Bridges First Look: Psalms

The book of Psalms is probably one of the most quoted books of the Bible. Perhaps you have seen some of these poems and wondered what they mean or where they come from. So what are the Psalms and how are we to understand them? 

Characteristics of the Psalms

The word psalm comes from a Greek word that means “song.” The book of Psalms is often referred to as Wisdom Literature, a category of writing that uses different types of sayings, poetry, stories, or proverbs to communicate how to live in harmony with God and the world he created. 

The Psalms is a collection of poems, songs, and prayers that were written by different authors throughout various periods of ancient Israel’s history. Sometimes the author of a particular psalm is identified. At other times the writer may be unknown. Of the 150 psalms included in the book, 73 were written by King David, ancient Israel’s greatest and most famous king. Other authors include Asaph (12 psalms), the Sons of Korah (11 psalms), Solomon (King David’s son, possibly 2 psalms), and Moses (1 psalm). As with all the biblical writings, the Bible teaches that the Psalms were not written only by these human authors, but were communicated according to God’s Spirit who inspired their writing (see 2 Timothy 3:16).  

Some of the Psalms are introduced with instructions for how they can be used to worship God; these are typically songs to be sung together in praise. Other psalms were written out of particular circumstances and are heartfelt prayers lifted up to God by a person or group of people. Many, if not most, are written in poetic style. 

Organization of the Psalms

Though the Psalms were written by different people at many different times, eventually they came to be arranged in a particular order for the purpose of guiding God’s people in worship. We do not know exactly who put the collection into the order we now have, but it is clear that it was done so to communicate with power and purpose. 

The collection is divided into five books.

  • Book 1: Psalms 1-41
    • Most are written by David. Many express distress through prayer, as well as proclaiming confidence in who God is.
  • Book 2: Psalms 42-72
    • These also communicate distress, including other authors such as the Sons of Korah. There is a mixture of prayers from individuals and communities. The final psalm in Book 2 is considered as written by King Solomon and is thought of as a high “royal psalm.”
  • Book 3: Psalms 73-89
    • These generally express very difficult emotions, with some psalms of hope mixed in. Many are psalms of Asaph. Psalm 88 is thought to be the darkest of all the Psalms. 
  • Book 4: Psalms 90-106
    • Begins with the only psalm written by Moses, reminding the reader of God’s faithfulness to his people Israel. Many speak of God’s good reign, despite the disappointment of earthly kings.
  • Book 5: Psalms 107-150
    • This final book takes on a much more positive tone, celebrating and worshipping God for keeping his promises, giving good instruction through his law, and answering the prayers of his people.

Themes in the the Psalms

Many important ideas emerge as all of God’s people are led to worship the one great God of Israel. Here are a few to pay attention to, though there are certainly many more.

  • The Law
    • God’s Law (also called Torah) is his good and holy instructions for the people to know and worship him. Many psalms such as Psalm 1, 19, and 119 guide God’s people to love, cherish, and obey his good instructions for them.
  • The Messiah
    • Messiah is a title that comes from a Hebrew word that means “one anointed with oil.” Anointing with oil was a ritual practice that showed a person was chosen for a special position, perhaps as priest or king. The people of Israel hoped in God’s promised Messiah from the line of King David who would save his people and bless all the nations of the earth.
    • The Psalms show us that Jesus was and is God’s promised Messiah. As Jesus began his ministry, a voice from heaven used the words of Psalm 2:7 to name him as God’s Son. Jesus taught from Psalm 110 that he is the true King and the heir of David they were expecting. As he died on the cross, Jesus cried out using the words of Psalm 22. After rising from the dead, Jesus taught the people that the Psalms were written about him.
  • Lament and Praise
    • In the Psalms we see God’s people calling out from their suffering (lament) and singing songs of thankfulness to the one true God (praise). Worship is not only bringing positive statements or ideas to God, but entrusting even deep fears and failures to the one who loves and reigns as King.

Poetry in the Psalms

Poetry can include many different elements. Depending on our language and background, we may identify poetry through rhyming, meter, lyrical form, or even free verse expression. One of the clearest markers of ancient Hebrew poetry (the original language of the Psalms) is parallelism. Parallelism is used to express certain ideas by rephrasing, repeating, or contrasting — all to bring more emphasis to the message the author is communicating. Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the collection, is arranged as an acrostic, in which each section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from beginning to end. The artistic expression of the Psalms allows the reader to receive God’s message not only by thinking, but also through emotions and experience.

How to read the Psalms

Here is a trustworthy saying: “Never get too far away from the Psalms.”

  • The Psalms can be read in any order
    • Just as you might not listen to songs on an album in order every time, we can go to particular psalms to encourage or guide us, as needed, without concern for their arrangement.
  • The Psalms are for individuals and for groups
    • You can go to the Psalms in your personal study or when you seek God on your own; after all, many were personal prayers written by an individual to God. 
    • The Psalms are also a great guide to worshipping God with other people. Many have been worked into contemporary songs that you can play and sing together.
  • The Psalms help us to pray 
    • The Psalms show us that God is not afraid of our emotions! We can come to God from any circumstance, with many types of feelings, and he will receive us gladly.
      • Are you feeling angry? Go to the Psalms. 
      • Are you facing discouragement? Go to the Psalms.
      • Are you bursting with joy? Go to the Psalms.
      • Do you want to express thankfulness? Go to the Psalms.
      • Have you been betrayed? Go to the Psalms.
      • Do you need direction? Go to the Psalms.
      • Are you looking for hope? Go to the Psalms.
  • The Psalms lead us to God
    • Even though the Psalms were originally written by certain people facing particular circumstances, God has given them to us so that we may know him and experience his blessings.

We encourage you to read the Psalms for yourself. Just think — if you read one psalm every day for the next 150 days, you would have read all of the Psalms in about five months! That means you could read through the entire book of Psalms twice in less than a year. Most are very short and would take only a few minutes. You can download the “Bible” app straight to your phone and read Psalms on your device. You can even read it in your native language, but if you choose to read in English, we recommend the ESV or NLT version. For further introduction to the Psalms, you can also view these excellent videos from the Bible Project.

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