Biblical counselors should be, of all counselors, most eager to interpret and apply the Bible with respect for its literary forms. We believe that every word is God-breathed and that the Spirit inspired the form as well as the content of Scripture. Abraham Kuyper states one reason for this: “The rationale for the diverse literary forms in Scripture is that revelation strikes all the chords of the soul, and not just . . . the rational one.”1 We must, therefore, try to practice all the right notes as we read, interpret, and apply the Psalms.
The Psalms, like all of Scripture, were meant to be read. So, we start by reading and re-reading the Psalms in our devotional time with God. We seek to grow familiar with the words and the flow of each psalm. We might also consult various translations (or the original Hebrew if we have the ability). Another practice is to read the Psalms aloud with family or friends as we study them together. We can learn much from one another about how to ask and answer relevant questions of God’s inspired Word.
- Who are the characters in this psalm?
- What is the psalm describing? What comes before or after?
- When is the activity or discussion taking place? When is the speaker speaking?
- Where is this taking place?
- Why are these events happening? Why does the speaker feel this way?
- Wherefore: How do the people respond? What happens in view of the above?
As we read each psalm, we first ask the question, “What does it say?” We might imagine being detectives searching for clues. As we examine every detail, we will discover which ones contribute to the Psalms overall meaning and lyrics. Poetry is compact, so there are no wasted words. Yet “the terseness of poetry means that there are many gaps, which thereby force the reader to puzzle over the connection between one line and the next.
The absence of precision opens up a psalm to a broad range of situations and invites readers to make its sentiments their own.”
According to Alter, “Poetry is quintessentially the mode of expression in which the surface is the depth, so that through careful scrutiny of the configurations of the surface—the articulation of the line, the movement from line to poem, the imagery, the arabesques of syntax and grammar, the design of the poem as a whole—we come to apprehend more fully the depth of the poem’s meaning.”3
So, we must read mindfully, but also experientially. The Psalms, whether prayed or sung, are to be read as poetry.4 They are designed to stir up the affections as well as the intellect—our feelings and not just our thinking. They are meant to awaken our emotions by infusing us with truth. Too often, counselors can make the mistake of overemphasizing cognitive functions by stating generic truisms such as, “Faith follows feelings.” We should, however, leave adequate room for affections to inform our faith.
The Psalms, on the other hand, often begin with our affections before leading us into truth. As Jonathan Edwards wrote about the Great Awakening, “I should think myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but the truth, and, with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.”5 Poetry effectively shortens the emotional distance between the writer and reader, making every element matters in the form, the structure, and the message. Therefore, reading well with a proper awareness is the first step to studying the Psalms.
Once we have read and observed the psalm, we move into interpretation: “What did this psalm mean to its original hearers? How was it understood by the people of that day?” Interpretation also involves how each psalm was viewed by each successive generation as the Psalter took shape within the canon. At a basic level, we should be able to answer the following questions:
- What did it mean to the original author and his hearers when the psalm was first written?
- What did it mean to the people of Israel throughout their history (i.e., the united kingdom, the divided kingdom, the exile, and the post-exilic period)?
- What have been the various historical understandings throughout Christendom?
- What are the possible applications of this psalm for the church today?
Bible students are like detectives reconstructing the crime scene based on clues we have collected. This involves historical-cultural analysis as we take into account various political, religious, economic, legal, agricultural, architectural, clothing, domestic, geographical, military, and social factors. It also involves literary analysis (e.g., genres, figures of speech, parallelism) and contextual analysis (e.g., How does this passage fit into the overall flow of the Bible?). After interpreting a psalm, we should be able to state the main idea of the psalm in one sentence and the supporting points in each main section of the psalm.
