Suppose we want to instruct our counselee from one of the Psalms, but it’s been awhile since that high school poetry class. We’re struggling to make sense of the Psalter because the language just sounds so strange. We personally delight in their devotional impact, but we struggle to explain how they work. Let’s walk through a basic primer for studying Hebrew poetry.
First, we start at the surface level. We should note the author (e.g., “A Psalm of David”), then glean whatever we can about the context from the superscription (e.g., “A song at the dedication of the temple”). We also observe the psalm’s perspective. In whose voice does it speak: the psalmist’s, the people’s, or God’s? Along the way, we watch the pronouns carefully to see if the viewpoint changes throughout. Next, we consider the psalm’s literary category. Just like today’s music, each psalm employs a certain genre to convey the mood. Most importantly, we seek to identify the psalm’s primary themes.1 After we examine these surface level matters, then we can dive deeper into the details. Below are some essentials we need to know about Hebrew poetry in order to counsel others well.
The Psalms can be sorted into various recognizable forms or genres (French for “kinds”).2 According to Tremper Longman, “Genre refers to a group of texts similar in their mood, content, structure or phraseology.”3 Understanding the unique features of each genre will help us to interpret them and thus to counsel from them.
Examples in the Psalter
6, 13, 26, 44, 88
46, 100, 147
15, 24, 121
2, 45, 110
1, 49, 119
34, 40, 118
11, 16, 23, 91
Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 20, emphasis in original. As Longman writes, “Consciously make a decision about the genre of a passage of Scripture as you read it. Be flexible in your understanding of a text’s genre. More than one category may be applicable” (ibid., 35). apply. This guide provides a brief description of each genre and helpful examples for counseling.
Lament psalms are the most frequent genre in the Psalter.4 Through lament, the people’s cry to God in the midst of trouble will often lead to praise. Their grief reminds us that Christ our Savior also suffered (Ps 22:1–2; Heb 5:7; Matt 27:46), but will one day remove all sorrows (Rev 21:3–4). As we study lament, we must identify the focus of the psalmist’s complaint: himself, his enemies, or his God. We then determine if he cries out as an individual (e.g., Pss 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 31, 39, 42, 43, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 70, 71, 77, 86, 120, 141, 142) or on behalf of the faith community (e.g., Pss 12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126). We also look for the seven structural elements of lament: invocation, plea, complaint, expression of confidence, confession of sin or assertion of innocence, imprecation, hymn or blessing. Below, Waltke identifies the normal components found in a lament psalm.5
- Direct Address with Introductory Petition: The psalmist in his extremity turns to God, his covenant Lord, commonly asking God to hear the petition that follows.
- Lament/Complaint: The psalmist describes his lamentable situation (enemies, persecution, danger, false accusation, fear of death, sins, etc.).
- Confidence: The psalmist asserts his confidence in God despite the desperation. He will often appeal to God’s attributes, his covenant relationship, his past actions, or even the psalmist’s own innocence—protesting the injustice of the adversity.
- Petition: The psalmist moves God to act: to hear, to be favorable, to punish the enemy (and gives the reason why).
- Conclusion/Praise: Laments regularly conclude with praise or a vow to praise, what the psalmist will say or do after his prayer is answered. Or the psalmist may burst forth in immediate praise, so certain is he that God will hear and answer.
In Psalm 6, for example,
- Direct Address: “O LORD” (6:1a)
- Seven Petitions (vv. 1–5)
Many of these laments can be further subdivided by theme: “Some are individual laments, with, say, sickness (Pss. 6; 31; 38; 39; 41; 88; 102), although the “sickness” is often
metaphorical; persecution (3; 9; 10; 35; 52; 55; 56; 57; 62; 69; 70; 86; 109; 120; 139; 140; 141; 143); military crisis (12; 44; 58; 60;
74; 79; 80; 83; 90; 137); or injustice (7; 17; 26; 27) in view. Some of the laments combine both corporate and individual lament”
(Waltke and Zaspel, Psalms, 233). Other laments include repentance and confession for sin (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143).
- Lament: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes” (vv. 6–7).
