The Psalms are divided into five books or volumes and this not by external marks only, but by internal distinctions full of interest. The first closes with Psalm 41 where a conclusion is manifest; the second, with Psalm 72, the last three verses marking closure; the third, with Psalm 89, of which verse 52 is the end; the fourth, with Psalm 106, verse 48 terminating; the fifth to the end of all (Psalms 107-150). The internal characters which distinguish these five books will appear as we proceed.
There is no part of scripture more evidently inspired of God, none more frequently cited by the Holy Spirit throughout the N.T., none more important for the believer to understand by divine teaching, so as on the one hand to enjoy truth needful, fertile, and strengthening for the affections, and on the other hand to keep clear of mistaken applications which might darken and even destroy all right sense of our proper relationship as Christians. The latter danger is not a mere apprehension; in fact it has caused ruinous mischief since the second century if not the first; it is no less rife in our own days, and nearly as prevalent among Protestants as among Romanists and others who profess to represent the ancient Catholic church. On scarce any question is Christendom more at one than the assumption that the Psalms compose the most fitting help for christian comfort and devotion, and the best, because divinely purposed, expression of church worship. One plain evil result of what is miscalled spiritualising is the handle it gives to the judaising or superstitious. If Judah and Israel, if Zion and Jerusalem, point to the church, men logically infer that the righteous destruction of the enemies, the wicked, etc., warrants the office of the unchristian and unholy Inquisition, and the punishment of heretics even to death.
Yet one may fairly suppose that no believer has ever used them thus, privately and publicly, without finding himself face to face with unanswerable difficulties, to escape which he is continually exposed to the evil of "accommodating" and perverting God's word. Compare Psa_5:10; Psa_7:6; Psa_10:2; Psa_10:12; Psa_10:15; Psa_17:13-14; Psa_18:37-42; Psa_28:4; Psa_31:17-18; Psa_35:1-8; Psa_40:14-15. In the second book are portions no less energetic for the destruction of enemies, as Psa_68:12; Psa_68:23; Psa_69:22-28; Psa_70:2-3; Psa_71:13. Nor is it otherwise in the third book: see Psa_74:11; Psa_79:6; Psa_79:10-12; Psa_83:9-18. So, yet more sparingly, in the fourth book, as in Psa_94:1-2; Psa_104:35. And so, to say nothing of Ps. 109, in the last book Psa_129:5-6; Psa_137:8-9; Psa_140:9-10; Psa_141:10; Psa_143:12; Psa_144:6; Psa_149:6-9. Thus uniformly earthly judicial righteousness is the atmosphere, not heavenly grace according to which the Christian is called now to feel, and pray, worship and walk.
Far be it to say that the Psalms are not right. It was what characterised the saints in Israel of old; it will be so once more in their midst when the former dominion shall come still more gloriously in the day of the Lord, the kingdom for the daughter of Jerusalem. But we, called out meanwhile from Jews and Gentiles, and composing the one body of Christ, have the privilege and the duty of showing forth His grace Who suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow His steps. We are not Jews, even if once many of us had been, but members of His body Who is rejected by the world, exalted at God's right hand, and Who sends the gospel to His foes, all the time of our calling. Communion with Him thus is Christianity; and hence the church and the Christian (objects and channels of grace, in His energy Who rests on us as the Spirit of glory and of God) make and sing their own suited psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (1Co_15:15, Eph_5:19, Col_3:16). For it is demonstrable that these mean christian compositions, and in no way the Psalms of David.
Is it meant that the Psalms are not most precious to the believer? If divinely inspired, as indeed they are, how could it be otherwise? No part of the Bible is more redolent of Messiah; and this too, not so much facts and doctrines, as His and Israel's experience in all circumstances, His innermost feelings not only about His people, but about and to God Himself. The Psalms not infrequently present His entering into earthly sorrows like His own, besides that in which none could be found but Himself suffering for our sins; and in both, His absolutely perfect affections and expressions, not merely those of Moses, David, Asaph, or any other. This is an inestimable boon for us who, besides what is peculiar, have our earthly path of trial and sorrow, and know His sympathy in this intimate way, as Israel will another day. But it is characterised and governed by the relations to the Jew supposed throughout, and by no means rises up to the unfolding of what is distinctly heavenly as in the Gospels and N.T. in general.
Hence Bp. Horne labours in vain, and indeed to his own loss as well as that of all swayed by such thoughts, in seeking to mitigate the spirit of imprecating vengeance in many Psalms. He says that "the offence taken" at this ceases immediately if we change the imperative into the future, and read, not "let them be confounded," etc., but "they shall be confounded" etc., of which the Hebrew is equally capable. In this unwarrantable boldness he follows Dr. Hammond, as the latter no doubt was led by others: even the Fathers are not worse than the Presbyterians or the Congregationalists. He is compelled to allow that the N.T. preserves the imperative form, instead of changing it into the future. For this he tries to account, as well as to explain away the impression, as no more than a solemn ratification of God's just judgment. But the criticism is as bad as the doctrine; and the phraseology undoubtedly stands in Hebrew as in English, and in all other languages. It is the difference in divine dealing which clears all up without violence. When God is judging enemies as of old and by-and-by, His people share it in measure. Now He is displaying sovereign grace, and another spirit of action becomes them; as the N.T. conclusively proves as to the Christian and the church. For all that the Psalms are a divinely rich treasure to the believer. The Spirit of Christ ever speaks therein, though it be not Christ personally save in such as Ps. 2, Ps. 8, Ps. 16, Ps. 18, Ps. 22, Ps. 40, etc.
