Preliminary Suggestions for
the Structure of the Psalms
There are 150 individual Psalms comprising the biblical Book of Psalms. There are also psalms (or songs) found in other parts of the Bible. Examples: the psalm of Moses (Exodus 15:1–19; Revelation 15:3); the psalm of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:1–31); the psalm of Habakkuk — which is pure prophecy (3:119). Even in the New Testament there are psalms (Luke 1:46–55; 67–79).
Almost all of the psalms positioned outside the Book of Psalms have as their theme the matter of prophecy — usually prophetic teachings regarding the nation of Israel or, sometimes, information about the prophesied Messiah. This prophetic relevance is also found among psalms within the Book of Psalms itself. This has not been fully recognized by many people, nevertheless it is true. This can be shown in several ways, but prime teaching on the matter is found in the Book of Chronicles.
Chronicles relates that the psalms were sanctioned to be sung within the Temple precincts by regularly assigned Levitical singers.
We thus have abundant evidence from the Old and New Testaments that the psalms had a prophetic content to them. Many were written by prophets. Indeed, there were more verses quoted in the New Testament from the Book of Psalms which contained prophecies about Christ and of his future role in human affairs, than from any other book of the Old Testament. Christians thought that king David was very typical of Christ. This fact in itself should show that the Book of Psalms is essentially a prophetical book as much as Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. And truly, when one really comprehends what the various psalms mean — and their relationships to one another within the contexts in which they are placed — a prophetic significance can be seen which is quite evident.
Let us now look at the 150 psalms within the Book of Psalms. Their arrangement and contexts should be noted. When surveyed properly, the structure and design might open up some outstanding prophetic teaching that many of us may not have seen before.
In the original Hebrew apportionment of the Book of Psalms, the 150 psalms are assorted among five major divisions. These five “books” are not discernible in the ordinary King James Version, but they are evident in the Hebrew manuscripts. The five divisions are as follows:
Psalms 1–41 (Book I) Psalms 42–72 (Book II) Psalms 73–89 (Book III) Psalms 90–106 (Book IV) Psalms 107–150 (Book V)
The fact that there are five books is significant. The number has a legal and prophetic symbol attached to it. Actually, the original Ten Commandments were divided into 5 and 5 (not 4 and 6 as some imagine today). The first 5 were spiritual (including the honor given to parents) and the last 5 were social (involving relationships with other human beings).
Prophetically, we can see its importance in the Book of Isaiah. The prophet gave some sequential references to the destruction coming upon Israel for their evil. Isaiah gave a 5-fold admonition. In fact one should note the context in which the 5-fold repetitive clause is given to understand the full message of Isaiah.]
This type of 5-fold prophetic scheme is also found in the Book of Amos. It was intimately connected with prophetic symbolism.
The sequential emphasis of the prophet Amos was to build up God’s case for the refusal of Israel to follow Him. God finally gives up trying to reform them by saying: “Prepare to meet your God, Oh Israel” (Amos 4:12). In other words, 5 chances were all that God was going to give them.
The Book of Lamentations, which is a message by Jeremiah concerning the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, was also given in a 5-fold arrangement. The first chapter has 22 verses — each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and all the letters are in their regular order. Then the second chapter also has the same 22 Hebrew letters heading each verse. The third chapter, however, has 66 verses, yet the same feature is retained — only this time there are three verses beginning with the first Hebrew letter, the next three verses the second letter, etc. until all 22 letters are used up. Finally, chapters four and five have 22 verses, but for some reason these verses do not begin with the Hebrew letters. Nonetheless, the 5-fold division is clearly seen. The number 5 seems to give the theme of any prophecy a sense of certainty or dogmatism. This shows up in the other sections of scripture where the 5-fold arrangement is maintained.
The Law of Moses was also divided into 5 parts:
This could signify that all the Law that was necessary to govern old Testament Israel was found within these 5-fold legal books.