- Confidence Followed by Implicit Praise: “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer. All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment” (vv. 8–10).
The Psalter also includes songs of Praise or Thanksgiving (49 times). Praise psalms command our joy and gratitude for God’s worth and works—his character (e.g., attributes such as steadfast love, truth, faithfulness, compassion, righteousness, goodness, power, and glory) and his deeds (e.g., peace, justice, salvation, kingdom authority, and every good gift). Special focus falls on his roles as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer in the turmoil of a chaotic world (e.g., Ps 46). Below, Waltke outlines the structural form of the typical praise psalm using Psalm 116.6
- Proclamation: “I will praise the ” Sometimes the opening line expresses not the psalmist’s intention to praise but simply the praise itself, as in 116:1a, “I love the LORD.”
- Introductory Summary: A statement of what God has done: “because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy” (v. 1b).
- Reflection on Past Need and Deliverance: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (v. 2). Here the psalmist may echo a previous lament before declaring God’s answer.
- Praise: A call for all the people to join him in praise: “O Praise the LORD!” (v. 19b).
Thanksgiving psalms often include a prayer (usually a quoted lament) which the Lord has answered (e.g., Ps 34). Such expressions of gratitude remind us that Christ has also heard our prayers (Heb 5:7) and still deserves our praise (Ps 22:22; Heb 2:12). “For the lament, suffering describes the present and continuing experience of the psalmist, while in thanksgiving psalms the suffering and pain described lie in the past.”7
Hymns are similar to the previous in that they liturgically call God’s people to praise him as Creator or Redeemer.
The words “for” or “because” will often preface the reasons which the psalmist gives for praising God. Then, as we meditate on a hymn, we should write out the reasons which prompt us personally to worship the Lord. For example, believers today can proclaim Christ Jesus as our Creator (Ps 104:1, 24; John 1:3) and Redeemer (Pss 105; 107:1–2; Gal 3:13).
Psalm 24 is a glorious hymn of praise calling worshipers to prepare their whole selves before the Lord: behavior (“clean hands”), character (“a pure heart”), allegiance (“who does not lift up his soul to what is false”), and speech (“and does not swear deceitfully”). The Psalm begins with bold declaration, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (v. 1). Verse 2 then gives the reason for such praise: “For he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” As Creator, the Lord is worthy of our worship. Therefore, exhorts the psalmist, worship the Lord rightly in spirit and in truth. Waltke identifies a common structure for hymns as illustrated by Psalm 117.8
- Introductory Call to Praise: Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!” (117:1).
- Main Cause/Reason for Praise (often prefaced by “for” or “who”): “For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever” (v. 2a-b).
- Conclusion (often renewing the call to praise): “Praise the LORD!” (v. 2c).
The Royal psalms (related to the Divine Kingship and Enthronement psalms) declare the Lord as King over all his universe. These psalms speak first of Israel’s human king, but also point to Jesus as the greater King who will sit eternally on David’s throne (2 Sam 7:12–13). He is the promised Anointed One (Ps 2; Matt 1:1)—the King of kings and Lord of lords (Ps 24:7; 1 Tim 6:15; Rev 19:16) who rules with all authority over the universe he has made (Ps 104:7; Luke 8:22–24).
The Psalms are ultimately the prayers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He alone is worthy to pray the ideal vision of a king suffering for righteousness and emerging victorious over the hosts of evil. As the corporate head of the church he represents believers in these prayers.
With this royal understanding we lay a firm foundation for a Christological interpretation of the Psalms….. the son of David, is the King par excellence. The experiences and emotions of the king in the Psalms—his passions, his sufferings, his struggles, his heartaches—foreshadow the experiences and emotions of the Lord Jesus, the messianic King, the Christ who in fact has taken on all of our sufferings and emotions. Even he, on the cross, felt abandoned by God. He was tempted. And yet he triumphed and in doing so both accomplished our redemption and showed us how we may triumph also. With this historical approach and royal orientation in mind we see our Savior more clearly.9
Waltke and Zaspel, Psalms, 173–74. “God’s attributes are continuously on display in the Psalter. God is eternal (90:1–4), holy (99:5), awesome (96:4), majestic (96:6), and exalted over all (97:9). He is powerful beyond measure (115:3), infinite in knowledge (147:5), and incomparably wonderful (139:14). In a word, the Lord God is incomparable.”
