Book 5 is the largest of all the Books of Psalms. Of its 44 psalms, 11 are labeled as being ‘of David’ and another 15 make up a self-contained collection known as ‘Road Trip Songs’, or ‘Songs of Ascents.’ Book 5 also contains 12 songs of praise or thanksgiving and both the shortest psalm in the Bible (117) and the longest (Psalm 119).
More than any of the other Books of Psalms, Book 5 seems to have some semblance of organization, radiating from the center out. The center itself is two-fold, consisting of Psalm 119, a long meditation on God’s Law, followed by the Road Trip Songs (120–134). This center section of psalms is bracketed by groups of Davidic psalms (108–110 and 138–145) followed by groups of ‘Halleluiah’ psalms of praise or thanksgiving (111–118 and 146–150).
Psalm 107 bridge between Books 4 and 5
108–110 Davidic Psalms
111-118 Hallelujah Psalms
119 Meditation on God’s Law
120-134 Road Trip Songs
135–137 Memory-based psalms
138–145 Davidic Psalms
146–150 Hallelujah Psalms
Psalm 107 forms a bridge that links Book 4 to Book 5, picking up the theme of the people returning from exile to their own land, which ended Book 4. It opens with a verse that also opens both Psalm 106 and Psalm 118, not only linking the beginning of Book 5 to the end of Book 4, but also serving as a bridge to the center core of Book 5.
David makes a comeback
Psalms attributed to David, which were plentiful in Books 1 and 2 and scarce in Books 3 and 4, make a bit of a comeback in the final Book of Psalms. There are three Davidic psalms near the start of Book 5 (Psalms 108–110) and an additional eight near the end (Psalms 138–145).
Psalm 108 is a royal psalm in which a king asks God for victory over his peoples’ enemies. But it is a bit of a cheat, for it is actually made up of parts of two earlier psalms: Psalm 57:1–11 and Psalm 60:5-12.
Psalm 109 is a lament from someone who has been wrongfully accused. After listing the awful things his attackers have wished on him, the psalmist briefly turns the curses back on his foes, but then launches into a plea to God to save him, certain that God would do so because he always stands with the helpless and rescues them.
Psalm 110 is a coronation psalm, which may have been sung by the Prophet Nathan at David’s coronation. Jesus later uses the opening words of this psalm to make a point (Mark 12:35–37 and Luke 20:41–44).
Hallelujah Psalms of praise or thanksgiving
A number of psalms begin or end with the Hebrew word hallelujah, translated here in the Casual English Bible as ‘Thank you, LORD’, but often rendered as ‘Praise the Lord.’
The first group of these Hallelujah Psalms in Book 5 (111–116) thank God and praise him for:
- exhibiting goodness and kindness,
- providing food and land,
- providing protection to anyone who keeps his laws
- the sun’s rising and setting,
- giving children to women who were previously infertile,
- caring for the poor and needy and treating them with respect,
- leading his people to safety in a land of their own,
- establishing his Temple in the new land.
- doing everything for his people that handmade idols cannot do.
- responding to the prayers of the dying and staving off death.
Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the Bible, sums it all up in two brief stanzas, calling on everyone everywhere to thank God for always being there for his people and treating them with merciful love and devotion.
While it does not use the word Hallelujah, Psalm 118 resembles the Hallelujah Psalms in that it thanks the LORD over and over. It both opens and closes with the same words that open Psalms 106 and 107, asserting that God’s mercy never ends. It goes on to thank the LORD for always freeing his people from their troubles, noting that it is better to rely on God than on people. The psalm also thanks the LORD “for being my savior when I needed saving” (Psalm 118:21).
ABCs of the Jewish law
Standing at the center of Book 5, Psalm 119 refers back to Psalm 1, which states that anyone who follows God’s Law will prosper, while anyone who does not will perish. It also expands on other psalms that praise God’s Law—especially the second half of Psalm 19 (verses 7–14).
Psalm 119 itself is an acrostic, or alphabetic, psalm, with 22 stanzas. Each stanza is made up of eight two-line verses each of which begins with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In effect, it is a kind of ABC’s of praising God’s Law, but instead of proceeding from A to B to C, etc., it moves from aleph to bet, to gimel, and on to tau, covering the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In so doing, the psalm shows that God’s Law covers every aspect of human existence, from A to Z (aleph to tau).
There are other alphabetic psalms in the Bible (such as Psalms 111 and 112), but they generally cover only part of the Hebrew alphabet and change letters from verse to verse rather than from stanza to stanza. Psalm 119, with its 22 stanzas, each containing eight verses, adds up to 176 verses, making it the longest psalm in the Bible.
Each of the 176 verses glorify the Jewish Law in poetic language, but the poetry has been seen as poor by biblical standards. It is often found to be flat and boringly repetitive. However, its intricate structure, which is lost in translation, makes up for this flaw. On the other hand, because the psalm tends to be monotonous, folklore claims that if you read it backwards your eyes will fall out onto the book.
