Question: "What is a psalm?"
Answer: A psalm is a song or poem used in worship. The word psalm comes from the Greek word psallein, which means “to pluck.” That word gave rise to psalmos, which means “a song sung to harp music.” (The strings on a harp are plucked, at least some of the time.) Finally, the English word psalm means “song” but usually refers to a sacred song regardless of what instrument it might be played on.
David is the author of many of the biblical psalms, and he is also known as one who played the harp, although the “harp” he played was not like a modern harp that might be used in an orchestra; rather, it was a small, handheld stringed instrument that today would be called a “lyre.” “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play” (1 Samuel 16:23). Most modern translations use the word lyre instead of harp. So David wrote lyrics and played the lyre, or we might say he would psallein his instrument and write psalms. Today, hymns might be the word that evokes an idea similar to psalms.
Today, we usually read the biblical psalms, often privately, rather than sing them. While many individual psalms came out of intensely personal and difficult situations, they were eventually put into a collection that was meant to be used in public worship.
The book of Psalms is a book of songs that is sometimes called “Israel’s National Hymnbook.” The title of the book in Hebrew is Tehillim, which means “Praises.” It is a book of praises, but some of the psalms are written out of deep despair and questioning. It is a book of prayers containing the writers’ innermost questions and doubts as well as their praises and thanksgiving.
Some of the biblical psalms tell us the names of the tunes that should go with them, but, alas, those tunes are lost to us. For instance, the heading of Psalm 22 says, “To the tune of ‘The Doe of the Morning.’” Perhaps “The Doe of the Morning” was a popular song and David wrote new words for it with spiritual content. It is also possible that “The Doe of the Morning” was a tune written specifically for this song/psalm, although there is nothing in the psalm that would seem to call for this title. It is not uncommon for modern songwriters to put the psalms to music, and one organization has written music for all 150 psalms.
Ephesians 5:18–20: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” No doubt, Paul means to include the Old Testament book of Psalms, but the command can also cover psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that Christians wrote in his day and even in ours.
Here are some technical facts to know when discussing psalms:
• When referring to the biblical book, Psalms is written with a capital P.
• When referring to psalms in a general (i.e., songs, hymns, psalms, etc.) a lowercase p is used.
• The book is referred to as “Psalms” (plural), but individual psalms are referred to in the singular, as in “Please open your Bibles to Psalm 145,” and “I am going to read a psalm this morning.”
• The book of Psalms has the most verses of any book in the Bible but no chapters. The individual psalms are songs, not chapters; therefore, it would be technically incorrect to say “Please open your Bibles to Psalms chapter 145.”
• Sometimes the book of Psalms is called “The Psalter,” which simply means “a book of psalms.”