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.
Leave a Reply