The Book of Psalms—A Study

By Wayne Jackson

There is no portion of the Bible that is as frequently read as the book of Psalms. It provides instruction, inspiration, motivation, and consolation. In this article we will present some background information regarding the Psalms which hopefully will help the Bible student as he considers the grand truths of this Old Testament document.

Facts about the Psalms

The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 lyric poems. A lyric poem is defined as “that which directly expresses the individual emotions of the poet.” Religious lyric poetry reflects the inner feelings of the person whose soul is stirred by thoughts of God. The Psalms are thus inspired responses of various individuals to God’s revelation of himself in the Old Testament era.

Background information concerning the Psalms is obtained from three sources: contextual data within the respective poems, the superscriptions connected with many of these works, and the New Testament usage of these compositions.

We must say a word regarding the “titles” or superscriptions which are associated with 116 of these poems. The titles are not a part of the original inspired documents. However, they do reflect great antiquity, antedating even the Septuagint of the third century B.C. These titles, in many cases, supply such information as: the name of the author (Psalm 110), the historical circumstance which occasioned the narrative (Psalm 59), and the type of literature, e.g., whether it is a song (Psalm 65) or a prayer (Psalm 90).

The Psalms were composed over a span of about one thousand years. The earliest was by Moses (Psalm 90) in the fifteenth century B.C., and a couple appear to be contemporary with the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C. (Psalms 126 and 137). Some of these poems are not assigned authors (almost a third of them). Other composers are identified: one by Moses, seventy-three by David, twelve by Asaph, ten by the descendants of Korah, one or two by Solomon, one by Heman, and one by Ethan.

The Nature of Hebrew Poetry

Unlike our modern poetry, which is designed to rhyme, Hebrew poetry is characterized by a rhythmic arrangement of thought patterns. This is called parallelism. Scholars distinguish several types of parallelism.

There is, for instance, synonymous parallelism. This is where a thought is uttered; then, the same idea is expressed again in slightly different terms.

O Jehovah my God, in thee do I take refuge:
Save me from all them that pursue me, and deliver me (7:1).

There is also antithetic parallelism in which the second line is set in contrast to the previous line.

For Jehovah knoweth the way of the righteous;
But the way of the wicked shall perish (1:6).

It is interesting to note that some of the Psalms are arranged acrostically, i.e., in various forms they are designed to flow with the Hebrew alphabet (cf. 37; 119). For example, in Psalm 119 each section of eight verses begins with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This arrangement may have been intended to facilitate memorization.

At some point in antiquity, the Psalms were divided into five sections, which are still reflected in our modern Bibles. These are: Book I (1-41), Book II (42-72), Book III (73-89), Book IV (90-106), and Book V (107-150).

The Psalms in the New Testament

The Psalms are quoted more frequently in the New Testament than any other book of the Old Testament. There are about one hundred direct references or allusions from the Psalms in the New Testament. The divine inspiration of the Psalms is strongly affirmed in the New Testament. Jesus asked the Jewish leaders of his day, “How then doth David in the Spirit call him [the Messiah] Lord?” Christ was quoting from Psalm 110. Again, Peter, quoting from Psalm 69, declared, “The Holy Spirit spake before by the mouth of David concerning Judas” (Acts 1:16ff).

Classifying the Psalms

It is very difficult to classify the Psalms according to theme, but the following is a rough approximation which may be helpful.

Psalms of praise

A number of the Psalms are aimed at extolling the nature of God as his divinity is observed in both his works and his word. Psalm 19 is an excellent example. This magnificent composition affirms the revelation of Jehovah in his work of creation (vv. 1-6) and in his verbalized communication with man in history (vv. 7-14).

Historical Psalms

Some scholars have catalogued more than twenty historical or national psalms. Consider Psalm 105: It commences with an anthem of praise to God for his wonderful works (vv. 1-5). It then rehearses the covenant that Jehovah made with Abraham (vv. 6-15). It recalls the adventures of Joseph, and the sojourn of Israel in Egypt (vv. 16-24). The Psalm tells of Moses the deliverer, and the devastating plagues which God rained upon evil Egypt (vv. 25-38). There is an allusion to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (vv. 39-41). Finally, the conquest of Canaan is celebrated (vv. 42-45). Great lessons are to be learned from history.

Ethical Psalms

Some of the Psalms emphasize the origin and nature of man. They stress his moral responsibility and ultimate accountability. For example, the dignity of man is underscored in Psalm 8, where the writer, contemplating the grandeur of the creation—which was made subject to humanity—is forced to wonder, “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?”

