Book 1 of Psalms is a book in a book in a book.
It’s part of the book of Psalms, which makes it a book in a book.
But both books are part of the book called the Bible, which makes Book 1 of Psalms in the Bible a book in a book in a book.
There are five books in Psalms, each ending with a song of praise often called a doxology (from the Greek, meaning “words of praise”):
- Book 1 (Psalms 1–41)
- Book 2 (Psalms 42–72)
- Book 3 (Psalms 73–89)
- Book 4 (Psalms 90–106)
- Book 5 (Psalms 107–150)
Chinese Book Boxes
What are all these books? It’s like a set of Chinese boxes, one inside the other, except that these boxes are books.
But that’s the way it is. The Book of Psalms is not a single work, like Genesis or Jeremiah. It is a collection of 150 individual psalms that are used in Jewish and Christian worship. The psalms were not written by a single author or even during a single period of time. They were created as needed and sung or chanted during worship services in Bible times, just as hymns are sung during Christian church services today. In fact, the biblical psalms are often included among the hymns Christians sing.
At some point in time, probably in the days of King Solomon, workers at the newly built Temple began gathering groups of popular psalms together onto single scrolls, forming the first Jewish hymnals. Because these early collections were probably made by different people, some psalms ended up appearing in more than one collection. Much later, sometime after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and brought the Jewish people into exile in the area that is now Iraq, psalms from various collections were brought together into the five books we have today. Some Bible scholars see these five books as reflecting the five books of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jews consider their Law.) Although there seems to be no sure organization within these five books, each book ends with verses or entire psalms that simply praise God.
Be Wise and Love the Law
Book 1 of the Psalms starts off with a psalm that acts as a general introduction to the entire Book of Psalms and is more Wisdom Literature than prayer or hymn. It announces in poetic style that we must think about God’s Law all the time and follow it. If we do, we will be blessed. If we don’t, we will be doomed. This same theme will be picked up in Psalm 19, later in Book 1, and in Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms, which is placed at the center of Book 5.
David is the Man
Books 1–3 of the Book of Psalms present devotion to God as seen through King David. In Book 1 many of the psalms center on David and his successors, holding David up as God’s chosen one. In fact, Book 1 includes just over half the psalms associated with David (37 out of 73) and of these, four address incidents in David’s life (Psalms 3, 7, 18, and 34). However, all these associations with David are made in the psalms’ subtitles, which were added later and may not reflect the intentions of the original authors.
The first of these ‘Davidic’ psalms, Psalm 2, which seems to be a celebration of the coronation of David, asserts that God himself has chosen David and made him king. Then, echoing the opening psalm, it warns rival kings to “Respect the LORD and do what he asks. If you don’t, be afraid.” (Psalm 2:11).
Because it is also found in 2 Samuel 22, Psalm 18 seems to be more genuinely Davidic than the others. Many Bible scholars believe that both this psalm and the beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) may have actually been written by David.
The other psalms associated with David are of various types, including psalms that were part of Temple service rituals. For example, Psalm 15 asks: “LORD, who’s allowed in your worship center?” Psalm 24 seems to have been sung or chanted in processions going to the temple, as it calls out “Open up, city gates.” The greatest number of psalms associated with David in Book 1, however, are laments.
Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen
We have all been there at one time or another. We’ve all felt at times that everything has gone wrong and that God has deserted us. It is easy to get angry with God for not giving us what we think we want. More than a third of the psalms in the Book of Psalms express such feelings. A large number of them ask God why he seems to be ignoring our prayers. Psalm 31 begins by crying out, “LORD, how long are you going to keep this up? / Are you going to ignore me forever?” In fact, the words “how long” appear repeatedly in these psalms, which are generally known as laments. Psalm 3 is the first of the laments found in the Book of Psalms.
The reasons for the pain expressed in the laments range from serious illness to people are out to get me. Some of these psalms vent their anger at God and even blame him for the troubles we’re in. And that is the beauty of these psalms. They show us that it is not wrong to complain to God or be angry with God. Nor is it a sign of lack of faith in God. After all, why would we ask for help from someone if we didn’t believe they existed and could help?
Although these psalms of lament were written by individuals who lived in Bible times, and are sometimes attributed to specific individuals, such as David, the feelings they express can be felt by anybody at any period in time. The enemies referred to in the psalms don’t have to be political opponents or enemies in a war we are fighting with swords and spears. They can be quarrelsome neighbors or disagreeable fellow workers, or even a best buddy who has betrayed us (see Psalm 41:9).
In short, people have been using these psalms of lament for thousands of years to open their hearts to God. Even Jesus himself, as he hung on the cross, called out the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why did you leave me? / You’re too far away.” In other psalms of lament, the person at prayer admits being a sinner and asks God for both forgiveness and help. Generally, each lament tells God what is going wrong, asks God for help, gives reasons why God should help, and promises to praise God and thank him once he has given that help.
Thanks, God, You’re Great
Finally, a number of the psalms In Book 1 celebrate the greatness of God, praising him as Creator, wondering at his great might, and asking why he bothers with us insignificant human beings. Others thank God for protecting us and for showering us with wonderful gifts.
Psalm 41, which brings Book 1 to a close, thanks God for helping good people. It also begs God to forgive our sins and asks him for help in warding off enemies. The final stanza brings Book 1 to a close by urging us to praise of God “from eternity past to forever.”