The Psalms and their themes



        “I will also confess to thee thy truth with the instruments of psaltery: O God, I will sing to thee with the harp, thou holy one of Israel.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        – Psalm  70:22


By Raymond Taouk




               The psalms are called by the Hebrews Tehillim, that is, Hymns of Praise. The book itself was called “Sepher tehillim” – The book of hymns or divine 
praises[1].  This title was known to St. Jerome.[2] The word “Psalm” originally signified a song sung to the accompaniment of the harp or a similar stringed instrument. 
No more fitting name could be found for a book, of which praise and thanksgiving are predominant characteristics.  As music is designed to appeal to the heart, so are
the Psalms, and their words are full of emotional content and sensitive imagery.
               The author, of a great part of them at least, was King David: but many are of opinion that some of them were made by those whose names 
a prefixed in the titles such as Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Idithn and others.[3]


The singing of hymns and canticles to God in religious exaltations is as old as the Hebrew people itself (Exodus 15:21, Deut 32:1, Judges 5:31, I Kings 2:1).  God even commanded Mosses to write a canticle in commemoration of the law (Deut 31:19). Nevertheless it was not until David had united the tribes of Israel into a powerful people that Hebrew religious poetry reached its climax.


The Law gave no explicit directions regarding the use of music and song in divine worship and so David exercised a special care for this as he directed the Levites to appoint singers “with musical instruments, to wit on psalteries, and harps, and cymbals, that the joyful noise might resound on high” (1 Paral 15:16). King David sang and composed great hymns to God with a profound humility and love of God. For this reason Sacred Scripture calls him the sweet singer of Israel (2 Kings 23:1).  In many ways the Psalms record the sentiments of David himself toward God. What was brought to perfection under King David was not to end with him, as religious poetry of the Israelites was to continue for centuries after him. However it was the constant use of the Psalms for devotion and worship that familiarized the people with them.


The Psalms themselves were in use amongst the Hebrew people very early on; as we know that at the time of the Machabees (166-130 B.C.) they were already in use and had been translated into Greek.


The subject matter of the psalms has been the object of meditation and prayer for centuries by Catholics as it has been constantly employed by the Church for her public liturgical use.  We might say that the most precious legacy left by the Jewish Synagogue to the Christian Church is indeed the book of Psalm which the priests of the New Law have continued to recite from the earliest of times. This is because our Lord himself had made use of the Psalms both in prayer[4] and in his teachings as we see that he expressly explains parts of it to his apostles (Matt 5:4, 7:23, Lk 24:44). And so the apostles in imitation of Our Lord, asked the faithful to make use of the psalms in community worship (i.e. Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, Jas 5:13). From that time onward the inspired hymns became an important part of the Church’s prayers.[5] The Psalter has been throughout all the centuries and will always continue to be, the one unique and inexhaustible treasury of devotion for individuals and for the Church[6]. Through its guidance the soul learns to commune with God.


As a whole however the book is one long prayer which renders praise to God. For this reason the Church continues after the fashion of the Jews of the Old Testament to render God praise by the recitation of the Psalms. The sentiments and prayers of King David ought to be the sentiments of all Christians in their prayer to and adoration of God, for like King David we are all sinners dependant upon God and constantly stand in need of His mercy (Rom 3:23).


The message as presented in the Psalms is poetically set out to the reader in a poetic manner with an impressive use of metaphors and poetic phrases.  


 Division of the Psalms


The Psalms belong to the third division of the Hebrew Old Testament[7]. The Hebrews divide the Psalms into five books[8]. The reason for this is because it was commonly held by them that a book is said to be ended when the words “Amen, Amen” are written as though such an affirmation was declaratory of an ending. This occurs at the end of Psalms 40, 71, 88, and 105, and to these four books they added a fifth extending from Psalm 106 to Psalm 150[9].  As for the numbering of the Psalms both the Massoretic Text and the Septuagint reckon a total of 150 Psalms. What is more is that from Psalm 9 to 147 the numbering of the Psalms in the Hebrew original and the Protestant versions differ from that of the Septuagint text, the Vulgate and the Douay Version. The Vulgate joins together Psalms 9-10, 104-105 of the Hebrew; and divides Psalms 116 and 117 of the Hebrew. However this numbering of the Psalms is not according to a historically chronological fashion as the Psalms are simply not set forth in that manner[10].

St. Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on the Psalms preferred another division in which he Psalms grouped into perfect thirds:

“This distinction takes in the three fold state of the faithful people: namely the state of penitence; and to this the first fifty are ordered, which conclude in Have mercy on me, O God, which is the Psalm of penitence. The second concerns justice and this consists in judgment, and concludes in Psalm 100, "Mercy, and justice." The third concludes the praise of eternal glory, and so it ends with "Let every spirit praise the Lord."

The Psalms have also always been grouped according to their liturgical use. The ancient Hebrews chanted Psalms 119 to 133 (known as the "Gradual Psalms," "Songs of Ascent," "Songs of Degrees," or "Pilgrim Songs") when traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the Spring; Pentecost in Summer; and the Atonement and Tabernacles in Fall. Psalms 112 to 117 are known as "Hallel" (also the "Common Hallel" or "Egyptian Hallel") and are chanted on Passover night, Pentecost, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Booths.

The Church groups Psalms for the Divine Office based on the day of the week, but with the Psalms spread out throughout the week such that, in a week's time, the entire Psalter is prayed.

The Titles of the Psalms


To nearly all the Psalms are prefixed titles[11], designating either the character of the poem, or matters connected with its musical setting, or its liturgical use, or the author, or the historical occasion for which it was written or which it illustrates.


 Literary Style of the Psalms


Since the Psalms are set forth as a kind of religious poetry we can distinguish them according to the four well-defined types of religious poetry: Hymns; Prayers of Thanksgiving and petition: Religious Lyrics; Didactic or doctrinal poems.


1. Hymns:


The main purpose of a hymn is to sing praise to God. It may be for public liturgical use or for mere private devotion. A good example of this is Psalm 23 were David in procession with the Ark sings a hymn as it approaches the Temple.  Psalms 8, 18, 103, and 147 also exemplify this as they celebrate the power and majesty of God in His creation and providence.


2. Prayers of Thanksgiving and petition


            The prayers of thanksgiving and petition are laden throughout the Psalms. The Psalmist seems to be constantly thanking God for his help and favors received, for rich harvests and victory in war; or petitioning Him with tears and lamentation, for rescue from sickness, affliction, famine and oppression. These psalms often strike us more profoundly since in them we often recognize our own petitions and our need to give glory to God for all the benefits He has so gratuitously bestowed upon us.  St. Pius X commenting on this states well “Who will not be moved by the frequent passages of the Psalms in which the infinite majesty of God, His omnipotence, His unspeakable justice or goodness or mercy, or His other infinite praises are so nobly proclaimed? Who will not be inspired with similar feelings by their thanksgiving for benefits received from God? (Consitution  Divino Afflatu).


From among the prayers of petition found in the Psalms the ones that stand out most are those known to us as the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, 142).  Of these, Psalm 50 (the Miserere) stands out most profoundly as no other Psalm is used so frequently in the liturgy. I would seem that the reason for this is because like David we all stand before God in need of forgiveness with the guilt of our sins standing before us as convicting witness to our offenses against God and our neighbor. In this sense the story of King David is the story of everyman and so the Church sets this Psalm before our eyes so that we may also, like King David, turn to God with confidence while acknowledging our faults, for as King David as so beautify states in this Psalm “A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.”


3. Religious Lyrics


Religious Lyrics are those lyrics which are an expression of direct adoration of God, or an outburst of joy because of God’s presence, or a reverential reflection on His omnipotence and wisdom. This is most clearly seen in Psalm 22[12] where the Psalmist rejoices over God’s good deeds towards him “Thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my chalice which inebriates me, how goodly is it! And thy mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”


4. Didactic Psalms


The usual theme of the didactic Psalms is the praise of piety and of the Law. The very first Psalm hits us with this sort of poetry “Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence, But his will is in the law of the Lord”. In this sense it may be said that the Psalms are the law in meditation.