Note the ethical implications of Psalm 1, where the spiritual person is described as one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers. Accountability is indicated by the fact that “the wicked shall not stand in the judgment.”

Psalms of Penitence

Some of the Psalms reflect upon the holiness of God and, by way of contrast, the sinfulness of man. They acknowledge the fact that evil conduct is an assault upon the Creator, and they evince a deep feeling of contrition as a consequence of offending Jehovah. David’s tragic sins, along with the heartaches that followed, are echoed in several of the Psalms (cf. 6; 32; 38; 51; 143). The spirit of these poems surely stands in bold relief to the flippant attitude toward sin that is so characteristic of today’s world.

Imprecatory Psalms

An imprecation is a prayer for the defeat and/or destruction of one’s enemies. Several of the Psalms are strongly of this tone (cf. 35; 69; 109; 137)—a circumstance that has caused liberal critics to attack the inspiration of these pieces of literature. What is frequently overlooked, however, is the fact that these biblical imprecations are not expressions of personal, hateful vengeance; rather, they are pronouncements regarding the divine justice that is due those who are persistent enemies of the Holy God. And they were uttered, not out of heated passion, but under the calm guidance of the Holy Spirit (cf. 69; Acts 1:16-20). (For more on this see Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?)

Messianic Psalms

Though some rational critics, like T. K. Cheyne, denied the Messianic import of some of the Psalms, our Lord obviously taught otherwise. Shortly after his resurrection, Christ declared that all things that had been written in the law of Moses, in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning him, must be fulfilled (Luke 24:44).

Various truths regarding the Messiah are set forth in the Psalms. He would be both divine (45:6-7) and human (22:22). He would be betrayed (41:9) and suffer death (22:1-31). But he would rise from the grave (16:10), and ascend into heaven where he serves as our king and priest (110:1-7).

Ceremonial Psalms

Finally, we note that some of the Psalms were obviously designed to accommodate certain elements of Jewish worship. Psalm 30 was composed for the dedication of the temple site. The Sabbath day is celebrated in Psalm 90.

The Theology of the Psalms

The Bible is characterized by theological unity; accordingly, one is not surprised to learn that the great truths which burst into full bloom in the New Testament are found in germ form in the Old Testament. The Psalms contribute significantly to this concept. For example, the nature of God is graphically set forth in the Psalms. He is eternal (90:2), omnipresent (139:7-12), powerful and wise (147:5), immutable (33:11), holy (47:8), and just (89:14); therefore, he is worthy to be praised (18:3).

The Psalms affirm that Jehovah is the creator of the universe (8:3; 19:1), and the maker and preserver of man (139:14; 36:6). These poems underscore the fact that man has introduced sin into this world and that horrible consequences have followed in its wake, including the prospect of divine judgment (58:1-11). But God is represented as a gracious and merciful redeemer (51:1-2; 78:38-39; 86:15), who is willing to pardon those who seek his forgiveness through obedience (81:13; 103:17-18).

Some religious materialists (i.e., those who argue that the wicked cease to exist at death) allege that a basis for their doctrine is to be found in the Psalms, but that assertion is baseless. As A. F. Kirkpatrick noted: “Death is never regarded in the O. T. as annihilation or the end of personal existence.” In death, though man’s association with this earth is cut off, and though the hope of the future is dimly viewed, nevertheless, the righteous soul will be redeemed from the power of Sheol (49:15), and received into glory (73:24; cf. 16:11; 17:15).

The sacred poetry of the religions of ancient paganism has faded in the dust of oblivion. Scarcely anyone at all can quote a line of it. And yet the Psalms are as fresh as if written yesterday. How can this be? There is but one explanation: they were invigorated by the Spirit of the living God. Let us bathe our souls in this spring of divine truth.

Note: Tom Wacaster, a splendid Christian writer, has produced a wonderful Seven Volume set covering all 150 Psalms of the Old Testament. The Songs And Devotions of David is one of the finest studies of the Psalms that I’ve encountered. Each of these inspired psalms is provided with an “Introduction,” an overall “Analysis,” of that document, and a verse-by-verse commentary. There could be no finer way to work your way through this marvelous Old Testament library of poetic literature. For price and ordering information, the author may be contacted at: PO Box 283, Talco, TX 75487. Phone: 903-427-0212. WJ

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.