Finally, we must keep in mind the fundamentals of interpretation. Most importantly, there is only one correct interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture—the author’s originally intended meaning. So, be careful not to draw conclusions that the author did not intend. Second, all Scripture must agree and will never contradict itself internally. Yet each passage should speak for itself within its own context. It is also helpful to remember that although the Psalms are poetry, they still belong within the storyline of biblical theology. Mitchell summarizes how the Psalter’s story fits into the whole of Scripture:
The Psalms tell of the Messiah. Because he loves Torah and meditates in it day and night (Ps. 1), the Holy One promises to overthrow every opposition to his rule and to establish his throne on Zion (Ps. 2). He comes as the divine Bridegroom-Messiah to rescue Daughter Zion and raise her to honour (Ps. 45). He issues a command to gather Israel (Ps. 50) and sets up a kingdom like Solomon’s which will extend from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth (Ps. 72). However, his kingdom will be attacked by hostile nations (Pss. 73–83), he will [be] surrounded by enemies and fall into the underworld (Pss. 86; 88).
His people bereft of his presence, lament his death, and arraign the Holy One for the failure of his promise (Ps. 89). Israel will be exiled and perish in the wilderness, as they were in Moses’ day, as Zechariah foretold (Ps. 90; Zech. 13:7). But the king will be delivered from every evil (Ps. 91) to reemerge from the underworld like a triumphant wild ox (Ps. 92). Thereafter YHVH is praised [in his] rule among the nations (Pss. 93–99). Eventually, Israel regather to the land (Ps. 107), when the Messiah will announce his victory (Ps. 108), anathematize his enemy (Ps. 109), and descend from the right hand of Power to wage victorious battle (Ps. 110). The deliverance is celebrated in the Hallel Psalms (Pss. 113–117) which recall the joyful triumph of the Exodus. Then he ascends to Jerusalem amidst crowds and joyful celebrations (Ps. 118), while the scattered tribes of Israel, who have strayed like lost sheep, are gathered in (Ps. 119:176). Then the Songs of Ascents represent Israel and the nations ascending to keep the Feast of Sukkot in Jerusalem when, in fulfillment of the promise of Psalm 2, the Messiah is installed on his throne (Ps. 132).
Psalms 135 to 137 are a codetta to the Ascents collection. Psalms 140 to 144 feature a final attack upon the messianic throne. Evildoers threaten the new David with force, stratagems, and pursuits, but the threat is now easily dismissed. Psalm 145 is a hymn of praise for the victory, and Psalms 146–150 are the grand coda of praise to the entire collection.6
Applying the Psalms
There is only one interpretation of God’s Word, yet countless applications for every person, situation, and need.
So, once we interpret the Psalms, the following basic practices will direct us to apply them:
- Meditation and Memorization – Many psalms are even short enough to memorize within a week’s We can read each psalm repeatedly to ourselves, write it down someplace we look at often, then recite it from memory a little more each day.
- Reading – We can read the Psalms aloud with your family, friends, or fellow church As you engage the Psalms with other believers, you will learn how to ask and answer helpful questions.
- Journaling – We might purchase a Scripture journal for the Psalms or design a journal of our 8 This can also be a wonderful idea for creative scribblers, artists, and poetry lovers.
- Singing – We can listen to the Psalms sung to Both the lyrics and the melody of the Psalter will bring comfort to our soul.9
- Prayer – We can learn how to pray the Psalms until God’s Word mingles with our 10
For Further Reading:
Duvall, J. Scott, and Daniel J. Hayes. Grasping God’s Word, Fourth Edition: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020.
Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Nashville, TN: HarperCollins, 2014. Hendricks, Howard G., and William D. Hendricks. Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible.
Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007.
Holtvluwer, Peter H. Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms. Smithers, British Columbia: Reformed Perspective Press, 2020. Waltke, Bruce K., and Fred G. Zaspel. How to Read and Understand the Psalms. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023.
Tom Sugimura pastors New Life Church in Woodland Hills, CA. He trains church planters, international pastors, and biblical counselors. He has also authored two books, Hope for New Dads and God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda, are busy raising four rambunctious children.