Waltke and Zaspel, Psalms, 81. “The royal psalms and the messianic psalms were therefore like robes put on the shoulders of the historical kings who represented the ideal. But for all of those kings, the robes were too big, and their shoulders too small, and so the royal robe slipped off of them, as it were. The robe was draped on the shoulders of each successor, and some filled the robes better than others (e.g., Hezekiah). But the ideal was just too high. The shoulders of each successor, in fact, became Psalm 2, for example, exalts Jesus Christ as the Lord’s Anointed (vv. 1–3), the King of kings (vv. 4–6), the beloved Son (vv. 7–9), and the Savior of the humble (vv. 10–12). Therefore, a wise counselor will help the prideful sinner choose Jesus instead of rebelling against his Lordship. John Woodhouse, below, finds echoes of Psalm 2 all throughout the Psalter.10
- The king’s kingdom is God’s
- The king’s enemies are God’s
- The king trusts God’s promise of
- The king is obedient to God and applies his ways to his
- The king shares the majesty and glory of
- The king is God’s
- The king is God’s
- The king lives and reigns for the benefit of his
- The king subdues the nations and proclaims the gospel to
Wisdom psalms exhort believers to seek insight for living according to God’s Word. We find a strong connection between the wisdom books and the Psalms with themes like “creation order, law, [and] the contrast between the righteous and the wicked.”11 They point to Jesus as the only man to live in perfect wisdom (Luke 2:40, 52) and who made it possible for us to wisely live in him (1 Cor 1:30).
Psalm 19, for example, reveals the wisdom of God in both general and special revelation. David then delights in God’s holy Word as he presents six reasons to trust and obey the Bible with our time, our effort, and the devotion of our lives.
- The Lord’s perfect law revives the soul (v. 7a; John 3:16; 10:10).
- His trustworthy testimony teaches the gullible (Ps 19:7b; Prov 9).
- His precepts set straight our paths to delight our hearts in him (Ps 19:8a; Prov 3:5–7).
- His holy commandments enlighten our eyes with truth (Pss 19:9b; 119:105).
- Our fear of him cleanses us of sin and declares us forever righteous (Ps 19:9a).
- His rules are true and his judgments firm (v. 9b).
We are wise to treasure the Scriptures above worldly wealth and to cherish it in our hearts like honey on the tongue (v. 10). Even the warnings found in Scripture are promise-filled, for we are rewarded if we heed them (v. 11). Wisdom psalms keep us from walking in sinful ways (vv. 12–13) and guide our hearts toward God. Therefore, “let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14).
Songs of Confidence or Trust express our hope in God’s promised deliverance. First, we “identify the factors which threaten the psalmist’s well-being. [Then, we] identify the images of God which the psalmist uses to communicate his confidence in God as he faces trouble.”12 Again, they will ultimately point to Christ who lived with absolute confidence as the Son of God (Ps 16:8–11; Acts 2:23–31) and remains the full assurance of the believer’s salvation (2 Cor 3:4; Heb 13:5–6). Psalm 23 is perhaps the most popular in this genre as it sets our hope on the Lord as our Good Shepherd.
Below, Waltke describes the common structure for a Song of Trust.13
- Declaration of Trust: “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (e.g., 125:1).
- Interior Lament: Provides the occasion for this expression of
- Invitation to Trust: Calls others to put their trust in the
- Basis of Trust: Specifies a truth about God that renders him trustworthy—for example, God’s character, his majesty, his covenant love, his power in creation, or his past deliverances.
Other categories suggested by scholars may include Zion Songs (46; 48; 76; 84; 87), Pilgrimage Songs (120–34), penitential psalms (6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143), and psalms of remembrance (or historical psalms) which recount the mighty acts of God (78; 105; 106). Longman writes, “As you read a remembrance psalm, list the mighty acts of God and read about these events in the historical books of the Bible.”14 Others will place imprecatory psalms in their own category as well instead of including them with lament (35; 69; 83; 88; 109; 137; 140). Messianic psalms deserve a whole chapter on their own. Whatever the case, a skilled expositor will recognize the unique elements of each genre and how they relate to the interpretation and application of the psalm.
