Introduction to Psalms

Encountering God

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Almost everyone has either heard of or read a portion of Psalms. In a ranking of the most popular books in the Bible, Psalms is always number one. So what makes Psalms so engaging? Tremper Longman III writes,

The Psalms appeal to the whole person; … [they] inform our intellect, arouse our emotions, direct our wills and stimulate our imaginations. When we read the Psalms with faith, we come away changed.[1]

Through the Psalms, saints and sinners have experienced a life-changing encounter with God. Moses heard the divine voice speaking out of a burning bush in a lonely spot of the Sinai desert. What was the prophet’s response? He took off his shoes and worshiped God. Psalms was written so that we could nurture a similar heart of worship for God.

The psalms illuminate the mind for the purpose of enkindling the soul, indeed to put it on fire. It may indeed be said that the purpose of the psalms is to turn the soul into a sort of a burning bush.[2]

We can see the significance of the book of Psalms in the writings of Augustine, the early church father. In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine quotes Psalms on nearly every page. He saw it as central to the reorientation of his life, both morally and spiritually. He spoke of being “set on fire”[3] as he read the book of Psalms. Most strikingly, he viewed a psalm as a narrative of the human soul. It’s as if God were narrating the story of Augustine’s own heart in Psalms. In Psalms we see both who we are and who God is. We encounter God in our souls.

Who would know this better than the primary author of Psalms, David, whom Samuel described as a “man after his [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22)? In his psalms David draws from various life experiences to express his encounters with the living God through worship. This is the purpose of our study—to encounter God through Psalms.

As we read the book of Psalms, we are entering into the sanctuary, the place where God meets men and women in a special way. So as we begin this journey of encountering God through Psalms, let’s consider some of the important elements.

The Book of Psalms: Special Features

  • Psalms is the longest book in the Bible (KJV) with 2,461 verses.
  • Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, containing 176 verses.
  • Psalm 117 is the shortest chapter in the Bible, containing only two verses.
  • Psalm 117 is also the middle chapter of the Bible, the very center of the 1,189 chapters found in Genesis through Revelation.
  • Psalms has more authors than any other book in the Bible. David, the second king of Israel and “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1), is the chief author of Psalms. He is credited with writing 73 of the 150 psalms.
  • Psalms took longer to write than any other book of the Bible, from approximately 900 to 1,000 years (from the 15th to the fifth century BC).
  • Moses composed the first psalm (Ps. 90) during Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wanderings (1445–1405 BC). The last psalm composed (Ps. 126) is thought to have been written after the time of the Babylonian exile, during the Jews’ return to the land of Judah (between 500 and 430 BC).
  • Psalms is the Old Testament book most quoted in the New Testament. Of the 360 Old Testament quotations or allusions in the New Testament, 112 are from Psalms.
  • Psalms contains more prophecies concerning the Messiah than any other Old Testament book. They reveal the Messiah, for example, as the Son of God (Ps. 2:7–9) and Son of Man (Ps. 8:5–8) in His obedience (Ps. 40:6–8), betrayal (Ps. 41:9), crucifixion (Ps. 22), resurrection (Ps. 16:10–11), ascension (Ps. 68:18), and enthronement (Ps. 110:1–4).
  • Psalms was the Jewish song book. The Hebrew word for psalms means praises. The Greek word means the plucking of strings. The psalms are praise songs to be sung to the musical accompaniment of a plucked or stringed instrument such as a harp or lyre. The collection of these 150 psalms into one book served as the first hymnbook for God’s people, written and compiled to assist them in their worship of God.

The Book of Psalms: Style

The psalms are Hebrew poetry, which is very different from standard English forms of poetry that are based on rhyme and meter. Hebrew poetry is based on rhythm and parallelism. The most basic verse form is two lines. The first line states an idea, and the second line reinforces that idea somehow.

  • The second line may restate the first. This is known as synonymous parallelism.
  • The second line may contrast with the first. This is known as antithetic parallelism.
  • The second line may build on the first. This is known as climactic parallelism.

