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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Psalms

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Text Commentary side-by-side

Psalm 1

The first two psalms lack titles, which is unusual in Book 1 of the Psalter, and it is probable that they provide an introduction to the whole book of Psalms. Whether they originally formed a single psalm is very doubtful, however, in spite of an ancient Jewish saying that the first psalm begins and ends with a beatitude (v. 1 and 2:11 ). A few manuscripts of Acts 13:33 refer to Ps 2 as the ‘first’ psalm, which suggests that among some Christians either the two psalms were combined or they knew of texts which began with the present Ps 2 . Certainly it seems likely that Ps 1 was placed here after Book 1 or the entire Psalter was completed.

It is similar to Ps 19:7–14 and 119 in its delight in the ‘law’, and probably is post-exilic. Whether it is correctly termed a ‘wisdom’ psalm, and whether it was intended for use in the cult are both uncertain. Perhaps it is best understood as a poem to encourage faithfulness to the religion of the Torah. Although often described as ‘The Two Ways’ (cf. v. 6 ) its tone is set by the initial, ‘Happy are those…’. The poet is convinced that the way of goodness is an attractive way, and it would be wrong to regard it as presenting a moralistic religion in which goodness is pursued for reward.

The structure is clear: vv. 1–3 describe the righteous, closing with the simile of a tree planted beside an irrigation canal, a comparison found in ancient Egypt and in pictures from the ancient Middle East. Although the phrases in v. 1 might ascend to a climax (‘walk’, ‘stand’, ‘sit’; ‘wicked’, ‘sinners’, ‘scoffers’) they may be simple poetic parallels. If the psalm is post-exilic, the reference to the ‘law’ may be to the written Pentateuch. The picture is of the pious reader speaking the words of the law half aloud until they become part of his being, rather than of silent and passive meditation. The point of the tree simile is that it flourishes, not that the fruit is a ‘reward’, despite the last line of v. 3 , which speaks of the prosperity of the good man.

The wicked are described more briefly in vv. 4–5 : the godly man is described in detail; the side glance at the wicked is but to light up the blessing of his life by contrast. The picture is of winnowing the corn, throwing it up into the air after it has been threshed by a flail or a threshing sledge, so that the wind will blow away the straw and the husks and allow the heavier grains to fall to the ground. v. 5 is uncertain. Most translations render the verbs as futures, although they do not differ from the form of many of the verbs earlier in the psalm, implying that the judgement is a future judgement by God. Some early Christian commentators saw a reference to the resurrection by translating the verb as ‘rise up’, perhaps influenced by the LXX. Since the general OT belief was that the dead went to Sheol and remained there (see PS G.13), this is unlikely unless the psalm were very late indeed. The reference appears to be to day-by-day judgements either by the elders in the gate, or possibly by God himself, and continues the description of the two types of people. This would form a better parallel to ‘nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous’. The verb translated ‘watches over’ in v. 6 is ‘knows’, with the sense of ‘takes care of’: other psalmists and the writer of Job will have to question whether life is always as simple as this.

Psalm 2

The first Christians interpreted this psalm as messianic prophecy and v. 7 is quoted in Acts 13:33 and Heb 1:5; 5:5 as referring to Jesus, reflected in the capital letters for ‘Anointed One’, ‘King’, and ‘Son’ in NIV. The older critical scholars connected it with an Israelite king who had recently ascended the throne, and discussed the claims of David, Solomon, or some other king. Form criticism classifies it as a ‘royal psalm’, but there is no agreement as to the way in which it may have been used in ancient Israel—at the Davidic king's enthronement, or at an annual celebration of his accession, as the new king's first proclamation to his subjects, or spoken by a cultic prophet. Many set it within a cultic drama, in which the king is attacked by his (and God's) enemies and finally is delivered by God. Those more attracted to literary and canonical interpretations point to the concluding beatitude which forms an inclusio with that in Ps 1:1 , and to the repetition of some words, such as ‘meditate’ ( 1:2 ) and ‘plot’ ( 2:1 , the same Hebrew verb), and suggest that the two psalms form a double introduction to the Psalter and represent two ways of understanding it, as teaching and as Davidic or messianic. Following the approach adopted in this commentary, the psalm will be interpreted as a poem in its own right.

The psalm falls into four sections: vv. 1–3 describe the rebellion of the ‘kings of the earth’ against YHWH and his anointed king; vv. 4–6 depict God's mockery and support of his king with a bold anthropomorphism; in vv. 7–9 the king sets out the divine proclamation which established him as God's adopted son and promised him victory over his enemies; and vv. 10–12 give a final warning to the hostile kings to submit to YHWH. The closing benediction stands apart from the rest of the psalm and some have suggested that it is an addition, fitting the psalm into later worship.

Two verses present difficulties of translation. The ‘decree’ in v. 7 probably declares what YHWH is performing—the act of making the king his son—and should be translated: ‘I myself beget you today’ (cf. REB, ‘this day I become your father’). The sonship is through adoption: unlike other monarchs in the ancient world, the Israelite king was not regarded as descended from God. In the Hebrew the emphasis is upon ‘I myself’ rather than ‘this day’ as Eng. versions.

NRSV follows a common conjectural emendation in vv. 11–12 . The Hebrew appears to mean literally: ‘and rejoice with trembling. Kiss a (the) son lest he should be angry and you perish with regard to the way’ (i.e. the way you are behaving). Apart from the word for ‘son’ being Aramaic (the Hebrew word is used in v. 7 ) this makes tolerable sense, kissing the king being understood as an act of homage. Kissing the feet would be an even humbler grovelling, and accords with a practice well known in the ancient world. The LXX had a different text: ‘and rejoice for him in trembling. Take hold of instruction (or chastisement, correction) lest the Lord should ever become angry and you perish from a (the) righteous way.’ Some of the ancient versions understood the word translated ‘son’ to be a different word meaning ‘pure’ or ‘purity’, hence ‘worship in purity’. The pronouns also present problems if ‘kiss the son’ is abandoned, for it becomes uncertain who the subject of the verbs in v. 12 is. NRSV apparently accepts the very striking metaphor of kissing God's feet. Some adopt a change of reference: Serve YHWH, kiss (the king's) feet, lest YHWH be angry. Probably the original text and meaning are irrevocably lost and all that remains certain is that the rebellious kings are warned to submit to God and his representative, the Israelite king.

Psalm 3

The psalm is a prayer to God for help against enemies, with a strong expression of confidence in his protection (vv. 3–6 ). vv. 1–2 describe the psalmist's situation, v. 7 is the call to God for help (probably the whole verse should be translated as a plea, ‘Rise up…Deliver me…Strike all my enemies…break the teeth…’, cf. NIV). The final verse widens the perspective to the whole congregation or nation. The introductory verses are held together by a threefold ‘many’, and three words derived from the same Hebrew root, ‘help’, ‘deliver’, and ‘deliverance’ link the first and last sections of the psalm.

So much is clear. Problems begin when we ask who the psalmist and the enemies might be. If the enemies are military foes, it is natural to see the Israelite (Davidic) king as the one who is appealing to God. If the title is not allowed to influence the reader, the psalmist may be an Israelite who faces attacks by fellow Israelites, a man who has been (falsely) accused of some crime (with the enemies as his accusers), or even a sufferer who regards his illness as owing to attacks by enemies, although the last interpretation is less likely. In any case there is poetic exaggeration in the ‘ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around’ (v.6).

Less certain is the situation. If the psalm is taken as a royal psalm, it is still impossible to decide whether the psalm was composed in (or perhaps more probably, for) an actual battle or whether the attacks are part of a ritual combat in a cultic drama. If it was originally a cultic prayer for those suffering from hostility from other people, v. 5 might refer to spending the night in a sanctuary in order to receive a divine oracle, though the more natural way of taking the verse is as a mark of such total trust in God that the psalmist can sleep without fear. The early Christians found a reference to the resurrection of Jesus in the sleep and awakening. Later liturgical use has treated it as a morning psalm.

The title probably comes from a scribe who has searched through the books of Samuel for a suitable occasion in David's life in which to place the psalm, and came up with his flight from his son Absalom (see 2 Sam 15–17, esp. 15:12, 14 ). Certainly there is much that fits the account in Samuel, and it might even be that the psalm was composed by a scribe as a literary response to the narrative, although the general view is that the titles were added to existing psalms rather than indicating the inspiration of them. Or it may have been written for any of the kings of Judah. The date is less certain on more general interpretations of the psalm.

From a literary perspective attention may be drawn to the threefold reiteration of ‘many’ in vv. 1–2 , and the theme of ‘help’, ‘deliver’, ‘deliverance’ (the same Heb. root) in vv. 2, 7, 8 .

Psalm 4

At first sight this is a happy, confident little evening psalm. The many small differences among the main translations and the wide range of interpretations offered by commentators show that it is difficult to be certain about how it should be read. It offers few clues as to the speaker, the persons addressed, and the occasion on which it was spoken or sung, and although there are not a great number of textual problems, the exact meaning of several phrases is not clear.

Some see it as a companion to Ps 3 : a king's psalm, which the older scholars placed in the time of Absalom's rebellion and explained as expressing David's faith in YHWH and a rallying call to his dispirited followers. There is little firm evidence to support this. More recent royal interpretations prefer a cultic interpretation, with YHWH's anointed king and representative addressing his opponents and proclaiming his glory over against those who worship false gods. The reference to harvest fits this theme, since the faithfulness of the king is linked with the prosperity of the land (cf. Ps 72 ). Others, however, find little evidence to refer the psalm to the king, and suggest that it belongs to rulers in general, whether secular or priestly, and see the occasion as a time of drought or bad harvest. Yet others see in it confidence in the face of false accusations or the vicissitudes of life. Even form criticism is uncertain whether the dominant theme is lament or confidence. Repetitions of words (‘call’, vv. 1, 3 ; ‘right’, vv. 1, 5 ; ‘hear’ vv. 1, 3 ; ‘heart’ vv. 4 (NRSV ‘ponder’, lit. ‘say in your heart’), 7; ‘bed’/‘lie down’ (related words in Heb.), vv. 4, 8 ; ‘trust’/‘in safety’ (verb and noun), vv. 5, 8 ; and ‘many’/‘abound’ (noun and verb), vv. 6, 7 ) point to literary skill but are less helpful in revealing the structure of the psalm. vv. 2–5 stand out as addressed to an opposing group, while vv. 1, 6–8 are a prayer to God. Possibly, like many Christian hymns, the very ambiguity and lack of definite allusions make it more possible for many different people to make its confident appeal to God their own.

In v. 1 the middle line either expresses the confidence upon which the two petitions are based (as most translations) or the Hebrew should be taken as a further petition (‘give me relief from my distress’, NIV). v. 2 appears to refer to the respect due to the psalmist within the community, although some take it to be a reference to God (‘how long will you dishonour my glorious one’, REB, cf. NIV marg.), who is dishonoured by worship offered to other gods. The meaning of the Hebrew in v. 3a is very uncertain (cf. the variety of modern translations); perhaps it should be read, with a small emendation, ‘Know that YHWH has shown me his marvellous love’ (cf. NEB). ‘Right sacrifices’ (v. 5 , literally ‘sacrifices of righteousness’) are probably sacrifices offered with correct rites or in a right spirit, although some regard them as sacrifices which acknowledge YHWH's justice, and a very ancient Christian interpretation thought of righteousness itself as a metaphorical sacrifice.

Psalm 5

Usually defined as an individual lament, this psalm is clearly a petition to God. Uncertainties about the status of the psalmist, the nature of the enemies, and precisely what the psalmist is presenting ‘in the morning’, make it difficult to be certain about its origins and use in ancient Israel.

The title probably intends to ascribe it to David, and some scholars interpret it as a royal psalm, sung in a cultic rite. This is held to fit the identification of the enemies as also rebels against God. Those who find no evidence of authorship or original usage in the titles of the psalms commonly see it as the prayer of someone faced with false accusations, the enemies being the hostile and vindictive accusers. The situation might then be either a prayer for a just outcome to a forthcoming ‘trial’, or an appeal to God for a verdict (perhaps through a priestly oracle) at a hearing in the temple.

The reference to the ‘morning’ in v. 3 has led to the psalm being used as a morning hymn, While the references to the morning are clear, it is uncertain what action is being performed. The Hebrew has no object to the verb ‘set in order, arrange’. The older English versions (and NIV) supplied ‘my prayer’, ‘my requests’, but this is unlikely since the verb is never linked with prayer in the OT. It is regularly used for presenting a case in a lawsuit and for ordering a sacrifice, hence NRSV's ‘plead my case’ and REB's ‘prepare a morning sacrifice’.

The mention of the temple in v. 7 is equally ambiguous. It might refer to any of the local sanctuaries, but most probably is the Jerusalem temple. This is partly supported by the psalmist's address to God as ‘my King’, which has been widely seen as a characteristic of the Jerusalem cult. Whether the psalmist is actually present at the morning worship or describes his intention to present his case or offer sacrifice there cannot be determined.

The structure of the psalm may be analysed in several different ways. If NRSV is followed, vv. 1–3 are the invocation to God and statement of the psalmist's intention, vv. 4–6 describe God's character, vv. 7–8 express the psalmist's confident approach to God, vv. 9–10 set out the wickedness of the enemies and call upon God to condemn and destroy them, and vv. 11–12 form a concluding invitation to the righteous to rejoice. Possibly the final verse should be taken as a call to God to give his blessing and defend them.

In the title, ‘for the flutes’ is the most probable interpretation of a phrase that is unique here, and presumably intends the psalm to be accompanied by flutes. The Babylonians had a special kind of lament called ‘flute psalms of lamentation’. The LXX referred it to a different Hebrew word and translates ‘concerning her that inherits’. It is possible, though unlikely, that it was the name of a melody, ‘To “Inheritance” ’.

Psalm 6

That the psalmist is gravely ill appears obvious. Less certain is the relation of the illness to the ‘enemies’. It has been suggested that it was the enemies who brought about the psalmist's illness, perhaps through sorcery, but few accept this explanation, partly because the usual Hebrew word for sorcery does not occur in any of the psalms, chiefly because the psalmists regularly, as here, see God as the cause of their suffering. The suggestion that the term ‘workers of evil’ (v. 8 ) refers to sorcerers has slight support. Usually, therefore, the enemies are regarded as members of the psalmist's community who interpret his illness as divine punishment for wrongdoing, much as Job's friends did (e.g. Job 11:6; 15:4–6; 22:5–11 ), and by their hostility increase his sufferings. Even so the psalmist's reaction in v. 10 strikes modern readers as extreme. Might it not be that, with the illogicality to which we are all prone, the psalmist accepts both that the illness has been inflicted by God and also that the enemies are responsible for it?

Two features in this psalm are notable. First, the psalmist fears that he is near to death. Sheol is the abode of the dead, who live on in a feeble and miserable existence in the land of no return, outside of the reach of God's love, a land of dust and darkness and silence (for other descriptions of Sheol see Ps 30:9; 88:6–12; 94:17; 115:17 ; PS G.13). It seems that in ancient Israel all sickness was seen as a form of ‘death’, and the psalmist probably regarded himself as partly in Sheol already—hence his anguish.

Second, there is a marked change of tone at v. 8 . This has been called the ‘certainty of hearing’, and has been variously interpreted. Some suggest that vv. 8–10 are the real heart of the psalm, the earlier part recounting the suffering from which the psalmist has been delivered and now expresses his thanksgiving. The balance of the psalm hardly supports this. Others suppose that the psalmist's thanksgiving after he had been healed has been attached to the earlier petition, but there is no evidence for this. There is equally little evidence to support the claim that two separate psalm fragments have been combined in the one psalm, although Ps 40 (vv. 13–17 = Ps 70 ); Ps 108 (vv. 1–5 = Ps 57:7–11; vv. 6–11 = Ps 60:5–12 ) shows that this could occur. A popular theory is that a temple prophet or a priest uttered an oracle of assurance between the two parts of the psalm. Such oracles are found in Isa 40–55 , often beginning, ‘Fear not…’, and cf. Ps 12:5 . Possibly the change in mood is produced by the prayer itself: having uttered his plea the psalmist becomes confident that God has heard it and will answer his request. This would be the most likely view if it is thought that the psalmist is too ill to go to the temple to make his prayer to God. The answer has not yet been fulfilled, however, for the shaming of the enemies lies still in the future.

The psalm is one of the seven ‘penitential psalms’ of the church (the others are 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143; PS J.9), although there is no confession of sin but rather an appeal from frailty and humility. The reliance upon God's ‘steadfast love’ (v. 4 ) should be noted.

‘According to The Sheminith’ in the title is found only here and in Ps 12 (cf. 1 Chr 15:21 ). The meaning is unknown. The term is usually linked with the word for ‘eight’. Some have proposed that it refers to singing in octaves (but the octave does not seem to have been known in ancient Israel) or by male voices. Other suggestions are that it refers to some element in the ritual, perhaps an eighth stage, or to an instrument with eight strings.

Psalm 7

The title describes this psalm as a ‘Shiggaion of David’ and links it with ‘Cush, a Benjaminite’. The meaning of ‘Shiggaion’, found only here and in a different form in Hab 3:1 , is unknown. Scholarly guesses as to its meaning include a song of irregular form or varied mood, and a psalm of lamentation. One suggestion is that the word is a corruption of ‘Higgaion’ (Ps 9:16; 92:3 ), perhaps ‘melody’ (as NRSV in Ps 92:3 ) or ‘meditation’. The LXX has simply ‘a psalm’. The author of the title seems to have linked it with the Cushite of 2 Sam 18:19–33 , or one of David's Benjaminite enemies such as Shimei (2 Sam 16:5–14; 19:16–23, 1 Kings 2:36–46 ). This is the only reference in the psalm titles which cannot be traced to the biblical narratives about David, but it seems unlikely that he drew upon lost traditions in just one psalm.

The psalm belongs generally to the class of individual laments. Greater precision depends upon the interpretation placed upon three features, the references to enemies, who are described with animal metaphors (vv. 1–2, 5, 6 ), the oath of innocence (vv. 3–5 ), and the ascription of vv. 12–16 , which NRSV divides between God (simply ‘he’ in the Hebrew) and the wicked (shown by the use of the plural, although the Hebrew has singulars throughout). Those favouring royal origins note the military references in vv. 4, 10, 12–13 , and regard the enemies as national enemies of the Israelite king, possibly being portrayed in the cult, while those who place greatest emphasis upon the oath and the description of God as judge (vv. 6, 11 ) interpret the psalm as the plea of someone accused of some crime, possibly coming to the temple for a divine verdict through priestly decision, prophetic oracle, or an ordeal, or as a court of appeal (cf. 1 Kings 8:31–2 ). Some think that v. 1 shows that he sought asylum there, but in the biblical narratives asylum is sought only in cases of manslaughter and this does not seem to be the accusation in the psalm. Later use of the psalm will have separated it from the temple and generalized it into a plea for help in time of distress.

The structure is well set out in NRSV, apart from vv. 12–16 , where God has been gratuitously introduced, changing the meaning—the whole section should probably be referred to the psalmist's enemy or read as a general description of the wicked. After a call to God for help (vv. 1–2 ), the psalmist protests his innocence (vv. 3–5 ; for the form of the oath cf. Job 31 ), repeats his call to God and seeks divine judgement, (vv. 6–8 and 9–11 , perhaps to be taken as a single section with hymnic descriptions of God in vv. 8 and 9c–11 ), sets out his conviction that evil rebounds upon the wicked (vv. 12–16 ), and concludes with thanksgiving (v. 17 ). Whether the thanks giving is the result of a successful verdictor is a vow to offer praise when his innocence is declared is impossible to determine.

Psalm 8

This well-known and greatly loved psalm presents several exegetical problems. It is usually classified as a hymn, but it is unusual in having no initial call to worship God and in containing features, such as the question, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them?’ which are akin to wisdom teaching (cf. Job 7:17; 15:14 , though some see the Job passages as a bitter parody of the psalm, and the book of Job itself has close links with psalmic forms). The first person passages are also unusual in hymns and are somewhat reminiscent of individual laments. It is difficult, however, not to regard it as essentially a hymn that opens with the actual praise of YHWH.

There is a textual difficulty in v. 1c , which NRSV has solved by emendation. An alternative suggestion is that the Hebrew letters should be read as: ‘I will serve [worship] your glory’. This problem is linked with the question of the correct sentence division. The NRSV apparently takes v. 2 to mean that God is so powerful that the words of children are sufficient as a rampart of defence, but the meaning is not clear. Perhaps the difficult Hebrew verb should be taken as in REB, with different phrasing: ‘Your majesty is praised as high as the heavens, from the mouths of babes and infants at the breast’. This has the advantage of making sense of the reference to the ‘bulwark’ (usually ‘strength’), but at the cost of an uncertain rendering of the Hebrew verb as ‘is praised’. The LXX translated v. 2 : ‘from the mouth of babes and sucklings you prepared praise for yourself’, hence the form of the quotation in Mt 21:16 .

In v. 5 the LXX translated the Hebrew word ᾽ĕlōhîm, which means either ‘God’ or ‘gods’, as ‘angels’, possibly to avoid the idea that human beings are almost equal to almighty God. Scholars are divided as to whether the Hebrew means ‘God’ or ‘the gods’ as members of his heavenly court.

The structure is transparent: The shout of praise, addressing God by his name, YHWH, envelops the psalm (vv. 1 and 9 ): vv. 1c–2 enlarge upon the majesty of God; and in vv. 3–8 the psalmist expresses his wonder that creatures as insignificant as human beings should have been given dominion over all the rest of creation (cf. Gen 1:26–8 ).

The quoting of verses from the psalm in the NT (Mt 21:16; 1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22; Heb 2:6–8 ) reveals that it was interpreted as messianic, but this was hardly its original meaning. Some have regarded it as a royal psalm, seeing the king beneath the references to ‘man’. At the other extreme are those who find it difficult to relate the psalm to the worship of the Jerusalem temple, and see in it marks of scribes and rabbis in the post-exilic community.

Psalms 9–10

These two psalms are combined as a single psalm in the LXX and the Vulgate, which accounts for the differences in the numbering from Ps 10 to Ps 148 between the Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox traditions, the latter following the LXX. Despite some differences in the type and emphasis between the two parts of the psalm it was probably originally a single psalm. This is supported by LXX, the acrostic form, the lack of title to Ps 10 (rare in Book 1 of the Psalter), the selâ in 9:20 , which never elsewhere comes at the end of a psalm, and a number of unusual words common to both psalms. A few Hebrew MSS also treat the psalms as a single poem.

The acrostic is incomplete. The main pattern is to start each two verses with the appropriate letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but the d verse is missing, and the regular pattern is disturbed at the end of Ps 9 and the first eleven verses of Ps 10 , being resumed only with q (Ps 10:12 ), when it continues perfectly until the end of the psalm. Strikingly each half line in 9:1–2 begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Since difficulties in some verses show that textual corruption has occurred, and small changes in the verse division restore some of the missing letters, it seems likely that originally the acrostic was complete; but it cannot now be recovered.

Ps 9 is predominantly thanksgiving by an individual while Ps 10 is closer to individual laments. Possibly due to the acrostic form, there is no clear development of thought. Leading ideas are the call to thanksgiving, YHWH as judge of the nations and of the wicked and defender of the oppressed, and pleas for deliverance from enemies and the wicked.

The setting of the psalm is equally uncertain. Those who hold that many of the psalms are to be linked with the Jerusalem king see in the references to the ‘nations’ (Ps 9:5, 15, 17, 19, 20; 10:16 ), who appear as the psalmist's enemies (cf. Ps 9:3, 6 ), support for their interpretation. Other evidence for this view is the care of the orphan and the oppressed (Ps 9:18; 10:14, 18 ), a duty of the king as God's representative, and God's universal judgement (Ps 9:7–8, 12; 10:15, 17, 18 ), claimed to be a feature of the Jerusalem cult. At the other extreme, the psalm has been linked to the post-exilic synagogue as the prayer of the oppressed congregation, but there is little firm evidence for this, especially as the extent to which the synagogue was a place of worship rather than teaching and meeting is contested (McKay 1994 ). Certain links with wisdom teaching on the retribution coming to the wicked, together with the acrostic form, may indicate that it is a late psalm, possibly written as an art form or for instruction.

One of the main words for ‘the poor’ in the Psalter occurs here for the first time (Ps 9:12, 18; 10:2, 9, 12 ; PS G.10–12). The psalmists join with the prophets in asserting that God will defend the poor, and this is one of the duties of the king (cf. Ps 72 ).

‘Muth-labben’ means literally ‘Death to [of] the son’. Most regard it as the title of the melody to which the psalm was sung. The LXX, with a slight change in the text, has ‘For the secrets of the son’, and it has been suggested that this might refer to a royal ritual. Alternatively it might be a corruption of ‘According to Alamoth’ (see PS 46).

Psalm 11

This psalm is usually classified as a psalm of confidence. YHWH is not addressed in prayer but spoken of in the third person. vv. 1–3 set the scene, and vv. 4–7 express the psalmist's trust in God. It is not easy, however, to discover a more precise setting.

Those who try to link it with the life of David point to his flight from Saul or the time of Absalom's rebellion. Others see it as a royal psalm, noting the psalmist's sense of authority, his claim to be ‘righteous’, and the threat of enemies, and either set it within the Jerusalem temple worship or find a reference to a foreign invasion. Yet others describe it as the plea of one falsely accused, despite the lack of direct prayer, seeing the psalmist as seeking refuge in the temple (v. 1 ) and trusting in God to defend him. Confidence is largely restricted to the second part of the psalm (vv. 4–7 ) and this has suggested to some that a prophet or priest declared YHWH's acquittal of the psalmist at this point. The fact is, we simply do not know. How the psalm is interpreted largely depends on the reader's view of the historical and social background into which the psalms are to be placed.

Despite the surface clarity of NRSV there are some uncertainties. Does the speech in v. 1 continue to the end of v. 3 (as most translations, regarding vv. 2–3 as the reason the speakers give for flight), or is it limited to v. 1b , with vv. 2–3 as the psalmist's response as he rejects the call to flee, or does the speech consist of vv. 1b–2 (as REB)? Is the temple in v. 4 the Jerusalem temple, so that YHWH is depicted as present with his people and also the transcendent God, or it is a reference to heaven? Should we press the form of the Hebrew verb in v. 5 and translate, ‘May the LORD test the righteous’, thus introducing the element of prayer? And is the final clause to be constructed as, ‘He [lit. ‘his face’] beholds the upright’, i.e. accepts the upright with his favour, rather than being taken as referring to the psalmist's experience of God? NRSV has tacitly emended the text in v. 6 , where the Hebrew has ‘snares, fire’ (see RV) instead of ‘coals of fire’.

Psalm 12

Prayers both by an individual and the community appear in this psalm, and it is uncertain which predominates. The divine promise in v. 5 suggests that perhaps those are right who call it a prophetic liturgy: opening with petition, having at its centre the comforting words of the prophet, to which the congregation responds with the note of certainty in vv. 6–7 . If this is so it may have had its origin in some temple rite. Beyond this it is impossible to go with any assurance. Perhaps the emphasis upon words, both of human beings (vv. 2–4 ) and YHWH (vv. 5–6 ), has led some to imagine the psalmist as the target of malicious comments, possibly even of threats and curses (which were thought to have their own power to effect the evil they declared). The psalm may come from a time of moral decadence, when honesty and truthfulness were no longer regarded as the basis of social life.

The structure is fairly clear: appeal to God, with an account of the evil from which the psalmist seeks deliverance (vv. 1–2 ); plea for divine judgement on the speakers of lies and flattery (vv. 3–4 ); divine oracle of salvation (v. 5 , ‘safety’ is related etymologically to the verb ‘help’ in v. 1 ); an expression of confidence in God's protection (v. 7 ); and a reiteration of the evil situation in which the psalmist is placed (v. 8 ), possibly set as a foil to the protection God gives, unless v. 7 is to be taken as a return to petition: ‘Do thou, LORD, protect us and guard us …’ (NEB, cf. RSV).

Psalm 13

The fourfold ‘How long?’ is striking. A feature of both individual and communal laments (Ps 6:3; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 90:13; 94:3 ), it is also found in Babylonian prayers, such as a remarkably similar prayer to Ishtar: ‘How long, O my Lady, wilt thou be angered so that thy face is turned away? How long, O my Lady, wilt thou be infuriated so that thy spirit is enraged?’ The psalmist appears to be ill (cf. v. 3 with its fear of death), but his main emotion is anguish because he feels abandoned by God.

In spite of a Jewish tradition that the psalm describes Israel's suffering at the hands of hostile neighbours, the intensely personal tone has convinced most commentators that it is the lament or prayer of an individual. The enemies will then not be national foes or the king's enemies, but fellow Israelites who see in the psalmist's illness divine punishment. Probably the alternation between a singular ‘enemy’ and the plural ‘foes’ (vv. 2, 4 ) is stylistic, though it has been suggested that in v. 2 the enemy is death. The book of Job perhaps provides the best commentary on this psalm, with the psalmist's deep sense of loss in the face of God's silence.

