Like its neighbors (Egypt and Babylonia especially), Israel had a very ancient tradition of lyric poetry in all its forms. This treasure is conserved in the Psalter, a collection of 150 psalms which has come down to us in the book of Psalms. The word “psalter” derives from the Greek salterion, the stringed instrument used to accompany these songs. In Hebrew the book is called Tehil-lim (Hymns), although this name only suits a certain number of the psalms—for example Psalm 145, the most typical.
Although, as we have said, there are 150 psalms in all, the Hebrew version, which is the one the New Vulgate follows, is one ahead from Psalm 10 to Psalm 148 of the Greek version, the latter’s number being usually given in parentheses in the more recent editions of the Bible.
Efforts have been made to deduce the authors of the psalms from the titles which head them up. On this basis, 73 are attributed to King David, twelve to Asaph, eleven to the sons of Korah, two to Solomon, one to Moses, and others to Heman and Ethan. It was soon realized that the original titles contained a mere reference to particular people and that in fact something over a half should be attributed to David (which is what tradition does), even if they were given their final form in a later period. This is not surprising if one bears in mind King David’s policy of systematizing the use of music and poetry in divine worship (cf. 2 Sam. 1:19-27; 3:33-34). The Psalter is the most complete and most treasured collection of religious songs used by the people of Israel over a period of centuries. An uninterrupted tradition confirms that psalms, hymns, and canticles were sung in the synagogues. In the Gospel there is reference to the psalms and hymns which were sung after the paschal meal (cf. Matt. 26:30).
Some psalms were initially used outside the liturgy—for example the Miserere (Ps. 51), composed by David to ask God’s forgiveness for his sins. In time, and due to their symbolic beauty, these psalms were brought into the liturgy and used as prayers by the entire community of Israel.
Others, didactic in content, were originally a kind of popular catechism, made up of edifying narratives with prayer formulae added, designed to preserve knowledge and worship of the true God. It is also known that these psalms gradually passed from private use to public use, since only a few were composed especially for use in liturgical ceremonies in the Temple.
Originally, many of these psalms were royal songs, composed in honor of the king, in the form of prayer and thanksgiving. These go back to the period of the monarchy and reflect court language and ceremonial. The “anointed” referred to in many of these psalms is the king, who at that time was anointed and was described in Hebrew as mastah.
The fact that there are various levels of meaning in the psalms should not confuse us. God’s promises to the Davidic dynasty clearly gave rise to expectation of an absolutely unique descendant of David, a Messiah, a son of David, who would reign forever (2 Sam. 7). This prophecy of Nathan was the first link in a string of prophecies about the Messiah and was interpreted in the psalms as a promise of stability for the house of David (Ps. 89 and 132). If we associate with it certain clearly messianic psalms, such as 16 and 22, we discover a perfect profile of this unique person, the Anointed, Jesus Christ our Lord.
It must be said that these psalms, like many others, attain their full meaning in the light of the New Testament. Peter and Paul speak of Psalm 16 (15) when referring to Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection and the salvation his sacrifice would bring to those who believe in him (Acts 2:25-32, 13:35-37). Our Lord himself, when he was dying on the cross, used the words of Psalm 22 (21), giving it back its authentic meaning (Matt. 27:46).
Some of the old royal psalms, which were much used after the fall of the monarchy, were modified slightly and put into th e Psalter and became what are known as messianic psalms in the strict sense. For example, this happened in the case of Psalms 2, 72, and 110 (in fact Psalm 110 is the one most quoted in the New Testament). This is also true of Psalm 45, which describes the union of the Messiah with the new Israel, following the line of the marriage allegories of the prophets: Hebrews (1:8) applies this psalm directly to Jesus Christ. In other words, the messianic hopes which are scattered throughout the Psalter would at last be realized in the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Word and specially in his redemption of man.
Psalms contains a unique religious and spiritual treasury, without equal in world literature. It provides a synthesis of all the teaching of the Old Testament and reflects the consciousness of an essentially believing people, a people who, in spite of all sorts of vicissitudes, stayed faithful to God. In each of the psalms we can find the sensitive and extraordinarily sincere soul of a man who prays by singing because he feels that is the best way to praise God. The Jewish people were always at risk of being tempted or forced into idolatry by the neighboring peoples. But the whole climate of the psalms is one of strict monotheism–faith in one God, who is personal, who rewards man, who is creator and lord of the whole universe, its king and sovereign judge. It is he who regulates the course of history; nothing can resist him; he is infinite and almighty; he is in need of nothing. His only purpose is his own glory. He has no rivals.
Although God is of course transcendent and invisible, he continually reveals himself to man through his works. From these man can plainly see his main attributes—holiness, goodness, justice, mercy, power, and truth. Of these the Psalms especially stress his mercy. They mention God’s mercy more than one hundred times, almost always connecting it with God’s faithfulness to his promises–the mercy and fidelity of a good Father, who is shown in the history of Israel as a husband, king, and shepherd of his people, a people whom he has loved with preferential love. Not only has he chosen Israel in preference to others: He protects Israel with a jealous love.
In this context it is easy to see how Psalms nourished, for centuries, the prayer of so many men and women of the Old Testament thirsty for God. He wanted to teach them to trust him and to abandon themselves to him in prayer, for he is the God of mercy, ever ready to forgive, console, and encourage his children.
And not only in the Old Testament. The psalms were also recited by Jesus and by Mary, by the apostles and the first Christian martyrs. The Church has taken them as its official prayer, to be recited every day by priests and religious in the liturgy of the hours.
The words have not changed, but their meaning has developed. In the light of the New Covenant they reveal new treasures. Christians praise and thank God for revealing his inner life through his Son, who by his death on the cross has redeemed us, made us children of God, and sent us the Holy Spirit to set our souls aflame. This is why we conclude each psalm with the trinitarian doxology glorifying the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The old entreaties become more ardent now that the Supper, the cross, and the Resurrection have shown man the infinite power of God, the gravity of sin, and the heavenly life that awaits the just. The messianic hopes about which the psalmist sang have been realized; the Messiah has come; he reigns; and all nations are called to praise him.