The Book of Psalms

The major book in the Writings section of the Bible is the book of Psalms. What is the book of Psalms about? Why should we study the book of Psalms?

Do you have a favorite part of the Bible? Many people do. Many surveys have been done where this question has been asked of church-going Christians, and the answers are generally the same. In the New Testament, the four Gospels are consistently listed as the most popular. In the Old Testament, the book of Psalms is the clear winner.

In fact, if there were only one chapter in the Bible that most people had actually memorized, it would most likely be a psalm, and it would probably be the 23rd Psalm.

The book of Psalms is the primary book in the Writings section of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). There are 150 psalms in the book of Psalms, and all of them contain valuable information about life’s most important questions. How much do you know about the other 149 psalms? What subjects do they deal with, what instructions do they give, and how can they help a person in the 21st century?

It can be helpful to have some background information about the entire book. Even if we have been reading the Psalms for many years, would we be able to answer questions such as:

  • Who wrote the Psalms?
  • What does the word psalm mean?
  • How were the Psalms used by God’s people in the Old Testament?

Who wrote the book of Psalms?

The Psalms are a collection of the writings by at least seven different authors.

  • King David of Israel probably wrote the majority of the Psalms. The book of Psalms directly names David as the author of 73 psalms (Psalms 3-9, 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138-145). It’s likely that many of the unattributed psalms were written by David as well. The Bible tells us that David was not only a great king and warrior, but a skilled musician (1 Samuel 16:23; 2 Samuel 6:5).
  • Moses is listed as the author of Psalm 90.
  • Solomon is listed as the author of two psalms (Psalms 72 and 127).
  • Asaph is listed as the author of 12 psalms (Psalms 50, 73-83). Asaph and his descendants were skilled musicians appointed “over the service of song in the house of the LORD” (1 Chronicles 6:31, 39).  
  • The sons (or descendants) of Korah are listed as the authors of 11 psalms (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 88). The sons of Korah were a family branch of the Levites who were talented musicians (2 Chronicles 20:19).
  • Heman the Ezrahite is listed as an additional author of Psalm 88.
  • Ethan the Ezrahite is listed as the author of Psalm 89.

It’s possible that King David collected many of the psalms and assembled them into an early version of the compilation we know as the book of Psalms.

How are the Psalms organized?

The book of Psalms is organized into five major sections, called books:

  • Psalms 1-41 (Book 1).
  • Psalms 42-72 (Book 2).
  • Psalms 73-89 (Book 3).
  • Psalms 90-106 (Book 4).
  • Psalms 107-150 (Book 5).

What is a psalm?

The root meaning of the word psalm in Hebrew is “a song … especially a hymn, a song of praise” (Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon). It can refer to instrumental music and to singing to musical accompaniment.

In one sense, the book of Psalms was like a hymnal for God’s temple services.Services at God’s temple in Jerusalem involved the singing of these hymns with the accompaniment of stringed and wind instruments. In one sense, the book of Psalms was like a hymnal for God’s temple services. Unfortunately, the melody and musical notation for singing the psalms in biblical times has not been preserved for us—but thankfully the rich and meaningful words have been!

The psalms are still sung in church services around the world today. The majority of hymns in the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, hymnal are psalms arranged with modern melodies.

The Psalms’ poetic structure

The book of Psalms uses a form of Hebrew poetry. However, it is unlike much of English poetry, in that there is no rhyme and almost no meter or cadence in the writing.

The outstanding feature of Hebrew poetry structure is the use of parallelism, meaning there is a balance within one or more sentences of similar phrases or clauses that have the same grammatical construction. There are three major types of parallelism used in Hebrew poetry: synonymous, antithetic and synthetic.

  • Synonymous parallelism: Poetry where the second line repeats the same thought as the first line (but in different words).
  • Antithetic parallelism: Poetry where the second line provides a contrast to the first.
  • Synthetic parallelism: Poetry where the second line builds on (or extends the thought of) the first line.

Here are examples of each type of parallelism:

  • Synonymous: Psalm 33:8: “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.”
  • Antithetical: Psalm 1:6: “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
  • Synthetic: Psalm 34:16: “The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.”

This construction can help us understand what the words are saying. A word or phrase on one line may be clarified and explained by what is said on the next line. The key to fully understanding the message of a particular psalm is to make sure we read the entire section or psalm. The Psalms tend to place thoughts, concepts and ideas concerning doctrine together.