For the change of tone from urgent petition to confident trust and rejoicing at v. 5 see PS 6. Was an oracle spoken by a temple prophet at this point? Or has the outpouring of prayer in itself led to a sense of calm joy?

The LXX has a different text at two points: in v. 2 it reads ‘day and night’ (adopted by NEB), and adds at the end of the psalm: ‘I will sing to the name of the Lord, the most high’.

Psalm 14

This psalm must have been widely popular, for it was included in the first Davidic collection (Ps 1–41 ) and the Elohistic collection (Ps 42–83 ). The differences between the two versions are relatively minor apart from 14:5–6 / 53:5 . It is usually supposed that both go back to a single original and the differences are due to textual corruption or editorial changes. If they spring from variant traditions, it may be that the evildoers in Ps 14 are Israelites while those in Ps 53 are foreigners. v. 7 was commonly supposed to be post-exilic when the phrase which is correctly rendered ‘restores the fortunes’ in NRSV was held to mean ‘brings back the captivity [captives]’; some still find it distinct in tone and theme and treat it as a liturgical addition.

Even if the psalm was well loved in ancient Israel, the present-day reader finds great difficulty in knowing how it should be read. It has been described variously as a prophetic liturgy, a mixture of prophetic and wisdom literature, a wisdom psalm, communal instruction, perhaps even an early synagogue speech, and an individual lament. Medieval Jewish interpreters saw it as reflecting Jewish national sufferings. Certainly the first phrase is reminiscent of the wisdom writings, where several different words for ‘fool’ occur, all referring to moral depravity rather than intellectual feebleness or folly, alongside ‘any who are wise’ (v. 2 ), a word commonly used in this sense in Proverbs. On the other hand the prediction of coming terror in v. 5 has the ring of a prophetic denunciation of those who oppress the poor. With such a range of possible genres to choose from, it is little wonder that there is no agreement on how it was used in ancient Israel. If it is instruction it fits naturally with Proverbs, but since there is no certainty about the existence of scribal schools in Israel or the position and function of ‘the wise’, this gives little help. Its presence in two collections of psalms, which presumably were connected with the temple, perhaps points to a cultic prophet uttering his oracle in some rite. If Ps 53 is a prophetic taunt song against foreigners it might have its place during some hostile attack on Jerusalem, but it is by no means certain that the two traditions are to be separated so widely.

The structure at least is clear. vv. 1–3 describe the universal godlessness and wickedness, vv. 4–6 present a threat of punishment, and v. 7 is a wish for the restoration of the nation's prosperity.

It is almost a commonplace to stress that the ‘atheism’ of the ‘fool’ is practical—he acts as if God did not exist—and not religious or philosophical, on the grounds that pure atheism would have been impossible in Israelite society, and that the psalmist stresses the moral faults of ‘fools’. But how different is ‘practical atheism’ from a denial of the existence of God?

Paul quotes vv. 1–3 in Rom 3:10–18 in an abbreviated form, followed by a series of quotations from other verses from the OT. At some point these additions found their way into the LXX and from there into the Vulgate. Curiously the catena is also found in two Hebrew MSS.

Psalm 15

This psalm is similar to Ps 24 , and also Isa 33:14–16 , while listings of sins and virtues are found in Jer 7:5–7, Ezek 18:5–9, and Mic 6:6–8 . It may be that the words of the prophets were modelled on psalms such as this. To call it a ‘torah psalm’, however, adds little to our understanding, and even if ten moral requirements are found in it, it is not closely similar to the Decalogue. It is commonly described as an ‘entrance liturgy’, with the worshipper's question in v. 1 , followed by the conditions for entering the sanctuary in vv. 2–5b (presumably spoken by a priest), and a closing promise in v. 5c . Elsewhere in the ancient Middle East temple inscriptions set out similar demands, but the two OT psalms differ in that they include no ritual requirements. Another suggestion is that the psalm sets out the conditions for those seeking asylum in the sanctuary, but this seems unlikely in view of the apparent limitation of asylum in the OT to unpremeditated homicide.

The meaning is plain apart from two phrases in v. 4 . ‘In whose eyes the wicked are despised’, imports too strong a sense into a word which means ‘despised, rejected’. Possibly the sense is ‘the one rejected by God’, but the Targum rendered it: ‘He is despised in his own eyes, and rejected’, hence the Prayer Book's ‘He that setteth not by himself, but is lowly in his own eyes’. At the end of the verse the NRSV's ‘who stand by their oath even to their hurt’ involves a forcing of the Hebrew, which is literally: ‘he swears to do evil and does not change’, a meaning that is hardly possible, despite Lev 5:4 . It has been suggested that the Hebrew has a negative sense, ‘he swears not to do evil’, but this does not seem likely. The LXX (apparently reading lĕhāra῾ as lĕhārēa᾽) has: ‘who swears to his neighbour and does not set it aside’, which is attractive.

Psalm 16

This is a good example of the extreme difficulty in discovering the original use and meaning of many psalms. vv. 8–11 in the LXX version are quoted by Peter in Acts 2:25–8 , who interprets the psalm as messianic prophecy, fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Few today would accept this as the psalmist's own intention, and most classify it as a psalm of confidence, but then unanimity fails. Is it a royal psalm, expressing the Israelite king's confidence that God protects him? Or does the reference to the allotment of land in vv. 5–6 point to the psalmist as a Levite of whom it was said that YHWH is their inheritance (Deut 10:9 )? But it might be the whole land that is intended, and hence the psalm would belong to the whole people of Israel. Or might it be the confession of an individual worshipper? Even the description as a psalm of confidence is not quite certain, since the petition of the first verse is closer to laments. Is the psalmist looking back on a past deliverance, and praying for God's continuing protection, or is the danger still threatening? Interpretation is not assisted by the chaotic state of the text in vv. 2–4 , and occasionally later in the psalm, where emendation is inevitable. So obscure are these verses that some have found traces of dialogue, or a quotation from the words of a fellow Israelite, who worships other gods as well as YHWH. The psalmist himself is utterly devoted to God.

The meaning of vv. 10–11 is disputed. While some find a reference to life after death, others believe that such a belief was alien to most of the OT, and see only confidence that God will protect the psalmist until his death at the end of a long life. Perhaps here is a leap of faith. The psalmist holds the bleak Sheol belief with his mind, but his delight in his fellowship with God moves beyond this to the hope that such intimacy cannot be ended by death.

Psalm 17

The structure of this psalm is relatively clear, although the text is uncertain in a number of places, making the exact meaning doubtful. vv. 1–2 are an appeal to YHWH; in 3–5 the psalmist protests his innocence; 6–12 is a further prayer, especially referring to the psalmist's enemies, against whom he seeks YHWH's help in 13–14 ; a final note of confidence is expressed in v. 15 .

The way the enemies are described raises difficulties for a more precise interpretation than the general ascription as a ‘declaration of innocence’. The psalmist may be making an appeal to the supreme tribunal in the temple (cf. Deut 17:8–13 ), or the background may be an ordeal (see ABD v. 40–2 ; the only description of an ordeal is Num 5:11–31 , however, and despite the widespread use of ordeals in the ancient Middle East, it is uncertain how far it was a normal practice in Israel). On either view the enemies of the psalmist would be those who accuse him of some wrong—falsely, as he claims. vv. 3 and 15 possibly indicate that the psalmist spent the night in the sanctuary awaiting God's verdict. Christian tradition saw in the final verse a foreshadowing of the believer's resurrection, the sleep being the sleep of death, but this was hardly the psalmist's own meaning.

The severe punishments which are invoked against the enemies appear extreme if they are simply those presenting a legal case against the psalmist, and it has been suggested that this, together with the heading, points to its being the prayer of a king faced with a military invasion, possibly a punitive expedition on the grounds of some accusation of disloyalty or a wrong committed against another state.

Psalm 18

The outline of this long psalm is relatively clear. vv. 1–3 : praise of YHWH; 4–6 : the distress which has befallen the psalmist; 7–19 : a great theophany in which God comes to save his servant; 20–4 : the ground of this salvation, the ‘righteousness’ of the psalmist; 25–30 : a wisdom type generalization that God saves those who trust him; 31–45 : God has saved (or will save) the psalmist from the attacks of his enemies who will be defeated; 46–50 : concluding praise of YHWH. The explicit reference to the king, YHWH's anointed, in v. 50 has convinced most commentators that this is a royal psalm, but there agreement ends. Differences between the sections suggest to some that at least two psalms have been combined, only vv. 31–50 clearly referring to the king. Others suggest that the theophany may have been separate originally. The wisdom features of vv. 25–30 also mark this section off from the myth of the theophany and the defeat of the king's enemies. And as so often the tenses present a problem, as can be seen in the past description of NRSV in vv. 32–48 , the present and past tenses of NIV, the predominant presents of GNB, and the presents and futures of NEB and REB.

A cultic interpretation manages to include most of the features of the psalm. The king is supposed to be the main actor in a ritual drama, in which he is almost defeated, cries out to YHWH for help on the grounds of his faithfulness and righteousness, and is both delivered and secures a crushing victory over his enemies. The mythic features are readily accommodated into this pre-exilic worship, since the theophany is central to Israelite faith (cf. Ex 19 ), while the extravagance of the triumph over the king's enemies fits more easily into a rite than as a reflection of some historical victory. The wisdom expressions of vv. 25–30 fit less easily into this interpretation, but they can be viewed either as a reminder to the listening people that the lesson is for them as well, or as a later transformation of a psalm that originally referred to the king into a more general thanksgiving. There seems no need to regard the whole psalm as coming from the post-exilic synagogue, an expression of hope and encouragement, drawing on past expressions of faith and worship.

The complete psalm is found in 2 Sam 22 , with only minor textual differences, an indication of the way the psalms and the life of David were linked by later editors, the psalms expressing the emotions of the king and the narrative providing a setting within which they could be interpreted.

Psalm 19

Is this one psalm or two? The subject-matter, form, and metre mark off vv. 7–14 from 1–6, and Ps 108 shows that portions of psalms were joined together ( 108:1–5 = 57:7–11; 108:6–13 = 60:5–12 ) in the Psalter. It may be that the first section of the psalm is part of a hymn praising God as creator, and the second is a prayer to YHWH with wisdom features, centred on the law, which is referred to under six synonyms in vv. 7–9 . Support for this is found in the contrasting names for God (El and YHWH) in the two parts of the psalm, and the possibility that the first part is very ancient while the second part may reflect post-exilic piety. (The sun was worshipped in the ancient Middle East as a god, and even in Israel there are hints of this, see 2 Kings 23:5, 11; Jer 8:2; Ezek 8:16 , although in this psalm its ‘tent’ has been set in the sky by God, who is unambiguously the creator of the universe.)

On the other hand modern emphasis upon the completed text of the Bible would suggest that even if the sections of the psalm were originally independent, a unity has been imposed upon them. Nature and law are both needed for a full revelation of God. Indeed, some believe that the psalm was a unity from the first, the psalmist adding his own prayer to a fragment of an ancient hymn. Some find a link between the sections in the fact that the sun was regarded in the ancient world as the giver and sustainer of justice, thus pointing forward to the law, but there is no hint of this in the text of the psalm. It is strange that there is no call to praise, the psalm opening immediately with a description of the praise uttered by the dome of the sky and by the day and the night. In the second part contemplation of the law leads the psalmist to confess his sins and pray that his words and meditation may be acceptable to God. (Some regard vv. 12–14 as an independent prayer.)

In v. 4 REB and NJB retain the uncertain Hebrew word qawwām (which seems to mean lit. ‘their string, line’), translating it as ‘their sign’ and ‘the design’. NRSV and NIV adopt a common emendation qôlām, ‘their voice’, making a parallel to ‘their words’ (see HALOT (1996), iii. 1081 for other proposals). The paradox of silent speech is unique in the OT.

NRSV interprets v. 13 as a reference to ‘the insolent’ rather than the familiar ‘presumptuous sins’ (cf. marg. ‘from proud thoughts’)—the word elsewhere refers to people. The psalmist may be referring to those whose self-confidence might shake his faith, but the switch to persons is rather abrupt.

‘Redeemer’ (v. 14 ) has special overtones for the Christian. In Israel it referred to the next of kin who had the duty to protect any member of the family in trouble, avenging wrongs, giving support in time of poverty, and buying back the relative from slavery (see Lev 25:25, 47–9; Num 35:19–28 ). YHWH as redeemer is a favourite theme of Deutero-Isaiah (see ISA A.I, 11; Isa 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 47:4; 48:17 ).

Psalm 20

The mention of ‘his anointed’ and ‘the king’ (vv. 6, 9 ) have convinced most commentators that this is a royal psalm, and the references to victory (vv. 5, 6 ; in Hebrew the words are ‘salvation’ and ‘save’, but these often refer to victory in war) suggest that it is a prayer that accompanied sacrifice before battle. The only disagreement is whether it is a real battle (see e.g. 1 Sam 7:9; 13:9–12; 1 Kings 8:44–5; 2 Chr 20:1–19 ) or part of a cultic drama, and there appears to be no way of deciding between the two. Perhaps there is not so much difference between them, since the offering of prayer would be within the setting of worship, while if the psalm was part of a cultic drama, that itself was performed in the expectation that God would save his anointed in actual war in the same way that he was depicted as saving him in the ritual. The change to confidence in v. 6 is probably the result of some expression that God has heard the prayer, either through some symbol or the words of a cultic prophet (cf. PS 6).

Psalm 21

The references to the king in vv. 1 and 7 lead most to treat this as a royal psalm, but the situation to which it refers is not clear. It may be before battle (as Ps 20 , pointing to the hope of future victories in vv. 8–12 ), after victory (with emphasis upon the confidence in vv. 1–7 ), at the king's coronation (cf. v. 3 ), or at an annual celebration of his accession (noting the reference to the king's trust in YHWH and the mention of God's ‘steadfast love’, v. 7 ). Since the rites performed at the Autumn Festival are unknown, it is impossible to determine more precisely the way the psalm was used.

To whom vv. 8–12 are addressed is a major problem of interpretation—is it God or the king? Possibly these are the words of a prophet who gives this promise to the king during the liturgy. If YHWH is the subject, the reference may be to covenant curses directed against the king's (and Israel's) enemies.

The Hebrew word ‘to save’, which was translated as ‘victory’ by NRSV in Ps 20 is here rendered ‘help’, but REB has ‘victory’ in both psalms. The salvation which God gives the king is primarily the conquest of his enemies.

The Aramaic version of the psalm rendered ‘king’ by ‘king Messiah’, treating it as messianic prophecy, but this is unlikely to have been its original meaning.

Psalm 22

The many quotations from this psalm in the New Testament, especially within the passion narratives, show that the early church regarded it as messianic prophecy (see Mt 27:39 ǁ Mk 15:29 (v. 7 ); Mt 27:43 (v. 8 ); Mt 27:35 ǁ Mk 15:24 ǁ Lk 23:34 ǁ Jn 19:24 (v. 18 ); Heb 2:12 (v. 22 ); Jesus may have been quoting from this psalm in his cry from the cross, Mt 27:46 ǁ Mk 15:34 ).

Jewish tradition read the psalm as a reflection of the experience of Queen Esther, who is likened to the ‘hind of the dawn’ in the title, the Midrash suggesting that ‘When the dawn awakes the stars set, and so in the court of Ahasuerus, as Esther awakened the stars of Haman and his sons set’ (though this might have been adopted to counter Christian use of the psalm, see Magonet 1994: 111).

Those who adopt a wide view of royal psalms ascribe the psalm to the king, usually in the setting of the rites of the annual festival, but others restricting such psalms to a minimum identify the psalmist as a sufferer who is ill and near to death. A royal interpretation permits the scope to be extended to include the Israelite people whose representative the king is.

There is a marked change of tone from petition to thanksgiving at v. 22 (or 21b if the NRSV is followed—the Hebrew is ambiguous and possibly corrupt). Have two psalms been combined? Does this represent the ‘certainty of hearing’, which perhaps followed a prophetic oracle or some symbolic action, or even a direct divine revelation? Or is it the words of the psalmist's vow? Verbal links and the many changes of mood and style throughout the psalms are commonly seen as evidence that the psalm is a liturgy.

As often we do not know how the psalm was originally used or in what context, and therefore what its original meaning was. It is, however, the greatest of the laments within the Psalter, akin to the book of Job. More than most psalms the sense of personal experience floods through it. Despair almost drives out hope, yet two things support the psalmist: he remembers that God saved his people, and he looks back on the way God cared for him from his birth.

The structure is relatively plain: in the first part prayer and complaint alternate with expressions of confidence (vv. 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–10, 11–21 ), and in the second vows (vv. 22, 25 ) mingle with hymns of thanksgiving and praise.

The animals in vv. 12, 16, 21 may be the psalmist's enemies (if he is the king, the enemies of Israel), but some regard them as demons, as in Babylon, where sickness is often attributed to demons pictured in the form of animals. The last line of v. 16 is difficult. The familiar ‘They have pierced my hands and my feet’ (retained by NIV) comes from the LXX. The Hebrew is literally: ‘like a lion my hands and my feet’. Instead of the NRSV's ‘My hands and feet have shrivelled’ REB reads ‘they have bound me hand and foot’. Curiously the verse, which many see fitting the crucifixion of Jesus perfectly, is not quoted in the New Testament.

The title may refer to the morning sacrifice, although the LXX translated ‘the hind of the morning’ as ‘the help [which comes at] morning’ (picking up ‘help’ in v. 19 ). But it may be the name of the melody to which it was sung.

Psalm 23

The happy confidence of this psalm, coupled with the comfort that it has given to those in ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ (v. 4 , AV), have made it the best known and best loved of all the psalms. Later usage has taken over from the original meaning, which is clouded in uncertainty.

The most obvious structure divides the psalm at v. 5 , making the depiction of God as shepherd and host. The two ideas do not easily sit side by side, however, and (unsuccessful) attempts have been made to retain the pastoral metaphor throughout the psalm, usually by emending ‘table’ (v. 5 ) into some kind of weapon. Another proposal finds three metaphors, with YHWH as guide of a wanderer in vv. 3–4 . It may be that the ‘paths of righteousness’ should be seen as processions to the temple, ‘table’ as a symbol of the covenant, and ‘goodness and mercy’ as referring to the qualities of God's reign.

Royal maximalists see the psalm as the prayer of the king, pointing to the metaphor of God as shepherd which normally relates to the nation in the OT, and would be more appropriate in the mouth of the king as representative of the nation, and the royal implications of God's protecting his vassal against his enemies. The psalm is thought to have been used either in cultic ritual or in an act of worship reflecting the king's confidence. But the evidence is far from clear, and it is not legitimate to see in the anointing in v. 5 an allusion to the anointing of the king, since a different word is used.

Alternative interpretations range from regarding the psalm as the (non-cultic) prayer of a pious Jew to ascribing it to the nation in exile in Babylon. There are also differences of opinion about the banquet, some regarding it as metaphorical, others as a reference to a literal sacrificial meal. Even the classification as a psalm of confidence has been challenged, and it has been interpreted as the psalmist's thanksgiving after he has been ‘delivered’ from his enemies or even acquitted from false accusations.

In fact the original meaning and setting of the psalm are completely unknown, and we are left with hypotheses and the more certain later use by Jews and Christians.

Two translation difficulties may be noted. The traditional ‘valley of the shadow of death’ assumes the existence of a rather unusual Hebrew word. Many change the vowels and produce ‘valley of darkness’ (cf. NRSV). In v. 6 ‘and I shall dwell’ follows the LXX and Syriac versions. The Hebrew appears to mean ‘and I shall return’, possibly a vow or a hope that the psalmist will be able to keep on coming to the temple to worship rather than remaining there permanently for the rest of this life.

Psalm 24

The structure of this psalm is beautifully clear. vv. 1–2 are hymnic, declaring that the world was created by God; vv. 3–6 is an ‘entrance liturgy’, similar to Ps 15 and Isa 33:14–16; and vv. 7–10 contain a dialogue at the gates of the city or temple, repeated, as often in liturgies, and reaching a climax with the declaration of YHWH as ‘YHWH of hosts’, ‘the king of glory’. While some believe that the three parts were originally separate, the whole fits together easily into a single liturgical movement.

The LXX adds ‘of [for] the first day of the week’ to the title, reflecting later Jewish usage, which linked the psalm to the story of creation in Gen 1 . Those who try to set it within the life of David connect it with the bringing of the ark into Jerusalem (2 Sam 6 ). Within the worship of the pre-exilic temple it may have been used during the annual Autumn Festival, with the celebration of YHWH as creator, and as warrior who returns to his temple in triumph after the defeat of the powers of chaos (possibly with the ark symbolizing his presence carried in a procession, although there is no explicit mention of the ark). If the psalm is post-exilic it may be a hymn which reflects features from earlier rituals. Paul quotes v. 1 to defend the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 10:26 ), and later Christian tradition linked the entrance of ‘the LORD of hosts’ through the gates with the entrance of Christ into heaven at the ascension. In such varied ways was this psalm reused and reinterpreted.

v. 6 is textually difficult. On its own the Hebrew would be most naturally translated: ‘those who seek thy face, Jacob’, but this seems impossible. The LXX apparently read: ‘those who seek the face of the God of Jacob’, hence NRSV.

Psalm 25

The acrostic form of this psalm is well preserved, although there are a few irregularities. In v. 2 NRSV follows the verse division of the Hebrew, but ‘O my God’ should be taken with v. 1 to enable v. 2 to begin with the letter b. The w verse is missing, but is easily restored by inserting ‘and’ before ‘for you I wait’ (v. 5 ; there may be a further corruption since vv. 5 and 7 consist of three lines, while the restored w verse would possess only one). There are two r verses ( 18 and 19 ); perhaps the first originally began with a q word, but it is possible now only to guess what it might have been. An additional p verse stands at the end. There are two striking similarities with Ps 34 , which also lacks a w verse and concludes with an extra p verse. Some suggest that both psalms come from the same writer.

The acrostic form tends to isolate the individual verses, and an overall structure is difficult to discern. Broadly, vv. 1–7 are a prayer for help, guidance, and forgiveness; vv. 8–15 reflections on the character of God and the blessedness of those who serve him; and vv. 16–21 further prayers for deliverance, with v. 22 expanding the mainly individual lament into a prayer for the nation. While some regard this verse as a late addition to fit the psalm for congregational worship, the similar feature in Ps 34 suggests that it may well have been original.

Confession of sin is rare in the Psalter, and this makes the confession in vv. 7 and 11 the more notable.

Psalm 26

The psalmist protests his innocence and asks God to examine his integrity. The precise occasion for reciting this psalm, however, is far from clear. A common view points to similarities with Ps 7 and 17 , and posits an appeal to a temple court or an ordeal. The doubts expressed in the notes on those psalms apply equally here. Those who link a majority of the psalms with the king, find here a royal psalm of confidence, but despite the stress upon ‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness’, armed enemies are lacking and the general mood would seem more suited to an ordinary Israelite. The declaration in vv. 4–5 recalls Ps 1 , and it has been suggested that the psalm stands closer to Ps 15 and 24 than to 7 and 17 . To see it as the worshipper's declaration as he seeks entry into the temple and faces the priest's questioning, may provide the best guide to the spirit of the psalm, with praise and worship dominating over legal declarations, and the hand-washing (cf. Deut 21:6 ) and procession round the altar reflecting ritual actions (cf. Ps 118:27 ).

The themes of innocence, prayer, and confidence in God are intertwined and it is not easy to analyse the psalm rigidly; none of the Eng. versions offers a convincing structure.

‘Vindicate’ (v. 1 ) is perhaps too strong in the light of v. 2 and while ‘judge’ may not express the psalmist's confidence that when God examines him he will find that he is innocent, the psalmist's plea is for a hearing. NRSV takes ‘faithfulness’ in v. 3 to be that of the psalmist, but the parallel line suggests that REB represents the sense better by referring to God's faithfulness which sustains his worshippers. The ‘blood-thirsty’ (v. 9 ) is literally ‘men of blood’, i.e. murderers (cf. 2 Sam 16:7–8 ).

Psalm 27

This seemingly simple and confident psalm presents the interpreter with three problems: is it a unity? who is the speaker? and how are the Hebrew tenses to be translated?

vv. 1–6 speak about YHWH as if addressing an audience, expressing confidence in his protection from future dangers, or possibly thankfulness for past deliverance. In vv. 7–12 the psalmist addresses YHWH directly with a plea not to reject him or abandon him to his enemies, but the psalm ends with a renewal of confidence (v. 13 , the Heb. is difficult, however, and the translation of NRSV involves either emendation or paraphrase) and a call to wait for God's deliverance in hope (v. 14 ).

Those who accept that some psalms have been wrongly separated (cf. Ps 9–10 and 42–3 ) and others deliberately combined (Ps 19, 108 : the LXX also combines 114 and 115 ) solve the problems of the differences in tone and address by treating the two parts independently, as a psalm of confident trust and a prayer for help. Those who prefer to keep to the present text explain the changes of tone and form as derived from liturgy: by expressing trust in God before offering his urgent prayer, the psalmist makes it more difficult for God to refuse his request.

Royal maximalists see the speaker as the king, pointing to the references to battle in vv. 2–3 , treating v. 10 as an allusion to the king's adoption by God, and regarding the overall style as ‘royal’. The setting will then be in worship, either as part of the ritual at a festival or in response to the attacks by national enemies. Others take the military allusions to be metaphorical, and interpret the psalm as spoken by an ordinary Israelite, possibly facing accusations (cf. v. 12 ) and seeing the action of the psalmist's parents as their rejection of a son they hold to be guilty.

In a striking metaphor YHWH is described as ‘my light’ (v. 1 ), a phrase found only here in the OT, although in Isa 10:17 he is the ‘light of Israel’ and in Isa 60:19, 20 he is the ‘ever-lasting light’ of his people.

NRSV has adopted a common emendation in v. 8 without comment. The Hebrew seems to be literally: ‘To thee my heart has said, “Seek [plural] my face”’, although it has been suggested that it could mean: ‘From thee my heart conveys the message “Seek my face”’ (Eaton 1986: 176).

Psalm 28

The psalm falls into three distinct sections. In vv. 1–5 the psalmist utters a passionate plea to God to hear his prayer and not remain silent and unresponsive, but rather punish the wicked. NRSV shifts to a future tense in v. 5cd , but the plea may continue: ‘may he strike them down’ as REB (the LXX has ‘you (sing.) will pull them down and not build them up’). The tone changes to ‘certainty of hearing’ (cf. PS 6), or possibly thanksgiving at v. 6 . vv. 8–9 return to prayer, but now for the king and the nation. While some regard the third part as an addition to an original psalm by an individual, the whole may be a liturgical unity, with petition followed by two responses, as the psalmist both expresses his own confidence and includes his people in his prayer.

To define the setting more closely is difficult. Some hold that the psalmist is the king, interpreting the enemies as rebels or even foreigners, and placing the psalm within the temple ritual. The reference to God's ‘anointed’ (v. 8 , almost certainly the king rather than the post-exilic high priest), however, does not require that this is a royal psalm, since the individual may well have included king and people together in his final prayer. The distress of the psalmist is, as often, vague and complex. Is the psalmist ill and near to death? Has plague broken out, affecting both good and evil people, and he fears it may strike him? Or is his suffering largely caused by hostile and deceitful neighbours? The suggestion that the ‘workers of evil’ (v. 3 ) are sorcerers has been generally abandoned, but given the nature of small-scale societies the possibility that the psalmist fears that his illness is caused by sorcery should not be completely ruled out.

Psalm 29

This is a majestic hymn of praise to YHWH, the God of the thunderstorm. After an initial call to the ‘sons of gods’, the lesser gods who are members of YHWH's court (vv. 1–2, cf. Ps 82, Job 1:6; 2:1 ), the main body of the psalm echoes with the voice of YHWH, repeated seven times, as he thunders against (rather than ‘over’) the primeval waters, breaks the cedars, makes the mountains quake, flashes flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, and strips the forest bare (vv. 3–9 ). The conclusion probably describes his enthronement as king over the flood, and as the protector of his people (vv. 10–11 ).

Less certain are the date and original occasion of the psalm, and the precise meaning of the beginning and the end.

Similarities with Ugaritic poems have led some to date the psalm very early in the history of Israel, possibly as an adaptation of a hymn to Baal or Hadad, the storm god. At the other extreme, by taking the final verse as a petition on behalf of Israel, it has been suggested that, at least in its present form, the psalm is a congregational hymn, possibly quite late in Israel's history. The psalm may have been sung in the Autumn Festival, as the LXX addition to the title, ‘at the closing festival of tabernacles’ indicates. Later Jewish tradition linked it with the Feast of Weeks. If the Autumn Festival included the celebration of YHWH's enthronement, this may be reflected in v. 10 .

‘In holy splendour’ (NRSV) or ‘in holy attire’, may seem a disappointment after the AV's ‘in the beauty of holiness’. The splendour is probably God's, the attire that of the worshippers. But perhaps the Hebrew word is connected with a Ugaritic word meaning ‘vision’ and hence a reference to the ‘theophany’. The LXX has ‘in his holy court’, but there is little other evidence for this text. Sirion (v. 6 ) is Mount Hermon, to the north of Israel.

