The major book in the Writings section is the book of Psalms. What can we learn from this book of Hebrew poetry and songs? What are its major themes?
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 is only one chapter in the Bible that most people have actually memorized, it would most likely be a Psalm, and it would probably be the 23rd Psalm.
Actually, 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?
Authors and sections
The Psalms are a collection of the writings of several different authors. However, there is general consensus in conservative circles that King David of Israel was the major source and collector of the Psalms.
The Psalms are divided into five major sections:
- 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).
David is listed in the superscription of 73 psalms. This does not necessarily mean that David wrote all of them, as the designation may mean simply that the psalm is about David. Moses is listed as the author of Psalm 90, and Solomon is listed as the author of Psalms 72 and 127.
Other authors listed in the psalm titles include Asaph (12 psalms), descendants of Korah (11 psalms), Heman the Ezrahite (Psalm 88) and Ethan the Ezrahite (Psalm 89).
Hymns and Hebrew poetry
There are some very interesting things to note about the construction and style of the Psalms. The root meaning of the title of the book in both Hebrew and Greek is to play instrumental music and to sing to musical accompaniment. Services at God’s temple 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.
There is another feature of the construction of the book of Psalms that makes it stand out from the rest of the Bible. The book of Psalms is actually what we might call Hebrew poetry. However, it is unlike the English poetry many of us are familiar with, in that there is no rhyme and almost no meter or cadence in the writing.
The outstanding feature of Hebrew poetry 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.
Here are a few examples that illustrate this point:
- Psalm 15:1: “LORD, ‘Who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?’” In this verse, the thought is repeated using different words.
- Psalm 1:6: “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish.” Here the thought is contrasted.
- Psalm 1:1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful.” In this verse the thought is built up and restated several times.
This construction is important to remember so we can 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.
The greatest benefits of Psalms
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.
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.
First, 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).
Second, man’s duty to serve and obey God is emphasized throughout the Psalms. 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.
Third, the Psalms speak often 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.
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).
Thus Psalm 87 proclaims that people of all nations are going to become citizens of God’s Kingdom.
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” on the Learning Center.