Once we observe these general clues, we can begin to explore the structure. We must decide how the verse divisions separate each strophe (or stanza) of the psalm. Parallelism, inclusio, and chiasm might be of assistance here. We must also take into account whether a translation hides the acrostic in which each verse of the psalm begins with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Finally, the musical term, Selah, might sometimes instruct the reader to pause for reflection at the end of a stanza.
One important literary device is the alphabetical acrostic. The psalmists often structured their poetry by beginning each line with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalms 25 and 34 are the only complete acrostics (all 22 letters), whereas Psalms 9 and 10 include an irregular acrostic which stretches across both psalms. Variations also exist as Psalms 111 and 112 each have 10 verses consisting of 22 total lines on which each letter builds, while Psalm 145 has only 21 verses because the letter nun has been purposely omitted between verses 13 and 14. The majestic Psalm 119 begins each of its 22 stanzas of 8 verses with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Such creativity, however, accomplished more than an aesthetic function. These alphabetic structures served as mnemonic devices to help God’s people remember that his Word covered everything “from aleph to tau.”
Inclusio(n) is a bracketing or envelope structure which repeats similar grammar or content at the beginning and end of a psalm, stanza, or strophe. The repetition then stands as the primary focus of the entire psalm. For example, Psalm 103 both begins and ends with an exclamation of praise: “Bless the LORD, O my soul!” (vv. 1, 22). The psalmist urges his own soul to worship Yahweh.
Chiasm is a more complex form of repetition in which a sequence of lines mirrors their relationship with one another. The first and last lines are parallel. Then, all the successive lines are correspondingly parallel, such that the last half becomes an inverted order of the first.16 The emphatic focus of the psalm then falls on the center of the chiasm. For example, Psalm 19:1 focuses on the glory of God in creation.
a The heavens
c the glory of God
c’ his handiwork
a’ And the sky above
In the Psalms, we should make a special note of images and metaphors (e.g., “In the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy” [63:7]). For “poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives.”17 “This means, among other things, that their appeal is not only cognitive, but affective, imaginative, and aesthetic as well.”18 As Alter explains, “Poetry, working through a system of complex linkages of sound, image, word, rhythm, syntax, theme, idea, is an instrument for conveying densely patterned meanings, and sometimes contradictory meanings, that are not readily conveyable through other kinds of discourse.”19 Consider below some basic elements of poetic language.
Chiasm can function structurally, to indicate the beginning, end, or midpoint of a poem; to indicate totality; to express reversal; to express emphatic negation or prohibition; to express antithesis or contrast. “The center of a chiasm is its theological heart. The idea of a theological center gives an identifiable focus to the author’s intentions and is a tremendous aid to interpretation” (Wilson, Divine Symmetries, 49, emphasis in original).
Alter, Biblical Poetry, 113. Note that, unlike most English-language poetry, rhyme is not a feature of Hebrew poetry. For the sake of terminology, a line is often divided into two cola and is the most basic unit of Hebrew poetry. Each line consists of one complete parallelistic expression of thought (although an ellipsis might omit part of one clause because it is implied in the other clause). Related lines are grouped together in a strophe and related strophes are grouped together in a stanza.
As we read the Psalms, we look out for parallelism—a staple in Hebrew poetry in which corresponding thoughts are expressed with similar grammar, vocabulary, meaning, or line length.20 For example, the parallelism in Psalm 29:10 reveals that Yahweh sits enthroned as King both during the flood and forever into eternity.
over the flood;
as king forever.
