The Psalms are found among the wisdom and poetic books of the Old Testament. “Wisdom” refers to the content, while “poetic” refers to the writing style. The wisdom books – often written in a poetic style – are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
Understanding Hebrew poetry
Much of the Old Testament is written in a style of writing called Hebrew parallelism. Parallelism is the hallmark of Hebrew poetry. If you understand how Hebrew poetry is written, you can better understand the message of the writer. (You can identify Hebrew poetry in most translations because the lines are indented and don’t run from margin to margin.)
Hebrew poetry is different from popular English poetry. English poetry emphasizes rhyming words and cadence. By contrast, Hebrew poetry emphasizes thought flow and generally works two lines at a time. Hebrew poetry follows one of three basic forms:
- The second line repeats the idea of the first line, for emphasis.
- The second line develops the idea of the first line further, adding more information.
- The second line states the opposite of the first line, to drive home a contrast.
Understanding the Psalms
Contemporary readers look at Psalms as words in a book, but originally the psalms were written to be sung individually or in group worship. The book of Psalms is the largest book in the Bible, and is made up of five smaller books or collections. In the psalms, people sing about all their experiences, both good and bad, to God. The book is filled not only with joyful songs, but songs that reflect a whole range of human emotion. There are three basic types:
- Hymn of praise. These songs glorify God for who he is. Psalm 47 praises God because of his might, power, and majesty as ruler of everything.
Psalm 47:1-2 Come, everyone! Clap your hands! Shout to God with joyful praise! For the Lord Most High is awesome. He is the great king of all the earth.
- Lament. These songs express the sorrow of the singer along with a petition for God to act. Psalm 74 expresses sorrow due to the success of the singer’s enemies, followed by a request for God to deliver him or her. Psalms express raw emotion, both good and bad. Thus the thoughts expressed are not necessary all true. But God is big enough to hear all of our emotions and invites us to share them with him.
Psalm 74:1,9-10 O God, why have you rejected us so long? Why is your anger so intense against the sheep of your own pasture? We no longer see your miraculous signs. All the prophets are gone, and no one can tell us when it will end. How long, O God, will you allow our enemies to insult you? Will you let them dishonor your name forever?
- Song of thanksgiving. These songs worship God for something he has done, not simply for who he is. Psalm 116 expresses thanks to God for restoring the singer to health from a serious illness.
Psalm 116:3-4, 7-8 Death wrapped its ropes around me; the terrors of the grave overtook me. I saw only trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: “Please, Lord, save me!” Let my soul be at rest again, for the Lord has been good to me. He has saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
- Identify each of these types of psalm: Psalm 40, Psalm 50, Psalm 93.
- Why is it hard to share your sorrows and frustrations God? How can doing so empower your faith?
- In your life right now, would your psalm to God be a hymn of praise, lament, or a song of thanksgiving? Explain.
- How honest are you with God in your own life? How can you become more honest in your worship, prayer, and daily walk with God?
- What are some ways that you can encourage others in your life to be more honest with God?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.