Introduction to Psalms

Introductory Notes to Psalms

I. Name
The word psalm comes from a Greek word that means “a poem sung to musical accompaniment.” The Hebrew name is tehillim, which means “praises.” Not all of the psalms are hymns of praise, but many of them are. The Book of Psalms is the hymnal of the Jewish nation, and some of the psalms have found their way into the Christian hymnal. Psalm 46 is the basis for Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and Isaac Watts used Ps. 90 to write “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The familiar Doxology (or “Old Hundredth”) is based on Ps. 100.

II. Purpose
The Book of Psalms is a collection of very personal songs and poems. As the book grew over the centuries, its contents were adapted by the Jews for their corporate worship as well as for their personal devotions. In this collection you find prayers from sufferers, hymns of praise, confessions of sin, confessions of faith, nature hymns, and songs that teach Jewish history, and in each one the focal point for faith is the Lord. Whether the writer is looking back at history, looking up into the heavens, or looking around at his problems, he first of all looks by faith to the Lord. The psalms teach us to have a personal relationship with God as we tell Him our hurts and our needs and as we meditate on His greatness and glory.

III. Hebrew Poetry
Western poetry is often based on rhyme, but not so Eastern poetry. It is based primarily on what we call “parallelism”; that is, the relationship of the lines to each other. In synonymous parallelism, the second line restates the first, as in Ps. 15:1 (nkjv)—“Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?” Antithetic parallelism is just the opposite: the lines are in contrast to each other. One example is Ps. 37:9 (nkjv)—“For evildoers shall be cut off; but those who wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.” Psalm 19:8–9 (nkjv) is an example of synthetic parallelism as each successive line expands the meaning: “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

IV. Christ in the Psalms
Jesus said that the psalms spoke about Him (Luke 24:44), and we can see that they do. He is the crucified Savior in Ps. 22; the shepherd in Ps. 23 (see John 10); the sacrifice in Ps. 40:6–8 (see Heb. 10:1–10); the high priest in Ps. 110 (see Heb. 7:17–21); the stone in Ps. 118:22–23 (see Matt. 21:42); and the coming King in Ps. 2 (see Acts 4:25–26 and 13:33).

V. Special Psalms
Seven of the psalms are called “penitential psalms” because they are confessions of sin (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Psalms 120–134 are called the “Songs of Degrees” and are thought to be a collection of the songs that the Jewish pilgrims sang as they made their way to the annual festivals in Jerusalem. There are several “imprecatory psalms” in which the writers call down God’s wrath upon their enemies (35, 37, 69, 79, 109, 139, 143). These are not so much personal expressions of vengeance as national petitions for the justice of God to be manifested for His chosen people. Psalm 119 extols the virtues of the Word of God (see also Ps. 19), and Pss. 113–118 are used by the Jews when they celebrate Passover.

VI. Authors
Though we usually associate David with the Book of Psalms (his name is on seventy-three of them), some of the psalms are anonymous and some list other authors: Asaph (50, 73–83), Solomon (72, 127), the sons of Korah (42–49, 84–85, 87–88), Ethan (89), and Moses (90). Some of David’s psalms reflect the experiences he was going through, such as the rebellion of his son Absalom (3), his victory over Saul (18), his sin with Bathsheba (32, 51), his strange behavior in Gath (34, 56), and his years of exile in the wilderness (57, 63, 142).

VII. Outline
Since each of the psalms is a separate unit, there is no need for an analysis of the structure of the book. There are five divisions, each ending with a benediction: 1–41, 42–72, 73–89, 90–106, 107–150.

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