Exploring Psalms

David plays the kinnor, or lyre. This is the most frequently mentioned instrument in the Bible, found in 42 places. It is often called a harp (1 Samuel 16:23) and was the favorite instrument of the Hebrews. It was played mainly in worship services, but also at banquets and celebrations for government occasions (1 Samuel 10:5). It was not played during times of national calamity (Isaiah 14:11).

What's in a name?

The name Psalms is derived from the Greek title for the book, Psalmoi. Psalmoi is the plural of psalmos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mizmor, meaning "song."

The Hebrew title for the book is tehillim, the plural of tehillah, meaning "song of praise." Although only Psalm 145 is specifically designated as a tehillah in the Hebrew Bible, the entire book of Psalms is a collection of psalms in praise to God.

Outline

Although there is no story flow from one psalm to the next, many of the psalms are gathered into collections: Psalms 3 – 41, 51 – 72, 108 – 110 and 138 – 145 are collections of psalms of David; Psalms 42 – 49, 84, 85, 87 and 88 are psalms of the Sons of Korah; Psalms 50 and 73 – 83 are psalms of Asaph; and Psalms 120 – 134 are called Songs of Ascents.

There is also a collection of collections, known as the "Elohistic Psalter" (Psalms 42 – 83). In the Elohistic Psalter, God is usually referred to as ’Elohim, whereas God is normally called Yahweh in the other psalms. When the same psalm has been included in two collections (such as Psalm 14 and 53 or Psalm 40:13-17 and 70), the version in the Elohistic Psalter will often use ’Elohim instead of Yahweh. This can be seen in most English Bibles, since they usually translate ’Elohim as "God" and Yahweh as "Lord." For example, compare Psalm 14:7 with the parallel verse, Psalm 53:6; or Psalm 40:16 with its parallel, Psalm 70:4.

In the Hebrew Bible, as it was finally canonized, the book of Psalms is divided into five smaller books to correspond in number with the books of the law.

Book 1: Psalms 1–41
Book 2: Psalms 42–72
Book 3: Psalms 73–89
Book 4: Psalms 90–106
Book 5: Psalms 107–150

The last psalm in each of the first four books has a concluding doxology (an expression of praise repeated by the congregation during worship services), such as "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen" (41:13; see also 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48). All of Psalm 150 forms a doxology for all five books of the Psalms, just as Psalms 1 and 2 form an extended introduction.

How to read this book

The Bible is God’s revelation to humanity. Within the Bible, God has chosen to reveal different aspects of his nature in a variety of ways — such as through law, history, proverbs and prophecy. The Psalms are part of God’s revelation through poetry: 

"The Psalms as a whole address the relationship between Israel (individually and collectively) and God. And yet by its very nature the relationship with God is not easily expressed within the limitations of human speech. Poetry (rather than prose) is used in the Psalms, for it is a form of human language that seeks to transcend the limitations inherent in prosaic [nonpoetic] speech and to give expression to that which is ultimately inexpressible" (N.H. Ridderbos and P.C. Craigie, "Psalms," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 1037).

We should not read the Psalms like a textbook. The Psalms express truth through the use of metaphors and figures of speech. We need to be sensitive to the use of poetic imagery. Etienne Charpentier writes: 

"In scientific language, which seeks to convey information, the words say exactly what they signify. In the language of relationships they seek to convey something else: the lover who addresses ‘her pet’ or ‘his angel’ is not expressing a situation but a kind of relationship, like the psalmist who calls his God ‘my rock, my fortress.’ This distinction between two kinds of language is important when we are using the psalms in prayer, and even more generally, when we are reading the Bible. In fact, the word of God is always expressed in the language of relationships and not that of conveying information. Granted, the Bible is concerned to teach us certain things, but above all it seeks to enable us to enter into a personal relationship with God" (How to Read the Old Testament, p. 94).

Learning about God

  • God is the Supreme Ruler. James Luther Mays comments on the centrality of God’s rulership in the Psalms: 

"The integrity of psalmic speech in all its forms, praise, prayer, and instruction depends on the proclamation, ‘The Lord reigns.’... In the social sphere, the Lord reigns in justice and righteousness as the power that opposes the disorder of violence, deceit, and greed and draws human beings toward an order of motive and action that makes for shalom [peace]" ("The Language of the Reign of God," Interpretation, April 1993, p. 121).

  • Jesus is the Righteous Sufferer. The Psalms also prefigure the Messiah, Jesus Christ, in his role as righteous sufferer. The most poignant example is Psalm 22:1, which contains the words Jesus later cried out from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Psalm 22 also foreshadows the mocking of the crucified Jesus (verses 7-8; see Matthew 27:39-44; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35-39). Another messianic psalm is Psalm 34, which says: "A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken" (34:19-20). Although the criminals crucified with Jesus had their bones broken by the Roman soldiers, this did not happen to Jesus (John 19:31-36). This was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ deliverance from death, and his ultimate triumph.

Other topics

  • Prayer: The Psalms are a record of people’s prayers to God. John Drane writes: 

"The belief that ordinary people could have direct access to God was a fundamental part of the Old Testament faith. Not only prophets such as Elijah, or kings such as Solomon, but ordinary people such as Hannah could bring their everyday problems to God.... The book of Psalms contains many examples of prayers that were no doubt used by individuals, as well as by groups of worshippers, to give thanks and to express their trust and confidence in God" (An Introduction to the Bible, pp. 310-311).

  • Repentance: When David acknowledged his sins and repented, he experienced forgiveness from God: "I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ — and you forgave the guilt of my sin" (32:5). David’s prayers for mercy, especially Psalm 51, which was composed after his sins of adultery and murder, are prime examples of how we should approach God when we have sinned.

  • God’s law: "The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes" (19:7-8). The first psalm describes the blessed man whose "delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night" (1:2). The longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, is a magnificent poem of praise for the law. The Psalm emphasizes that God’s law is not only righteous, it is a delight to those who study it.

What this book means for you

This book encompasses so many subjects that its meaning is almost impossible to summarize: 

"The Psalter [another term for the book of Psalms] is so vast in its theological dimensions that any systematizing effort must fall short. It will continue to stimulate our life of faith even in this different age, just as it has done for centuries" (Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms: Part 1, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, vol. 14, p. 36).

In Psalms, we see God the Creator, God the Sustainer of his creation, God the Righteous ruler and God the Redeemer of his people. But we also see people like us in a close relationship with this God.

Perhaps the best part of the Psalms is their accessibility — we can relate to the emotions, the ups and downs, the difficulties expressed so movingly by the authors of the various psalms. We can also relate to the language they used. Although the Psalms are full of figures of speech, these are easily understood and express truths in a memorable way:

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by Jim Herst and Tim Finlay in the mid 1990s, posted on our website in 2003, and edited again in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

  • The wicked are like chaff that the wind blows away (1:4), 
  • the Lord is a refuge for the oppressed (9:9), 
  • the Lord is my shepherd (23:1), 
  • my soul thirsts for the living God (42:2), 
  • righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne (89:14), 
  • the rivers will clap hands and the mountains will sing for joy when God judges the earth (98:8-9), 
  • God’s word is a lamp to the feet and a light for the path (119:105) and 
  • "those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever" (125:1).

The Psalms call us to join believers throughout the ages in worshiping God, in proclaiming his majesty, in expressing our fears and hopes to him and, most importantly, placing our absolute trust in him, our Creator and Redeemer.

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