The Psalms are uniquely designed for the care of souls. As God’s very words, they are undiminished in truth and able to transform lives. The Psalms offer tremendous wisdom to those in need, but do so with poetic form and lyrical exactness. Counselor, John Henderson, affirms that
Every phrase and verse unfolds in the face of God. The words are to Him, about Him, and ultimately from Him, with every conceivable human experience and expression wrapped into the poetic fibers. The Psalms can help us listen to suffering brothers and sisters [with] greater precision and care. They can help us understand the wide range of human experience, emotion, and desire. The Psalms provide a language of lament, joy, hope, sorrow, and faith. They can shape our counseling conversations. They give us words to speak to God and to one another.1
Christ-followers grow as we meditate on the Psalms and soak in the truths of Scripture. Then, as we allow each psalm to speak into our personal situations, the divine songbook cares for our souls as we care for the souls of others.
Effective homework assignments (or projects for growth) play a significant role in biblical counseling.2 Good homework translates sound instruction into action (Prov 14:23) and instills hope in the counselee that change can begin today (Ps 119:166). It releases God’s Word to keep on working in-between counseling sessions and also gathers data for future sessions.
Effective homework must be biblically based because God’s Word alone can cut to the heart (Heb 4:12). It should be applied within the context of a local church because only God’s church can provide the support to help a counselee grow in godliness (10:24–25). In addition, homework must be change-oriented (Jas 1:22–25) as it directs our counselees toward the primary goal of Christlikeness (2 Cor 5:9–10; Col 1:28–29). To accomplish such godly transformation, effective homework must address the inner person until a changed heart leads to changed behavior (Mark 7:21–23). This calls for progressive sanctification over time, so the homework must be scaled appropriately for each person’s maturity and life situation. Finally, on a practical level, effective homework should include specific instructions which provide clear guidance for the counselee to follow in-between sessions.
Homework must be designed creatively in order to minister to each counselee, but the general principles remain the same. The following examples from the Psalms will model the basic types of homework assignments which promote ongoing sanctification.
Most importantly, we encourage our counselees to faithfully read the Scriptures. Many, including professing Christians, struggle to read the Bible on a consistent or daily basis. One goal of homework, then, is to help them cultivate regular habits for systematic Bible reading. The Psalms are a good place to start and can often be paired with chapters in the New Testament. For example, “This week, please read one psalm a day and three chapters from the Gospel of John. Write down what chapters you have read each day and a few notes about what you learned.” By the end of the week, a counselee will have finished all of John and a good portion of the Psalms. For counselees who are just beginning their practice of Bible reading, it might be better to have them read the same psalm multiple times per week, then slowly increase the frequency of reading each week. For example, “I’d like you to read and think about Psalm 1 at least three times this coming week. Next week, I’m going to ask you to read it 5–6 times. And every time you read it, you should start to observe more and more insights.” In this way, we gradually train our counselees to develop consistent habits for reading their Bibles.
We might also assign daily Bible reading to help a counselee prepare for an upcoming counseling session or to review what they learned in a previous session.3 For example, “Next Tuesday, we’re going to study Psalm 23 together. So, in preparation, I want you to read Psalm 23 every day this week and underline all the actions the Lord accomplishes as our Good Shepherd.” Having read the psalm in advance, our counselee will not come in “cold” to the counseling session and might already have the Spirit of God applying the Scripture to their heart. Bible intake is the most foundational kind of homework assignment.
Study the Psalms4
As our counselees develop a regular habit of reading the Psalms, we then show them the basic principles for observing, interpreting, and applying God’s Word. We want them to study with the goal of understanding. Such skills will be added incrementally through projects for growth as the counseling continues. So, by the time a person graduates from counseling, they should be able to rightly interpret a Scripture passage and apply it on their own. For this reason, we can design our homework to show a step-by-step approach for studying God’s Word. One such template follows the prompts below.5
- Preparation: As you begin to study God’s Word, pray for God’s illumination: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps 119:18). Prepare your heart before you “eat God’s Word.”
- Observation: What does this passage say? Write out the text, noting differences in various translations. Read the passage in context to get the big Then, list ten significant observations you can find in the text. Answer questions such as who, what, when, where, and how?
- Interpretation: What does this passage mean? Answer the why Define important terms and look up cross-references. Succinctly, write out the main interpretation. Is there a doctrine (teaching) to know? A reproof (sin to avoid)? A correction (command to obey)? Instruction in righteousness (practical steps to put off the old nature and to put on the new nature, Eph 4:17–32)? Or any combination of these categories (2 Tim 3:16)?
