There are only 17 psalms in Book 3, most of which are attributed to one of the musicians’ guilds that had originally been established by King David. Book 2 contained a number of psalms associated with the family of Korah and four additional Psalms of Korah appear in Book 3. In addition, 11 psalms are assigned to Asaph. And so, Book 3 of Psalms belongs almost exclusively to the families of Asaph and Korah.
Choirs of Asaphites
Eleven of the 12 Psalms of Asaph in the Book of Psalms appear at the beginning of Book 3 (Psalms 73–83). Like Korah, Asaph headed a musical family in the tribe of Levi, one of the 12 tribes that made up the original nation of Israel. Moses’ brother, Aaron, a descendant of Levi, was the first priest and, from his time on, Levi’s descendants (the Levites) formed the priestly tribe. But while some Levites worked as priests, others filled lesser positions having to do with worship, such as taking responsibility for the music during worship services.
Asaph himself was appointed leader of worship music by King David in the 990s BC (1 Chronicles 16:4–37). Members of Asaph’s family continued to carry on the music tradition for centuries. In fact, according to Ezra 2:41, Asaphites showed up as singers as late as the 400s BC, when the priest Ezra was calling for religious reforms while Jerusalem was being rebuilt after Babylonian invaders from what is now Iraq had leveled Jerusalem. Psalm 50, the only Psalm of Asaph not in Book 3, may date to the time of Ezra’s religious reforms.
What the Asaphites sang
In Psalm 73 the psalmist admits that he sometimes envies the evil rich and he asks God why he does not punish them. Then he comes to realize that God does undermine the wicked in his own way and that he always protects the good person. In its way, the psalm recertifies the lesson taught in Psalm 1, which asserts that the good will flourish and evildoers will perish. In other psalms of Asaph the psalmist:
- Tells us that God alone is judge and he will deal with the bad guys in his own time,
- reminds us that God will rescue the needy and urges earthly rulers to do the same,
- tells us to remember all God has done for us when things seem to go wrong, and
- calls upon us to keep God’s law and play music and sing for joy.
Community laments: Let’s all cry together
As in every other section of the Book of Psalms, Book 3 features a number of laments. But there is a bit of a difference here. Most laments are voiced by individuals asking help for personal problems, but a small number of them are recited or sung by all the people gathered at the Temple to ask God for help for the entire nation. Five of these community laments, or national laments, appear in Book 3 (Psalms 74, 79, 80, 83, & 85).
Psalm 83 is general, asking God for help against unnamed enemies of the nation. This is also the case with Psalm 44 in Book 2, the first of the community laments. The more practical Psalm 85 is, in part, kind of a rain dance, asking God to forgive his people their sins and begging him to restore their prosperity and to relieve them from a devastating drought.
The remaining community laments are more specific. Psalm 80 seems to be a plea to God by the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to save them from the Assyrians, who were sweeping in to destroy them in the 700s BC. The people beg for God’s help, peppering their cries for help with a repeated request for God to smile on them so that they will be saved.
Psalms 74 and 79 seem to be laments by the people over the havoc brought in 586 BC, when Babylonian invaders from what is now Iraq overran the Jewish nation, destroyed the Temple, and took many of the people into exile. Psalm 74 asks how long before God intervenes and puts down Israel’s enemy, which is also God’s enemy. It goes on to remind God of the great works he has done for Israel. Psalm 79 asks:
How long are you going to keep this up, LORD?
Are you going to stay mad forever?
Has your jealousy blown up into wildfire? (Psalm 79:5)
The people go on to ask God to punish the enemy who destroyed Jerusalem. Don’t punish us; forgive us our sins, they pray.
Alone in the dark
Trailing all these community, or national, laments is an individual lament that gets most people’s vote as the most dismal psalm in the Bible. Psalm 88 seems to be a desperate cry for help from a man dying alone. The psalmist here is a Job-like figure who, despite his love of God, is losing everything he has and plummeting into total darkness, where the end of the psalm leaves him. Three times he calls out to God, but he gets no answer. Some Christian readers associate the psalmist’s sufferings with both the sufferings of Jesus and their own sufferings, drawing comfort from being associated with Jesus in this way.
Although the psalm seems to offer no hope, the fact that in verse 14 the psalmist intends to pray again in the morning suggests that he may finally be answered in the morning (Easter morning for Christians). And so even though the psalm ends in bleak darkness, readers today can use it to take comfort in the knowledge that they are neither the first nor the last to suffer deeply and cry out in pain to God, who seems not to care. The psalm holds out the hope that God will respond in the future. If there is no such hope, there would be no reason to pray.
On the road to Jerusalem
The city of Jerusalem is celebrated in two of the Psalms of Korah found in Book 3. Psalm 87 is a straightforward hymn of praise for Jerusalem. Psalm 84 is either a song sung on the road by pilgrims on their way to the Holy City or a kind of processional hymn sung by worshippers as they entered the Temple grounds. It reads, in part:
People find happiness
When they find their strength in you
And when they travel the roads to Jerusalem. (Psalm 84:5)
David remembered and removed
The great King David, who is named so often in the subtitles of the psalms in the first two books of psalms is somewhat diminished in Book 3, where he is named in the subtitle of only one psalm (86). There, the psalmist asks God to save his life and promises to thank God for his help in the future. Psalm 78, however, deals (briefly) with David himself. It retells the history of the Israelites from the Exodus through God’s choosing David as king over his people.
Psalm 89, which ends Book 3, also tells of David’s kingship, but with a twist. It begins as a lament over an unnamed king’s losing a battle. It then reiterates that God chose David as king and promised he would reign forever. The psalmist notes how much the people love God and rely on him. It then repeats that God had chosen David and anointed him as king, promising that his kingdom would last forever through his successors. But suddenly, God has allowed David’s kingdom to perish at the hands of the Babylonians. How long before God makes things right again in fulfilment of his promise? How long?