The value of the Old Testament to the Christian is expressed several times in the New Testament:
Paul reminded Timothy of the importance of the Old Testament scriptures he had learned as a child:
Of the books of the Old Testament, this is especially true of the book of Psalms! The value of the Psalms for the Christian is so great, we should do what we can to become more familiar with them. Allow me to elaborate…
Why Study The Psalms?
As Christians, we are commanded to utilize the Psalms:
Thus the Psalms are useful for singing praises to God. They are also useful for teaching and confirming that Jesus is the Christ or Messiah. Note the use Jesus made of them (Lk 24:44-47), and also Peter's use of them in his first gospel sermon (Act 2:25-28; 2:34-35).
It has been said that in the Psalms one finds "expressed the eager yearning and longing for God's presence". It certainly contains "prayers and songs of joyous trust and praise." Indeed, every emotion known to man is expressed in beautiful and inspired terms (e.g., joy, anger, praise, repentance, trust, even doubt). Filled with some emotion for which you cannot find the words to express it? It is likely you will find it expressed in the book of Psalms!
I would therefore suggest that the Psalms are capable of serving as:
The Aim Of This Study
It is my prayer that as we study this book we will accomplish the following goals:
Become more familiar with Old Testament poetry - This is essential to getting more out the Psalms, and important if we are to avoid misinterpreting them
Develop an appreciation and working knowledge of the Psalms - So one may utilize them for his or her own comfort and encouragement, and in counseling and comforting others
Glean a clearer picture of God's character - To better understand His love, mercy and deliverance towards the righteous, but also His wrath and judgment against the wicked
Learn more of the Christ in prophecy - To note descriptions of His suffering and glorious reign found in the Psalms, some of which are not found elsewhere in Scripture
Consider examples of fulfilled prophecies - To see in fulfilled prophecy irrefutable arguments for the inspiration of the Scriptures, and for the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah
These are just a few of the reasons why the Book of Psalms should be read and studied by every Christian, and hopefully this study will help to meet these objectives.
Characteristics Of Hebrew Poetry
Before we get into the background of the Psalms themselves, it may prove beneficial to consider some things about Hebrew poetry. Not only will this help to better understand the nature of the Psalms, but it can also assist in proper interpretation of this portion of Scripture.
One of the things that makes Hebrew poetry different is…
1) The Use of "Thought Rhyme"
Also known as "parallelism", thought rhyme involves arranging thoughts in relation to each other. This is done without a concern as to whether certain words rhyme with each other (as found in most modern poetry). In the Psalms, we find several different kinds of thought rhyme:
Synonymous parallelism - The thought of first line is repeated in the second line, expressed in different words for the sake of emphasis. A good example is found in Psa 24:2…
And established it upon the waters. (same idea, reworded)
Antithetical parallelism - The truth presented in one line is strengthened by a contrasting statement in the next line. Consider this example from Psa 1:6…
But the way of the ungodly shall perish. (note the contrast)
Synthetic parallelism - The first and second lines bear some definite relation to each other (such as cause and effect, or proposition and conclusion). A good example is Psa 119:11…
That I might not sin against You! (effect)
Progressive parallelism - There are several varieties of this form, the most common being:
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; (note the progression)
Give unto the LORD glory and strength. (the answer)
Introverted parallelism - The first line is closely related in thought to the fourth, and the second to the third. For example, consider Psa 91:14…
therefore I will deliver him; (note line 3)
I will set him on high, (note line 2)
because he has known My name. (note line 1)
It is often fascinating to note how creative the Hebrew poets were as they composed their poetry using "thought rhyme" rather than "word rhyme". In some cases it even helps in interpreting difficult expressions or phrases. Another characteristic of Hebrew poetry is…
2) The Lack Of Poetic Rhythm
Much modern poetry has standard measures of identifiable rhythm, as in the poem "Mary Had A Little Lamb." With the Hebrews, however, the art of poetic rhythm was of secondary consideration. Some suggest that it is not likely that the Hebrew poets had standard measures, worked out and carefully defined. Again, their focus was on "thought rhyme," not "word rhyme."
Finally, an important characteristic of Hebrew poetry is…
3) The Use Of Figurative Expression
The Psalms are filled with figurative expressions, and as such it is important to keep certain principles of interpretation in mind…
For example, in Psa 18:31, the Lord is called "a rock." He is like a rock, but not one literally. In Psa 51:4, David says "Against You, You only, have I sinned." Yet he is confessing his sin of adultery with Bathsheba, in which he sinned not only against the Lord, but against his wife, against Uriah, and many others. David was speaking figuratively for the sake of expressing his deep grief in sinning against God, and we must allow for figurative expressions including hyperbole in poetic writings. One needs to be careful and not develop doctrinal beliefs upon what may be figurative expressions not intended to be taken literally.