Hebrew poetry also exhibits different types of parallelism based on the relationship of the lines. Synonymous parallelism expresses similar thoughts in both line A and line B (2:1; 3:1; 6:1; 25:4), while antithetical parallelism states line B in contrast to line A (1:6; 37:9, 21; 44:3). Synthetic parallelism (the most common) uses line B to expand or further develop line A (1:1–2; 2:5; 19:7–9; 46:1), whereas climactic (or step) parallelism elevates line B by repeating significant words from line A to complete the thought with gusto (22:4–5; 29:1–9). Other forms of parallelism are emblematic (42:1; 44:22), alternate (103:11–12), chiastic (1:1–2; 5:7), internal (30:8–10), or grammatical (i.e., parallel syntax, syllable counting, and parts of speech). Recognizing the type of parallelism is important because it will inform our interpretation. For example, the synthetic parallelism in Psalm 29:10 depicts God, our Creator, as the eternal sovereign king based on his sovereignty to judge in the days of Noah.
B is similar to A
Why do the nations rage
and [why do] the peoples plot in vain? (2:1)
B contrasts with A
The wicked borrows but does not pay back,
but the righteous is generous and gives. (37:21)
B expands on A
God is our refuge and strength,
[God is] a very present help in trouble. (46:1)
B elevates A to its ultimate climax
Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness. (29:1–2)
B completes A with an omitted clause supplied
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
[You have put me] in the regions dark and deep. (88:6)
Hebrew poetry is known for its brevity. This means that each word matters tremendously and, sometimes, the reader must fill in the gaps. For this reason, we pay attention whenever words or phrases are repeated. These words are not wasted, but are often employed for emphasis, dramatic effect, or to reinforce the structure of the poem. “Intentional repetition sounds musical and meant.”21 Again, from Psalm 29, we are drawn to praise God’s majestic splendor through the rhythmic repetition of key terms and phrases.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare.
A refrain is a special chorus-like repetition which divides a psalm into various sections: “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (e.g., 107:8, 15, 21, 31). This is the psalmist’s way of restating the main theme and informing the reader that a new argument is about to begin.
Poetry is highly imagistic. It will choose to paint a picture instead of using a thousand words. For example, “God’s Word is a lamp to my feet” (119:105; also 23:1; 84:11). Such imagery is easily understandable—even for a child: “It is by imagination that men have lived; imagination rules all our lives. The human mind is not, as philosophers would have you think, a debating hall, but a picture gallery.”22 Thus, God can be a rock (18:46), a shield (7:10), a shepherd (23:1), or a mother bird (91:4) to stoke our imagination as we worship before him. As Peterson asserts, “ “Metaphor uses the language of sense experience to lead us into the world of the unseen: faith, guilt, mind, God. In prayer the task is not to rarify language into an abstract spirituality but to thicken it with the metaphors of weather and geography and enmity into a spirituality of honest and actual experience.”
We use ordinary language spoken and understood by any five year old. There is no chance of pretense in using these words, of pretending that our understanding of our relationship to God depends on special insights or secret codes…… By using language in prayer that everyone else uses when they are not praying, we are kept in community with them. Nothing is more socializing than common speech; nothing more clique forming than jargon. The Psalms, by profuse and insistent use of metaphor, make it as difficult as they possibly can for us to sally off into vague abstractions, contemptuous of the actual grass under our feet, and call this verbal woolgathering prayer.
A metaphor lodges in the readers mind without the writer having to explain or defend it. A well-placed metaphor can sneak behind our defenses because “images often grab our emotions before they engage our minds. We feel their sense before we grasp their meaning.”24 Metaphors ground the abstract in the real, especially the ultimate unknowable being of God himself. The Bible is always comparing God to something else: a father (103:13), a king (47:2, 6, 7), even a moth (39:11). In this way, metaphors use concrete images to illustrate abstract concepts. A simile is similar to a metaphor, but establishes a more explicit comparison by using the terms, “like” or “as.” The effectiveness of these images will increase as it startles the reader’s senses. For example, “I eat ashes like bread” (102:9a) should leave a taste in the mouth which the reader finds hard to forget. Allegory, meanwhile, functions like an extended metaphor around a central theme (e.g., Israel as a “vine” in 80:6–16).
