Why is it that we connect with the Psalms so easily? What is it about the Psalms that attracts us? “Is it because this book leads us into a deeper worship of God? Is it the wonderful imagery and powerful figures of speech? Perhaps it’s because the Psalms have a way of connecting to real life situations and of reflecting a refreshing honestly that we in real-life situations can relate to”(Duvall and Hays). The Psalms resound in our hearts; they stir us up spiritually and emotionally by ‘painting theological pictures.’
It’s important to keep in mind that the predominant emotion expressed in the Psalms is joy; in fact, the Hebrew title for the book is Tehillim, or “Songs of Joy.”
What is the purpose of the Psalms?
The Psalms are a collection of prayers and hymns. The Psalms consist of words spoken to God or about God. By their very nature (as prayers and hymns) Psalms are addressed to God and express truth about God. In other words, one of the primary functions of the Psalms is “to give us inspired models of how to talk and sing to God (Fee and Stuart).
The Psalms are not didactic like the New Testament letters, but teach through expression. As Longman notes, “we must keep in mind that theology in the Psalms is extensive but not systematic, that it is confessional and doxological, not abstract.”
The Psalms reflect a theology based on many different reactions to life: joy, sadness, thanks, and calm meditation. In other words, “the Israelite worshiper had a ready-made prayer and songbook for all of life’s” variable changes (Longman and Dillard).
a. The Psalms are a guide for worship: When one desires to praise God, cry out to God, or reflect on God’s character the Psalms serve as a wonderful means of expression to guide thoughts and emotions.
b. The Psalms demonstrate how we can express honesty to God: While the Psalms are not ‘didactic’ in a sense they do teach us by serving as an example of expressing thoughts to God. So, while the Psalms are not necessarily strict doctrinal teaching or behavioral imperatives- the Psalms do instruct by example/pattern.
c. The Psalms highlight the importance of theological reflection and meditation: The Psalms call us to reflect on the goodness and wisdom of God. “They invite us to prayer, to controlled thinking upon God’s word (meditation), and reflective fellowship with other believers” (Fee and Stuart).
Is there an overall structure to the Psalms?
It is important that we look at the Psalms as a canonical whole, not just as individual works gathered in a haphazard fashion. The structure of the Psalms plays an important role in exegesis. There are overarching patterns and themes in the groupings of the Psalms. Here is a general guide to the overall flow of the Psalms; (Osborne)
Introduction (1-2): The first invites the righteous to meditate on the psalms, and the second centers on the anointed king on Mt. Zion.
Book 1 (3-41): These Psalms center on David’s conflict with Saul, and ask for divine protection in light of his enemies.
Book 2 (42-72): These Psalms were written during David’s kingship. Many of these Psalms were written as temple music.
Book 3 (73-89): These Psalms are mainly attributed to Asaph and form a series of laments centering on the breaking of the old covenant and the sad state of the nation during the Assyrian crisis.
Book 4 (90-106): These Psalms are introspective, considering the destruction of the temple and the exile. A new hope is presented- Yahweh as king (93; 95-99) performing mighty acts on behalf of his people.
Book 5 (107-145): These Psalms are of praise and reflection on a new era. God has indeed brought them out of their troubles, many of these Psalms consider the model of David (108-11-; 138-45). Psalms 120-143 are songs of ascent centering on worship.
What are the different Types of Psalms?
The genre of each Psalm is important to consider when teaching through the whole book. Since many of the Psalms do not have a clear situational literary context, so it is important to examine a Psalm in light of the other Psalms that are generically similar to it.
1. Psalms of Hymn/Praise: These Psalms are defined and recognized by their tone of exuberant praise to the Lord. In fact, the Psalmist usually gives general (even vague) reasons for praise- this allows the Psalm to speak to many generations in different contexts. These Psalms focus on an aspect of God’s character or His actions as to elicit praise from his people;
a. God as creator: 8, 19, 104, 148
b. God as protector and benefactor: 66, 100, 111, 114, 149
c. God as Lord of history: 33, 103, 113, 117, 145-147
2. Psalms of Lament: In these Psalms to focus is on turning to the Lord in the midst of sorrow or suffering (70). This ‘trouble’ usually comes from three different sources.
a. Enemies: The enemy is human and seeks to harm or kill the psalmist. (57:4)
b. The psalmist himself: He may struggle in the midst of his situation. (13:2)
c. God: He may feel that God has abandoned him in light of his persecution, doubt, and pain. (102:9-10)
Psalms of lament usually have a distinctive structure;
2. Plea to God for help
4. Confession of sin or an assertion of innocence
5. Curse of enemies (imprecation)
6. Confidence in God’s response
7. Hymn or blessing
See Psalm 28 for an example of this structure. For individual laments see 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 120, 139, and 142. For corporate laments see 12, 44, 80, 94, and 137.
3. Psalms of Thanksgiving: The best way to describe these Psalms are “songs of re-orientation.” While Psalms of thanksgiving are closely related to hymns, they are distinct in that they have a “specific focus of praise.” Often times these Psalms are found after a Psalm of lament. These Psalms reflect on specific instances of God’s provision rather than general truths.
