The book of Psalms is Israel's hymnbook, which contains a
great variety of songs.
Those songs are written in Hebrew poetry, they use
lots of images and figures of speech, they say things
indirectly, and they describe experiences, emotions, and
hymns are communicating more than just information.
It is interesting that while most scriptures speak TO
us, the Psalms more often speak FOR us.
They help us to see how we can express ourselves to
another way to look at it: most biblical passages show God
reaching down to man (with instructions, warnings,
exhortations, and commands), but the Psalms most often
display man reaching up to God (with praises, prayers,
laments, and thanksgivings).
The word “poetry” may conjure up negative thoughts in your
mind of High School English classes where someone tried to
help you figure out what American poets like Dickinson, Poe,
Whitman, and Cummings were trying to communicate.
Perhaps this left you feeling that poetry has sort of
a mystery about it.
Well, Hebrew poetry is not all that mysterious.
After all, these poems make up a hymnbook, and most
hymnbooks have poetry that is not that difficult to
it was, we'd never use those hymns to worship God.
Today's lesson will provide some suggestions on how to read
After giving the suggestions, then we'll work together and
apply them to three psalms.
The first suggestion is to determine the author.
The author of the Psalm is usually given in the notes
before the psalm begins.
Now about 50 of the 150 hymns have no author
mentioned, but the other two thirds were written by the
following: Moses (1), David (73), and Solomon (2).
Then come less well-know authors such as: The Sons of
Korah (12), Asaph (12), Jeduthun (3), Ethan (some
commentators think Jeduthun and Ethan are the same person)
(1), and Heman (1).
All these men can be found in 1 Chronicles 6, and
they were musicians in the temple during the time of David.
This means that they wrote roughly around 1000 B.C.
So first of all, see if the psalm has an author
Something else about authorship is to see if an individual
is the speaker or if a community is the speaker. Is this
just one Israelite expressing himself or is this an assembly
of Israelites expressing themselves (words in the plural
like “we, us, our” will help you to determine if it's one
person or an assembly).
Next, determine the circumstances (or the situation for the
there is any explanation, it will also usually be found in
the notes before the psalm.
Now these notes were written by Jewish rabbis so that
readers might better understand the context or situation
that might have prompted the writing of the psalm.
They are not inspired; they are just opinions, but
they can be helpful.
There are about 14 of these dealing with situations
in David's life.
Knowing the circumstance for a psalm not only helps us to
have more of a historical grasp as to when it might have
been written but also helps us at times to better understand
some of the images and expressions in a psalm.
Next, determine the experiences in the psalm itself.
As you read through the psalm itself, what is being
experienced by the author in the moment?
Most of these experiences will be obvious.
Someone has made this good observation: “We often
fail to see God in our experience. ... One of the things
which set Israel’s worship apart from the heathen of their
time was that they were very much aware of God’s hand in
history [and in their lives]” (Deffinbaugh).
Next, determine the emotions that can be found within the
text. We write
prose to give information, but we write poetry to express
our emotions and feelings.
The psalmists were no different, and they express
many emotions, from the darkest depression to the most
Someone has noted: “In our modern age, we are stirred by the
same emotions, [baffled] by the same problems of life, [we]
cry out in need, or worship, to the same God as the
psalmists of old.
[Their rugged faith and depth of love for God serve]
as both a tonic and a rebuke” (Kidner in EHB).
Many people love to read the Psalms because we can so
easily identify with the emotions and feelings of the
Someone else noted: “The fact that [there are] psalms of
anger, abandonment, and despair affirms not only such
emotions occur in life, but that such experiences are
repeated, predictable, and expected.
We have been this way before” (Long).
Next, determine what is the structure or the flow of thought
throughout the psalm.
A good modern version can be helpful here because the
editors usually print the psalms in lines, and then they
group the lines in paragraphs.
The paragraphs help us to see where the editors'
think that the psalmist's thoughts are shifting.
But it's not impossible to discover shifts in thought
even if you have a version that prints the text in prose
form. The key
here is to read the psalm through several times to see how
the psalmist is developing his ideas.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to make a brief outline where
you summarize several passages under one heading.
After you make an outline, then you might consult the
notes in your study Bible or a commentary to see how someone
else has understood the structure.
Then you might revise your original outline, seeking
to make it shorter and more to the point.
This understanding of the structure will help you
with the next suggestion.
Next, determine the psalm's function (or the writer's
Question: What is the function of our Bible classes?
You would most likely answer something like: “To
learn God's word,” “To understand better how to live the
Christian life,” “To apply a passage or topic to our lives.”