The psalm starts out with a double beatitude, or promise of happiness, holding that “People are happiest who” lead good lives and follow the LORD’s Law with all their hearts. A life lived according to the Law is safe, predictable, and as complete as Psalm 119 itself. Like the psalm, the Law it is a source of light, life, joy, and delight—four words that appear frequently through the length of the psalm. Finally, the psalmist asks that God fulfill his promises to save him from his enemies (enemies who do not follow God’s Law). However, this is not a psalm of bargaining with God, but rather an emphatic statement of trust in God’s goodness. The overall tone of the long psalm is one of celebration and trust in the LORD’s Law. Follow it!
According to Jewish Law, so elaborately praised in Psalm 119, all Jewish males were required to make pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple three times a year to celebrate major religious festivals. It seems likely that Psalms 120–134 were composed to be sung by these pilgrims as they ascended the hill to Jerusalem or to the Temple itself. These particular 15 Road Trip Songs, or Songs of Ascents, may have been composed or assembled to celebrate the people returning home from Exile in Babylon.
Thanks for the memories, good and bad
Three psalms that focus on memories (135–137) separate the Road Trip Songs from the final two groups of psalms in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 135 is itself a typical Hallelujah Psalm that has been separated from the others. Its thankful praises recall the Creation, acknowledge God’s power over all he created, and recount the story of how God led the descendants of Jacob out of slavery in Egypt into their own land. The psalm concludes that no man-made idols could do such great works and it calls everyone to praise and thank the LORD.
Psalm 136 is a litany of thanks. It opens with the same first verse found in Psalms 106 and 107. Each of the remaining verses of Psalm 136 is made up of two lines. The first line recalls some attribute of God’s or some great work done by God in the past, while the second line repeats the text of the second line of Psalms 106 and 107: “He will never run out of mercy.” This line functions as a refrain.
Psalm 137, composed during Babylonian Exile, is a community lament in which the exiled Israelites (ancestors of the Jewish people) find it too painful to look back and remember the good times before exile. When asked to sing songs of their beloved homeland, they cannot bring themselves to do so. They swear that nothing could make them forget their homeland, but, being human, they want the Babylonians to pay for ravaging Jerusalem and its Temple and taking them captive. Going a bit too far, in the final verse they cry out that they would call down blessings on anyone who would bash Babylonian babies’ brains out on a rock. This odious thought has disturbed many over the centuries, but it is probably not meant as a literal call for infanticide, but as a metaphorical expression of the intense hurt and anger felt by the exiles.
David’s final psalms
Psalms 138–145 are the final psalms to be attributed to David. The first of them, Psalm 138, is an all-out call to praise God, whom even foreign kings admire, for he is endlessly good, caring for the lowliest people and bringing about justice.
In Psalm 139 the writer acknowledges that God knows him inside and out, though he cannot begin to truly know God. He thanks God for always protecting him, but (like many of these psalms), asks God to get rid of the wicked. The writer also asks God to search him and if he finds any wrong to redirect him along the right path.
Psalms 140 through 143 are individual laments in which the writer asks God for:
- rescue from violent people who are in pursuit,
- help in not speaking bad things,
- protection from sinners who would lure him into sin.
- guidance for living a good life,
- mercy, and
- deliverance from death.
After thanking God for strengthening him in battle, the author of Psalm 144 asks God why he cares so much for mere humans. Their lifespan “is just a breath of air,” yet God reaches down from the heavens and rescues them from lying strangers. Remembering that God had saved David’s life, the psalmist asks God to save the Israelites so that their families may prosper in everything and be happy.
Psalm 145, the last Davidic psalm, forms the climax to Book 5. It opens by thanking God for being Israel’s king, connecting it with Book 4’s theme of The LORD as king. The bulk of the psalm is an elaborate song of praise and thanksgiving, telling of God’s loving treatment of all people, of the respect God has earned from people near and far, and recalling how God has so graciously granted the people all they needed and come to their aid when they asked. Before closing, the psalm reminds us that God rewards good people, but destroys bad people, linking it to Psalm 1 in its contrast between good and bad. The psalm ends with a promise to thank God forever, fittingly introducing the final five psalms.
Drumroll and cymbals: the end!
Book 5 of Psalms not only follows the pattern of ending in a doxology, or words of praise, it does so five times over. All five of the final psalms (146-150) praise God by thanking him for all he has done for his people. These doxologies take the form of Hallelujah Psalms, and each of them both begins and ends with the Hebrew word Hallelujah, which can be translated as either ‘Thank you, LORD’ or ‘Praise the LORD’ or a combination of both. In the final psalm (150) the word appears in every line, ending the Book of Psalms with a glorious, triumphant Hallelujah chorus. It urges everything that lives and that breathes to praise the Lord and thank him. We should also thank God for inspiring the psalmists who gave us this great book of the Bible.