And now, back to our Book of Psalms. It was also arranged in the 5-fold scheme. In fact, the ancient Jewish scholars saw a comparison between the 5 books of Moses’ Law and the 5 divisions of the Book of Psalms. The early commentary on Psalms 1:1 (called by the Hebrews the Midrash) says: “Moses gave to the Israelites the five books of the Law; and corresponding with these David gave them the five books of the Psalms.” A good discussion on the resemblance of each of the five divisions is given in most commentaries at the start of the Book of Psalms. We show how they tally in the paragraph below.
Psalms 1–41 (Book I) = Genesis Psalms 42–72 (Book II) = Exodus Psalms 73–89 (Book III) = Leviticus Psalms 90–106 (Book IV) = Numbers Psalms 107–151 (Book V) = Deuteronomy
But there is yet another 5-fold prophetic division of the Bible which was designed, like the psalms, to be read in the Temple at certain times of the year. These were the 5 books in the original Hebrew arrangement of the Old Testament called the Megillot (Scrolls) to be read at the holyday seasons and on two commemorative days in the Hebrew calendar.
Since the holyday periods given to Israel are of prophetic relevance, it follows that the 5 books of the Old Testament assigned to be read at those designated times are a commentary on the meaning of the seasons.
The Passover season (1) shows the redemption of Israel from Egypt, and in the New Testament it was the salvation afforded to Christians by Christ’s death on the tree of crucifixion — which occurred at Passover. The Song of Songs was read at that time. Its theme is that of a courtship and its setting is springtime.
Then, Pentecost (2) shows the beginning of Israel as a nation at Mount Sinai. Within the New Testament, the “ekklesia of Christ” began on that day (Acts 2). The Book of Ruth was ordained to be read in the Temple and synagogues at that time. It describes Ruth gleaning the firstfruit harvest from the land of Boaz in Judah. The theme of the book fits Pentecost perfectly.
The eve of the 10th of Ab (3) was the anniversary day for the destruction of the Temple back in the time of Jeremiah. 2 The Book of Lamentations was ordained to be read (2 Chronicles 35:25) and the eve of the 10th of Ab was the day selected for its reading. And what a significant book it was? Its subject was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Then came Tabernacles (4). This indicates the time when Israel will be top in the world under their Messiah. It is a time denoting the Millennium of the New Testament (Revelation 20:3–6). The Book of Ecclesiastes (which describes the peaceful reign of Solomon — a type of the Millennium) was selected to be read at that season.
After that is Purim (5) which shows the complete redemption of the nation of Judah — a central tribe of Israel, and the one responsible for dispensing the message of salvation to the world (John 4:22). The Book of Esther was read at that time.
Thus, the three holyday seasons and the two main commemorative periods (5 sanctified times) were graced with 5 books that were ordained to be read that backed up the significance of their themes. These 5 books (and holyday seasons) also compare interestingly with the 5 divisions of the Psalms and the 5 books of the Mosaic Law. Let us see.
Psalms Torah Megillot (1) Psalms 1-41 (Book I) = Genesis = Songs of Songs (2) Psalms 42-72 (Book II) = Exodus = Ruth (3) Psalms 73-89 (Book III) = Leviticus = Lamentations (4) Psalms 90-106 (Book IV) = Numbers = Ecclesiastes (5) Psalms 107-150 (Book V) = Deuteronomy = Esther
When these three sections of the Old Testament are compared with one another, there is an amazing parallel in many of their features. It is almost as if an overall design was intended by the divine canonizers to show a buttressing effect on the messages found in each book. This may well be. To see this in a clear way, let us focus on Book III of the Psalms. This will equate with the Book of Leviticus in the Law of Moses and the Book of Lamentations in the Megillot. The third book of psalms comprises those from Psalms 73 to 89 inclusively. Anyone who surveys those 17 psalms can see quite easily that they generally refer, in the main, to the Temple at Jerusalem, and usually to its destruction. Note some particular verses in the psalms of Book III which show this.
Psalm 73 = “The sanctuary of God ... they brought into destruction” (verses 17,18).
Psalm 74 = “The enemy has done wickedly in your sanctuary.... They have cast fire into your sanctuary, they have defiled by casting your dwelling place [the Temple] of your name to the ground” (verses 3,7).
