Q. What is the purpose of the psalms?
A: The covenant name YHWH is used nearly seven hundred times in the Psalms! The Psalms are LORD-centered monotheistic songs. That is, they praise the one true Creator, the maker of heaven and earth and ruler of all things who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus, the ultimate purpose of the book of Psalms is to model for God’s people how and why to praise the LORD.
The overall structure of the Psalter supports this view. The book of Psalms is divided into five books. The psalm that concludes each book finishes with a doxology (Ps. 41:13; 72:18–20; 89:52; 106:48; 150:6), with Psalm 150 serving both as the conclusion of Book 5 and of the entire book of Psalms. Like Psalms 135, 146, 147, 148, 149, Psalm 150 begins and ends with the command to “Praise the LORD.” And while in the psalms there are more “laments” than “hymns of praise,” the Psalter ends with an explosion of praise—with the five “hallelujah hymns” (Psalms 146–150). Thus, the very structure of the Psalter reminds us that no matter what circumstance we are going through, the LORD should be praised.
Q. When were the one hundred fifty psalms compiled, and why does it matter when this happened?
A: The various authors of the psalms date from Moses (ca. 1450 B.C.) to the Fall of Judah (586 B.C.). For example, Psalm 137 is clearly set within Babylonian captivity. The psalmist writes, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1). Thus, it is best to date the final assembling of the psalms during the exile or shortly thereafter.
This historical context for the compilation of Israel’s prized prayers and songs is important in that the Psalter functions as the temple did. Jerusalem is laid to waste. The temple is destroyed. How then do God’s people worship God in exile? The answer is that they come into the presence of God through one hundred fifty divinely inspired poems that express their laments, offer reminders of who God is and what he has done in salvation history, and engender hope for the future messiah who will bring about a new exodus, a forever kingdom, and a restored temple presence for all who long to “delight in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).
Q. Why is poetry employed to express these themes?
A: First, poetry expands our exegetical imaginations. David could simply say that he loves God because God protects him. But when he writes, “I love you, O Lord . . . my rock and my fortress” (Ps. 18:1-2) and compares God to a stone citadel, he gives us a greater understanding of who God is and what he does for his people. The metaphors make visual and vivid theological truths.
Second, poetry is designed to engage our emotions. John Calvin said of the psalms, “I have been wont to call this book not inappropriately, an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” From tearful laments to triumphant thanksgivings, these expressions of emotion serve as patterns for us, shaping how we should feel when we speak to God from the depths of our souls. For example, when we read, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1), the poetry is designed to help us spiritually thirst for our refreshing and life-giving God.
Q. What are some tips for reading biblical poetry?
A: First, feel it! To reiterate what I said above, God intended the awesome imagery of these inspired poems to engage our hearts. So, let them do just that. For example, after a recent sermon I preached on Psalm 23, I asked the congregation at home to answer this discussion question: “Poetry should be felt in the heart not just understood in the head. Was there a moment in the sermon, as the text was being explained or illustrated, when you got emotional? If so, what emotion did you feel and why?”
Second, understand that repetition is the basic structure of biblical poetry. Sometimes a line is repeated throughout a poem. That’s called a refrain. Sometimes repetition of key words or themes occur at the beginning and end of a poem. That’s called an inclusio. Sometimes key words or themes mirror each other, moving from the ends of the poem to its center. That’s called a chiasm. A poem’s refrain, inclusio, and/or chiastic center reveal the poem’s big idea.
Third, grasp the patterns and purposes of parallelisms. Each psalm is comprised of many couplets; that is, two lines that function together as a unit. Some couplets echo each other. When David prays to God, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Ps. 52:1), he is using interchangeable words (wash/cleanse; iniquity/sin) to express the same petition. Other couplets use the second line to complete the thought of the first (“He put a new song in my mouth, [what kind of song?] a song of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:3). Still other lines contrast each other: “For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down” (Ps. 18:27). A final parallelism (although there are a few more!) uses two lines to make comparison: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). Such repetition is obviously intentional. The poet slows us down. We stop and think. Pause to pray. Using various images and making us eye an idea from different angles, these poems help us “delight in the law [torah = instructions] of the LORD” (Ps. 1:2).
Q. How should Christian churches use the psalms in corporate worship?
A: First, we should sing the psalms. The book of Psalms represents Israel’s final hymnbook. One hint that this was the case are the superscriptions. For example, all but three of the psalms in Psalms 51–72 have in the titles “to the choir” or “choirmaster.” These songs, as well as others in the Psalter, were obviously sung in temple worship. The Psalter should remain part of the Christian song canon. Why? Paul says so! He commands Christians to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19) and to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
We should sing the psalms as is (but understand as we sing about sacrificing animals that Jesus is the fulfillment of the entire sacrificial system), paraphrases of the psalms, and new songs that expand upon the content of a particular psalm by directly connecting its language and themes to Jesus the anointed Son (Ps. 2), who died for sinners (Ps. 22), rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of God (Ps. 110; Eph. 1:20, 22). And we should let psalms shape the lyrical content of our hymns and choruses, reminding us, for example, that we should pray for victory over the enemies of God’s kingdom and lament sin in our lives and in the world.
Second, we should pray the psalms. The psalms can serve as wonderful calls to worship. For example, read Psalm 95, a psalm that summons God’s people into his presence (“Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving,” Ps 95:2) to sing (“Oh come, let us sing to the LORD,” Ps. 95:1) about who he is (“the Lord is great, and a great King above all gods,” Ps. 95:3) and what he has done (“his hands formed the dry land,” Ps. 95:5) and concludes with a warning to take worship seriously (“do not harden your hearts,” Ps. 95:8). Beyond just the call to worship, the psalms can be used to model the pastoral prayer for the congregation.1
Third, we should read the psalms. I think the more Bible readings on Sunday morning the better. Why not read through the psalms (a psalm a Sunday) for the next three years? Use a few Sundays for Psalm 119, of course!
Fourth, we should preach the psalms. I recommend for ten summers straight having a sermon series called “The Psalms for Summer.” As a congregation, work your way through the Psalter.
Content adapted from Psalms: A 12-Week Study by Douglas Sean O’Donnell. This article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.