147 Psalms

Author: Christopher R. Smith

How many psalms are there in the Bible? The answer isn’t 150. It’s 147.

Several Hebrew manuscripts record Pss 42 and 43 as one psalm. Psalms 42–49 make up a mini-collection within the Psalter named after the “sons of Korah.”[1] All of the psalms in this collection have superscriptions attesting to this, except Psa 43. If Psa 43 really were a separate composition, it should also have one.

We find the strongest evidence for the original unity of Pss 42 and 43 when we put them back together. They develop a single theme: the hope of returning to worship at God’s temple. And they have a unifying structure. The original psalm consists of three stanzas, each followed by the same refrain. All the stanzas have four lines, except one—the center stanza has five. The extra line is at the center of the center stanza. Here, the psalmist recognizes that God has given Him this song, striking a note of trust and confidence in the midst of a troubling situation: “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life” (Psa 42:8 TNIV).

When the original psalm was cut in two, this strategic and poignant line was no longer centrally located. It ceased to be the structural and thematic lynchpin of an elegantly crafted composition. And so we need to put Humpty Dumpty back together—even though this means reducing our psalm count by one—so we can appreciate the artistic beauty and theological truth of the original composition.

Psalms 9 and 10 were also originally a single psalm. That’s how they appear in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (ca. 3rd–1st century BC), and in some Old Testament Hebrew manuscripts.

Like Psa 43, Psa 10 has no superscription. Psalms 1–41, the first of five books in the Psalter, is a collection of songs in the epic of David. All but two have superscriptions that identify David. Psalm 10 has none, because it was originally part of Psa 9. The only other exception, Psa 33, was probably drawn into this collection because of a catch phrase. (Its first line is nearly identical with the last line of Psa 32.)

Together Pss 9 and 10 make up an acrostic—a poem with lines that begin at intervals with consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet (e.g., a, b, c in English; alef, bet, dalet [א,ב,ד,] in Hebrew).[2]

Together, Pss 9–10 are a psalm of lament, a cry to God for help in a time of trouble. The psalmist begins by praising God for deliverances already experienced. He then calls for help on three different grounds: God’s character and justice; the need for the arrogance of the wicked to be restrained; and confidence that the afflicted can trust in God. It is unconventional, but not unique, for a lament to begin with praise for past deliverances (compare Psa 85; 139). It may be because this composition was unconventional that it was separated into parts—the first to be used liturgically as a psalm of praise and the second as a lament. We get the full sweep of the psalmist’s response to his situation, as a model for our own prayers, when we put these parts together. And so our psalm count drops to 148.[3]

Psalm 53 is virtually identical to Psa 14—essentially faithful to it, but slightly reworked. Since the psalms were collected over time, it is common for later psalmists to repurpose older psalms, tailoring and applying their content to new circumstances.

Psalm 14 has seven stanzas. Most of them have three lines, but the fifth and sixth have only two. The creator of Psa 53—probably to fit the words to a new tune that required stanzas of regular length, specified in the superscription—merged these two stanzas into a single stanza of three lines.

The creator of Psa 53 also changed the divine name. The psalmists, and those who collected their psalms, were well aware of the names of God. This is the broadest organizing principle of the Psalter. In Pss 1–41, God is called primarily by the covenant name Yahweh (הוהי; usually translated Lord; compare Exod 3). In Pss 42–83, the term Elohim (םיהולא; usually translated “God”) predominates. And in Pss 84–150, the primary name used once again is Yahweh. Psalm 14 uses Yahweh. God is named seven times, four times as Yahweh and three times as Elohim. Psalm 53 is an Elohistic version of the same song: the name Yahweh is changed to Elohim in every instance.

There you have it: 147 psalms, instead of 150.

NOTES:

[1] See Craig C. Broyles, “The Book of Psalms,” pgs. 27–29 of Sept-Oct '09 issue of BSM.

[2] There are some acrostic (alphabetic) lines missing from the structure of Pss 9–10, but this is not abnormal for an acrostic Pss (e.g., Psa 25; 34). Most of these missing lines can be restored through working with the original Hebrew text.

[3] The TNIV and HCSB translations explain in footnotes that Pss 9–10, as well as 42–43, belong together.


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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 6