- Application: How does this passage apply to me? How can it change my life? What practical steps must I take to apply this truth? (What elements of false worship or obstacles to pure worship need to be put off? How should my mind be renewed? What virtues should I put on as I grow in Christ-likeness?) Write down specifically what you are going to do, with whom, for whom, and when you will start.
- Prayerful Response: Write out a personal prayer asking God to accomplish in your life what the passage requires of you.
- Looking Back: At some time in the future, record the results of what happened in your life because you applied these truths.
A template may help a counselee to be more systematic in the way they study Scripture. Yet sometimes, as we counsel specific issues, we need to be more directive. In those situations, we design homework to focus our counselees on pertinent terms or phrases within a psalm. Consider the guided study below from Psalm 18 to help our troubled counselees seek their safety and security in the Lord.
- “O LORD” – David personally addresses Yahweh, the covenant God of By doing so, he calls upon the promise-keeping God who always hears us when we pray. Do you know the Lord as both immanent and sovereign? How do these truths about God transform the way you speak with him in prayer?
- “Strength” helps us “to bind fast” as with nails or “to support” like a retaining wall or Thus, David describes the Lord as his strength, his support, and buttress. What is your support when times get tough? What do you rely on to make you strong? What gives you strength to get through life?
- “Rock” describes a place to hide or a gap in the cliff, for the Lord is David’s hiding So, how about you? Do you trust the Lord as your safe shelter?
- “Fortress” designates a castle, often built atop a mountain like Herod’s Masada near the Dead Sea. So, David flees to the Lord and hides in Where do you typically flee during the storms of life? Where do you run for refuge when surrounded by your enemies?
- “Deliverer” identifies the One who helps you escape or rescues you in To whom do you turn for help from the pressures and the battles of life? Who is your rescuer?
- “Rock,” a different term than the first occurrence, depicts a confident, boulder-like person whose faith is in the Lord (see 62:1–3). They will not be “greatly shaken” because they trust in God. In whom or what do you place your confidence? Do you stand on rock-solid truths?
- “Shield” displays a small, maneuverable weapon of defense (see 18:30, 35; 28:7). What shields in life do you hide behind? Who or what do you trust to protect you? What are your typical defense mechanisms?
- “The horn of my salvation” represents strength like the sound of the shofar blown in battle (2 Sam 6:15), while the horns of the altar symbolize Yahweh’s powerful presence (Ps 118:27). To whom do you cling when you are attacked? What trumpet do you blow when you need help? What would victory over your enemies look like for you? What salvation or peace would make your life more livable?
- “Stronghold” pictures a fort on high ground (see 46:7). What walls do you hide behind? Where do you bury yourself when life gets hard? In what do you immerse yourself when you’re under pressure? What do you count on to maintain your advantage over others?
- “I call upon the Lord” – Are you, like David, resolved to bring everything to the Lord in prayer?
- “Who is worthy to be praised” – Do you exult in the Lord as worthy of your praise and worship? Why or why not? How does such conviction (or lack of conviction) shape your prayer life?
- “I am saved from my enemies” declares David’s joy in God’s promised salvation. What causes you stress in life? What giants or enemies do you face today (e.g., people, emotions, habits)? Have you responded the way David did when he was under pressure?
The following questions are designed to help you change:
- David highlights the characteristics of Yahweh in Psalm 18:1–3. Is the Lord all these things to you as well?
- Has anything or anyone taken God’s rightful place in your life? Do you ever give more devotion, zeal, energy, or passion to those “heart idols” than to your relationship with the Lord?
- What can you do to honor the Lord according to his glory? What thinking must change? What desires or emotions?
- What biblical truths transform your heart to seek wholly after God?
- Which friends hold you accountable to find your refuge in only God?
Read the rest of Psalm 18, then pray it back to the Lord:
- I love you, You are my Rock and my Refuge (vv. 1–2).
- You are worthy of all praise (v. 3).
- You are my help whenever I have need (vv. 4–6).
- God, be my strength when my troubles are too big for me (v. 17).
- Shine your light when my path is shrouded by darkness (v. 28).
- Then, may the nations behold the glory of your Anointed Son (vv. 43–45, 49).
In addition to reading and studying, our counselees must learn to memorize and to meditate on the Psalms (Ps 119:97). Homework can emphasize the importance of these disciplines for spiritual growth. For example, “Recite Psalm 1 today and put verses 1–3 to memory. Chew on its truths as you cultivate a daily practice of meditating on God’s Word. How do the ways of the righteous and the wicked diverge from one another? Which desires tempt you to walk, stand, or sit in the way of sinners? Which ones shape your heart to pursue righteousness?” Counselees will learn to keep going deeper into Scripture as they mine its depths for nuggets of spiritual treasure (Prov 2:1–6).
