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The Psalms in most English Bibles are divided into five sections or books:

1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150

Psalms 41, 72, and 89 end with the double amen, while 106 and 150 end with "Praise the LORD." Are there reasons for breaking it up like this beyond the double amen? I'm a bit perplexed because of this answer, which reads the line about the prayers of David being ended as part of the Psalm rather than a marker in the greater book - and this despite it coming after the double amen.

Is it possible that the five books are an imposed structure and the double amens are simply a part of the psalms they belong to without indicating a larger frame? Or are there other reasons for discovering this structure?

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The book of Psalms is a summary, sort of, of the first five books of the Bible: Book 1 = Genesis, Book 2 = Exodus, etc. Providing all the necessary connections here will be like writing a big book, but when I have more time, I'll do that. – user4206 May 26 '14 at 20:32
up vote 7 down vote accepted

David E. Malick writes:

This division seems to be older than the oldest extant manuscripts of the Psalms since it exists in all manuscripts. The order of the last two books (IV and V) do differ in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls suggesting that their final order was not canonized until around the time of Christ. But all of the Psalms remain present (The LXX does have one extra Psalm (151) concerning David's battle with Goliath).

So it seems that the structure was not imposed, or if it was we no longer know the history behind it. According to Wikipedia, the first book is understood to be the oldest group. There are a number of other groupings that can be derived from internal evidence. To continue with the article (edited for formatting):

Smaller collections exist within the larger books:

  1. Davidic group I: 3-41

  2. Sons of Korah group I: 42-49

  3. Davidic group II: 51-65

  4. Asaph group: 73-83

  5. Sons of Korah group II: 84-88 [exc. 86]

  6. Congregational Praise group I: 95-100

  7. Hallelujah group: 111-117

  8. Songs of Ascent to Jerusalem: 120-134

  9. Davidic Group III: 138-145

  10. Congregational Praise Group II: 146-150

Notice that these collections do not cross the boundaries of the 5 books of Psalms.

Shifting over into informed speculation, I think a reasonable theory of the division of the Psalms is that they arose from accretion. Perhaps the original collection contained the Davidic group I plus Psalms 1-2. Then the Sons of Korah group I, the Davidic group II and a few others were added by a scribe wishing to consolidate these writings. The second book might itself have been a collection of collections. If the first book really is the oldest and if there was some confusion of the order of the last two, we might reasonably assume that the order of the books is chronological. In that case, we can imagine a series of scribes copying psalms over the years and appending new collections as they were developed.

Since the sub-collections (especially the praise and ascents groups) would have had liturgical purposes, they probably were not originally composed to be additions to the Psalms collection. It seems likely that the various annotations and the double amen endings were inserted by later scribes to preserve some sense of the textual history. Psalm 72's ending would also have been a parenthetical added by later scribes.

If my speculation is correct, the books of the Psalms represent 5 different eras in Israel's worship of God. Malick's article suggests one possible framework that has appeal to me. While each Psalm demands to be interpreted individually, such a framework would help us reject anachronistic interpretations. For instance, the postexilic reading of Psalm 1 might not have occurred to the author himself.

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It seems that these divisions may have been due to the various peoples and times over which the Psalms were originally collected and used as hymnbooks in the temple services:

The psalms were arranged into five subdivisions or books (1–41; 42–72; 73–89; 90–106; 107–150). This order follows the fivefold division of the Pentateuch and may reflect the process of collecting these songs and prayers into Israel’s hymnbook. Most of the psalms in the first two books were from David (3–41; 51–71), while many psalms in book three were written by Asaph (73–83). Songs of Ascent (120–134) and Hallelujah psalms (146–150) were grouped together in the fifth book. This suggests that the first two books may have been collected by David, the third and fourth by Solomon or Hezekiah, and the fifth by Ezra. (Schultz, S. J., & Smith, G. V. (2001). Exploring the Old Testament (112–114). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.)

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The five books of Psalms follow the pattern of the Torah, which in turn follows the five-fold pattern of all the biblical Covenants:

Transcendence (God's authority - who's the boss?)

...Hierarchy (Delegated authority - who's in charge?)

......Ethics (What are the rules - what do I do?)

...Sanctions (What do we get - blessings and curses)

Succession (The future - what's next?)

(In history, this five fold pattern opens into a sevenfold pattern, because the Ethics are triune:


Law given

Law opened

Law received)

So if the five books of Psalms follow the five books of Moses, the subject matter of each section would generally correspond. Ray Sutton has an analysis of the Psalms as an appendix (page 225) in his book on this Covenant structure (That You May Prosper; Dominion By Covenant [PDF]).

In my book on the Covenant structure (Bible Matrix II: The Covenant Key), I include many other examples which follow the pattern, including some of the Psalms, and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Perhaps the most interesting is the book of Revelation, which is a Covenant lawsuit against the first century Covenant breakers, just as Ezekiel's revelation was in his day:

Transcendence: Vision of Jesus (7 attributes - Sabbath)

Hierarchy: The Churches (7 lamps - Passover)


  1. The New Covenant Scroll given (7 eyes and horns - Firstfruits-Nearbringing)

  2. The New Covenant opened ( 7 seals - Pentecost - Gospel as four horsemen)

  3. The New Covenant received (7 Trumpets - Trumpets - final apostolic warnings)

Sanctions: (Seven Bowls of Judgment - seven sprinklings/Atonement- Coverings - tribulation as first goat, Jewish war as second goat)

Succession: A New World (Booths/Ingathering - Satan bound from gathering the nations)

What is really cool is that this Covenant pattern (a five with a triune three at the centre, making it a seven) is found throughout the Bible at every level:

Transcendence (Initiation)
Moses came

Hierarchy (Delegation)
and told the people

Ethics 1 (Law given - Presentation)
all the words of the Lord

Ethics 2 (Law opened - Purification)
and all the rules.

Ethics 3 (Law received - Transformation)
And all the people

Sanctions (Oath - Vindication)
answered with one voice and said,

Succession (Future - Representation)
“All the words (ethics1)
that the Lord has spoken (ethics2)
we will do.” (ethics3)

Check out Sutton's book. I don't agree with everything (I have a different take on the Ten Words, based on the Jewish division) but it's a great intro.

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I'm awarding the bounty to this answer because I find it interesting and it was the only answer to be given in the bounty period. The pattern you've describe is very interesting, but I can't help but notice this answer spends more time explaining Revelation than it does the Psalms! For that reason, I can't upvote. Perhaps if you summarized Ray Sutton's work, the answer would be more on point. – Jon Ericson Feb 19 '13 at 0:05
Thanks Jon. When I have some time I'll give it a go. – Mike Bull Feb 19 '13 at 2:01

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