The tenses in the last verse present a problem. NRSV takes them as an invocation of blessing. The REB's futures make the verse an expression of confidence that the majestic God who is now enthroned as king will protect his people. NIV continues the descriptive present tenses of the previous verses. It is difficult to decide between these three interpretations.

Psalm 30

There is fairly general agreement that this is the thanksgiving of a man who has recovered from a serious illness. The Israelites thought of illness as sinking into Sheol, and this is the image behind v. 3 . vv. 6–10 are best seen as a flashback to the time of the psalmist's distress, rather than a present prayer, and the note of joyous thanksgiving sounds out clearly in the two final verses. Although some have attempted to draw this psalm into their group of royal psalms, most find here words said by an individual Israelite.

With such a strong sense of individuality, it is strange to find ‘a song of [at] the dedication of the house [temple]’ in the title. Most probably it was added at a late date when the psalm was linked with the rededication of the temple in December 164, after it had been desecrated by the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc 4:42–59 ), and the festival of Hanukkah (‘dedication’) was inaugurated. Alternative suggestions of the dedication of David's palace or the dedication of the rebuilt temple in the time of Haggai and Zechariah are less probable. The major difficulty lies in understanding how such an individualistic psalm could be applied to a public ceremony. Perhaps the strong note of thanksgiving and the psalmist's call to the congregation to join in praise led to its use.

In v. 3b the NRSV text and margin represent two Hebrew traditional readings. The stress in v. 5 is upon the merciful favour of God rather than the brevity of his anger. The Hebrew is extremely terse, and REB's ‘In his anger is distress, in his favour there is life’ is a possible way of taking the words.

Psalm 31

Although rich in isolated spiritual phrases, when viewed as a whole this psalm presents grave difficulties. Urgent prayer for deliverance from a variety of troubles, quiet trust in YHWH, and glad thanksgiving mingle in what may be a many-layered liturgy. On the other hand two, three, or even four psalms may have been combined (vv. 1–8 and 9–24 , or 19–24 may be divided off as a separate thanksgiving, or three laments may be distinguished: vv. 1–8, 9–12 , and 13–18 ). The distress from which the psalmist seeks deliverance is equally uncertain, and illness, unjust accusations, and the attacks of enemies have all been proposed. Since illness was commonly seen in ancient Israel as divine punishment, it is possible that this is the background to the whole psalm, explaining the whispers and ostracism to which the psalmist is subjected (vv. 13–15 ) and even the ‘lying lips’ of v. 18 . The address to the ‘saints’, those in a covenant relation with God, in vv. 23–4 indicates that the prayer was offered publicly within an act of worship, although not necessarily in the Jerusalem temple. The striking change to confident thanksgiving at v. 19 may be a further example of the ‘certainty of hearing’ which followed the giving of a favourable sign or prophetic oracle, but some interpret the whole psalm as a thanksgiving, the apparent prayers for deliverance being descriptions of the dangers from which the psalmist has been saved. Those favouring psychological interpretations see the wavering between petition, complaint, and confidence as varying emotional moods. In the MT the psalmist confesses his ‘iniquity’ in v. 10 (cf. NRSV marg.), but since this is the only mention of sin in the psalm and the LXX has ‘destitution’, most make the small emendation adopted by NRSV.

Those who posit a royal background to most of the individual laments ascribe this psalm also to the king, pointing to the psalmist's strong sense of privileged position before God, the stress on the covenant relationship, the covenant virtues of faithfulness, righteousness, and ‘steadfast love’, and the designation of the psalmist as YHWH's ‘servant’ (v. 16 ). ‘I was beset as a city under siege’ (v. 21 ), usually taken metaphorically, is treated as an actual attack by foreign enemies.

According to Lk 23:46 (= v. 5 ), ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit’ were the last words of Jesus on the cross, a further example of the way the psalms were linked with the passion narrative in Christian tradition.

Psalm 32

The structure and general sense of this psalm of joyous thanksgiving for healing and sin forgiven are clear, even though the text is in disarray in several places (cf. NRSV marg. at vv. 4, 6 ). The psalm opens with a twofold beatitude (vv. 1–2 ), followed by a description of illness, seen as divine punishment (vv. 3–4 ), and an account of the psalmist's confession (v. 5 ). In v. 6 the psalmist addresses the assembled congregation and in the following verse reverts to his own thanksgiving. It is not clear who the speaker in vv. 8–9 is: if it is not the psalmist, these verses may contain divine teaching, perhaps through a prophet or, more in accord with the style, one of the ‘wise’ teachers. The final two verses (perhaps to be taken with vv. 8–9 ) express the common idea of retribution, and call the righteous to rejoice in YHWH.

The date and original setting of the psalm are difficult to determine. The wisdom style in vv. 1–2 and 8–9 may point to a post-exilic date, and it has been suggested that the whole psalm fits synagogue practice better than pre-exilic worship in the temple. But it is not impossible that the psalm was intended to accompany the sin or guilt offering.

To be noted are the three words for sin in vv. 1–2 , etymologically derived from rebellion, missing the way, and crookedness, combined with three words for forgiveness, lifting the sin from the sinner, covering it up, and no longer accounting the sinner as guilty. But etymologies are fascinatingly deceptive, and use is a better guide to the meaning of words than derivations. Above all the repetitions reveal the psalmist's horror of his sin and underline his happiness.

In Christian tradition this is one of the seven penitential psalms, though it is really thanksgiving for sin forgiven.

Psalm 33

Apart from Ps 10 , this is the only psalm in the set of Davidic psalms 3–41 lacking a title. The LXX has ‘To David’, and Qumran evidence suggests the longer, ‘To David, a song, a psalm’. A few MSS join it to Ps 32 , but the form of these two psalms makes it certain that they are separate poems, in spite of a few common features.

This is a good example of the hymn form. vv. 1–3 contain the call to praise; ‘For’ in v. 4 introduces the central section (vv. 4–19 ), setting out the motivation for offering praise and declaring the greatness of God; and vv. 20–2 express the response of the congregation. The psalm contains the same number of verses as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and although it is not an acrostic, this probably is more than chance (cf. Lam 5 ). The kinship with acrostics is further seen in the great regularity in the length and metre of the verses of the psalm, and the lack of clear structure, reflected in the considerable variation in the way it has been set out (contrast NRSV, REB, and NIV). Instruction, exhortation, and beatitude mingle with the descriptions of God as creator and defender of his people (cf. vv. 8, 10–11, 12, 16–17 with 4–7, 9, 13–15, 18–19 ). God watches over those who trust in his love—the psalmist thinks of safety from death and famine. As with most of the psalms, the original setting is uncertain. The pre-exilic New Year Festival, worship in the second temple, and late synagogue worship have all been suggested.

The ‘new song’ (v. 3, cf. 96:1; 98:1; 149:1 ) hardly means that it was specially composed for this occasion. Perhaps it refers to the ‘renewal’ of the covenant, or the ‘new’ creation celebrated at the beginning of the year. Less probably it looks forward to the future age when God works ‘new things’ (Isa 42:10 ). More generally the praises of the eternal God are timelessly new. The seer picked up the phrase in Rev 5:9 .

Psalm 34

This is another acrostic psalm. Two peculiarities link it with 25 : both psalms lack a w verse and both end with an additional p verse. Despite the constraints of the acrostic, it has a clear structure: vv. 1–3 are a call to praise, vv. 4–10 express the psalmist's thanksgiving, and vv. 11–21 are closer to wisdom instruction.

The heading presents problems. If the reference to the incident in David's life recorded in 1 Sam 21:10–15 was added by a later editor it is odd that the name of the Philistine king is given as Abimelech and not Achish. Attempts at an explanation include the unlikely suggestions that Abimelech was the dynastic name, a royal title, or the Semitic name for Achish. The error is surely too blatant to be a simple scribal error, though it is surprising that it was not corrected later. Content of the psalm has little connection with the Achish incident, and some see the reason for the ascription in the occurrence of two similar Hebrew words in 1 Sam 21:13 (HB 21:14 ) (ta῾mô ‘behaviour’) and the psalm (ta῾ămû, v. 8 , ‘taste’).

The central problem lies in the twin notes of thanksgiving and instruction, and decisions about its origin depend on which is taken as dominant. If thanksgiving, then some liturgical setting is required, though whether the links with wisdom place it within synagogue worship may be questioned. On the other hand, if the wisdom element is stressed it may be that a scribe took a thanksgiving psalm as the basis for his teaching.

It is easy to value the psalm lightly as expressing a superficial view of retribution. If, however, stress is placed upon the distress from which the psalmist has been delivered, it gives the psalmist authority to utter his teaching about God's goodness.

Psalm 35

Three times the psalmist utters a prayer for help (vv. 1–10, 11–18, 19–28 ), each time concluding with a vow to praise God. While some find here three originally separate psalms, the changes may reflect liturgical movement, and other analyses of the structure are possible. More difficult is to determine the occasion of the psalm and the identity of the ‘enemies’, and, as often, the presuppositions of the interpreter determine the interpretation. Some point to the military phraseology in vv. 1–3 and find here a king's prayer against his enemies, perhaps vassals who have supporters among the king's own people. Others note the allusions to witnesses, defence, and judgement in vv. 11, 23–4, 27 and describe the psalm as the petition of the falsely accused. Others again regard all such language as metaphorical, and prefer to take the psalm as a more general prayer to be used by any upon whom trouble has fallen, whether illness or more general misfortune (it is difficult to be more precise). In this case the enemies would be those within the village community who see the disasters that have befallen the psalmist as evidence that he has been abandoned by God, and an occasion to mock and take advantage of him.

Several features of the psalm are striking. ‘I am your salvation’ (v. 3 ) might be the type of priestly or prophetic oracle that many believe was given to the sufferer when he came to the sanctuary to pray. The appeals to God to help (vv. 1–3, 17, 22–4 ) are very forthright and strongly expressed, with bold, almost irreverent, imperatives. And the promises to offer thanksgiving and praise are both part of the appeal to God and an expression of the psalmist's own confidence.

Psalm 36

The divisions into which this psalm falls are strikingly clear: vv. 1–4 are a wisdom-type description of the wicked, vv. 5–9 praise God in a hymn, and vv. 10–12 are a prayer for help against evildoers. Some think that the sections are so distinct that three separate psalms have been combined. Others, noting the reference to the wicked in the first and last sections (although the only common term for those who are evil is ‘wicked’) take the whole psalm to be an individual lament, with the hymnic section as part of the appeal to God by stressing his faithfulness and righteousness. Those who link many of the psalms with the king, find here another of the royal psalms, though with somewhat less confidence than with many other psalms. The sparse use of the first person singular (only in v. 11 ; the Heb. has ‘my heart’ in v. 1 , but most follow a few Heb. MSS and the Syriac to read ‘his’, cf. NRSV ‘their’) has led some to give the psalm a communal reference, taking it as a national prayer, a view which links easily with the king as representative of the nation. How the psalm originated and in what situation it was used is quite uncertain. This, however, does not impair its religious value.

The text in several sections is corrupt. v. 1 begins with the noun um that is frequently found at the end of oracles in the books of the prophets, where it is conventionally translated ‘says the LORD’ (e.g. Am 1:15 ). It is linked with transgression only here. (Is the idea that rebellion, personified, speaks to the wicked as YHWH speaks to the prophets?) Hence the emendation ‘Transgression is pleasant to the wicked’ has been proposed. The different translations of vv. 3 and 6–7 among the Eng. versions indicate the difficulty in interpreting the Hebrew words. NRSV has taken ‘mountains of God’ in v. 6 as ‘mighty mountains’, but since ‘the great deep’ is the primeval ocean in Gen 7:11 the psalmist may be using mythological ideas to stress the greatness of God's righteousness.

Psalm 37

The acrostic in this psalm has been preserved almost perfectly. In v. 28c the ‘῾ayin’ verse is easily restored with the help of the LXX as ‘The unrighteous will perish for ever’ (cf. REB; NRSV has inserted an interpretative ‘the righteous’ absent from the Heb., contrast NIV). Since the pattern is two double-line (stich) verses to each letter of the alphabet, the longer vv. 14 and 20 are suspect, but there is no textual evidence to support deleting a line.

All agree that the psalm is related to wisdom teaching, some classifying it as a wisdom psalm which has no connection with the cult, others rejecting that it is by an individual and relating it in some way to liturgy, possibly, it has been suggested, within the synagogue (although those who make this connection usually date the rise of synagogues earlier than is often allowed now). The acrostic form tends to produce poems without any obvious structure, and the lack of agreement about how it is to be divided (vv. 1–7a , 7b–11, 12–15, 16–26, 27–33, 34–40 , and 1–11, 12–20, 21–31, 32–40 are two proposals) indicates how difficult it is to find any progression of thought. Five themes may be singled out: a warning against envying the prosperity of the wicked, certainty that the good prosper and the wicked will soon suffer disaster, faith that God is active in his world, the conviction that goodness is valuable in itself, and the practical aim of persuading the hearers to commit themselves to God. Especially striking are the frequent imperatives (vv. 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 27, 34, 37 ). While v. 25 might imply a superficial confidence in exactly proportioned reward and punishment, the fact that the psalmist feels a need to expound this teaching may point to the beginning of doubt, such as appears more strongly in Ps 49 and 73 .

Psalm 38

Illness, sin, divine punishment, and the hostility of enemies and former friends dominate this psalm, which is one of the traditional penitential psalms of the Christian church. Confession is neither as central as that tradition suggests nor as plain as the NRSV translation ‘I am sorry for my sin’ (v. 18 ) appears to say (the verb means ‘I am anxious, troubled’, cf. REB, NIV). Nevertheless, sickness and sin are clearly related, as in the book of Job, and this sufferer accepts that he has sinned and that his illness is divine punishment.

The intensely personal tone has convinced many that this is the prayer of an individual sufferer. Others set it within the cult or some healing rite. If cultic the prayer may have been offered in the sanctuary by a friend or representative of the sufferer rather than in person; if a healing rite it may have been performed at home, perhaps in the presence of some religious expert.

The psalmist's friends, companions, and neighbours who distance themselves from him (v. 11 ) probably see his suffering as a proof that he has sinned. Who those are who seek his life (v. 12 ) is not clear. Perhaps they are only those who demand that he should be punished for the wrong he has done rather than ‘enemies’, although later the psalmist is more bitter against them (vv. 19–20 ; the emendation adopted by NRSV and REB is very plausible). Whether the psalmist's deafness and silence (vv. 13–14 ) are his refusal to answer the accusations of his enemies or represent his humility before God is uncertain.

‘For the memorial offering’ in the title is a possible interpretation of the Hebrew which is more literally ‘to call to remembrance’ and has been taken as ‘to confess one's sins’. The Targum supports the reference to an offering; the LXX adds ‘[for remembrance] concerning sabbath’.

Psalm 39

To understand this poignant psalm it is necessary to remember the basic convictions of the psalmist. He believes that sickness is divine punishment for sin, and he has no hope of any life beyond the grave.

NRSV takes vv. 1–3 as the psalmist's musings—he tries to keep silent and avoid questioning God, but he finds no relief. At v. 4 he begins his prayer. It is unusual in individual laments to find wisdom-type references to the brevity of human life in general; here the psalmist's pessimism approaches that of Qoheleth. In vv. 7–10 he affirms his trust in God and reiterates his refusal to question him before making his plea for healing. Then after a renewed acceptance of retribution, he utters a further passionate prayer (vv. 11–13 ).

In v. 12 the psalmist describes himself as God's ‘passing guest’ and ‘an alien’ (NRSV). The translation carries false overtones. The Hebrew word, rendered ‘sojourner’ by the older translations in many of the legal passages (e.g. Deut 24:17–22 ), refers to the non-Israelite who has settled in the land. Lacking the protection of the head of the family, he was liable to be taken advantage of and oppressed. The laws single out the ‘sojourner’ as enjoying God's special protection, alongside other vulnerable persons, such as the fatherless and widows, and call upon the full members of the Israelite community to love them as themselves, remembering that they were ‘sojourners’ in Egypt (Lev 19:33–4; Deut 24:18, 22 ). The psalmist is putting himself under God's protection rather than stressing the brevity of his life.

As with Ps 38 , the intensely personal character of this psalm has led some to regard a cultic setting as impossible. Those who think all the psalms have liturgical use compare somewhat similar laments in other countries of the ancient Middle East. Ultimately it has to be admitted that the origins of this psalm are lost to us.

Psalm 40

vv. 13–17 of this psalm recur as Ps 70 . This, together with the sharp difference between the thanksgiving for deliverance in the first part of the psalm (vv. 1–10 ) and the plea for help in the second (vv. 11–17 ) suggests to many that two psalms have been combined. Others, however, treat the psalm as a unity, the thanksgiving leading into the petition. In support of this they point out that there are links in vocabulary between the two parts (cf. ‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness’ in vv. 10 and 11 ), and that the division in Ps 40 does not coincide with the beginning of Ps 70 , which looks like a fragment (‘Be pleased’, v. 13 , is missing from the Heb. of Ps 70:1 ).

Royal maximalists include this psalm among the royal psalms, interpreting the ethical stress in vv. 6–8 as fitting an annual festival or an enthronement ceremony. The lament following expressions of God's favour would equally well suit a royal prayer in time of national distress, perhaps the attack of an enemy. Even if the psalm is taken as the prayer of an individual Israelite, a cultic background seems assured from the references to the ‘great congregation’ (vv. 9–10 ), the tone of bearing witness to past help from God, and the more general declaration of divine support for those who trust in YHWH, in the thanksgiving section.

The early Christians understood the psalm as messianic prophecy. vv. 6–8 are quoted in Heb 10:5–7 in the LXX version where the somewhat curious Hebrew ‘ears you have dug for me’ (NRSV ‘you have given me an open ear’) is replaced by ‘you have prepared a body for me’, which was then taken to be a reference to the incarnation. The origin of the LXX phrase is uncertain; it may have been internal Greek corruption (the Gk. words for ‘ears’ and ‘body’ are not too dissimilar, but could hardly have been confused except in a damaged MS) or a part of the body (‘ears’) may have been taken to represent the whole.

The apparent rejection of sacrifice in v. 6 is in line with some prophetic words (cf. Am 5:21–4 ), but the intention is probably to stress the greater importance of ethical obedience. The identification of ‘the scroll of the book’ (v. 7 ) is uncertain and suggestions are linked with the general view of the psalm that is taken: the document of the covenant demands presented to the king at his enthronement, the Torah with its laws that the individual accepts, and the heavenly record of the psalmist's deeds have been proposed.

Psalm 41

Sickness and enemies lie behind this psalm. Beyond this, interpretations vary widely. Although complaint and lament have a large place, some classify it as the thanksgiving of the individual, treating vv. 4–10 as a description of the illness from which the psalmist has been healed by God. Others hold that it is a prayer for healing; the confidence in vv. 1–3 expresses the psalmist's faith in wisdom-style language, and the concluding vv. 11–12 the ‘certainty of hearing’ found in several laments (e.g. Ps 6:8–10 ).

The setting of the psalm is equally debated. Royal maximalists ascribe it to the king. The care of the poor (v. 1 ) is a standard duty of the king, when the king is ill his enemies, even courtiers (‘who ate of my bread’, v. 9 ), are likely to plot against him, and the revenge of v. 10 is the common sequel to the defeat of such plots. Care of the destitute and orphans and the accusation that those who ate the writer's food raised up troops against him is found in the Egyptian Instruction of Amen-em-het. Others, however, see here family or village services in the home for those who are ill, the enemies being those friends and neighbours who regard the psalmist's illness as divine punishment. In vv. 7–8 there may even be a hint of sorcery and the belief that the psalmist is subject to a curse.

It is very probable that v. 13 is the closing doxology to the first book of the Psalter.

Psalms 42–3

This was almost certainly a single psalm, despite its division into two by both MT and LXX. Some Hebrew MSS join them together, although a few others add the title ‘Of David’ to Ps 43 , where the LXX has ‘A psalm of David’. The refrain ( 42:5, 11; 43:5 : NRSV has slightly modified the end of Ps 42:5 to agree with the later forms, probably rightly), and similarities of thought and language across both psalms confirm their original unity.

Opinions on the nature of the psalm and the psalmist differ widely. The intensely personal descriptions, mood, and petitions persuade some that it comes from an individual Israelite poet, expressing his inner thoughts and feelings. Ps 42:6 has often been taken to show that the psalmist was living in the north of Israel, perhaps in exile, perhaps at home but too far from Jerusalem to go frequently to the temple. The references to the psalmist leading the festal procession in the temple ( 42:4 ) suggest to others that it is a royal psalm, sung either when the court was absent from Jerusalem, perhaps on a military campaign, or when the king was on the way to pay tribute to his overlord. If the references in 42:7 are mythical and the descent into Sheol figurative (the repetition of the exact phrase in Jon 2:3 points to this), the king may be seriously ill. Yet others place the psalm in the worship of post-exilic Israel, as the Jews, suffering in the midst of a pagan empire, seek comfort and reassurance in a congregational liturgy. Whichever interpretation is adopted, the psalmist's eager longing for God, expressed in the simile of a deer searching for water in a barren desert ( 42:1–2 ), his memories of happier days in the past ( 42:9 ), and his delight in the temple worship ( 42:2, 4; 43:4 ) are plain to see. Like other psalmists he is not afraid to accuse God of forgetting him ( 42:9 ) and abandoning him ( 43:2 ). Yet hope remains and becomes the refrain. He prays that the day will come when he can once again worship God in Jerusalem ( 43:3–4 ).

Psalm 44

The kind of occasion on which this communal lament may have been sung can be found in 2 Chr 20 . Israel has been defeated in battle. The people come to the temple in great distress, unable to understand why God has not given them victory and beseeching him to help them.

The first part of the prayer is almost a hymn (vv. 1–8 ), recalling the way God had defeated the Canaanites and given his people the land of Israel. The people proclaim their trust in God and not in their armies and their own weapons. The tone changes completely at v. 9 . God has allowed them to be defeated, even to be killed and taken prisoner. Neighbouring peoples scoff at their humiliation. They reiterate their trust in God and deny that the defeat is punishment for any sin. With great boldness they call upon God to awake from sleep and save them.

The occasional singular verses ( 4, 6, 15 ) may indicate that this is another royal psalm, the king being the leader and representative of the nation. Some of the Church Fathers took the psalm to be messianic prophecy, and v. 22 is quoted in Rom 8:36 .

Psalm 45

Although some have interpreted this as a popular wedding song in which the bridegroom and bride are addressed as king and queen, and others treat it as referring to YHWH's ‘marriage’ with Israel (cf. Isa 62:4–5 ), it is most probably a psalm for a royal wedding. Because ‘the daughter of Tyre’ in v. 12 was taken to refer to a Tyrian princess, some have linked it with Ahab's marriage to Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31 ) and seen it as a northern Israelite psalm, but the phrase may refer to the ‘people of Tyre’, as NRSV. It may, therefore, have been used regularly at royal weddings. Less likely is the suggestion that it is evidence for a ‘sacred marriage’ in the annual festivals at Jerusalem.

After an introduction (v. 1 ), the poet addresses first the king (vv. 2–9 ) and then the princess (vv. 10–15 ), finally promising to the king both sons who will become princely rulers, and world-wide fame (vv. 16–17 ).

From early times the psalm was regarded as messianic prophecy. The Targum paraphrased v. 2 as ‘Thy beauty, O King Messiah, exceeds that of the children of men’, and the writer to the Hebrews quotes vv. 6–7 to show the superiority of Jesus over the angels (Heb 1:8–9 ). In Christian liturgical tradition it is sung on Christmas Day.

The text is in disorder in a number of places, hence the different renderings by modern Eng. versions. The meaning of v. 6 has been hotly debated. The most natural way of taking the Hebrew is as NRSV, with the king addressed as God. Because this would be unique in the OT (although the future king of Isa 9:6 is called ‘mighty god’), alternative ways of interpreting the Hebrew have been sought. The NRSV marg. is one possibility, another is ‘Your throne is everlasting like that of God’.

Psalm 46

Three stanzas, each ending with a refrain (vv. 7, 11 ; it seems to have fallen out after v. 3 ) and ‘Selâ’, give this psalm a clear structure. Each section is marked by mythological features: the shaking of the earth, the river (akin to the river of Eden), YHWH as warrior. The divine name ‘the Most High’, probably rooted in Canaanite mythology (for the title ‘the LORD of hosts’, see PS H.5). There is no river in Jerusalem, only the spring of Gihon, but the idea, expressing the life-giving presence of God, was picked up frequently in the OT (cf. Isa 33:21; Ezek 47; Zech 14:8 ).

The psalm has been understood in four ways. (1) Historically, it has been linked with the failure of Sennacherib to capture Jerusalem in 701 BCE (2 Kings 18:9–19:36 ). (2) As cultic, it has been seen as part of the Jerusalem New Year Festival (v. 8 may call the worshippers to see the ritual drama). (3) Eschatologically, it has been treated as prophecy, looking forward to God's final salvation of Israel. (4) Liturgically it has been understood as part of the worship of post-exilic Judaism, the divine protection of Zion in past history or mythology providing assurance in the present. Of these the second seems most likely. There is insufficient detail to link it with any historical event, and while Zech 14 points to the use of cultic mythology in prophetic vision, it is more natural to see in the psalm the cult behind the prophecy rather than prophecy itself. The psalm has provided reassurance to anxious worshippers in the period after the Exile and beyond (Luther's great Reformation hymn, ‘A safe stronghold our God is still’, is based upon it), but this does not determine its origin.

NRSV has retained the traditional ‘a very present help in trouble’ (v. 1 ). The meaning is more probably, ‘a well-proved help’. In v. 9 ‘shields’ involves a change in the Hebrew vowels, and is widely accepted. MT has ‘carts, wagons’, a word which is never used of war-chariots.

The meaning of ‘To Alamoth’ in the title is completely unknown. Aquila and Jerome took it as ‘young women’, hence as sung by sopranos. The LXX has ‘hidden things’, i.e. religious mysteries. Another suggestion is that it is the name of the tune to which it was sung. In 1 Chr 15:20 the harpists play ‘according to Alamoth’.

Psalm 47

This is the first of the ‘enthronement psalms’ ( 47; 93; 96–9 ; see PS E.5b, F.4). Its interpretation depends upon general conclusions about the existence of a New Year Festival at which YHWH was annually enthroned, the relation of this group of psalms to Deutero-Isaiah, the precise translation of the phrase ‘God is king’, whether a procession carrying the ark, symbol of YHWH, into the temple is implied by v. 5 , the extent to which the allusion to the conquest of Canaan in vv. 3–4 emphasizes the covenant and controls the meaning rather than ideas of YHWH's enthronement, and how far ideas of a future divine rule are present. The dominant view today is that the psalm celebrates God's kingship at the New Year Festival, but there is less assurance that he was annually enthroned. In Christian tradition the psalm was linked to the celebration of the ascension, owing to v. 5 being taken as an ascent to heaven.

The structure is not entirely clear. NRSV accepts the ‘Selâ’ as marking a major break, and introduces another break at v. 7 . Alternatively the renewed call to praise in v. 6 may be the beginning of the second section of the psalm.

The translation ‘with a psalm’ (v. 7 ) takes the word maskîl to be the same as that found in several psalm titles (e.g. Ps 32 ). Alternatively it may be verbal: ‘to him who deals wisely’, referring to God.

Psalm 48

This is the second of the Zion psalms (PS E.5a) and forms a pair with 46, praising God for his defence of Jerusalem. The main interpretations take it either historically, as the thanksgiving after the lifting of a siege by Israel's enemies, or within the cult, most probably as part of the New Year Festival. A few hold that it belongs to the worship of post-exilic Judaism.

vv. 1–3 express the praises of God and of his city, Jerusalem. The assembly, attack, and flight of the hostile kings who have come to seize the city is described in vv. 4–7 . In vv. 8–9 the worshippers recall the deliverance they have witnessed and God's ‘steadfast love’ which secured it. Praise is again taken up in vv. 10–11 , followed by a call to take good note of Zion so that the divine deliverance may be reported to future generations (vv. 12–14 ).

Probably ‘in the far north’ (v. 2 ) is mythological (cf. NIV ‘Like the utmost heights of Zaphon’). At Ugarit ṣāpôn was the sacred mountain, the dwelling-place of the gods. The word does mean ‘north’ in Hebrew, but it is difficult to extract a satisfactory sense from it, despite attempts to show that Jerusalem was most beautiful when viewed from the north, that the psalm is really northern and does not refer to Jerusalem, or that it comes from the far south of Judah, from where Jerusalem would be in the north. Possibly the difficult closing words of the psalm express the same mythological ideas. NRSV has altered the vowels of MT to produce ‘forever’. Others, with a small emendation, read ‘According to Alamoth’ (see the title of Ps 46 ), and take it as part of the title of Ps 49 . With other vowels it may mean that YHWH is his people's leader and protector ‘against Mot (death)’, Baal's enemy in Ugaritic myths. Such use of mythology, together with what is apparently a religious procession in v. 12 , and the claim to have ‘pondered’ (perhaps ‘pictured’, ‘seen portrayed’) these events within the temple, support the cultic interpretation of the psalm. No occasion when an enemy was defeated inside the city is known, and on a historical interpretation the procession would seem to be a tour of inspection after the enemy had retreated. The reference to the destruction of the ‘ships of Tarshish’ (probably Tartessus in Spain) may be a further indication that the ideas were taken over from Ugarit.