There are corporate Psalms of thanksgiving, see 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, and 136. There is also individual thanksgiving Psalms, like 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, and 138.
4. Psalms of Trust: These Psalms can be recognized by the dominant theme of trust that the worshiper expresses to God as protector. (11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 91, 121, 125, 131) These Psalms are notes for their use of metaphors of God as a compassionate refuge: as shepherd (23), as a loving mother bird who protects her children underneath her wings (91), and a strong-hold and light. (27)
5. Psalms of Remembrance/Salvation History: Memory plays a primary role as a theme in the Psalms. Many of the thanksgiving Psalms recall the prayers that have already been answered. Many of the hymns and laments bring to light God’s past acts of deliverance. These Psalms remind the reader of God’s reliability to His promises, which builds faith. See Psalm 73, 78, 105-106, 135-136.
6. Wisdom Psalms: The wisdom literature in the Bible creates a sharp antithesis between wisdom to folly. In much of this literature the wise are blessed, while the wicked are considered foolish and cursed. There is also a direct correlation between wisdom and obedience to the law. See Psalm 1, 36, 37, 45, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, and 133.
7. Royal/Kingship Psalms: Many Psalms are closely connected with a king. There are two basic types of Psalms in this category;
a. Psalms that extol God as King. (24:1-2; 95:1-5; 98:1)
b. Psalms that extol the ruler of Israel as King. (3, 21)
God is proclaimed as King, not only over Israel but over the cosmos. This has many implications on earthly life. One obvious theme in the Psalms is military victory, namely, that God wins victory for His people.
In Israel the human king was viewed as God’s son, His servant. When the people requested a king it was out of a lack of trust in God. While the human king was a pale reflection of the divine image, God chose to further his rule through these kings.
There are Psalms that can be tied to, or identified with, specific events in the history of Israel; (Hill and Walton)
45: Crowning Hymn for David
48: Correlation to the conquest of Jerusalem by David
51: Repentance concerning sin with Bathsheba
78: Reflection on the fall of Samaria and the Northern Kingdom
103: Critical discussion of God’s forgiving the sins of the nation
110: The return of victorious kingship with theocentric focus
119: The establishment of law as the focus of the postexilic community
There are also Psalms that contain particularly rich views of Christ;
2, 110: The Conquering King and enthroned Messiah
118: The Rejected Messiah
69, 109: The Betrayed Messiah
22, 16: The Dying and Raised Messiah
40, 45: The Plan and Marriage of the Messiah
68, 72: The Triumph of the Messiah
What are some good tips in applying the Psalms?
1. We need to distinguish between the Old Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant of grace.
It is extremely important to keep in mind that we are no longer under the old Mosaic covenant of law but under the new covenant of grace. As with any Old Testament text it is important to identify the differences in covenant and culture. Take Psalm 119 for example- this Psalm encourages us to uphold the law. This still applies to us today, but in a different way. In other words, obedience needs to be understood in the context of Christ imputing his righteousness to us, rather than obedience as the means to achieve righteousness.
2. We need to be careful in using direct application without Christ. This could produce superficial obedience and not gospel transformation.
The Psalms are so easily applicable to us in a cursory reading it becomes very easy to simply exhort ‘Christian’ behavior without exalting Jesus Christ. As Goldsworthy aptly reminds us, “if they (the psalms) speak to us of God, they must speak to us of the God who has finally revealed himself in Jesus Christ.” In other words, we should always be asking ‘how do these Psalms testify to the saving and sustaining work of Christ?’
Since many of the Psalms are praises in response to what God has revealed of himself in his great saving acts for Israel their expression is already salvation oriented. This should provide easy transition into the ultimate saving act of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we should constantly bring the hearers back to a gospel-centered perspective on God. The only proper way of applying the Psalms is in light of, and through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. Promote Gospel empowered expression. Imputed righteousness allows “Psalm-like” expression in fellowship.
If our righteousness is imputed to us and not earned then we do not have to be fearful of admitting our struggles. In other words, we do not want our people to put on dishonest pious masks before each other and to try and act as if everything is fine when in reality they are suffering or struggling. When one has a right understanding of salvation by grace they are not fearful of honesty and crying out for help. This allows our people to hurt and mourn. The Psalms show us a pattern for lamentation and proper expressions of worship.
See the Introductory Notes on the Psalms from the ESV Study Bible. (Great section on “Key Themes in Psalms)
Listen to Dr. Edmond Clowney lecture on “Expounding Christ: Christ in the Psalms” on Itune’s U.
2 thoughts on “Understanding the Psalms”
I would like to know more about it I would like to hear more about psalms ?
Matt, I really liked your thorough intro to Psalms, specifically the content breakdown for each of the books. Well said. I came across your blog in preparing to teach some pastors in asia about psalms, and ended up finding out some similarities. I’ve been living in and working in NC for several years, however just moved to SE Asia. And my wife and I just adopted a little guy from Ethiopia as well. Bless you