10 Things You Should Know about the Psalms

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. The book of Psalms has no (original) title.

The Hebrew Bible provides no title to the book of Psalms. Old Testament books in the Hebrew text are sometimes named according to the first words of the book. For example, the title of Genesis is In the Beginning, the title of Exodus is These Are the Names, and the prophetic books are named after the prophet himself. But the book of Psalms has no title in the Hebrew text.

Psalm 72:20 may hint of an early collection of some of the psalms when it says, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” It may be that an early collection of psalms was named The Prayers of David.

The title of the book in Rabbinic and subsequent Hebrew literature is Book of Praises or simply Praises (tehillim). Although this word (in the singular) is used to title just one psalm (Ps. 145), its later use as a title for the book itself derives from its content—the book of Psalms is a book of praises. Psalms of all specific genres, even laments, are regularly couched in praise.

The Hebrew word for psalm occurs dozens of times in the book, and the Septuagint (Codex Vaticanus) picks this up in the plural as the title of the book: Psalmoi. In Codex Alexandrinus, the title given is Psalterion (an ancient stringed instrument) from which we have the name Psalter. Then, in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, it became Libra Psalmorum, The Book of Psalms. So the English title, The Book of Psalms, comes to us from the Greek through the Latin. The Hebrew word psalm denotes a liturgical song sung to an instrumental accompaniment, but because the note of praise is so dominant in these psalms, the word has come to denote simply a song of praise, a sacred song, or a hymn.

How to Read and Understand the Psalms

Bruce K. Waltke, Fred G. Zaspel

Developed from a lifetime of studying and teaching, How to Read and Understand the Psalms gives readers tools to learn how to properly interpret and internalize the Psalms. 

2. The book of Psalms is a universal favorite.

The evidence for this assertion is overwhelming and has been so from the church’s earliest days. Jesus and his apostles cited verses from the Psalms so frequently and with such ease and immediate grasp that they appear to have spent their lives in the Psalter. In the early centuries of the church, ministers memorized the entire collection. And all throughout the history of the church, the Psalms has been among the first books of the Bible translated and the most commonly read and memorized. Many verses from the Psalms seem lodged in the memory of virtually all Christians, and Psalm 23 is probably the most well-known text in the world. From Jesus to us, the Psalter has been the treasure of God’s people everywhere.

3. Psalms are poetry, and they must be read as such.

Poems are not narrative, and we can’t read the Psalms (profitably) if we read them like we read, say, the books of Samuel or Acts. We read narrative linearly, following the story along rather common lines of thought (protagonist, antagonist, challenge or threat, etc.) to the climactic end. Poetry is not laid out quite that way. The lines are brief and compact and often convey the message only subtly and with figures of speech. And with Hebrew poetry in particular, like the psalms, the verses consist of parallel lines to convey the thought. If the verse has two lines, the second in some way informs the first. If the verse has three lines, the send and third inform the first. To read a psalm profitably we cannot just gloss over the lines quickly to the end, or much will be missed. We must pay attention to the details. We must ponder the figures of speech to grasp the reality they reflect, and we must consider thoughtfully how the compressed lines inform one another.

It has been said that you can tell it’s poetry by all the white space on the page. There is not as much to read, but ironically the compacted details demand closer attention.

4. Psalms have a variety of recognizable forms.

It has long been recognized that not all the psalms are alike. There are different moods and varying circumstances reflecting every human emotion brought before God. Some psalms are given to praise, and some are given to lament and petition. Some are given to express trusting confidence in the Lord of providence, and some look back with grateful praise for what he has done. And then there is Psalm 110, pure prophecy.

What has not always been recognized is that some of the psalms follow common forms. Just as English poetry has some standard genres (cf. the limerick), so also certain types of psalms follow common forms with common components. The praise psalm typically has 1) a call to praise, 2) a cause or reason for praise, and then 3) a renewed call to praise. The lament psalm typically consists of 1) a direct address (“O God!”), and this often with an introductory lament and/or call for help; 2) the lament; 3) an expression of the psalmist’s confidence or trust; 4) the psalmist’s petition; and 5) a conclusion or praise.