The LXX adds ‘for the second day of the week’ to the title, presumably indicating its place in the worship of the Jews in Egypt.

Psalm 49

This is usually described as a wisdom psalm, and there are similarities with the wisdom books both in theme and vocabulary. Nevertheless, it is included within the Psalter and may have been sung within the liturgy in post-exilic times. The imagery, e.g. death the shepherd (v. 14 ), and the contrast between the inability of humans to ransom their life and the divine ransom (vv. 6–7, 15 ), is striking.

The text is difficult and certainly corrupt in places (hence the many footnotes in all the Eng. versions). vv. 12 and 20 look like a refrain, but there are significant differences, retained only in NIV among recent translations. NRSV assimilates both to the form in v. 12 , without a footnote, while REB emends both verses. The LXX reads both as: ‘Man being in honour does not understand; he is compared to senseless animals and is like them.’

The poem consists of three parts: vv. 1–4 : introduction; vv. 5–12 : musing on universal death of rich as well as poor; vv. 13–20 : confidence in divine ‘ransom’ from Sheol despite universal human mortality. If the differences between vv. 12 and 20 are significant, the second part of the psalm becomes yet more positive, distinguishing those with religious understanding from the impious rich.

The meaning of v. 15 is uncertain. Possibly the psalmist accepts the general OT belief that there is no life beyond death, and looks simply for God's protection from premature death. The overall sense of the psalm, however, with its contrast between the wealthy oppressors who are unable to ‘ransom’ their ‘brother's’ life, or perhaps their own (v. 7 ), and the divine ‘ransom’ suggests that here is a leap of faith: God will ‘receive’ the psalmist, perhaps in the same way that he ‘took’ (the same Heb. word) Enoch (Gen 5:24 ; cf. Elijah in 2 Kings 2 ).

Psalm 50

The links with prophecy are clear (see the judgement scene in Isa 1:2; Mic 1:2–4; 6:1–2 ; the teaching about sacrifice in Isa 1:10–15; Am 5:21–5; Mic 6:6–8 ; and the demands for righteousness in Isa 1:16–17, 21–6; Hos 4:1–3; Am 2:6–16; 5:24 ), suggesting to some that this psalm should be termed a ‘prophetic liturgy’, coming from a prophet within the regular cultic worship. Others propose a setting within the New Year Festival or posit a festival for the renewal of the covenant (cf. vv. 5, 16 ). Another view places the psalm in post-exilic Israel and terms it a levitical sermon.

The introduction depicts God coming in a majestic theophany, reminiscent of the appearance on Sinai (Ex 19:16–20 ), though now coming from the temple in Zion, and calling heaven and earth as witnesses in his lawsuit against his people Israel (vv. 1–6 ). The rest of the psalm falls into two parts. vv. 7–15 proclaim, with mocking irony, that God rejects sacrifice that is not offered in the right spirit. It is unlikely that ideas of sacrifice as food for the gods still survived openly in Israel, but the psalmist recalls the people to more spiritual ideas: the call in v. 14 is probably to offer a ‘thanskgiving sacrifice’, rather than to substitute thanksgiving for animal offerings. vv. 16–21 move on to a demand for righteousness. Stealing, adultery, and slander in vv. 18–19 bring to mind the Ten Commandments, but the phrasing is different and it is unlikely that they are a direct call to obey the Decalogue. The two final verses are akin to the curses and blessings found e.g. in Deut 28 . v. 23 must express the same sense as v. 14 : ‘He who sacrifices thank-offerings honours me’, NIV.

Running right through the psalm is a sense of the majesty of God, from the initial piling up of ‘The mighty one, God, YHWH’ (the Heb. could be equally well rendered ‘YHWH, the greatest God’), through the imagery of the theophany and God's power as creator and owner of the universe, to the final threat of punishment and promise of salvation.

Psalm 51

The title links this, the greatest of the penitential psalms of the church, with the David and Bathsheba story (2 Sam 11–12 ). Although some attempt to justify this ascription, and others think that it was composed with David's sin in mind, it is more probable that the editor was led to make the connection because he thought it was generally suitable and noted certain similarities of language. Proposed settings for the psalm include penitential rites within the Jerusalem New Year Festival performed by the king as representative of the nation, corporate confession by survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and early synagogue worship. The use of ‘your holy spirit’ and priestly sin and atonement language perhaps point to a date after the Exile.

Appeals for divine forgiveness, cleansing, and renewal (vv. 1–2, 6–12 ) lead into confession (vv. 3–5 ), joyful thanksgiving (v. 8, cf. v. 12 ), vows (vv. 13–15 ), and the acknowledgement that God desires contrition rather than sacrifice (vv. 16–17 ). vv. 18–19 , with their prayer to God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and, in an apparent reversal of vv. 16–17 , declaration that God will then delight in animal sacrifices, are often considered a later addition to the psalm. Some of those who link it with the pre-exilic temple cult accept an original unity, treating the rebuilding of the walls as simply strengthening them and interpreting vv. 16–17 as asserting no more than that God does not accept sacrifice without true penitence as sufficient in itself for atonement; once the people are penitent God will again delight in their offerings.

The psalm is notable for its deep understanding of sin and forgiveness. The psalmist realizes that all wrongdoing is sin against God and that the most serious consequence of sin is alienation from him, not any punishment that the sinner may receive. He knows that repentance requires not only knowledge of wrongdoing but also knowledge of God's grace (v. 1 ). Then repentance will not be a gloomy thing but full of gladness.

v. 5 has had a long, unhappy history of misunderstanding as providing evidence for original sin and the ‘sinfulness’ or impurity of sexual intercourse. Since ancient Israel rejoiced in marriage and the birth of children, this is hardly likely to be the true meaning. Rather the psalmist acknowledges that he belongs to a sinful race, and confesses the depth of the sinfulness he feels.

Psalm 52

The genre and background of this psalm are uncertain, and the text in vv. 1–2, 7, 9 is difficult. The title, with its reference to 1 Sam 22:9 , is an example of the way the editor has searched the stories about David in the books of Samuel to discover suitable occasions for the composition of a number of the Davidic psalms. The psalm fits the narrative badly, since Doeg is an informer rather than a liar.

vv. 1–4 address the evildoer, v. 5 appears to express confidence that God will punish him, though it can be read as a prayer, and this confidence is continued in vv. 6–7 . In vv. 8–9 the psalmist expresses his trust in God's steadfast love and concludes with a vow.

Those adopting a maximalist position on royal psalms explain this psalm as the king's speech to a powerful enemy, perhaps in the style of mockery before the actual combat. The ‘righteous’ and ‘faithful’ in vv. 6 and 9 may be the king's supporters. Others describe it as the prayer of a man accused by a perjured witness, even as a curse uttered against the wicked man before he is expelled from the community. Yet others link it with wisdom teaching, and see it as communal instruction. The denunciation is similar to that of the prophets (cf. Isa 22:15–19 ), and the psalm may have come from one of the prophets employed in the temple. If the main emphasis is placed upon vv. 5–9 the psalm may be taken as a thanksgiving after a slanderer has been discovered and condemned. With such obscurity about its nature and origins, the psalm may belong to any period of Israelite history.

The attitudes of the psalmist are hardly fitting for Christian worship, yet the psalm expresses divine judgement upon evil, bears witness against the sins of lying and slander, and is suffused with trust in God.

Psalm 53

This psalm appears to be a variant of Ps 14 . The general interpretation is given there, but a few additional points need to be added.

Two extra phrases appear in the title: ‘A Maskîl [of David]’, found in the group of psalms 52–5 and ‘according to Mahalath’, which may refer to a flute accompaniment or a flute-playing ceremony, or be the name of a melody. Another suggestion is that it is a reference to illness. Mahalath occurs only here and in Ps 88 (as Mahalath Leannoth, perhaps meaning ‘to humiliate’, i.e. for penitence), and while illness is appropriate there, it is not in Ps 53 .

The differences in the text between the two psalms are relatively small, apart from the substitution of ‘Elohim’ for YHWH (a feature of this group of Elohistic psalms), and v. 6 , where Ps 14 reads: ‘There they shall be in great terror, ǀ for God is with the company of the righteous. ǀ You would confound the plans of the poor, ǀ but God is their refuge.’ The attention is focused on the destruction of the wicked in Ps 53 , but on God's protection of the poor in Ps 14 . This suggests that the two traditions developed independently and that different factors influenced them. If the differences are purely textual, the state of the Hebrew text in the Psalter is worse than is commonly supposed.

Psalm 54

Here, as with Ps 52 , the close resemblance of the historical part of the title to 1 Sam 23:19 —almost a direct quotation—points to an editor searching through the historical books for a suitable setting for the psalm.

Here, as always, the interpreter's presuppositions determine the description of the psalm. Those who believe that a number of psalms were prayers against false accusations, perhaps linked with an ordeal, the taking of an oath, or an appeal to the ‘higher court’ of the temple, find support in v. 1 with its ‘vindicate me’. A royal perspective finds foreign enemies or cultic opponents in the ‘strangers’ (v. 3 ; NRSV emends to ‘the insolent’), ‘the ruthless’ (v. 3 ), and ‘enemies’ (v. 5 ), and supports this as the prayer of the king before battle or in a cultic drama by the appeal to God as personal saviour, and the covenant ‘faithfulness’ (v. 5 ). Others more generally describe it as the lament, prayer, or complaint of an individual.

From appeal (vv. 1–2 ) the psalmist moves to description of the danger facing him (v. 3 ), and on to confidence in God (vv. 4–5 ). Finally the psalmist promises to sacrifice a free-will offering, the one sacrifice which expressed the voluntary gratitude of a thankful heart (vv. 6–7 , another example of the ‘certainty of hearing’).

Psalm 55

Several unique words of uncertain meaning, textual problems, doubt about the tenses in some verses, sudden changes of thought, and an alternation between a single enemy and groups of oppressors (somewhat obscured in NRSV) make this a difficult psalm to understand. It is commonly taken to be the prayer of an individual. Those attracted to royal interpretations ascribe it to the king, beset by foreign enemies and hostility within his own city, and with the head of a neighbouring state now become his adversary. The wider corruption depicted in the psalm may indicate that it is a prayer for the community, but the intense individuality found especially in vv. 4–8, 12–14 makes this less likely.

After an appeal to be heard (vv. 1–2a ), the psalmist describes his anguish (vv. 2b–5 ; the verse division of NRSV is probably right). He has contemplated flight (vv. 6–8 ), for the city is full of violence, and he utters a curse (vv. 9–11 : it may be that poetically ‘violence and strife’ are depicted as going round the walls, whether as watchmen or demons, but the subject of the verb may revert to the evildoers). Even his close friend has turned against him (vv. 12–14 ), and the psalmist utters a renewed curse (v. 15 ). Taking up his complaint, this time with greater confidence (vv. 16–19 ), he once again reverts to the treachery of his friend (vv. 20–1 ). In v. 22 he may recall the assurance of a temple prophet, and he closes the psalm with fresh trust in God who will destroy his enemies (v. 23 ).

Verses of great beauty (cf. 6–7, 16, 22 ) may appear to be immersed within desires for vindictive revenge, but the psalmist is concerned for righteousness and faithfulness, and it is this which determines the overall tone of the psalm.

Psalm 56

This is another prayer for help against enemies. Beyond that little can be said for certain. There seems small reason to class it with the prayers of those falsely accused, though some have proposed this. Those who ascribe many psalms to royal rites interpret the ‘peoples’ of v. 7 as foreign enemies, find references to national war in vv. 1–2, 9 , and regard the vows and thank-offerings (v. 12 ) as particularly suitable for the king. They link the references to ‘death’ and the ‘light of life’ (v. 13 ) to royal imagery, perhaps related to a cultic drama. Alternatively it has been suggested that the psalm comes from one of the Jews of the dispersion who had to face anti-Semitism.

The similarities between vv. 4 and 10–11 may point to a division into two stanzas, with a concluding section vv. 12–13 . But the certainty of hearing seems to begin at v. 9 , which cuts across this scheme.

Special interest attaches to the title. The editor who linked Davidic authorship with events recorded in the historical books related the psalm to David's flight to Gath in 1 Sam 21:10–15 . NRSV's ‘according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths’ involves a change in the vowels of MT, which appears to mean ‘a dove of silence, distant ones’. The phrase is a reference to a melody, although it has been explained as a reference to a dove sent into the distant desert, rather like the scapegoat of Lev 16:20–2 . The LXX has ‘for the people far off from the holy places (or holy people)’, while the Targum reads ‘concerning the congregation of Israel, which is compared to a silent dove at the time when they were far from their cities, and turned again and praised the Lord of the world’. Both of these show that in later tradition the psalm was treated as a national psalm spoken by the personified people.

Psalm 57

vv. 7–11 recur in Ps 108:1–5 , and this, together with the change of theme between vv. 1–6 (a prayer for deliverance from enemies) and 7–11 (a confident thanksgiving which almost turns into a hymn), has suggested to some that two psalms have been combined. Against this is the refrain in vv. 5 and 11 , and the probability that Ps 108 is a liturgical combination of psalmic pieces ( 108:6–13 /Ps 60:5–12 ).

Some interpret this psalm as an individual lament (with the certainty of hearing having a more prominent place than usual), an individual thanksgiving (the first part describing the dangers from which the psalmist has been saved), or the prayer of a man falsely accused (who may have spent the night in the temple precincts while awaiting the decision on his case, cf. ‘I will awake the dawn’, v. 8 ). Others see it as a royal psalm, the shelter of God's ‘wings’ (v. 1 ) and the divine title ῾elyôn (‘God Most High’, v. 2 ) linking it with the Jerusalem temple, while ‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness’ (vv. 3, 10 ) reflect God's covenant with the king. On this last view the reference to the king's ‘glory’ (v. 8 ; NRSV translates as ‘my soul’) perhaps indicates casting off his ritual humiliation. The title shows that the editor linked the psalm with the stories in 1 Sam 22–4 .

Psalm 58

This psalm does not easily fit into any of the main categories. The dominant theme is confidence that YHWH's justice will prevail over present evil. An obscure text, which is probably corrupt (all the modern translations introduce some emendations) makes the details uncertain. A major difficulty is a word in v. 1 which appears to mean ‘silence’ (cf. RV ‘Do you indeed in silence speak righteousness’, apparently meaning that the judges or rulers fail to maintain justice). The LXX and Jerome read it as ‘but’, hardly possible in the context. Most change the vowels to read ‘gods’ (cf. Ps 82 ), either the lesser gods charged by YHWH with maintaining justice in the world, or the rulers, who are acting wickedly instead of upholding the law. The psalm is commonly regarded as a communal lament, but it is unusual to begin with an address to those who are causing the evils to which the righteous are being subjected. The description of the wicked in vv. 3–5 has suggested to some that it is instruction, perhaps given in the synagogue alongside the reading of the law, but there is little evidence for this. The calls for fierce punishment in vv. 6–9 (akin to the prophetic invective of Ps 52 ) and the rejoicing of the righteous when they see vengeance being taken (vv. 10–11 ) strike the modern reader as brutal. Attempts to soften the harshness include stressing the social situation where evil appears to call into question God's authority and justice, the need in ancient Israel for justice to be vindicated in the present world, the danger of divine punishment on the covenant community when the covenant laws are flagrantly broken, and the use of curses as a protection and a way of affirming the covenant demands (see PS J.2–8).

Psalm 59

This vigorous plea for the destruction of the psalmist's enemies has been interpreted in several different ways. The least likely is that it is the prayer of the man who has been accused of some wrong, despite the protests of innocence in vv. 3–4 . The clear references to foreign enemies (the word translated ‘nations’ in v. 5 is rarely used of Israel) and the general impression of hostile attacks in war possibly point to national prayer. This could be incorporated in a royal psalm, where the king is the leader and representative of his people and the one against whom the enemy's attacks are primarily directed. Royal covenant ideas, such as steadfast love and fidelity (vv. 10, 16, 17 ), are noted by those who champion this interpretation.

The structure is not clear. What might appear as two refrains (vv. 6–7, 14–15 , and 9, 17 ) have differences in wording that are hardly textual errors, and they do not divide up the psalm in any very obvious way, as an outline reveals: petition (vv. 1–2 ), description of the ambush (v. 3ab ), declaration of innocence (vv. 3c–4a ), renewed appeal (vv. 4b–5 ), comparison of the enemies as scavenging dogs (vv. 6–7 ), declaration of confidence that God will give victory over the enemies whom he holds in derision (vv. 8–10 ), plea for the destruction of the enemies (vv. 11–13 , with some ambiguity as to whether the enemies are to be totally destroyed or simply weakened), repeated refrain (vv. 14–15 ), and a vow to offer praise or a closing thanksgiving (vv. 16–17 ).

The editor perhaps linked the psalm to the incident in 1 Sam 19:11–17 (part of v. 11 is quoted in the title) because the psalmist says he is surrounded by enemies who lie in wait for him.

Psalm 60

Although part of this psalm (vv. 5–12 ) is repeated in Ps 108:6–13 , there is no reason to suppose that it is not a unity. It is usually classed as a corporate lament. The Israelites have been defeated in battle, and they express their complaint to God and pray for future victory in vv. 1–5 . Then the divine promise of conquests is expressed, perhaps by a prophet, a section notable for the listing of parts of Israel and neighbouring lands over which God is to be sovereign (vv. 6–8 ). Complaint and petition are resumed in vv. 9–11 , and the psalm ends with an expression of confidence that God will give his people victory (v. 12 ). The belief that military defeat was due to God's anger or rejection was common in the ancient world: King Mesha of Moab expresses similar sentiments on the Moabite stone: ‘Chemosh [the Moabite god] was angry with his land’ and allowed Omri to oppress Moab.

The title links it with 2 Sam 8:3–14 (cf. 10:6–14 ) but the details differ and since the account in 2 Samuel describes only victories the ascription is hardly apt, unless a previous defeat is assumed. The places mentioned in vv. 6–7 lie mainly, though not exclusively, in the area of northern Israel (Ephraim and Manasseh were the chief tribes). Moab, Edom, and the Philistines (vv. 8–9 ) were Israel's traditional enemies, who had been defeated by David. Hostility towards Edom increased after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, when the Edomites encroached on Israelite territory, hence many place the psalm after that date. ‘Lily of the Covenant’ (or ‘Lily of Testimony’) is probably the name of the melody to which the psalm is to be sung, though it has been suggested that it refers to using lilies as a means of divination.

Psalm 61

Despite the explicit reference to the king in vv. 6–7 those who restrict the number of royal psalms to a minimum regard this as the prayer of an individual Israelite, who includes among his petitions a plea on behalf of the king, such as is found in some Babylonian prayers. (There is little reason to suppose that the verses are a later interpolation.) Royal maximalists describe it as the king's psalm, and explain the reference to the king in the third person by pointing to similar changes from first to third persons in an inscription from King Yehawmilk of Byblos, arguing that the manner of speech is a way of stressing the privileges granted to the king, here long life and perhaps continued prosperity for his dynasty (‘to all generations’).

Despite some difficulties in the Hebrew text, the general sense is fairly clear. A plea to God for protection is linked with a promise to sing continual praise and pay daily vows. Unusually there is little indication of the dangers from which the psalmist is seeking deliverance. ‘From the end of the earth’ (v. 2 ) has been variously interpreted as showing that the psalmist was an exile, that the king was on a distant campaign, or even that the writer of the psalm depicted himself as at the entrance of Sheol. The references to God's ‘tent’ and the ‘shelter of your wings’ (v. 4 ) may refer to the Jerusalem temple.

Psalm 62

Royal maximalists treat this as a king's psalm, pointing to the references to God as ‘my rock’, ‘my salvation’, and ‘my fortress’ (vv. 2, 6 ), seeing in v. 3 a warning by the king, noting the exhortations to the people in vv. 8–10 , and finding behind vv. 11–12 a divine oracle given to him. Others classify it as a psalm of confidence, even one of the clearest examples of this genre, with trust in God expressed in vv. 1–2, 5–8, 11–12 ; they explain the remaining verses, which describe attacks by enemies and teach the insignificance of human power and wealth, as a foil to this assured faith. The suggestion that the psalmist has taken refuge from his enemies in the temple, which some infer from vv. 2, 6, 7 , seems rather precarious.

The almost exact repetition of vv. 1–2 in 5–6 sounds like a refrain. It has been suggested that it marks off the first, more personal, part of the psalm (vv. 1–7 ); ‘Selâ’ would then be misplaced, and vv. 8–12 would form the second part, which adopts a more direct teaching stance and contains language and ideas that are akin to wisdom. This does not mean that two psalms have been combined, for the note of trust is maintained throughout.

Psalm 63

Although confidence appears to dominate this psalm, most class it as an individual lament, largely due to the opening verses. Who the psalmist is and what called forth his prayer are far from certain. The reference to the sanctuary (v. 2 ) and to the liars who seek his life (vv. 9, 11 ) may point to criminal accusations from which the psalmist seeks to clear himself by an appeal to the higher court, through an ordeal, by uttering an oath of innocence, or by a divine oracle. The mention of the king in v. 11 does not necessarily make it a royal psalm, for the psalmist may include the king in his prayer (cf. Ps 61:6 ), but some features support this interpretation: the opening words may indicate the close covenant relationship with God that the king enjoys, vv. 9–10 perhaps refer to a battle with the slain left to be eaten by jackals, and the confident language, including references to God's steadfast love and protection, are thought by some to be more suitable in the mouth of a king than of an ordinary Israelite.

Tenses present some uncertainties, as variations between the Eng. versions show. Are vv. 9–10 an expression of what will happen to the enemies or should they be taken as a prayer (so REB)?

What incident in the life of David the editor had in mind is less clear than in some other psalms. ‘When he was in the Wilderness of Judah’ may refer to David's flight from Absalom (2 Sam 15–16 ), but the time when Saul was pursuing David has also been suggested (1 Sam 23:14; 24:2 ).

Psalm 64

Problems with the tenses in vv. 7–9 make the interpretation of this psalm difficult. The verbs would normally be translated as a description of past events. If this is adopted, the whole of vv. 2–9 is an account of the actions of the evildoers and the punishment which God has inflicted on them, and the psalm would be an individual thanksgiving, or a testimony to divine judgement. v. 1 , however, looks like the introduction to a lament. If the psalm is treated as such a prayer for deliverance from the enemies, it would be most natural to see vv. 7–9 as an expression of confidence in the protection which God is going to give to the psalmist, and to translate the verbs as future (so NRSV; REB gives the same sense with presents and futures), either treating the tense as ‘perfect of certainty’ or making slight changes in the vowels. A third possibility is to regard the verbs as expressing a wish or prayer (‘precative perfect’), in which case the petition of v. 1 is picked up at the end of the psalm, after the description of the activities of the psalmist's enemies.

The metaphors in vv. 2–5 appear to point to slander, false accusations, or, possibly, curses or spells. They hardly refer to foreign enemies, and it is unlikely that they are to be taken literally, as if the psalmist's enemies were planning to mug him. This does not make their attacks any less fearsome, however, since the ancient Israelites regarded words as possessing their own power to achieve what was spoken (Isaac could not recall or alter the blessings which he had mistakenly pronounced upon Jacob, Gen 27 ).

Psalm 65

This psalm is commonly associated with harvest thanksgiving, possibly due to the overtones which ‘you crown the year’ (v. 11 ) has in English and the references to the flocks and grain in v. 13 . It may have been a hymn of praise sung at the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), but the emphasis upon the rains (though a feature of the Autumn Festival) may indicate that it belonged earlier in the agricultural year, perhaps at the beginning of the barley harvest (at the Feast of Unleavened Bread), or simply looking forward to the promise of a future plenty now that the rains have come. Others have suggested that it was intended as thanksgiving after a time of drought when the crops had begun to grow again (cf. 1 Kings 8:35–6 ; the linking of lack of rain and sin may be reflected in v. 3 ).

The three sections of the psalm are clearly defined: vv. 1–4 , praise to God who answers prayer and forgives sin; vv. 5–8 , a hymn to God, the mighty creator, which is rich in mythological ideas; and vv. 9–13 , containing references to the rains and the harvest. The verbs, especially in vv. 11–13 , present difficulties. The Eng. versions use English present tenses, describing the rains and the fruitfulness which God has given. The LXX took many of the verbs as imperatives and others as futures, thus making the psalm a prayer for forgiveness and a good harvest.

There seems no reason to think that the sections form separate psalms, as some have supposed. Praise, forgiveness, creation, and present providence fit easily together, especially when it is remembered that in ancient Israel creation was viewed as a recurring annual event, when God once again overcame the raging waters and secured the order of the world for another year.

Psalm 66

This psalm divides into three sections: vv. 1–7 are a hymn of praise to God in which the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan are referred to (v. 6 ; if ‘the river’ is parallel to ‘the sea’ the whole verse speaks of the Exodus deliverance); vv. 8–12 are a national thanksgiving for some more recent deliverance from foreign conquest; and vv. 13–20 are in the form of the thanksgiving of an individual, coming to the temple with sacrifices in payment of vows he had made when he was in distress.

Several different interpretations have been offered. (1) It may be that an editor has combined three originally separate psalms (or two, if vv. 1–12 originally formed one hymn of national thanksgiving). (2) An individual psalmist may have prefaced his own thanksgiving with hymns drawn from the temple worship, or the first two parts come from a temple festival within which the individual's thanksgiving was recited. (3) The whole psalm is national, the ‘I’ of the last part being Israel. (4) It is a royal psalm, in which the communal hymn and thanksgiving finds its focus in the king's thanksgiving. The last of these reconstructions has the advantage of explaining the large number of sacrifices offered, which otherwise has to be regarded as poetic exaggeration (v. 15 ), as well as providing a setting for the whole psalm taken as a unity, but it still leaves unresolved whether the psalm was originally sung at some festival commemorating the Exodus and Conquest, perhaps at Gilgal, was part of the annual New Year Festival, or was a liturgy of thanksgiving after victory against foreign enemies.

Psalm 67

The meaning of the Hebrew tenses presents great difficulties for the interpretation of this psalm, as a glance at the ways the Eng. versions translate v. 6 shows. NRSV takes the first Hebrew verb in its natural sense: ‘The earth has yielded its increase’. On this view the psalm is a thanksgiving for the harvest. The verb in the second line of the verse, however, would not normally be translated ‘God has blessed us’ (NRSV), but rather as ‘God will bless us’ or ‘may God bless us’. Moreover, exactly the same verb is used in v. 7a , so that there is little justification for the NRSV's ‘May God continue to bless us’ there, and the verbs in the rest of the psalm are most naturally taken as expressing prayers or wishes.

The refrain in vv. 3 and 5 divides the psalm into three sections, the first two being broadly parallel, seeking God's favour and salvation, leading to joy among all the nations as they see God's blessing—a universalism that is somewhat rare in the Psalter. It is against this background that the two final verses have to be interpreted. It would produce consistency if the anomalous verb were taken as a petition, ‘May the earth yield its harvest’, a possible sense for this tense. An alternative view is that it expresses a repeated experience, represented by a present tense in English, ‘The earth yields its increase’, forming the basis for the petitions in vv. 6b , 7a , which should be taken as ‘May God continue to bless us’. NIV treats all the verbs in vv. 6, 7 as future, with ‘has yielded’ taken as a ‘prophetic perfect’ and expressing confidence that the prayer of the earlier sections of the psalm will be answered. This is possibly best of all.

Psalm 68

This is the most difficult of the psalms and the space available here is quite insufficient to offer a detailed discussion. The problems arise from the large number of words which are found only here in the OT, the difficulties in determining the meaning of the tenses, probable textual corruption in many verses, the lack of clear structure and sequence of thought, uncertainty as to the meaning of some phrases even where the words and surface translation are fairly obvious, and ignorance of the way the psalm was used in ancient Israel. A comparison between the Eng. versions shows up the difficulty of understanding the meaning very clearly.

The first words appear to be a quotation from Num 10:35 , though not exact, and some believe that the author of Numbers used cultic material such as is found in the psalm. Here they can be translated in at least four ways: ‘O that God would arise and his enemies be scattered’, ‘God will arise…’, ‘God arises…’, ‘When God arises his enemies are [or will be] scattered’. The similarities with Num 10:35 , together with the vivid account of ‘solemn processions’ in vv. 24–5 , have often been taken to show that the psalm accompanied a procession carrying the ark in the Autumn Festival. Other possible settings are as a battle song, or a ritual at Gihon or Mount Tabor. The disjointed nature of the psalm, however, has led others to suppose that several different psalm fragments have been combined, even that it is a kind of index in which the opening verses of a large number of poems are listed. Many of the ideas reflect the myths of other religions in the ancient Middle East, such as the accounts of YHWH riding on the clouds, as Baal did, the giving of rains, the defeat of ‘Death’, and battle scenes (at Ugarit the goddess Anat waded in the blood of her defeated enemies). These are inter-twined with themes derived from the historical traditions of Israel: the Sinai theophany, the wilderness wanderings, victories over Israel's enemies, and the confederation of tribes (though only four are named in v. 27 ).

