A Short Guide to the Psalms of the Bible

The book of Psalms, also known as the Psalter, stands in a unique position in the Old Testament and even among all of the Holy Scriptures of the Orthodox Church.  In a way not found elsewhere in the Scriptures, the Psalms reflect the upwards prayers of man to God (under the inspiration of God). The Jewish church used the Psalms as its central worship prayers for centuries and this practice was adopted by the Christian Church following Christ, and continues to our day.  The Psalms are richly interspersed in the Divine Liturgy and Holy Day services of the Orthodox Church and are a significant part of the Synekdemos or Daily Prayer book.  Bishop Demetri Khoury of the Antiochian Archdiocese, in his foreword to Christ in the Psalms, said that the Psalter was a “golden thread [which runs] through the beautiful garment of Orthodox worship.” The Psalter is so prevalent in Orthodox worship that St. John Chrysostom said that wherever one looks in the Church, he finds the Psalter “first, last, and central.”

Most of us read or pray the Psalms in English, which, in the Orthodox Church, are translated from the liturgical Greek Old Testament, which itself was translated by the Jews from the original Hebrew.  This is important to know because they contain segments of Hebrew poetry or Israelite cultural elements, some of which are lost in translation or minimally, may sound strange outside the original language and culture.  The Greek numbering, which we use here, differs slightly from the traditional Western numbering familiar in most English translations.  Under the Greek numbering there are 151 psalms in the collection.  The name “Psalms” comes from the Greek word which means to pluck on the harp, referring to their ancient liturgical musical setting.   The Psalms themselves refer to this musical setting (e.g. Ps. 32).  Today, in the Church, when they are put to music, they are exclusively chanted.  Otherwise, they are prayed in plain, unchanted vocal reading.

Under the Jewish setting, and as used by Jesus Christ, they were called Tehilim, which means “praises” in Hebrew, but this refers only to a kernel of the Psalms which cast the name on all of them.  The Psalms consist of not only prayers of praise but of jubilation, lament, thanksgiving, penitence, complaint, supplication, intercession, as well as God’s messages to man, and a rehearsing of God’s work among men, among others.  They yield to a great degree the range and depth of human religious experience in relationship with God.  On a spiritual level therefore, they provide holy meditative and prayerful tools for the Christian pilgrim and they open the door to a deeply personal and mystical relationship with the God who covers us in all of the depth and emotions of the joyful but sometimes difficult and sorrowful Christian life.

The Psalms arise out of historical and geographical settings in God’s workings with man, details of which gives us critical insight into their motivation and inspiration.  Layered on top of these is a rich set of interpretative traditions based on typologies and spiritual or metaphorical interpretations some of which existed in the Jewish Church and later were significantly expanded in the Christian Church.  Both of these aspects of understanding the Psalms have been traditionally important in the Church, as it has for all parts of Scripture.  The interpretative tradition of the ancient Jewish Church is particularly important because it is upon this basis that we have the Messianic prophecies to which Christ referred to himself.

Many Church Fathers were known to have composed commentaries on the Psalms, though we don’t have all of them in direct manuscript tradition.  One well-known commentary is the one of St. John Chrysostom that generally starts from a historical perspective, attempting to set each psalm in its original context.

The Psalms are traditionally ascribed to King David but it is clear that this tradition, like the name of the book, was something true of a kernel of Psalms, which was cast upon all.  That was a common approach to collections of writings in the ancient world.  References to Babylon and other late historical settings show that the collection of Psalms grew in Ancient Israel long after King David, as God’s inspiration continued to work.

 

Historically, the Psalms reflect the religion and the national and individual experience of Old Testament Israel and the Jews.  The Psalter was used for hundreds of years in this context during worship in the Temple and synagogues before Christ.  There are references to the beauty of God’s Law given by Moses, to God’s deliverance from Egypt and later from the captivity in Babylon and to a longing for Jerusalem (Zion), to specific events relating to the monarchy of Israel, to the sacrificial system, to musical instruments in use among the people and to the warfare of the nation.  There are names of specific Old Testament individuals such as King David, King Saul, Absalom and Cush the Benjamite. There are geographical references to the Holy Land with references such as the wilderness of Judah, Mount Hermon, Mount Tabor, and Mount Zion.  Therefore in order to fully appreciate the Psalms, it is useful to understand all the Old Testament with its history and geography as the stage for these writings.  Also, because the Psalms reflect Old Testament revelation and spirituality, they contain requests of God that would not be made by God’s people after Christ’s revelation of the true spirit behind the Old Testament in Matthew 5 of the New Testament.   One such request, for example, is to destroy the persecuting enemies of the supplicant together with their children.  The Psalms show a growth of Israel religion, under God’s progressive revelation, that reaches great spiritual heights.  Yet, even at their height they do not attain the spiritual level of the New Testament revelation of Christ and thus required a proper placement in the Church.

