ending with the hope of Solomon, his son, as king in Psalm 72. But then book 3 (Psalm 73-89), with much disappointment because there is no king, is darker and filled with community laments that indicate Solomon and descendants of David do not fulfill the vision of Psalm 2 or Psalm 72. Book 4 starts with Psalm 90 and looks back to Moses (who even goes back to the very beginning) and is a reminder that God will fulfill His promises and there will be a new Exodus and a new David. Book 5 then focuses on the salvation that come about because of this new king as he restores them from Psalm. Therefore, the book of Psalms reflects on the history of the people of Israel and points them to the hope that they will have in the new Davidic king (Jesus), showing us how the book of Psalms is about Jesus (John 5:39, 44 and Luke 24:44). It is somewhat of a journey through the biblical storyline of creation--fall--redemption--new creation.

This overview is not original to me (I learned it from my seminary professor), and I am not saying that this overview cannot be challenged, but it seems to be the best explanation for the design of the book into these smaller sections and notes the flow of those sections. 

The Bottom Line: Not Just A Random Assortment of Israel's Greatest Hits

While we can still wonder about why the Psalms are shaped the exact way that they are, I think one thing we can remember by looking at these five sections in Psalms is that there is a shape and intentionality in their order and organization -- it is not just a random collection of “Israel’s Greatest Hits.” When I taught the Book of Psalms in a college course, I tried to compare it to “concept albums,” which is an album is one that tells a larger story or speaks about a larger theme as a whole than it does in individual songs. I later realized that this didn’t make a ton of sense to these students as concept albums have diminished in popularity (having their heydays in the 1970’s) because of the rise of music videos and singles (and now mp3s), but I have yet to think of a better way of capturing my thought. We should look at the individual Psalm, the author  (if we know it), and the words themselves, but it is also interesting to look at it where it appears in the book of Psalms, what Psalms are around it, and how they might connect or speak to each other. The Book of Psalms is not just a greatest hits album we can pull songs from, but an organized collection of these songs that is meant to help us learn how to pray and ground our hope and praise in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. May this idea help you look at this wonderful book in a different way as you journey through it.

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