Whether you realize it or not, you just answered the
question using an infinitive form of the verb: to learn, to
understand, to apply.
An infinitive has the word “to” and then a verb which
is a good way to help us discover the function of a psalm.
Ask yourself: “What is the function of this psalm?”
Some of most common
responses are for psalms would be: “To praise Jehovah, to
thank God, to confess sin, to lament a hardship, to ask God
for protection, to teach the reader how to live wisely, to
vent or express frustration, to prophesy, to honor the king,
and to express trust in God.”
Another way to arrive at a psalm's function is to
ask: “What is this psalm's overall effect?”
This is a good question because it helps us to focus
on the psalm a whole and not just on its specific verses.
Let's try to get the big picture as what the whole
the psalm is trying to achieve!
Having discovered the psalm's function, it will probably be
easier now to determine its theme or the overall main idea
that the author is trying to communicate.
You can now return to the simple outline that you
made earlier on the structure and ask: “What is the main
thought that all these other thoughts are driving towards?
What is the overall psalm really trying to get
has observed: “ ... we should not be intimidated by the
poetry of the Psalms, or assume that we are not able to gain
true [biblical] insight and understanding from them.
Rather, we should read them carefully, and fully
expect to gain insight into the nature and ways of God which
is richer than any we've known before” (Clark).
Lastly, we must then ask how we can apply what we've learned
to our lives as Christians.
We must remember that the psalmists lived on the
opposite side of the cross, and they knew nothing about
Jesus and His teachings.
The apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 3:14 that
Jesus is the key to understanding the Old Testament: “But
their minds were blinded.
For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in
the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken
away in Christ.”
The revelation that we find in the New Testament
can help us to apply what we often find in the Psalms.
Now that we've heard these suggestions, let's put them into
practice using three psalms.
Seeing them applied will give you a better idea of
how you can utilize this approach.
Hopefully, using this approach will be helpful and
beneficial as you read the Psalms.
Let's look now at Psalm 51.
Determine the author.
The notes above the psalm tell us that David is the
Determine the circumstances.
The note again tells us that this psalm arose after
Nathan had confronted David about his adultery with
here is psalm dealing with a time in David's life when he
was at his lowest.
Let's read this psalm now: “Have mercy upon me, O
God, according to Your loving-kindness; according to the
multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my
sin. For I
acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before
You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your
sight—That You may be found just when You speak, and
blameless when you judge.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin
my mother conceived me.
Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in
the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop,and I shall be clean.
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have
broken may rejoice.
Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a
steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not
take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold
me by Your generous Spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and
sinners shall be converted to You.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my
salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your
praise. For You
do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not
delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken
and contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.
Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; build the
walls of Jerusalem.
Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of
righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.”
Some of the experiences in this psalm are: pleas for mercy
and forgiveness, the confession of transgression, the
longing and cry to be made pure again, the desires for a new
heart and for the restoration of salvation, the promise to
praise God for His forgiveness, and the prayer that God will
Determine the emotions. We see the emotions of sorrow
for sin, of guilt, of repentance, of determination, of
trust, and of hope.
Determine the structure.
David pleas for pardon and acknowledges his
pleas for pardon again and asks God to sustain him.
Then David tells how he will glorify God and that he
will offer God a broken heart.
David then concludes by asking God to bless Jerusalem
so that others may be forgiven as well.
One commentary gave this outline for the flow of
thought: confession, restoration, inward renewal, humble
worship, and devout prayer (Kidner).
Another commentary had these ideas: prayer for
remission of sin, prayer for inward renewal, vows for
spiritual sacrifices, and intercession for Jerusalem
now a revised structure might be: wretchedness and
submissiveness lead to forgiveness and cleanness, and they
lead to witness, brokenness, and a greater awareness of
This psalm's function is to teach how horrible sins can be
overcome and spiritual maturity can be the outcome.
The psalm's purpose is to encourage us to deal with
our horrible sins in a constructive way.
Our application is that we can imitate David's
actions and pray that others will find forgiveness in the
church, and not in Jerusalem!
See, applying this approach is not really that hard!
Now let's look at Psalm 124.
Determine the author.
We see that the notes point to David again.
Determine the circumstances.
The note tells us that this is a song of ascents.
Psalm 120-134 all have this notation, and it means
that rabbis saw this group of psalms were being sung by
pilgrims who were walking up to Jerusalem (who were
ascending) in order to worship the Lord during a national
feast. So here
is hymn where people already have their minds and hearts
attuned towards God.