Meaningful memorization helps us to avoid sin (Ps 119:11), grow in wisdom (v. 24), and find comfort in affliction (v. 50). It places the Scripture in our hearts to give us food for meditation. After a counselee studies a psalm, for example, we ask them which verses most affected them. As we discuss the significance and spiritual impact of that Scripture, we then challenge them to memorize it. Counselors will find it more effective to assign memory work from passages studied together in past sessions or planned for in future sessions. This “doubling effect” reinforces throughout the week what a counselee is learning in the sessions.
Mature believers already hold certain psalms as precious because they have drawn often from those wells. So, we can start many counseling conversations simply by asking, “What are some of your favorite psalms and why?” Sometimes, they need only to be reminded of truths they already know. We can tell a psalm has meaning for them when they recite it from memory.
Some counselees, however, may need to learn basic principles for memorizing Scripture. Many find it helpful to write out the verse or passage by hand, then to read it multiple times aloud and review it at opportune moments throughout the day. Others post memory cards in prominent places such as their vehicle dashboard, the bathroom mirror, or the refrigerator. A diligent counselee can often memorize a passage on the first day we assign it, so they can meditate on its meaning throughout the week. As counselees memorize new verses, we encourage them to keep on reviewing the previous ones such that their treasury of God’s Word accumulates.
Meditation involves dwelling on God’s Word once our counselees have stored it in their hearts (Ps 119:11). Yet far from the mystical practice of emptying one’s mind, Christian meditation requires filling the mind with Scripture. The Hebrew word depicts a cow chewing its cud to drain out all the nourishing juices (1:2). Likewise, we want our counselees to ruminate on God’s Word throughout the week. One helpful practice for meditation is to emphasize each word in a biblical phrase as we recite it to ourselves. For example, from Psalm 23:1:
- “The LORD is my ” Meditate on the person and promises of Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel who remains your God today.
- “The LORD is my shepherd,” not simply was or will be. Meditate on his present, ongoing work in your
- “The LORD is my shepherd,” not simply a shepherd or the Meditate on your personal, intimate relationship with the Almighty Creator of the universe.
- “The LORD is my shepherd.” Meditate on the ancient practice of shepherding and how the metaphor applies to the God who loves you and cares for you.
Another valuable practice is to meditate on the imagery of the Psalms to explain more abstract thoughts. For example, “Do you love, trust, and obey the Lord above all else? How do the symbols of God’s protection (e.g., the cave of refuge, the mother eagle, the warrior’s shield) bring you comfort (5:11–12)?” We must show counselees how biblical imagination works to transform their hearts: “Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it. We do not have more information after we read a poem, we have more experience. It is not ‘an examination of what happens but an immersion in what happens.’”7 Poetry can transform us before we even realize it is happening: “Poems change what we think and feel not by piling up facts we did not know or persuading us through arguments, but by making finely tuned adjustments at deep and critical places in our imaginations.”8
Most importantly, as we meditate on these poetic images by faith, we focus on God’s person and his work—the primary subject of Scripture. The Psalms spark our God-given imaginations to draw us closer to the creative God who made us and who planted clues about himself throughout the Scriptures. We might assign the following project for growth to our counselees: “Read the vivid depiction of wicked oppression in Psalm 11. Then, memorize verse 7 and meditate on the following three ways the Lord has promised to be your refuge. Briefly, explain how each one distinctly transforms your faith.”
- Meditate on God’s attributes: “The Lord is ”
- Meditate on God’s actions: “He loves righteous ”
- Meditate on God’s assurance: “The upright shall behold his ”
Pray the Psalms9
Believers today can pray like David in Psalm 5:1–3:
- With confident humility, trusting the Lord as our heavenly
- With passionate urgency like our lives depend on
- With faithful persistence, knocking on the door until God welcomes us
- With strategic intentionality like the priests preparing the tabernacle for
- With expectant hope as we watch for God to
Praying the Psalms first requires that a counselee has understood and reflected on the passage’s main thrust.
Their meditation then naturally directs them to pray the meaning of the psalm back to God. Prayer reflects a counselee’s heart response to the Lord as they observe, interpret, and meditate on the Psalms. This practice should not be difficult, though it might initially stretch their imagination. For example, “Visualize the word pictures in Psalm 17:8, “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.” Then, insert yourself as the main character in each of those scenes to help you pray more effectively. Try to speak sentence prayers drawn from the wording of the psalm itself.”
