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Introduction to Psalms

The value of the Old Testament to the Christian is expressed several times in the New Testament:

For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Ro 15:4)
Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Co 10:11)

Paul reminded Timothy of the importance of the Old Testament scriptures he had learned as a child:

But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Ti 3:14-17)

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:

Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, (Ep 5:19)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Co 3:16)
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. (Ja 5:13)

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 (Ac 2:25-28,34-35).

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 Christian's "hymnal" to assist us in our praise to God
  • The Christian's "prayer book" in which we learn how to approach God in prayer
  • The Christian's "book of evidences" to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ
  • The Christian's "training guide" for living holy and righteous lives before God
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...

For He has founded it upon the seas,
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...

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
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...

Your word I have hidden in my heart, (cause)
That I might not sin against You! (effect)

Progressive parallelism - There are several varieties of this form, the most common being:

Stair-like - Composed of several lines, each providing a complete element of the aggregate or composite thought. Notice Psa 1:1...
Blessed is the man...
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)
Climatic - Here the principal idea in the first line is repeated and expanded to complete the thought. An example is found in Psa 29:1...
Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones (give what?)
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...

Because he has set his love upon Me, (note line 4)
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...

a) The figure must be accepted and dealt with as a figure of speech, not as a literal statement

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.

b) The figure must be interpreted in light of its meaning in the setting in which it was used

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:

"...in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ep 5:19)

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:

Exo 15:1-15 - a song of triumph following the crossing of the Red Sea

Deu 32, 33 - a song of exhortation to keep the Law after entering Canaan

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 (1 Chr 16:1-7). He wrote twelve (12) psalms.

The Sons of Korah - These were Levites who served in the Temple (1 Chr 26:1-19). They wrote twelve (12) psalms.

Solomon - At least two (2) psalms are attributed to him (Psa 72, 127). That he wrote many more is stated in 1 Ki 4:29-32.

Moses - As indicated above, he wrote the earliest psalms; one is included in Psalms (Psa 90).

Heman - Contemporary with David and Asaph, and is known as "the singer" (1 Chr 6:33). He wrote one psalm (Psa 88) that has been preserved.

Ethan - A companion with Asaph and Heman in the Temple worship (1 Chr 15:19). He wrote one psalm (Psa 89).

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...

Book I (Psa 1-41)
Book II (Psa 42-72)
Book III (Psa 73-89)
Book IV (Psa 90-106)
Book V (Psa 107-150)

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.
  • Messianic - Psalms pertaining to the coming Messiah. For example, look at Psa 2 or Psa 110.
  • 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.

Review Questions for the Introduction
  1. According to Ro 15:4, why was the Old Testament written?
    • For our learning
    • That through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope
  2. According to 1 Co 10:11, why were the events in Old Testament times recorded?
    • For our admonition
  3. As Paul reminded Timothy, of what value were the Scriptures (Old Testament) he had learned as a child? (cf. 2 Ti 3:14-15)
    • They were able to make him wise regarding the salvation through faith in Christ Jesus
  4. What is Scripture profitable for, including the Old Testament? (cf. 2 Ti 3:16-17)
    • Doctrine
    • Reproof
    • Correction
    • Instruction in righteousness
    • To make the man of God complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work
  5. What three Scriptures teach Christians to utilize the Psalms?
  6. What are the Psalms capable of serving for the Christian?
    • As the Christian's "hymnal"
    • As the Christian's "prayer book"
    • As the Christian's "book of evidence"
    • As the Christian's "training guide" for living holy and righteous lives
  7. What will be the aim of this study in the Psalms?
    • To become more familiar with Old Testament poetry
    • To develop an appreciation and working knowledge of the Psalms
    • To glean a clearer picture of God's character
    • To learn more of the Christ in prophecy
    • To consider examples of fulfilled prophecies
  8. What three characteristics of Hebrew poetry were pointed out in this introduction?
    • The use of "thought rhyme"
    • The lack of poetic rhythm
    • The use of figurative expression
  9. List the five different types of "parallelism" described in this study.
    • Synonymous
    • Antithetical
    • Synthetic
    • Progressive
    • Introverted
  10. What was the original meaning of the word "psalm"?
    • To pluck
  11. In New Testament worship, what is the instrument upon which melody is to be played? (cf. Ep 5:19)
    • The heart
  12. Who wrote some of the earliest Psalms?
    • Moses
  13. When did the writing of Psalms reach its peak?
    • During the time of David
  14. List some of the authors who penned the Psalms in our Bible.
    • David (73), Asaph (12), the sons of Korah (12), Solomon (2), Moses (1), Heman (1), Ethan (1), anonymous (48)
  15. List different "groups" into which the Psalms can be placed.
    • Alphabetic (Acrostic), Ethical, Hallelujah, Historical, Imprecatory, Messianic, Penitential, Songs Of Ascent (Degrees), Suffering, Thanksgiving
  16. List the different "styles" of the Psalms.
    • Didactic, Liturgical, Meditation, Praise and Devotion, Prayer and Petition
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