(23) Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path – Psalm 119:105

Being a song book, Psalms does not have the same structure as a history book. However, it is arranged in five books or volumes which give it a loose structure. (Psalms is shown as five volumes on the Bible Bookcase due to its size.) Many of the individual Psalms have titles which indicate authorship, some describe the situation which gave rise to the Psalm, and some have musical directions, although the meaning of these is unclear now.

The first 41 Psalms make up Book 1 and are mainly written by David. They reflect his very direct approach to expressing his emotions to God, from his cries of despair – “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1) – to his declarations of confident trust – “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me” (Psalm 28:7).

Book 2 (Psalms 42-72) also includes many Psalms by David, but it opens with a series by “The Sons of Korah”, men that David chose from the Levites as singers and musicians to make music before the Lord. These man have given us some well known lines such as, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). The Psalms in Book 3 (73-89) are mainly “Of Asaph”, another man appointed as a musician by David, along with more by the “Sons of Korah” and two ascribed to Heman and Ethan. Some of the Psalms of Asaph refer to Israel being rejected which suggests that they were written over the centuries during the time of the Kings or in the time of exile.

Most of the Psalms in Book 4 (90-106) have no titles. It includes one of David’s best known Psalms which starts, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name” (Psalm 103:1 King James Version). Book 5 (107-150) has 15 Psalms ascribed to David and the “Songs of Ascents” (120-134) which were used by people going up to worship at the temple: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1). It also includes the famous song from the time of the exile, “By the rivers of Babylon” (Psalm 137:1) made famous in the late 1970s by the group Boney M. (This single is the fifth all-time best-selling single in the UK. Boney M are the only artist to have two songs in the all-time top ten with “Mary’s Boy Child” in tenth position, a tribute to the power of Biblical songs.)

The book ends with a series of Psalms known as the “Hallels” after the word Hallelujah – Hebrew for “Praise the Lord” – with Psalm 150 being a rousing song of praise to finish off the whole book: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).

A feature of Hebrew poetry used in some Psalms is that each verse starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which has 22 letters. So a number of Psalms have 22 lines, with the starting letters of each line running through the alphabet, a useful device known as an acrostic which helps to memorise it. Psalm 145 is one of these and here are the first three verses of the Psalm adjusted to start with A, B, C:

Always I will exalt you, my God the King;
I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Be sure that I will praise you every day
and extol your name for ever and ever.
Consider how great the Lord is,
beyond our understanding and most worthy of praise.”
(Psalm 145:1-3, my modification)

The most famous acrostic Psalm is the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119. This extraordinary Psalm has eight verses for each letter of the alphabet and so 176 verses altogether and it is a poem praising the word of God. The writer is clearly someone who loves God’s word and delights in it. He sees the benefits it brings in his own life and commends it to others. This Psalm, along with the whole book, richly repays study and meditation because, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).

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