|A Hebrew scribe writes on papyrus (above). Scrolls of papyrus were often stored in clay jars for protection (Jeremiah 32:14) and were frequently sealed (Revelation 5:1). Papyrus is translated as "paper" in 2 John 12. Illustration by Ken Tunell|
A Psalm for every occasion
The book of Psalms can be one of the most effective tools in building your relationship with God. If you feel your prayer life is in decline, read the Psalms. They are the emotional outpourings of people in many different situations. They are “a treasury of experiences accumulated by generations of people who lived in the region where the cradle of our own civilization stood” (Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms: Part 1, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, vol. 14, p. 36). Reading their prayers can help rejuvenate your own prayer life.
Some psalms are for periods of joy, when you want to praise your Creator or give thanks to him. Others help in those times of depression when you are going through a severe trial. Still other psalms are confessions of sin and requests for forgiveness. As the apostle John said, “If we confess our sins, [Jesus Christ] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Many people are surprised by how boldly the psalmists speak to God. They do not hesitate to confront him with their everyday problems, to verbalize their frustration, their anger, their resentment or their despair. But that is how God wants us to be when we talk with him — open, honest, not pulling any punches. The Life Application Bible states:
“Because of the honesty expressed by the psalmists, men and women throughout history have come, again and again, to the book of Psalms for comfort during times of struggle and distress. And with the psalmists, they have risen from the depths of despair to new heights of joy and praise as they also discovered the power of God’s everlasting love and forgiveness” (Introduction to Psalms).
Another benefit of studying the Psalms is that it will help make the congregational singing at worship services more meaningful to you. Many of the hymns sung in church services worldwide are based on the Psalms. These hymns are effective since many of the psalms were written to express the thoughts and feelings of the community, the congregation of believers.
As we examine in further detail the different types of psalms — the individual and the congregational, the instructive and the emotional —we shall see that there is a psalm for every occasion.
Hymns of praise
The main element in many psalms is simply praising God. Psalm 145 is a prime example. David begins: “I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever” (verses 1-2).
David then shows how others will exalt God: “One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works. They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds” (verses 4-6). David concludes by calling upon everyone to praise God’s name (verse 21).
Several hymns of praise emphasize admiration and wonder at God’s creation. In Psalm 8, David begins and ends with the same words of praise:”O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (verses 1, 9). Beginning and ending a thought with the same words is known as the envelope structure, which is common in the book of Psalms. This structure emphasizes the main point — God’s name is to be praised in all the earth.
While David praises God for the creation, he also marvels that God is so concerned with humans: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (verses 3-4).
Humans, alone of God’s creation, were made in the image of God. God, the transcendent Creator of the universe, wants us to have an eternal relationship with him. He begins by giving us an important responsibility on his earth: “You made [humanity] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas” (verses 5-8).
In Genesis, God placed the first man and woman in the garden and told them to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15). David here repeats that God has ordained human beings to have responsibility to rule the creation. As such, it is our duty to care for our environment.
In another hymn of praise, David proclaims: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness” (Psalm 29:2). Throughout this psalm, David praises God’s power in a series of striking figures of speech: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning. The voice of the Lord shakes the desert” (verses 5-8).
Some hymns of praise were sung together by the community. Psalm 33, which calls for all to praise God and describes his mighty deeds, ends with the community proclaiming: “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you” (verses 20-22).
Psalms 104 and 105 are complementary hymns of praise, both ending with “Praise the Lord” (Psalm 104:35; 105:45). Psalm 104 praises God as the Sustainer of his creation: “He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field.... He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate — bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart” (verses 10-11, 14-15).
God is the Creator and the Sustainer of his creation. He is the Life-giver and the Provider of sustenance. All God’s creatures “look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (verses 27-30). Here we also see the activity of the Spirit of God in creating and in renewing the creation.
Psalm 105 praises God for his loyalty: “He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant” (verses 8-10).
The psalm recalls how God demonstrated his faithfulness to his people centuries earlier by sending Joseph before them into Egypt to save them from the famine (verses 16-22). It recalls how God directed his chosen servants Moses and Aaron to perform his signs and wonders to the Egyptians, and how God delivered his people from slavery (verses 26-41).
All these hymns of praise are examples for us: A good portion of our prayer time should be spent in praising God. Jesus began his model prayer, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). We, too, would do well to begin our prayers by praising God. We should praise God as the Creator, Sustainer and Life-giver, and as the Ever-faithful One to his people.
Songs of thanksgiving
Whereas the hymn of praise glorifies God for being who he is, the song of thanksgiving emphasizes gratitude for what he has done for us. In Psalm 30, David says: “I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. O Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me” (verses 1-2).