 The Themes of the Psalms


The themes of the psalms are indeed numerous since it encompasses a variety of different themes. However there are a number of themes which hold a predominant place and which continue throughout the Psalms. And so I will look at here in brief the major themes of the psalms. In understanding the Psalms it is good to keep in mind that the Psalmist  is not always an speaking as an individual, but at times he speaks in the person of (or on behalf of) the nation of Israel or the godly part of it.[13]


The themes of the Psalms vary from wrenching contrition to unshakable trust in His mercy, from sorrow to elation, the Davidic Psalter leaves no heartstring unplucked.

St. Basil writing on the Psalms describes them thus:

“All Scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable, for it was written by the Spirit to the end that as it were in a general hospital for souls, we human beings might each select the medicine for his own disease . . . The prophets provide one kind of instruction, the historians another, the law yet another. But the book of Psalms contains that which is profitable in all of them. It prophesies of the future; it recalls history; it legislates for life; it suggests rules of action; in a word, it is a common storehouse of good doctrines, providing exactly what is expedient for everyone. . . . Therein is a complete theology; the prediction of the advent of Christ in the flesh, the threatening of judgment, the hope of resurrection, the fear of chastisement, the promises of glory, revelations of mysteries: all, as in some great public storehouse, are treasured up in the Book of Psalms”[14].  


The five major themes in the Psalms


1. Historical


These Psalms celebrate the remarkable events in the history of God’s people. This includes Psalms 45, 47, 73,75,77,88,104, 105, 134, 136. The Psalms sum up in brief for us the whole of the Old Testament. And so from the Psalms we see that the whole history of the Old Testament, from creation up to the Babylonian exile as put into poetry by the Psalmist. They tell us of creation (Ps 8 and 103), the deluge (Ps 28:10), Sodom and Gomorrha (Ps 10: 7), the deeds performed by the patriarchs, the Egyptian captivity, the plagues in Egypt, the wandering of the people in the desert, the entrance into the promised land etc.


In this historical sense the Psalms set forth for us an insight into the great goodness of God and the ingratitude of men towards Him (especially that of the chosen people), thrown into the easily remembered form of didactic poetry. 


 2. Sufferings of the Just and the lot of the wicked  


          Throughout the Psalms men are exhorted to virtue and warned to avoid vice by means of threats and promises. Nevertheless the Psalmist deals with the question that troubled many, namely why do the just suffer and the wicked go unpunished (so it seemed). This is particularly depicted in Psalms 36, 38, 48 and 72.



This question troubled especially the Jews of the Old Testament since they were still under the old law which meant that they often only saw or understood God’s blessings in terms of prosperity. The notion that God blesses those whom he sends affliction had still not hit home with the Jews[15] (and actually still hasn’t) even though God continually tried to manifest this to them in various ways.[16] In order to resolve the problem the Psalmist simply points out that God hates the wicked and that they shall die a miserable death and become under the dominion of the just when they are in hell (shoel). The Psalmist is also just as clear to point out to us that God loves the just whose memory shall not be blotted out as they shall be remembered in their descendants and that they will not be left abandoned in hell (shoel) after death but shall be rewarded by God as they dwell in His presence.[17]


What made things more difficult for the Israelites is that doctrine of hell and the last judgment as we now understand them were not as clear under the old dispensation. As a result of this men expected and desired to see a present and visible distinction between the righteous and the wicked. It was seen as part of God’s loving kindness to “reward every man according to his works” (Ps 61:13). The sufferings of the godly and the prosperity of the ungodly (under the old dispensation) formed one of the severest trials of faith and patience to those whose view was limited to this present life (Ps. 36, 72). Although it’s true that God’s sentence upon evil is constantly being executed in this world, yet it is often deferred and not immediately visible. And so those who longed for a righteous vindication of things, desired to have it executed promptly before their eyes in this life. Hence the righteous would rejoice when he saw the wicked destroyed, since it was a manifest proof of God’s righteous government (Ps 51:5, 53:7).


