Psalm 50 is the first of the Psalms credited to the man Asaph, and is the only Psalm so credited in the second, Exodus book of Psalms. The remaining Asaph Psalms are all found in the third book of Psalms. There are in total twelve psalms credited to Asaph.
The name “Asaph” means “Gatherer” or “Collector.” He is first introduced to us among the musicians who served in the house of the LORD in I Chronicles 6.
31. Now these are the men whom David appointed over the service of song in the house of the LORD, after the ark came to rest. 32. They were ministering with music before the dwelling place of the tabernacle of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they served in their office according to their order.
33. And these are the ones who ministered with their sons:
Verse 33 then introduces Heman the singer and gives his background as a grandson of Samuel and a descendant of Kohath the son of Levi. Verse 39 lists the second of the leaders of song as Asaph.
39. And his brother Asaph, who stood at his right hand, was Asaph the son of Berachiah, the son of Shimea, 40. the son of Michael, the son of Baaseiah, the son of Malchijah, 41. the son of Ethni, the son of Zerah, the son of Adaiah, 42. the son of Ethan, the son of Zimmah, the son of Shimei, 43. the son of Jahath, the son of Gershon, the son of Levi.
So we see that Asaph too was a Levite, descended back to Gershon the son of Levi. Finally Ethan is listed as the third among them, descended back to Merari, completing the perfection of a descendant from all three of Levi’s sons.
In I Chronicles 15, Asaph again appears as David desires the Levites to appoint singers for worship as they brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The singers are the three appointed already back in chapter 6.
16. Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. 17. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren, Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of their brethren, the sons of Merari, Ethan the son of Kushaiah; 18 and with them their brethren of the second rank: Zechariah, Ben, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattithiah, Elipheleh, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeiel, the gatekeepers; 19. the singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound the cymbals of bronze;
Asaph was then made by David the chief Levite to minister before the ark of the LORD in I Chronicles 16.
4. And he appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the LORD God of Israel: 5. Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, and Obed-Edom: Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals; 6. Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests regularly blew the trumpets before the ark of the covenant of God.
We see in the next verse that Asaph was one to whom David would deliver his psalms when he had written them so that they could be publically performed. Thus this Asaph was clearly one of the “Chief Musicians” mentioned in many of the postscripts of the Psalms.
7. On that day David first delivered this psalm into the hand of Asaph and his brethren, to thank the LORD:
After I Chronicles 16 records for us the Psalm David presented to Asaph, we then read again of him in verse 37.
37. So he left Asaph and his brothers there before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister before the ark regularly, as every day’s work required;
We again read of Asaph and his duties in I Chronicles 25.
1. Moreover David and the captains of the army separated for the service some of the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals. And the number of the skilled men performing their service was: 2 Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah; the sons of Asaph were under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied according to the order of the king.
Here we see several interesting things. First of all, we have the three listed again, and again these are probably the three “Chief Musicians” mentioned in so many Psalms. Yet this time we have the name Jeduthun instead of Ethan, as we had it in I Chronicles 6. This probably means that Jeduthun was another name for Ethan, not that these were two different men. We also see that Asaph’s sons served with Asaph in the music, probably meaning that this position then became hereditary and was passed on to the sons of these three men. We might wonder, then, are the twelve Psalms of Asaph all by the original man, or are some by his sons representing him? We would tend to think that, if the Psalms were by his descendants and not by the man himself, they probably would be listed as Psalms “of the Sons of Asaph,” as the Psalms of the Sons of Korah are listed, and so we would tend to think that Asaph himself probably wrote these Psalms.
Asaph is listed again in verse 6.
6. All these were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the LORD, with cymbals, stringed instruments, and harps, for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the authority of the king.
Asaph and his sons are included in the twenty-four courses of service that David created for serving in the temple, so that twenty-four courses of priests would serve about twice in the year at the temple, and could do their other business the rest of the time. We read this in verse 9, again of I Chronicles 25.
9 Now the first lot for Asaph came out for Joseph; the second for Gedaliah, him with his brethren and sons, twelve;
And so the list continues through the twenty-four courses. The next time we read of Asaph and the three Chief Musicians we have moved on to the reign of Solomon, and the singers are all descendants of these three men, as we read in II Chronicles 5:12.
12. and the Levites who were the singers, all those of Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, stood at the east end of the altar, clothed in white linen, having cymbals, stringed instruments and harps, and with them one hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets—
We hear no more of Asaph after this, but we do read a record of his sons, his descendants who represented his family after him (for we must keep in mind that to the Hebrew the “sons” of a man were the living representatives of that man, no matter how many generations they lived after him). We read of one significant one of these in II Chronicles 20:14, where we see that one of his sons acted as a prophet in the days of King Jehoshaphat.
14. Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly.
The sons of Asaph were involved in the cleansing of the temple under Hezekiah, as we read in II Chronicles 29:13.
13. of the sons of Elizaphan, Shimri and Jeiel; of the sons of Asaph, Zechariah and Mattaniah;
Once the work cleansing the temple was complete and the temple worship was begun again, it was particularly the psalms of David and of Asaph that were sung at this great event, as we read in verse 30 of the same chapter.
30. Moreover King Hezekiah and the leaders commanded the Levites to sing praise to the LORD with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshiped.
Notice the interesting fact in this verse that Asaph is called a “seer.” He was not just a psalm writer, then, but a seer. This should not surprise us, because anyone who wrote the inspired words of God, as the Psalms are, would already be in a technical sense a prophet of the LORD.
The sons of Asaph were also involved in Josiah’s great Passover, as we read in II Chronicles 35:15.
15. And the singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their places, according to the command of David, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer. Also the gatekeepers were at each gate; they did not have to leave their position, because their brethren the Levites prepared portions for them.
The sons of Asaph were among those who came back from the Persian captivity with Ezra, as we read in Ezra 2:41. (The same is listed in Nehemiah 7:44, though the number there is 148 instead of 128.)
41. The singers: the sons of Asaph, one hundred and twenty-eight.
It is interesting to note that neither the descendants of Heman nor of Jeduthun or Ethan are mentioned in this connection, so it appears that the sons of Asaph were most loyal to their office among all the descendants of the three Chief Musicians. We see them again carrying out their office in Ezra 3:10.
10. When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel.
The sons of Asaph are again mentioned as the singers in charge of the music in the temple in Nehemiah 11:22.
22. Also the overseer of the Levites at Jerusalem was Uzzi the son of Bani, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micha, of the sons of Asaph, the singers in charge of the service of the house of God.
One final time is Asaph mentioned in connection with David in Nehemiah 12:46.
46. For in the days of David and Asaph of old there were chiefs of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. 47. In the days of Zerubbabel and in the days of Nehemiah all Israel gave the portions for the singers and the gatekeepers, a portion for each day. They also consecrated holy things for the Levites, and the Levites consecrated them for the children of Aaron.
This confirms that David and Asaph lived at the same time, and that Asaph was the first and greatest of the Chief Musicians, even over his two fellows. This also tells us that in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah (who lived at the same time, in spite of what some claim), they followed their example by paying for musicians and gatekeepers in the temple, as had been done by David and Asaph.
Thus we complete our look at the background of Asaph. Now we move on to examining this first of twelve psalms of Asaph, and the only such psalm in the second, Exodus book of Psalms.