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Asbury Bible Commentary – B. Psalm Types
B. Psalm Types

B. Psalm Types

Hymns of Praise (the tehillâh). Only Ps 145, is actually designated a “song of praise” in its superscription (cf. III.E above). But numerous other references to the tehillâh in the Psalms and the parallels partly noted above lead to the discernment of the general designation (Kraus, 26, 43-47). The term appears frequently as the name of the songs of praise of individuals (e.g., 22:25; 65:1) and the community (e.g., 33:1; 100:4). The label highlights the distinctive yet general praise orientation of these songs. The “song of praise” can be a synonym for the “thanksgiving” (tôdâh) as in 100:4, and can stand in parallel to the “new song” (40:3; 149:1). Other designations also appear for the song of praise, some of them included in the treatment of superscriptions above, for example, the cultic song (šîr) or the “psalm” (mizmôr). But these are not exclusively used for this song type and seem to call attention to other features of the song than its form and content, such as its accompaniment.

Four major themes find expression in the Psalter's hymns of praise: praise of the Creator (Pss 8, 29, 33, 65, 100, 104, 136, 148); Yahweh, the king (Pss 24, 47, 93, 95-99, 145); and Yahweh's sovereign activity in history (Pss 105, 106, 114, 135, perhaps 136), with several themes sometimes woven together in a single song (Pss 68, 146-48). At times the theme is more generally the praise of God, his glory, or his works (Pss 75, 103, 113, 117, 134, 150).

Prayer Songs (the tep̱pillâh). The prayer song is specifically designated the prayer for deliverance (80:4) and the prayer of intercession (109:4), i.e., prayer for another's deliverance (Kraus, 26-27, 47-56). The song arises from deep distress (102:1; cf. 1Ki 8:38) and is at times uttered in a setting of sackcloth and fasting (35:13). Often (with Gunkel) called lament, these are much more than lament. The worshipers here do not simply complain or bemoan their plight. They declare in faith their distress and cry to God for deliverance. The tep̱illôt (plural) include prayer songs of the individual and of the people (i.e., community prayer songs, cf. 80:3). Because of the arrangement the book of Psalms achieved in its final editing, the prayer songs, which predominate in number, do not in the end set the tone and overall impression gained from the Psalms.

With regard to themes, some prayer songs are general prayers of distress (Pss 16, 28, 36, 82), but most are not. The majority of the prayer songs of the individual carry the theme of deliverance from accusation and persecution (Pss 3-5, 7, 9-13, 17, 22, 25-27, 31, 35, 42, 43, 54-59, 62-64, 69-71, 86, 94, 109, 120, 139-43). Others concern sickness and healing (Pss 6, 38, 39, 41, 88, 102), inextricably related to the prayer song of the sinner (Pss 40, 51, 130). The “prayers of the people” deal mainly with national defeat or distress and the need for restoration (Pss 14, 44, 53, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 126, 129, 137), though other more general concerns appear as well (Pss 123, 125). Several of these prayers cry for deliverance and vindication with such passion that they have come to be known as “imprecatory” psalms (5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140) in which curses are called down upon the enemy. Prominent in many prayer songs are affirmations of deliverance or of God as deliverer.

Thanksgiving Songs (the tôdâh). The Thanksgiving Songs echo the themes from the prayer songs in the course of offering thanksgiving for rescue (Pss 18, 23, 30, 32, 52, 66, 92, 107, 116, 118, 124, 138). On the one hand, they differ from the prayer songs in that the deliverance sought has now come. On the other hand, they differ from the various praise songs in their frequent inclusion of narrative of their plight and deliverance in the thanksgiving and in their thanksgiving for specific deliverance experienced by the worshiper as opposed to praise for the various attributes and historic acts of Yahweh.

Royal Songs (the ma'aśay lemelek). The Royal Songs (Pss 2, 20, 21, 45, 61, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144) include works of widely differing character but find their unity in their concern for the king—most likely David and his sons (Kraus, 56-57). The king's relationship to Yahweh and the Davidic covenant, his enthronement, victory in battle, wedding, splendor, righteous rule, longevity, and salvation are important themes in these songs. Changing speakers and form indicate liturgical use for several of these (e.g., 2, 61, 72, 110, 132), though the exact nature of the celebration in which they would have been used is a matter of debate. Included here are songs that have come to be regarded as messianic.

Songs of Zion (the šîr ṩiyyôn). Even the Babylonians knew of the “songs of Zion” (137:3), of which at least six have survived in the Psalter (Pss 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122; Kraus, 58). Extolling Zion—her beauty, election, and sanctuary—the worshiper sang these songs, among other times, when entering the sanctuary after pilgrimage (Pss 84, 122).

Didactic Songs (the ḥoḵmâh). The “Didactic Songs” may be a variety of prayer song and praise song, using the language and thoughts of Israel's instructional heritage, more than an independent psalm type (Kraus, 58-60). Often called wisdom psalms, two traditions in Israel's life find expression here, the teachings of the wise and instruction from and in Yahweh's law. One is familiar to us from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. The other expresses instruction associated first with the priesthood (Mal 2:1-9). Ps 1, a classic “wisdom psalm” focused in the blessings of Torah meditation, illustrates the merging of these two in what has come to be known as “Torah piety.” (“Torah” here means not simply the Law of Moses, but sacred instruction in general grounded in that law.) Thus these songs address the congregation in an instructional mode, some explicitly (e.g., 34:11, 78:1-2) and others implicitly (e.g., Pss 15 or 37). We take Pss 1, 15, 34, 37, 49, 73, 78, 111, 112, 119, 127, 128, and perhaps 92, as didactic songs.

Festival Songs and Liturgical Pieces (Pss 50, 81, 115, 121, 131, 133). Not surprisingly we are unable with any confidence to categorize several psalms (no doubt including some we have confidently labeled!). If they constitute a grouping of their own, the indigenous name for it eludes the modern reader. Pss 121, 131, and 133 are all Songs of Ascent, but not the others. In some cases they relate obviously to a specific festival, such as the New Moon (Ps 81). The connection of the others is vague. Pss 50 and 81 appear to provide settings for delivering divine oracles. Pss 121, 131, and 133 are (perhaps benedictory) affirmations, with no obvious liturgical setting. Ps 115 could perhaps be located in the praise songs but looks more like a liturgy of affirmation and response.