David calls others to join him in praising God: “Sing to the Lord, you saints of his; praise his holy name” (verse 4). He thanks God for having turned his life around: “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever” (verses 11-12).
"In 2 Chronicles 7:6, David is given recognition for [making] the musical instruments used in the temple. In the postexilic era levitical singers are mentioned as the descendants of Asaph, the ‘singing-master’ appointed by David (Ezr 2:41; Neh 7:44; 11:22, 23). From passages such as these we have a definite indication that liturgical music and organization stemmed from David’s time" (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 1504). Illustration by Ken Tunell.
Psalm 66 is another typical song of thanksgiving. It begins with an exultation of joy: “Shout with joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious! Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you. All the earth bows down to you; they sing praise to you, they sing praise to your name.’ Selah” (verses 1-4). The term selah marks the end of a strophe — a musical term for a section of verses. This particular psalm is divided into four strophes: verses 1-4, 5-7, 8-15 and 16-20.
In the second strophe, the psalmist recalls God’s mercy to Israel when he parted the waters of the Red Sea, enabling Israel to escape from the Egyptians (verses 5-7). In the third strophe, the composer thanks the God who “has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping” (verse 9), and describes how God has tested and refined them through trials (verses 10-12).
This last point is especially important. In the midst of our trials, we often cry out to God for deliverance. And so we should. But we also need to remember that through our trials we develop godly patience. The apostle James wrote: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2-3).
In the final strophe of Psalm 66, the author thanks God for what he has done for him personally, and acknowledges that God has answered his prayers (verses 16-20). When trouble strikes, how easy it is to forget the blessings God has given us. So when we pray, let us remember what God has done on our behalf, and thank him for it.
Praise and thanksgiving go hand in hand. Psalm 103 begins and ends with the inclusion: “Praise the Lord, O my soul” (verses 1, 22). But much of the psalm is devoted to being thankful for God’s blessings: “And forget not all his benefits — who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (verses 2-5).
This list of blessings includes two of vital importance: God forgives sins and he heals diseases. Jesus exercised his authority as God to forgive sin and to heal (Matthew 9:2-8). God’s forgiving nature is one of the attributes we should be most grateful for: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12).
David ends the psalm with a triple invocation to bless God: “Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion” (verses 20-22), followed by the inclusion: “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”
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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.
One psalm particularly emphasizes thanking God for his mercy — Psalm 136. It begins: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever” (verses 1-3). All 26 verses of this psalm end with the same refrain: “His love endures forever.” The Hebrew word translated “love” here is not ’ahabhah, the standard word for “love,” but chesed. As we mention in our commentary on Ruth, chesed means “steadfast love” or “faithfulness born out of a sense of caring and commitment.”
Psalm 136 marvels at God’s wonders (verses 4-9) and shows how God demonstrated his chesed by his blessings upon Israel (verses 10-22). This psalm was a communal song. Those who sang it thanked God, “who remembered us in our low estate...and freed us from our enemies” (verses 23-24).
The psalm concludes with another point we should bear in mind when we pray: “Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever” (verse 26). Again, this ties in with the hymns of praise — we can thank God that he is the loving Ever-faithful One.
Many psalms contain a superscription giving information about the psalm. In the Hebrew Bible, the superscription often counts as the first verse of the psalm. (The Hebrew Bible and English translations will therefore often differ by one verse.)
Many psalms are assigned in the superscriptions to certain individuals, such as David, or certain groups of individuals, such as the Sons of Korah. Thirteen psalms relate the historical background to David’s life at the time of the psalm: Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142. This information enhances our appreciation of the psalm.
Superscriptions often convey information concerning the musical performance of the psalm. Sometimes they name the accompanying tune: "The Death of the Son" (Psalm 9), "The Lily of the Covenant" (Psalm 60) and "Do Not Destroy" (Psalms 57, 58, 59, 75). Unfortunately, we do not know any of these melodies today.
Other superscriptions tell us which instruments accompanied the psalm: stringed instruments (Psalms 4, 61, 76), flutes (Psalm 5), an eight-stringed harp (sheminith) (Psalms 6, 12) and an instrument of Gath (gittith) (Psalms 8, 81, 84). We can only conjecture how some of these instruments may have looked and sounded.
The category of the psalm is often included in the superscription. The two most common are "psalm" (mizmor) and "song" (shir). Other categories include: shiggaion (Psalm 7), miktam (Psalms 16, 56–60) and maskil (Psalms 32, 74, 142). The New International Version leaves these terms untranslated from the Hebrew.
Again, it is not known for sure what many of these terms mean. This lack of knowledge is another indication of the gap that exists between our culture and that of the ancient Hebrews. Even if all the superscriptions achieve is to make us realize that there is always more to understand about the Bible, they will have done us a great service.