How to Understand the Poetry of the Psalms

Biblical poetry reveals expressions that run the gamut of human emotion — from the depth of despair to the height of happiness. While poetic language employs vivid imagery to describe events or themes of all kinds, most biblical poetry can be organized around two themes: the experience of human suffering and the assertion of God’s divine kingship.

Human Suffering

The lament psalms, the thanksgiving psalms and the book of Lamentations reflect the common experience of sin and evil for everyone living in a fallen world. The details change, but the experience is the same. This quality gives biblical poetry a timelessness and near-universal applicability.

Everyone, at some point, experiences some unfairness or injustice. And everyone comes face to face with sin and its consequences. Since many of the lament psalms are essentially prayers to God for deliverance or forgiveness, these psalms continue to influence how people pray. These psalms can also be bold expressions of personal torment and despair revealing that it is healthy to put such feelings into words and also comforting us with the knowledge that others have felt similar pain. It is also important to realize that the emphasis on suffering and injustice in many psalms is never the final word.

God’s Divine Kingship

The theme of divine kingship encompasses the ideas of God as a warrior, as the creator and as a righteous judge. Psalms praising God for his deliverance of Israel (e.g., Psalm 78) and expressions of his power over creation (e.g., Psalm 104) ultimately celebrate his lordship over the universe.

Imagery of God as the divine warrior marching into battle on behalf of his people (e.g., Psalm 68) similarly emphasizes his kingship over his chosen ones. The theme of divine kingship brings hope that someday God’s reign will be perfectly restored and the circumstances that cause suffering and pain in the world will end.

Types of Psalms in the Bible

Poetry in the Psalms follows fairly consistent recognizable patterns and falls into four main types: lament, thanksgiving, praise, and royal.

Psalms of Lament

A lament psalm is a cry to God brought on by hardship or despair. Sometimes the complaint is presented on behalf of the entire community, but some complaints are motivated by individual situations.

Lament psalms use common themes and stereotypical language to describe the experience of suffering. A typical lament psalm (e.g., Psalm 10; 28; 59) may include the following parts though the sequence and use of each may vary:

• an address to God
• a complaint
• a request for help
• a reason for God to help
• a statement of confidence
• an assertion of innocence
• a confession of sin
• an expression of praise

Sometimes a psalmist insists that his suffering is unjust because he is innocent. In other cases the psalmist confesses that he had sinned but repents. And the lament may conclude with a vow to praise God after deliverance from hardship.

Thanksgiving Psalms

In some ways, a thanksgiving psalm is structured as a continuation or response to a lament. The lament usually ends with a promise to praise God, and the thanksgiving psalm fulfills that promise.

Some of the common parts of a thanksgiving psalm parallel the segments of a lament psalm. For example, a thanksgiving psalm typically includes a summary of adverse circumstances and a report of God’s deliverance. The lament explains the circumstances and contains a request for God to deliver. The thanksgiving psalm is an expression of praise to God motivated by a particular experience of his grace. Psalm 30, Psalm 116 and Psalm 124 are good examples. This structural connection with lament distinguishes thanksgiving psalms from psalms of praise.

Praise Psalms

Praise psalms (or hymns) celebrate the human experience of God’s goodness. As opposed to thanksgiving psalms, which tend to offer praise to God for specific answers to prayer, praise psalms are general expressions celebrating God’s attributes and his actions in creation.

Praise psalms have a simple format: a call to praise, an expression of praise and a concluding call to praise. Psalm 8 and 29 are good examples. Enthronement psalms and Zion hymns are specific types of praise psalms. Enthronement psalms such as Psalm 47 celebrate God as king of Israel and all creation. Zion hymns like Psalm 48 celebrate God’s choice of Zion as his earthly dwelling place.

Royal Psalms

Royal psalms emphasize the role of a human king as God’s chosen leader for Israel These psalms celebrate kingship while presenting the king as dependent on God for success. Psalm 20, 45 and 72 offer examples of royal psalms. They do not have a typical format or even formulaic phrases. The identification of a psalm as a royal psalm is based only on whether its content relates to human kingship in some way.

Psalms may offer historical surveys — poetic accounts of God’s interactions with Israel (e.g. Psalm 78). Wisdom psalms praise the benefits of righteous living (e.g. Psalm 37). Other psalms appear to have functioned as liturgies sung as people entered the temple for worship (e.g. Psalm 15 and 24).

Putting It Into Practice

The poetry in the Psalms offers honest expressions to God as the psalmists encountered the realities of life. The Bible contains 150 psalms, some short, some long. Consider reading a psalm a day to read through the entire book of Psalms twice throughout the year.

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