Categories of psalms

There are several different categories of psalms in the book of Psalms. According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, these are some of the most common categories of psalms:

  • Psalms of praise: Psalms praising God for His power, works or character.
  • Psalms of lament: Psalms expressing deep feelings of sorrow or remorse.
  • Enthronement psalms: Psalms focusing on God’s sovereignty as King.
  • Wisdom psalms: Psalms expressing a point of wisdom, similar to a proverb.
  • Zion psalms. Psalms about the present and future glory of Zion, a mountain in Jerusalem that is emblematic of Jerusalem itself.
  • Pilgrimage psalms: Psalms written to be recited as people traveled up to Jerusalem to celebrate God’s feasts.

Another challenging category of psalms is the imprecatory psalms—the psalms that pray for punishment or a curse on the enemies of God. For more about why God including these in the Bible, see our article “Imprecatory Psalms: What Can We Learn From Prayers for Revenge?

The spiritual purpose of the psalms

Eternal truths are written in a form that challenges the human intellect and touches the human heart.The 150 psalms are much more than beautiful literary compositions. The greatest benefits to the seeker of truth from the book of Psalms are not found in its construction or musical origins, but the timeless and uplifting truths it offers to people of every nation and age.

Eternal truths are written in a form that challenges the human intellect and touches the human heart. The words, phrases, lines and sentences with their recurring thoughts are able to teach us and reach us in ways that few things can. This is the book of Psalms’ greatest appeal.

Nearly all of life’s important questions are addressed in these 150 psalms:

  • How to remain godly in the face of great trials.
  • Questions about the injustices of the world.
  • Dealing with depression and despair.
  • Facing our own mortality at the end of our lives.
  • Why God allows suffering.
  • Repentance, forgiveness, mercy and the reconciliation of the whole world to God.
  • The glory and grandeur of God.

Themes in the book of Psalms

There are certain overall themes that appear many times in the Psalms. In various commentaries on the Psalms, these themes are noted as always standing out.

  1. God’s role in our everyday lives. The Psalms show an awareness of God’s presence in people’s everyday lives. God was not just a doctrinal issue to people, but Someone who was interested in everything they did.

We see this principle continued in the New Testament in what Jesus taught His disciples: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32).

  1. Our duty to serve and obey God. Mankind must do more than just praise and talk about God; we must obey God’s law. It’s wonderful to be stirred by singing beautiful hymns about God, but what really matters is that we are moved to live a certain way—God’s way.
  2. The glory of Israel and Zion. Mount Zion is Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is a type of the Kingdom of God. We often read of Israel being the “chosen people,” but in Psalms and the New Testament, it is clear that this never had the purpose of promoting an attitude of superiority. Peter said in the book of Acts that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34, King James Version).

A note of salvation for all the nations of the world is deeply embedded in some of the psalms. Psalm 87 proclaims that people of all nations are going to become citizens of God’s Kingdom.

In reference to Zion, which represents God’s Kingdom, we read, “I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to those who know Me; behold, O Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’ And of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her; and the Most High Himself shall establish her.’ The LORD will record, when He registers the peoples: ‘This one was born there’” (Psalm 87:4-6).

Commenting on verse 5 in Psalm 87, Dr. A. Cohen writes that the phrase “this man and that” means, “More idiomatically ‘each and every’ nation, not only those enumerated in the preceding verse will be entitled to claim citizenship in the universal Zion” (The Psalms, p. 284). One of the great truths of the Scriptures is that God’s plan is to save the entire world.

The book of Psalms is certainly a section of the Holy Scriptures that has much to offer any student of the Word of God. In its 150 messages there is encouragement, instruction, inspiration, truth and solutions to the great issues facing mankind. The needs of the human heart and mind are cared for in this unique book.

Why not take the time to study the 150 psalms more closely and benefit from the great source of godly inspiration they provide?

For more on how to effectively study the Bible and practice what it teaches read the articles in the section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”

For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” in our Learning Center.

About the Author

Roy Demarest

Roy Demarest

Roy and Pauline Demarest have been married for more than 50 years and have three sons and six grandchildren. Roy served as pastor of the Orlando, Florida, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, until his retirement in 2020.

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