The book of Psalms is divided into five books, book III being Psalms 73-89. There are 11 psalms in book III which have the heading over them “A Psalm of Asaph”. After studying these psalms, I do not believe any of them were written by the man Asaph who lived at the same time as David, see I Chronicles 16:7. I believe all the psalms in book III were written during or after the Babylonian exile with the exception of Psalm 86 which seems to be a genuine psalm of David. Perhaps Psalm 78 was written during the days of David, but the rest seem to have one consistent post-exile time placement. I will examine the reasons why these psalms should be dated as being written during or after the exile, then I will offer some ideas as to why they contain certain names in the heading, and then look at some practical implications.
Dating Book III
First, let us look at the indisputable portions of these psalms which show they were written after the destruction of Solomon’s temple which led into the exile. Psalm 74, 79, 80, 85, and 89 contain the most blatant examples of post-exilic language of the entire book. Psalm 74 opens with the author questioning why God has cast off the people of Israel. Verse 3 shows that there is an ongoing desolation concerning the sanctuary which was enacted by the enemies of God. This is described in greater detail in verses 5-7. The carved work within the sanctuary was broken down with axes and hammers by the enemies entering into the holy place. The enemies also set on fire the sanctuary thereby bringing it to the ground. This cannot be descriptive of any time in Israel’s history except when Nebuzar-adan came and burnt the temple to the ground. Gentiles entering the holy place was described by Jeremiah in Lamentations 1:10. This breaking of the carved work and burning of the temple is described in Jeremiah 52:12-23. Other evidence in this psalm shows a time when there was no sign from God or any prophet that could foretell the end of this time, vs. 9. Jeremiah had foretold that there would be accomplished 70 years of desolations upon Jerusalem, Jeremiah 25:11, but not until Daniel was this completely understood, Daniel 9:2. So the exile could be accurately termed in this way. Toward the end of this psalm in verses 19-21, it pictures the remnant of Israel as poor, oppressed, and needy. This was characteristic of the people which were left in the land during the exile, see Jeremiah 39:9-10. The focus of hope in the psalm comes in the middle portion where the psalmist points out that God had worked a great deliverance over Egypt which resulted in ongoing sustenance for the people of Israel through the manna, vs. 12-15. The psalmist sees no reason why God cannot judge Babylon and deliver them from the current humiliation, and it will be because God remembers the covenant, vs. 20.
Psalm 79 begins with noting that Gentiles have defiled the temple and Jerusalem has been destroyed. The psalmist attributes this situation directly to the LORD’s wrath because of His jealousy in verses 5-6. Then the psalmist asks the LORD not to remember their former iniquities, vs. 8. The implication is that these former iniquities provoked God’s wrath against Jerusalem using these Gentile nations as a tool to carry out that wrath. This perfectly describes the situation leading up to and including the Babylonian invasion and exile. The fact that the temple is defiled by the Gentiles and that Jerusalem is laid in ruins in the same event significantly narrows the choices of the occasion of this psalm. Remember that during the days when Asaph lived, there was no temple. The above evidence shows that this psalm was written during the exile or shortly after.
Psalm 80 has more possibilities, but still must be dated significantly after the reign of David. At first glance, someone may think this could be dated during the times of the judges. Two things can be offered to show that the date for this is much later. First, the psalms as a whole began to be employed during the days of David. Certainly there were a handful before, and many, many after. But psalms were not widely used during the days of the judges, Judges 5 being an exception. Second, the language of the vine from Egypt has different stages. The vine was brought up from Egypt, signifying the exodus, vs. 8. Next, God prepared room in the promised land for the vine, caused it to take root, and it filled the land, vs. 9. This signifies the days of the conquest under Joshua and perhaps the time of the judges. With verse 11, there is specific language that must be applied to the reign of David and Solomon. Not until the dynasty of David was the dominion of Israel established so that it reached from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River, II Kings 4:21. Psalm 72:8 shows how similar language was used in reference to the ideal reign of Solomon or the Davidic Messiah who would reign in Solomon’s place one day. Only after this dominion which clearly can be dated to the beginning of the Davidic rule from Jerusalem do we have the anger of God against His people, vs. 4-6. The language applied to the destruction of the vine makes the most sense when seen in light of the Babylonian exile. Multiple nations plundered Jerusalem and surrounding cities when the Babylonians invaded Israel, Ezekiel 25, Lamentations 2:16. This is reflected in all which pass by plucking at the vine, the boar wasting it, and the wild beast devouring it, vs. 12-13. The burning with fire in vs. 16 is the destruction of the entire vine. Israel as a nation is destroyed. Now all that the remnant could hope for is some type of deliverer to rise up, the son of man made strong to save the children of Israel, vs. 17. The evidence here clearly points to the destruction of the vine referring to the 70 year exile.