Word pictures are powerfully drawn from ordinary life, but they can also be challenging if they reference an ancient culture. For example, we may not realize when David cries out, “My close friend . . . has lifted his heel against me” (41:9) that he is referring to the battle tactic of kings to place their foot upon the necks of those they have conquered (e.g., Josh 10:24). Instead of paraphrasing into contemporary language, however, it is better to first work out the significance according to the biblical context.
Personification attributes humanlike qualities to more abstract ideas in order to make them more easily understood (e.g., Pss 10:12; 35:10), while anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to the inanimate (96:12) or divine (e.g., “You scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” in 89:10). Apostrophe occurs when the psalmist addresses lifeless objects as if they were alive (e.g., “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?” in 114:5). We must understand this emotive language of the Psalms in order to maintain right theology. For example, the psalmists affirm that the Maker of heaven and earth does not sleep (Ps 121), yet still they cry, “Awake, O Lord!” as they call him to action (Pss 7:6; 35:23; 44:23). Such figures of speech help the reader connect lesser-known ideas to realities with which they are already familiar.
The Psalms use many other poetic devices in varying measures to convey God’s Word. We might consider each of them as tools in our toolbox with a specialized purpose no matter how frequently they are used.
- Synecdoche represents one part for the whole, or vice versa (e.g., “You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue” in 52:4), while eponymy is when an individual stands for the whole (e.g., “Jacob” representing all of
- Merism (or merismus) is a form of synecdoche which states two opposite extremes to express the entirety of everything in between (e.g., “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” in 121:6).
- Hyperbole expresses a true statement with the use of exaggeration (e.g., “every night I flood my bed with tears” in 6:6b) while litotes does so with an understatement (e.g., 127:1).
- Pleonasm is redundancy for the sake of emphasis (e.g., “neither slumber nor sleep” in 121:4b), while anadiplosis repeats the last phrase or word in a clause at the beginning of the next (e.g., 121:1–2).
- Word pairs are ready-made stock phrases commonly found together, but sometimes inverted (e.g., “anger” and “wrath” in 37:8 and 85:3).
- Metonymy refers to meaning by association (e.g., “He will not let your foot be moved” in 121:3a means that God will not let you stumble and fall).
- Hendiadys is when two expressions are meant to be understood as one (e.g., “Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death” in 107:10a).
- Auditory figures of speech include assonance (e.g., sibilant sounds in 44:7), alliteration (e.g., “beka batehu . .
- batehu” in 22:4), paronomasia (e.g., kol for “all” in 44:15, 17 and qôl for “sound” in 44:16), and onomatopoeia (e.g., the Hebrew word for “meditate,” hagah, in 1:2).
The book of Psalms contains more chapters than any other book in the Bible (150) and has only slightly fewer words than Jeremiah and Genesis. In addition, several special elements of this book are of note.
First, the book of Psalms consists of five smaller books which some have even called “the Pentateuch of David” because they seem to mirror the five books of the Law on which the blessed man is to meditate (Ps 1:2). “As Moses gave five books of the Law to Israel, so David gave five books of Psalms to Israel” (William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms [New Haven: Yale University, 1959], 5). Hamilton also views the Psalms as tracing the biblical storyline which begins with David: “The impressionistic narrative in Psalms seems to have David suffering in Book 1 until his establishment as king (cf. 1 Sam 16–2 Sam 5; Pss 3–41), then bringing the ark into Jerusalem at the beginning of Book 2 (Pss 42–50; 2 Sam 6), sinning with Bathsheba (Ps 51; 2 Sam 11), suffering the consequences (Pss 52–60; 2 Sam 12–20), and slowly recovering from them toward the end of Book 2 (Pss 61–72; cf. 2 Sam 21–24). Book 3 seems to begin from Solomon and work down through the kings descended from David to the exile from the land and the destruction of city and temple in Ps 89 (cf. 2 Kgs 25), noting various attacks on the temple along the way (Pss 74; 79; cf. 1 Kgs 14:25; 2 Chr 12:1–12). With the anointed king cast off and rejected (Ps 89:38), crown in the dust (89:39) and city walls breached (89:40), it looks as though God’s wrath has brought an end to the covenant with David (cf. 89:49–51)……. Book 4 thus begins with “A prayer of Moses, the man of God” (90:ss [MT 90:1]), and in the midst of his intercession Moses prays the very words in 90:13 that he prayed in Exod 32:12, “turn” (שוב), “relent” (נחם)…….. Yahweh will enact his reign (Pss 93–100) through David’s son and Lord (110:1)……. Book 5 then begins with a declaration that sounds like
