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?

  • 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 10 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.

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.)

The Structure of the Psalms

The Structure of the Psalms

God ordered Ezra, the scholar and priest, “Collect and compile the Psalms of the Spirit.” The scrolls were edited when God took the Israelites out of Babylon, the house of the captivity, as God promised Abraham and David.

There are many authors of the Psalms including David, Solomon, Moses, and Asaph. The Psalms come in different styles from different eras, situations, and contexts. It is recorded that Solomon wrote as many as 1005 songs (1Kg 4: 32).

Ezra collected the Psalms and did not arrange them in chronological order or occasion. He also did not arrange them by author. He did not sort by genre such as psalms of praise, psalms of wisdom, or psalms of lament either.

Instead, he decided to arrange the Psalms into books representing the covenant given to the people by God and books that responded with thanks and praise from the people to God, an expression of the love of the covenant between God and his people.

The editor chose the theme "The Lord is the Rock" from Deut. 32, Moses' song, in the first book of covenants given to the people by God. The Lord of the covenant is the Rock King. In the last words of Moses in the following chapter (Deut. 33) it is sung for the first time, "Blessed are those who ..." He chose a psalm which reminds us of Moses' disciple Joshua as Psalm 1. The song "Lord is the Rock" is also reproduced in the song of David (2 Samuel 22). He places it in the psalter as Psalm 18.

Then the Lord leads his own sheep as a King and holy one, making them his own people. He leads the people to the Promised Land. The editor will arranges this psalm as Psalm 90, Moses' song "Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place ..." as a response of praise from the people to God.

Time passed, then it was the era of the king of David. The Lord responded to David's prayers and promised him son of David would sit on the throne. And the king promises to build a house and establish a kingdom. As promised, Solomon then sits on the throne of his father David. Hee builds the temple of God. Psalm 72 comes at the end of Book 2, singing that Solomon will come to the throne. is By the end of Book 3, Psalm 89 shows an established covenant with the Kingdom of David.

These sections can be titled "The Lord is a Rock" for Book 1, "The Son becomes a King" for Book 2, "House of God" for Book 3, and "God dwells among His People" for Book 4.

This time, in commemoration of the fact that God brought us out of the country of Babylon as he swore to Abraham and David, the people will respond to the blessings God has kept the covenant.

As David ordered the Levites in the tent, "O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good for His mercy endureth forever. Hallelujah!”, as marked by this refrain of praise, Book 5 is divided into four subsections: Ps.107-108 / Ps.119 / Ps.120-134 / Ps.135-150.

The second subsection of "for He is good" is Psalm 119 which is a song on the Word of God. And in the third subsection, the psalms, known as the Psalms of Ascents (Ps.120-Ps.134) give thanks for guidance, singing "for His mercy endureth forever"..

Book 5 is also consistent with the flow of the feasts, commemorative festivals when the people go up to Jerusalem and give thanks and praise. The first subsection matches the January Passover. The second subsection corresponds with the Seven Weeks of March. The third subsection with the 40 years in wilderness (4 months). The fourth subsection with the feast of Tabernacle in July.

People are brought out at the Passover, and the Words are given as treasures at Mount Sinai (Psalm 119). And the people are led to the city of Jerusalem (Ascent). Finally, they enter the new city and are pleased with the new creation (Tabernacle).

Book 1 to Book 4 represent Love from God. 1. The Lord is a Rock, 2. The Son becomes a King, 3. House of God, 4. God dwells among His People. Book 5 is the response to God from the people. "O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good for His mercy endureth forever. Hallelujah!"

Just like the book of Psalms has its own sequence, each of the five books contain their own covenant sub-structures.

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:

ETHICS:

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)

Ethics:

  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.

  • 1
    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

I find all this very interesting and appreciate the concept of the covenant, but not as a legal contract, but in respect to the covenant refrain: I will be their God and they will be my people. The Psalms are the suffering prayers of a priestly God who ministers over the sacrifice of his own Son on the cross as a fulfillment of all Scripture. IN Luke 24 Jesus appears to make them the key to all Biblical interpretation and a learning ground for understanding the nature and work of the sacrifice of Christ. They are, in fact, the priestly prayers of the priests over the sacrifice of God's people.

My take, to follow this scheme, is to follow the writing process of Scripture that Jesus relates to all Scripture: the sufferings of Christ. God's suffering is detailed in his long standing perseverance with his people and their sins. So, John 16: 8-10 is the key to the conviction of the Holy Spirit that is used in making the Psalms a key that would have us speak them and sing them to one another as Paul writes in his letters. In my mind, then Scripture is written to fit with the convicting work of the Holy Spirit on the world and on the church. Then,

  • Book 1: the crisis of believing- sin (which might fit with the early origins of sin and the development of the covenants and how they involved sacrifice and the early suffering belief of God's word in Genesis with the Fall.
  • Book 2: The issue of sacrificial righteousness and the depth of God's suffering through the deep sins of his people. Suffering is the key to righteousness and is very deep in this book.
  • Book 3: judgement on the world (with Psalm 73) the works of the devil that come out of the sacrificial work and so that crisis of faith has begun to grow into a work to go into the world and disciple others with.
  • Book 4: This book is the Priestly prayer (John 17) of the church and the teaching work of the Priests from the inner sanctuary. We boldly go their to pray through our lives and are taught in the heavenly place how to be priests unto God.
  • Book 5: This book is the place of skillful praise and doxology of the church in which the sacrificial work of praise that is the eternal covenant blood as we pour ourselves out as offerings to God takes place. We enter our eternal work of sacrifice through this book and take up our cross and commune with our God in this work.

The last two books relate to our union and communion with Christ. IN Jesus High priestly prayer in John 17 he prays Book 4 and then Book 5 realizing that we will enter our priestly work as he did (as in singing Psalm 118 after the Lord's supper and as he entered his path to the cross) in taking up our cross. These are my thoughts and experience as I have prayed through the Psalms.

Why are the Psalms broken into five books?

Because multiples of five are, for obvious reasons, considered meaningful to human beings. Besides, almost everything else seems to be five-fold:

  • The Pentateuch itself.

  • Joshua, Judges & Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles.

  • Ezra & Nehemiah, Esther, Judith, Job, Tobit.

  • Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Minor Prophets.

  • Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Sirach.

  • The Four Gospels, and Acts.

Then both Paul and John write to seven churches each.

  • The Book of Enoch is also subject to a five-fold internal division. – Lucian Oct 1 '17 at 16:05

Book I is a chiasmus, probably assembled by David, reviewing his decision and struggle to follow God in establishing the kingdom. Palam 1 states the choice we all have; the godly will follow God, the ungodly won't

Several Psalms consider the folly of not following God.

then a tentative conclusion with; The fool says there is no God,

Several Psalms consider the joy of following Him

The decision is reached in Psalm 23, the middle of the book where classically the decision is made using the terms used in Psalm 1 where the choice was given; The lord is my shepherd . . . by streams of water

The rest of the book rejoices over the decision.

The other books similarly have a message appropriate to the times when they were assembled. Book II has the indications of having been assembled during Josiah's reign, or possibly Hezekiah's.

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