Some Suggestions for Reading the Psalms
By Paul Robison

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 feelings.  These 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 God.  Here's 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 understand.  If it was, we'd never use those hymns to worship God.

Today's lesson will provide some suggestions on how to read the Psalms.  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 that's stated.  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 writer).  If 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 exuberant joy.  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 authors.  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 purpose).  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 follows.  This 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 across?  Someone 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 author.  Determine the circumstances.  The note again tells us that this psalm arose after Nathan had confronted David about his adultery with Bathsheba.  So 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 transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against 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 righteousness.  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.”
 Determine the experiences.  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 bless Jerusalem.  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 sinfulness.  He 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 (Coffman).  So 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 others' forgiveness.

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 their teeth.  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 and earth.”  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 Psalms!

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 verse 7.  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 foundation!'  O 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 Israel's hymnbook?  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 punished.  This 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 oppressors.  The 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 wilderness.”  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 grace.  Change 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!