If our counselees struggle to pray the Psalms, we can show them how to outline each stanza and respond line-by- line. Each stanza will have its own theme and each line its own main idea. We can provide these themes for prayer until our counselees are able to do so for themselves. For example, “Pray Psalm 46 to end your devotions each day this week:
- Thank you, O Lord, for being our very present help whenever we need you (v. 1).
- Therefore, because of you, we will not fear life’s troubles (vv. 2-3).
- Continue to protect us even when our enemies surround us (vv. 4-7).
- Then, may you be exalted, O God, in all the earth (v. 10).”
Journaling is another tool which helps our counselees process their thoughts in writing. We might ask them to pay attention to a particular theme in Bible study: “Read Psalms 9–10 and underline every word describing helplessness, affliction, or oppression. Then, circle every word of hope or grace you find in response.”
Journaling can also expose patterns of sin and temptation: “Read one psalm a day and underline any phrases describing fear or anxiety. Then, record any situations this week when you felt anxious or fearful. Describe your heart attitude at the time and any responses in thought, word, or deed.”
We can also creatively combine journaling with charts or pictures: “Make two columns. On one side, list the blessings which God promises to the righteous (Ps 1:1–3). Then, on the other side, list the judgments he promises to the wicked (vv. 4–6). Which column best characterizes your life thus far? Next, draw a picture of a tree with sturdy roots, lush green leaves, and plentiful fruit. What do each of the spiritual metaphors in verse 3 depict? How does your own life compare with God’s standard for righteousness?”
A journal also helps our counselees visualize what they’re learning through Bible study. For example, “Memorize Psalm 28:7. Then, draw a picture of a shield and write on the shield all the promises God has made to the upright in heart.” Writing slows them down from the normal pace of life and pushes away their distracting, frantic thoughts. The authors of each psalm spent hours meditating on God and his works as they composed fitting music and lyrics to depict his glory. In like manner, wise counselors will implement journaling assignments to move the sessions along at
a measured pace. Journaling also allows our counselees to keep a record of their captured thoughts for either personal reference or for discussion in future sessions.
Sometimes, journaling the Psalms can also provide a launch pad for other homework such as data gathering: “Where do you find your significance and security if not in the Lord (Ps 16:1, 4)? Examine your heart using David Powlison’s ‘X-Ray Questions’ (examples below).”10
- What do you love or desire the most in life? What does your world revolve around?
- Where do you find your hope, security, or refuge when you face the pressures of life?
- What do you fear or worry about?
- What do you spend your time and energy trying to attain? How do you define success?
- Whose affirmation of your performance matters the most? Whom do you most often seek to please?
- What person, possession, or entity would cause you to be devastated if it were taken away?
- Is there anything in life you would sin to get? Or sin if you did not get?
Write Your Own Psalm11
One project for growth related to journaling is for a counselee to write or compose their own psalm in response to what they have learned. This exercise might be freeform: “Listen to Psalm 11 set to music and speak honestly to God about your fears. Compose your own song or poem in response to God’s Word.” David Powlison also demonstrated the benefit of composing anti-psalms which state the truth of a psalm by contemplating its opposite reality.12 For example, “The Lord is not my Shepherd, so I find myself continually in need.”
Writing one’s own psalm, however, can also be guided: “Write your own song based on David’s delight in Psalm 15 (Follow the themes below expressing who God is).”
- My Good – “I say to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’” (v. 2).
- My Life – “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; . . . in pleasant places; . . . a beautiful inheritance”
- My Counsel – “I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me” (v. 7).
- My Gaze – “I have set the LORD always before me” (v. 8a).
- My Victory – “He is at my right hand” (v. 8b).
- My Longing – “In your presence there is fullness of joy” (v. 11).
Sing the Psalms13
The Psalms were originally set to music and meant to be sung: “The Psalms are poems, and poems are intended to be sung: [They are] not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.”14 They can often calm the heart and bring added peace and healing in ways that mere words do not. So, we teach our counselees to delight in the music of the Psalms. Some more musically inclined might make up their own tune and hum the words straight off the page. Yet certain musicians have also recorded the Psalms word-for-word in a counselee’s version of choice and some churches regularly sing the Psalms in worship. As Paul exhorts, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16).
Other musicians, both classic and contemporary, have composed cherished songs based on themes or key phrases in the Psalms. So, a counselee might listen to specific songs which complement their Bible reading: “Listen to the hymn, ‘Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus’ as you meditate on Psalm 3 this week.” A simple online search will yield dozens of examples for songs related to each psalm. Our counselees will benefit most when the musical reflection supplements their reading and meditation. For example, “Please read Psalm 46 every day this week and also listen to the lyrics of Martin Luther’s hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God.’” The Psalms were set to music for a reason, so we should employ every instrument in the care of the souls.
