A Guide to Reading and Praying the Psalms

“Be Brave. Be Strong. Don’t Give Up. Expect GOD to Get Here Soon.”  ~Psalm 31:24 (MSG)

The Book of Psalms has been an invaluable resource to Jews and Christians for learning about God, ourselves, and this world for thousands of years.  Psalms are prayers, and are therefore the words of humans to God.  However, because they are in our Bible, they are invaluable to us as not just words to God, but they also teach us as words about God.  They reveal to us who God is, how God acts, and how we are to respond to God’s work in this world.  Most importantly, the Psalms are words from God to all humanity.  As Scripture, God speaks to us through the Psalms to develop us into mature Children of God.

The Psalms contain the whole range of human emotions and experiences – from joy to grief, birth to death, hope to despair.  The Psalms can be brutally honest and express great anger with God when God does not act as the Psalmist expects.  While this brutal honesty can sometimes be shocking, it is a powerful reminder of this fundamental fact: nothing we experience in this life is outside the concern and interest of our Creator.

The key theme of the Book of Psalm is: The Lord Reigns!  God reigns over creation and all nations, including his people Israel.  This declaration is great news, because the Lord is good, faithful, the keeper of promises, and the giver of good gifts.  God is just, in contrast to the wicked, and watches over those who are faithful.  God’s plan is for Israel to be a light to the nations, causing them to turn to the Lord and live out God’s will for them.

The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 Psalms, essentially an anthology, divided into five “Books”  (Book 1: Psalms 1-41; Book 2: Psalms 42-72; Book 3: Psalms 73-89; Book 4: Psalm 90-106; Book 5: Psalm 107-150). These five books are analogous to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy).   The final Psalm in each of these books ends with a similar-sounding doxology (Psalm 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48; all of 150).


Psalm Titles

Most Psalms (116 of the 150) include a short title at the beginning of the Psalm.  While these are very early additions to the Psalms, it is not believed they were part of the original Psalm itself.  These titles sometimes include the author’s name.  King David is the author most often cited (73 times), though Solomon, Moses, and others are also listed as authors.  Also included in these titles are directions for how the Psalm was first used, directions for the music leader, and musical notations as to the tune to be used when the Psalm was sung.  There are also sometimes historical references to when the Psalm was used, or why it was written.

Categorizing the Psalms

The Book of Psalms is filled with many different kinds of Psalms.  These include Psalms of lament, worship, thanksgiving, teaching (Torah), history, to name just a few.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has developed a very helpful method for categorizing all these various types of Psalms.  He uses three groups that represent the three places humans regularly find themselves: Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation.

  • Psalms of Orientation: are where followers of God most often find themselves.  Life makes sense.  We have confidence in God and God’s creation.  We recognize this world has been built by God, and God reigns over this world.  Psalms of Orientation are wonderful declarations of God’s great power and faithfulness.  For examples, see Psalms 1, 8, 14, 111, 131, 133, 145.
  • Psalms of Disorientation: reflect those crisis moments in our life when the world, or at least our life, seems to collapse.  We are drawn down into a dark pit.  We cannot see the hand of God at work in this world, and we are tempted to believe we have been abandoned.  This is a terrifying place for the Child of God, and many of these Psalms have been of great help as they express with brutal honesty the doubts, questions, and accusations that result from life falling apart.  For examples, see Psalms 13, 22, 32, 50, 74, 88, 143.
  • Psalms of New Orientation: reflect the surprise of the pit not being the end of God’s story.  God has in fact heard our cries for help and in a surprise of grace, rescued us from our trouble.  We are filled with amazement, awe, and gratitude as we experience a transformed life.  For examples, see Psalms 23, 30, 34, 91, 103, 135, 150.


Fundamentals of Hebrew Poetry

Parallelism.  Unlike English poetry, which most often uses the rhyming of sounds, Hebrew poetry uses the rhyming of ideas.  This is called parallelism.  The vast majority of verses in the Psalms are made up of two lines, the second of which will either repeat the idea of the first line (synonymous parallelism), complete the thought of the first line (synthetic parallelism) or make a contrast to the first line (antithetical parallelism).

  • For example, Psalm 1:3 uses synonymous parallelism to say essentially the same thing twice:

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

  • Psalm 1:4 uses synthetic parallelism, the second two lines complete the thought of the first:

Not so the wicked!

They are like chaff

that the wind blows away.

  • While Psalm 1:6 uses antithetical parallelism, contrasting the righteous to the wicked:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Acrostics.  Hebrew poetry also uses acrostics, in which each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Psalms 9-10 together, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145).  The significance of this form is to show how complete (from A-Z) is the law of the Lord.  This form also helped in the memorization of Psalms.

Figurative Language.  Because the Psalms are poetry, they use many literary devices to drive home their message.  These devices include metaphors, similes, figurative and emotional language.


A Christian Use of the Psalms

The Book of Psalms is the most quoted Old Testament book by New Testament authors.  There are 79 quotations from the Psalms, along with over 300 allusions and parallels.  Jesus directly quotes from the Psalms 11 times, often times to explain his ministry or opposition to his ministry (for example: Matthew 21:16; 27:46; John 13:18).

  • The very fact of Jesus knowing the Psalms so well and applying them to his own life and ministry should be a very strong encouragement for Christians to also know the Psalms well.
  • However, there are many troubling passages in the Psalms that can offend, or at least confuse Christians.  For example, there are a group of Psalms known as the Imprecatory Psalms (7, 35, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137, and 139) in which the psalmist calls upon God to curse and/or punish the psalmist’s enemies. “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave.” Psalm 55:15 This, of course, is the direct opposite of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48).  We must keep in mind these Psalms are spoken from the heart, and before the ministry of Jesus.  As such, they do not reflect the perfect will of God lived out in a person, but the deepest cries of that person who does not yet know the full salvation of God.  Also, the psalmist is calling for and trusting in God’s justice, rather than acting out in revenge.
  • The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews cites five different Psalms as referring to Jesus in just the first chapter of Hebrews.  There is therefore much we can learn about Jesus from the Psalms.  However, we must not seek to read the Psalms only for finding Jesus.  There is a great wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and guidance for Christians in the Psalms, whether or not they can be directly related to Jesus.


How To Use the Psalms to Grow Closer to God

  1. Begin with Prayer.  Ask God to speak to you through your reading and reflection upon               Scripture.
  2. Keep in Mind Before Reading a Psalm:
  • A Psalm is Poetry – the authors often use metaphorical and intense language, not literal language.
  • A Psalm is Prayer –  The Psalms are first spoken to God, not about God.  The language will be honest and from the heart.
  1. Ask While Reading a Psalm:
  • What does this Psalm say about God?
  • What does the Psalm say about humanity?
  • Why was this Psalm prayed?
  • How does the author use the fundamentals of Hebrew poetry to make his point?
  1. Ask After Reading a Psalm:
  • What is the most important point in this Psalm?
  • What is God wanting to teach me about himself, myself, and/or this world through this Psalm?
  • Who can I apply this Psalm to my daily life?
  • How can I use what I have learned today to be a blessing to others?
  1. Close in Prayer. Spend time in silence, reflecting on what you have read and asking God to speak to you.

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