Mention that this alone however is not the reason for the complain since it is true that in part the Psalms are messianic and so in this they express with grief and complain the injustice of the persecution by the wicked on the innocent messiah who was to come (Ps 34:7, 68:5, 108:3).  


3. Festal Psalms


These Psalms were composed to be sung on festival days of the Israelites. Psalms 112-117 are most prominent and are known as the Great Hallel and were sung at the eating of the Paschal Lamb. The largest group of Festal Psalms are Psalms 119-133, which were chanted on the Feast of Tabernacles by the Temple Singers.  The theme of these Psalms is generally a glorification of God and His goodness as creator and ruler of all things and generous benefactor of men. Throughout these festal Psalms God is recognized as the supreme law-giver and judge, the vindicator of the oppressed, and the savior of all who turn to Him. The Psalmist thus rejoices with exaltation at the power and omnipresence of God (Ps 138) who shall reward the just and punish the wicked. The Throne of God, who is all holy, is in heaven, surrounded by angels, who adore him and which the adoration of men is only to replicate on earth (Ps 8, 18:2, 46). The duty of man is thus set forth as being one of loving adoration and prayer to God whose laws are to be humbly obeyed.


Throughout out the Psalms there are frequent references to the temple as the central place of worship, where men appear before God, and where He specially reveals His power, glory and goodness, and interprets the ways of His providence (Ps 42:2, 48:9, 63:2). Hence, regardless of mans condition he is to pray and offer sacrifice in praise, thanksgiving and adoration of God. The true Israelite is seen as one who loves God and has regard for His holy sanctuary. In Psalm 228 the law given by God is praised and men are exhorted to keep it. Indeed if anything characterizes the Psalmist, it is his consuming zeal for God’s house in a corrupt age.


The vibrant and joyous character of these Psalms is it’s evident to any reader (Ps 42, 68, 95) since the Psalter was meant to be a book of praises to God.


 4. Maledictory Psalms


These Psalms as call down the curse and wrath of Almighty God upon the enemies of the Psalms. Among these Psalms are 34, 51, 53, 55, 57, 68, and 108. Such Psalm indeed show us both the just retribution that awaits the wicked and also that the sanctity and perfection of the saints of the New Law of grace is not to be found in the Old Law[18]. In the Hebrew mode of thought the sinner was identified with his wickedness and so it was only fitting that he should perish if he persisted in his perversity. 


These Psalms nevertheless are to be understood in the classical Christian manner, in that, we must always love the sinner but hate the sin[19]. And so in as much as sinners by their sins stand in opposition to God, we are to desire that they be punished but ultimately for their correction and conversion (Ezechiel 33:11).  In this sense the Psalms are in harmony with the New Testament (Apoc 14:10). The underlying idea is found in Psalm 138 “Have I not hated them, O Lord that hated thee?”  The Psalmist is simply telling us that our “enemies” should be those who hate God and His Church and who work to undermine it (i.e. The Freemasons of Today). The Church has incorporated this understanding into her worship when she prays “Ut inimicos Ecclesiae humiliare digneris”[20].  


Many authors have sought to omit such texts or simply explain them away by saying they are exclusive to the old dispensation. However this is not totally true since God continues to punish the wicked, just as he continues to reward the just. It is clear that God’s Kingdom must come not only in grace but also in judgment. Love (no less than justice) demands that there be an ultimate distinction between the good and the wicked, and that those who have refused to submit to the laws of God’s kingdom should be banished from it (Mk 13; 49, Jn 5:29).


