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Psalms (sämz) or Psalter (sôlˈtər), book of the Bible, a collection of 150 hymnic pieces. Since the last centuries B.C., this book has been the chief hymnal of Jews, and subsequently, of Christians. The hymns are of varying date and authorship, but many are ascribed to David, and some to Asaph (1,) Solomon, Moses, and the sons of Korah. Many scholars believe that some of the Psalms originated in David's time and some even earlier. Most of them, however, took their present form between c.538 B.C. (when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile) and c.100 B.C. According to the Hebrew text, the Psalms are divided into five books: Psalms 1–41; 42–72; 73–89; 90–106; 107–150. The poems vary significantly in tone and subject. Psalms occur throughout the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha. The Syriac Psalter adds Psalm 151, found also in the Psalms Scroll at Qumran. The history of Psalm translations is more extensive than that of any other part of the Bible. Earlier English versions include those of St. Aldhelm and of Richard Rolle. The Psalms have been translated into English metrical verse a number of times, e.g., the Bay Psalm Book and versions by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady and by Isaac Watts. Until the late 20th cent. the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer were in the version of the Great Bible of 1539 (by Miles Coverdale from the Vulgate). The use of this version, instead of the Authorized Version, was continued because of its popularity.


See (besides books listed under Old Testament) studies by A. A. Anderson (1972), D. Kidner (1973, 1975), C. Westermann (1980), W. Brueggemann (1984), and H. J. Kraus (1987, 1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(the psalter), Judaic religious lyrics.

The term “psalms” (or “psalter”) usually refers to the 150 “psalms of David,” with which the third section of the Old Testament begins. Compiled to meet the needs of temple worship in Jerusalem, the collection apparently originated in the late Babylonian era (that is, not before the sixth century B.C.), but it also includes earlier texts. The Judaic (Masoretic) text of the Bible, which is used by the Protestant churches, numbers the psalms differently than the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, which is used by the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. (Accordingly, both numbering systems are used below.)

The poetic form and metrical organization of the psalms are based on syntactic parallelism, which unites synonymous variations of the same thought, a general idea and its concrete expression, two contrasting ideas, or utterances that form an ascending sequence.

In terms of content, there are a number of varieties of psalms. In addition to worshipful praises to the god Yahweh, there are supplications (6/6, 51/50), impassioned laments, (44/43, 102/101), and curses (58/57, 109/108), as well as historical observations (106/105). There is even a wedding song (45/44, known as the Song of Songs). A philosophically contemplative tone distinguishes some of the psalms, including the eighth psalm, which contains theological speculations concerning man’s greatness. However, considered in their entirety as a book of the Bible, the psalms are characterized by a uniform perception of life and common religious themes and motifs. In them, man (or a people) addresses god as a personalized force, a constant observer or listener who plumbs the depths of the human heart.

As a literary genre, the psalms belong to the mainstream of the development of Middle Eastern lyric poetry. (For example, Psalm 104/103 is similar to Egyptian hymns to the sun dating from the reign of Amenhotep IV [Ikhnaton].) However, the psalms are distinguished by their unmistakably personalized tone. The genre was further developed in later Judaic literature (the songs of Solomon, first century B.C.).

The psalms had an enormous influence on folklore and served as the source of many proverbs. In the Middle Ages the psalter was the chief textbook for the mastery of reading. Methodius is credited with translating the psalter into Old Church Slavonic (ninth century). The psalter was mentioned in Old Russian manuscripts from the 11th century, and it was widely quoted in the Primary Chronicle (compiled by Nestor) and in the works of Theodosius of Pechery, Ilarion, Kirill of Turov, and Serapion of Vladimir. Adaptations of the psalms were very popular, including 18th- and 19th-century versions by M. V. Lomonosov, G. R. Derzhavin, F. N. Glinka, N. M. Iazykov, and A. S. Khomiakov.

In Judaic ritual the psalms were sung as hymns with instrumental accompaniment. As a rule, the method of performance and the psalm tune (the appropriate melody) were indicated for each psalm.

The psalms came to occupy an important place in Christian worship. They were sung during church services and home prayers. Originally, they were sung in church by the entire congregation, usually in a responsorial style, with a lead singer intoning the verses of the psalm and the congregation responding with the refrain. Sometimes the antiphonal style was used. Ensemble performance of the psalms by children’s, male, or female choruses came into practice in the fourth century. The psalms were performed a cappella, and musical instruments were permitted only at home performances. The style of performance was recitative and psalmodic. In addition to entire psalms, selections of some of the most expressive verses were also used, giving rise to separate hymns—the antiphon, gradual, tract, and alleluia.

Multivoiced versions of the psalms developed in the 15th century. In Italy, these were initially simple, homophonic songs, but they soon developed into the fauxbourdon, a form that was important in Europe for several centuries. Choruses or sometimes a soloist and a chorus were juxtaposed. Instruments were introduced, and the texture of the music became polyphonic. The earliest polyphonic versions of the psalms date from circa 1500. Josquin des Prez (the Netherlands) wrote approximately 20 psalms in four-part harmony, which became models for other composers. From the 15th century the anti-phonal style and more complex polyphony characterized the performance of the psalms. Instruments were frequently added, and the techniques of concert style were applied. The works of the Italian composers G. Gabrieli and C. Monteverdi greatly influenced the musical development of the psalms.

France developed its own style of psalm music, with the main emphasis on bringing out the characteristics of the text. In England the psalms were sung as anthems. Stylistically, the psalms later resembled the mass, the motet, and the cantata. Among the composers who wrote works based on the texts of the psalms or used psalm melodies were Palestrina (Italy), O. di Lasso (the Netherlands), and H. Schütz (Germany). Psalms served as the texts for some of J. S. Bach’s motets. Many 19th-and 20th-century composers wrote works inspired by the psalms, including Schubert (Austria), Mendelssohn, Brahms, and M. Reger (Germany); F. Liszt and Z. Kodály (Hungary); A. Honegger (France); and Stravinsky.

The psalmodic song developed in the 16th century during the Protestant movement. Among the composers of these multipart songs set to psalm texts were C. Goudimel and C. Le Jeune (France) and M. Gomółka (Poland). In Russia, V. P. Titov set the Rhymed Psalter (1690) of Simeon of Polotsk to music.


“Upotreblenie knigi Psaltyr’ v drevnem bytu russkogo naroda.” In the collection Pravoslavnyi sobesednik, book 4. Kazan, 1857.
Nikol’skii, N. M. Tsar’ David i psalmy. St. Petersburg, 1908.
Rozov, N. “Drevnerusskii miniatiurist za chteniem psaltiri.” In Trudy otd. drevnerus. litry, vol. 22. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Uspenskii, N. D. Drevnerusskoe pevcheskoe iskusstvo, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1971.
Lods, A. Histoire de la littérature hébraique el juive depuis les origines jusqu’à la ruine de I’état juif. Paris, 1950.
Ellis, P. The Men and the Message of the Old Testament. New York, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the collection of 150 psalms in the Old Testament, the full title of which is The Book of Psalms
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005