Again, for most of these reflections, see also Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
Throughout the centuries, there have been countless reflections on the nature of prayer. St. Augustine said the purest kind of prayer was God talking to God through the soul. Jean-Louis Chretien, a contemporary French philosopher and theologian, says that woundedness or need is the posture of prayer, that pray wounds and so blesses us (in French, blessé means wounded). And the Psalms themselves are discourses on prayer, by being prayers themselves. They were prayers in ancient Israel; they were prayers for Jesus; and they are still prayers said today in churches around the world.
Like much of the Old Testament that isn’t narrative or law, the Psalms are written as poems. Actually, they are songs — poetic songs, in which the mind is being addressed through the heart. They were set to music, and they engage in metaphorical language that evokes an emotional response. Like the best poetry there is.
The Psalms can also be seen as literature in the following ways: (1) there are different types of Psalms, which are characterized by a formal structure; (2) their role in the societal and religious life of Israel can be discovered, (3) there are various patterns within each individual psalm, and (4) each psalm is marked by an self-contained integrity as a literary unit
Use of Psalms
As noted above, the Psalms are the prayers of the people of Israel. They were used in formal, corporate prayers, including in the Temple. And there is evidence that they were used privately as well. At least, they would have been available for personal use.
Types of Psalms
There are some obvious categories in which to place different psalms. These are detailed below.
- Laments. Examples: Psalm 3, Psalm 12. The first example is an individual lament, where the psalmist is expressing distress or suffering, and ultimately trust in God. This is personal, while there is a second type, seen in Psalm 12, which is a corporate lament, expressing the suffering of the nation or people. This is the largest single genre of psalm. Think about it.
- Thanksgiving. Examples: Psalm 65, Psalm 116. Again, there are two types: individual (116) and corporate (65). Thanksgiving psalms express gratitude or give thanks to God for God’s faithfulness or protection or benefits or blessings. People giving thanks; it’s good stuff.
- Hymns of Praise. Example: Psalm 8. These psalms are just about praising God. They are not concerned with sufferings of worries of the psalmist or even the blessings that God has given. They are about praising God for who God is.
- Salvation-History. Example: Psalm 78. These psalms are about the history of the people of God and God’s intervening actions on their behalf.
- Celebration and Affirmation. This group of psalms has three subgroups.
- Royal. Example: Psalm 18. These psalms celebrate God’s faithfulness and actions through the king (usually David) of Israel and anticipate the Kingship of God.
- Enthronement. Example: Psalm 95. These were probably songs sung for enthroning new kings in Israel. Sort of like an inauguration song…
- Songs of Zion. Example: Psalm 122. These songs celebrate life and the hope of the city of the people of God — Jerusalem, also known as Zion.
- Wisdom. Example: Psalm 133. These psalm praise wisdom and give some direction on being wise; can be read well with Proverbs.
- Songs of Trust. Example: Psalm 91. These psalms are centered on the worthiness of God to be trusted and encourage people to trust, especially in times of suffering or distress.
Troubling Psalms and Hermeneutical Interpretations
Some psalms are notably much harder to understand and to pray than others. The very famous example is Psalm 137. This song expresses rage and a desire for vengeance in language that could be considered, well, genocidal. I am not going to try to offer an explanation here, but I want to note that even this song is included, because human beings do experience these emotions. Prayer is not about being in a perfect emotional state before coming to God, and it is definitely not about being in a perfect spiritual state either. We can could to God in whatever condition or emotional distress we might be. And that is a beautiful and amazing thing.
To close, there are four things to be noted about interpreting the psalms:
- The psalms can serve as guide to worship.
- The psalms demonstrate how we can relate honestly to God, no matter the emotional baggage we may be bringing.
- The psalms demonstrate the important of reflection and meditation on what God has done for us and for the people of God.
- Finally, know and remember that the psalms do not guarantee a pleasant life. No where in Scripture does God guarantee a “pleasant” life, but in praying the psalms, we may find God more in the midst of our lives. That may not be pleasant but it will be good.