These maledictory Psalms show us that the Psalmist had a deep sense of great conflict that was constantly being waged between good and evil, between God and His enemies. This is nothing but the battle of salvation history. This battle however (at the time of the Psalmists) was being waged between the Israelites (the “People of God”) and those nations that sort their destruction. These maledictory Psalms seem to give vent to a legitimate desire for God’s victory over his enemies since the enemies of Israel were the enemies Israel’s God; Israel’s defeat would have been a reproach to His name and so the cause at stake was not merely the existence of the nation, but the cause of divine truth and righteousness.[21]


Within the nation of Israel this same conflict was being waged on a smaller scale between the godly and the ungodly. When the righteous were oppressed and the wicked triumphant, it seemed as though God’s was being ignored. The Psalmist who took indignation at the violation of the rights of God thus saw it as a duty to pray fro the triumph of God’s law which involved the destruction of the wicked who persisted in their iniquity. Zeal for the cause of God inspired the Psalmist to call out to God for retribution to be given to be handed out to the wicked who despised his laws. The Psalmist understood well that with God their must be no half hearted compromise. In hatred as in love the man who fears God must be wholly on His side (Ps 138:22, Ps 100:6-8).  


  5. Messianic Psalms


The Psalms as a whole have generally been regarded as Messianic since they speak of the Messianic times when Gentiles will be converted to worship the one true God.


Yet some Psalms are more strikingly Messianic than others, such as Psalms 2, 15, 21, 44, 71 and 109, which give reference to the redeemer to come and his attributes. Their theme is the Messianic King of Israel, His Eternal rule, His Priesthood, His sufferings, His resurrection and glorification. One reads throughout the Psalms of an exalted one, a man who is both mysterious and yet who is to be revealed to all in a distant future. The Psalms tell us that he will be the anointed son of Yahweh, a king and priest (Ps 109 – not according to the Levitical Priesthood) who shall rule over the whole world (Ps 2) from Sion. His throne is to remain for ever (Ps 71).  He is addressed as ‘God’, (Ps. 44). The reign of this anointed one shall bring peace and justice, while the kings and nations of the earth are to worship him who will be the ruler of nations. What must have troubled the Jews about this mysterious figure was that while he was to be an anointed priest and king far superior to any other that had ever walked the earth, the same Psalms often indicate that this anointed one of God, shall also undergo much suffering from men (Ps 21).[22]  The Psalmist takes various distinct paths in preparing the people of Israel to receive the Messiah when he shall eventually come. It can be said that in simply relating his own sufferings and trials, the Psalmist somewhat helps to prepare the minds of the Jews for the sort of sufferings that are going to have to be endured for the redemption of the world.


In Psalms 2, 15, 21, 44, 68, 71 and others, Christ’s kingship, His origin, His preaching and miracles, His passion, resurrection and ascension and the growth of the Church are prophetically foretold.  For this reason it was primarily through the Psalms that expectation and hope of the Messiah to come was continually aroused and kept alive.


The Psalms also speak of a messianic age in which the gentiles shall be converted to true worship of God. This however posed a problem for the Israelites. This is because while on the one hand the gentiles or pagan nations appeared as the deadly enemy of the Israelites (Ps 2, 82) another more hopeful view is presented in which the nations as well as Israel belong to God, and are the objects of His care and will also render Him true homage. Israel is presented as being the instrument for this establishment of a universal divine Kingdom (Ps 22, 33, 64, 96, 102, 138). While at first it seems that this is to be accomplished by means of subjugating the nations (Ps 2, 18, 47), nevertheless the Psalmist indicates that this harmonious union of the nations with the people of God will be by conversion rather than a tyrannical subjugation of the nations (Ps 45, Ps 72, 149).


And thus from these prophesies we are able to understand how even under the old Covenant, there were formed hopes which were to be fulfilled by Christ and His Church.



[1] The official title given the book of Psalms by the Council of Trent was “Psalterium Davidicum centum quinquaginta psalmorum” -Sess. IV, Decree on Canon of Script.

[2] In the preface to his Psalterium iuxta Hebraeos (p.2, ed. Lagrade), he write “titulus ipse Hebraicus sphar tallim, quod interpretatur volumen hymnorum.”