Psalms 84-89 is a section primarily consisting of songs for the sons of Korah. Psalm 86 is the exception having the heading of A prayer of David. Psalm 88 contains two bits of information: one, a psalm for the sons of Korah and two, a Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite. The only plausible option for determining the definition of an Ezrahite would be to view them as scribes after the order of the post-exilic figure of Ezra. Ezra did not go up to Jerusalem alone, but was accompanied by other priests and Levites, Ezra 7:6-7. Ezra’s ministry, which included these others with him, was sanctioned by the king of Persia, Ezra 7:11-26. To be considered an Ezrahite would have meant enjoying great privileges but also having a great responsibility in teaching the word of God to the people. Psalm 88 was written by an Ezrahite, but given to the sons of Korah for use at Zerubbabel’s temple. This leads us into who we should consider to be the sons of Korah. I Chronicles 9:19 notes that the Korahites were keepers in charge of the tabernacle. It seems that the books of I & II Chronicles were written by Ezra in an attempt to validate the restoration of the temple worship organization. Ezra chronicles much information that is not included in I & II Samuel and I & II Kings, mainly concerning the establishment of the temple worship, see I Chronicles 22-29. In this section, it seems that the sons of Korah are given their authority by David in I Chronicles 26. Back in I Chronicles 9:19-23, there is the recognition that the sons of Korah were ordained by David and Samuel, and it was that specific lineage that was reckoned by genealogy in the first chapters of the Chronicles. Basically, the sons of Korah were in charge in some way at the tabernacle in Jerusalem and then that authority transitioned to the temple during Solomon’s reign. After the exile and after Zerubbabel’s temple was built, this authority was reestablished. With Psalm 88 and 89 both being written by Ezrahites (disciples of Ezra), it only seems fitting to assume that the rest of these psalms simply dubbed “a psalm for the sons of Korah” to be psalms written during the days of the reestablished temple worship after the exile. This entire discussion will be important later when we attempt to understand the heading “a psalm of Asaph”.
Now let us examine the evidence within these psalms for the sons of Korah that proves that they were written after the exile. Psalm 85 plainly states that God has been favorable unto His land in bringing back the captivity of Jacob, vs. 1. The sinful condition which led to that captivity has been forgiven, vs. 2. The wrath which was brought against the children of Israel during the captivity is now past, vs. 3. Yet for all this, the psalmist asks for God’s anger to cease, vs. 5. The book of Haggai can be quite insightful here. The people of Israel had returned, yet God was prompting them to focus their attention on the temple. So while the 70 year wrath of God was not hanging over their heads, God was still angry that they had not made the temple their priority. This psalm fits perfectly with that theme. The way God showed His displeasure was in withholding His blessing on the crops, Haggai 1:10-11. Psalm 85:12 shows that when the children of Israel are revived by the LORD, vs. 6, when the LORD speaks peace to His people, vs. 8, then the land shall yield her increase, matching perfectly with Haggai 2:19. Frankly, this psalm must be following the 70 year captivity, but also after the temple worship had been reestablished. This is one primary difference between the psalms of Asaph and the psalms for the sons of Korah. The psalms of Asaph were most likely composed during the exile before the return to the land. The psalms for the sons of Korah were most likely composed after the exile was completely over and after the sons of Korah were reorganized at the new temple.
Psalm 89 is the final psalm which contains unmistakable evidence that this section was written after the exile. First off, like Psalm 88, it was composed by an Ezrahite, a contemporary of Ezra. The internal evidence corroborates with this. After rehearsing God’s promises made to David, the psalmist questions why God has seemingly forsaken the Davidic Covenant. The promises are completely explained so that the current circumstances would be seen in stark contrast to them. God had promised that David’s seed would rule forever. Yet these promises were made void by God’s action of casting off the Davidic lineage, vs. 38. The crown and throne being cast to the ground cannot refer to any point in Israel’s history when a Davidic king ruled from Jerusalem, vs. 39, 44. The enemies being set up (vs. 42) as the Davidic monarchy was brought to an end can only refer to the 70 year captivity since the two occur here in tandem. Nebuchadnezzar had ended the Davidic rule by carrying away Jeconiah captive to Babylon, then 11 years later besieging Jerusalem, killing all the sons of Zedekiah, then putting out Zedekiah’s eyes, and carrying him captive to Babylon. Babylon was elevated as the Davidic lineage was brought to an apparent end. The psalmist is questioning God about the Davidic Covenant, but in such a way that he holds out hope that God will still fulfill His covenant promise to David. He asks how long God will hide Himself in this situation, revealing that the psalmist believed it was only a matter of time until God revealed Himself by restoring His anointed to the Davidic throne. This type of hope embodied the faith of those who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and teach the faith to those worshiping there. Here was a theme worthy of a psalm!