the longed for salvation has happened: “The redeemed of Yahweh must speak, those he redeemed from the hand of distress. Even from the lands he gathered them: from the east and from the west, from the north and from the sea” (107:2–3)…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. The conquest of
the future king in Ps 110 issues in the “hallelujahs” of Pss 111–118, followed by the celebration of God’s law for the good of God’s people in God’s place in Ps 119. The Songs of Ascent (120–134, literally, songs of “the goings up”) appear to reference the “let him go up” that permitted the historical return to the land (2 Chr 36:23; Ezra 1:3). The exiles come streaming home to Zion, celebrating Yahweh’s lovingkindness (Ps 136), calling for the seed of the woman to bring final triumph against the seed of the serpent (Ps 137), hoping in the new king from the line of David (Pss 138–145), and at the end of all things, praising God (Pss 146–150)” (Hamilton, these five books begins with a blessing and concludes with a doxology (41:13; 72:18–20; 89:52; 106:48; 150:1–6).
Creation (Pss 8, 19), sin,
repentance, and forgiveness
Composed by King David (c. 1000 BC)
Israel’s ruin and redemption
Assembled under either Hezekiah (c. 715–686 BC) or Josiah (c. 640–609 BC)
The holiness of Israel’s sanctuary
and worship in the tabernacle
Same compilers as Book II; Begins with
11 written by Asaph (Pss 73–83)
God’s sovereignty despite Israel’s relapse and recovery in the wilderness; Palm 90 was the only
psalm written by Moses
Likely assembled during the postexilic era under Ezra (458 BC) and Nehemiah (445 BC)
The sufficiency of God’s Word (Ps
119) and the universal praise of Yahweh (Pss 146–150)
Likely compiled under Ezra (600 years after Book I)
The 150 Psalms in our biblical canon today came together over time like a large river fed by innumerable smaller rivers and streams and brooks. Waltke further elucidates,
The vast majority of the psalms were written during the period of the monarchy and first temple—by David, primarily, and others—but over time. Editors—probably Levites—gathered them into an increasing number of collections until finally all 150 were brought together into its final form… This final shaping of the Psalter was accomplished by Levites during the exilic or early postexilic period when Persia ruled over Israel. At this point psalms that call the faithful to the temple for worship (e.g., 95:1–2, 6; 100:1–2, 4) take on new meaning and were sung in faith and the hope of a time of renewal. This was a shaping consideration in the collections and ordering of the Psalter. Then the Psalter in its final form became the hymnbook used in the synagogue, which, in turn, influenced the New Testament church.26
These compilers also grouped certain psalms together by themes, authors, and liturgical settings.
Within these five books the editors seem clearly to have arranged the psalms according to common authorship, genre, theme, and various distinctions and insights. We have psalms of David grouped together (Pss. 3–41), prayers of David (Ps. 72:20), psalms of Asaph (Pss. 73–83), miktam psalms (Ps. 56–60), enthronement psalms (Pss. 95–100), psalms reflecting morning and evening prayers (Pss. 3–6), psalms that celebrate the “name” of the Lord (Pss. 7–9)—these are among the more obvious evidences of editorial arrangements within the Psalter. .
. . The Psalter may rightly be understood as a hymnbook, but we do well to recognize that the songs are placed not haphazardly but intentionally.27
Bruce K Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel, “10 Things You Should Know About the Psalms,” Crossway (blog), August 12, 2023, accessed at 10 Things You Should Know about the Psalms | Crossway Articles
Out of the 150 psalms, 116 possess titles or musical notations in the superscription. Although ancient in origin,28 these superscriptions are not the inspired Scriptures and have sometimes become a matter of dispute. Still, most of them were considered historically accurate and accepted by the biblical authors (see 2 Sam 22:1 and Ps 18:1). For example, Luke 20:42 attributes Psalm 110 to the authorship of David as the title declares (110:1).