If an attempt is made to treat the psalm as a unity, it may be divided into eight sections: vv. 1–3 , God victorious over his enemies; vv. 4–6 God, the protector of the needy; vv. 7–14 , God's victory (with reminiscences of the Song of Deborah in Judg 5 ); vv. 15–18 (or 20), YHWH's choice of Zion as his dwelling; vv. 19 ( 21 )– 23 , God's victory brings salvation to his people; vv. 24–7 , a description of the procession; vv. 28–31 , the subject peoples bring gifts and submit to YHWH; vv. 32–5 , a triumphant hymn of praise to God.

Psalm 69

This psalm has some similarities with Ps 22 , and both are quoted frequently in the NT (cf. Jn 15:25 (v. 4 ); Jn 2:17; Rom 15:3 (v.9); Jn 19:28–9 (v. 21 ); Rom 11:9–10 (vv. 22–3 ); Acts 1:20 (v. 25 )). vv. 1–29 are a plea for help, while vv. 30–6 read like a hymn of thanksgiving and praise. The change of tone and form is often regarded as indicating the expression of a favourable oracle or some other sign that God has heard the psalmist's prayer, but some see the final verses as an attempt to fit an earlier psalm into the post-exilic situation.

The background to the psalm is uncertain. The reference to the waters reaching up to the psalmist's neck (v. 1, cf. 14–15 ) probably indicates severe illness in which he feels that he has almost sunk down into Sheol. More prominent are the accounts of enemies (vv. 4, 9–12, 14, 18, 19–21 ; even his family are estranged, 8 ), followed by the psalmist's curses on them (vv. 22–8 ). Perhaps they believe that he is being punished by God. It may be, therefore, that this is the prayer composed for those who are sick, to be offered by the sufferer, or on his behalf, in the temple. Those who believe that many of the psalms are to be ascribed to the king point to communal aspects, the lofty position which the psalmist appears to hold, and the psalmist's plea as that of the nation's representative. The curses are felt to be appropriate to the royal office. To regard restoring what he did not steal (v. 4 ) as a reference to the payment of reparations after military defeat seems to be going beyond the natural sense of the verse: the enemies are more naturally taken as fellow Israelites, most probably members of the psalmist's own village or small town. Others include the psalm among the prayers of those accused of some crime, connected with an ordeal, an appeal to the higher court in the temple, or part of an oath ceremony, but this does not seem to fit the overall mood of the psalm.

It is impossible to explain the curses in vv. 22–8 as a quotation of the words of the psalmist's opponents, since they are addressed to more than one person, and they have to be accepted with their full force as what the psalmist wished upon his enemies (see PS J.2–8).

Psalm 70

This psalm repeats Ps 40:13–17 , and most treat it simply as a doublet, the minor differences in the text being due either to corruption or deliberate alteration. Opinion is divided between taking Ps 70 as the original, which has been combined with another psalm to form a liturgy in Ps 40 , and treating Ps 40 as the earlier psalm, possibly a royal psalm, vv. 13–17 here being offered as a short plea for the use of ordinary Israelites. The lack of ‘Be pleased’ in Ps 70:1 (NRSV adds it) perhaps favours the second view, but it is possible that ‘make haste’ serves both halves of the verse (as REB and NIV, despite their different renderings in the two parts, ‘Make haste’/‘Hasten’ and ‘come quickly’). The LXX takes the first line as part of the title, rendering it very literally, ‘that the Lord may save me’.

As it stands, Ps 70 is a terse and urgent prayer for God's help to save the psalmist from enemies who wish to harm, even kill him.

Psalm 71

In the first two books of the Psalter there are four psalms which lack a title, this being one. Of the others the LXX joins 9 and 10, which the acrostic confirms, and the refrain links 42 and 43. Whether 70 and 71 were treated as one psalm is uncertain. Some Hebrew MSS join the two psalms, but the LXX provides a title for Ps 71 : ‘By David, of the sons of Jonadab and the first ones taken captive’.

vv. 9, 17–18 suggest that the psalmist is an old man. The distress from which he seeks relief may be severe illness and the approach of death (v. 20 ), and, as so often in the psalms, his ‘enemies’ assert that God has abandoned him (v. 11 ). He speaks of the faith in God which has sustained him all his life (vv. 5–6, cf. 17 ), prays that God will not reject him (v. 9 ), and asks for renewed health (vv. 20–1 ) and the discrediting of his enemies (v. 13, cf. v. 4 ). Then he will renew his praises (vv. 14–16, 22–4 ).

Royal maximalists interpret it as the king's psalm, perhaps towards the end of his reign, when there are attempts to supplant him. They point to the close relationship with God that the psalmist affirms, and see royal declarations in his witness to God's salvation (vv. 15, 18 ) and his praises. Other speculations are that the psalm is a call for protection from impending danger, the prayer of one who has fled to the sanctuary (cf. vv. 1–3 ), and a plea by faithful Israelites in the post-exilic community. If, however, the references to old age are given primary emphasis, the psalm appears to be much more the work of an individual poet than a liturgical piece for repeated use.

A feature of the psalm is the frequent allusion to other psalms, even almost direct quotation (e.g. vv. 1–3 /Ps 31:1–3; vv. 5–6 /Ps 22:9–10; v. 11 (NRSV reverses the clauses)/Ps 22:1; vv. 12–13 /Ps 35:22; 38:21; 40:13–14; v. 24/Ps 35:4, 26; 40:14 ). Might it be that the elderly psalmist strengthens his faith and expresses his petition through well-known and greatly loved psalms?

Psalm 72

The obvious reference to the king secures agreement among the commentators that this is a royal psalm. Differences appear only when the original setting is considered. The marked idealism suggests to many that it is appropriate for the king's coronation or enthronement, though it may have been sung at the annual celebration of his accession. Key themes are the just rule which the king will exert, especially in his care for the poor and oppressed (vv. 1–2, 4, 12–14 ), and the prosperity which his righteousness will bring to his people (vv. 3, 6–7, 16 ), together with the submission of foreign nations, who will bring tribute (vv. 8–11, 15 ).

As with many psalms, the tenses prove troublesome. The LXX treats them all as future apart from vv. 3a , 17a . NRSV and REB regard vv. 2–11, 15–17 as prayers or wishes, with vv. 12–14 as descriptive and providing the grounds for the favour which God shows to him and his people, and this may well be right. NIV keeps futures apart from vv. 15–17a , perhaps from conservatism, since AV has future tenses throughout, but possibly because it takes the psalm as messianic prophecy. It was treated as messianic in Jewish and early Christian tradition, the Targum paraphrasing v. 1 as ‘O God, give the precepts of thy judgement to King Messiah, and thy righteousness to the son of king David’, and v. 17 as ‘His name shall be remembered for ever; and before the sun existed his name was prepared; and all peoples shall be blessed in his merits’. It is never quoted in the NT, however, though at an early period it was adopted as the special psalm for Epiphany.

The ascription to Solomon in the title, found also in Ps 127 , may have been suggested to the editor by vv. 1, 10, 15 (cf. 1 Kings 10:1–10, 22 ). In the LXX the form is different from the common ‘Of David’ normally expressed, and possibly ‘for Solomon’ rather than ‘by Solomon’ was intended—a Davidic psalm which he composed for Solomon.

It is generally agreed that vv. 18–19 are a doxology at the end of Book 2 of the Psalter and are not an integral part of the psalm. For v. 20 see PS D.4.

Psalm 73

This psalm has some affinities with the wisdom writings, but its strongly personal tone and references to the temple have led many to hesitate about classing it simply as a wisdom psalm. Possible genres range from an individual lament or thanksgiving, a meditation or psalm of confidence, to a royal psalm. While a case can be made out for the last (Israel is mentioned in v. 1 (NRSV emends), v. 15 seems to imply that the speaker is someone in authority, the intimate trust in God is suitable for a king, the evildoers, probably apostate Israelites, might just possibly be foreign oppressors, and the psalmist's loss of faith would fit the king's humiliation in the cult) most think that its intensely individualistic stance, coupled with the wisdom elements, make it unlikely. Form-critical approaches are less helpful than concentrating on its thought.

The psalmist declares that he almost lost his faith in God when he saw how prosperous the wicked were, and he wondered whether his hard struggle to maintain his personal integrity was worthwhile. His first bulwark against apostasy is the effect that such unbelief would have on others (vv. 15–16 ). But the turning-point in his experience was a visit to the temple (v. 17 ). There an oracle, taking part in religious rites, or an experience of God's presence, restored his faith. He realizes that evildoers will meet sudden divine judgement (vv. 18–20 ) and finds the blessing of knowing God (vv. 21–6 ), and the psalm ends, as it began, with the supreme ‘good’ (v. 28 ).

Some verses appear to be corrupt, and others are difficult to interpret, reflected in the considerable variations between the Eng. versions. In v. 1 NRSV and REB divide the Hebrew letters differently to produce ‘[good] to the upright’. This provides a good parallel to ‘pure in heart’, but lacks any textual support, and ‘to Israel’ should probably be retained. In v. 4 whether the wicked avoid suffering during their lifetime or at the moment of death in uncertain. v. 10 seems to be beyond recall. The meaning of the important v. 24 is uncertain not because of a corrupt text but because the meaning of several words is ambiguous. The issues are: (1) does ‘afterwards’ refer to the psalmist's present troubles or to death? (2) what connotation should be given to ‘glory’—‘with honour’ or the glory of God's presence? and (3) does ‘you will receive’ relate to the experience of Enoch and Elijah, who were ‘received, taken up’ by God, presumably to be with him for ever, or is it divine acceptance in this life? The general lack of any belief in an afterlife throughout the OT except in the very latest writings makes it uncertain whether the psalmist envisages a happy life after death. But the hope seems so important in the thought of the psalm that perhaps it should be seen as a leap of faith.

Psalm 74

Although it has been suggested that this psalm has no historical links but belongs to a ritual desecration of the temple in the cult, almost everyone agrees that it celebrates the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. This is the only occasion when the temple was actually burned, and similarities with the poems in Lamentations which commemorate the event provide support. Whether it was composed soon after the events it describes or later, perhaps as part of an annual remembrance of the destruction, is less easy to decide. On the other hand the reference to the enemy having ‘burned all the meeting places of God in the land’ (v. 8 ) has sometimes been seen as a reference to synagogues (so Aquila and Symmachus), and the psalm has been interpreted as a reaction to the desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE. The Targum paraphrased ‘the impious’ (v. 22 ) as ‘this mad king’, apparently thinking of Antiochus Epiphanes, who was nicknamed by his enemies ‘Epimanes’, ‘madman’, which possibly indicates that the psalm was used later to commemorate the Greek desecration of the temple. It may even be that it was modified at that time, but the description in the psalm fits the Babylonian attack more closely than any other. It is very uncertain whether synagogues were built as early as the Maccabaean period, and the LXX reads ‘Come, let us abolish the feasts of the Lord from the land’ in v. 8 , as do the Targum, Syriac, and Vulgate.

The main structure of the psalm is clear: vv. 1–11 and 18–23 are prayers to God to come to the people's aid, while vv. 12–17 recall the power of God in creation in hymnic fashion, using mythical ideas similar to those in Ugarit and Babylon (some find a reference to the Exodus in this section, and the NRSV may intend to support this with its translations ‘You divided the sea’ and ‘creatures of the wilderness’, but the whole passage more naturally refers to the divine battle that preceded creation). It has been suggested that the verbs show that the psalm has a more elaborate, chiastic form: vv. 2–3 being matched by 18–23 (imperatives), 4–9 by 12–17 (perfects), and 10–11 (imperfects) forming the central section, with v. 1 as an introduction. Other word-plays, matching words, and the sevenfold repeated ‘You’ in vv. 12–17 reveal the artistry behind the poetry.

Psalm 75

The rapid changes of speech and style make it difficult to fit this psalm into any of the main categories. It begins as a thanksgiving by the community (v. 1 ). vv. 2–5 in the first person have been described as a prophetic oracle or the words of the king, declaring divine judgement on the wicked. God is the Creator who established the foundations of the world and maintains justice. The next section (vv. 6–8 ) describes the future judgement, of which the ‘cup of foaming wine’ is a symbol, perhaps taken from the old ordeal in which the accused was made to drink a potion that would prove poisonous only to the wicked (for the figure cf. Ps 11:6; Isa 51:17 ). In v. 9 the psalmist (individual, king, or the community) vows to utter praise to God, and the psalm ends with a renewed promise, in a divine oracle or the words of the king, to destroy the power of the wicked (v. 10 ).

The psalm fits naturally into some cultic festival. Those who treat a maximum number of psalms as royal regard this also as the king's psalm. Others note the oracles and describe it as a prophetic liturgy. Whether it ever had a historical background such as the failure of Sennacherib to capture Jerusalem (2 Kings 18–19, cf. 19:35 ) is doubtful, as is the suggestion that it looks forward to the last judgement.

Psalm 76

This psalm has similarities with Ps 46 and 48 , and like them has been interpreted as the celebration of some Israelite victory over their enemies, as part of the New Year Festival in Jerusalem, as a prophecy of God's future victory, and more generally as post-exilic praise. The addition to the title in the LXX, ‘to (concerning) the Assyrian’ indicates that the first of these was adopted in some Jewish traditions, and the psalm related to Sennacherib's attack and defeat as described in 2 Kings 18–19 . REB adopts a common emendation of v. 10 (‘Edom, for all his fury, will praise you ǀ and the remnant left in Hamath will dance in worship’), finding in the verse an allusion to David's victories, but some who accept the change of text reject a historical interpretation. Linking it with the pre-exilic Jerusalem Autumn Festival is probably more likely, though its presence in the Psalter shows that it continued to be sung in later worship.

NRSV follows the usual division of the text: vv. 1–3 praise God who chose Zion as his dwelling and defended his city; vv. 4–6 describe that victory in more detail; vv. 7–9 change the metaphor into that of judge who saves the humble; and the final section, vv. 10–12 , which is less of a unity, declares that human beings will worship YHWH, even those most hostile to him, and calls on them to perform their vows. The ‘Selâ’ in vv. 3 and 9 adopts a threefold structure by treating the middle sections as a description of God.

Psalm 77

Difficulties in understanding the tenses in vv. 1–12 make the interpretation of this psalm uncertain (contrast NRSV's present tenses with the predominantly past tenses of REB and NIV). Is it the anguished prayer of an individual in distress that is made greater by his nation's suffering? On this view vv. 11–20 sustain the psalmist by recalling God's power as the Creator (or perhaps as the God who saved Israel at the Red Sea (Ex 14:10–31 ) at the time of the Exodus). Or is it a psalm of thanksgiving which also recounts the troubles from which the psalmist has been delivered? The contrast between vv. 1–10 and 11–20 has suggested to some that two psalms have been combined, a lament and a hymn of praise, the abrupt end in v. 20 possibly indicating that the second part is only a fragment of the original hymn. Yet there are striking similarities of vocabulary between the two parts, and indeed it has been suggested that there are deliberate parallels forming an inclusio, e.g. ‘voice’ of lament in v. 1 (‘aloud’) and ‘voice’ of God's thunder in v. 17 , the ‘hand’ of the psalmist (v. 2 ), the ‘hand’ of Moses and Aaron (v. 20 ), and ‘remember’ in vv. 3 (‘think’), 5, 11 . However the psalm is understood, the urgent questions in vv. 7–9 lie at its heart.

Taken as a unity, the psalm has been classified in many different ways: the prayer of an Israelite (possibly from the northern kingdom, if any weight is to be placed on ‘Jacob and Joseph’ in v. 15 ); a national lament; communal thanksgiving for deliverance from some national distress; a royal psalm in which the king is representative of his people, bearing the nation's suffering, and offers his intercession for the nation, with the final verse perhaps pointing to the king's office as shepherd of his people. It has even been suggested, rather improbably, that this is another of the prayers by a man falsely accused of some wrong.

In the absence of much secure evidence, this is an excellent example of the way interpretation is controlled by the presuppositions that are brought to the psalm.

Psalm 78

This is the first of the three great history psalms (PS E.13). The writer begins like one of the wisdom teachers (‘teaching’, ‘parable’, and ‘dark sayings’ are wisdom vocabulary, and the emphasis on teaching the next generation reflects the aims of the wise men). But unlike Proverbs or Job, this writer chooses to express his teaching by recounting incidents in Israel's history. The broad structure is clear. The history is worked over twice, first concentrating on events during the period of the wilderness wanderings (vv. 12–41 ), then pointing more directly to the Exodus (vv. 42–53 ), but continuing the history up to the time of David (vv. 54–72 ). The emphasis is upon God's continuing protection and forgiveness of Israel, contrasted with Israel's constant rebellion and lack of trust. Past failures are told in order to urge the people to remember God's goodness and obey him. How far the introduction extends is not obvious: a narrow view limits it to vv. 1–4 , but since the survey of history begins at v. 9 (or even 12 ), it may extend to v. 8 .

Whether it is profitable to attempt to fit the psalm into any of the major categories is doubtful. It is not obviously either a hymn or a confession, and the sharp differences which mark it off from the wisdom books of the Old Testament make its description as a wisdom psalm unsafe, though it is plainly didactic.

Many attempts at dating the psalm have been made. The chief pieces of evidence that have been drawn upon are: the mention of the destruction of Shiloh, the ending of the history with David, the criticisms of the northern kingdom without any reference to its destruction in 722; the apparent existence of the Jerusalem temple, comparisons of the plagues with the lists in the ‘sources’ of the Pentateuch, and similarities with the Deuteronomistic interpretation of history. Most arguments are indecisive, and while very early dates have been suggested (the time of David or Solomon), and many are willing to concede a pre-exilic date, in a sense all the psalms are post-exilic since this is the period in which they were edited and collected.

Whether the psalm was used in worship is equally uncertain. Some have suggested that it was sung at the Autumn Festival as an expression of salvation history that formed part of the covenant renewal. Various speakers at such a celebration have been proposed: the king, a Levite, or a prophet. The general didactic tone of the psalm, however, may mean that it was never linked with worship.

Psalm 79

Everyone agrees that this is a communal lament, and most accept the early Jewish tradition that it refers to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 and the destruction of the temple, even though the language is so allusive that other historical incidents might be suggested. It may well have been recited on the fast day that commemorated that event (cf. Zech 7:3, 5; 8:19, and Ps 74 for a similar lament).

Complaint at God's inaction, urgent prayer, confession, and imprecations on the enemies of Israel are interwoven so that it is difficult to produce a clear structure for the psalm. vv. 1–4 describe the disaster, and the petition of the worshippers follows in vv. 5–12 , the psalm concluding with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise (v. 13 ).

If the prayers for vengeance offend modern sensitivities, we should perhaps be less ready to find relief in the (correct) assertion of earlier scholars that the psalmists saw the defeat of his people as an insult to God himself, now that we are aware of the ease with which religion adds to the evils of war.

Psalm 80

This is another communal lament. It is unusual in having a refrain (vv. 3, 7, 19 ), and having northern Israel as its main concern. An addition to the title in the LXX referred it to the Assyrian attacks, and it has been suggested that this is correct and that the period towards the end of the northern kingdom, perhaps in 733, is the subject of the plea to God. Alternatively it may come from Judah (the cherubim (v. 1 ) are usually associated with the Jerusalem temple) and there are some links with Isaiah, who uses a similar image of a vineyard whose wall God breaks down (Isa 5:1–7 ), while Jeremiah and Ezekiel both refer to YHWH as shepherd, although the exact phrase ‘Shepherd of Israel’ is unique here, and both show an interest in the northern kingdom. It is impossible to be certain, however, and it has been argued that the psalm is post-exilic and has picked up earlier traditions in a renewed lament.

A refrain (vv. 3, 7 ) marks off the first two sections of the psalm: vv. 1–2 , a call to God for help; vv. 4–6 , an urgent plea and complaint at God's treatment of his people. The rest of the psalm then forms a final section, describing God's past care of Israel, referring in the figure of the vine to the Exodus and conquest, and the present distress (vv. 8–13 , did the refrain originally follow v. 13 as well?). Petition is renewed in vv. 14–17 , with a vow to return to God in v. 18 , and a repetition of the refrain in the last verse.

Psalm 81

A reference to the renewal of the covenant has often been found in this psalm (cf. v. 7b , possibly an allusion to Sinai, and the similarities of vv. 9–10 with the beginning of the Decalogue, Ex 20:2–5 , together with the kind of teaching found in Deut 4:1; 5:1; 6:4; 9:1 , and the reference to a seven-yearly ceremony of covenant renewal in Deut 31:9–13 ). Whether such a ceremony was part of the New Year Festival has been questioned; the reference to the new moon and full moon in v. 3 and the blowing of the trumpet perhaps reflect the celebration of New Year and Tabernacles. Although the teaching of vv. 9–10 are similar to the Decalogue, the words for ‘strange’ god and ‘foreign’ god are different from the ‘other gods’ of Ex 20 and Deut 5 , as is the verb ‘brought [you] up’, and the order of the phrases is reversed.

The psalm begins like a hymn (vv. 1–5b ), and this is followed by an oracle (vv. 5c–16 ). This is probably a feature of the liturgy and does not indicate that two separate psalm fragments have been combined, although that may be how the liturgy was developed. vv. 6–10 describe God's deliverance of his people from Egypt, while vv. 11–16 remind them of their past disobedience and promise victory over their enemies if they obey him. v. 10c fits oddly and has often been transposed to follow v. 5c as the announcement to the prophet of the oracle that God is giving him. Some see in the changes between third and second person (note NRSV marg. in v. 6 ) an indication of further disarrangement, the two oracles being vv. 6, 11–16 and 7–10 .

Psalm 82

Jewish tradition, seen in the Targum and reflected in Jn 10:34–6 , interpreted this psalm as the condemnation of the human rulers of Israel, similar to Isa 3:13–15 , but v. 7 makes no sense on this interpretation and it is almost universally accepted today that the picture is of YHWH's heavenly court (cf. 1 Kings 22:19–22; Job 1:6–12; 2:1–7 ), similar to the pantheons of other nations, with YHWH presiding as Marduk or El did. The gods were apparently charged with maintaining justice in their client kingdoms, but they have shown partiality to the wicked and have not defended those who are exposed to oppression, orphans and the poor. vv. 2–4, 6–7 set out YHWH's judgement. His sentence is that the gods will die like human beings. v. 5 may refer either to the wicked or the gods. The verse stands out within the divine judgement, and some have suggested that the psalm is in chiastic form:

The psalm ends with a prayer that YHWH will undertake universal rule and bring in universal righteousness. This has suggested to some that rather than a prophetic oracle or vision the psalm is really a lament, but it is possible to regard the verse as an exclamation, as in Isa 21:5 and Mic 4:13 .

Psalm 83

The extended list of enemies who have leagued themselves together against Israel (vv. 6–8 ) has given rise to many attempts at dating. Theodore of Mopsuestia (350–427 CE) suggested the time of the Maccabees (cf. 1 Macc 5 ). Other dates range from pre-exilic times (the reign of Jehoshaphat, cf. 2 Chr 20 ) to after the Return (cf. Neh 4 ). The list contains ten names, which perhaps indicates that it is symbolic and that the psalm is a cultic lament (cf. Ps 2:1–3; 46:6; 48:4–8 ).

After calling upon God to remain inactive no longer (v. 1 ), the onslaught of the enemies is described (vv. 2–8 ). The rest of the psalm is an appeal to God to destroy these enemies, and the victories of Deborah and Barak over the Canaanite leader Sisera (Judg 4–5 ) and of Gideon over the Midianites Oreb and Zeeb, and Zebah and Zalmunna (Judg 7:25; 8:13–21 ) are recalled as examples. Those looking for literary patterns point to the chiastic arrangement of vv. 3–6 , with the enemies of Israel flanked by the enemies of God.

Psalm 84

This is usually termed a pilgrim psalm, and the happiness which the godly Israelite finds as he makes his way to the temple for the Autumn Festival shines through. Other suggestions are that it is an entrance liturgy or simply a hymn of Zion. Several different types of prayer appear in it: expressions of joy and confidence that would fit a hymn of praise (vv. 1, 10, 12 ), longing, rather in the style of a lament (2, cf. 10a ), prayer for the king (vv. 8–9 ; ‘our shield’ refers to the king), and a description of the pilgrimage as the autumn rains are falling (vv. 5–7 ). The whole psalm is bound together by the first and last verses, both addressing ‘YHWH of hosts’ and expressing delight and happiness. Most—even of those who find a maximum number of royal psalms—draw back from ascribing this psalm to the king himself, preferring to think of a cultic soloist.

In v. 7 the MT seems to mean: ‘he appears before God in Zion’ (cf. RV); NRSV follows the LXX. Behind the psalm may be worship in which God was represented by an image which the worshippers ‘saw’ in the temple. No image of YHWH existed in Israel, but the phrase may have taken this over conservatively in the liturgy. Later scribes, anxious about orthodoxy and reverence, altered the verb into ‘appear before’.

Psalm 85

The surface structure of this psalm is clearer than its exact interpretation. vv. 1–3 describe a past forgiveness and salvation; vv. 4–7 are in the form of a communal lament, a prayer for an end to God's anger and renewed deliverance; in vv. 8–13 a prophet tenses himself to hear God's word and proclaims the promise of rich spiritual and material blessing.

Problems of the meaning of the Hebrew tenses, coupled with uncertainty about the date of the psalm and hence its historical or cultic background, make interpretation difficult. There are three main ways of interpreting the psalm.

Some place it in the period after the Exile, perhaps later than the time of Haggai and Zechariah. vv. 1–3 express the same sentiments as Isa 40–55 , while the next section reflects the hardships which the returned exiles experienced, so different from their hopes. They still need the promise of vv. 8–13 .

Others think that it belongs to the pre-exilic temple worship, the first section referring to the Exodus salvation, and the emphasis on righteousness suiting their understanding of the thrust of the New Year Festival, or perhaps v. 11 contains the hint of a bad harvest as the disaster from which God's help is sought.

Rather differently, others, sensitive to the contrast between the joyful account of an apparently past deliverance and the following prayer, take the Hebrew tenses in vv. 1–3 either as prophetic, the whole psalm then becoming confident prophecy, or as petition, which turns the whole psalm into a lament, perhaps ending with the certainty of hearing.

Psalm 86

All agree that this is the prayer of an individual, and many describe it as almost a mosaic of quotations. The ‘quotations’, however, may simply be traditional phrases which the psalmist is reusing. There is less unanimity about the identity of the psalmist. The maximalists hold that it is a royal psalm, probably linked with the ritual humiliation of the king in the cult. They point to the extravagance of v. 9 which seems to go beyond what could be expected from an ordinary Israelite, and note the attacks by the enemies, the association of divine power with the king as YHWH's servant, and the stress on God's faithfulness and his great name, ideas that are linked elsewhere with kingship. On the other hand, some include it among the pleas of those unjustly accused or seeking divine acquittal, but there seem to be few grounds for this proposal. Perhaps it is a post-exilic psalm based on early traditional phrases, possibly taking over some features that previously belonged to royal psalms. The psalmist says so little about the distress from which he seeks God's rescue that it is difficult to determine what it is: enemies, false accusations, illness, even sin, are all hinted at.

The three-part structure is transparent: vv. 1–7 , a plea for help, based on the psalmist's piety (vv. 1–4 ) and the character of God (vv. 5–7 ); vv. 8–13 , a hymn-like section, interrupted by a call on God to teach the psalmist (v. 11 ) and ending with thankful confidence that his prayer is answered, or a vow to offer praise, perhaps even to sacrifice a thank-offering (vv. 12–13 ); vv. 14–17 , renewed prayer, ending with a request for a ‘sign’, either some ritual or an oracle, or the salvation itself.

Frequent parallels and repetitions, such as an eightfold ‘for’ in vv. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 13 , the repeated ‘Lord’ (vv. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, 17 ), and the description of the psalmist as YHWH's ‘servant’ (vv. 2, 4, 16 ), have led some to look for literary patterns. A chiastic structure, with v. 11 in the centre receiving the main stress, has been detected.

Psalm 87

This short psalm is one of the most difficult in the Psalter. Short phrases and possible textual corruption, together with lack of clear sequence of thought have led to widespread emendation and rearrangement of the verses (cf. NEB). The only safe approach, however, is to retain the MT (REB has reversed many of the changes in NEB), even if this is not as the poet intended.

To classify it as one of the Songs of Zion takes the interpretation only a small way. The date and original setting are completely uncertain. The reference to dancing in v. 7 perhaps indicates that it was linked with a festal procession. The difficult middle section (vv. 4–6 ) may be taken in many different ways: as looking to the future when Jerusalem would be the centre of universal worship; as listing some of the nations from which Jewish proselytes have come to the festival; as a reference to Jews who come from different countries in the dispersion. The universal perspective may point to a post-exilic date, but it is impossible to be sure. The other countries might simply be a foil to YHWH's choice of Jerusalem.