The second collection of the Psalms begins here and closes with Ps. 72. It is characterised by the prevalence of "Elohim," as the first by that of "Jehovah:" not of course that Jehovah is absent from Book I. or that Elohim is lacking in Book I., for both occur where they are required in these books; but that the predominance of each divine name appears as just stated. Of this a comparison of Ps. 14 with Ps. 53 is a striking illustration to the sober enquirer. Yet in Ps. 14 "God" is used thrice appropriately; in Ps. 53 it is uniformly and with no less propriety "God," and in no case Jehovah. But they go far to evince the folly of distinct authors according to the baseless hypothesis or rather mere fancy of Astruc.
The reason underlying this difference is not the superficial assumption of two authors thus distinguished, which Ps. 14 dissipates as but windy talk, but that the second book contemplates the Jews as driven from Jerusalem, and the house of God then in possession of His enemies both Gentile and Jewish. Those whose cry to Him is given in these psalms of Book 11. are no longer in the enjoyment of the ordinary privileges of the covenant through the apostasy of Jewish as well as the oppression of Gentile foes. Hence they are cast on the unfailing faithfulness, mercy, and goodness of God. Thereby a deepening work goes on in their souls, as they learn more of what God is intrinsically, when His outward blessings are cut off and the worst evil seems to prosper; and this most painfully to them, in the circumcised then in Jerusalem, under the man of sin seating himself as God in the temple of God, all there defiantly lawless.
Hence we may notice that the sons of Korah appear first in the inscriptions, though there are many of David, that most fertile of singers and with the most varied experience expressed in his songs. Yet Asaph is not wanting, though abundant in Book III. where a few psalms for the sons of Korah come in before the end. It suffices here to recall the awful crisis in Israel's history when Korah's sons were saved so as by fire. Compare Num. 16 with Num_26:11. Mercy that day gloried against judgment, as it will in the future when the power of evil appears so overwhelming that judgment might appear the sole possible issue. If testimony fails to Jehovah for the present, God cannot cease to be God and infinitely good; and who more suited to sing than the delivered sons of the rebellious Levite? So it was in a measure in David's time, when most clouded; so it will be in future days, when all things come out. definitively and fatally for man on earth, and the Jewish apostates in particular, before the Man of Peace reigns over all publicly in power.
In harmony with this peculiarity even Messiah is acknowledged in this book as "God," and His throne as for ever and ever, Psa_45:7 (6); yet the same psalm both before and after fully shows His manhood, and consequently both blessing and anointing by God. This may be a difficulty to an unbeliever; it is the essential truth of His person to every Christian's heart. But as a whole it is a clear anticipation of His Messianic victories and reign, yet suitably to the book of which it forms a part. So Most High occurs in Ps. 46; for His supremacy is before the heart at that fearful time when "God" is the sole refuge, no matter what the desolations, no matter how the nations rage. In the psalm following, Most High is coupled not with El but with Jehovah, and this a call to all the peoples, though "God" is still the prevailing term.
So it is even in the touching psalm of Messiah's sufferings (69): He begins with "God" and ends with "God," though Jehovah occurs with the usual fitness. It is even so in the closing psalm "of Solomon," the beautiful melody for the millennial day, when the "prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended." Christ had sorrows set forth in Ps. 69, no less than in Ps. 22 which is the characteristic psalm of His sufferings suitable for Book 1. As Christians we are entitled to enter into His mind in both; but it ought to need no argument to prove that the latter has a closer application to ourselves (especially in vers. 22-24, A. and R. Vv.); whereas Ps. 69 passes by our present blessing, and anticipates the judgment of His foes, and God's saying Zion and building the cities of Judah, when heaven and earth praise Jehovah, the seas and everything that moveth therein. The death and the resurrection of Christ do not appear in this book; but in Ps. 68 is His exaltation on high that He might dwell among the "rebellious:" what grace to them! what glory His!
The third division or book is externally marked by but one Davidic psalm all the rest, it would seem, being attributed to other inspired writers; internally of a larger character as compered with Books I. and II. There, as we have observed, the Jews proper were before us in sufferings or anticipated glory: the first as still having access to the sanctuary in Jerusalem; the second as fled from it on the setting up of the abomination of desolation. Thus the prophetic spirit is fully maintained. Psalms are no more of their own isolated solution than any other prophecy of scripture. But the collection on which we now enter manifests the larger sphere of Israel, and accordingly looks at the Gentiles in a more extensive way, as envious and hostile to the people and the land because of the divine favour shown. A remnant of Ephraim are in the land, but the great national foe, the Assyrian, is yet in power and antagonism; and Messiah personally is not prominent as in both the books before. But the name of Jehovah rises increasingly for their hearts, at the close fully.
The fourth book, consisting of Pss. 90-106., his its own distinct lineaments, which discover inspiration in their order as a whole, as well as in the contents of each: only spiritual ignorance can fail to see both.
Next, the last book, into which the psalms are not merely divisible but actually divided, supposes the people of God once more in the land, for the display of God's purpose and ways in Messiah's kingdom, and spiritually fitted for it, for they will be characterised by His law written on their hearts. It ends with nothing but praises. How could it be otherwise when Rev_11:15 is fulfilled? The first psalm has no title.