Reading the Psalms
By Jacob Orr
Over and over in the Scripture series, and just in church in general, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “God’s word is for us.” The part of the Bible where that often feels most true for people is in the Psalms.
The Psalms give us language to express how we feel both toward God and toward our present situation. Reading the Psalms can also give us greater clarity to the rest of Scripture. The Psalms were written throughout Israel’s history, with the earliest written by Moses and the latest written at some point after the exile to Babylon (sometime between 538–516 B.C.). They are also the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament, so by understanding the Psalms, we are better able to understand our Bible as a whole.
Just like with the narrative portions of the Bible, the Psalms require a responsible approach to reading and interpretation. Here’s one way to approach the Psalms that I’ve found useful.
Similar to reading narrative, we want to ask the Lord to show us what he would have for us. Even if you’re not used to praying before your time in the Bible, the Psalms are a great place to start since many of them are written as prayers. Make a psalm your own and pray it back to God.
This can look many different ways. Personally, I like taking the psalm in question and looking at the truths it gives us. I then pray those back to God. For example, if I’m looking at Psalm 1, I’d pray, “Lord, make me the righteous man who meditates on your word day and night and finds delight in these words. Thank you that your word produces fruit in season and out, but that the plant itself never dies. Thank you that you are near the way of the righteous, and that in Jesus, all of these promises are true. Make me more like him today.
2. Look for Context
Although not part of the original text, many Bibles today provide superscriptions above certain portions of Scripture to provide context for what follows. For example, above Psalm 3, you might see a note that reads, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” This tells us when the psalm was written in David’s life.
If the superscription is unfamiliar to you, it can be helpful to read the narrative attached with the Psalm. A study Bible will usually give you the location of the story, or you can always search online for where the story took place in the Old Testament.
3. Look for Poetic Features
The Psalms are poetry. However, they were originally written in Hebrew, and elements of poetry can be easily missed after they’ve been translated to another language. Common elements of English poetry include rhyme and rhythm, but Hebrew poetry is marked by other poetic devices.
For example, one of the major features of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Parallelism is when two lines or sections relate to each other either by contrast or by similarity. The Psalms kick off with a great example of parallelism in Psalm 1 with the righteous man and the wicked man. These people are complete opposites, and by putting them next to one another, they emphasize their differences. In particular, Psalm 1 uses the wicked man to emphasize the way of the righteous.
4. Look for God in the Text
Whether explicitly or implicitly, most psalms say something about the nature of God. Psalm 1, for example, reveals a lot implicitly about God. In verse 3, we see that the righteous man “is like a tree planted by streams of living water.” If the righteous man is the tree, then God is the living water. This shows us that, just like a stream, God is good and life-giving.
A study Bible can help you feel more confident in your understanding of God through the text. Take a look at verse 6: “[F]or the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” A person could easily misunderstand this as saying that God knows about the righteous but doesn’t know about the way of the wicked. But my ESV Study Bible notes that “[the word] ‘knows’ must be something stronger than ‘knows about’ since God knows about the wicked and their deepest secrets…. It is better to take this as ‘knows with affection and approval.’” With this helpful note, I can be more confident in my interpretation of the text. Instead of thinking that God ignores the way of the wicked, I understand that God knows about both good and evil, which is what makes him a righteous judge, and that he cares intimately about the way of the righteous.
5. Look for Humanity in the Text
The Bible is naturally going to say something about humanity on every page, whether it is something positive worth repeating or something sinful worth repenting. If we look at Psalm 1 again, we see that humanity has been created for righteousness. The righteous person is planted by the streams of living water, where he receives life. But the wicked person isn’t even planted; he’s part of the plant that’s thrown away, leading to death.
6. Look for Allusions or Quotations in the New Testament
This part can be challenging, but if you either have a reference Bible or a study Bible, there should be little numbers in the margins that tell you where else in the Bible that verse is used.
For example, Psalm 110 is the most directly quoted Psalm in the New Testament. Everyone from Paul to Peter to the author of Hebrews to Jesus himself quotes Psalm 110.
Even if there’s not a direct quotation, there may be a thematic similarity. For example, the idea of the blessed person in Psalm 1 is picked up by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
7. Discover an Application
Similar to the narrative portions of our Bible, applications from the Psalms can vary from person to person. The core truths stay the same, but what one person finds meaningful to their life at that moment may differ from what you find meaningful. For example, if I’m looking at Psalm 1, one of the most clear applications for me is to study and meditate on God’s word because it plants us down in him and gives us life.
With the Psalms, it can also be helpful to ask what God is asking us to trust him for. We see in Psalm 1 not a direct call to trust but an implicit one, a call that asks us to trust that God’s words and his law actually bring delight and life. This calls us not only to follow God’s Word, but also to trust that it is good.
The Psalms are a beautiful part of the Bible that can give us language to address God with how we’re feeling, and it can help us understand the rest of our Bible. Hopefully, these tips will help you delight in God’s Word more and more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacob Orr is Soma’s summer intern for 2019. He’s a student at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. A born and raised Texan, he’s probably a little too enthusiastic about his home state.