The Psalms collectively are called in Hebrew Tehillim or “Praises,” but the word mizmor, which denotes a composition set to music, is found in the titles of many of them. The book is the first in order of the “Scriptures” (Kethubim) or Hagiographa, which with the Law and the Prophets make up the Hebrew Old Testament. See Bible.
No book of the Old Testament is more Christian in its inner sense or more fully attested as such by the use made of it than the Psalms. Out of a total of 283 direct citations from the Old Testament in the New, 116 have been counted from this one book. Much of Christianity by its preference for the Psalms reverses the custom of the Synagogue, which judged the psalmists’ inspiration inferior to that of the prophets and set Moses on high above them all, so that no prophet might teach any new thing but only what was implicitly contained in the law.
Titles are added to some of the Psalms, but it is open to question whether these are as old as the words to which they are attached. They mainly refer to the manner in which the words were to be sung or accompanied. Some Psalms were to be accompanied by stringed instruments (Neginah, Neginoth Ps. 4; 54–55; 61; 67; 76; and Hab. 3:19), others by wind instruments (Nehiloth Ps. 5); while such titles as “Set to Alamoth” (“maidens,” Ps. 46), or “Set to the Sheminith” (“the octave,” Ps. 6; 12), seem to imply that there was singing in parts. Some of the titles appear to be intended to indicate the character of the Psalm, as Maschil (“giving instruction,” Ps. 32; 42; 44–45; 52–55; 74; 78; and 88–89), Michtam, rendered by some Golden Psalm (Ps. 16; 56–60); while Shiggaion (Ps. 7) with Shigionoth (Hab. 3:1) may refer to the irregular erratic style of the compositions, and Gittith (“belonging to Gath,” Ps. 8; 81; 84) may relate either to the melody or to the instrument used in the performance. The other titles are all probably names of tunes, well known at the time, to which the Psalms were appointed to be sung.
Seventy-three of the psalms are ascribed to David, and so it was natural that the whole collection should be referred to as his, and that this convenient way of speaking should give rise in time to the popular belief that “the sweet psalmist of Israel” himself wrote all the so-called Psalms of David. Sacred psalmody is ascribed to him in general terms in 1 and 2 Chr., the accompanying instruments also being called “instruments of David,” as in Neh. 12:36 and Amos 6:5. In some cases in which a psalm is ascribed to David in the Hebrew, it is certain that he could not have written it, and it has been concluded that the Hebrew titles are sometimes inaccurate.