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The Psalms —
Origin & Organization

by Gary D. Penkala

Psalms The Psalms form the bedrock of our Roman Catholic liturgical experience. Whether in the Liturgy of the Hours, based predominantly on the Psalms, or in the Eucharistic Liturgy, psalm text is woven through every aspect of worship. Given their exalted position in our church experience, we'll begin a series of articles on the Psalms. This introductory one will explore the origins of the Book of Psalms in the Bible.

I. Origins

Fr. Pius Drijvers was a Dutch Trappist monk who worked as a missionary in Africa during the mid 20th century. His book, The Psalms: Their Structure and Meaning, is an important work in Catholic psalm exegesis. Fr. Roland E. Murray, O.Carm, in his foreward to the book writes:

[The Psalms] were composed overa period of seven cneturies in Israel's history; they reflect arich variety of mood, belief and aspiration. The Psalms, as perhaps no other book of the Old Testament, directly portray the encounter of God and man in various situations: in despair and trust, in public cult and in private, in thanksgiving over victory, in lament over sickness and death, etc.

Located literally and philosophically at the center of the Bible, the ook of Psalms has a rather complicated history. The 150 psalms did not appear as a complete book, nor are they by the same author, nor do they come from a particular era of Jewish history. From the very early Psalms of Solomon to the New Testament canticles of Benedictus and Magnificat, we see that poetic literature spans many centuries, and continues even into the Christian era with the Epistle cnaticles of Saint Paul. Thus the bulk of Scriptural poetry resides in the Book of Psalm, it is not exclusive. There are Old Testament songs in Jeremiah's Lamentations, of the three youths in the fiery furnace, of Job, of Hannah, of Daniel and Jonah. The New Testament canticle, alluded to above, form a Scriptural pattern in Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.

A number of smaller collections were combined to form the Book of Psalms. The Elohistic group, Psalms 42-83, are doherent in their use of the term "Elohim" meaning "God," rather than the sacred title of Israel's God, "Yahweh." A second collection is labeled the Davidic group, Psalms 3-41 (except 33), since they were either written or collected by King David. Other groups include the Songs of Zion (Psalms 96-99), praises of God as King, the Psalms of Ascent, (Psalms 120-134), traveling psalms for those on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; and the Hallel Psalms, which begin and/or end with the festive "Hallelujah."

II. Elohistic Psalms

Psalms 42 to 83 make up what is called the Elohistic Psalter. In these psalms the use of the sacred name of the Lord (YHWH) is very often replaced by the name God (Elohim). This is quite apparent when comparing Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, one outside this collection and one within. These are actually identical, except for the title of the Deity,

Psalm 14:2 reads:

The LORD (YHWH) looks down from heaven
upon the children of men.

Psalm 53:3 changes this to:

God (Elohim) looks down from heaven
upon the children of men.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the Elohistic Psalter was an ancient book in its own right, before being incoporated into the Book of Psalms, notwithstanding its spanning Book 2 and Book 3 in a later designated grouping. Forty-two is an important number in the Middle East. Enheduanna, a Sumerian poetess known to be the first recorded author in history, wrote 42 hymns in her Sumerian Temple Hymns. It is also the number of Psalms in the Elohistic group, the number of the Psalm beginning the group, and the number of times the Divine Name is used.

Within these psalms is a sub-group called the Asaph Psalms [Psalms 50, 73-83]. They are named for Asaph, a temple musician who gave rise to the Asaphites, a musicians' guild in the First Temple.

III. Davidic Psalms

The Davidic Psalter comprises Psalm 3-41, excluding Psalm 33 and sometimess Psalm 10. Psalms 1 and 2 make up and introduction to the Book; Psalm 1 contrasts the fate of the good and wicked, while Psalm 2 offers a view of rebellion of the nations aginst God and his Messaih ("Anointed," "Christ"). Thsee two psalms, along with 3-41, are known in the standard Hebrew text as Book 1 of the Psalter. They are mainly prayers of distress.

Within this category there are various sub-groups. One (Psalms 4-9) gives actual musical instructions for the singing, such as "with stringed instruments," "with wind instruments," or "upon the gittith (zither)"

Why are Psalm 10 and 33 outside the Davidic appellation? Psalm 10 was combined with Psalm 9 in the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate numbering, called Psalm 9. This is why the psalm numbers from 10 through 147 are one number less in the Latin Vulgate than in the more common English system. Thus Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd …") is Psalm 22 in the Vulgate. The manuscript showing Psalm 33 with no ascription to David may indicate, as above, its link with the previous psalm.

