The Psalms are unique in that, with only a few exceptions, they are a one-sided dialogue – a man speaking to his God. There is only the rare occasion in the Psalms when God is seen speaking (Psa 2:6-9). In the remainder of Scripture, we either have God speaking to man (consider the book of Leviticus, which is almost entirely God speaking), or events in which God intervenes. The Psalms, however, are almost entirely the words of men addressed to God.
The Psalms are poetic, but not in our Western sense of poetry. Hebrew poetry is different. The imagery and poetic nature of the Psalms are a rich tapestry upon which concise yet colorful truths are displayed. “Unpacking” the word pictures and poetry will yield a wealth of truth to the student. For those interested in pursuing and understanding Hebrew poetry (which likely comprises 25-30% of the Old Testament), there are a number of classical works, as well as some recent writings, which help the student to interpret this form of writing. Hebrew poetry is not in rhyme but in
- balanced lines (parallelism)
- word plays
- sounds which are repeated
There are a number of alphabetical Psalms, the best known being Psalm 119. But Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112 and 145 are also alphabetical Psalms. At times, every verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet; other times it may be every two verses. Psalm 119 is divided into sections of eight verses as it proceeds through the Hebrew alphabet.
The Psalms as we have them were the work of a number of different individuals. Hezekiah (reigned 715-686 B.C.) may have had a hand in organizing part of the psalter (cf. 2Ch 29:25-28,30; 30:21; 31:2). Josiah (reigned 640-609 B.C.) may also have added to the final form (2Ki 22:1-23:30; 2Ch 34-35; cf. 2Ch 35:15,25). The last two sections of the Psalms (90-106 and 107-150) contain Psalms dating from Moses to the period of time likely after the return from exile. Ezra, who likely wrote some of Chronicles to instruct the returning exiles, may have been responsible for these.
It was from the treasury of the Psalms that godly Israelites drew their expressions of praise. The Magnificat of Mary (Luk 1:46-55) touches on as many as 12 Psalms in her spontaneous outpouring of praise.
There are many recurring themes, words and pictures included in the Psalms. God as a Rock is mentioned perhaps 20 times. There are seven “Amens” in the Psalms: at the end of Book 1 (two), at the end of Book 2 (two), at the end of Book 3 (two), at the end of Book 4 (one amen and one hallelujah). When we arrive at the end of Book 5, we get only hallelujahs and no amens. Prayer has turned to praise, and a wonderful doxology ends the psalter.
Another theme that can be traced to profit is that of the rivers spoken of in the Psalms. There are 71 occurrences of the word “Selah” throughout. Look at the expressions “Where is thy God?” and “How long?” in the various Psalms.
Trace the six mentions of “with my whole heart” in Psalm 119, the seven “I am” statements of the Psalm, and the use of the eight different expressions for the Word of God.
Note how Psalms 1, 9 and 119 all stress the importance of the Word of God.
Treatment in the New Testament
The writers of the New Testament, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, made direct or indirect citations from the Psalms on at least 90 occasions. They are found in every New Testament book except those to the Thessalonians, the epistles to Timothy, Titus, Philemon, John’s three epistles and Jude.
All four Gospel writers cite the Psalms in a variety of settings. Christ’s entrance to the city of Jerusalem, while prophesied in Zechariah, is attended by the words of Psalm 118. His sufferings are the subject of both Matthew and Mark as they quote His words from Psalm 22. John employs the Psalms in connection with the Lord’s life and betrayal. Each writer found in the Psalms abundant material which transcended the experience of the writer and could only have fulfillment in Christ.
As well, the Lord Jesus mentioned the Psalms as part of the Old Testament Scriptures and referred to the fact that they spoke of His sufferings and glory (Luk 24:44). He quoted from the Psalms when referring to His rejection as well as His coming glory (Luk 20:17,42,43).
The apostles preached from the Psalms throughout the book of Acts as an apologetic for the resurrection (Act 2:25-28) as well as justification for replacing Judas (Act 1:20).
Paul employed the Psalms to show man’s sinfulness (Rom 3:11-14) and to reinforce the principle of salvation by grace (Rom 4:7). He refers to several Psalms in his correction of problems at Corinth. And no one can read Hebrews without being impressed with the frequent references, at least 15 different verses, that the inspired writer brings from their Old Testament setting to apply to the crisis of faith that the Hebrew believers were undergoing.
Arthur G. Clarke, Analytical Studies in the Psalms (John Ritchie, 1975).
Derek Kidner, Psalms in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 2008).