By: Pastor Ian Thomas
Traditionally, Psalms is one of the most popular books in all of the Bible; it’s length (150 chapters), breadth of topics, and poetic/lyrical composition present the reader with many important topics to consider as they study this book. Tim Keller describes the Psalms as the “divinely inspired hymnbook” of the Scriptures. They are the prayer and worship book for God’s people as they strive to be faithful to His Word as they wrestle with the complexities of life. They contain many key themes that run throughout the entire biblical storyline, reflecting on God’s work as Creator, King, Savior, and Sustainer. There is evidence within the New Testament that the early church frequently sung and prayed through the Psalms, and probably used them in worship gatherings (for example, see Col. 3:16 & Eph. 5:19). As we desire to see a greater worship of God in our lives, we must allow the book of Psalms to inform and instruct us in this pursuit.
The Psalms (and the broader genre of poetic & wisdom literature in the Old Testament) uniquely capture the voice of man speaking to God. This literary technique makes the psalms relatable and applicable to our lives, even thousands of years after their composition. “Every situation in life is represented in the book of Psalms;” they express life’s greatest struggles, successes, and complexities, all while seeking to worship God faithfully and truly.
The authorship, context, and historical setting of each individual psalm is diverse and often difficult to ascertain. David is the author of nearly half of the Psalms; some of the other authors include Asaph, the Sons of Korah, Ethan & Heman (known as the “Ezrahites”), Solomon, and Moses. Nearly 50 of the Psalms are anonymous. Identifying the exact situation and historical context for each psalm is impossible (see “Tips for Reading & Interpretation” below). Despite this reality, the general disposition and situation of the author can often be derived from the content of the heartfelt prayers directed towards God.
Ultimately, just as all of Scripture is designed to do (see Luke 24:44 & John 5:39), the Psalms are meant to drive us to a greater worship of Jesus. Keller reminds us, “The Psalms were Jesus’s songbook…. It is the book of the Bible he quotes more than any other. But the Psalms were not simply sung by Jesus; they are also about him.” The Messianic promises and expectations in the book of Psalms find their fulfillment in Jesus, and we should read and interpret them with this reality in mind.
The Psalms are arranged into 5 “Books.” This arrangement is intentional in order to mirror the the Pentateuch in the Old Testament. Whereas the Pentateuch contains the 5 books of the “Law,” the Psalms are a new kind of Torah, instructing God’s people what true and proper worship looks like in their lives.
- Book One: 1-41 (1 & 2: introduction)
- Book Two: 42-72
- Book Three: 73-89
- Book Four: 90-106
- Book Five: 107-150 (146-150: conclusion)
Psalms 1-2 introduce major themes that run throughout the rest of the book (the importance of the Torah & the Messianic King). Psalms 146-150 conclude the book by imploring God’s people to triumphantly praise Yahweh. See the Bible Project video link here for further consideration of the structure of Psalms.
GENRES OF PSALMS
There are numerous genres (or categories) within the 150 chapters in the book of Psalms. It is helpful when reading and interpreting a psalm to try and identify the genre that is being expressed. There are two main genres found within the book:
- Praise/Hymn: These psalms are filled with reasons for praising God, composed when all is well in life. These psalms typically praise God for His redemptive work, His perfect attributes, His steadfast love, and celebrate what is good in the world. Examples: Psalm 8, 15, 103, 132
- Lament: These psalms are written in times of trouble. They often include prayers of pain, confusion, and hurt, asking God to intervene in the face of difficult circumstances. They draw attention to what is wrong in the world, and are often filled with a row honesty and frustration about the status quo. Some crises that arise in “lament” psalms include sickness, false accusation, persecution, military crises, drought, sin, etc. Examples: Psalm 22, 42, 43, 74
In addition to these two main genres, there are also “sub-genres” found in the book. These sub-genres include:
- Thanksgiving: Songs of joy and gratitude for answered prayer. Examples: Psalm 30, 34, 107, 116
- Confidence/Trust: These psalms expresses assurance and confidence in God’s power to save, redeem and deliver; The Psalmist trusts and finds confidence in God’s character, nature, attributes, and past faithfulness towards His people. Examples: Psalm 23, 62
- Kingship/Royal: Songs that focus on God as King, David as king, or a future Messianic King that is to come. Examples: Psalm 2, 18, 45, 101, 110
- Wisdom: These psalms consider how to live with skill in the world. They often contrast different ways of living that bring about different consequences. Examples: Psalm 1, 49, 119
MESSAGE & KEY THEMES
Bruce Waltke helpfully summarizes, “The Psalter advances significantly the Bible’s message that God’s Kingdom is irrupting into the world for His glory and our good.” Major themes found in the book include:
- The Torah and it’s centrality in the life of God’s people
- The Messianic King / The “Anointed” One that is to come and reign
- Faith and hope in God despite the complexities of living in a fallen world
- The Kingdom of God
- The doctrines of God, revelation, creation, humanity, and sin are especially prevalent throughout the book
TIPS FOR READING & INTERPRETATION
- Check out the “superscriptions” provided under many of the psalm titles. These superscriptions provide helpful historical background information and context. However, we must keep in mind, “most of the Psalms, including those in which an author is identified, are written in abstract terms, not with reference to specific historical incidences, so that others can use them in their worship.”
- There is a category called “Imprecatory Psalms” in the book. These particular psalms call upon God to bring His judgment and righteous wrath down on the enemies of the author (who are presumably also the enemies of God). These particular psalms can be difficult to read and often raise many questions. However, we would affirm with the apostle Paul that all Scripture is breathed out by God, and is profitable for our lives (2 Tim. 3:16-17). As we encounter these psalms, we should be reminded of the serious nature and consequences of sin, while seeking to uphold the mercy of God alongside His righteous judgment against evil and wrongdoing. These psalms should grow our disdain for sin and evil.
- Since the Psalms are poetic & lyrical in nature, they are designed to be prayed. See Donald Whitney’s book Praying the Bible in the helpful resources section below; this is a short but very helpful book in how to pray through the book of Psalms in particular.
- The Bible Project: Psalms. (“Read Scripture Old Testament” -> “Psalms”) OR watch here.
- Keller, Timothy, and Kathy Keller. The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms. New York: Viking, 2015.
- Whitney, Donald S. Praying the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.
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