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Solace from the Book of Psalms

Bro Paschal Jordan OSB spoke at the Liturgical Commission’s workshop ‘Composing Responsorial Psalms’ March 30 at the Max Murphy Hall, St Philip and St James RC Church, Chaguanas. In this three-part series based on his short course for music composers on the Book of Psalms, Bro Paschal goes into greater detail.

What are the psalms?

The Book of Psalms, in the Bible, is a collection of songs of the heart. This is poetry: sung poetry. In the psalms, we hear cries to God of love, despair, vengeance, hope, confidence, and gratitude. The whole scale of human emotion is contained in the psalms, and perhaps that is why people down the centuries have found help, solace, and a tool for daily living in the psalms.

Where did they come from?

In the Books of Exodus 23:17; Leviticus 23:11–44, and Deuteronomy 16:16, we find God summoning the people to go up to Jerusalem to worship three times a year:-

– The Spring festival in March or April, when the Israelites remembered the Passover and their rescue from Egypt, also called the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

– The mid-summer festival in June, which was a thanksgiving for the first fruits of grain of the year. This was known as the Feast of Weeks (7×7 weeks + 1 day = 50 days or ‘Pentecost’).

– The Autumn festival which took place during September and October, called the in-gathering i.e., the end of the harvest. This was the Feast of Tabernacles or Tents or Booths.

A little while before these feast days, runners ran through the villages and towns, reminding the people to go up to the feasts. We have a clear testimony to this in the beginning of Psalm 122 (121):

I rejoiced when I heard them say,

‘Let us go to God’s house’.

And now, our feet are standing

Within your gates, O Jerusalem.

When the pilgrims reached the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests gave them instruction, and individual persons or groups of persons gave testimonies to their receiving God’s help.

These stories were evidently written down by scribes and left in the temple,  giving testimony to the loving mercies of God. [Something similar happens at the Marian Shrine at Lourdes, where persons who have been cured hang up their crutches there in testimony to God’s healing in their lives.] This is, roughly, how the psalms have come down to us.

Types or categories of psalms

  1. Laments: individual and national cries for help.
  2. Hymns: songs of praise to God.
  3. Thanksgiving psalms: songs which praise God for help received.
  4. Royal psalms: songs which speak of the King as God’s son and vicegerent.
  5. Historical psalms: songs which tell of Israel’s history and of God’s saving intervention.
  6. Pilgrimage psalms: songs sung on the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
  7. Wisdom psalms: songs instructing us how to live a life pleasing to God, and often contrasting the fate of the Just and the Sinner.
  8. Processional psalms: songs sung in processions in the liturgies in the Temple.
  9. The Anawim: songs celebrating those poor and lowly persons (the Hebrew plural word Anawim is used to describe such persons) who, through their trials and sufferings, learn to wait on God’s good pleasure and place all their hope in Him.

Collections of psalms

There are five groupings or ‘books’ among the 150 psalms, in imitation of the five Books of the Law or Torah or Pentateuch [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy].

The divisions of these ‘books of psalms’ are recognisable by the doxology at the end of each book. [Doxa is a Greek work meaning praise; so, a Doxology is a prayer of praise of God.

Also, it was the custom in the synagogues to read a part of the Law, Torah or Pentateuch every Sabbath – which gave 150 reading parts in a three-year cycle – and each time there was a special psalm that could be sung as the response of the worshipping community to the reading. Sounds familiar?

We have continued this idea in our construction of a three-year cycle of Sunday Readings in the Liturgy, with a Responsorial Psalm to match each Reading.

The five groupings or ‘books’ of psalms are as follows:

  • Psalms 1–41
  • Psalms 42–72
  • Psalms 73–89
  • Psalms 90–106
  • Psalms 107–150


The psalms were translated from the original Hebrew into Greek and thence into Latin. The Greek and Latin translations considered Psalms 9 and 10 as one psalm; and Psalms 114 and 115 as one psalm too. On the other hand, they divided each of Psalms 116 and 147 into two parts. Thus, the numbering went askew but evened itself out at the end to come back to a total of 150 psalms.

Consider the following chart:

Hebrew:  Greek & Latin:

1–8      1–8

9–10    9

11–113    10–112

114–115          113

116      114–115

Just remember that the greater number is the Hebrew numbering, and the lesser number, the Greek and Latin translation.

Consider the psalm which begins:

The Lord is my shepherd,

There is nothing I shall want.

We know it as the ‘Good Shepherd Psalm’: Psalm 23 in the Hebrew, and Psalm 22 in the Greek and Latin translations. This is why both numbers are included in some Bibles, like this: Psalm 23 (22) or like this: Psalm 22 (23).

Read more:

The Psalms – cry out to God in confidence


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash