As we've been working through the first several psalms in our sermons this summer, already we've encountered a number of quirks and descriptions that may be perplexing. Psalms contains a handful of features and aspects for which a little extra explanation might be helpful. Even the name of the book itself (and of the 150 individual parts that make it up) is different from the rest of the Bible!
The psalms were songs and prayers that were used in Jewish worship; thus, in a sense you could think of the book that we call Psalms as something like a combination of hymnal and Book of Common Prayer for the people of Israel in biblical times. The collection of them together, particularly when found outside of a bound Bible, is often called "The Psalter" — because a psalter is simply a volume that contains all of the psalms. Many churches and traditions would have a printed, bound Psalter in the pews, just as we have hymnals available; indeed, there are some traditions that still believe that the use of the Psalter is the only right, biblical musical selection for public worship.
Another way that the book as a whole is different from the rest of the Bible is how we refer to the individual psalms. Whereas most of scripture was written with the intent that any given section would be coherently connected to the rest of the content around it, the psalms were almost always written individually, and even when they were done in pairs or groups they were meant to stand alone to a degree. Thus, while we might refer to Genesis chapter 40 or Luke chapter 3, it is incorrect to speak of "Psalms chapter 100" — instead, it is Psalm 100.
(Incidentally, Psalms is also the only book in the Bible that had pre-existing divisions; the rest of the chapter divisions, as well as ALL of the verse divisions, were imposed on the texts much later.)
The contents of the individual psalms also introduces peculiar features. For example, in Psalm 3 we encounter the first preamble-like content: "A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son." These are often mistaken as simply helpful comments that were inserted at some point down the line — sort of like the first Study Bible notes! In fact, these are actually verses in the psalms themselves, and as far as we know they were written by psalmists. In the Hebrew Bible, these are noted as verse #1 — which can confuse those engaged in translation, if they're not paying attention! — but in English Bibles are usually not given an explicit verse number, and thus can be referred to as verse 0. Regardless, they should be read as what they are: part of Scripture, the divinely-inspired Word of God.
Psalm 3 also introduces another very common element that people will often wonder about: the word Selah. This word occurs 71 times in the psalms, and in generally understood to be a very old musical term. Its meaning is unknown, but our best guess is that it was some sort of musical marker — maybe a rest of sorts, or perhaps something of a da capo, a cue to return to the beginning of the music. Since we don't know what it meant, we can't exactly use it the way it was intended in our reading or worship! Most folks choose to leave it silent (and unread), and perhaps simply pause briefly where it appears.
Psalms 4, 5, and 6 have also introduced us to more of these quirks, especially in verse 0: notes to the choirmaster (all three psalms) and a comment instructing that the psalm be sung "according to The Sheminith" (in Psalm 6). These too are musical notations, some more obvious than others. Clearly, if this collection was for public worship, it makes sense that there would be a choirmaster, arrangements for the instruments, preferred tunes that the psalms be sung to, and so forth. "The Sheminith" is related to the Hebrew word for eight, so a song sung according to The Sheminith may span eight octaves (an incredible range!) or perhaps require eight instruments to accompany it, or an instrument with eight strings.
Psalm 7 is described in v. 0 as "a Shiggaion of David" (the only Shiggaion in the entire Psalter), which once again is unknown in its precise meaning, but again is probably a musical notation or perhaps a literary designation, and because the word shiggaion has the Hebrew root that means, "wander" it might suggest that either the tune, the lyrics, or the style of poetry employed are a bit irregular. Psalm 8 contains a similar note, "according to The Gittith", which (like The Sheminith) probably describes a particular style of music or instrumentation; it may have linked this psalm to the playing of a particular kind of instrument called a "Gittite Lyre", or it may have indicated that this was a festival song.
There are other similar designations and comments (though we won't encounter any others than these in our series this summer). What do we make of all of these? I can think of three ways that these peculiar quirks may serve to edify us in our spiritual growth:
- They remind us of our limits in understanding Scripture. We have very good, quite reliable translations of the Bible to read and use in English; nevertheless, it is always helpful to be reminded that our Bible was written in other languages (that most of us have little or no knowledge of), and in another historical context. Both of these facts are important in how we understand and interpret Scripture, and these unknown parts can be helpful prompts to actively remember this.
- They teach us of the worship-centered nature of the Psalms. Because we have our own Bibles, and many of us spend time in private reading of them, we can be inclined to think of Scripture as having only, or at least mostly, individual implications. The Psalms — and especially these words and phrases that give instruction for how they are to be used in corporate, public worship — give us a lot to think about in challenging our tendency toward individualistic thinking.
- They move us to sing! I find it interesting that so many of these are musical in their nature. That God would be concerned with giving definite instruction to the singing of His Word should move us to want to sing the Psalms. Fortunately, too, there are many wonderful resources that make it possible to sing these beautiful and rich expressions of Scriptural truths.
Psalms is a wonderful and fascinating book, full of interesting and sometimes strangely-foreign things. Hopefully, we will find even the most unfamiliar aspects of the psalms to be edifying to our faith.