‘Rahab’ (v. 4 ), the primeval monster quelled by YHWH in ancient story (cf. Ps 89:10 ), represents Egypt. The ‘springs’ (v. 7 ) may symbolize divine blessing, or Zion may be thought of as the source of the streams of Paradise.

Psalm 88

This is the bleakest of all the individual laments. The last word expresses its mood. The wonder is that the psalmist prays at all.

The full horror of Sheol is found here. After death there is nothing but the land of darkness and forgetfulness, beyond God's care, outside the reach of his salvation, where the shades no longer offer praise (vv. 5, 10–12, cf. Ps 6:5; 30:9:115:17; Job 7:8–10; 10:21–2 ; see PS G.13). The only spark of faith which glimmers through the darkness is v. 1 : ‘O LORD, God of my salvation’. Three times he makes his plea to God (vv. 1–2, 9, 13 ), but always he is met with silence; the final line of the psalm should perhaps be translated as REB, ‘Darkness is now my only companion.’ We are reminded of Job.

The structure of the psalm is not clear. The three appeals to God mark some divisions. The descriptions of the psalmist's afflictions mark others: so ill that it seems he draws near to Sheol (vv. 3–7 ); rejected with horror by his friends (v. 8 ); an account of Sheol (vv. 10–12 ); seriously ill from his youth he is abandoned by God, subject to his wrath; and once again God seems to have caused his friends to shun him (vv. 15–18 ). And the psalm breaks off in darkness, the mystery of suffering unsolved, the silence of God unexplained. Traditionally the psalm has been read on Good Friday.

Psalm 89

After an introduction (vv. 1–4 ), this long psalm falls into three easily discerned sections. vv. 5–18 are a hymn of praise to YHWH, proclaiming his greatness among the gods, his power as creator, and his righteous rule; happy are his covenant people. It ends with a reference to the Israelite king, the nation's ‘horn’ and ‘shield’. vv. 19–37 tell of YHWH's covenant with David and appear to be related in some way to Nathan's prophecy in 2 Sam 7:1–17 ; most probably both go back to traditions with a long history behind them and perhaps influenced each other. The final section of the psalm (vv. 38–51 ) is a lament. The king had been defeated and humiliated: he may even have lost his life (cf. v. 45 ), although the plea in vv. 46–8 , if by the king himself, would imply that he was only gravely threatened.

With so many clear references to the king, it is strange that Gunkel (id. and Begrich 1933: 140) is hesitant about including it among his ten royal psalms. He regarded the combination of forms as pointing to a late date and reflecting the fall of the Davidic dynasty in 586. Some think it is a combination of separate psalms, but the overall unity seems assured, as is its being a king's psalm.

It is possible that it is related to some historical defeat, and the death of Josiah (2 Kings 23:29–30 ) or the Exile and imprisonment of Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:8–17 ) have been proposed. Another suggestion places it after 520 BCE, at a time when hopes of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy were current (cf. Zech 4:6–14 ). On a cultic interpretation the psalm would accompany the ritual humiliation of the king, somewhat similar to that known in Babylon. To see it as part of an annual covenant festival is less likely. If used in a ritual it must have been followed by the king's salvation by God.

Christian tradition has linked it with Christmas, God's covenant promise being fulfilled in Jesus. Typology might find parallels between the king's humiliation and Christ's humble birth, death, and final triumph.

v. 52 is the doxology at the end of Book 3 of the Psalter (PS D.2).

Psalm 90

This is the only psalm ascribed to Moses, and while no one today would accept that Moses was the author, possible reasons for the title can be discovered. There are certain similarities with the Song of Moses (Deut 32 ), and only Moses calls on God to ‘repent’ (the word translated ‘have compassion on’ in v. 13; Ex 32:12 ).

The psalm does not fit easily into any of the standard categories. It is often classed as a communal lament, but this suits only vv. 13–17 . The teaching in vv. 3–12 has many wisdom features, though the main wisdom writings, apart from Job, do not address God in this way, and at v. 7 features of a lament appear (God's anger, references to sin, and the call ‘How long?’). The psalm opens like a hymn of praise (vv. 1–2 ). To divide it into two, or even three, separate psalms, however, is a counsel of despair. While it is possible that a post-exilic scribe compiled the psalm, using some earlier psalmic fragments and other material, what was produced is a single poem which deserves to be treated as a whole. Like Ps 73 it begins with a statement of faith—YHWH has proved himself the security and support of each generation. vv. 3–12 emphasize the brevity of human life, made more bitter by toil and grief. ‘How long?’ (v. 13 ) is the familiar cry of lament (cf. Ps 6:3; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 94:3 ); the only ground for prayer is God's unwavering love (vv. 13–17 ). In this way the eternity of God (v. 2 ) is contrasted with the fleeting life of human beings (v. 10 ), and our sin (v. 8 ) is answered by divine love (vv. 14, 17 ). Perhaps the scribe wished to compose a psalm that could be used in services of prayer and penitence (cf. Jdt 4:9–12 ), or even for private devotion.

Psalm 91

Many and varied are the interpretations of this psalm. Royal maximalists find in the assurances given to the psalmist decisive evidence: the king alone can be the recipient of such divine protection. Other suggestions range from a form of entrance liturgy spoken by the priest to the worshipper at the temple, to part of the rites for a convert, who now sets himself under the protection of YHWH. The LXX added a title ascribing the psalm to David, while the Targum found in it a dialogue between David and Solomon. Similarities with Job 5:19–24 have led to proposals to link the psalm with wisdom writings, but Job itself may have been influenced by psalm forms. Reading ‘pestilence’ (v. 3 ) as ‘word’ (i.e. spell, rather than slander) and ‘that wastes’ (v. 6 ) as ‘and a demon’, the LXX reflects the interpretation of the psalm at the time of the translators as a defence against spells and demons. If it is a royal psalm it might have been recited before the king went out to battle, unless it formed part of temple ritual. The quotation of vv. 11–12 in the temptations narrative ( MT 4:6 ; Lk 4:10–11 ) may reflect messianic interpretations of the psalm.

The structure of the psalm is more complicated than appears from the NRSV's emendations and rewriting (see RV for a more literal translation). The main sections are vv. 1–13, 14–16 , the latter being in the form of an oracle. Whether there is a dialogue in the first part is uncertain, but changes of person and exclamations interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Psalm 92

Although this psalm begins with thanksgiving, its form is not entirely clear. Teaching, akin to that found in the wisdom writings (vv. 6–7 ), and individual thanksgiving (vv. 10–11 ) are also found. Royal maximalists ascribe it to the king, pointing out that the psalmist's victory is also God's, that he is anointed, and that the community flourishes alongside the king. The title presents it as a sabbath psalm, and the Talmud states that it was sung at the offering of wine that accompanied the first sacrifice of a lamb (Num 28:9–10 ), while the Targum renders the title: ‘a psalm of praise and song which the first man uttered upon the day of the Sabbath’.

Those looking for literary patterns find an elaborate chiasmus, with v. 8 at its centre:

parts of which are more convincing than others. It requires that the ignorance of the ‘dullard’ (v. 6 ; all the Eng. versions fail to represent the overtones of evil that are part of the meaning of the Heb. word) refers backwards to v. 5 , rather than forwards to vv. 7–8 or 7–9 (as Eng. versions apart from JB and NJB). If this is rejected as too fanciful, a somewhat complicated structure may be seen as: a call to praise God in the form of a reflection on the way such praise is morally good or fits the divine plan for human beings (vv. 1–3 ); the grounds for this praise (vv. 4–5 ); a wisdom-type section of teaching, with hymnic elements (vv. 6–8 ); thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies (vv. 9–11 ); the blessedness of the righteous (vv. 12–15 ).

Psalm 93

For a discussion of the enthronement psalms ( 47; 93; 96–9 ) see PS E.5b. This psalm celebrates YHWH's kingship, creation, his power over the primeval waters, and his ethical decrees (v. 5 ), which were probably related to the covenant (cf. Ps 99:7; 132:12 ).

There is no title in the MT, and some argue that this shows that the editor linked it closely with Ps 92 . and also with Ps 94 . Despite some common features, this appears unlikely. The LXX provides the title: ‘For the day before the Sabbath, when the earth was inhabited; a psalm, a song of David’. This tradition, with its allusion to Gen 1:24–31 , is also found in the Mishnah (m. Tamid 7.4).

Psalm 94

Although some divide this psalm into just two sections (vv. 1–15, 16–23 , or 1–11, 12–23 ), holding the first to be a communal lament and the second the prayer of an individual, it appears to be more complex than this. vv. 1–7 are a prayer for the punishment of the wicked, whose crimes strike at the heart of the Israelite ethic of care for the poor and oppressed; vv. 8–11 are akin to wisdom teaching, and use the wisdom vocabulary of ‘fool’, ‘teach’, and ‘an empty breath’; vv. 12–15 are a blessing on the righteous; and vv. 16–23 are either an individual lament or the thanksgiving of an individual, according to how the tenses in vv. 22–3 are understood. This does not mean that fragments from different psalms have been combined, since it is possible to find an overall unity in the theme of divine vengeance on the wicked, and there are similarities in vocabulary between the parts of the psalm (e.g. ‘heritage’, vv. 5, 14 ; ‘discipline’ and ‘teach’, vv. 10, 12 ; ‘turn back’, vv. 2 (‘give’), 15 (‘return’), 23 (‘repay’), the same Heb. word). Maximalists include the psalm among the king's psalms, claiming that it reflects ‘royal’ language, and finding the reference to the individual and the nation most suitable for the king who is the representative of his people. It was the king's duty to care for widows, the fatherless, and other oppressed members of society, including resident aliens (cf. Ps 72:2–4, 12–14 ).

The LXX adds the title: ‘A psalm of David, for the fourth day of the week’, a tradition which accords with the Mishnah's allocation of psalms for each day of the week (m. Tamid 7.4).

Its position in the Psalter is odd, since it appears to break a sequence of enthronement psalms. Some have noted eight terms common to Ps 93 and 94 , suggesting close links between them, but some are very common words and others (e.g. ‘majesty’ (Ps 93:1 )/‘proud’ (Ps 94:2 ), and ‘roaring’ (Ps 93:3 /‘crush’ (Ps 94:5 ), although the same roots, are not very convincing). It would, however, be less out of place if it were a royal psalm.

Psalm 95

The striking difference between vv. 1–7c and 7d–11 led some commentators to hold that two separate psalms have been combined. While this is not impossible, most today treat the psalm as a unified ‘prophetic liturgy’ (cf. Ps 81 ). In the first part a call to praise is sounded twice, first based on the kingship of God as the great creator (vv. 1–5 ), then as the shepherd of his people Israel (vv. 6–7c ). Some have pointed to an additional call in v. 2 , and have suggested three stages in a movement of the worshippers into the temple. In the second part a prophet speaks, uttering a warning from YHWH himself to remember the disobedience of their ancestors (Ex 17:1–7; Num 20:2–13 ; Meribah means ‘strife’, ‘dispute’, and Massah ‘testing’) and to obey him ‘today’. It may have been connected with Tabernacles or the New Year Festival (note the themes of creation and the kingship of YHWH).

In Jewish tradition the psalm was linked with sabbath worship (b. Šabb. 119a). From early times it has been sung as an invitation to worship in the Christian church. Athanasius tells of this practice in Constantinople, Benedict directed that the whole monastery should sing it when they first arose from sleep, and it has been included in Anglican mattins since 1549. The modern practice of omitting the second part removes God's moral demands and presents an inauthentic picture of God.

Psalm 96

For the ‘enthronement psalms’ ( 47; 93; 96–9 ) see PS E.5b. This psalm reiterates the central themes of this group of psalms, with special stress on YHWH's universal sovereignty over the nations and his righteous judgement of the whole world. vv. 1–3 sound the call to praise God. The reasons for offering praise are set out in vv. 4–6 , and this is followed by a renewed call to worship God in vv. 7–10 . In the final section of the psalm (vv. 11–13 ) the whole of creation is summoned to rejoice before YHWH, who comes as righteous judge. ‘Worship the LORD in holy splendour’ (v. 9 ) see PS 29:2 ; ‘new song’ (v. 1 ) see PS 33.

The LXX's title, ‘When the house was built after the exile; a hymn of David’, indicates the tradition that the psalm was written by David and used later to celebrate the rebuilding of the temple. It forms part of a composite psalm inserted into 1 Chr 16 for the bringing of the ark into Jerusalem by David. A notable Christian gloss in the Old Latin translation produced ‘The Lord has reigned from the tree’ in v. 10 , and many of the Church Fathers from the time of Tertullian and Justin Martyr regarded the psalm as a prophecy of the cross, an interpretation reflected in the hymn Vexilla regis.

Psalm 97

Many of the features common to the ‘enthronement psalms’ (Ps 47; 93; 96–9 , PS E.5b) recur here, especially YHWH's kingship as universal lord, upholder of ‘righteousness’, and saviour of his faithful followers. The most striking feature is the theophany in vv. 2–5 , which may reflect the appearance of God on Sinai (Ex 19 ), although similar phenomena revealing his appearance are found elsewhere in the OT, e.g. Hab 3 . It has been suggested that if the psalm was part of the temple worship, features of the theophany may have been experienced in the smoke of incense and the sacrifices accompanied by the blowing of the ram's horn, but there is no reason to treat the imagery so literally.

Many phrases in the psalm are found elsewhere in the Psalter and the prophetic books, leading some to see it as the work of a post-exilic poet who formed it from earlier traditions, but there seems to be no need to deny that it could be earlier. The LXX title, ‘By David, when his land was established’ reflects the editor's view, though it has been interpreted, like the title to Ps 96 , as indicating two traditions, that it goes back to David and that it was used after the Exile to celebrate the restoration of the Jews to their land.

Psalm 98

This psalm begins and ends like Ps 96 , and contains many features common to the ‘enthronement psalms’ ( 47; 93; 96–9 , PS E.5b). It has been suggested that this tremendous hymn marked the climax of the festival, but nothing is really known about its origins or use. A call to praise YHWH for his ‘salvation’ (vv. 1–3 , NRSV ‘victory’, see PS A.4) is followed by a second call to ‘all the earth’, first from the people and then from the primeval deep, the mountains, and all the inhabitants of the world because he is coming to exert his just rule (vv. 4–9 ). For ‘a new song’ see PS 33.

It is the only psalm with just ‘A psalm’ as the title. The LXX adds ‘of David’, and the Syriac translation relates it to the deliverance from Egypt. In Anglican tradition it has been sung as an alternative to the Magnificat in Evensong, seeing Christ as the Lord who comes with salvation.

Psalm 99

The last of the ‘enthronement psalms’ ( 47; 93; 96–9 ; PS E.5b), begins with the familiar cry, ‘YHWH is king’. It contains references to justice and righteousness (v. 4 ), and perhaps the covenant, with its moral demands (vv. 4, 7 ), and is centred upon Zion (v. 2 ; cf. ‘his holy mountain’, v. 9 ), yet it stands somewhat apart from the others in this group by having few similarities with Deutero-Isaiah, by calling on the foreign nations to tremble before God instead of joining in his praise, and by directly naming Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, the three great intercessors (cf. Ex 32:11–14, 31–4; Num 12:13; 14:13–19; 16:44–8; 1 Sam 7:7–11 ).

The text may be corrupt in places and the structure is not clear. vv. 5 and 9 form a kind of refrain, although the wording is not exactly the same, but the threefold ‘Holy’ (vv. 3, 5, 9 ), an outstanding feature of this psalm, may equally well mark the intended divisions. God's ‘footstool’ (v. 5 ) reflects a feature of ancient Middle-Eastern royalty; the ark (1 Chr 28:2 ), the temple, Jerusalem (Lam 2:1 ), or the whole earth (Isa 66:1 ) may be intended by the term.

The LXX provides a title: ‘A psalm of David’.

Psalm 100

This hymn of praise is marked by its seven imperative verbs (‘make a joyful noise’, ‘worship’, ‘come’, ‘know’, ‘enter’, ‘give thanks’, ‘bless’). Similar to Ps 95 , it is often held to have been sung at the entrance to the temple. The structure is transparent: the call to offer praise to God is made twice (vv. 1–2, 4 ), each time followed by the motivation, first because YHWH is creator and shepherd of his people, then because of his goodness, love, and faithfulness, the last two words having strong associations with the covenant (vv. 3, 5 ).

In v. 3b the text and margin of NRSV represent two traditions retained in the MT and reflected in the ancient versions. The Hebrew words ‘his’ (lit. ‘to him’) and ‘not’ are identical in sound but differ in spelling. Aquila, the Targum, and Jerome have ‘his’, as do all the most recent English translations, while the LXX, Symmachus, and the Syriac follow the alternative meaning, ‘and not we ourselves’, made familiar through the AV and BCP. A modern proposal is to take the word as a note of emphasis, producing: ‘and we are indeed his people’.

Psalm 101

The declaration of the psalmist that he will destroy all evildoers from the land, and especially from YHWH's city (v. 8 ), has convinced most commentators that this is a king's psalm, even though there is no specific mention of the king in it. Beyond this, however, there is little consensus. Some regard it as an expression of the king's vows at his enthronement, a view supported by the translation of the verbs as future (as in NRSV). This would not exclude its repetition on the annual celebration of his accession. Others point to the cry ‘Oh when wilt thou come to me?’ (v. 2 RSV; NRSV interprets the phrase differently, against most modern translations), and the metre, which is often used in laments, arguing that the psalm belonged to the New Year Festival in which, they believe, the king played a central part. He was ritually humiliated, like the king in Babylon, and appealed to God for deliverance on the basis of his righteousness and his just rule. The Babylonian king also confessed his innocence and declared that he had removed evildoers from his land. Whether this was depicted in terms of a battle is doubtful: there is no hint of such a conflict in this psalm. Even on this interpretation it is possible to see a future reference, the king vowing to continue his past practice.

The structure of the psalm is not immediately apparent, although repetitions of words and phrases suggest that it was carefully crafted. The simplest outline is to divide the psalm at v. 5, vv. 2–4 setting out the king's own righteousness and vv. 5–8 his rule over his people. v. 1 (or possibly vv. 1–2a , if the Heb. verb translated ‘I will study’ is really ‘I will make my theme’ or ‘I will sing a maskîl psalm’) forms the introduction. Phrases which may point to more elaborate structuring are ‘within [in] my house’ (vv. 2, 7 , the same Heb. phrase), ‘the way that is blameless’ (vv. 2, 6 ); ‘before my eyes’, ‘in my presence’ (vv. 3, 7 , identical Heb.), ‘I will destroy’ (vv. 5, 8 ). Similar but not exact parallels are ‘the faithful in the land’ and ‘the wicked in the land’ (vv. 6, 8 ), and ‘integrity of heart’, ‘perverseness of heart’, and ‘an arrogant heart’ (vv. 2, 4, 5 ). Whether these form two sets of inclusio, or some other pattern, is difficult to determine.

Psalm 102

The urgent prayer of an individual, hymn, and prophecy intermingle in this psalm. Some have held that two psalms have been combined, though there is some uncertainty about the precise extent of each (perhaps vv. 1–11 with 23–4 and 12–22 with 25–8 ). Less drastic is the view that an earlier lament was adapted into a community prayer, maybe during the Exile. Royal maximalists wonder whether it might not be a king's psalm, the communal aspects showing the king as representative of the nation, and the hymnic features being part of the Autumn Festival. Others who retain the unity of the psalm ascribe the communal features to the use of the psalm within the temple worship or suppose that the psalmist adopted elements of praise from the cult. The final section has been seen as an alternative to the common vow to offer praise that is a feature of many individual laments.

Those who look for patterns within the structure of the psalms note examples of inclusio and word plays: ‘my days’ (vv. 3, 11 ), ‘withered like grass’ (vv. 4, 11 ), the collection of similes (vv. 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11 ) within vv. 3–11 ; and, less convincingly, within vv. 12–22 the sixfold repetition of YHWH plus one mention of YH (vv. 12, 15, 16, 19, 21, 22 , and 18 ), ‘name’ (vv. 12, 15, 21 , although in v. 12 the word translated ‘name’ is more literally ‘memorial’), Zion (vv. 13, 16, 21 ), ‘servants’ and ‘to worship’ (vv. 14, 22 , the same Hebrew verb), and ‘generation’ (vv. 12, 18 ). The final sections of the psalm appear to be linked to the two earlier parts by vocabulary: ‘your years’ (vv. 24, 27 ), ‘long ago’ and ‘in your presence’ (vv. 25, 28 , the same Heb. word, slightly modified), ‘my days’ (vv. 23, 24 (‘at the mid-point of my life’, lit. ‘in the half of my days’, cf. 3, 11), ‘He has broken’ (v. 23 ) is a homonym of ‘answer’ (v. 2 ) in the Hebrew; ‘your servants’ (vv. 14, 28 ), ‘heaven’ (vv. 19, 25 ), ‘to/throughout all generations’ (vv. 12, 24 ), and the similes in v. 26 recall those in vv. 3–11 . Some of these features are more convincing than others, but they suggest that the psalm was carefully crafted as a unity.

The psalmist appears to be gravely ill (the suggestion that this is the prayer of one unjustly accused, which some propose, appears unlikely), and the ‘enemies’ seem to be those who regard his disease as punishment for sin. This is confirmed by the unusual title. Jewish tradition linked the psalm with the days of fasting (m. Taan. 2.3), and in Christian tradition it is one of the seven penitential psalms, perhaps seeing in the reference to God's anger (v. 10 ) an implicit expression of penitence, for there is no open confession.

Psalm 103

Although this psalm is often described as a hymn of praise, it differs from many other hymns in the intensely personal character of its opening, and it might well be treated as the thanksgiving of an individual, possibly after recovery from some illness (cf. vv. 3–4 ) unless this is simply part of a general description of God's goodness.

The main divisions are vv. 1–5 , a self-exhortation by the psalmist to praise YHWH, vv. 6–18 , a description of YHWH's character and goodness, notable for the stress on divine forgiveness, compassion, and faithful love, and vv. 19–22 , a renewed call to praise, now directed to the heavenly beings and the whole of creation. (v. 19 may belong to the middle section, instead of providing the basis for the final call to praise.) In the second part of the psalm the singular subject of the opening is replaced by the plural ‘us’, and the tone becomes didactic and reminiscent of wisdom teaching, although the characterization of YHWH has parallels in the Torah and the prophets (cf. v. 8 with Ex 34:6; Num 14:18; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2; v. 5 with Isa 40:31 ; and v. 11 with Isa 55:9 ), as well as in other psalms. Whether the psalm was sung within pre-exilic cultic worship, or comes from the time after the Exile within a circle of the pious who ‘fear God’ (vv. 11, 13, 17 ) is uncertain.

Those favouring a literary approach note several verbal links: ‘benefits’/‘deal’ (vv. 2, 10 , the same Heb. root), ‘your/our iniquity/iniquities’ (vv. 3, 10 ), ‘steadfast love’ and ‘mercy’ (vv. 4, 8, 11, 13, 17 ), but these form no clear pattern and may be unintentional repetitions.

Psalm 104

This great hymn praising the creator God is remarkable for its similarities with Gen 1 and an Egyptian hymn to Aten, the sun's disc, by the Pharaoh Akhenaten in the fourteenth century BCE. The similarities with Gen 1 include the general order of creation and vocabulary (with some unusual Heb. forms). Yet there are differences, the most notable of which is the lack of some of the psalm's mythological features in Genesis, such as traces of YHWH's conflict with the waters (vv. 6–9 ), direct mention of the sun and moon (v. 19 ; they are ‘lights’ in Gen 1:14–18 ), and the naming of Leviathan (v.26 ; ‘sea-monsters’ in Gen 1:21 ). Moreover the psalm ranges more widely in its description of the world. Examples of similarities with the Egyptian hymn are lions roaming at night, the provision of pasture for the animals, ships sailing up and down, and the god as creator, but again there are differences: night is more sinister in the Aten hymn; several features, such as care of the foetus in the womb and the chicken in the egg, are absent from the psalm; and above all it is YHWH who exercises providential care in the Israelite poem, not the sun. Whether there has been direct contact between Ps 104 and either Gen 1 or the Aten hymn must be regarded as doubtful, though all three may have been influenced by common ideas and even traditions, and it is not impossible that the writer of Gen 1 knew the psalm.

The structure of the psalm can be set out as: vv. 1–4 , the introductory self-exhortation of praise, beginning like Ps 103:1; vv. 5–9 , YHWH as creator; vv. 10–18 , YHWH's care of all creatures; vv. 19–23 , moon and sun, and their influence; vv. 24–30 , a further account of God's providence, upon which life itself depends; vv. 31–5 , a renewed call to praise, including a prayer for sinners to be destroyed, and ending with a repetition of the opening exhortation. The call that sinners be consumed offends many today, but it has been suggested that ‘No one who has reckoned with the evil which man has wreaked on animals, trees and waters could think this prayer superfluous’—it is indeed an essential part of the psalm that ‘the spoilers should be brought to the end of their existence as spoilers’ (Eaton 1995: 73).

The verb ‘to make’ and the noun ‘work’ occur at strategic places in the psalm (vv. 4, 13, 19, 24, 31 ), and it may be that beside the inclusio of vv. 1a and 35c (‘Hallelujah’ in 35d stands outside the psalm itself), there is a concentric structure of vv. 1–4, 5–13, 14–23, 24–30, 31–5 , with vv. 14–23 forming the centre.

The theme of the psalm may connect it with the Autumn New Year Festival, but there can be no certainty, as is shown by such diverse suggestions as that it originated at the dedication of Solomon's temple and that it is post-exilic. In the end the origins matter little for an appreciation of the magnificent hymn.

Psalm 105

This is the second of the three great history psalms (Ps 78; 105; 106 ; PS E.13). The tone throughout is of praise, and it is usually regarded as a hymn, but with such an extended historical section form-critical considerations break down.

Date and original setting are uncertain. The inclusion of vv. 1–15 in the composite poem which the Chronicler has inserted at 1 Chr 16:7 fixes the relative date for its completion and may indicate an original cultic use, although it provides no evidence for linking the psalm with the time of David. The Chronicler was probably influenced by the liturgical practice of his own day or he may have introduced the psalm for literary reasons. Some note the references to the covenant and suggest that the psalm was related to its renewal at an annual festival. Much depends upon the relation of the psalm to the Pentateuchal narratives. Some argue that the historical allusions are derived from the completed Pentateuch, and that the psalm is therefore post-exilic. If so it might be non-cultic, possibly related to wisdom writings. The psalm differs from Exodus, however, in several respects, particularly the number and order of the plagues, and the omission of any reference to Sinai, leading others to claim that similarities with the Old Testament narratives are due to both drawing on common traditions rather than to literary borrowing.

Most base their analysis of the structure of the psalm on the historical sequence, with vv. 7–41 set between an extended call to praise (vv. 1–6 ) and a concluding section which expounds the covenant faith and calls for Israel's ethical response to election and deliverance (vv. 42–5 ). The central section is often divided into vv. 7–11, 12–15, 16–23, 24–36(38), 36(39)–41 , in a sequence of historical allusions. Those looking for literary devices point to elaborate inclusio (e.g. the covenant with Abraham in vv. 9, 42 , and ‘strangers’/‘alien’ in vv. 12, 23 ) and chiasmus (e.g. in vv. 2–5 : ‘wonderful works’, ‘seek’, YHWH: YHWH, ‘seek’, ‘wonderful works’).

Psalm 106

The third of the great history psalms takes a very different view of Israel's history from the other two psalms. The stress now is upon Israel's faithlessness and disobedience, despite the persistent grace and forgiveness of YHWH. Form-critical classifications are uncertain. The opening verses read like a hymn of praise (vv. 1–3 ), but swiftly turn into the style of an individual lament (vv. 4–5 ), and then from v. 6 corporate confession dominates, though mixed with hymnic accounts of God's salvation, ending with a vow to offer praise (v. 47 ). v. 48 is usually regarded as the doxology at the end of Book 4 of the Psalter, but it is included in the extracts from the psalm which the Chronicler quotes in 1 Chr 16:34–6 , and it is somewhat bold to claim that the Psalter was complete and divided into five books by that time. To relieve sharply contrasting forms within the psalm, it has been suggested that vv. 1–3 are the conclusion of Ps 105 , but this is unnecessary, given the style of many of the psalms, and Ps 105:45 forms a fully satisfactory end to that psalm.

It is widely accepted that vv. 27 and 47 refer to the Exile and the dispersion, and provide a means for dating the psalm. This would not preclude an early form, however, and some are prepared to set it in the pre-exilic period, perhaps as part of a covenant renewal ceremony at New Year. It is intriguing that a ceremony at the Feast of Weeks included recitations of the righteous acts of God by the priests and of Israel's sins by the Levites (1QS 1:21, 23 ). Perhaps more lies behind the juxtaposition of Ps 105 and 106 than simply the fact that they are history psalms.

