Sunday School Lesson 25: Psalms

TS_scrollI’m going to skip my usual whine about how much material is covered in the reading for this lesson (unless announcing that I won’t whine counts as a whine).


One traditional division of the book of Psalms—often called “the psalter”—divides it into five sections, on analogy with the five books of Moses: Psalms 1-41, Psalms 42-72, Psalms 73-89, Psalms 90-106; and Psalms 107-150, with Psalm 150 being the closing doxology for the whole collection. Those who accept this division understand the first and second psalms to be an introduction to the psalter as a whole, so some manuscripts give the number “1” to the psalm we number “3.” If you are reading a psalter and it the chapters and verses don’t line up with your expectations, see if adding 3 to the psalm number corrects things.

It is obvious that Psalms was created from previous collections of hymns. See the psalms of Asap (Psalms 73-83) and of Korah (Psalms 42, 44-49), as well as the “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120-124). The duplication of some psalms is further evidence that the collection we have was created from earlier collections. Compare Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, Psalm 70 and Psalm 40:13-17 and Psalm 108 and Psalms 57:7-11 and 60:5-12.

Traditionally, most of the psalms in book 1 (Psalms 1-41) are ascribed to David, and most of them address Yahweh. In contrast, in book 2 (Psalms 42-72), most of the psalms are addressed to Elohim and, though 18 of them are ascribed to David, the rest are ascribed to other authors. (Notice that Psalm 72:20 tells us that we have come to the end of the psalms of David, even though 18 psalms after that are attributed to him.) Book 3 (Psalms 73-89) includes only one psalm of David, and most of its contents are addressed to Elohim. Books 4 (Psalms 90-106) and 5 (Psalms 107-150) are a mixture of things, so it is difficult to pick out defining features. Some manuscripts include a 151st psalm, a hymn of David describing his fight with Goliath.

There are five general categories of psalm, though a number of psalms fall outside these categories. The categories are the psalm of praise (e.g., Psalms 8 and 115), the psalm of lament (e.g., Psalms 14 and 33), the psalm of instruction (e.g., 37 and 73), the psalm of thanksgiving (e.g., Psalms 34 and 67), and the liturgical psalm. How many of our hymns fit into those categories? Do we have other kinds of hymns as well?

As noted above, though tradition describes the psalter as “the psalms of David,” only the headings of slightly less than half of them (73, to be exact) ascribe particular psalms to David, and we cannot be sure that David actually wrote all of the psalms ascribed to him. Some have suggested that David compiled the psalms, writing some of them and bringing together others to form the psalter. However, not only were many of the psalms written before the reign of David, there is also evidence that a number were written later. It is possible that David wrote some of the psalms, edited some existing psalms for his use, and adopted some existing psalms with little or no change. It also appears that other writers added psalms to the collection and perhaps rearranged it.

Whatever other uses the psaltery may have had, it is clear that many of the psalms were for use in the liturgy of the Temple. Part of the temple service in Jerusalem included singing or chanting by a Levite choir accompanied by instruments, and the psalter includes the hymns this choir sang.

Though the psalms are poetry, Hebrew poetry does not rely on rhyme and meter, as does standard English poetry. That is probably because, unlike the Greeks, from whom we’ve inherited our view on these things, the Hebrews did not distinguish between prose and poetry. “Poetry” wasn’t a category of writing in Hebrew. It is probably more accurate to think of what we describe as Hebrew poetry as material written in a higher rhetorical style.* Nevertheless, it is useful for us to refer to that style as “poetry,” so I will.

As Robert Alter has argued, the most obvious feature of Hebrew poetry, one that usually carries over in translation, is parallelism of various kinds. Here are several examples:

Psalm 1:1

Blessed is the man that

walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

nor standeth in the way of sinners,

nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Psalm 1:6

For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous:

but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Psalm 15:1

LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle?

who shall dwell in thy holy hill?

Presumably, these parallels were parts for the choir, with part of the choir singing or chanting one line and another part of the choir singing or chanting the parallel line—but that is, at best, an educated guess.

Psalm 45

Obviously we cannot read and think about each of the psalms in one lesson, so we have to choose one or two on which to concentrate. More or less at random, I chose Psalm 45—only to learn later that, according to the United Bible Society’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, many take this to be the most secular of the psalms. But perhaps that is a good reason to use it for study.

Psalm 45 raises interesting questions, and I think it also gives us good practice for learning to see the scriptures in terms of types and shadows. The psalm is a royal marriage song, a hymn of praise.

It seems to have been written for the wedding of an Israelite king. In other words, it was not originally a religious hymn. Given the war-like character of the king (see verses 4-6) and that his bride may be from Tyre (verse 12), many have conjectured that the king and queen in question are Ahab and Jezebel. That is surprising, perhaps even shocking. How could a love poem about the marriage of two people who turned out to be quite wicked become a scriptural hymn praising God with little or no change of the wording? As odd as that might seem to us, since Hebrews 1:8-9 quotes verses 6-7 of this psalm and uses those verses to refer to Christ, we cannot doubt that this psalm was understood as more than a love-poem.

The idea that the Lord is a bridegroom and Israel is the bride is a common one in scripture. It is part and parcel of the Hebrew way of speaking about a sovereign and his people. We find it in scriptures such as Hosea, in the parable of the 10 virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), and in many other places. Why is the marital relation such an important type of our relation to the Lord? For example, how does the marriage covenant exemplify the covenant that the Lord has with Israel? As you read this psalm, see if there are different ways that you can understand what you read. How many different meanings can you see in it?


