Understanding the book of Psalms
The book of Psalms is a collection of religious poems employed for the public worship
of God. It could be called God’s hymn book. It is possibly the most widely used book
in the Bible and is the foremost book which shows men speaking to God. it is therefore
primarily a book for devotions and worship. It is one book – a unified whole. Jesus
tells us this in Luke 20:42 “Now David himself said in the book of Psalms”. In Hebrew
it is called “The Book of the Songs of Praise”. The name Psalm comes from the Greek
version of the Old Testament title,where the book is called “Psalmoi”. There are
150 Psalms, which are divided into 5 books, each of which closes with a doxology
or song of praise.
1 to 41
42 to 72
73 to 89
90 to 106
107 to 150
Who wrote the Psalms?
All the psalms were of course inspired by God. Jesus often quoted from the Psalms
and quotes them as the Word of God. We know who wrote 100 of the Psalms, usually
from the heading. The oldest was written in around 1400 BC and the latest around
The Bible says that Solomon composed 1005 songs (1 Kings 4: 32) so he may have composed
some of the remaining 50. Scholars think that David also composed many of the rest.
What are the main themes?
There are different types of Psalms:
- Teaching - e.g. Psalm 15
- Praise - These are psalms of praise, beginning and/or ending with "hallelujah"
or "praise Jehovah" e.g. Psalm 113
- Historical - A review the history of God's dealings with
- His people e.g. Psalm 106
- Imprecatory - These are psalms which invoke God to bring evil upon
one's enemies e.g. Psalm 69
- Messianic - Those psalms pertaining to the coming Messiah e.g. Psalm 2
- Penitential - Psalms expressing sorrow for sins committed e.g. Psalm 51
- Songs of Ascent - Psalms sung by pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem to
observe the feasts. They are grouped together: Psalms 120-134
- Suffering - These psalms are cries of those suffering affliction e.g. Psalm 102
- Thanksgiving - These are psalms of grateful praise to Jehovah for blessings
received e.g. Psalm 100
There are three great themes in the Psalms:
- Cries for rescue from sin and misery
- Songs commemorating deliverance
- Hymns of praise and gratitude
How should we interpret the psalms?
We need to understand four important things about the book of Psalms
1) We must remember that they are poetry. C S Lewis said “The psalms are poems and
poems intended to be sung. They are not doctrinal treatises or even sermons. They
must be read as poems if they are to be understood.” The form of poetry that we are
most used to in English is rhymes. A well-known example by A. A. Milne is:
When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three,
I was hardly Me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever.
Now the problem with rhymes is that they are very difficult to translate into another
language.The poetry of the psalms is of a type called parallelism. In parallelism
the same thought is repeated two or three times, each time in a slightly different
way. Sometimes what is repeated is the opposite thought. Here is a famous modern
We shall fight on the beaches
We shall fight on the landing grounds
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets
But we shall never surrender.
The main thought is this: We shall fight everywhere we find the enemy. But it is
expressed in three different ways. The wonderful thing about parallelism poetry is
that it does survive translation into another language. How great is God’s planning!
We have to look no further than Psalm 1 to see examples of this (verses 1, 2, 3,
4, 5 & 6.) How amazing that God would cause Jewish poetry to have the one form that
does translate into any other language! The Psalms do use other poetic devices (rhyme,
wordplay, acrostics), but these are secondary. This means that when we are reading
and interpreting the Psalms we can often understand the meaning better by looking
at how the same thought is expressed twice.
2) They deal with real people facing real situations and recording their real feelings.
The Psalms were often written in response to situations that believers were facing
– good or bad. We are told this in the headings that many contain. Look at Psalm
3. These headings are in fact part of the psalm, as is often indicated in French
Bibles, where they are numbered as verse 1. Often the Psalmist will pour out their
heart to the Lord (Psalm 3:1). This means that we can associate very much with what
is written. In fact that whatever our situation, however we feel, there is a Psalm
for that moment. This is why we love them so much.
3) They are a Bible within a Bible. In spite what I said about them being poetry,
the Psalms are FULL to overflowing with doctrine. In fact Malcolm Watts says that
in one sense the Psalms are a complete systematic theology:
Creation and providence – Psalm 104
Sovereignty of God – Psalm 33
Law of God – Psalm 119
Christ and His work – Psalms 2, 16, 22
Depravity – Psalms 14, 51
Regeneration – Psalm 40
Adoption – Psalm 103
Assurance - Psalm 23
Church – Psalm 122
Last things – Psalm 16
4) We can expect to find Christ in some way in every Psalm. All evangelicals know
agree that some Psalms are messianic. This is because the New Testament writers quote
from them! Examples are
- Psalm 2:7 – Acts 13:33
- Psalm 8:6 – Hebrews 2: 6 to 10
- Psalm 16:10 – Acts 2: 27
- Psalm 22:8 – Matthew 27: 43
- Psalm 40:7-8 – Hebrews 10:7
- Psalm 41:9 – John 13:18
- Psalm 45:6 – Hebrews 1: 8
- Psalm 69:9 – John 2: 17
- Psalm 110:4 – Hebrews 7:17
- Psalm 118:22 – Matthew 21:43
But we can find Christ in all the others as well as in all the Old Testament. Look
at what Jesus said to the disciples after his resurrection - Luke 24:44 In every
Psalm, as in every chapter of the Bible, we can find some reference or allusion to
Christ and his saving work for us.
Thank you for reading this message. If you have any questions please do not hesitate
to contact us.
Quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible, copyright Thomas
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