Psalm 107

This appealing psalm is unique among the thanksgiving psalms. The central part (vv. 4–32 ) consists of four sections in which different groups of those who have been rescued by YHWH are called upon to thank him. There are two refrains. The first in vv. 6, 13, 19, 28 , which has slight variations, describes the way the unfortunates ‘cried to’ YHWH, who then ‘delivered’ (v. 6 ) or ‘saved’ (vv. 13, 19 ) them, or ‘brought them out’ (v. 28 ), while the second in vv. 8, 15, 21, 31 urges them to offer thanks, the first two followed by different motivations suited to the trouble into which they had fallen, the last two with extended exhortations (vv. 22, 32 ). The introductory call to give thanks (v. 1 ) is followed by what appears to be a reference to the returning exiles (vv. 2–3 ). vv. 33–43 form a hymn praising God who controls nature and maintains justice among human beings, ending with a wisdom-style admonition.

Not unnaturally many suppose that two separate psalms have been combined, some also regarding vv. 2–3 as a post-exilic adaptation of an earlier psalm (cf. Isa 43:5; 49:12 ). Since such composite psalms are found both in the Psalter (e.g. Ps 108 ) and in the historical books (e.g. 1 Chr 16 ), this is not out of the question. It is possible, however, to read the psalm as a liturgy of thanksgiving, the final hymn summing up the congregation's praise.

How the psalm might have been used is unknown. It has been suggested that it might have had its origin at a mass thanksgiving festival, and was picked up later and slightly modified by pilgrims from the Diaspora. There is also disagreement about the nature of the dangers from which the worshippers have been saved, some taking the language literally and seeing actual travellers, prisoners, sick persons, and sailors, others treating the whole as allegorical of the nation, freed from bondage in Egypt and Babylon, restored to new life and health, and delivered from the ‘stormy’ attacks of foreign nations.

Psalm 108

This psalm has been formed by combining 57:7–11 and 60:6–12 with only very minor differences in the text. But rather than simply referring to the comments on these two psalms, it is worth looking carefully at the new psalm which has been created, for the thrust and mood have been radically altered.

Ps 57 begins with urgent petition by an individual, and the section which has been taken up in Ps 108 is the concluding expression of confidence that the prayer has been heard and self-exhortation to offer praise. Ps 60 also begins with a complaint against God, because he has rejected his people, but the editor of Ps 108 omits this part of the psalm, takes up the divine promise to give Israel victory over the surrounding nations, especially over Edom, the call for help, and the final note of certainty that God will enable the Israelites to defeat their enemies. Thus the tone of Ps 108 is more assured and joy predominates. The combination of individual and communal prayers presents the psalmist as the representative of the nation (royal maximalists suggest that this is a king's psalm). If the sources are disregarded the structure of the psalm now appears as vv. 1–4 , a vow to praise God or the expression of that praise; vv. 5–9 , prayers for help linked to the divine promise (perhaps a prophetic oracle); and vv. 10–13 , a further appeal, ending in an expression of trust or confidence that God will support his people. Throughout the emphasis is upon the steadfast love, faithfulness, and promises of God. Whether it reflects the experiences of the Exile and Return cannot be determined, but it is a fine example of the way that past liturgies continue to live on into a later age.

Psalm 109

This appeal to God is notable for the comprehensive curse in vv. 6–19 . It is probably the prayer of an individual, who is perhaps a man who has been falsely accused, or who is making an appeal to the temple authorities, or who is having to undergo an ordeal, although some find national overtones and link it with the king's psalms. The psalmist makes his plea in vv. 1–5 , and this is followed by the extensive imprecation (vv. 6–19 , concluded or summed up in v. 20 ). Pleading is renewed at v. 21 , with appeals on the grounds of YHWH's steadfast love, the psalmist's misery, and the attacks and curses of the enemies. The lament ends with the vow to offer praise, so common in this type of psalm (vv. 30–1 ).

NRSV and REB insert ‘They say’ in v. 6 , taking the following words as a quotation of the enemies' curse, while NJB adopts the same interpretation by the use of quotation marks. NJB continues the quotation to the end of v. 15 , and NRSV to v. 19 , but REB holds that only v. 6 is the word of the enemy, the rest of the imprecation being uttered by the psalmist against the perjured accuser put up by the enemies. NIV and GNB give no indication of any change of speaker in the text, although NIV offers a marginal alternative similar to NRSV.

Although there seem to be quotations in other psalms (e.g. Ps 52:7 ), the quotation of such a lengthy imprecation appears unlikely, since the psalmist utters a curse in v. 29 , and would surely have been fearful of repeating his enemies' curse in such detail. In support of the theory it is pointed out that outside these verses the enemies are spoken of in the plural (but the imprecation may be against their leader), that the psalmist states that they resorted to curses (v. 28 ), and that v. 21 may signal the return to the psalmist's own plea. It is doubtful whether the psalm was ever part of normal worship, although if it was a royal psalm it may have been.

Psalm 110

This is one of the irreducible minimum of royal psalms and because of the divine oracle in v. 1 has often been assigned to the king's coronation (cf. Ps 2 ). The first words of the psalm are found very often in the prophetic books, where they usually come at the end of an oracle and are commonly translated ‘says the LORD’. They are found only here in the Psalter (but cf. ‘Transgression speaks’, Ps 36:1 ). A further oracle is given in v. 4 , where the king is also declared a priest. Melchizedek was the king-priest of Jebusite Jerusalem in Gen 14:18–20 , and it has been suggested that when David captured the city he took over many features of the old Canaanite religion. Although NRSV does not insert quotation marks, v. 2b may be a further divine promise.

Unfortunately the text is difficult and almost certainly corrupt in several verses (cf. the varied translations of v. 3 in the Eng. versions), possibly an indication of the great age of the psalm, and its reuse in different situations across the centuries. Some accept that it goes back to the time of David, others relate it to the New Year Festival, either at the beginning, when it is part of the king's preparation for the ritual battle with his enemies, or after his humiliation and victory. The speaker may have been a temple prophet. The mysterious v. 3 may refer to an enacted ‘rebirth’ within the ritual. Alternative suggestions link it with Solomon's coronation, or the time of Josiah. Others take the military language literally and relate the psalm to actual battles.

Christian interpretation, going back to the first century and building on Jewish tradition, regarded it as messianic, and vv. 1 and 4 are frequently quoted in the NT, where they support the belief in the reign of Christ after the resurrection and ascension (cf. Mk 12:36; Acts 2:34–5; Heb 1:13; 5:6; 7:17, 21 ).

Psalm 111

This and Ps 112 form a pair of acrostics, each having twenty-two short lines beginning with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The present psalm has the features of a hymn of praise or thanksgiving. Whether it was intended to be sung in worship (cf. v. 1 ) or was a poetic meditation on such worship is impossible to decide. The main themes relate to the Exodus deliverance, possibly linked even more closely to Ex 34 (cf. v. 4b with Ex 34:6 , and other similarities of vocabulary with Ex 34:5, 10, 11 .

How far the acrostic hinders logical development of the ideas is much debated. Some find reiterated thoughts on the covenant God. Others detect two strophes, vv. 2–7a fastening on YHWH's saving deeds, and vv. 7b–10 on covenant and law. Whether more intricate word patterns are visible as some have claimed, seems doubtful. Certainly this is no drab exercise but a vibrant account of the saving God to whom Israel responds with thanksgiving, reverence, and obedience, for the psalmist is confident that the everlasting graciousness of God will be matched by everlasting praise.

Psalm 112

This psalm is either by the same author as Ps 111 or was modelled on it, as the acrostic form and similarities of vocabulary suggest, but here the poet speaks more like one of the wise men, telling of the blessing which comes to the godly man, rather like Ps 1 , though with only a glance at the fate of the wicked in the final verse. The tightly compressed style makes the translation of some verses uncertain, e.g. is the subject of v. 4 light, God, or the righteous man? All the words are singular (the ‘they’ of NRSV is accommodation to inclusive language). LXX inserted ‘the Lord’ to make the meaning clear, cf. RSV, probably wrongly in view of the general tenor of the psalm.

A striking feature of this psalm is the way virtues ascribed to YHWH in Ps 111 are transferred to the good man: like YHWH he is gracious and compassionate and his righteousness is of the same nature as God's. Although the psalm lacks a logical structure, the psalmist pointing to many different ways in which goodness leads to prosperity, its attractiveness lies in its portrait of the righteous man, giving to the poor, always ready to lend to the needy, governed by absolute integrity, and with a life based on trust in God, in whose law he delights.

Psalm 113

Ps 113–18 form the ‘Hallel’ (‘Praise’, cf. the frequent ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Praise Yah’) or the ‘Egyptian Hallel’ (cf. Ps 114:1 ) to distinguish it from the ‘Great Hallel’ (Ps 136, or 120–36, or 135–6 ; the name was also given in Jewish tradition to Ps 146–50 ). These six psalms were the only ones sung at the great festivals, according to the earliest sources. At Passover Ps 113–14 were sung before the meal and 115–18 after it (m. Pesaḥ. 10:6, 7, cf. Mk 14:26 ).

Ps 113 is a hymn of praise. It opens with a thrice-repeated imperative, and this is followed by ascriptions of praise to YHWH (vv. 2–3 ) and further descriptions of his greatness and goodness (vv. 4–9 ). v. 9 may have been intended literally of a childless woman; later Judaism found in it a reference to Zion (cf. Isa 54:1–8 ), and the Targum paraphrased the verse: ‘Who makes the congregation of Israel, which was like a barren woman mourning for the men of her household, to be full of crowds, like a mother who rejoices over sons.’ Whether the psalm was sung antiphonally, a leader shouting the call to praise and the congregation, or another choir, responding with vv. 2–9 , is conjecture.

Psalm 114

Despite the narrative form, this psalm is usually classed as a hymn of praise, in stanzas of two verses, the inner two (vv. 3–4, 5–6 ) matching each other. Incidents in the account of the Exodus and Conquest are referred to: God's choice of Israel, crossing the Red Sea and Jordan, the provision of water in the desert, and the Sinai law-giving (though some see either parallels to creation myths or a specific reference to creation). Changes of verbal forms have led NRSV and NJB to introduce vivid present tenses in vv. 5–6 . The LXX moves ‘Praise the LORD’ from the end of Ps 113 to the head of this psalm, perhaps rightly, since it then provides an antecedent for ‘his’ (NRSV ‘God's’) in v. 2 .

In Dante's Divine Comedy the spirits sing this psalm as they draw near to the island on which the mountain of purgatory stands. In another place Dante explains the medieval method of exegesis: ‘If we regard the letter alone, what is set before us is the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the days of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, we are shown the conversion of the soul from the grief and wretchedness of sin to the state of grace; if the anagogical, we are shown the departure of the holy soul from the thraldom of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory.’ It was on such grounds that the psalm has been used both on Easter Day and at the burial of the dead. While such interpretations may appear far removed from the ‘real’ meaning of the psalm, modern literary theory warns against supposing that meaning is limited to the author's intention.

Psalm 115

vv. 4–11 recur as Ps 135:15–20 , with some differences in the text; many Hebrew MSS, including the Leningrad codex, the LXX, Syriac, and Jerome join the psalm to Ps 114 ; and many Hebrew MSS begin a new psalm at v. 12 . This confusion is increased by the inclusion of the psalm within the Hallel, for it begins like a lament rather than a hymn of praise. It will never be possible to trace its past history, and it is best to try to understand the meaning of the completed psalm on its own.

vv. 1–2 is a cry for deliverance, at a time when God appears to have deserted Israel and his people and foreigners ask for proof of his activity. The next section (vv. 3–8 ) is a hymn, in which the power of YHWH is contrasted with the impotence of idols. A threefold call to Israel, priests (‘Aaron’), and those who ‘fear the LORD’ (possibly proselytes, but more probably a comprehensive term for all the faithful) to trust in YHWH follows (REB, hardly correctly, follows the LXX, Syriac, and Jerome in taking the verbs as indicative). At this point a prophet or priest confidently affirms that God will bless his people (vv. 12–13 ) and a priest gives a blessing (vv. 14–15 ). The liturgy ends with a vow to praise YHWH (vv. 16–18 ).

Presumably the psalm was intended for worship, and if it reflects the teaching of Deutero-Isaiah it belongs to the time of the second temple.

Psalm 116

This psalm has often been seen as a textbook example of the individual thanksgiving psalms. vv. 1–2 express the psalmist's love of God because he has saved him (other thanksgiving psalms begin with a call to give thanks); a narrative follows (vv. 3–11 ), in which the psalmist recounts his past distress and describes how God delivered him; and the psalm ends with the repayment of the vows which the psalmist made and the psalmist offers a thanksgiving sacrifice (vv. 12–19 ; unless this is a vow promising to do all these things).

The trouble from which the psalmist was saved was most probably serious illness: he feels that he had almost entered into Sheol, its cords had gripped him and he felt he would be swept away to destruction. v. 11 does not seem sufficient evidence for supposing that this is another psalm of one falsely accused, and the ‘cup of salvation’ is more probably a libation accompanying the sacrifice than an ordeal (cf. Num 5:15–28 ). Royal maximalists take it as the king's psalm, holding that he would be the most likely person to offer sacrifices in the temple and finding a parallel to the libation in a stele of Yehawmilk of Byblos on which the king is depicted standing before the goddess Ba'alat, cup in hand, and uttering his prayer. It is held to be especially appropriate for the king to call himself YHWH's servant (v. 16 ), and the occasional plurals may show that the royal psalmist is the nation's representative. Aramaisms in the language may point to a post-exilic date, however, and the psalm was perhaps intended for use by any Israelite who came to the sanctuary to offer his thanksgiving.

The LXX begins a new psalm, with a fresh heading of ‘Alleluia’, at v. 10 , but there is no reason to suppose that two psalms have been combined. The tradition in this part of the Psalter appears to have been uncertain about the psalm divisions generally.

Psalm 117

This tiny psalm expresses the perfect form of a hymn of praise, with the call to praise (v. 1 ), the motivation for that praise, introduced by ‘for’ (v. 2ab ), and a repeated call to praise (v. 2c ). The universalist invitation to the (foreign) nations to worship YHWH, a couple of Aramaisms, and possibly the influence of Deutero-Isaiah, have suggested a post-exilic date. Paul quotes v. 1 in support of his belief that God's loving purpose reaches out to the Gentiles (Rom 15:11 ). It is not impossible, however, that the psalmist thought of the nations as coming in subservience to Israel's God.

The uncertainty about the psalm divisions continues, many Hebrew MSS joining this psalm to Ps 116 (which royal maximalists find appropriate as the conclusion of the king's psalm), and other MSS taking it as the beginning of Ps 118 . But Ps 116 is complete in itself, and Ps 118 opens in a different style, so that the tradition of the LXX, and the majority of Hebrew MSS, which treats it as a separate psalm is probably correct.

Psalm 118

The interchange between singular and plural, and apparent dialogue, coupled with apparent references to the temple gates and a procession, suggest that this is a liturgy. In vv. 1–4 the community is called to offer thanksgiving. An individual appears at v. 5 and describes the way YHWH has saved him (vv. 5–18 ). The call to open the gates (v. 19 ) with a response in v. 20 is similar to Ps 24:7–10 , and has led some to see in the psalm an ‘entrance liturgy’. The final verses contain varied elements: thanksgiving (v. 21 ), possibly in response to the opening of the gates, a proverbial statement (v. 22 ), praise of YHWH (vv. 23–4 ), a plea for salvation (v. 25 ), a blessing, probably by a priest (v. 26 ), a call to join in the procession round the altar (v. 27 ), and a vow to praise God (v. 28 ). The psalm ends, as it began, with a call to thanksgiving (v. 28 ).

Interpretations vary. Many believe that it is a royal psalm, either after actual victory in war, or as part of the temple ritual, when the king was attacked by his enemies and almost defeated before being ‘saved’ by YHWH. Some argue that the phrase ‘house of Aaron’ points to the time after the Exile when this was how the priesthood was known, while ‘those who fear the LORD’ were proselytes; they refer the psalm to a national leader, or even to the whole nation. Jewish tradition linked it with the feast of Tabernacles, and the Mishnah (m. Sukk. 3:9; 4:5 ) records that the lûlāb (bunch of palm, myrtle, and willow branches) was shaken at the beginning and end of the recital of the psalm, and that willow branches were set up over the altar.

The psalm was regarded as messianic in early Christian circles and is quoted extensively in the NT (Heb 13:6 (v. 6 ); Mk 12:10–11; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:7 (vv. 22–3 ); Mk 11:9 (v. 26 )), but whether this interpretation had Jewish antecedents is uncertain.

Psalm 119

This great acrostic consists of twenty-two stanzas of eight lines, each line beginning with the appropriate letter of the Hebrew alphabet (cf. Lam 3 ). While the stanzas are separated in most English versions, only NIV and NJB mark the Hebrew letters as AV and RV did. GNB is misleading in suggesting that each stanza expresses a special theme. In addition to the alphabetic structure the writer uses eight words to represent the law, visible in most modern translations (cf. NRSV: ‘law’, ‘promise’, ‘word’, ‘statutes’, ‘commandments’, ‘ordinances’, ‘decrees’, ‘precepts’, but with occasionally different renderings), although GNB varies the translations of all the words apart from ‘law’ with a wanton promiscuity. It has been suggested that originally all eight words were included in each stanza, and some scholars have emended the text to secure this, but there is so little obvious corruption that it is most unlikely that this is right. Most of the words are found in all the stanzas but only four contain all eight used once each (vv. 57–64, 73–80, 81–8, 129–36 ). Although the words have different connotations, differences of meaning are hardly important in this psalm, where the psalmist ponders the divine teaching, eagerly looking for it to mould his life. It was a happy chance that the word expressing beatitude begins with the first letter of the alphabet: it is found in the first two verses of the psalm.

Each verse expresses an independent idea, although there is some grouping (e.g. vv. 98–100 ) and features from different types of psalm appear within the poem: hymn of praise (e.g. vv. 89–91, 172 ), thanksgiving (e.g. v. 7 ), lament (e.g. vv. 107, 153–60 ), references to enemies (e.g. vv. 23, 51, 86–7, 95, 157 ), confession and assertion of innocence (e.g. vv. 11, 30–2, 97–104, 163 ), vow (v. 33 ), wisdom saying (e.g. vv. 9, 130 ). Although it is difficult to imagine a setting in Israelite worship for this amalgam, the psalmist is deeply versed in the hymns of the temple, and other OT writings, especially Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Jeremiah.

While it is often described as a Torah psalm, apart from vv. 1–3 and 115 every verse is addressed to God. Perhaps it would be better to regard it as a meditation in the form of a prayer to God (somewhat like Augustine's Confessions). If the beginning and end mark his intention, the psalmist wished to stress the happiness that comes from following YHWH's teaching and to ‘walk in his ways’, and, despite some assertions of his own righteousness, he seeks the divine help which he knows is necessary if he is to obey God's law.

Psalm 120

The tenses in v. 1 present the main difficulty in the interpretation of this psalm. NRSV changes the pointing and treats the verse as the opening of a prayer for deliverance. The MT should be translated as REB: ‘I called to the LORD in my distress, and he answered me’. If this is correct, the psalm would appear to be a thanksgiving which includes the prayer which the psalmist offered and the distress from which he has been delivered. The psalm seems very fragmented, with v. 2 as the actual prayer, v. 3 a rhetorical question answered in v. 4, vv. 5–7 an account of the enemies who refuse appeals for peace.

The dangers besetting the psalmist are uncertain. It might be the prayer of one falsely accused, making his appeal in the temple, the references to warfare being metaphorical. Royal maximalists treat it as the prayer of the king, attacked by enemies, and possibly the victim of the breaking of an alliance (‘lying lips’). Meshech and Kedar refer to a country or people near the Black Sea and a tribe in the Syro-Arabian desert, places so far apart that the names are often taken metaphorically to represent bitter and implacable foes rather than the actual exile of the psalmist. If ‘Song of Ascents’ is a reference to pilgrimage (see PS C.9, E.12), the names may have been understood as areas from which the pilgrims have come.

Psalm 121

This psalm is in the form of a dialogue. Unless ‘my help’ (v. 2 ) is arbitrarily emended to ‘help’ or ‘your help’, the response to the question in v. 1 begins at v. 3 . But then v. 2 rather hangs in the air, since it would imply that the questioner offered his own answer before receiving the assurance of vv. 3–8 (probably by a priest). It is just possible that v. 2 as it stands is the beginning of the priest's assurance, expressing his own experience. The AV followed Jerome and Luther in wrongly taking ‘from where’ (v. 1 ) as a relative.

The situation in which the psalm may have been recited is uncertain. A cultic setting is more probable than that the psalmist converses with himself, or a father with his son. Some have taken ‘your going out and your coming in’ (v. 8 ) as indicating the priest's blessing to pilgrims as they leave the temple after one of the festivals and look to their return for the next, but the phrase is used of the ordinary activities of daily life (cf. Deut 28:6; 1 Kings 3:7 ) and this seems to be its meaning here. The reference to the Keeper of Israel in v. 4 , has convinced others that the promise is given to the king as representative of Israel, who has YHWH at his right hand, with the going out and coming in referring to his leadership in war (cf. Josh 14:11; 1 Sam 18:16 ).

Psalm 122

It is difficult to decide whether this pilgrim song, which is related to the songs of Zion (Ps 46; 48; 76; 84; 87 ), was sung when the pilgrims had just arrived in Jerusalem or were preparing to leave after the festival. Whichever it was, the psalmist expresses the great joy he had felt as he set out in the company of others to come up to Jerusalem (vv. 1–2 ; ‘when they said to me’ involves a change in the vowels; NIV keeps closer to the MT: ‘I rejoiced with those who said to me’). After praising the holy city (vv. 3–5 ), he prays for its welfare (vv. 6–8 ; ‘peace’ is more than just absence of war), and concludes the psalm with a vow (v. 9 ). There is probably a play on the name Jerusalem, the name of which probably means ‘the foundation of Salem’, a god's name related to šālôm (‘prosperity’, ‘peace’; the word occurs three times in these verses).

‘Of David’ is added to ‘A Song of Ascents’ in the title of this psalm, as also in Ps 124; 131 . GNB marg. is misleading in making no reference to the title in Ps 120–34 , apart from ‘HEBREW TITLE: By David’ in these two psalms. ‘Of David’ is omitted by two Hebrew MSS, LXX MSS, and the Targum. It is another example of the extension of Davidic psalms in later editing.

Psalm 123

Despite the title and its position within the Psalter, this is probably not a pilgrim psalm. Rather a group of persecuted Jews plead for help. The singular of v. 1 may indicate antiphonal chanting, with a representative of the community speaking first. vv. 1–2 express confidence in God (some find a chiastic structure, a b b′ a′), while vv. 3–4 are the prayer, supported by a description of the contempt which is shown them. In v. 2 ‘hand’ may represent the master's power, or the sense may be that the servants watch their master's hand so that they can obey every gesture.

The last line has been taken to be either dittography or (following the qere, ‘proudest oppressors’ or even ‘proudest Greeks’) a gloss from the Greek period. There seems no reason for rejecting the ketib; the verse may have three lines.

Psalm 124

This communal or national thanksgiving opens with strong emphasis upon the fact that it was YHWH who was on his people's side (vv. 1–5 ). Had he not been they would have been overwhelmed by the danger, depicted as the attack of a savage animal or a devastating torrent. ‘Let Israel now say’ (v. 1b ) is probably a call to the assembled people to take up the theme. In v. 2 the Hebrew word behind ‘enemies’ normally refers to humanity in general (e.g. the word is translated ‘human beings’ in Ps 8:4 ), but here it appears to be used to contrast the weakness of human enemies compared with the power of YHWH. vv. 6–7 praise God who has delivered his people, and the final verse expresses confidence in YHWH, the great creator.

Certain peculiarities in the Hebrew may point to a late date, but it is impossible to fasten upon any historical situation which called forth the psalm.

Psalm 125

Uncertainty about the verb ‘will lead away’ in v. 5 partly affects the classification of this psalm. If it is to be translated as a future (so NRSV, NIV) it reiterates the confidence of vv. 1–3 , and the psalm appears to be a national psalm of trust in YHWH. If, however, it is taken as expressing a wish (cf. REB: ‘may the LORD make them go the way of evildoers’; NJB and GNB render with an imperative) the psalm looks much more like a national lament, the initial expressions of confidence leading up to urgent prayer for help. Most Eng. versions smooth out v. 2 , but NJB expresses the vigour of the Hebrew: ‘Jerusalem! The mountains encircle her: so [Heb. “and”] Yahweh encircles his people.’

It appears that the Jews are oppressed in their own land by foreigners (cf. v. 3 ) and most place it in the post-exilic period, during the Persian (or even Greek) empire.

Psalm 126

Four uncertainties in meaning make this apparently simple little psalm one of the most difficult.

  • 1. The opening phrase is now usually translated as NRSV: ‘When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion’, rather than as the margin: ‘brought back those who returned to Zion’, and does not unambiguously refer to the return from exile. Its relation to v. 4 , however, remains uncertain. In v. 4 the verb is an imperative, opening up alternative possibilities for the relation of this verse to v. 1 . Probably v. 4 is a prayer for a further deliverance (only NJB takes it as a release from captivity, though NIV and GNB offer this as an alternative, both reversing text and margin from v. 1 and presumably taking v. 1 as a reference to the return from exile and v. 4 as a later deliverance), or vv. 1–3 might be a meditation on the future.

  • 2. The tenses in vv. 1–3 are uncertain, as is the meaning of ‘we were like those who dream’. If that phrase is interpreted in a modern sense of being almost unbelievable (cf. GNB: ‘it was like a dream’), the whole section probably refers to the past (as most Eng. versions). On the other hand, the verbs in v. 2 might refer to a hypothetical future, the sense being that when (almost ‘if’) God restores Jerusalem's fortunes, the people would be filled with joy, but it is only a dream. On this view ‘we are like dreamers’ is a parenthesis. The difficulty with this interpretation, however, is that v. 3 appears to refer to YHWH's past actions (unless the verbs are taken as ‘prophetic’ perfects or as a petition).

  • 3. But ‘dreamers’ may not be the correct meaning of the Hebrew. The LXX's ‘we became as those comforted’, the Syriac ‘as those who rejoice’ and the Targum's ‘like sick people who are cured’, point to a different tradition, probably supported by a Qumran text (cf. REB: ‘people renewed in health’, cf. NIV marg.).

  • 4. The meaning of vv. 5–6 is also uncertain. They look like proverbial statements, but may go back to ideas of a dying and rising god, symbolized by the sowing of seed (his burial) and its growth (his resurrection). Here they appear to be a promise uttered by a prophet or a declaration of confidence (cf. Ps 85 ). NRSV, however, regards v. 5 as a continuation of the petition in v. 4 , and only v. 6 as expressing a note of confidence.

The psalm may belong to the Autumn Festival (cf. God's salvation, reference to rain, and sowing and reaping), and be a prayer for blessing on the coming agricultural year. On the other hand, it might have a historical setting, possibly during the distress that followed the return from exile.

Psalm 127

The wisdom features of this psalm are clear, and it is unlikely that it was related to the cult, although some have associated it with the Feast of Tabernacles, the rededication of the temple, or the birth of a son (later Christian tradition used it in the service of thanksgiving for women after childbirth). The different themes in vv. 1–2 and 3–5 have led to the suggestion that two separate psalm fragments have been combined, but a Sumerian poem also combines the gift of palace, city, and children. This makes it unnecessary to take ‘house’ (v. 1 ) as ‘household, family’. Sons were important for building up the power and prestige of the family, and v. 5 refers to their support in lawsuits which were judged in the city gate. Sons of a man's youth (v. 4 ) would be in their prime when he came to rely on their support.

The meaning of ‘he gives sleep to his beloved’ (v. 2 ) is very uncertain. The NRSV marg. ‘he provides for his beloved during sleep’ is doubtfully possible as a translation, since ‘gives’ requires an object, but neither is particularly suitable in a wisdom context, with its warnings against sleep (cf. Prov 6:6–11; 20:13 ). Hence other meanings for the word have been sought, such as ‘prosperity’ or ‘honour’, but the ancient versions support ‘he gives sleep’.

An editor searching for allusions in the historical books ascribed the psalm to Solomon in the title (absent from some LXX MSS), probably through taking the ‘house’ as the temple, relating ‘beloved’ with Solomon's other name, Jedidiah (2 Sam 12:25 ), and maybe seeing in ‘sleep’ an allusion to Solomon's dream (1 Kings 3:10–15 ).

Psalm 128

This happy psalm begins with a beatitude and ends with a benediction. Usually classed as a wisdom psalm, from the language and sentiments, it is not impossible that it was used in the worship, perhaps to welcome pilgrims or to bless them as they depart from the temple. The stress on fertility may point to the Autumn Festival. Even these are guesses; still more precarious are suggestions that it is the blessing given to a host at the door of his house, and Luther's description of a ‘marriage song’.

It is in two parts, but whether the division is after v. 3 or v. 4 is uncertain. v. 4 could round off the first part or introduce the second. Notable is the combining of prosperity for the pious man and the welfare of Jerusalem.

