The Psalms and the Cult
No book of the Old Testament has been read so much throughout the ages as the book of Psalms, 'the Psalms of David' as they are popularly termed.
The sense of the actuality of the prophets has often fluctuated; in evil times, in war, and in great disasters men have felt their significance more easily than under other conditions. But in the psalms the human heart has found its own counterpart at all times, in sorrow and in happiness, as an individual and as a member of God's People.
Hence it is natural that the psalms have been more often examined and interpreted than any other part of the Old Testament. Both the theologian and the historian of literature are interested in this poetry, and desire to know what are the conditions for understanding it, the soil from which it has sprung, the background against which it must be seen. Who are the men who are here pouring out their hearts and in whose words we are still doing the same? When did they live, under what conditions did they strive and suffer, sorrow and rejoice? What have they experienced, and what have they to tell us of their faith and hope, and of the reality on which that faith and hope are founded?
We wish to become acquainted with the psalms as they really were, namely, as real prayers uttered by men of flesh and blood praying in actual situations at a definite period. And with that background we also wish to see what is common and representative in them -- that which makes them live to this day.
We must therefore try to understand them historically, on the basis of their own times. But this also means that we must try to find their place and function in the religious life of ancient Israel, or in early Judaism, if a critical historical examination should show that we have both pre-exilic and post-exilic psalms in the Psalter. Incidentally, in my view, this difference in time has not been of any great importance for their real place and function in the religious life of the congregation.
It is against this background of the historical and religio-phenomenological understanding that the real and lasting qualities of the psalms will appear.
What then, is the right view of the psalms? What are they essentially?
Neither the Greek word psalmós nor its Hebrew equivalent mizmŋr necessarily means a cultic song only, but they are mostly used in this sense.