Since the Church adopted the Psalms as the main prayers of the Church, the application and interpretation of the Psalms for the Church are based on typology to the spiritual life of the Christian and the Church.  The enemies described in the Psalms are a type of the demons and the spiritual enemies of the Christian.  The original requests for the defeat of national and personal enemies becomes requests for the defeat of evil spiritual forces besetting the Christian.  The references to burnt offerings and other physical sacrifices become, in type, a references to the spiritual sacrifices of the Christian and the ultimate sacrifice of Christ as given in the Eucharist.  The longings for Jerusalem and Zion become longings for the Kingdom of God. The nation of Israel typifies the expanded Israel of God – the Church.  King David with God as his Father is a type of the Messiah, the only Begotten Son and King.  Thus, in the Church, the Psalms are transformed and “baptized” to the advanced spiritual life of the Christian.

The Psalms were written with great poetic skill, some of which comes across in translation.  Lost in the translation is the rhythmic Hebrew poetry that emphasizes stressed syllables rather than words and lands on the ear more like the semi-regular waves on the ocean beach, as would have been chanted by Jesus.  Also lost in translation are acrostic poems such as Psalm 118.  This Psalm contains 22 stanzas of 8 verses each, where each of the 8 verses of a stanza begin with one letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, which is not easy task to accomplish and still have the Psalm flow with grace and meaning.  Something that is transmitted in translation, including in English, is the parallelism with similar thoughts given in sequence.  One example is given from Psalm 17:

The pangs of death compassed me (A)

and the floods of iniquity sore troubled me. (A)

The pangs of Hades compassed me about; (B)

the snares of death prevented me. (B)

The Psalter was historically divided into 5 sections.  In the Church, for liturgical purposes, the Psalter is divided into 20 kathismata. Each kathisma is further divided into three stases. Each stasis contains between one and three chapters. The exception to this is Psalm 118 which, due to its length, constitutes the entire XVIIth Kathisma. Each of the divine services contains fixed portions of the Psalter that are read in prayer or chanted each time the service is celebrated. In addition, certain services of the Daily Cycle contain prescribed kathisma prayer readings. These prescribed readings rotate daily so that outside of Great Lent the Psalter is read through once in its entirety in a single week. During the Lenten fast, the kathisma prayers are accelerated so that the Psalter is read through in its entirety twice each week.

Christ and the disciples chanted the Psalms as well (Mt. 26:30).  In the gospels this is done in the context of celebrating the Passover, the liturgical tradition of which would have associated the singing of Psalms 112-117 in Hebrew, called the Hallel Psalms.  These were sung because there were 5 major themes in the tradition of the Jewish Church associated with these special Psalms for Passover: the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Law, revival of the dead, and the difficulties preceding the Messianic age, all of which were meaningful in type to Christ’s life, baptism, teachings, miracles and crucifixion. Specifically, Psalm 114 and 115 say:

The pangs of death compassed me, and the perils of Hades came upon me.

I found trouble and sorrow, and I called upon the name of the Lord:

O Lord, deliver my soul…

For He hath delivered my soul from death,

mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.

I will be well pleasing before the Lord in the land of the living…

 

What shall I render unto the Lord for all that He hath rendered unto me?

I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord…
O Lord, I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant, and the son of Thine handmaid;

Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder.

I will sacrifice to Thee a sacrifice of praise [Hebrew: a thank offering]…

I will pay my vows unto the Lord in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem.

Christ sung this immediately after he shifted the meaning of the Passover from a lamb sacrificed yearly in the Temple to Himself as the eternal Lamb of God and as He shifted the Jerusalem Temple’s thank offerings to the thank offering of the cup of his blood, the Eucharist. In a similar manner, Christ recognized, as did the apostles after him, other Messianic expectations in the Psalms that pointed to many aspects of Christ’s incarnate life as the only Begotten of the Father.  The resurrected Jesus said to his disciples, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.

In a letter to someone by the name of Marcellinus, St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote that the Psalms are the one part of Scripture that we can mimic in prayer and make it our own words.  In this letter, he covers in detail how each of the Psalms may be used on different occasions of spiritual need in the Christian life.  He summarizes the benefit of reading them well: “In the first place, it is fitting that the sacred writings should praise God in poetry as well as prose, because the freer, less restricted form of verse, in which the Psalms are cast, ensures that by them men should express their love to God with all the strength and power they possess…But those who do sing as I have indicated, so that the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit, they sing with the tongue and with the understanding also, and greatly benefit not themselves alone but also those who want to listen to them.”

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