The Psalms make up an entire book of the Old Testament. They are the songs of Israel, written by a variety of authors and intended for singing, which became the original and most basic prayer-book of the Christian Church. They can be found in the liturgical book called the Psalter, as well as in any translation of the Old Testament.
|9||9 and 10|
|113||114 and 115|
|114 and 115||116|
|146 and 147||147|
The number and numbering of the psalms
The Book of Psalms consists of 150 numbered works of poetry, ranging in length from just three verses (Psalm 133) to almost two hundred verses (Psalm 118). They make use of all the characteristics of Hebrew poetry: balanced lines, repetition and contrast of thought, and even acrostics (with each line of verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Many of the Psalms are prefixed with short titles which name the author, or the circumstances under which the psalm was composed, or under which it it was meant to be sung.
The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have traditionally used the numbering of the Psalms found in the Septuagint translation of the Scriptures into Greek, while Jews, Protestants, and some ecumenically-minded Catholic have used the numbering in the Masoretic Hebrew scriptures. (See table to right.) For most of the Psalms, the Septuagint number is one less than the Masoretic number; the best way to check in a particular case is to look for King David's psalm of repentence, which begins, "Have mercy on me, O God". It is referred to as Psalm 50 according to the Septuagint numbering, and Psalm 51 according to the Masoretic.
On this website, we consistently follow the Septuagint numbering. Also, note than the Septuagint Psalter adds an additional 151st Psalm, describing David's fight with Goliath.
Divisions of the psalms
According to Jewish tradition, the entire book of Psalms is divided into five parts, corresponding to the five books of Moses that make up the Law, or Torah. Later Christian commentators saw the Psalter as consisting of three groups of fifty psalms. For singing in church and for private prayer, the monks of the Christian east divided the psalms into twenty sections of approximately equal length, called kathismata.
The psalms can also be organized according to theme and subject. Virtually every human emotion and state of life finds expression in the psalms, as do the principal subjects of concern to the people of Israel. So we have:
|35, 36, 48, 72, 111, 126, 127, 132|
|2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 144|
|Individual: 3, 21, 30, 38, 41, 56, 70, 119, 138, 141|
|Corporate: 2, 44, 80, 94, 137 2, 43, 79, 93, 136|
|Individual: 17, 29, 31, 33, 39, 65, 91, 114, 115, 117, 137|
|Corporate: 64, 66, 74, 106, 123, 135|
|23, 28, 46, 92, 94-98|
|8, 18, 32, 66, 99, 102, 103 , 110, 113, 116, 144-148|
|9, 24, 33, 36, 110, 111, 118, 144|
One important collection of psalms is the Songs of Ascent or Gradual Psalms (Psalms 119-133), a set of pilgrimage hymns sung by Jews as they made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Most of all, the Church has always seen the Psalms as relating to the life and mission of Christ - foretelling his Messianic mission, describing his kingly reign, and guiding each Christian along the path of life.
The liturgical use of the Psalms
Since early times, Christians used psalms in both private and public prayer. Much of the Christian liturgy is made up of psalm verses or entire psalms. The term psalmody refers to the singing of chanting of Psalms. See the article on Psalmody for a discussion of the different ways thats psalms are chanted in the liturgy.
In the liturgy of the Byzantine Rite, certain psalms are appointed for use at particular services such as Vespers and Matins. Psalm verses are sing in alternation with composed hymns called stichera, and also make up the bulk of the prokeimena and Communion Hymns of the Byzantine Rite. The psalms are psalm verses are often chosen to match with the service being celebrated, the time of day or day of the week, or the subject of a particular feast.
Finally, the entire book of 150 Psalms is sung in the course of the week (and twice a week in the Great Fast) if all the services are celebrated. This continuous psalmody has always formed a principal part of the Divine Praises of the Church.
for Life: Part Two, The Mystery Celebrated.
(Pittsburgh: God With Us Publications, 1996).
An excellent introduction to Byzantine liturgy. This is the second volume of a widely-used Byzantine Catholic catechism.