The word shoshannim means “lilies.” Presumably this was the name of the tune to be used for this psalm. Though not a translation, we can understand the superscription to say “Instructions for the director of the choir and orchestra: this is to be sung and played to the tune ‘Lilies’; it was written by the sons of Korah; it is a song of instruction [or skill or reflection—the meaning of the word is not clear]; it is a love song.”

Verse 1:

The Hebrew word translated “inditing” by the King James translators is a difficult word to translate because this is the only place in scripture where it occurs. However, it is related to a word that means “saucepan” and has a root meaning “to boil.” Presumably, it means “overflowing” or “stirred up.” To what do you think “things which I have made” refers? What is the singer saying in this verse?

Verse 2: Look ahead a verse or two. To whom is this part of the poem dedicated? Whom is it praising? We have seen before the Israelite tradition that kings are better-looking than others (e.g., 1 Samuel 9:2 and 16:12). How does that apply to the Lord? On the other hand, Isaiah says of the Lord, “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). How are we to understand that? Can you square these two ideas? What symbolism can you see in describing the Lord as handsome? What symbolism can you see as describing him as homely? What does it mean to say that grace is poured into a person’s lips? What does it mean to say it of the Lord? Why does the concluding clause of the verse begin with “therefore”? That word tells us that the writer is proving or demonstrating something. What would that be? What does “grace is poured into [“onto” would be better] thy lips” mean? How would we take it in ordinary speech? Might it have more significance than that for us?

Verses 3-5: Why would this be praise of an earthly king? Why would it be appropriate at his wedding? How does it apply to the Heavenly King? How is it appropriate of his covenant relation with us?

Verse 6-7:

Though the King James translation has “Thy throne, O God,” most other translations have “thy throne from God.”

What is a “right scepter”? What does it mean to say that the king has been anointed with “the oil of gladness”? In what sense has a king been anointed above his fellows? How do these ideas apply to the Savior? Why does Hebrews 1:8-9 quote these particular verses?

Verse 8: What is the point of this verse? How can we understand it in relation to the Lord?

Verse 9: When the writer says that the king has king’s daughters “among thy honorable women” (in other words, among his wives), what point is he making? Anciently one sign of a king’s nobility and power was the size of his harem. Do you think the writer may be using that image? Is there any way to put this into equivalent contemporary terms? How can we think of this as a type of Christ? What does it mean to say that the queen is clothed in the gold of Ophir? What point is the writer making in this verse and how can we understand that as a type of other things?

Verse 10: The poet turns from the bridegroom king to the bride. She appears to be homesick, longing for her family and familiar surroundings? Why should she forget her own people and her father’s house? How might we apply that to ourselves? Are we ever homesick for life without the Lord?

Verse 11: What does it mean for the king to desire the bride’s beauty? How might the Lord desire our beauty? What could our beauty be for him?

Literally this says that the bride must “bow down” to the groom. You can see why the King James translators translated that as worship. Can you think of other ways they could have translated it? In other words, what things can bowing down signify here?

Verse 12: Why is it significant that people give the bride gifts and that the rich seek favors from her? How does that apply to ancient Israel? To latter-day Israel?

Verses 13-15: How might we apply this description of the bride’s clothing to ourselves? How might we apply to ourselves the promise that the bride and her bridesmaids will be taken into the palace?

Verse 16:

Though it is ambiguous in English, in Hebrew the writer turns his attention back to the king in this verse. “Instead of” means “in the place of”: where your fathers ruled, your children will rule.

For the king, this is a promise that his dynasty will continue. What does that mean when we apply it to the Lord? to ourselves in our relation to him?

Verse 17: Why is it important for one’s name to be remembered? How do we remember the Lord’s name? How are our own names remembered?

Sometimes it is helpful to look at another translation. Doing so can help us understand the King James Translation better. Here is a the translation of the Amplified Bible, so-called because it adds explanatory words and phrases, amplifying the translation. I have made a few, minor alterations in the translation to increase its clarity.

Psalm 45

1 My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my psalm to a king. My tongue is like the pen of a ready writer.

2 You are fairer than the children of men; graciousness is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever.

3 Gird your sword upon your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and your majesty!

4 And in your majesty ride on triumphantly for the cause of truth, humility, and righteousness (uprightness and right standing with God); and let your right hand guide you to tremendous things.

5 Your arrows are sharp; the peoples fall under you; your darts pierce the hearts of the king’s enemies.

6 Your throne from God is forever and ever; the scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom.

7 You love righteousness, uprightness, and right standing with God and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.

8 Your garments are all fragrant with myrrh, aloes, and cassia; stringed instruments make you glad.

9 Kings’ daughters are among your honorable women; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

10 Hear, O daughter, consider, submit, and consent to my instruction: forget also your own people and your father’s house;

11 So will the king desire your beauty; because he is your Lord, be submissive and reverence and honor him.

12 And, O daughter of Tyre, the richest of the people shall entreat your favor with a gift.

13 The king’s daughter in the inner part [of the palace] is all glorious; her clothing is inwrought with gold. [Rev. 19:7, 8.]

14 She shall be brought to the king in raiment of needlework; with the virgins, her companions that follow her, she shall be brought to you.

15 With gladness and rejoicing will they be brought; they will enter into the king’s palace.

16 Instead of your fathers shall be your sons, whom you will make princes in all the land.

17 I will make your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore shall the people praise and give you thanks forever and ever.

*That heightened style was created by using a variety of rhetorical figures. Most Mormons have heard of chiasmus, but it was only one of many ways that those writing in Hebrew played with language to heighten their style. Other ways included acrostics, repetition, alliteration, ellipsis, wordplay personification, paring words, matching the gender of words, clustering similar images, developing metaphors and similes, and inversion. However, parallelism leads the list by a long distance.

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