Psalm 75 = “The earth [land] and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved” (verse 3).
Psalm 76 = “In Salem [Jerusalem] is his tabernacle, and his dwelling place in Zion. There [in Jerusalem] broke he the arrows of the bow” (verses 2,3).
Psalm 77 = “In the day of trouble I sought the Lord. ... Will the Lord cast off forever?” (verses 2,7).
Psalm 78 = “He forsook the tabernacle of Shilo [when the Temple was once there], the tent which he placed among men” (verse 60).
Psalm 79 = “O God, the heathen are come into your inheritance; your holy Temple have they defiled ... and there was none to bury them” (verses 1, 3). [The latter reference is to the Two Witnesses, as shown in the New Testament. See Revelation 11:9].
More examples from Book III of the Psalms could be given, but this is enough to show that the theme of destruction is the general context of all of those 17 psalms. And what is parallel to Book III of the Psalms? In the Megillot it is the Book of Lamentations. And, as said before, this book was ordained to be read on the eve of the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction (Jeremiah 52:12–14; Zechariah 7:5; 8:19). There could be no book more apt for comparison to the subject matter of Book III of the Psalms. But these two books are arranged opposite (in their 5-fold structure) to Book III of the Law — the Book of Leviticus. And its theme? It is all about the priesthood and the Levites regarding their duties in the Tabernacle and Temple. The theme of all three divisions is the Temple and factors associated with it. It could hardly be accidental that the books found such an arrangement. The three books support each other in subject matter.
Now look at Book IV of the Psalms. There are also 17 psalms in this division (Psalms 90–106). Psalm 90 introduces its contextual subject by mentioning a 1,000 years (verse 4). A thousand years is, of course, a millennium of time. And the general teaching of these 17 psalms is millennial — about the time peace and security will be over all the earth. But before peace can come to the earth, there is the time of the Great Tribulation that must first occur. Psalm 91 describes such a subject in detail. Then, it is followed by Psalm 92 — a psalm for the Sabbath day (note its superscription). The Old Testament Sabbath day (the seventh day of the week) also represented the 7,000th year period (after 6,000 years of human rule) called in the Book of Revelation the 1,000 year time when peace reigns throughout all the earth and Satan is bound in chains (Revelation 20:2–4).
And note. It takes only a cursory reading of the rest of the psalms in Book IV of the Book of Psalms to see the millennial connection. But also, it must be noted that the Judaic authorities consecrated the Book of Ecclesiastes to be read at the Tabernacles season. Ecclesiastes described the glories of the Solomonic kingdom (a type of the Millennium) and Tabernacles itself had its spiritual theme as that of the same Millennium.
Book V of the Psalms (Psalms 107–150) is associated with Deuteronomy in the Law. Deuteronomy is called “the second law” or, a recapitulation of the earlier parts of the Law of Moses. And this is what the 44 psalms of Book V denote — a summing up of the subjects from Book I to IV. It is also equaled to the Book of Esther, which shows the complete salvation of the Jewish people. It looks like they will be among the last nations on earth to finally accept Christ totally (Romans 11:25–26). And Book V of the Psalms gives information that could emphasize how God will accomplish this salvation upon those of Israel.
Books I and II of the Psalms are songs composed exclusively by King David. At the end of Psalm 72 is the statement: “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” Of course, there are other Davidic psalms in later sections, but this reference indicates that Book I (Psalms 1–41) and Book II (Psalms 42–72) were all written by David.
Let us now note this interesting feature. The number of the Davidic psalms are 72 (that is 24 x 3). Since King David arranged the Levitical singers into 24 “wards” (1 Chronicles 25:8–31), it can be seen as being very likely that these first 72 psalms were established to fit a pattern of singing them in order by the Levites who found themselves positioned by David into 24 divisions.
