The Five Books of Psalms

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ The Five Books of Psalms

Let everything that has breath praise Yah.
Praise Yah!
Psalm 150:6 LSB

The Psalms are a journal of the worship, thoughts, and heart cries of the writers as they lived before God. As we read their songs of gratitude and praise, their prayers in times of fear, grief, and repentance, we find a pattern of how we are to live before God, and we also find a voice for our heart. In their lives, we read our own lives, and we learn how to bring ourselves and our circumstances to God. The Psalms teach us who God is. They reveal His majesty, righteousness, solace, and His deliverance to us. They bring us to God: to know Him and see Him as He is. What a gift from God they are to us.

An older Holman edition of the New American Standard Bible contains a brief summary of each book of the Bible. Here’s what it says about the Psalms:

“The Book of Psalms was the hymn book of the Hebrews. About 70 of the Psalms are ascribed to King David, the remainder to others. A large number of hymns and anthems we use today are taken from the Psalms. The book is composed of 150 lyrics, some of wonderful beauty of thought, imagery and expression. Not a few pour forth the deepest devotion and the most lofty sentiments of the human heart, and there is nothing finer in the world’s literature. Of these Psalms 1, 19, 22, 23, 90, 100, 103, are perhaps the most noteworthy.”1

Before you begin reading Psalms, I think it’s helpful to know a few things about its poetry and its structure.

My pastor, Mike Braun, writes about all poetry:

Poetry, contrary to popular prejudice, is the art of saying the most with as few words as possible. Far from gilding lilies with unnecessary encum­bering words, poetry, at least good poetry, encompasses truth with a sharp and swift observation.profound truth is best expressed in elegant brevity.2

In the Psalms we have good poetry, and we find truth expressed with sharp and swift words.

Derek Kidner explains the poetry found in Psalms. He writes that while rhythm, cadence, and structure can be found in the Psalms,

…the fundamental characteristic of this poetry was not its external forms or rhythms, but its way of matching or echoing one thought with another. This has been described as thought-rhyme, but more often as ‘para­llelism’, a term introduced by Bishop Robert Lowth in the eighteenth century…

In this form of parallelism the second line (or sometimes the second verse) simply reinforces the first, so that its content is enriched and the total effect becomes spacious and impressive…

A final point deserves emphasis, and this too was one of Lowth’s observations. It is the striking fact that this type of poetry loses less than perhaps any other in the process of translation. In many literatures the appeal of a poem lies chiefly in verbal felicities and associations, or in metrical subtleties, which tend to fail of their effect even in related languages…But the poetry of the Psalms has a broad simplicity of rhythm and imagery which survives transplanting into almost any soil. Above all, that fact that its paralellisms are those of sense rather than sound allows it to reproduce its chief effects with very little loss of either force or beauty. It is well fitted by God’s providence to invite ‘all the earth’ to ‘sing the glory of his name’.3

Matthew Patton has more helpful points on poetry in the Bible in How to Read Hebrew Poetry.

Over three-fourths of the Psalms have superscriptions. These are found at the beginning of a psalm. They are not the headings given in some translations, but are part of the text. Look at Psalm 3 in the NASB to see the difference. “Morning Prayer of Trust in God,” is a title the NASB translators gave to the psalm. “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” is immediately above the psalm and is the superscription about it. It is part of the text of the Bible. The Legacy Standard Bible translation of Psalm 3 has only the superscription.

