About the word “Psalms”

 *This post was originally published bilingually in English as well as Korean back in 2017. Now the post is separated in each language. For the Korean version, see this

The book of Psalms is composed of 150 individual psalms. It probably occupies the largest portion of the entire Bible in the Protestant tradition. The quantity may not have any special meaning, but I would say it is possible to think that the largeness indicates the book’s significance in the Christian canon. Well, anyway, this important book is called “the book of poetry” in Korean Christianity, which is a little different from other Christian communities in the rest of the world. The subject of this writing is, thus, about the implications (or problems) of the designation “the book of poetry.”

psalms

There is one thing that we need to know before we discuss the problems of the title “book of poetry.” I assume that many English translations of the Bible provide superscriptions of individual psalms before/above the first line of each psalm, if there is any. So you may be familiar with the expressions, such as “a psalm of David,” “to the choirmaster,” or “according to ‘do not destroy.'” There are, of course, many more headings, but the most frequently used superscription among all is “a psalm of David.” And as indicated, the term “psalm” is translated as “poem” in Korean translations.

The word “psalm” is from the Hebrew word “mizmor,” meaning “a song sung to an instrumental accompaniment.” The word is ascribed to 57 psalms. Another word that appears the most except for mizmor is “shir,” meaning “a song.” The word appears 30 times. So 57 is kinda a lot.

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It is a matter of course, thus, that ancient readers recognized the genre of the book as mizmor, that is, hymnal lyrics. So ancient Greek translators of the book named the book as “psalmos” that has meanings similar to mizmor. The English word “psalm” is from the Greek translation “psalmos.” Strangely, however, Korean translators used the word poem and poetry, which is somewhat misleading.

The term “the book of poetry” does not tell us anything about music. I know music composers often use poems as their lyrics, but the poem is still a literary genre. No musical implication can be recognized unless a poem is, in fact, utilized as a lyric. This is what I wanted to tell Korean Bible readers. What we understand as literature is originally a component of music, especially in worship service. And these lyrics are, similar to the songs that we sing at church, not revealed words of God but human experiences of God and confessions about God; they are every kind of prayer, thanksgiving, praise, and the like.

So the limitation of the title “the book of poetry” is that it makes us think that the book of poetry is revealed words of God found in the rest of the Bible, but those lyrics are actually “OUR” words addressed to God. Those words are now, of course, sanctioned as God’s words so that we try to learn God’s will, but we need to pay attention to the fact that the book of Psalms tells us how and what to pray and praise to God instead of God’s direct revelations. I suggest that a good way to approach the book of Psalms is to read it as our very own praise and prayer.

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