Look at these psalms. In Book I there are 41 psalms. if one reckons the first psalm as introductory, then there are 40 psalms left. The number 40 is a number of trial. This is a well recognized fact by all scholars dealing with biblical symbolism. But in Book II there are 31 psalms. If one allows the first psalm of the second book to be introductory, then there are 30 psalms left. When one adds 40 and 30 together (equaling 70), one has the exact age of David when he died. The age of 70 is also considered in Psalm 90 as the ideal length of man’s life on earth (Psalm 90:10). And isn’t it interesting that Psalm 71:18 (next to the last psalm in the Davidic collection) records David as saying: “Now also when I am old and greyheaded.” Then, the next psalm (the last one of Book II), concerns the glories of the Solomonic kingdom which was to occur at the death of David.
And too, Book I of the Psalms corresponds to the Song of Songs which was sung at the Passover season. The whole of the 41 psalms (1 plus 40) relate to this theme. Note, as an example, Psalm 22 which says that the wicked “pierced my hands and my feet” (verse 16). This reference, in prophecy, is to the crucifixion of Christ — who died at the Passover. Also, since Israel came out of Egypt at Passover, the 40 psalms of Book I (after the introductory one) probably denote the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The 30 psalms of Book II (after the introductory one) may show the 30 years establishing of the nation of Israel in the land of Canaan — and this took exactly 30 years from their crossing of the River Jordan to the death of Joshua.
None of us can know for certain why the psalms in the Book of Psalms are arranged the way they are. Certainly, there is a reason behind their positioning because some of the psalms were repeated in other sections.
See most any commentary on the Book of Psalms for proof of these points. This all helps to show that there is a definite reason why the psalms are positioned in the way that they were. It is not the simple surface message that they give that presents all the truth, it is also the context in which they occur that makes the difference.
And since it can be shown that the psalms in the Book of Psalms are basically of a prophetic nature, it looks like a prophetic theme is to be found within the 5-fold divisions of the Psalms. We can sum up, succinctly, what it might mean.
Since there are 150 psalms in the entire collection (3 x 50) there may have been a three-year reading plan — a reading of a psalm for each of the 150 weeks to correspond with the triennial reading of the Law and the Prophets in the Temple (Acts 13:15). This possibility has been suggested in the Jewish Encyclopaedia [1911 edition], vol. 12, under article “Triennial Cycle.” 3 This could well be one of the reasons for the positioning of the psalms in the manner they are.
The main thing to recognize, however, is that there is far more teaching in the Book of Psalms than at first meets the eye. No one knows for sure just what every detail is trying to reveal. Yet, when one realizes that a consistency of doctrinal and prophetical emphasis is found throughout the Old Testament, it could be that the Psalms are a simple reflection of that fact.
These suggestions are intended as a preliminary survey of the various 5-fold sections which are found in the Old Testament. Recall that the New Testament also has a 5-fold “Pentateuch” of the Gospels and Acts. And Matthew’s Gospel itself is arranged in a 5-fold structure. It appears, when one studies these designs closely, we find that they are not haphazardly formed, but that some kind of message is intended by their application in matters of interpretation.
Certainly, further research among scholars and biblical students is needed to comprehend these matters in a better way. Such study, however, would be facilitated if people will retain the manuscript order of the biblical books rather than the arbitrary one that is now being presented to the world. We hope that the information in this book can prove to be an incentive to accomplish this task.
1 This shows that the number 24 (and 12) was important to the arrangement of the singers and the psalms which they sang. There were also 24 elders associated with the ceremonies of the heavenly Temple as recorded in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 5:8, 14; 11:16; 19:4). The Book of Revelation is devoted entirely to prophecy, and the symbolic numbers of 24 and 12 are found in several places in the book. There were 144,000 Israelites ordained “to sing a new song” in the future. Those 144,000 divided by 24 equals 6000 — the number of years which seemingly is assigned to mankind for the period of God’s firstfruit activity in His redemption of humanity. At any rate, the singing being done by those saved individuals involves the use of psalms (Revelation 15:3). This shows a distinctive prophetical ring to some of the psalms.
2 Remarkably, the Temple which was rebuilt by King Herod — the one that existed in the time of Christ — was also destroyed on the exact same day, and supposedly by accident. This parallel destruction makes one wonder if the day is of more importance in prophetic chronology than at first meets the eye.
3 This article can be found in full at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=327&letter=T.
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