As we continue our adventure through psalms it helps to keep in mind that ancient Israel didn’t have an Official Charts Company like the music industry of today. The Hebrews possessed plenty of musical instruments and they enjoyed an abundance of live music. Orchestras, musicians and songsters performed in Israel on a daily basis. But there was no ‘official singles charts company’ in Old Testament times.
Therefore, no one recorded the exact date a psalm was written. Psalms were not logged individually or released through a media outlet when they were composed.
I wonder what it would be like if they were? How many psalm downloads would there be if the ancient Hebrews had the same technology we have presently?
We can only imagine what it would be like for today’s top psalm to be released on Spotify. What volume of live streaming would come from the Tabernacle built by Moses? How many real time viewers would tune in to the worship services at Solomon’s Great Temple? What about the second temple rebuilt by Ezra when the Israelites returned from their Babylonian captivity? How many broadcasts would have been made from this renewed place of worship? We will never know.
Neither will we know the exact dates in which the psalms were composed. But we do know that the psalms were mega popular with the Hebrews. Each psalm was treasured like a priceless oil painting. They are not the result of one single act of collecting. Neither has psalms been compiled throughout by the same people. The formation of the psalms was a gradual process.
Even now writing a song or producing a music album is an unfolding procedure which takes time. I can think of some modern examples from our secular pop songs.
Holding back the years
Holding back the years was one of Simply Reds greatest ballads of the 1980s. It’s regarded as one of Mick Hucknall’s masterpieces and remains a classic. He first started writing the song when he was just 17 while living at his father’s house. But it took several more years before he added the famous chorus.
Another example is George Ezra’s latest album ‘Paradise’ in the charts now. The album has been eighteen months in the making.
Likewise, the psalms of the Bible are a divine worship album, which has been composed and compiled over several years. The formation of the psalms was a very, very, gradual process.
The main period of writing is approximately 1000 BC to 600 BC. Though some psalms were written before and after this period. They cover an era which dates from the time of Moses (1200 BC) until shortly after Israel’s captivity ended in Babylon about (537 B.C.)
It should be noted also that the psalms were produced over three inspirational stages.
Initially we have,
The foundational stage
The collection of psalms began when Israel first came into contact with the Canaanite community. In particular at the outset of the process of the conquest and settlement of Canaan.
Song writing as an act of divine worship was practiced from an early time in Israel’s history. Hymn type poems which are not in the book of psalms are found in the historical and prophetic books of the Bible. This is an important observation because it highlights the skill and competence of Israel’s ancient musicians.
These psalms are not in the book of psalms but they are still worship songs in the Bible. The ancient tunes of Moses and Miriam Exodus 15. The hymn pieces in Deuteronomy 32 and 33. These ancient melodies were recited at public events. Tunes like these were performed before ‘the whole assembly’ and were available to priests officiating in the Tabernacle. I am pursueded that the psalms are in deed as old as sacrificial worship.
Over time, the Tabernacle was fazed out and made way for Solomon’s Great Temple. Many psalm type songs were being written by the Israelites before the destruction this first, Temple. They produced the 18th psalm which is also found in 2 Samuel 22.
Other psalm type songs written before the destruction of Solomon’s Great Temple but not in the book of psalms include the song of Deborah Judges 5, the song of Hannah 1 Samuel 2. The eulogies of David over Saul and Jonathan 2 Samuel 1 and over Abner 2 Samuel 3:34.
Various psalm type hymns not in the book of psalms are also found in the prophetical books such as Isaiah 12 and 38:10-20, (739 BC) Habakkuk 3 (626-605 BC) Jonah 2. (760 BC)
Many of these early songs show that ancient Israel were competent writers of music, psalms, hymns and top tunes long before the Babylonian invasion. The writing of Psalms was a flourishing art centuries before the destruction of Solomon’s Great Temple. (586/87 BC) This is stated to oppose the prejudice according to which the psalms are considered only to be a product of post exilic Judaism.
‘It is a well known fact that, the ritual laws of later Judaism are not mentioned at all in the psalms. Only a comparitively small number of psalms can in fact be proved to have originated in post exilic times‘, the psalms Artur Weiser p25.
Before we say something about this period of invasion we need to consider the second stage in the growth of the psalms.
The reign of King David
David was a very skilful musician who presided over the second stage during which many psalms were composed.
David was both lyricist and musician 1 Kings 16:14-23, 2 Kings 1:17-27, 3:33f;22. Traditionally he is the national poet of the Hebrews. Israel’s Beautiful Psalmist 2 Kings 23:1.
David was able to conduct an orchestra of harps, lutes, timbrels, cornets, and cymbals, 2 Kings 6:5. He is therefore Israel’s best known, hymn writer.
Throughout the latter part of the Old Testament David was recognised as the promoter of Israel’s liturgical chant. His sponsorship of music in worship attracted the most able musicians, singers and poets of Israel.
Distinct music schools were established and traditions of psalm writing and singing begun. David himself is attested to have written some 73 of the Bible’s psalms. He also organised a core of temple singers. Heman, Asaph and Ethan. These men were gifted musicians and poets. Their names appear in the titles of 16 psalms.
The third stage in the growth of Israel’s psalms is dated as the post-exilic period
Solomon’s Great Temple was destroyed in 586/87 BC What happened to Israel’s rich treasury of poems and songs? They were destroyed in the Babylonian holocaust. Many of the temple staff were killed. Those who survived were deported into a variety of places to be slaves throughout Babylon.
The rich treasury of Israel’s psalms was no longer available. Burnt and destroyed music scores and the pitiful slaughter of temple musicians. It’s at this point a great many of the Hebrew psalms were lost. But whilst in captivity a new set of musicians, poets and writers started to emerge during this third stage.
With the reestablishment of worship in Jerusalem after the edict of Cyrus in 538 BC some of the rare undestroyed writings and new writings were being compiled yet again.
Psalm 137 was written during the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Only a few psalms were compiled in exile and were sung at a more modest scale Psalm 74, and 79 are among those composed in Exile.
Even fewer psalms were added afterwards.
The prophet Jeremiah in one passage gives us a hint of the forthcoming music revival for Israel. Jeremiah 33:11 predicted the return from captivity saying
‘again shall be heard in this place….the voice of them that say, Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for His mercy endures forever, and of them that bring sacrifices of thanks-giving into the house of the Lord’.
In writing this Jeremiah used the very phrases of some psalms in the later part of the collection namely Psalm 106:1 107:1,22.
The exiles returned to rebuild the Temple. In doing this the people encountered God in a fresh way. There was a new worship in a new place.
‘The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. Ezra 6:15-16
Today this is what we would call ‘getting back to the heart of worship’. And so it is, whenever we wander from the centre of God’s plans. Whenever we stray from God’s perfect ways. May His grace always lead us back to the heart of joyful worship. Because it’s all about you Jesus. It’s all about you.