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Book of Psalms

Book of Psalms
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The Psalter (also known as the Psalms of David) is the Old Testament book that contains hymns and poems traditionally ascribed to the Holy Prophet and King David, ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ. Virtually every aspect of worship from praise, thanksgiving, penitence, intercession—is covered in the Psalter. Indeed, the Psalter forms the core of each of the services of the Daily Cycle, the Divine Liturgy, and the other sacramental offices of the Church.

The Psalter is so prevalent in Orthodox worship that St. John Chrysostom said that wherever one looks in the Church, he finds the Psalter "first, last, and central."

The Septuagint (LXX) is the version of the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church. The LXX Psalter differs in several respects from Masoretic Text (MT), which forms the basis for the King James Version and most modern English translations of the Bible.

In addition to substantive, textual differences, the LXX and MT versions of the Psalter differ most obviously in their chapter divisions. This can cause confusion to readers who do not understand the differences between the two versions.

The deuterocanon of the LXX contains an additional Psalm ascribed to David. This 151st Psalm is not numbered with the other 150 and is not included in the Psalter proper.

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I. Structure:

The main theme of the psalms is that the Lord God of Israel reigns supreme over the heavens and the earth and He is the Lord of history. There are two ways to live or two types of human beings: the good and the wicked, the just and the unjust.

The 150 Psalms were the hymnbook of the Jewish people. They give expression to every sentiment of the human heart from joy and adoration, to fear and despair. They fall into certain identifiable categories. the main four are: hymns of praise of the God of Israel, lamentations and pleas for deliverance, hymns of thanksgiving, and royal psalms.

The basic structure of most of the psalms is quite simple: 1) state the theme of praise or thanks or lament; 2) give the reason(s) for the invocation; 3) state what God has or has not done for the one invoking him; 4) repeat the theme with the assurance that God will respond favorably. They are poetry rather than prose and are all prayers.

The most important theological concept in the psalms is God's "steadfast love." This idea is found in all five books of the Psalter and is often paired with "faithfulness."

There are five books of psalms, with words of praise at the conclusion of each book: Book I = 1-41; Book II = 42-72; Book III = 73-89; Book IV = 90-106; Book V = 107-150.

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II. Kathismata:

The Psalter is divided into 20 kathismata. Each kathisma is further divided into three stases. Each stasis contains between one and three chapters. The exception to this is Psalm 118. Due to its great length, this chapter constitutes the entire XVIIth Kathisma.

Each of the divine services contains fixed portions of the Psalter that are read or chanted each time the service is celebrated. In addition, certain services of the Daily Cycle contain prescribed kathisma readings. These prescribed readings rotate daily so that outside of Great Lent the Psalter is read through once in its entirety in a single week.

During the lenten fast, the kathisma readings are accelerated so that the Psalter is read through in its entirety twice each week.

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III. Psalm 151:

Besides these hundred and fifty Psalms, there is one additional in the Syriac, Septuagint, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Arabic. A Hebrew version of psalm is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This Hebrew version is made up of two distinct psalms: Ps 151A (LXX Ps 151) is a poem based on 1 Sam 16.1-13, about David the shepherd becoming Israel's king, with a superscription; this psalm is truncated in the Greek and Syriac versions. Ps 151B is the fragmentary beginning of another psalm, also with a superscription, that must have followed Ps 151A in the original scroll; it apparently deals with David's contest with Goliath (1 Sam 17), a story that is also the subject of LXX Ps 151.6-7.

In form, Ps 151A is not a hymn or a petition, but a narrative (Ps 78), an autobiographical poem in which David, the youngest of his brothers, speaks of his shepherding care for his father's flocks, of his psalms praising God, and of his anointment as Israel's king, and thus serves to integrate this psalm into the end of Psalms.

Our next biblical article leads us to the Prayer at Manasseh.

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