Thirtle’s Theory suggests an added consideration.29 He states that any musical notation in a superscription should actually be viewed as a postscript (or colophon) of the previous psalm (e.g., “To the choirmaster”), while the literary and historical materials in the superscription would be for the psalm to follow (e.g., “Of David”). Habakkuk 3 illustrates this practice by identifying the author and tune in verse 1 (“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth”) and placing the musical notation in verse 19b (“To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments”).30 Below, is the likely standard pattern originally employed by the psalmists.
- Superscription: “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son” (Ps 3:1a).
- Psalm/Poem/Hymn (vv. 1b-8).
- Postscript: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (4:1a).
Since we consider the superscriptions to be historically reliable, they can help us to understand the historical context of specific psalms.
Fourteen of the “of David” superscripts describe historical settings from David’s life that are recorded in the books of Samuel. David’s time of exile (1 Sam. 16–31) is mentioned in Psalms 34; 52; 54; 56; 57; 59, and 142. His time of blessing (2 Sam. 1–10) is referred to in Psalms 18 and 60. And his time under divine displeasure (2 Sam. 11–20) finds reference in Psalms 3; 51, and 63. These all are entirely consistent with Davidic authorship.31
David’s Life in the Psalms
The Time of David’s Election and Exile (1 Sam 16–31)
Seized by Achish
Escape from Achish
22:7, 9, 18–20
Some terms were no longer even understandable for the Septuagint scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek approximately 250–300 BC (e.g., Pss 46, 58).
Waltke and Zaspel, Psalms, 38–39. See also the chart included.
Betrayed by Ziphites
In the cave
22 Adullam / 24 Engedi
The Time of David’s Blessing (2 Sam 1–10)
Victory over Transjordan
Victory over all enemies
David under Divine Displeasure (2 Sam 11–20)
Against the House of Uriah
Desert of Judah
Unclassified (2 Sam 21–24)
For the dedication of the temple at the time of numbering the people
Cush the Benjaminite
One final special element is the term, “Selah,” which appears to be a musical notation indicating a pause or interlude. It occurs 71 times in 40 different psalms, calling the reader to pause and reflect on the wisdom just conveyed. Scholars suggest that this musical notation instructed the choral singers and instrumentalists to either build a crescendo or to lift their hands in “Hallelujah!” as an affirmation of the marvelous truths just sung. Some today will read aloud, “Selah,” as a part of the psalm, while others will silently pause.
For Further Study:
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Ash, Christopher. Teaching the Psalms: From Text to Message, 2 vols. Fearn, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2017. Berlin, Adele. The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.
Brown, William P. Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002. Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003.
Chan, William. “How to Interpret the Psalms.” Equipping Class. Woodland Hills, CA: New Life Church, 2015, accessed
Firth, David G. “The Teaching of the Psalms.” In Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, eds. David Firth and Philip S. Johnson. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005.
Freedman, David N. “Another Look at Biblical Poetry.” In Directions in Hebrew Poetry, ed. Elaine R. Follis. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1987.
. “Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy: An Essay in Biblical Poetry.” Journal of Biblical Literature 96 (1977), 5–26.
Futato, Mark D. Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007.
Graves, Mike. The Sermon as Symphony: Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament. King of Prussia, PA: Judson Press, 1997.
Keel, Othmar. The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms.
Translated by Timothy J. Hallett. New York: Crossroad, 1985.
Kugel, James L. The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Long, Thomas G. Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988. Longman, Tremper, III. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988.
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr. A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Miller, Patrick D. Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986.
Mondal, Anna. “Poetic Soul Care.” Biblical Counseling Coalition (blog), August 3, 2020, accessed at https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2020/08/03/poetic-soul-care.
Ryken, Leland. Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.
Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998.
Schaefer, Konrad. Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry. Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 2001. Watson, Wilfred G. E. Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1984. Wiersbe, Warren. Preaching and Teaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1994).
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.