I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog.
Psalm 40: 1-2
For many U2 fans, these words are lyrics from the song “40” off the War album. They would be right, but these are lyrics to a far older song. The Book of Psalms in the Bible is a collection of songs and chants from ancient Israel. Perhaps the image you may have in connection to “40” is a concert arena filled with the tiny flames of lighters held up by fans. Thousands of years ago Psalm 40 might have been at the center of a ritual in the Temple, complete with musical accompaniment, if not the lighters.
The word “psalm” derives from a Greek word meaning, “to pluck at strings,” while the Hebrew name of the book is Tehillim, which means “praises.” Many of the psalms give praise to God, and most of them seem to be written as pieces put to music. The book is a compilation of five anthologies of poems and songs, out of which 101 refer to an author. 73 of these refer to King David, although his direct authorship is not certain. The psalms were not all written at the same time; some refer to the Israel’s history before the exile to Babylon, while some are definitely afterwards and refer to the Babylonian captivity. An example of the latter is Psalm 137 (with a rather angry ending), which remembers Zion by the rivers of Babylon. This psalm was used as a song in the play Godspell.
The psalms are incorporated into many Jewish and Christian rituals today. For example, a reading or singing one of the psalms is part of the Catholic mass. The original purpose of the psalms was for worship, and they were used in both public Temple services and private gatherings.
The psalms cover almost every circumstance and occasion imaginable, from historical references, to praise pieces, to cries to God for help. The 23rd Psalm, probably one of the most well-known, demonstrates confidence in a God who will be there no matter what: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil” (Ps. 23:4). The speakers in the psalms experience everything from pain and despair to triumph, but throughout it all is a deep faith in God.
From the mass to the concert arena, the praise the psalms express will ever be in our mouths.