What’s in a Name: Psalter or ‘the Psalms’

The words psalm and Psalter derive from the Greek word, psalmos, which refers to the playing of stringed instruments in support of singing. In the Septuagint translation of the Psalms this word translates the Hebrew word mizmor, which means a song accompanied by music. The Psalter tends to be referred to in Hebrew by the term tehillim which originated from the verbal root for praise (hll). Thus, Sefer Tehillim, used in Rabbinic literature means book of praises.

In the English language, the 150 songs and poems that we find in the Bible are known as ‘the book of Psalms, shortened to ‘the Psalms’ or alternatively as the Psalter. In many modern church contexts the term Psalter is either seen as redundant or archaic. Yet is has something to commend it. Its singular meaning has the benefit of emphasising the unity and wholeness of this collection of 150 songs/poems. Why is this important? Until recently scholarship tended to see the psalms as individual compositions, the canonical order of which was inconsequential. However, more recently it has become apparent in scholarly circles that this collection is ordered and organised with intent. This scholarly move has simply rediscovered what many people of faith have appreciated for more than two millennia, that there is purpose here; the Psalter has a beginning, a developing ‘story’ and an end.

With this in mind I think the word Psalter has much to commend it in reflecting what the Psalter actually is. The longer term ‘the book of Psalms’ conveys the unity but in a more cumbersome manner. The shorthand ‘Psalms’ inadvertently highlights plurality. The term Psalter coheres with the value of the individual psalms as Scripture as it echoes, not just their individual value but also, the thought and purpose that went into collecting and ordering them. In this way the word Psalter, despite its conciseness fits with the remarkable claim, that these 150 songs and poems are Scripture. As Scripture they are in some sense complete and definitive.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

2 thoughts

  1. While not distinguishing titles always carefully, as in my own book ‘Seeing the Psalter’, I think that Psalter refers to ‘a book containing the Psalms’.

    These ‘Psalters’ were often separate books since they are much easier to carry. I agree too that these poems as a unit represent a canonical conversation between the faithful and the Most High, particularly focusing on the canonical example of Israel and its formative history, such that if one sheep goes astray (Psalm 119:176) through a similar failure and exile, even after reaching the land, that one continues to have hope of restoration.

    I may have mentioned before the role of the 8 acrostic psalms in highlighting the 7 psalms that precede them. The two inner oracles (110, 36) and the two outer ‘what is this humanity – glorious or futile’ psalms (8, 145) form a clear chiasm. Each acrostic celebrates the poem that precedes it. These are 8, 24, 33, 36 in book 1 and 110, 118, and 144 in book 5. There are a number of other connecting links that strengthen this claim. E.g. Psalm 33 stands out as unique. It is the first poem to use the phrase ‘a new song’. It is apart from psalms 1 and 2, the only psalm in the first book that has no inscription. All the others are ‘of David’.

    I ask myself who might have collected and arranged the psalms in this way – and did they start from such a deliberate design? The four acrostics in each book remind me of the exile because of the 4 acrostics in Lamentations. The exile is the experience of the people in books 2 and 3 then comforted by the book of renewal which focuses on Moses…

    More I am sure, but now I have stretched myself to read the whole TNK in Hebrew and it is a long and large and complex undertaking.

    Glad to read your new posts on these important person- and people-forming poems. May we come to recognize how they must form us.

    1. Thank you for such a thought provoking and thorough reply. The very specific role for the acrostic psalms that you outline is very intriguing. Future posts will in time revisit the structure of the Psalter in greater depth. Some of my very earliest posts explore what I term the microstructure, mesostructure and macrostructure of the Psalter.

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