Introduction to the Psalms

Tomorrow in our Daily Devotional we start reading in the Psalms. What are the Psalms?

The Psalms are a collection of Israel’s songs for meditation, wisdom,
and expressing love for and trust in the Lord.

The Psalms are religious poetry. Poetry is a language of images and comparisons. The religious context of the Psalms is Israel as the theocratic nation under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic Law.

While the Psalms are religious poetry, we need to remember that they were sung! With poetry the words are 1) Concentrated—less words are used than in normal writing and 2)      Highly structured—great attention is given to how words are put together.

Poets often tell us what they are thinking and feeling by using comparisons (be especially aware when the words “like” or “as” are used).

Psalm 1:3 “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water”
Psalm 84:11 “the Lord God is a sun and shield”

Poets also carefully put words together (“structure”) to focus on the overall message or topic of the Psalm. An especially important way they do this is by having two or more lines that strengthen, reinforce, and develop a main thought. This is called parallelism.

When there are parallel statements contrasts can be drawn (Ps 1:6), additional details provided (Ps 72:9), comparisons can be made (Ps 103:13), and many other functions.

The Psalms cover many different settings, so you need to interpret each Psalm individually.

The Psalms tells what believers in Israel knew and felt about the Lord and how a God-centered life in ancient Israel was lived. They are like a mirror for the soul. The emotions expressed in the Psalms are grounded in faith.

Psalms were used for—

  1. Public Worship in the Temple—Sung by Jews participating in the temple worship during national days of worship. Examples: Psalms 24, 100
  2. Private Worship in the Temple—Sung by individual Jews who came to the temple to offer sacrifices in keeping with the Mosaic Law. Example: Psalm 66:16–20
  3. Pilgrimage Songs—Sung by Jews as they made the three annual trips to the temple in Jerusalem. Examples: Psalms 120–134

There are different styles or types of psalms. We do the same thing, having different hymns for different occasions. While a Psalm can be a certain type there is often some overlap!

Lament: This is the most popular Psalm (over a third of the Psalms are laments). These are cries of distress by individuals or the entire nation. Enemies are not usually identified. Examples: 3, 7, 12, 13, 17, 26, 44, 60, 74.

Thanksgiving: Gratitude is expressed to God for help He has given. These also are from the perspective of both individuals and the entire nation. Examples: 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 65, 66, 67, 75, 92, 107, 116, 118, 136, 138

Praise: This is the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from the laments. Here God is praised for His greatness and goodness. Examples: 8, 19, 29, 33, 66, 92, 100, 103, 104, 111, 113, 114, 117, 145, 146, 147, 148

Kingship and Covenant: These Psalms speak of God as king, expressing God’s rule over creation, the nation of Israel, and encouraging Israel to renew her allegiance to God and the Mosaic Covenant. Examples: 2, 18, 20, 24, 29, 45, 47, 89, 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 132

Trust: These Psalms express reliance on and confidence in the God of Israel. Examples: 11, 16, 23, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125

Wisdom: These Psalms emphasize the essential importance the Law has for living life skillfully and receiving God’s blessing. Examples: 1, 15, 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133.

Remembrance: God’s deeds are remembered, often as a story. Examples: 78, 104, 106, 135, 136

Imprecatory: In these Psalms God’s people call on God to curse or judge various enemies. For Christians these can be difficult to comprehend! A large reason for this difficulty is we read these Psalms from our perspective, not theirs. In these Psalms God’s people Israel are zealous for God, hate sin, see those who love wickedness as God’s enemies, and thus call on a righteous and holy God to defend His character and Laws. These are not personal vendettas but expressions of holy jealousy for God and His nation Israel. They are based on the covenants, especially the Abrahamic and Mosaic.

Examples: 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137, 139, 140

How Can You Gain a Better
Understanding of the Psalms?

Remember to read each psalm as a whole, as a complete unit! Ask and answer five questions

1. What type of psalm is this?

2. What is the historical setting?

1) Check the superscription (if there is one) and any information in the Psalm itself
2) This necessarily involves remembering that the Psalm was written in the context of Israel as the theocratic nation, under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic Law.
3) Also be aware of cultural aspects (farming, shepherding, and their way of doing war)

3. What is the subject or topic of the Psalm?

1) The controlling topic is usually found in the first few verses. Remember, the Psalmist is expressing thoughts, emotions or responding to specific situations.
2) The topic can be stated in different ways.
3) It’s extremely important to recognize that the whole Psalm is designed to convey a theme or topic. You must understand your favorite verses in light of how they contribute to developing the theme (Psalm 139:14 for example). In fact, if you don’t see a verse in the context of the Psalm you actually distort its meaning!

Example: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Sugar is sweet, and so are you. The point isn’t about the color of flowers! J

4. How is the topic developed?

1) Major part of the poem’s structure is development of the topic

2) Subject is developed in four different ways:

a. Contrast   (Psalm 1) righteous and the wicked
b. Listing of items associated with the subject (Psalm 23) Subject: God’s care – like a shepherd
c. Relationship   (Psalm 19) Creation and God’s Word
d. Repetition by metaphors or illustrations (Psalm 133) brothers dwelling “together in unity…is like the precious oil upon the head…it is like the dew of Hermon

5. How does the Psalm end?

1) Summary statement, Psalm 1:6
2) Prayer, Psalm 19:14
3) Exhortation, Psalm 32:11