This is part of our series on genre in the Bible. You need to understand the genre of each part if you want to hear what God has to say to us today. This post looks at how to read Psalms.
What Are Psalms?
In the Bible the Psalms are a category all their own. If the Bible is God’s word to us, the Psalms are human words to God. They are poems that people in the past have offered to God, that he hands back to us so that we can join in. When we read them we are joining with brothers and sisters in Christ down through the ages.
If the Bible is God’s word to us, the Psalms are human words to God.
Many of the Psalms have information at the beginning, which were added later and weren’t part of the psalm. Sometimes there is some helpful background (for example, Psalm 51). Some Psalms give the name of the author; many are anonymous. There are 73 attributed to David, though many of these just say “of David,” which could mean simply that they’re associated with him. One (Psalm 90) is attributed to Moses. Others are attributed to Asaph (12), sons of Korah (10), Solomon (2), Hemen (1), Ethan (1). If this information is correct, they cover a period from 1500 BC to the return from exile a thousand years later. Some Psalms have information for the musicians, such as the word “Selah.” (We don’t know for certain what it means.)
The Psalms give expression to a vast range of emotions, from praise and joy to the depth of suffering. Some psalms are full of anger and despair. These usually end in praise as the psalmist stops to consider the love and faithfulness of God. (Psalm 88 is the exception—it sees no hope, and you might wonder why it’s in the Bible. It’s there because there are rare occasions when that’s just how we feel, and it comes alongside us at those times.)
We often find it hard to put our feelings into words. Many of the psalms have been set to music, and we can sing them back to God—either in community or in the privacy of our own home.
The Psalms give expression to a vast range of emotions, from praise and joy to the depth of suffering. Some psalms are full of anger and despair.
Types of psalms
First there are praise psalms.
Many years ago I was on a retreat in the Rockies in the company of some outstanding Christian leaders. On a Sunday morning we spent some time in prayer. Whoever was leading it divided the time into Praise, Confession, Thanksgiving, Intercession, Supplication. For the Praise time, he instructed us not to get into thanking God for what he has done for us, but to praise him for who he is. We found it just about impossible not to talk about ourselves! The Psalms can help us here.
For the Praise time, he instructed us not to get into thanking God for what he has done for us, but to praise him for who he is. We found it just about impossible not to talk about ourselves! The Psalms can help us here.
Psalms of Lament
The largest category of psalms is psalms of lament. These are either the laments of a whole community, for example in times of warfare and defeat, or of an individual. Many of these were written by David, whose life was full of suffering and trouble. Some of these psalms call down curses on the enemy, and if we’re reading them while everything in our own lives is hunky-dory we might well wonder what they’re doing in our Bible. But if our lives are under threat, there are words here for us to vent our feelings.
There’s an important lesson for us here. Who of us hasn’t tried, some time or another, to suppress our feelings and come to God in what we think is a suitable frame of mind? The Psalms teach us to do the opposite and come to God as we are, anger and hatred and vengeance and all. He knows us. He can take it. He can deal with it. He wants to, and until we have acknowledged it, he can’t.
There’s an interesting corollary here. David was never vindictive towards his enemies. If you read his story in 1 and 2 Samuel you may wonder how he could do it. The answer is in the Psalms: he knew where to take his feelings—to a God he knew, who could handle them. Thank God for the honesty of the Psalms.
God knows us. He can take it. He can deal with it. He wants to, and until we have acknowledged it he can’t.
There are psalms for special occasions, thanksgiving psalms, wisdom psalms, psalms of remembrance which sing of God’s loving activity in history down through the ages, royal psalms to celebrate a king, and messianic psalms, which see with a prophetic eye how the current king points forward to the reign of Jesus Christ.
Some tips for reading the Psalms
- Identify the situation of the psalmist, and come alongside him in your imagination, if not in your current experience.
- Don’t read them for “content.” Read them to give voice to your feelings. Take your time with them.
- Read each psalm as a whole. Often the orientation that the psalm offers comes at the end.
- Try reading them aloud, or singing them.
- The psalms need a background of understanding, the same as any other part of Scripture. But when you’ve looked at the background, try just sitting still with the psalm, and see what God says to you. Read and re-read.
- There are lots of books about the Psalms. I’d like to recommend one in particular, written by a Canadian who has written frequently for Scripture Union Canada. It’s called Psalms 365, by David Kitz, published in three volumes. David Kitz writes powerfully and personally and shows us, Jesus, in the Psalms.