Duplication and reuse in Psalms

Psalm 151 Codex Sinaiticus Book 26 https://opensiddur.org/readings-and-sourcetexts/mekorot/non-canonical/exoteric/second-temple-period/psalms-151-as-found-in-the-septuagint-lxx/

The Psalms is clearly a collection of books. Internal evidence demonstrates the collections/books were separated. Material is duplicated and reworked between the books. This raises some interesting questions for models of inspiration.

The book of Psalms we possess is generally accepted as containing 5 separate books, a feature which goes back to the LXX.[1]  Each division is marked by a section of praise.  The division is taken as follows:


That there are five books, or collections, within what we today call “Psalms” indicates what we now see as a book in our Bible was not a singular entity throughout history.  This is quite evidence in Psalm 72:20 with the announcement that the psalm completes the prayers/psalms of David (and this completes Book 2).  However it is clearly not the final psalm in our collection to be titled “of/for David”.  This verse was the finale – the conclusion of someone’s collection of psalms.  There are hints within Scripture of varying collections – eg Hezekiah commands the words of David and Asaph be used in the restored temple worship in 2 Chron 29:30.  It is reasonable to expect the 5 books were independent assortments, and to some extent the product of different times – specially Book 5 which is generally more aligned to the post exilic period[2].  Even within the five books there are sub-collections – eg the Songs of Ascent being Psalm 120 -134. 

The praise breaks are not the only indicators of the different books.  There is also a pronounced difference in language – particularly the frequency of different names for God.  The summary below is as per Wilson[3].


It is probably – though we can’t prove it – that the difference in preference for the YHWH name – or not – reflects the community attitudes in which the material was preserved before being assembled into the form we have today.  Book 2 shows a distinct preference for Elohim in contrast to the other books.

Duplicated material

More significantly perhaps than a preference for various names for God is the existence of duplicated material. 

One example of material duplicated between various books is Psa 18 which is almost but not quite identical to the song of David in 2 Sam 22.  Why is the material duplicated?  Two simple possibilities are that Psalm 18 served a fractionally different purpose (perhaps communal praise rather than historical record) or the material was held independently in separate records.

More interesting is where material from one psalm is repurposed or repeated in another.  For instance Psalm 14 (Book 1) and Psalm 53 (Book 2) are almost identical throughout –the seeming preference of Book 1 to use YHWH over Elohim in Book 2 accounts for some of the differences.  The two psalms are compared below:

Different collections held within different communities is an obvious explanation for the duplication.

A similar phenomenon occurs when the second half of Psa 57 (versus 7-11) is welded in front of Psalm 60:5-12 to form a new psalm – #108.  Two psalms in Book 2 are bolted together to form a new psalm in Book 5.  Why would the two earlier psalms have been chopped in half and the second half of each be welded together?  One scholar (Allen) suggests (in view of Book 5 probably being post exilic) that:

A new situation prompted the reuse of the second half of Ps 60, a prayer anchored in God’s promise. But the grim beginning of that psalm was judged less auspicious. The postexilic community knew all too well the theme of divine judgment (cf. v 12), and encouragement was what was needed on the occasion(s) when the new psalm would be sung. Accordingly, it was replaced with the confident assurance of the second half of Ps 57. Its vow of praise in the wake of God’s intervention breathed certainty, uncowed by the pagan environment. It grounded its hope in the reality of God’s overwhelming loyalty to the covenant people[4]

The other notable example is Psa 40:13-17 and Psa 70. It is clear that 5 verses from Psalm 40 are repeated with minimal change and presented as an independent composition in Psalm 70.  So a portion of a Book 1 psalm appears as a complete Psalm in Book 2.

These three examples demonstrate both the existence of independent collections but also likely of some reworking of material for later audiences. 

Historical textual variances

Historical evidence also points to some fluidity in Psalms and a range of material.  The Dead Sea Scrolls collection contains 11QPsa which appears to correlate somewhat to Books 4 & 5 of our collection albeit with additional psalms.  While Anderson notes there are a variety of views, the Qumram community viewed the additional material as authoritative and it appears “biblical” in language and nature.  Based on the number of copies and commentaries, the Psalms were popular in the community, but what the additional material and alternative order of the collection means we cannot say[5]. Perhaps all we can observe with Anderson is:

11QPsa itself testifies to a much larger corpus of material when it notes that David’s compositions alone totaled 4,050. The Qumran sect thus, when it left Jerusalem c. 150 BC to form its community, may well have taken copies of psalms from a temple depository of prophetic liturgical material.[6]

The LXX version of the psalms introduces a number of unusual changes.  Psalm 9 & 10 are combined as are Psalms 114 & 115.  On the other hand Psalm 116 and 147 are both divided into two compositions.  When we look at the major Greek codexes there are some unusual gaps in the Psalms collection.  As the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary notes[7]:

  • The 4th century Codex Vaticanus lacks Psalms 105 – 137
  • Codex Sinaiticus 4th century as the entire collection of psalms
  • Codex Alexandrinus 5th century lacks Psalms 40:20-79:11

All these codexes do have a 151th psalm, although some indicate it was not considered authoritative.  How it came to be three centuries after Christ that some psalms were not in the possession of some communities is very odd indeed.


Both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the LXX (with early Christian Codexes (or Bibles if you will) point to the existence of varying collections of psalms.  There was not a uniform collection acknowledged as canonical for a considerable period of time.  Taken together with the evidence that the book we call Psalms is itself a series of collections with internal duplication and we are left with some interesting questions.

We might imagine that God produced the book of Psalms as we have it.  Yet if the objective was the final form we have now why is there duplication and re-use?  Proponents of the more conservative inspiration models are prone to suggest God doesn’t waste words.  Duplication, without context, is wasting words.  Was the moment of inspiration at the creation of the material?  What then of the reused (and unchanged) material?  Is it inspired or “just” repurposed inspired material?  In any case it seems logical to require that any model of inspiration mesh with the reality of textual preservation and geographic distribution.

The psalms have a treasured part in many (if not all) faith communities.  Their evident history of independent collections poses some interesting questions around the nature of Scripture, then and now.


[1] Thomson, J. G. S. S., & Kidner, F. D. (1996). Psalms, Book Of. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 982). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, N. (2014). Book Five of the Psalter: Psalms 107–150. In E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, & R. L. Hubbard Jr. (Eds.), The Book of Psalms (pp. 823–824). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[3] Wilson, R. D. (1927). The Names of God in the Psalms. The Princeton Theological Review, XXV(1–4), 3.

[4] Allen, L. C. (2002). Psalms 101–150 (Revised) (Vol. 21, pp. 95–96). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[5] Limburg, J. (1992). Psalms, Book of. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 523). New York: Doubleday.

[6] Anderson, R. D., Jr. (1994). The Division and Order of the Psalms. Westminster Theological Journal, 56(2), 221–222.

[7] Limburg, J. (1992). Psalms, Book of. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5, p. 523). New York: Doubleday.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe

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