IV. Songs of Zion

We find unabashed praiseand exaltation of Zion in these Psalms 96-99, each begining either with "Sing to the Lord a new song" or "The Lord is king." These encompass the Responsorial Psalms for Christmas Day:

  • Psalm 96 – Midnight Mass
  • Psalm 97 – Mass at Dawn
  • Psalm 98 – Mass during the Day

There is a sense of evangeliation here: "Say among the nations, the Lord is King" [Ps 96:10].

V. Psalms of Ascent

The Psalms of Ascent [Psalms 120-134] are also known as the Gradual Psalms or the Pilgrim Psalms. These may have been sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Booths). Being fiftenen in number, they also could be the accompanying music as the Levites ascended the fifteen steps of the Temple in Jerusalem.

While the remained of the Book of Psalms is found in no order within the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Psalms of Ascent are found in proper canonical order. These are relatively short psalms, some (131, 133, 134) only three verses long; they are filled with sentiments of hope and trust. In the modern Liturgy of the Hours, the Psalms of Ascent are used at Daytime Prayer, as the complimentary Psalmody and on Solemnities.

VI. Hallel Psalms

Hallel is the Hebrew word for "praise," the basis for the word Hallelujah ("Priase Yahweh"). There are three groups of Hallel Psalms in the Bible: Psalms 113-118, Psalms 145-150, and Psalm 136.

The first group is known simply as the Hallel, and are recited as a unit by Jews as a joyous prayer on Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and Hanukkah. This may be the "hymn" or "psalms" sung by Jesus and his apostles after the Last Supper, which was likely a Passover celebration. These psalms begin with the word, "Hallelujah," and often use a litany format and have connections to Temple worship.

In Christian usage, the New American Bible captions them:

  • Psalm 113 – Praise of the Lord for His Care of the Lowly
    "Praise the name of the Lord … he raises up the lowly from the dust."
  • Psalm 114 – The Lord's Wonders at the Exodus
    "When Israel came forth from Egypt … the sea behld and fled."
  • Psalm 115 – The Greatness and Goodnes of the True God
    "Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name give glory."
  • Psalm 116 – Thanksgiving to God for His Help in Need
    The psalm for Holy Thursday: "The cup of salvation I will take up."
  • Psalm 117 – Doxology of All the Nations
    The shortest psalm, only two verses: "Praise the Lord, all you nations."
  • Psalm 118 – Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Savior of Israel
    A compendium of praise, our great Easter psalm: "This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it."

Psalm 136 is know as "The Great Hallel," According to Pope Benedict XVI,

The whole of Psalm 136 unfolds in the form of a litany, marked by the antiphonal refrain: "for his steadfast love endures for ever." The many wonders God has worked in human history and his continuous intervention on behalf of his people are listed in the composition. Furthermore, to every proclamation of the Lord's saving action the antiphon responds with the basic impetus of praise.

In Roman Catholic liturgy, this is the Common Responsorial Psalm for the Easter Vigil. After praising God for the wonders of Creation, it ennumerates the events of the deliverance from Egypt, before extolling his great mercy.

The closing psalms of the Bible make up the last of the Hallel groups [Psalm 145-150]. These are uniformly laudatory in scope, beginning (after "Halleluijah") with "Praise the Lord," or else "I will extol you, O my God" or "Sing to the Lord a new song."

These are oftn found as psalms of praise at the beginning of the day during Lauds (Morning Prayer) in the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours).

VII. The Great Hymnal

From its poetic style and laudatory trajectory, it is apparent that the Book of Psalm forms the Great Hymnal of the Bible. The majority of these songs were meant for liturgical use, as can be seen in the instructions for perforamnce which often open the chapters.

The Psalter is from first to last poetry, although Hebrew poetry lacks rhyme and regular meter. Its most distinctive and pervasive feature is parallelism. The Psalms are impassioned, vivid and concrete; they are rich in images, in simile and metaphor. Assonance, alliteration and wordplays abound in the Hebrew text. Effective use of repetition and the piling up of synonyms and complements to fill out the picture are characteristic. Key words frequently highlight major themes in prayer or song. Enclosure (repetition of a significant word or phrase at the end that occurs at the beginning) frequently wraps up a composition or a unit within it. The notes on the structure of the individual psalms often call attention to literary frames within which the psalm has been set. []

The psalms exhort us to confidently "Sing to the Lord a new song."

Article written 07 September 2021

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