Hebrew poetry creates vivid pictures that stir up one’s emotions. One clear example of this is Psalm 23, the beloved psalm about our Shepherd.

Though all psalms are songs of worship, their purposes and content vary. We cannot be dogmatic about the different types, but the following list is helpful.[4]

  1. Wisdom psalms

These psalms point believers to live godly lives by making right choices in the pursuit of God’s will (for example, Pss. 1, 37 and 119).

  1. Lament psalms

The lament is the emotional heart cry of the psalmist who is living in distressing and difficult times and turns to God for deliverance (for example, Pss. 22, 42–43, 51 and 102).

  1. Royal or Kingship psalms

These are psalms that prophesy of the coming rule of Jesus as the Messiah. Christ is seen as the coming sovereign ruler (for example, Pss. 2, 18, 45, 72, 89, 110 and 132).

  1. Thanksgiving psalms

These psalms express gratitude for God’s abundant blessings, whether they are from an individual or from the nation (for example, Pss. 33, 34, 66, 103 and 146–150).

  1. Remembrance psalms

God’s redemption through history is the center of attention in the remembrance psalms. In such psalms, a series of God’s acts will be recounted (for example, Pss. 78, 105, 106, 135 and 136).

  1. Confidence psalms

The psalmist acknowledges his trust and reliance in God’s protection, power and provision. He is able to be at peace because he has confidence in God (for example, Pss. 16, 23, 62, 91 and 121).

The Book of Psalms: Superscriptions

One hundred sixteen of the psalms have titles, headings, or notations at the beginning. These serve to identify the author, to establish the historical circumstances and context, or to explain how the psalm should be sung or played on a variety of musical instruments. These superscriptions assisted the worship leader and the congregation to sing the psalms knowledgeably. The superscriptions are considered to be a part of the author’s original composition.

One other notable designation is the word Selah. It is found 71 times in Psalms. The meaning is debatable. It could be a signal for a change of musical accompaniment, a brief interlude with stringed instruments, a notice to begin a new section, or a call to pause and reflect upon the truth just stated. This final possibility is still a healthy habit today. We need to stop and reflect on the truths of Psalms.

So how do we encounter God in Psalms? What are some of the key steps we can take in worshiping God through Psalms?

Meditate

Meditation is the act of thinking or mulling over the truth of the Scripture. Meditation begins by reading the text. Take time to read the psalm of the week every day. Write down your observations. This is called journaling. Make a biography of God. Look at how God reveals Himself in the text of the Scripture. Focus your attention on God’s character. Memorize the verses of the psalm that speak directly to you and inspire your faith.

Pray

Let the book of Psalms be your prayer guide. It is a series of prayers. Since the meaning of the Hebrew name for psalms is praise, reading the psalms should stir us to praise God. Here is a brief example of praying the psalms:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.” (Ps. 100:1)

Father, I rejoice today in You. May Your name be praised and worshiped throughout the world.

“Serve the Lord with gladness.” (Ps. 100:2)

Lord, please accept my service in a way that will please You. Thank You for the opportunity You have given me to serve. I love You and am so happy in what You have given me to do.

Sing

The book of Psalms was both the Jewish prayer book and song book. By singing we engage our emotions in the truth of the psalms. Singing is the culmination of encountering God in the psalms after we meditate on and pray these inspired songs.

 


[1] Temper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 13.

[2] Stanley L. Jaki, Praying the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 27.

[3] St. Augustine, St. Augustine on the Psalms, eds. Johannes Quasten and Walter J. Burghardt (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1960), 91.

[4] Longman, How to Read the Psalms, 23–24.


Listen to Dr. Pettit’s chapel message introducing the study in Psalms:

Join us for chapel every Monday through Thursday at 11 a.m. EST.

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Steve Pettit traveled for many years with the Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team before becoming president of Bob Jones University. His ultimate goal for BJU is to prepare students to serve and love others, no matter their vocation.