[3] There is no real unanimity amongst the fathers on this point as St. Robert Bellarmine points out in his commentary of the psalms (in the preface). Yet St. Robert Bellarmine lists some good reasons for the argument of why they were probably all written by David. The Pontifical biblical commission ruling on this question was that Catholics are not obliged to hold that all the Psalms were composed by David but that they must hold that he is the principal author of the psalms and that he is the author of those Psalms which are clearly cited under his name in the Old or New Testament (May 1, 1910).  Ultimately we know as Catholics that the book is the inspired word of God and so the human instrumentality is in a certain manner irrelevant (1 Cor 3:4).

[4] This point is obvious from the fact that Psalms were constantly recited by the Jews to such an extent that they often learnt them off by heart. Christ’s use of the Psalms in the New Testament is made clear  from the fact that He often went to the temple of Jerusalem and from the prayers he would have used after last supper. He even quotes from the Psalms explicitly in his last few words from the cross (Ps 30:6).

[5] This is so true that the Psalms, which form the greater part of the divine office now belong to those set of prayers known as the Public (and official) prayers of the Church. What is more is that St. Augustine doesn’t hesitate to affirm in this regard that “Vix est ut in psalmis invenias voces nisi Christi et Ecclesiae, aut Christi tantum, aut Ecclesiae tantum, quod utique ex parte et nos sumus” – In Ps 59.

[6] The Church’s liturgy is replete with citations taken from the Psalms from the very beginning (Prayers at the foot of the altar) to the very end (final orations).

[7] This is because Traditionally the Jews divided the books of the Hebrew Bible into three major classifications: (1) – The Law, that is the Pentateuch. (2) The Prophets (3) The writings or Hagiographa, which included Psalms, Proberbs, Job, Canticles , Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Ester, Daniel, Esdras-Nehemias, and the two books of Paralipomenon.

[8] St. Jerome, Prologue Galeato. Cf. also Letter to Sophrinius

[9] It is also held that the reason for this division was so that it could correspond with the five books of the Law of Moses.

[10] For example Psalm 3 was written when David was fleeing persecution by his son Absalom, while Psalm 50 had been written when David was rebuked by Nathan for his crime of adultery and murder.

[11] Only 34 Psalms have no title, namely Pss 1, 2, 10, 23, 43, 71, 91, 93 – 97, 99, 104 -107, 111-119, 135-137, 146-150.

[12] Psalm 90 which is used for Sunday Compline is also another clear example of this sort of poetry.

[13] Such personification of the nation of Israel is common in the Pentateuch i.e. Ex 23:20, Num 6:24, Deut 7:17.

[14] Homily on the First Psalm.  St. Athanasius speaks in a similar manner in his Epistle to Marcellinus on the interpretation of the Psalms.

[15] This is the stumbling block of the cross (1 Cor 1:23).

[16] The Book of Job and Tobias are great examples of this.

[17] Cf. Ps 1:6, 5:6, 15:11, 33:17, 36, 48:16, 72; 74:5.

[18] This is clearly illustrated for us in the ninth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel as Our Lord rebukes his disciples for asking him to bring down fire from heaven upon his enemies (Luke 9:55).

[19] Cf. Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 25, a.6.

[20] The Litany of the Saints. Moreover the book of Jeremias contains prayers for God’s vengeance on his enemies, which are just as terrible as those found in the Psalms (i.e. Jer 11:18, 15:15, 17:18). 

[21] This aspect of the conflict is most clearly expressed in Ps 83, Ps79:10, PS 137:8.

[22] For this reason some commentators have reason to believe that at the time of Our Lord some of these difficult texts about the sufferings of the messiah to come were not recognized by the Jewish rabbis as Messianic. This seems to clarify for us why Our Lord would have had to clarify for his apostles and disciples the meaning of the Psalms at a deeper level at times (Luke 24:27, 44:26). However today (post factum), we are now able to see how Our Lord fits most perfectly the descriptions given him in the Psalms both as King, Priest, Prophet and at the same time one who will undergo great sufferings.