The word psalm, translated from the Hebrew, originally meant, “a song, accompanied by stringed instruments.” So, the “Book of Psalms,” in the Bible, was originally written as poetry set to music.
This musical poetry shared a common base of a people’s thoughts, moods, vocabulary and manner of literary expression. The Psalms, as a book of 150 musical poems, grew out of the life setting and life experiences to which they were connected–the Hebrew community.
The Psalms were not only written as musical poems, but also as spiritual poems. The authors were both singers and poets, who wrote this form of musical poetry for their king. Seventy-three of the 150 Psalms are attributable to King David, but there is no exact way to date them or confirm their authorship, as much of this poetry circulated in the oral tradition long before the birth of the king. A woman in a class I teach had this ditty to contribute in that regard:
King David and King Solomon
Lived very merry lives
With very many concubines
And very many wives
Then old age came creeping in
So with very many qualms
Solomon wrote the Proverbs
And David wrote the Psalms
Many of these musical poems express thoughts and modes of prayer, praise, thanksgiving or lament, as they connected the life experience of the individual to the life experience of the community.
The majority are musical poems of lament. The best comparison we have today to these psalms are the hymns we sing in church. Many, such as “Amazing Grace,” “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” or “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” like the Book of Psalms, could be considered “poems of the heart,” as the words and music are fashioned after simple, ordinary and communal things in our lives, committed to memory, sung in the heart and voiced with the lips.
So, the Book of Psalms is considered a prototype of poetic musical language. It is a poetic form of communication we voice between each other and voice to God, and is still with us today. One of the most well-known psalms is the 23rd.
Michael Hickey is a local writer and poet who lives in Pelican Bay and Swampscott, Mass. His book, Get Wisdom, is available at 1-888-795-4274, ext. 822, at Xlibris.com, or your local bookstore.