The rest of the psalms in book III contain nothing that will help us to assign a date to them. There are themes that coincide with what we have already seen. For instance, Psalm 77 talks of God casting off and being favorable no longer. The psalmist remembers the works of old, poetically rehearsing the story of the parting of the Red Sea. Psalm 75 points out that God sets up one as He puts down another, perhaps a reference to the change in empires. Psalm 73 asks why the wicked prosper. Psalm 81 tells us how, in spite of God delivering His people, the children of Israel refused to listen to Him therefore God gave them up to the lust of their hearts. The rejection psalm of David seems to fit well with the overall theme of book III, see Psalm 86. If David was delivered by God after a rejection period, then surely the nation of Israel could be delivered by God after a period of rejection. Those who compiled book III would have included this psalm of David because of the common theme. I think it is telling that there are no chronological markers in all of book III to contradict the post-exilic date that is clearly set forth in Psalm74, 79, 80, 85, and 89. Yet the subject matter of these additional psalms compliment the post-exile premise quite well.
We have already examined in part the idea of the sons of Korah being in charge in some way at the temple. Korah himself was a Levite who was so prominent in Israel that he thought he could challenge Aaron for the priesthood, see Numbers 16. The LORD judged Korah, however, his children did not perish as the earth opened up to swallow him, see Numbers 26:10-11. Apparently Korah’s standing was so preeminent that even after his rebellion and death his children maintained a prominent standing in consideration for service positions at the tabernacle in Jerusalem and then in the temple. This gives me reason to believe that his progeny maintained a humble attitude concerning the fate of their forefather. After Uzzah was struck dead, I Chronicles 13:9-14, David came to the conclusion that the Levitical order established by God must be maintained, I Chronicles 15:1-2. David could see that God was quite serious to the point of striking anyone dead who did not abide by the Levitical prerequisites for handling the ark. Then Ezra (who wrote I & II Chronicles) carefully documents how David transitioned the Levites into taking charge over the ark, the newly erected tabernacle at Jerusalem, and all aspects of worship therein. It seems that the sons of Korah were primarily identified in a gatekeeper type of role (KJV terms it “porter”), see I Chronicles 9:19, 26:1. So psalms could be written and committed into their hands for safekeeping, such as in the case of Psalm 88.
Asaph the Levite, I Chronicles 15:17, was an interesting individual. His only ability mentioned in scripture was that he could play the cymbals, I Chronicles 16:5. And yet David exalted him to a position of authority over the ark of the covenant, I Chronicles 16:37. David hand-delivered a psalm into the hands of Asaph on the special occasion that the ark of the covenant was brought into Jerusalem, I Chronicles 16:7. Then David and the other authority figures within the nation of Israel separated the children of Asaph to prophesy with musical instruments, I Chronicles 25:1. Then these musician-prophets were organized into 24 divisions which would rotate in their service, I Chronicles 25:7-31, just like the organization of the priests into 24 divisions, I Chronicles 24:1-19. Asaph was most likely something like a drum major, keeping time for the entire orchestra of musicians. The children of Asaph became the musicians and singers who would praise God at the temple at all times. Future psalms were most likely committed into the hands of the children of Asaph in order that they might learn the music and words.
The sons of Asaph continued in their service to the LORD and are noted at key points in Israel’s temple history, sort of like Asaph Inc. At the dedication of Solomon’s temple they are listed in a prominent position of leading musical worship, II Chronicles 5:12-14. Many preachers love to preach about the mighty deliverance that God granted to Jehoshaphat because he placed the singers at the forefront of the battle, II Chronicles 20. Yet it must not be overlooked that the Spirit of God came upon one of the children of Asaph causing him to prophesy great deliverance. Then as Jehoshaphat bowed and worshiped, all the children of Asaph and the sons of Korah praised God along with him. So when Jehoshaphat sent out the singers first, these are most likely the children of Asaph marching out into battle, taking the worship songs they were accustomed to singing at the temple, and proclaiming them before the heathen. They are mentioned in Hezekiah’s revival and in Josiah’s revival as well, II Chronicles 29:13, 35:15. Ezra identifies the Levites who returned from captivity, then specifically names the sons of Asaph as singers, Ezra 2:41. Then Ezra points out that the reestablishment of the worship at the temple was based on the authority of King David himself, Ezra 3:10-11. As Ezra researched the documents and compiled his writings, it only makes sense that he, being a Levite himself, would respect the order that David had established and commit the psalms and songs into the hands of Asaph Inc.; the same way that David hand-delivered his psalm to Asaph the individual generations before.