The Psalms have been a blessed hope to many faithful believers throughout Christian history, including those who were teachers themselves. So, like classic hymns, many of their books, devotionals, sermons, and now online articles can inspire and encourage lovers of the Psalms. Such resources which further exegete the Psalms should never replace God’s Word, but they often provide rich substance for devotional reflection.
We might start with a counselee’s local church and encourage them to review certain psalms preached or taught by their pastor. The recordings will often be archived on the church’s website. We should also be familiar with certain classics. For example, Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, has always remained popular among believers. We might ask them to read Thomas Watson’s sermon, Kiss the Son, to supplement Psalm 2 or suggest an online article for dealing with criticism based on Psalm 7.15
Creative homework might also take a multimedia approach: “Sing the lyrics of John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ and take special note of the believer’s future hope as compared to the sinner’s former condemnation. Then, read a biography or watch a movie depicting Newton’s own amazing transformation.” We must learn to leverage the rich history of Christian reflection on the Psalms as we design our homework.
Each psalm offers a myriad of practical application for deeper worship and fellowship in the local church, personal holiness, and loving acts of service. We hope to train our counselees to not just read the Psalms, but to be “doers of the word” (Jas 1:22). Some of the homework we assign might be open-ended: “Reflect on the wondrous truth that Jesus was thinking about you personally when he died upon his cross (Ps 22:30–31). How will you live out his intended purpose for saving you?” Other assignments might be more specific: “As a husband and a father, do you daily seek your Shepherd’s guidance to lead you on his righteous paths (Ps 23:3)? Do you faithfully listen to God’s voice in his Word when you make decisions (John 10:27)? How does it comfort you as a leader in your home or church to remember you are still a sheep in the Shepherd’s care? What should specifically change about your life or ministry?”
One tool to spread the application across various categories is to look at a passage through biblical SPECS: S – Is there a SIN to forsake?
P – Is there a PROMISE to claim?
E – Is there an EXAMPLE to follow? C – Is there a COMMAND to obey?
S – Is there a STUMBLING BLOCK or hindrance to avoid?
Finally, the Psalms, as good news, are meant to be shared. Consider how we often experience God’s presence with greater joy as we gather with his people. We might ask our counselees, “Identify one way you can exhort your fellow believers to praise the Lord, then practice it at your next opportunity.” As the Word of Christ dwells in them richly, they will encourage, equip, and edify their fellow believers with what they have learned. Our counselees, for instance, can share their homework assignment with a discipler, accountability partner, or friend: “Memorize and meditate on Psalm 13:5–6 and let those words be your constant prayer. Then, this week, recite those verses to someone in your church or small group fellowship.” Gordon Wenham describes the historical benefit of this practice: “Memorization and recital of these texts thus served to transmit the values of this culture more widely among the people at large and to ensure that future generations followed it.16
The Psalms also help our counselees reflect on God’s goodness as they craft their personal testimony: “Based on Psalms 20–21, describe the joy in your heart which resulted from your initial conversion. List any blessings which bring you joy in your walk with the Lord today. Then, this week, share your testimony of God’s grace with someone in your life.” Once their lives begin to change, our counselees will seek to comfort others with the comfort they have received (2 Cor 1:3–4).
For More Ideas on Application:
Hambrick, Brad. “Psalms.” BradHambrick.com (blog), accessed at https://bradhambrick.com/tag/psalms. New Growth Press. CSB Life Counsel Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman, 2023.
Sugimura, Tom. Soul Care in the Psalms: Projects for Growth from Psalms 1–24. Las Vegas, NV: Amazon, 2021.
Van Dyke, Shauna, ed., Counseling Through the Psalms. Fort Worth, TX: The Association of Biblical Counselors, 2020.
Welch, Ed, et. al. “Psalms.” CCEF (blog), accessed at https://www.ccef.org/topic/psalms.
16 Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 41–43.
Christians throughout the centuries have clung to the Psalms for help and hope because they teach us how to handle every kind of human experience. The Psalms lift us upward in joyful praise and draw us into the corporate worship of saints throughout history. Yet they also expose how we fall short of worshiping God (John 4:24) as they direct our wayward hearts to the only One worthy of praise (Ps 34:2). Sometimes, they stoke our souls aflame with precious truths of old (33:1–12). At other times, they supply us with fresh words to proclaim God’s glory and to rejoice in his marvelous character: “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (145:5). May the Psalms teach us to fear the Lord, so that we better understand ourselves and how to wisely care for others (111:10).
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.