Why the Psalms—how were they used, how did they come to be?
November 1973

“Why the Psalms—how were they used, how did they come to be?” Ensign, Nov. 1973, 13–14

Why the Psalms—how were they used, how did they come to be?

From the beginning of time, the majesty of God has evoked expressions of reverence, gratitude, and appeal from men and women of spiritual depth and understanding.

Many of the most sublime expressions are found in the book of Psalms (from the Latin Liber Psalmorum) or, as it is known in the Hebrew, sefer tehillim—the “Book of Praises.”

According to one tradition, David, “the sweet Psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1), composed the Psalter with the aid of ten others, including Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, and Moses. While such a notion is hardly to be taken literally, prayers and songs of devotion have always been such a part of true worship that even the most ancient patriarchs may be represented to some extent.

Although David did not compose all of the one hundred and fifty psalms included in the popular Old Testament version, he did write a number of them and was probably most instrumental in compiling their nucleus. The book of Psalms is the work of a number of writers, both identified and anonymous, over a period of centuries.

While some psalms were part of Israel’s ancient temple ritual and liturgy, most of the material in the Psalter best lends to private contemplation and worship.

Nowhere in all scripture is there a better description of the intimate strugglings of the human spirit to find peace with man and God. John Calvin said of Psalms: “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life of all the griefs, sorrows, fear, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

While praise of the Almighty is the central theme of Psalms, it also contains petitions for forgiveness, for deliverance from one’s oppressors, and for the punishment of one’s enemies, as well as declarations of faith in God’s beneficent care and powerful exhortations to righteousness.

Hidden among the many spiritual gems in Psalms are those pearls of great price which prophesy of the Savior’s life and ministry. He himself directed the attention of his disciples to these prophecies following his resurrection, saying, “all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” (Luke 24:44. Italics added.)

It is most fitting that the book of Psalms, of Praises, should speak of Jesus Christ. For he is Jehovah, the Lord—the shepherd of David and the shepherd of us all.

  • Rodney Turner, professor of Church history and doctrine, Brigham Young University