The 150 psalms found in the book of Psalms may be among the more well-known parts of the Old Testament by most Christians today. While many believers, sadly, have never read all of the OT, many have read many or at least some of the psalms, including much-loved psalms such as Ps 23.
The psalms are of course presented to us in poetic form, and they were actually first used as songs of worship for ancient Israel. Most were written for Israel’s temple worship. As Henrietta Mears puts it, “The Psalms is the national hymnbook of Israel. It contains 150 poems to be set to music for worship. Worship is the central idea. The Psalms magnify and praise the Lord, exalt His attributes, His names, His Word and His goodness.”
A few words about Hebrew poetry are in order, as it tends to differ from English poetry. One of the chief features of such poetry is its parallelism. There are various sorts of parallelism used in the psalms, the major one being synonymous parallelism.
Here the second line (or even a third line) parallels the first line. It repeats and amplifies what is found in the first line. Examples of this are everywhere and easy to find, especially in the psalter. Here are just a few:
O Lord, in your strength the king rejoices,
and in your salvation how greatly he exults!
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein,
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to an idol
or swear by what is false.
A second main type of parallelism is antithetic parallelism, which is especially found in the book of Proverbs. Here the second line provides a contrast or an antithesis to the first line. As but one example, consider Proverbs 19:16:
He who obeys instructions guards his life,
but he who is contemptuous of his ways will die.
Unfortunately, older English translations such as the KJV do not really convey this poetry very well, as they do not lay it out properly, while most of the newer versions do. This poetry, including its parallelism, is a real help in memorisation and corporate praise, among other things.
Given that God and other lofty themes are found so much in the Psalms, it makes sense to use poetry instead of mere prose. As Peter Craigie put it,
A recognition of the poetic form of the psalms is important for their interpretation, for poetry is a special kind of language; the importance of poetic language in the biblical context is indicated by the fact that somewhere between a third and a half of the OT is poetic in form. Whereas the language of prose is utilized primarily towards direct communication, poetic language is characterized by a more transcendent quality. There are aspects of human experience, and aspects of knowledge of God, for which the mundane language of prose cannot provide adequate expression. Poetry is, among other things, an attempt to transcend the limitation of normal (prosaic) human language and to give expression to something not easily expressed in words – indeed, it may ultimately be inexpressible in human terms. When poetry is accompanied by music, the element of transcendence may be heightened.
It also should be pointed out that there are different types of psalms, such as the royal psalms (Ps 2 eg.); thanksgiving psalms (Ps 65 eg.); penitential psalms (Ps. 51 eg.); imprecatory psalms (Ps 69 eg.); and complaint psalms (Ps 22 eg). The bibliography below will look at some of these types in a bit more detail.
Let me close with some fitting words from James Montgomery Boice:
There is no more wonderful portion of Scripture than the psalms. They have been a blessing to God’s people through many generations, first in the Old Testament period when they were sung by the people of Israel in their worship at the temple in Jerusalem and now in the New Testament period when they are recited, sung, memorized, and cherished by Christians (as well as Jews) literally around the world. Ever since the days when they were first written, beginning in the age of the early monarchy under King David, they have been used in the worship of God more consistently and more frequently than any other portion of the Bible. Some of the best known parts of the Bible are psalms or parts of psalms.
Bateman, Herbert and D. Brent Sandy, eds. Interpreting the Psalms for Teaching and Preaching. Chalice Press, 2010.
Beisner, E. Calvin, Psalms of Promise. P&R, 1988, 1994.
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms. Augsburg, 1984.
Brueggemann, Walter, The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Edited by Patrick Miller. Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
Brueggemann, Walter, Praying the Psalms. Paternoster, 1980, 2007.
Bullock, C. Hassell, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction. Baker, 2004.
Clements, Roy, Songs of Experience. Christian Focus, 1993.
Estes, Daniel, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Baker, 2005.
Firth, David and Philip Johnston, Interpreting the Psalms. IVP, 2005.
Futado, Mark, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook. Kregel, 2007.
Lewis, C. S., Reflections on the Psalms. Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1958.
Longman, Tremper, How To Read the Psalms. IVP, 1988.
Lucas, Ernest, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature. IVP, 2003.
Miller, Patrick, Interpreting the Psalms. Fortress, 1986.
Schmutzer, Andrew and David Howard eds., Psalms: Language for All Seasons. Moody, 2013.
Shead, Andrew, ed., Stirred By a Noble Theme: The Book of Psalms in the Life of the Church. Apollos, 2013.
Waltke, Bruce, James Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament. Eerdmans, 2014.
Waltke, Bruce, James Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship. Eerdmans, 2010.
Wenham, Gordon, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Baker, 2012.
Wenham, Gordon, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Crossway, 2013.
The Lament Psalms
The lament, or complaint, psalms actually make up the largest collection of psalms in the psalter. Questions like ‘Why do the wicked prosper’ (eg., Psalm 73) would be one clear example of this. In addition to some of the volumes mentioned above, see also these helpful books:
Card, Michael, A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. NavPress, 2005.
Cohen, David, Why O Lord? Paternoster, 2013.
Jinkins, Michael, In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament. Liturgical Press, 1998.
Peterman, Gerald and Andrew Schmutzer, Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering. Moody, 2016.
The Imprecatory Psalms
This is another unique category of psalms, but should be seen as a subset of the lament psalms. They speak about gaining vengeance over one’s enemies and the like, and have troubled some believers. Here are a few helpful volumes on these psalms:
Adams, James, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1991.
Day, John, Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us about Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism. Kregel, 2005.
Zenger, Erich, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Westminster John Knox, 1996.
In addition, please see the bibliography I put together on the poetic and wisdom literature in my article on Job: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/05/23/bible-study-helps-job/
More scholarly and academic volumes include the following:
Allen, Leslie, Psalms 101-150 (WBC, 1983)
Anderson, A. A., Psalms, vol. 2 (NCBC, 1972)
Broyles, Craig, Psalms (NIBC, 1999)
Bullock, C. Hassell, Psalms 1-72 (TTC, 2015)
Craigie, Peter, Psalms 1-50 (WBC, 1983)
Goldingay, John, Psalms 1-41 (BCOTWP, 2006)
Goldingay, John, Psalms 42-89 (BCOTWP)
Goldingay, John, Psalms 90-150 (BCOTWP)
Jacobson, et al The Book of Psalms (NICOT)
Kidner. Derek, Psalms 1-72 (TOTC, 1973)
Kidner. Derek, Psalms 73-150 (TOTC, 1975)
Longman, Tremper, Psalms (TOTC, 2014)
Tate, Marvin, Psalms 51-100 (WBC, 1990)
VanGemeren, Willem, Psalms (EBC, 1991)
Wilcock, Michael, The Message of the Psalms, 2 vols. (BST, 2001)
Williams, Donald, Psalms 1-72 (CC, 1986)
Williams, Donald, Psalms 73-150 (MOTC, 1989)
Wilson, Gerald, Psalms, vol 1 (NIVAC, 2002)
And some devotional and expository commentaries:
Boice, James Montgomery, Psalms, vol 1 (Baker, 1994)
Boice, James Montgomery, Psalms, vol 2 (Baker, 1996)
Boice, James Montgomery, Psalms, vol 3 (Baker, 1998)
Johnston, James, Psalms 1-41 (PTW, 2015)
Happy reading and studying – and praising.