The Book of Psalms in our Bible was ancient Israel’s hymnbook. Among the Jews it is still known by the Hebrew name, Tehillim, meaning songs or praises. This Hebrew word is based on the root word, HALEL, meaning jubilation or to boast. Like a number of other Hebrew words, it came into the English language. We find it in Medieval English as “HALLOO,” to cry out or to yell (quite related in meaning to the Hebrew!), and finally has come down to us today into Modern English as “HELLO.” (You are speaking a form of Hebrew when answering the phone!)
The Greek Septuagint translation of 300 B.C. titled the book in Greek as “PSALMOI” meaning songs, giving us the English words Psalm and Psalmody. Our English word “Psalter” is derived from the Greek “Psalterion,” a harp or stringed instrument. In ancient Israel, there was no dry reading of psalms, only music and choirs!
Other Hebrew terms found in the Psalms include, “Tehillah,” the singular form of Tehillim that is found (one time only) in Psalm 145. Other Hebrew terms used include “Shir,” a song, used numerous times, and “Mizmor,” a psalm of meditation, found 44 times.
The book of Tehillim or Psalms is written in RESPONSIVE FORMAT. Many American hymnbooks have a responsive reading section in the back; the pastor reads one line and the congregation the next, continuing throughout the psalm. The responsive format is a kind of “double witness;” each second line reinforces and often amplifies the sacred thoughts of the preceding line.
Again, the Psalms are music compositions meant to be sung with instruments, not dry read. The problem is that we were left with the names of some of the tunes, but not the music to go with them! Psalm 56 is to be sung to the unknown tune “destroy not,” Al-tasheth. That was the prayer of Moses in Deut. 9:26, “Destroy not thy people and thine inheritance.” It was the theme of several psalms of humiliation, including 56, 57, 58, and 74.
In the Reformation, the Scottish Psalter was developed as a METRICAL TRANSLATION of the book of psalms. In Colonial America it was said that the home of every freeborn family had at least two books, the Bible and the Bay Psalm book which was based on the Scottish Psalter. Original copies of this book are worth a small fortune today!
For nearly two centuries, from the Pilgrims arrival in 1620 until about the year 1800, virtually all of the churches in America used exclusive psalmody from the Book of Psalms in the bible. In fact, for a number of years in the early 19th century a heated conflict erupted in the churches when the old-fashioned conservatives of that day vehemently opposed the Divine Psalm music being replaced by the new hymns of men like John and Samuel Wesley and many others, which they termed “Unconsecrated Music.” It was also called “unsanctified secular music” in a deliberate contrast to the Bible’s “Sacred music.” Today only the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America uses exclusive psalmody, with their “Book of Psalms for Singing.” The American Dutch Reformed Church still includes psalms in their hymnal, but with each new hymnbook revision fewer of them remain.
The Book of Psalms is divided into FIVE SECTIONS (by the inspired Hebrew compilers in the text itself, not by later translators). Each section has become associated with or paralleled by the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses:
- 1-41 Genesis book
- 42-72 Exodus book
- 73-89 Leviticus book
- 90-106 Numbers book
- 107-150 Deuteronomy book
Each of these five sections end with a DOXOLOGY that were sung at worship services. For example, the Exodus section is completed with the beautiful lyrics of Psalm 72:18-19.
Let us now look at the background to the biblical symbolism in the Book of Psalms. In the first century, Jewish shekel and half-shekel coins depicted a tri-flower LILY on one side, and a WINE BOWL on the reverse. Isn’t that curious? Nations usually put kings or queens on their coinage, not a wine bowl! The LILY and the GRAPES, or the WINE made from grapes, were ancient biblical Israel’s national symbols, as we can see in the Scriptures.
These symbols represented SPRING and AUTUMN, FLOWERS and FRUIT respectively. The lily was chosen to represent the spring flowers while the wine grapes, or alternately pomegranates, represented the autumn fruits. These coins are depicted on page 95 of “The Companion Bible.”
As you might have already suspected, spring and fall, flowers and fruit, were a metonymy or metaphor, a stand-in for the Holy Days that were honored and celebrated at those times of the year. A metonymy is the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant, for example a suit for a business executive, or the track for horse racing. A metaphor is a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else. Similarly, a lily flower was a figure of speech or a word picture representing or symbolizing the spring holy days of Passover and Unleavened Bread. Fruit pictured the autumn feast of ingathering culminating in the feast of Tabernacles. The biblical coins were showcasing the Holy Days commanded by God to be kept by His people.
This is the key to understanding which of the 150 compositions in the biblical Book of Psalms were connected to specific biblical holy days. We will focus in this article on the Feast of Passover. Two of the Psalms in your English Bibles are called, “Shoshannim.” The Hebrew word, Shoshannim, means “lilies.” One commentary has this to say about Psalm 44: “For the spring festival, Passover, designed to commemorate God’s goodness to Israel as Redeemer, and to remember the days of the making of the nation. (cf. Exo. 12:5ff; Num. 9:5; Joshua 5:10)” –JW Thirtle, “Titles of the Psalms,” p. 172.
Psalm 44 is a psalm in two parts: verses 1 to 8 have a Passover theme, the Exodus from Egypt. Part two brings the reader back to the author’s own time, likely (according to scholars) the time of King Hezekiah, when Jerusalem was under attack. In the first verses it speaks of Israel’s love and obedience to God; the second half is a contrast where Israel is chasing other gods, depicted as other lovers.
The Keil and Delitzsch Bible Commentary says, “The poet opens with a tradition coming down from the time of Moses and of Joshua which they have heard with their own ears, in order to demonstrate the vast distance between the character of the former times and the present.” Exodus Israel was obedient, but later 8th century B.C. Israel was disobedient.
Psalm 68 is another Passover Psalm. The Believer’s Bible Commentary says, “This is Israel’s national processional, in which the journey of the Ark of the Covenant from Mount Sinai to Mount Zion is seen as symbolizing the march of God to ultimate victory. To the Jewish mind, the ark rightly represented the presence of God; when the ark moved, God moved.”
We can better enter into the spirit of this marching song if we see that it is divided into the following seven sections:
Introductory hymn of praise to God (vv. 1-6).
- The ark moving from Sinai through the wilderness (vv. 7, 8).
- The entrance and conquest of the land of Canaan (vv. 9-14).
- The capture of Jerusalem by David (vv. 15-18).
- Song praising God for victory over the Jebusites (vv. 19-23).
- The procession carrying the ark to the sanctuary in Jerusalem (vv. 24-27).
- The jubilant throng anticipating the final victory of God (vv. 28-35).
This article is an introduction and overview of the music of biblical Israel. This subject was covered more completely in a series of lectures at my own church in Detroit, and a recent video presentation with additional information can be found on the Capac Bible Church YouTube site.