Now let's read it: “'If it had not been the Lord
who was on our side,' Let Israel now say, 'If it had not
been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against
us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their
wrath was kindled against us; then the waters would have
overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul;
then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul.'
Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to
Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the
fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven
Determine the experiences.
The experiences we hear of are: Israel's deliverance
by God and Israel's escape from almost being captured by the
help of the Creator.
Determine the emotions.
We see openness, thankfulness, and trust.
Determine the structure.
The first part basically points out that Israel
should acknowledge that she had a very close call and had it
not been for the Lord's help, they would have been overcome!
The second part gives a blessing to God for His
helping them to escape.
One commentary puts it this way: Israel was almost
swallowed, flooded, and captured, but God helped them to
remain safe (Kidner).
Another commentary gave this structure: The enemy's
threat, and the Lord's deliverance.
We might revise the flow in this way: acknowledge
God, bless God, and exalt God.
The psalm's function is to encourage the Jewish
pilgrims to thank God for His protection over Israel and His
deliverance given to her.
The psalm's purpose is to show God as the true Source
of Israel's protection from her enemies.
The application for us is obvious as well.
God is the true Source of our protection as well, as
the Creator who is in control over all!
See how this approach can help us to understand the
Now let's look at Psalm 137.
Determine the author.
None is given in the heading, but the author was
present when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, as seen in
Determine the circumstances.
None is stated, but the opening verse shows us that
the writer is among those who are exiled in Babylon.
Let's now read this psalm: “By the rivers of
Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered
Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it.
For there were those who carried us away captive
asked us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth,
saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its
skill! If I do
not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my
mouth—if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom the day of
Jersusalem, who said, 'Raze it, raze it, to its very
daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one
who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes you little ones
against the rock!”
Are you somewhat shocked to find such a song in
As was mentioned earlier, there are all kinds of
experiences and emotions in the book of Psalms.
The experiences in this psalm are: loss of one's
homeland, being taunted by an oppressor, keeping one's
homeland in mind, and asking that one's enemies will be
psalm's emotions include: sorrow, humiliation, frustration,
vengeance, and joy of justice rendered upon one's enemy.
Concerning the structure, we see great sorrow for the
loss of one's homeland, then great humiliation and
frustration as one is taunted by a conqueror, then a
challenge not to forget one's roots, and a plea for God to
punish one's enemies by letting them reap the horrors that
they had sown.
One commentary gave this structure: torment, defiance, and
imprecation (or calling God to place others under a curse
and turn their actions back on themselves) (Kidner).
Another commentary gives this flow of thought: the
pitiful situation, the curses upon themselves, the
condemnation upon their enemies (Coffman).
So a revised outlook might be: from humiliation to
determination to vindication.
This psalm's function is to show us how to deal with
purpose of this psalm is to encourage Jews under oppression
to endure it successfully.
We, as Christians, are not to pray for others
judgment, but to pray for their reconciliation with Christ.
Someone has well said: “It is God who is the actual hearer
of these angry words, just as it should be God, and God
alone, who hears our angry words.
Understood in their context as part of the language of the
laments and used rightly to channel and control our
potentially sinful anger, the psalms [calling for
punishment] can indeed help keep us from harboring and
displaying anger against others. ... [We can feel
anger, give that to God,] and not do anger, but
strive 'to overcome evil with good' (Romans 12:21).
In interpreting and understanding the psalms, one person
took their cue from Psalm 95:6-7: “Oh come, let us
worship and bow down.
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For He is our God, and we are the people of His
pasture, and the sheep of His hand.
Today, if you will hear His voice: Do not harden your
hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the
We should read the psalms with a bent knee, an open ear,
and a soft heart (Alba House).
If we'll take just a little time to determine the
author and the circumstance, the experiences and emotions,
the structure and function, and the theme and application,
then the psalms will truly provide us with “a lamp for our
feet and a light for our path” (Psalm 119:115)!
Let's close with the words of a great song in our
hymnal: “On bended knee, I come; with a broken heart, I
come; bowing down before Your holy throne.
As I look upon Your face, show Your mercy and Your
my life, O Holy Spirit; make me fresh and ever new, make my
life a holy sacrifice to You.”
As we saw David himself saying earlier: “The
sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite
heart—These, O God, You will not despise.”
Reach up to God today!
Come to Christ with a broken spirit and a penitent
heart! He wants
to be your Shepherd, Your Savior, and Your Lord!
Let the Holy Spirit give your soul renewal and guide
your steps to greater heights!