Book One of the Psalter consists of 40 or 41 psalms. The reason for the numerical discrepancy there is that Psalms 9-10 form one alphabetic acrostic, which suggests that at one time at least they were one psalm. Supporting this understanding further is the fact that Psalm 10 has no subtitle. Moreover, the Septuagint Greek (LXX) has these two as one psalm. In Book One only Psalms 1, 2, 10, and 33 have no subtitle. These psalms I have labeled “n/a” below.
Book One: Subtitles
All of the psalms in Book One with subtitles (37 psalms) mention King David.
The titles are in the following order:n/a, n/a, A psalm of David (x4), A shiggaion of David, A psalm of David (x2), n/a, Of David, A psalm of David (x2), Of David, A psalm of David, A miktam of David, a prayer of David, a psalm of David (x7), of David (x4), a psalm of David (x3), a maskil of David, n/a, Of David (x4), a psalm of David (x4)
Two of the psalms of Book One call David:“servant of YHWH.”
Six of the psalms of Book One include historical information or setting (memorial offering for Psalm 38): Psalms 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, and 38.
The historical information is one of the last things added to the Psalms. There is debate as to whether these should be understood as Biblical.
The historical information does not always seem to be a good fit to the Psalm in question. Psalm 30 looks like a good example. The subtitle reads: “A psalm of David. A song at the dedication of the Temple.” But the psalm itself is about a man who recovered from an illness during which he almost died. It never mentions the temple or anything like a temple. Yet this observation also suggests that it may be accurate because who would add this title to this psalm if it was not used for the dedication of the Temple.
If I preach through a psalm I do pay attention to whether a psalm is Davidic or someone else is mentioned but would avoid giving too much credence to the historical information found in the subtitle. The reason for this is that too often the historical information leads the preacher not to preach on the psalm itself but instead on the historical situation that may or may not have had to do with the psalm. None of the rest of the psalm will directly reference the historical situation mentioned in the subtitle. So that appears to violate the intention of the psalmist in question.
But another issue is whether when a psalm says that it is “of David” whether that indicates authorship or not. The preposition could be understood as “of David” (which does not indicate how to understand “of), “by David,” “about David,” or “for David.” Still the most natural understanding is that normally it indicates authorship, even if periodically it only means that it was written for the person in question.
The subtitles (with questions remaining only about the historical setting) are clearly a part of the final product of the Psalter. The many references to David emphasize that the book of Psalms is prophetic – King David also can refer to the Messiah to come.
Book One: Acrostics
There are four alphabetic acrostics in Book One of the Psalter. Psalms 9-10, 25, 34, and 37. Psalms 25 and 34 follow the verse numbers for each letter of the alphabet. Psalms 9-10 and 37 are a new letter for each stanza.
Actually there are a total of eight alphabetic acrostics in the Psalter and the other four are found in Book Five: Psalms 111, 112, 119, and 145.
Book One: Ending
We know that Psalm 41 is the end of Book One because of the doxology that closes the psalm.
“Blessed be YHWH, the God of Israel,From everlasting to everlasting!Amen and Amen.”
This psalm forms an inclusio with Psalm 1 as both begin, “Blessed is…” (the former is “Blessed is the man,” and the latter is “Blessed is YHWH”).
Book Two: Ending
As further support for the argument that Psalm 41 ends Book One – take a look at the text ending Book Two. These two books are noted for containing most of the material that is said to be “of David.” Similar words conclude Books Three and Four.
“Blessed be YHWH, the God of Israel, Who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be His glorious name forever; May the whole earth be filled with His glory! Amen and Amen.
The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended” (Psalm 72:18-20).
Foundations of Psalm Interpretation
We have already examined Psalms 1 and 2, but I want to take some time to look at a few psalms in this book in more detail. Before we begin that I want to make explicit some of the foundations of interpreting Psalms in light of Christ.
Christ is both God and man. As the Psalms are the word of God, they are the words of Christ. We should give them all red letters.
As man, Christ is representative man. We said this with regard to Psalm 1, but it is true for all of the Psalms. And as representative man, Christ sang the Psalms.