For example, in Psa 23:4, we find the well-known phrase: "the valley of the shadow of death." It is not uncommon to hear the phrase applied at funerals to the act of dying. In the setting of the psalm, however, it refers to a treacherous place (such as a steep valley, where deep shadows can easily cause a misstep resulting in death), where the guiding hand of a shepherd would be very helpful to sheep to avoid death. It is therefore applicable to any time one is in perilous straits and in need of God's guiding hand.
Appreciating these characteristics of Hebrew poetry can help the Psalms become more meaningful, and understanding these characteristics can also help avoid misinterpreting the Psalms to teach doctrines the psalmist had no intention of teaching!
Background Material On The Psalms
Having examined some of unique characteristics of Hebrew poetry in general, let's now focus on the book of Psalms itself…
1) The Origin Of The Word "Psalm"
The Greek word is "psalmos", from the Hebrew word "zmr" meaning "to pluck"; i.e., taking hold of the strings of an instrument with the fingers. It implies that the psalms were originally composed to be accompanied by a stringed instrument. "Psalms are songs for the lyre, and therefore lyric poems in the strictest sense."(Delitzsch, Psalms, Vol. I, p. 7) David and others therefore originally wrote the Psalms to be sung to the accompaniment of the harp.
In New Testament worship, we are told to sing the psalms to the accompaniment of the heart:
The phrase, "making melody," comes from the Greek word "psallontes" (literally, plucking the strings of). Therefore, we are to "pluck the strings of our heart" as we sing the psalms (i.e., to sing with emotion).
2) The History Of The Psalms
The oldest of the Psalms originate from the time of Moses (1400 B.C.). We have three psalms penned by Moses:
Exd 15:1-15 - a song of triumph following the crossing of the Red Sea
Psa 90 - a song of meditation, reflection, and prayer
After Moses, the writing of Psalms had its "peaks" and "valleys"…
In David (1000 B.C.), the sacred lyric attained to its full maturity.
With Solomon, the creation of psalms began to decline; this was "the age of the proverb."
Only twice after this did the creation of psalms rise to any height, and then only for a short period: under Jehoshaphat (875 B.C.) and again under Hezekiah (725 B.C.).
3) The Authors Of The Psalms
David - Commonly thought to be the author of the book of Psalms, but he actually wrote only about seventy-three (73), less than half.
Asaph - The music director during the reigns of David and Solomon (1Ch 16:1-7). He wrote twelve (12) psalms.
The Sons of Korah - These were Levites who served in the Temple (1Ch 26:1-19). They wrote twelve (12) psalms.
Moses - As indicated above, he wrote the earliest psalms; one is included in Psalms (Psa 90).
Anonymous - The authorship of forty-eight (48) of the psalms is unknown.
4) The Arrangement Of The Psalms
The Psalms were originally collected into five "books", apparently according to the material found within them…
The Psalms can also be arranged into chief "groups"…
Alphabetic or Acrostic - These psalms have lines which in Hebrew start with words whose first letters follow a certain pattern. For example, in Psa 119 the first eight lines start with words beginning with the Hebrew letter ALEPH, the second eight lines with words beginning with BETH, etc. This may have been done to aid in the memorization of the psalm.
Ethical - These psalms teach moral principles. A good example is Psa 15.
Hallelujah - These are psalms of praise, beginning and/or ending with "hallelujah" or "praise Jehovah". Psa 103 is one such example.
Historical - Psalms which review the history of God's dealings with His people. A good sample would be Psa 106.
Imprecatory - These psalms invoke God to bring punishment or judgment upon one's enemies. Consider Psa 69 as an example.
Penitential - These are psalms expressing sorrow for sins that have been committed. A classic example is David's psalm in Psa 51.
Songs Of Ascent (or Songs Of Degrees) - These psalms were possibly sung by pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem to observe the feasts. They are grouped together as Psa 120-134.
Suffering - These psalms are cries of those suffering affliction. Psa 102 is a typical example.
Thanksgiving - Psalms of grateful praise to Jehovah for blessings received. For example, take a look at Psa 100.
The various "styles" of the psalms can be described as…
Didactic - Psalms of teaching and instruction (e.g., Psa 1).
Liturgical - Responsive readings, for use in special services (e.g., Psa 136).
Meditation - The ancient Hebrews were given to meditation, which spirit finds expression in many of the psalms (e.g., Psa 119).
Praise and Devotion - Psalms of joyful praise (e.g., Psa 148).
Prayer and Petition - Psalms which were sung in an attitude of prayer (e.g., Psa 51).
Hopefully, this brief background of the Book Of Psalms will help one gain a better feel and appreciation for this type of Scripture.
Executable Outlines, Copyright © Mark A. Copeland, 2003
Cite This Page:
Copeland, Mark A. "The Book of Psalms," Executable Outlines. The Blue Letter Bible. 28 Aug 2003. 22 May 2013.