Psalms - Teachers Comments

2024 Quarter 1 Lesson 01 - How to Read the Psalms

Teachers Comments
Dec 30 - Jan 05

Key Text: Luke 24:44

The book of Psalms, also known as the Psalter, stands as the apex of Hebrew poetry. An inspiring and inspired collection of songs, the Psalms express the multifarious feelings and struggles of believers, spanning from the United Monarchy of Israel (tenth century B.C.) through the postexilic days (fifth century B.C.). The Psalter comprises a wide variety of genres: songs of thanksgiving, praises, confessions, prayers for deliverance, hymns for protection, imprecations, meditations on the Creator’s works, etc. Our careful study of the Psalms this quarter will seek to reflect this rich diversity.

Lesson Themes: By way of introduction to this quarter’s study, we will touch on the following preliminary topics:

  1. The historical background to the book of Psalms

2. The various genres or categories of songs in the collection

  1. Biblical guidance for worship

Additionally, we shall enlarge our study of the Psalter by surveying the following subjects: (a) the structure of the Psalms, (b) the various literary tools the psalmists used to express their emotions, and (c) the distinct divisions of books within the Psalter itself.

Part II: Commentary

A Well-Organized “Church Hymnal”

The Psalter is an assortment of songs edited during the fifth century B.C. Ezra and his fellow scribes most likely organized this collection.

The book is divided into five smaller sections, showing the intention of the editors to organize the songs in a thematic way, both chronologically and historically (see chart below):

I 1–41 Conflict between David and Saul Personal laments: The majority of psalms in this section mention the psalmist’s adversarial agents, designated as “my enemies.” Notable psalms among this collection include: 1, 2, and 24.
II 42–72 Kingship of David Mention is likewise made of the enemy in many of the psalms in this section. Notable psalms: 45, 48, 51, 54–64.
III 73–89 Assyrian crisis during eighth century B.C. Collections from the sons of Asaph and Korah. Notable psalm: 78.
IV 90–106 Theological evaluation after destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Collection of praise psalms: 95–100. Key psalms: 90, 103–105.
V 107–150 Praise and reflection after the exile—a new era The Hallelujah collection: 111–117; pilgrimage: 120–134. Key psalms: 107, 110, 119.

Today, our church has its own collection of songs for worship, the Seventh-day Adventist Church Hymnal. If you consult the index at the back of our hymnbook, you will find the distribution of songs by topic. The Psalter has a similar organization, though it is chronological as opposed to topical.

The Lord is pleased when we give forethought to the activities and tools intended for use in worshiping His name. We must strive to offer Him only our best. This principle holds true not only for the presentation of our worship service but also for its planning and organization. Despite modern ideas and popular trends that advocate for a freer style of worship, the book of Psalms shows that we must be organized and orderly in our worship of God.

At the same time, order and organization by no means preclude variety, and we should seek to incorporate both in our worship service. To assist us in that endeavor, we shall consider further the distribution of the psalms, as outlined above. We will start by noting that each of the five sections of the Psalter ends with a doxology psalm, or liturgical expression of praise—namely, Psalm 41, Psalm 72, Psalm 89, Psalm 106, and Psalm 150.

Psalm 1 focuses on the theme of the Torah, and Psalm 2 focuses on the kingdom of the Messiah, both of which are principal topics of the Psalter. Some Bible thinkers consider that these two psalms constitute the introduction to this hymnbook.

We also note that certain key psalms (Psalm 2, Psalm 72, and Psalm 89) are placed in very specific and prominent positions within the book. Many theologians consider Psalm 89 to be the center of the whole Psalter because it focuses on the transfer of Israel’s hope to the Lord after the failure of the Davidic monarchy.

The fifth section of the Psalter, comprised of the last five psalms, centers on praise. These five psalms start with “Hallelujah” (CSB, HCSB, ISV) or “Praise the Lord!” (NKJV, NRSV) as their superscription and finish with the same expression. These final psalms are replete with passional expressions of praise glorifying God as an act of worship (Ps. 146:1, 2; Ps. 147:12; Ps. 148:1–5, 7, 13, 14; Ps. 149:3, 6; Ps. 150:1–6); singing to the Lord (Ps. 147:7, Ps. 149:1); being “happy” in the Lord (Ps. 146:5); rejoicing in the King of Zion (Ps. 149:2); and being “joyful in glory” (Ps. 149:5, NKJV).

What a wonderful privilege is ours to organize the songs we use in offering praise to God! Our arrangement of songs should manifest a clear intention to worship the Lord and exalt His grace.

A Beautifully Crafted Psalter

A careful study of each psalm will reveal its singular beauty. The psalmists employed a variety of literary techniques to create their sublime poetry. Among the expressions they often used are figures of speech, such as simile and anthropomorphism. A simile is an expression in which two unlike things are explicitly compared, often introduced by like or as (Ps. 1:3). Anthropomorphism is the act of ascribing human form or attributes to a non-human being or thing, especially to a deity (Ps. 18:8–10).