Psalm 129

The two parts of this psalm stand out fairly clearly. In vv. 1–4 Israel is called upon to affirm YHWH's continual protection against its enemies from the time of the Exodus (‘my youth’, cf. Hos 11:1 ). vv. 5–8 are an imprecation on Israel's enemies. It is possible that v. 4 belongs with the second part of the psalm, and that the verb should be taken as precative: ‘may he cut’, but this is less likely. v. 8c may be an independent blessing, this time invoked on ‘those who pass by’ or the worshippers who recite the psalm.

Type and setting are quite uncertain, although it seems very probable that the psalm was used in the cult. Classifications include communal psalm of confidence, communal thanks-giving, communal lament, or a mixture of forms: national thanksgiving and psalm of revenge or judgement. Perhaps it is best to admit that it does not fit easily into preconceived categories. The opening and much of the subject-matter link it with Ps 124 .

Psalm 130

This is commonly regarded as a lament, although the usual account of the distress of the supplicant is lacking, possibly replaced by the indirect confession of sin (vv. 3–4 ). For this interpretation the verbs in vv. 1 and 5 need to be translated as present (as NRSV). They may, however, indicate the psalmist's actions in the past (‘I have called’, REB), when the psalm would more naturally be seen as a thanksgiving which looked back to the earlier distress and prayer. The call to Israel (vv. 7–8 ) is perhaps odd in the petition of an individual. Some regard it as a later addition to adjust the psalm to the community. Others propose that a priest at this point addressed the assembled worshippers, among whom the individual psalmist had come to the temple.

The depths are the watery deeps, and probably indicate that the psalmist is gravely ill and feels he has sunk into the underworld of death (cf. PS G.13); illness and sin go together, as often in the OT. The watchmen (v. 6 ) may be military sentinels, but the Targum identifies them as Levites who watch for the first moment of the dawn to offer the morning sacrifice.

A few claim it as a royal psalm, but there is little to support this. While most assume that it was sung within the cultic worship, this also is uncertain. Some view it as a personal prayer, unconnected with the cult, but whether such poems were composed in ancient Israel, even after the Exile, is unknown. It is one of the seven penitential psalms of the church, and was an especial favourite of Luther, who called it one of the ‘Pauline psalms’ and based his great hymn ‘Out of the depths I cry to Thee’ on it.

Psalm 131

The brevity of this psalm makes interpretation difficult. It is usually regarded as a psalm of confidence by an individual, v. 3 being either an addition to fit it for corporate worship (cf. Ps 130:7–8 ), or the widening of the psalmist's devotion to include the community. Even maximalists shrink from suggesting that it is a royal psalm, despite ‘Of David’ in the title (omitted by some LXX MSS), though this has been proposed, royal traits being found in the references to pride and similarities with Ps 62:1, 5 . Other suggestions are that it was a form of entrance liturgy (cf. Ps 15; 24 ), that the speaker was a teacher in the temple addressing an assembly of Israel, even that it was sung by a woman pilgrim carrying her child. The exact meaning of ‘weaned child’ is not clear; possibly the weaned child was less fretful than the child just before it was weaned, when its mother's milk was drying up. Whatever the precise meaning and origins, the psalm expresses a quiet confidence in God.

Psalm 132

This is among the essential group of royal psalms. It falls into two clear sections: vv. 1–10 are a prayer for God's blessing on the Davidic king, vv. 11–18 an affirmation of God's promises to David and an assurance that YHWH will remain faithful to his covenant with David and grant blessings on Jerusalem; David's descendants (‘one of the sons of your body’, ‘a horn to sprout up’, vv. 11, 17 ) will enjoy prosperity and will triumph over their enemies. Vocabulary and ideas link the two parts closely together: e.g. ‘turn away/back’ (vv. 10, 11 ); ‘anointed one’ (vv. 10, 17 ); the clothing of the priests with righteousness/salvation (vv. 9, 16 ); Jerusalem as God's dwelling-place (vv. 7–8, 13 , although the Heb. words are different); the correspondence between David's oath and YHWH's (vv. 2, 11 ); vv. 13–16 form the response to vv. 6–9 . The psalm is commonly described as a liturgy in which king and prophet take part. The linking of Zion (vv. 5, 13–15 ), the ark (v. 8 , and probably v. 6 : REB boldly identifies ‘it’ as the ark), and the Davidic dynasty would all be suitable to the New Year Festival.

There is clearly some connection with the account of David's bringing of the ark into Jerusalem and Nathan's oracle in 2 Sam 6–7 . Some accept that the narrative in Samuel is historical, and see in the psalm later cultic celebration. Others regard the psalm and the accompanying cultic worship as primary, the writer of the history having filled out his narrative from the ritual of his own day. This appears to have happened in 2 Chr 6 , where the writer concludes his version of the story he has taken from Samuel with vv. 8–10 of this psalm.

Ephrathah (v. 6 ) probably refers to Bethlehem, where David came from. Unless ‘fields of Jaar’ is really ‘fields of the forest, woodland’, it is apparently a reference to Kiriath-jearim from where David brought the ark into Jerusalem (1 Sam 7:1–2; 2 Sam 6:2 ), and it has been suggested (less probably) that Ephrathah referred to the same area.

Psalm 133

To most people the first line of this psalm is appealing, but to some the second verse may seem grotesque—which shows how difficult it is to enter into the culture and emotions of ancient Israel.

Three main interpretations are generally offered. (1) It is a wisdom psalm concerned with family life, which has been adapted to cultic use by the addition of references to Aaron and Zion. (2) It has a historical setting and perhaps comes from a post-exilic time when attempts were being made to unite the Jews in Judah. (3) It belongs to one of the festivals and sees in the worship of YHWH the true unity of the nation. None of these is particularly convincing, and we have to confess that the psalm is so foreign that we cannot guess at its true meaning.

The dew of Hermon in Syria falling on Jerusalem is a strange concept. Perhaps ‘dew of Hermon’ was a phrase for heavy dew. Some emend Zion to ‘dry’, but this is simply to rewrite the psalm. The oil is probably the sacred oil of consecration. It may be that it is not the oil which runs down on the collar but Aaron's long beard, which ‘flows’ down.

There are carefully crafted repetitions and plays on words in the Hebrew: ‘running down’ in vv. 2 and 3 (‘falls’ is the same word); Zion and ‘ordained’ (vv. 3, 4 ); and ‘brothers (NRSV ‘kindred’) and ‘life’ (vv. 1, 3 ) have a similar sound.

MT has ‘Of David’ in the title (as REB, NIV), but one LXX MS, the Coptic, and the Targum, as well as two Hebrew MSS omit the phrase (so NRSV, NJB), perhaps sensing its incongruity. Some think it has been misplaced from Ps 132 .

Psalm 134

Ignorance about the worship in ancient Israel makes it difficult to reconstruct the way this psalm was sung. Are there two voices, or one? Are vv. 1–2 addressed to the priests or the laity? Were they actually ‘standing in the temple’ at the time the psalm was sung, or are they ‘attendants’ in the temple? What were the night-time practices? (There appear to have been nocturnal rites at the Feast of Tabernacles.) The opening is curious: literally ‘Behold, bless YHWH’, a unique phrase in the OT—the ‘Come’ of NRSV, REB, and NJB is not a legitimate translation—and ‘Behold’ may be wrongly repeated from Ps 133 .

While the details are obscure, the general sense is plain: a call to worship God is followed by a priestly blessing. Blessing, indeed, controls the psalm: ‘Bless YHWH’ opens and closes the first part, and is picked up at the beginning of the last verse.

Psalm 135

Many allusions to other psalms and OT passages (e.g. Ps 134 in vv. 2, 21; Deut 32:36 in v. 14; Ex 19:5 and Deut 7:6 in v. 4 ), and a close similarity between vv. 15–20 and Ps 115:4–11 , suggest that the psalmist either drew his inspiration (and some phrases) from earlier liturgical pieces, or was deeply attuned to living tradition. Perhaps because of this the structure is somewhat complex: vv. 1–4 are hymnic, with calls to praise and motivations introduced with ‘for’; vv. 5–7 and 8–12 proclaim YHWH's greatness, first as Lord of nature, then as deliverer of Israel from Egypt and the one who gave the promised land to Israel; vv. 13–14 form another hymnic section, first addressed to YHWH and then describing his protection of Israel; vv. 15–20 , apparently drawn from Ps 115:4–11 , but with some differences, repudiate idols and call on Israel, priests, Levites, and those who reverence YHWH to praise him; and the concluding verse, possibly a later addition, praises YHWH as the God whose earthly home is Jerusalem.

It is better to try to understand the completed psalm than to worry about the sources from which it has been drawn. The changes of form and address possibly point to antiphonal singing, although it is not easy to determine which verses to ascribe to two or more voices. The tone throughout is of ardent and confident praise. It is apparently post-exilic. Whether it was intended for cultic singing is uncertain: Tabernacles and Passover have both been suggested as suitable occasions for its use.

Psalm 136

The reiterated refrain sounds monotonous to us. It probably points to antiphonal chanting, either between soloist and choir, or priest and people. Possibly it was added to an original psalm which consisted only of the first line of each verse (cf. the additions made to Ps 145 in the Qumran MS).

The form is a hymn. vv. 1–3 are a call to give thanks to YHWH; vv. 4–9 offer praise of YHWH as creator; vv. 10–22 praise YHWH as the one who delivered his people from Egypt and gave them the promised land; vv. 23–5 express a more general praise for God's deliverance of his people, perhaps in the present, and his care of all creation, introduced differently from the earlier part of the psalm; v. 26 is a renewed call to praise YHWH. The psalm forms a companion to Ps 135 , and although both are often described as history psalms, both are really hymns (note especially vv. 1–3, 23–5 ). ‘O give thanks’ is assumed before vv. 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 13, 16, 17 . The dependence on Gen 1 (cf. vv. 7–9; Gen 1:14–18 ) makes a post-exilic date almost certain.

Psalm 137

‘The tender pathos of the opening verses enlists our sympathy: the crash of bitter denunciation in the closing stanza shocks and repels’ (Kirkpatrick 1901: iii. 779). The date of the psalm is variously taken to be during the Exile, when the mockery of vv. 1–3 were a present experience, or soon after the return from exile when the psalmist looked back on past suffering. The key issue is whether v. 6 implies that Jerusalem is restored or faith is holding on to a ruin. Usually described as a communal lament or complaint, the emphasis on Zion is reminiscent of the Songs of Zion, and it may be that the psalmist is reusing features from those songs in a new way. Similarly he expresses his curse on Babylon in the form of a beatitude. The structure is either as in NRSV (vv. 1–3, 4–6, 7–9 ) or v. 4 belongs to the first stanza, and the rest of the psalm divides into 5–6, 7, 8–9 .

History may help us to understand, if not to condone, the final curses. Edom was the traditional enemy of Israel, and at the time of the Exile the Edomites pressed into Judah, and brought upon themselves the undying hatred of Israel (cf. Isa 34; 63:1–6; Lam 4:21–2; Ezek 25:12–14 ; Ob). On one level it represents the ordinary features of ancient warfare; on another, the Babylonians were accounted the enemies of YHWH and not just of Israel, for they had destroyed his city and his temple.

The LXX gives ‘Of David’ as a title, and one LXX textual tradition added ‘through Jeremiah’, possibly noting similarities with Jer 49:7–22; 50:1–51:58 , and the verbs ‘pay back’ and ‘dash’ (vv. 8–9 ) in Jer 51:20–4 .

Psalm 138

The structure of this psalm is clearer than its type. vv. 1–3 express thanksgiving for answered prayer, vv. 4–6 call on the kings to praise YHWH, and vv. 7–8 conclude the psalm with confidence in YHWH's steadfast love. Perhaps the most natural understanding is that this is an individual thanksgiving, but the universal reference in the middle section has convinced some that it is a royal psalm, offered by the king either when absent from Jerusalem or, more probably, from within the temple court and facing the temple itself. Others propose that it is corporate, the ‘I’ being either a representative of the nation or symbolizing it. Support can be found for each of these interpretations, but this only reinforces the uncertainty. For example, the call to the foreign kings fits a royal psalm, but might equally be a late ‘democratizing’ of the style when it was taken over by individuals. In the same way ‘lowly’ in v. 6 can be understood as a mark of an ordinary Jewish worshipper, but kings, both within Israel and in other countries of the ancient Middle East, described themselves as poor and lowly. Moreover, while there are some resemblances to Deutero-Isaiah (e.g. cf. v. 6 with Isa 57:15 ) these are hardly close enough to prove dependence on the prophet, and both may well have been calling upon traditional liturgical language. Some LXX MSS add ‘of Zechariah’ to the title, perhaps finding similarities between the message of this prophet and vv. 4–6 . Finally, the tenses in vv. 4–5 present some difficulties. NRSV takes the verbs as future, declaring the homage that the kings will offer, but it is unusual to find such hymnic descriptions directly addressed to God, and it may be that the verbs should be taken as modal (‘Let all the kings of the earth praise you’, REB; NIV also takes the verbs as modal).

All in all we are left with a somewhat elusive psalm of thanksgiving, which nevertheless expresses as attractive a joyful thanksgiving and trust as any in the Psalter.

Psalm 139

The uncertain meaning and probable corruption of several verses in this psalm, coupled with uncertainties about its type, make interpretation very difficult. No space is available to discuss individual verses, but the wide differences between the chief modern translations, especially in vv. 11, 14, 16–18, 20 should be noted. The original text and meaning of these verses is probably beyond recovery.

The structure of the psalm as set out in NRSV is accepted by many. In vv. 1–6 the psalmist recognizes God's intimate knowledge of all his actions and thoughts. He then confesses God's omnipresence through rhetorical questions showing that nowhere could he escape from God's presence (vv. 7–12 , contrast Jonah). The next section (vv. 13–16 ) refers either to divine foreknowledge of the psalmist, even before he was born, or draws on mythological ideas about the creation of the first man from the womb of the earth; vv. 17–18 are a more general sense of wonder at God's omniscience. The prayer against the wicked and expression of the psalmist's hatred of those who oppose God in vv. 19–22 strike a harsh and possibly alien note, but the opening call for God to examine his thoughts and actions is picked up in the two concluding verses.

A decision about whether vv. 19–24 (or 19–22 ) are part of a separate psalm is not easy. The echo ‘you have searched’—‘search me’ (vv. 1, 23 ) is a strong pointer to unity, the sudden imprecation on the wicked and the difference between the types (they appear to be an individual thanksgiving, rather akin to a hymn, and a lament) speak for two separate psalms or parts of psalms.

Royal maximalists, who regard this as a royal psalm, see vv. 19–24 as the goal of a prayer in which the king invites God to search his inner being and prays for the slaughter of his enemies. (Many readers wish that vv. 19–22 were not there, and it is important to remember that for the psalmist the wicked were God's enemies and that for him God's honour was at stake; see PS J.2–8.) An alternative interpretation ascribes the psalm to a man who has been acquitted of the charges made against him (God has already searched out his thoughts and deeds, vv. 1–3 ), and offers his thanksgiving. This is preferable to taking it as the prayer of one who has been accused and awaits judgement, a view that involves seeing vv. 1–18 as a kind of ‘negative oath’, akin to Job 31 . All these interpretations assume that the psalm belongs to cultic worship, but some think it is too personal for this, and, pointing to wisdom features, regard it as a meditative poem.

The date of the psalm cannot be determined, but does not matter for an appreciation of the reverence before the mighty God which shines out.

Psalm 140

This appears to be the prayer of a man accused by slanderers, whose attacks are described under a variety of metaphors: war, snake poison, setting traps, and plots. The difficulties of knowing whether the situation is an appeal to a higher court, an ordeal, a counter-curse against sorcery, or a plea for direct divine aid and a right judgement are the same as in all similar psalms. A few attribute the psalm to the king (largely on the grounds of the references to war in vv. 2, 7 , which most treat as part of the figurative language). The text is almost certainly corrupt in vv. 8–9 , and the Eng. versions make various attempts to arrive at some sense.

The structure is not entirely clear. vv. 6–7, 12–13 are somewhat parallel in expressing confidence in God, most obviously in 12–13, which may be a response to a priestly or prophetic assurance that the prayer has been heard. This leaves vv. 1–5 as a prayer for help and vv. 8–11 as an imprecation against the enemies.

Psalm 141

vv. 5–7 of this psalm are so corrupt that it seems impossible to gain any certain sense (cf. the differences in the Eng. versions). In the psalm as a whole the psalmist prays that he may be delivered from the enticements and the oppression of the wicked, and seeks divine support to live a sinless life. Royal maximalists take it to be the king's psalm, perhaps offered during a military campaign far away from Jerusalem (v. 2 is taken to mean that he cannot offer sacrifice in the temple, while v. 7 is seen as a lament over battle losses). More probably it is a prayer of an ordinary worshipper, even a prayer outside cultic worship altogether, although most question whether v. 2 implies the substitution of prayer for sacrifice. While vv. 8–10 express the common plea for help against enemies who are persecuting the psalmist, in terms similar to Ps 140 (cf. 35:8 ), other parts of the psalm are closer to wisdom teaching, especially the request for help against wrong speech (v. 3 ) and to be kept away from bad company (v. 4, cf. Ps 1 ). The structure of the psalm is difficult to determine owing to uncertainties about the text. The NRSV divisions are probably as good as any: an opening call to God to hear his prayer (vv. 1–2 ), a petition to be enabled to avoid sin and sinners (vv. 3–4 ), and two sets of petitions against the enemies (vv. 5–7, 8–10 ), but v. 5 may belong to the second section.

Psalm 142

The title, references to enemies, the psalmist's close bond with YHWH, and the celebration of the people around him, perhaps even crowning him (v. 7 , cf. REB: ‘The righteous will place a crown on me’) have led royal maximalists to include this as one of the king's psalms. On the other hand if ‘prison’ (v. 7 ) is taken literally, it will be more naturally regarded as the prayer of a man awaiting the divine decision as to his guilt (cf. Lev 24:12; Num 15:34 ). It may, however, be figurative, either for distress, or, less probably, for exile, turning the psalm into a prayer for Israel.

The simplest structuring of the psalm is to divide it into two strophes, vv. 1–4, 5–7 , although the smaller divisions of NRSV point to further developments in the thought: the opening call to YHWH, a description of the distress, and renewed prayers, coupled with expression of trust in God and a final vow to offer thanksgiving for the deliverance.

The title reveals the way the editor searched the historical books for a suitable setting for the psalm. The cave may be that at Adullam or En-gedi (1 Sam 22:1; 24:3 ). It has been pointed out that he may have found links with the former in the references to ‘refuge’ (v. 5 ) and ‘stronghold’ (1 Sam 22:4 ), and to the latter through three words in v. 7 and 1 Sam 24:17–18 from the same Hebrew roots, though this is not apparent in the English: ‘prison’ (YHWH ‘put me [shut me up] into your hands’); ‘righteous’; and ‘deal bountifully’ (‘repaid’).

Psalm 143

This psalm is clearly the prayer of an individual, but who the psalmist might be is uncertain. Royal maximalists include it among the king's psalms, pointing to the title, the language, references to enemies, including possibly death as the supreme enemy, and similarities with the previous psalms, which are also regarded as royal. Others include it among the psalms of those falsely accused, pointing to its legal phraseology (e.g. vv. 1–2 ), seeing in v. 3 a reference to imprisonment while awaiting a decision, and relating v. 8 to the divine decision at dawn; the lack of the usual protestations of innocence perhaps counts against this interpretation. On either view, it is more likely that v. 5 refers to YHWH's deliverance of Israel rather than his past dealings with the psalmist. As with many of these individual laments, most of the allusions are too general to make any reconstruction fully convincing. One of the most striking characteristics of this psalm is the writer's eager longing for God himself and not just his gifts (v. 6 ), and his prayer to be enabled to obey him (vv. 8, 10 ).

The structure is not entirely clear because of the repetition of some of the ideas. Most simply it can be divided into an introduction (vv. 1–2 ), a description of his troubles (vv. 3–6 ), and further petitions (vv. 7–12 ), but within the second section there are references to enemies, the psalmist's own depression, a memory of the past, and a longing for God, while in the third death seems imminent, and the psalmist makes several requests for God's steadfast love and divine instruction, as well as deliverance from enemies, and their destruction.

Within Christian tradition this is one of the seven penitential psalms, Paul quoted v. 2 in Rom 3:20 to show universal sinfulness. The LXX's enlargement of the title with ‘when his son (one MSS adds Absalom) pursued him’ (cf. 2 Sam 15–18 ) shows how later editors looked for incidents in the books of Samuel with which to link the psalms, in this way providing an interpretation both of the narratives and the psalms.

Psalm 144

At least vv. 1–11 of this psalm are a king's prayer and must be included in the irreducible minimum of royal psalms. vv. 12–15 , however, with their plural ‘our’ and theme of fertility and prosperity, are commonly held to be a fragment of a different psalm. The unity of the psalm can be maintained if it is taken to be liturgical, part of the ritual drama of the humiliation and restoration of the king, rather than a prayer before battle. The celebration of prosperity is the expected consequence of YHWH's salvation of his anointed servant and viceroy (cf. Ps 72 ). vv. 1–11 contain many reminiscences of other psalms, Ps 18 especially, but also Ps 8 and 33 . This may indicate a late date, but the similarities might equally be the result of common liturgical language.

The meaning of v. 14 is uncertain. NRSV takes the first line as a continuation of the agricultural scene in the previous verse, with a change to an attack by a foreign enemy and exile in the second line (cf. NIV). REB, however, makes the whole verse refer to fertility among the animals.

To the Davidic title the LXX adds, ‘concerning Goliath’ (cf. 1 Sam 17 ), a further example of a late editorial ascription to David.

Psalm 145

This psalm is an acrostic, each verse beginning with the appropriate letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The n verse is missing from the MT, but is supplied by the Qumran scroll and the LXX and Syriac versions. It is included after v. 13 in all the modern Eng. versions.

Despite the limitations which the form imposes on the writer, the psalmist has produced a hymn with a firm structure. Three times the invocation to worship YHWH is followed by descriptions of his power and goodness (vv. 1–2 + 3; 4–7 + 8–9; 10–12 + 13–20 ), and the psalm ends with a renewed call to worship which links the individual and ‘all flesh’ (v. 21 ). If this is the correct analysis, the verbs in vv. 4–7 and 10–12 should be treated as modal, ‘May one generation laud your works to another…’, not recognized by modern translations (unless the ‘shall’ of NRSV is intended to express this sense).

The psalm is notable for reminiscences of other psalms; e.g. v. 3 /Ps 96:4 ; and vv. 15–16 /Ps 104:27–8 . The description of YHWH in v. 8 is found in Ps 103:8 and Ex 34:6 , while individual phrases occur elsewhere. It is possible that such phrases are derived from a common liturgical tradition rather than by direct borrowing, although the change of person in vv. 15–16 favours close contact between the two psalms.

Whether the psalm was ever part of cultic worship is uncertain, although the addition in the Qumran MS of ‘Blessed is YHWH, and blessed is his name for ever and ever’ after each verse may show that it was sung with a congregational response in late Jewish liturgy. The early church sang it at the midday meal, while Chrysostom associates it with the eucharist because of vv. 15–16 . Some, however, regard acrostics as purely poetic, or as wisdom exercises which have no connection with the cult.

Psalm 146

Usually described as a hymn of praise, this psalm has several unusual features. It is by an individual. Instead of the call to praise (vv. 1–2 ) leading into a description of YHWH's greatness, the psalmist introduces a wisdom-style warning against reliance on human aid (vv. 3–4 ). This is followed by a beatitude (v. 5 ) which opens out into the expected description of YHWH as creator and protector of the oppressed (vv. 6–9 ). Striking in this section are a series of relative clauses setting out the character of God and a group of five sentences each beginning with the name YHWH. The psalm ends with YHWH's reign as king of Zion (v. 10 ), akin to the Zion hymns (cf. also v. 5 ). As in Ps 145 , phrases from other psalms or from liturgical tradition are taken up and adapted for new use.

The LXX title ascribes this psalm, as well as Ps 147 (divided into two, each with the same title), to Haggai and Zechariah, without any obvious reason. Most regard it as post-exilic, however, on the grounds of its apparent use of other psalms and its language.

Psalm 147

This psalm consists of three sections, each of which is in the form of a complete hymn of praise, with call to worship and description of YHWH's character and deeds upon which that praise is based (vv. 1–6, 7–11, 12–20 ). He is worshipped as the God of Israel who has restored Jerusalem after the Exile (vv. 2, 13 ), has shown himself as the mighty creator who controls the stars and the forces of nature, especially the winter frost and snow (vv. 4, 8, 16–18 ), provides food for human beings and animals (vv. 9, 14 ), and cares for the brokenhearted (v. 3 ) and the oppressed (v. 6 ). This raises the question of the unity of the psalm, doubts about which are increased by the LXX's division into two psalms, vv. 1–11, 12–20 . While some accept this, or even argue for a combination of three separate psalms, similarities of vocabulary and themes across the whole psalm, and possible structural patterns, such as the mention of Israel at the beginning and end, have convinced others that the MT tradition is the correct one.

The LXX adds to the title ‘of Haggai and Zechariah’, as in Ps 146 , and inserts this full title before v. 12 . Possibly the references to the restoration after the Exile are responsible for this, although it is difficult to determine what controlled its decision. In a further departure from the MT, the LXX adds a second ‘Praise the Lord’ in v. 1 (in these last five psalms in the Psalter ‘Hallelujah’ stands outside the main poem), which would make the rest of the verse into the ‘for’ clause of hymns.

Psalm 148

The structure of this hymn is interesting. The call to praise is expressed with imperatives in vv. 1–4, 7 , and with jussives (‘let them praise’) in vv. 5a , 13a , while what is normally the main content of hymns of praise, the description of YHWH's nature and deeds, introduced with ‘for’, is limited to vv. 5b–6 and 13b–14a . Moreover, in vv. 1–4 the imperative ‘praise him’ begins every line, whereas in vv. 7–12 the opening verb is followed by a series of vocatives. The unity is confirmed by the careful construction, which moves from the heavenly bodies (possibly thought of in mythological terms rather than merely poetic imagery), to features of the earth (natural forces, plants and animals, human beings), and finally to what is almost a little hymn to God in itself. v. 14bc is rather awkward and it has been suggested that it is an editorial footnote stating that this is a hymn of praise.

The listing of the various parts of the natural world have been compared to Egyptian lists, but these are longer and the psalm sounds more like a hymn than a scribal collection of animals. Others point to the hymnic tradition from Babylon as well as Egypt. There seems no need to go outside the OT, however, for the closest similarities are with Gen 1 , even down to some items of vocabulary.

The ‘Song of the Three Young Men’ (an addition to Daniel inserted between Dan 3:23, 24 in the Gk. and Lat. versions), and the Cantemus Cuncti are further developments of this kind of hymn. Job 38 , with which it is also often compared, is less close.

Psalm 149

Some divide this hymn into two sections, vv. 1–4, 5–9 , others into three, vv. 1–3, 4–6, 7–9 . In favour of a twofold structure is the call to praise followed by the grounds for this praise (introduced by ‘for’) in the first part, and the call to the people to execute divine vengeance in the second. Support for a three-part division is seen primarily in the triad of infinitives, in vv. 7–9 , which marks off these verses; its weakness lies in the rather motley collection of themes in the middle part.

The psalm is marked by the martial tone and the look towards the future, and various situations have been proposed for it. The description of YHWH as king (v. 2 ) suggests that it may be one of the ‘new songs’ of the Autumn Festival (cf. Ps 96 ), the battle being cultic, and the eschatology part of the New Year rites. Others suggest an actual battle situation, the psalm being either a hymn of victory that looks forward to still greater triumphs, or as a prayer sung while preparing for the fight.

Many are appalled at the way this psalm has been used to stir up martial passions in the past. It may alleviate their distress to remember that Israel's enemies were also those of YHWH. On the other hand that may be seen to intensify hatred of the nation's enemies.

Psalm 150

This expansion of the cry, ‘Praise the Lord’, forms a noble conclusion to the book of the praises of Israel. Ten times the cry ‘Praise him’ (once ‘Praise God’) rings out. This may be accidental, or it may reflect the ten words of creation in Gen 1 (cf. m. ᾽Abot 5.1: ‘By ten sayings was the world created’). These forge the psalm into a unity and it is unnecessary to try to divide it into stanzas, such as vv. 1–2, 3–4, 5–6 , or, more realistically, vv. 1–2 expressing where and for what God is to be praised (by ‘the sanctuary’ is probably meant both the Jerusalem temple and God's heavenly dwelling), vv. 3–5 listing the various musical instruments (presumably those played in temple worship), and v. 6 uttering a final call to all living things to praise YHWH.

The psalm is often regarded as an extended doxology at the end of the Psalter, corresponding to the doxologies which mark each of the first four books. It is, however, a joyful hymn in its own right, distinguished by the dominance of the call to praise, and lacking the ‘for’ clauses that describe God's greatness (the brief motivation in v. 2 is a different construction in the Heb.).

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