Vern Poythress notes Psalm 22:22 quoted in Hebrews 2:12: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And he observes that Hebrews 2 says that the “I” is Christ.
So Christ is God and Christ is man and thus Christ is the mediator between God and man. Old Testament mediators like the kings, prophets, and priests (among others) are types of Christ.
Most obvious, and already we have been making this point: Psalm 23 is a Psalm of David – thus it is a Psalm of the Christ. He is the divine author of it (as God) and it is about Him (as mediator between God and man) and it is words He would have sung (as representative man).
Psalm 23 is about Christ in that He is the Good Shepherd. This regards Christ as the mediator between God and man.
Then in terms of Christ as God – it is no accident that in the New Testament the divine name (rendered LORD) is attributed to Jesus: He is Lord. We can understand “The LORD is my shepherd” then as saying that Jesus is my shepherd and make this our prayer.
Psalm 23 is about Christ in that He is the human sheep. In this regard He is the prophetic fulfillment of the Psalm. To use some of the examples Poythress mentions: he had “spiritual prosperity” (lie down in green pastures), “perfect righteousness” (paths of righteousness), “rescue from death” (the valley of the shadow of death), “vindication from enemies” (in the presence of my enemies), etc. As the representative human sheep He declares that God is the Shepherd.
Psalm 23 is thought to reflect the journey that a shepherd and his sheep would follow in any given year.
Psalm 22 then shows us that David experienced distress and all Old Testament worshipers participated in this, it comes to a climax and fulfillment in Christ, and then all New Testament worshipers participate in this. Poythress says that this is a normal pattern in Psalms.
No doubt you remember the opening line of Psalm 22 in the Aramaic: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22:1).
Quoting the opening line of a Scripture passage was a common way to cite a passage. Thus Jesus was citing all of Psalm 22, which does not end with that note of despair. But we see those words as appropriate for Jesus to utter on the cross.
The Psalm is clearly messianic – speaking of Jesus. We can hear him saying, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in YHWH; let Him deliver him; let Him rescue him, for He delights in him!’” (Psalm 22:6-8).
And we read as well:“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:16-18).
In this Psalm we also see expressions of confidence:
“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame” (Psalm 22:3-5).
And another example: “Yet you are He who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Psalm 22:9-10).
The psalm begins as a lament, even uttering the complaint of prayers not being answered (Psalm 22:2), we see reasons for answering the complaint (Psalm 22:3-5), and yet the lament continues (Psalm 22:6-8), more reasons for answering the complaint (Psalm 22:9-10) and a call for him to do so (Psalm 22:11), the lament continues with Psalm 22:12-18, then we read another call for God to rescue him, then the statement that he has been rescued – His prayer has been answered, and this is followed by praise (Psalm 22:22-31).
Purpose in Order
In any case, there is no doubt that Psalms 22 and 23 are meant to be next to each other. I mentioned last time that Psalms 1 and 2 are the introduction to the Psalter and tell us that the book is a book of Torah (hence five books), that it is wisdom literature to teach us how to live according to the divine pattern set at creation, and that it is prophetic concerning Jesus. And Psalm 2 also serves as a transition to the next five psalms.
The next five psalms are David’s prayers asking YHWH to establish His kingdom despite the great opposition coming from various people. Next is Psalm 8, which is famous to us.
“O YHWH, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings (Heb. Elohim) and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O YHWH, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
Similar observations could be made about other specific psalms.
More generally, the Psalms of David break out in praise like this and yet the dominant feel of these psalms often is that akin to the opening verses of Psalm 22 – there is much in the way of suffering as a theme in the first couple books of the Psalms.
Indeed, the whole of the book of Psalms, as we might expect, reflects the whole of the Scriptures. Suffering is followed by glory. Hence you will find in the Psalter that the psalms move from being more about suffering to more about glory (movement from death to resurrection) and then the Psalter closes with Psalms with Hallelujah and much rejoicing with musical instruments. Thus the Psalms reflect the story of the Bible, even the life of Jesus, and so too our own story in Christ.