The psalmists also used literary devices or expressions involving substitution, such as metonymy, a figure of speech that consists of using the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related (Ps. 2:5); synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, or the particular for the general or the general for the particular (Ps. 44:6); and malediction (Ps. 109:7). The psalmists employed the acrostic (Psalm 119), a poetry form in which the first letters of the initial words of each line, when taken in order, spell out a word or phrase. We also see the use of anaphora, or repetition of a word or words at the beginning of two or more verses in a poem or song (Psalm 136). Additionally, we observe figures that involve omission or suppression, such as ellipsis, a sudden leap from one topic to another (Ps. 21:12); aposiopesis, a sudden breaking off in the midst of a sentence, as if from inability or unwillingness to proceed (Ps. 6:3); and erotesis, the use of a rhetorical question (which is employed solely to produce an effect or to make an assertion of affirmation or denial and is not meant to elicit a reply [Ps. 106:2], etc.).

All these figures of speech and various other literary devices applied by the writers of the Psalter demonstrate literary sophistication and unparalleled craftsmanship.

Multiple Types of Psalms

A general classification of the Psalms is furnished in Tuesday’s study. What follows is a more detailed grouping of the melodies of the Psalter, though it is certainly possible to find other acceptable distributions:

  1. Hymns
  • General hymns: 8, 29, 33, 100, 103, 104, 111, 113, 114, 117, 135, 136, 145–150
  • Historical hymns: 78, 105
  • Zion hymns: 46, 48, 76, 87, 122
  • Kingship hymns: 47, 93, 96–99
  1. Laments
  • Individual laments: 3, 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 31, 35, 36, 38, 39, 43, 51, 54, 55–57, 59, 61, 63, 64, 69–71, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, 140–143
  • Communal laments: 44, 60, 74, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83, 85, 90, 94, 106, 108, 123, 126, 137
  1. Miscellaneous forms
  • Royal psalms: 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144
  • Individual thanksgivings: 9, 10, 30, 32, 34, 40, 41, 92, 107, 116, 138
  • Communal thanksgivings: 65–68, 118, 124
  • Individual psalms of confidence: 4, 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 84, 91, 121, 131
  • Communal psalms of confidence: 115, 125, 129, 133
  • Liturgies: 15, 24, 134
  • Prophetic exhortations: 14, 50, 52, 53, 58, 75, 81, 95
  • Didactic psalms: 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, 139

The organization of this list reveals that the Psalms are composed of personal songs as well as communal ones. Today, the emphasis of Western culture is on the individual. The Hebrew mind, however, was focused on a sense of community, an element that we, as Christians, cannot afford to lose sight of today, especially in light of the fact that, as a church, we are a global community with a worldwide mission.

A final observation that the above catalog affords us is the notion that there are psalms allocated for all the various occasions of life—songs for community and personal worship, spiritual songs for royal occasions, songs for pilgrimage to the holy city, and songs for liturgical moments. For the biblical writers, adoration is not an activity reserved solely for the temple. Adoration is a way of life.

“Collections” in the Book of Psalms

This week’s lesson alludes to collections of songs for special occasions, such as “The Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120−134) and “Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113−118). Years of scholarship have unearthed more connections between the various psalms. One such connection is found in Psalms 15–24 (see W. Brown, “ ‘Here Comes the Sun!’ The Metaphorical Theology of Psalms 15–24,” in The Composition of the Book of Psalms [Leuven, 2010], p. 260). This assemblage can be depicted in the following chiastic structure:

A Psalm 15 (Entrance liturgy)

    B Psalm 16 (Song of confidence)

        C Psalm 17 (Prayer for help)

            D Psalm 18 (Royal song)

                E Psalm 19 (REVELATION: Creation and the Torah)

            D' Psalm 20, 21 (Royal songs)

        C' Psalm 22 (Prayer for help)

    B' Psalm 23 (Song of confidence)

A' Psalm 24 (Entrance liturgy)

A chiasm is an extended parallelism (see Tuesday’s study for a short explanation about “parallelism”). By way of an analogy, a chiasm is akin to the reflection of a person’s face or image in a mirror wherein the second part (i.e., the reflection) is the repetition of ideas of the first section (original image) but in inverse order. Usually, the center of the chiasm points out the main idea of the parallelism. The idea, as seen in the chiastic structure formed by Psalms 15–24, is to exalt the revelation of God through His Creation and His Word. This chiastic structure is enclosed by two psalms connected with the sanctuary, both of which start with similar questions (Ps. 15:1; compare with Ps. 24:3).

This chiasm suggests that the editors of the Psalter worked carefully on its organization and presentation. Clearly, the Holy Spirit inspired its arrangement.

Part III: Life Application

In the Psalms, we find a wide range of emotions that run the gamut of human experience, from sublime reverence to abject sorrow. Though written more than 25 centuries ago, the Psalms transcend the time in which they were written and remain deeply relevant for us today. This quarter, encourage class members to pray through these songs, making them their personal prayers.