Some of the superscriptions attribute authorship (David), may imply one of a collection used (sons of Korah), or explain when a psalm is to be used (e.g., Psalm 102).3 Kidner lists the authors ascribed in the superscriptions to be: David, Solomon, The sons of Korah, Asaph, Heman the Ezrahite, Ethan the Ezrahite, and Moses.4

Seventy-three psalms, nearly half the Psalter, have the note ledāwīd, ‘(belonging) to David’. Hence the collection as a whole tended to be termed simply ‘David’ (Heb. 4:7, RV).5

Psalms is divided into five sections or books. J. G. S. S. Thomson has this overview:

The Old Testament Psalter as we now have it consists of five books. This division goes back to the LXX version [Septuagint], which was begun as early as 300 BC. Every section is easily recognizable because a doxology closes each book. These doxologies are short except the one that ends Book V; there an entire psalm is given over to the closing doxology…Many have seen in this fivefold division an attempt to imitate the division of the Torah into five books, the Pentateuch.6

Leslie M’Caw and J. A. Motyer express similar thinking on the last Psalm:

There is no doxology at the end of the Psalter, possibly because Ps. 150 in itself offers a shout of praise which aptly concludes both the fifth book and the whole collection.7

What’s a doxology? It’s a long word with a simple definition. In his sermon, Doxology: Praise for Salvation, John MacArthur tells us,

It comes from two Greek words: Doxa which means glory and logos which means to say or a word or a saying. It is a saying about God’s glory. That is to say it is praise or it is offering God thanks. It is saying thanks by means of praising God. A doxology is a praise saying.8

The word itself is not found in the Bible, but we use it to describe verses of praise to God that are found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. These passages remind us and teach us who God is even as they lift our hearts in gratitude and worship. In a video clip about his teaching series, “Blessing and Praise: Benedictions & Doxologies in Scripture,” Dr. H. B. Charles Jr. explains,

The benedictions and doxologies of the Bible are there, of course, for a reason. The doxologies are there because they are succinct statements that teach us what it means to worship God and about the God that we worship; the benedictions are His assurances to His people of His grace, His sovereignty, of His presence, and of His help: to cause us to be able to look up and shape how we look at life through the lens of these benedictions and doxologies.9

Here are the chapter divisions of the five books of Psalms and their doxologies. The chart is based on the articles by Thomson, and M’Caw and Motyer, with verses from the Legacy Standard Bible.

The Psalms
Book Chapters Doxology
One 1–41 Psalm 41:13
Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel,
From everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.
Two 42–72 Psalm 72:18, 19
    Blessed be Yahweh God, the God of Israel,
Who alone works wondrous deeds.
And blessed be His glorious name forever;
And may the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen, and Amen.
Three 73–89 Psalm 89:52
    Blessed be Yahweh forever!
Amen and Amen.
Four 90–106 Psalm 106:48
    Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel,
From everlasting to everlasting.
And let all the people say, “Amen.”
Praise Yah!
Five 107–150 Psalm 150
    Praise Yah!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to the abundance of His greatness.
Praise Him with trumpet blast;
Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with tambourine and dancing;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise Yah.
Praise Yah!

And let all the people say, Amen!

Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
David’s harp & crown, Saint James the Greater Catholic Church (Concord, North Carolina) – stained glassNheyob. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
LSB: Legacy Standard Bible
1“Biblical Backgrounds: A Survey of Each Book: Psalms,” Holy Bible: New American Standard (Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville TN: The Lockman Foundation 1977).
2Mike Braun, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” retrieved 03 March 2011.
3,4,5Derek Kidner, Psalm 1–72 (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1973) 2–4, 33–36, 33.
7Leslie S. M’Caw, J. A. Motyer, “Psalms,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1970) 447.
6J. G. S. S. Thomson, “Psalms, Book of,” The New Bible Dictionary, J. D. Douglas, organizing ed., F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, R. V. G. Tasker, D. J. Wiseman, consulting eds., (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI: 1962) see the discussion of superscriptions on 446–447, 1054.
8John MacArthur, Copyright 1994, Grace to You. All rights reserved.  Used by permission. This Grace to You sermon, “Doxology: Praise for Salvation,” originally appeared here.
9Dr. H. B. Charles Jr., “Benedictions and Doxologies Are In the Bible For a Reason,” Ligonier Ministries. Retrieved 04 January 2023. You can watch the first message in the teaching series, “Blessing and Praise: Benedictions & Doxologies in Scripture,” for free at the link at Ligonier.

Copyright ©2011–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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