The Psalms

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The book of Psalms (also known as the Psalter) is a collection of 150 poems, prayers, hymns and meditations. It consists of five collections of Psalms (1–41; 42–72; 73–89; 90–106; 107–150) which have evidently been gathered together at different times because there are a few duplicates. All the psalms are addressed to God, whether they are giving thanks for what he has done or begging for help in a time of crisis. The psalms give us an insight into the life and spirituality of God’s people and have been used continually in both Jewish and Christian worship. Because the psalms are so personal and portray such genuine human emotion, they remain as powerful today as they always were.

Reading time: Five hours – this is one of the hardest books to read at a single sitting and you may have to take it slowly over several sessions.
Short of time? Just read 1; 41; 42; 72; 73; 89; 90; 106; 107 and 150 (these are the first and last psalms of each one of the five collections and reading like this will give you a sense of how Psalms works as a book, rather than as 150 separate psalms).
Poetry

It is almost impossible to choose just a few verses from the psalms – these are just some  favourites.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. (Psalm 1.1–2)

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19.1)

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119.105)

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  (Psalm 139.13-14a)

Reading Psalms as a book is tricky in itself. It is one of the few books in the Bible that was not designed to be read as book – it’s an anthology. What you get when you read it as a book is a sense of the breadth of emotion and the clever way in which Psalms has been put together.

Many of the psalms in the Psalter are ascribed to David. However, the wide range of historical events referred to in Psalms raises questions about whether David could have written them all. Psalms seem to have been written throughout Israel’s history, perhaps inspired by the memory of King David, a great musician and person of faith.

Psalms were written throughout the Old Testament period. One of the earliest is the song of Miriam and Moses at the Red Sea (see Exodus 15.1–21). At the other end of the timeline, many scholars think Psalm 30 was written when the Temple was rededicated after the Maccabean revolt in 164 BC.

Many believe the Psalter to have been compiled in the second century BC, with the five collections being drawn together at that point. 

What were people feeling? 

Read Psalms and find out – the psalms reveal a wide range of emotion from pure joy (Psalm 150) to utter despair (Psalm 88) with many points between.

Other books set around this time

In terms of individual psalms and their dating, the book probably spans almost the whole Old Testament.

It is an anthology of poetry and has all sorts of different poems in it. Types of content include:

  • Hymns – these begin with praise, describe something about God that evoke this praise and end with praise
  • Laments – there are both communal and individual laments. These lay out the reason for the lament and beg for God’s help. Nearly all of these psalms end positively with a conviction that God really will help – the only exception is Psalm 88, which ends as miserably as it began 
  • Royal psalms – psalms focused on the King of Israel
  • Thanksgiving psalms – these give thanks for something that God has done (as opposed to hymns, which are more general expressions of praise)

The book of Psalms falls into five sections or  ‘books’. Each ends with a ‘doxology’ or hymn of praise to God (41.13; 72.20; 89.52; 106.48, with the last ‘book’ ending with a whole psalm – Psalm 150 – serving as a doxology). Some also argue that Psalms 1–2 act as an introduction to the whole book.

Book 1: 1–41 – most of these are psalms of lament
Book 2: 42–72 – most of these are psalms of lament
Book 3: 73–89 – this book is an equal mix of laments and other types of psalms
Book 4: 90–106 – this book contains more hymns and psalms of thanksgiving than of laments
Book 5: 107–150 – this book also contains more hymns and psalms of thanksgiving than of laments

As well as the five big collections you will also notice a number of smaller collections (like the Psalms of Ascent, 120–134). It is thought that these smaller collections were gathered together to make the larger collections that we now have.

You will notice that the beginning of the Psalter has more laments and the end more hymns and psalms of thanksgiving. The centre of the Psalter (in terms of quantity of text rather than numbers of psalms) is Psalm 88, which is the only psalm of complete despair. The corner is then turned and much more praise is to be found. It is possible that the Psalter intends to take the reader from lament to praise in the structure of the collection.

At the start of the Psalms you will notice a range of unfamiliar words. Some refer to the names of temple musicians (like Asaph or the Korahites); phrases that begin ‘according to...’ are thought to refer to the tune or manner of singing the psalm. Sadly we no longer know exactly what this means. Here are some other words with which you may not be familiar. 

Place

Ephraim, Ammon, Assyria, Babylon, Bashan, Canaan, Cush, Edom, Ephrathah, Gath, Hermon, Horeb, Jerusalem, Judah, Lebanon, Midian, Moab, Mount Hermon, Mount Horeb, Mount Tabor, Mount Zion, Negeb, Philistia, Salem, Sheba, Shechem, Shiloh, Tarshish, Tyre, Zion

The names of people and peoples

Amorites, Benjamin, Benjaminite, Edomites, Isaac, Israel, Korahites, Levi, Manasseh, Melchizedek, Moses, Philistines

Other words 

Altar, Selah, Maskil, Miktam, Baal, burnt offering, Cherubim, idols, priest, Sheol, wadi, wisdom tradition

The nature of God is described and declared time and time again throughout Psalms. What picture of God do you get as you read your way through?

Nearly all the psalms of lament, no matter how despairing, end with a statement of confidence in God. Does this deep confidence in God change the feeling of despair?

Certain psalms and themes repeat throughout the Psalter – look out for these and ask why this might be.

Notice the relationship between God and his people in Psalms. Even in times of absolute despair the people spoke to God, cried out to him and asked him for help. It sometimes feels as though there is nothing that they felt they could not say. How does this compare to your prayer life with God?

Try writing your own psalm – what might you put into it?

  • Were there any psalms that you particularly liked or that inspired you?
  • Were there any psalms or parts of psalms that you disliked or that troubled you?
  • Having read the whole Psalter, how would you sum it up?
  • Think about how you summed up the Psalter and then think about the hymns and songs we sing in churches today. If we were to put them all together how might we sum them up? Are there similarities/differences between the two?
  • Why do you think that Psalms has been so important for the last 2,000 years of Christian history? What have psalms provided that other parts of the Bible have not?
  • Do you read/sing/pray psalms enough in your church? If you were going to use them more, what ideas might you have to do that?
  • The structure of the Psalter suggests that its compilers might have put all 150 psalms together with a purpose in mind. Can you work out what it might have been?
  • Did you read anything that touched you, expanded your faith or made you think more deeply about your life and how you live it?

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