Reading the Psalms
As a church family we are now reading through the Psalms as a part of our daily bible readings. The following article is written to help you keep reading through the Psalms. We hope that it might help give you fresh impetus to your studying of this part of God’s word.
(The article is a summary of chapter 1 from the book How to Read the Psalms, by Tremper Longman III.)
While many people can find parts of the Old Testament hard to understand and apply, the Psalms are often more easily understood and applied. They readily connect with all of who we are: informing our intellect, evoking our emotions, directing our wills and stimulating our imaginations. But as accessible as the Psalms may be, we can all benefit from thinking how to understand and apply them better. The aim of this article is to provide some help to do just that.
Types of Psalms
It is helpful to identify the type (or genre – for those who like fancy words) of Psalm because it affects how we interpret and apply this part of God’s word. By looking at the different types of Psalms it will help us appreciate the range of meaning and application that we can draw from one Psalm as opposed to another.
1. The Hymn
Hymns are characterised by overflowing praise to God. They include the following: (1) a call or calls to praise God; (2) reasons why we should praise God – often introduced by the word “for” or “because”.
Example: Psalm 96
Call: Sing to the LORD a new song… (v. 1)
Reason: For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens (v. 5)
Practical advice when reading a hymn:
- Look out for the words “for” or “because” which introduce the reasons for praising God
- Make a list of all the reasons the psalmist (the writer of the Psalm) gives for praising God
- Turn these into personal prayers of praise
2. The Lament
The lament is the psalmist’s cry to God when in great distress. As the psalmist cries out he recognises God is the only place he can look for help. Their distress can be caused by themselves, their enemies or because of their frustration with God. Structurally they will include some of: (1) Invocation – a desperate cry to God; (2) Plea to God for help; (3) Complaints; (4) Confession of sin or assertion of innocence; (5) Curse on enemies; (6) Confidence in God’s response; (7) Hymn or blessing.
Example: Psalm 22
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (Psalm 22:1-2)
Practical advice when reading a lament:
- Try and identify the object of the psalmist’s complaint, is it himself, his enemies or God?
- If himself – how does the Psalm give expression to our prayers when in a similar state?
- If his enemies – how does the Psalm help us to pray for Christians under intense persecution?
- If God – does the psalmist’s complaint strike a chord with your experience? How does the Psalm inform the psalmist’s thinking and answer his complaint? What do you learn about God?
3. Thanksgiving Psalm
These Psalms are songs of thanks and praise for answered prayer. Typically they include: (1) a call to praise or a promise of praise; (2) a restatement of the lament or prayer for deliverance.
Example: Psalm 18
Call: The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted by God my Saviour! He is the God who avenges me… (vv. 46-47)
Lament: The chords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. (v. 4)
(Note that the order can be reversed.)
Practical advice for reading a thanksgiving psalm:
- Identify the lament that has been answered. What does God’s rescue teach us about who he is?
- Use the words of praise and thanks to form a personal prayer of your own.
4. Psalm of Confidence
In a Psalm of Confidence the psalmist expresses his trust in God’s goodness and power. These psalms are identified more by mood than content. The psalmist is able to express wholehearted trust in God in spite of very difficult or dangerous circumstances. They often use metaphors (word pictures) to describe what God is like: refuge (11:1; 16:1), shepherd (23:1), light (27:1), rock (62:2) and help (121:2).
Example: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1)
Practical advice for reading a Psalm of Confidence
- Identify the factors which threaten the Psalmist
- Note the pictures to describe God which bring him confidence – what do these teach you about God and how we ought to trust him?
5. Psalms of Remembrance
In these Psalms the psalmists recount God’s saving acts to his people from the past. The main events they mention are: (1) the Exodus out of Egypt, and (2) the establishment of King David and the Kings that follow after him. The intent is not just to recount historic information, but to teach about God, his saving plans and to call others to praise him.
Example: Psalm 105
“Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgements he pronounced.” (Psalm 105:5)
Practical advice for reading Psalms of Remembrance
- Note which of God’s great acts are remembered. What does this teach us about God? How are these acts fulfilled in Christ? How can this lead us to rightly praise God?
6. Wisdom Psalms
The theme of wisdom is not just reserved for books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Job. There are Psalms, or parts of Psalms, styled like the Proverbs. They express God’s will in the nitty-gritty of daily life. Things to look out for include: contrasts between the righteous and the wicked (Psalm 1); reflection on the goodness of the law and/or creation (Psalm 19); the complexities of suffering (Psalm 73).
Example: Psalm 1
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” (Psalm 1:1)
Practical advice for reading Wisdom Psalms:
- If addressing the lives of the righteous and wicked, think and pray about specific areas of your life where you need to live this out / not live this out.
- When God’s law is described, what reasons are there to give thanks for God’s word and pray for faith to trust and obey it?
7. Kingship Psalms
These Psalms often look like hymns (see point 1 above), but with a specific focus upon the king. The king referred to will either be the human king of Israel (e.g. Psalm 20; 21; 45), or the LORD as the ultimate king of his people (Psalm 47; 98). These two categories of kings are closely related, because the human king is a reflection of God as the true king. From these Psalms we can learn about the Lord Jesus Christ, our great king.
Example: Psalm 21
“O LORD, the king rejoices in your strength. How great is his joy in the victories you give!” (Psalm 21:1)
Practical advice for reading Kingship Psalms:
- Work out if the king is being described or if he is speaking himself
- What do we learn about God, and ultimately our Lord Jesus, through the Psalm? How can this fuel our praise and trust?
The above overview shows us that there is great variety in the Psalms. Knowing the different categories helps us consider more specifically how to understand and apply this part of God’s word. A brief note of caution. Any given Psalm may contain more than one of the above categories. E.g. Psalm 34 contains two categories: hymn and wisdom. Psalm 45 goes one step further, with three: kingship, wisdom and hymn.
Our 2017 Bible reading plan can be found below.