Delahoyde & Hughes


The Book of Psalms is an anthology of treasured Hebrew songs ("psalms" = "songs") that give a wide range of religious feelings poetic expression, often with effectively concrete imagery. Hebrew poetry relies on rhythm, repetitions, and parallelisms (not meter and rhyme).

The Psalms were probably meant as occasional poems in many cases, intended for public performance at service in the Temple. The subject matter of some -- such as coming into sight of Jerusalem, being at the entrance to the Temple, etc. -- strongly suggest their use as liturgical accompaniment. So the Psalms function as personal expressions, but for the communal unit.

Although collected in post-exilic times, some of these are very early. Psalm 74 notes the destruction of the Temple vividly. Psalm 137 reflects Babylonian captivity. Tradition wants to credit David as the composer of the Psalms. He was a patron and very likely a musician/poet. Certainly some of them are intended for the occasions of royal coronations and so are associated with later Davidic monarchs. But there is also a tendency for later writers to make additions, so the style of some suddenly shifts (e.g., Psalm 51).

Several sequences of Psalms seem to some to be distinguishable:
Psalm 1 (a general introduction)
Psalms 1-41 (the oldest edition)
Psalms 42-72
Psalms 73-89
Psalms 90-106
Psalms 107-150
Psalm 150 (a concluding doxology, or expression of praise)
Among the types of Psalms to be found are:
hymns of praise (e.g., Psalms 8, 23, 139)
enthronement (e.g., Psalm 2)
laments / petitions (e.g., Psalms 42, 43, 74)
blessings / curses (e.g., Psalms 1, 137)
wisdom mediations
Some Psalms are rather shocking to modern tastes in religious matters because they seem so vicious with regard to retaliatory justice and the God of wrath. But sometimes one simply longs for the old God, the old father. Perhaps it's not the fashionable model in the age of 12-stepping, but sometimes one simply wants the security of having something to be scared of. The law was the law. Dad beat you because he loved you. He was an alcoholic bully who usually brawled down at the bar, occasionally at home, but he brought home the paycheck and you knew where you stood.


An interesting side-note about Psalms: in a few of these (e.g., 104, 74; "Rahab" in 89) as well as in the Book of Job (26:13) and Isaiah (27:1) are references to Leviathan and/or a primordial battle with Yahweh. One tradition tries to make this monster a symbol for Egypt within an Exodus allegory, but the mythology is older and serves as the only collection of remnants of a shadowy ancient belief in keeping with other Akkadian creation myths (such as the Babylonian myth of Tiamat overpowered by Marduk). That is, at some early point in Hebrew myth, Yahweh was a conqueror over a reptilian or lizardine enemy, Leviathan (similar etymologically with other middle-eastern cultural serpents' names), associated with the earth or, typically, with the seas.

Leviathan has been interpreted as meaning "whale" -- but did the ancient Hebrews know about whales? (The Jonah story involved a common mistranslation of an unspecified "big fish.") Job 3:8 evokes a mythological dragon of chaos, the embodiment of darkness and disorder that Yahweh subdued but did not annihilate. Job 40:20 - 41:25 gives an unserpentlike description. A crocodile? The ancient Hebrews would certainly know about these. But Psalm 104 implies a deep-sea creature.

Leviathan (or Lothan) was known in northern Canaanite texts as the primeval sea-monster foe of the storm god Baal at least as early as the 14th century bce (var. Lotan, Lawtan, and Lat = goddess in Canaanite). Leviathan represents the chaos existing before creation, subdued when order is brought to the cosmos by the conquering male deity; but it remains as a primal energy, unassimilated into the new stable order.

Works Cited

Psalms. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I. 7th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999. 88-91.

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 3rd ed. Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1992.

Wilkie, Brian, and James Hurt, eds. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1. 5th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. 66-67, 121-127.

The Old Testament