There are two primary sections in the psalms which have the titles “for the sons of Korah” and “a psalm of Asaph” over them. The first is located in book II toward the beginning in Psalms 42-50. These psalms are general in nature and dating them would be difficult. There is nothing in the title that prevents them from being dated early in Israel’s history as the sons of Korah and children of Asaph were established quite early in David’s reign directly after the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem. The second section is the one I have been examining in this study here. In book III, every psalm except Psalm 86 is identified with the sons of Korah or simply as “a psalm of Asaph”. The chronological evidence points toward a date after the destruction of the temple and in some cases, after the exile and resumption of worship at the newly erected temple. The way this title should be taken is that these are psalms “of Asaph” meaning they were committed into the hands of the children of Asaph. Remember that sometimes the information in the title was for the purpose of revealing something about the music contained therein. To the tune of _______, the psalm says, Psalm 9. With stringed instruments, or with wind instruments, the psalms would say, Psalm 4-5. For a certain psalm to be considered “of Asaph” would mean there was information that the children of Asaph would have concerning how that song was to be sung in corporate worship.
Book III is most likely a group of psalms committed into the hands of the children of Asaph after the temple worship had been restored following the 70 year exile. These psalms contained themes concerning the casting off of the children of Israel, the end of the Davidic rule in Jerusalem, and how God might restore His people and make His face shine upon them once more. They were inspired by the Holy Spirit through the believing remnant of Israelites to give hope to the children of Israel that God was not yet done with His covenant plan. While we can only have certainty concerning the authorship of Psalm 86, 88, and 89, they were probably composed by prophets such as Jeremiah, or by children of Asaph, or perhaps by disciples of Ezra.
You may be asking yourself what this has to do with anything at all. I want to point out the obvious. The footnotes and commentaries in your Bibles are not inspired. Every commentary that I have read identifies the Asaph of I Chronicles 16:7 as being the author of all these psalms. I’m sorry, but they have assumed that “a psalm of Asaph” means that he authored them without examining the internal evidence to the contrary. A couple of commentaries admit that Psalm 74 describes the destruction that Nebuchadnezzar brought, but they don’t explain the contradiction of Asaph penning the psalm. Matthew Henry notes what I have presented here as one option of many. One book I read stated that some psalms were penned pseudepigraphically because of the apparent anachronisms contained within them. My conclusions do not undermine the inspiration of the superscriptions over these psalms by assuming that an individual signed someone else’s name to them. The phrase “a psalm of Asaph” is quite pertinent and allows us to see that they were psalms of Asaph Inc.
Another item of interest is the progressive revelation of God’s word. There is a real lack of study when it comes to post-exilic prophecy and thought. Yet it must be understood that God was not done with the nation of Israel just because they went into captivity. The Palestinian Covenant of Deuteronomy 29:1 and surrounding passages were prophecies that Israel would be dispersed but God’s covenant plan for Israel to inherit the land would still stand. For us to examine Book III in its proper context will allow us to see God’s continuing plan for the nation of Israel even after the exile. How did the Israelites view God’s plan for the Davidic throne in Jerusalem after David’s heirs ceased to reign? Psalm 89. How did the children of Israel view their authority to judge their own people when another nation had sovereignty over them? Psalm 82. How could Israel praise God at their festivals knowing they had brought God’s wrath upon them? Psalm 81. How could the children of Israel reconcile the fact that God had done mighty miracles for them in the past, but seemed silent now? Psalm 77. How could God allow the wicked to prosper while His people are plagued? Psalm 73. Who could the Israelites look to in order to deliver them? Psalm 75. Since the shekinah glory did not inhabit the new temple, does that mean God’s presence was not there? Psalm 76. Who will punish the enemies of Israel? Psalm 79. Is God with us even when it looks like God has forsaken us? Psalm 88.
Book III, along with Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, and Zechariah all serve as a bridge. II Chronicles ends with hope as Cyrus proclaims (as prophesied in Isaiah 45) that the people of Israel should return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Ezra continues to document how the altar was erected, the sacrifices resumed, the foundation of the temple was laid, the organized worship at the temple was restored (including the priesthood, the children of Asaph, and the children of Korah), and then finally the entire temple structure was rebuilt. The children of Israel continued to worship at the temple and wait in earnest expectation for the Davidic Messiah to be born. Psalm 89 shows that even though it seems as if God could not fulfill His promises to David, there was still hope that the anointed could come, Psalm 89:50-51. Psalm 80:17 demonstrates a faith that the hand of the LORD might come upon a specific person termed “the son of man” which is a messianic title, see Daniel 7:13-14. Psalm 82:8 asks God to arise, to judge the earth, and to inherit all nations. In spite of the utter hopelessness of the situation, one voice cried out to God, “You are the God that performs wonders!”, Psalm 77:14. This set of psalms should be properly placed in the biblical timeline that we might see that Israel’s history did not end at the captivity. Rather, God continued to work through a believing remnant who would trust in Him and look forward to that ultimate deliverance. The disciples of Ezra would become the scribes who would give themselves to the study and teaching of God’s word. This set of psalms in Book III would point the Israelites forward to the coming of the Messiah, which would be just a few hundred years from that point.
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