There are other psalm forms also, such as songs of trust and individual psalms of grateful praise. Not all the psalms follow a given form, and the psalmists themselves did not follow these forms slavishly—there is variety, and often no particular form is evident. But the psalmists did employ common psalm forms, and recognizing these forms helps us understand what a given psalmist himself was thinking as he wrote. Often preachers have been frustrated as they try to organize their sermon from a given psalm. A recognition of these psalm forms relieves the frustration entirely.

5. The superscripts are part of the psalms.

The superscriptions atop the psalms in our English Bibles, most often italicized, are not an “add-on” or in any way “extra.” They simply follow the Hebrew text and belong to the psalm itself.

Critical scholarship in the last century or so has sought to discredit the superscripts, but the manuscript evidence unanimously points to them as original to the text. This was the standard practice in the ancient near east, and every psalm in the Old Testament outside the psalter has a superscript also. There is no textual reason to deny them.

And the value of the superscripts is enormous. Fourteen of the psalms provide historical setting, such as Psalm 3 (David’s flight from Absalom). Without this historical note we would be without context altogether. And often even the brief “Of David” provides needed setting and context.

The superscripts provide basically two categories of information: authorship and performance. Atop the psalm the psalmist states his name and often the psalm category (“psalm,” “miktam,” etc.). The “performance” part of the superscript (e.g., “to the choirmaster”) always appears first in our superscripts and in fact should be recognized as the postscript to the previous psalm.

6. The Psalter has a liturgical setting.

At Sinai God gave Moses the worship system for ancient Israel. It consisted of a stated place for worship, a priesthood, sacrifices and offering for various purposes and occasions, and so on. When David brought the ark of the covenant the tent on Mount Zion (1 Chron. 15–16) he preserved Mosaic worship, of course, but he added a musical dimension. Now the offerings were accompanied by singing and musical instruments and were in many ways made a festive occasion.

This is the setting of the Psalms, and evidence of it is pervasive. Throughout the psalms we read of “the house of the Lord,” “his holy hill,” “to the choirmaster,” “Songs of Ascents,” psalms of Zion, psalms of entrance liturgies, enthronement psalms, public processions, musical instruments—all these and more reflecting the temple setting of the Psalter. The psalms did not originate for private but for public use. Even psalms written away from the temple look back to it. This “hymnbook” found its original use by the people of Israel gathered together at the temple in liturgical use. At this point in redemptive history, of course, as Isaac Watts famously argued, we sing these psalms now in light of their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. More on this below.

From Jesus to us the Psalter has been the treasure of God’s people everywhere.

7. The Psalter consists of five “books.”

The one hundred and fifty psalms that compose the Psalter are arranged into five books.

  • Book 1: Psalms 1–41
  • Book 2: Psalms 42–72
  • Book 3: Psalms 73–89
  • Book 4: Psalms 90–106
  • Book 5: Psalms 107–150

One distinction of these divisions is the doxologies at the end of each book. The implications of these divisions are many, and they represent the history of Israel from the united monarchy to the exile.

  • Books 1–2 are principally by David and represent the triumph of the king. Here very often David is in crisis, but his psalms usually end in praise.
  • Book 3 anticipates Israel’s exile. This is known as the “dark book” of the Psalter. Here Israel’s kings—the house of David—fail, and the sanctuary is destroyed. This book climaxes in Psalm 89 and its lament of the seeming collapse of the Davidic covenant.
  • Book 4 is oriented to Israel in exile. She has no king, but here the psalms fall back on God in trust that he is their king. Hope is still alive because God is Israel’s eternal refuge.
  • Book 5 praises God for Israel’s restoration and return from exile, and here praise is offered to him from among the nations.

8. The placement and arrangement of the individual psalms is not haphazard.

Within these five books the editors seem clearly to have arranged the psalms according to common authorship, genre, theme, and various distinctions and insights. We have psalms of David grouped together (Pss. 3–41), prayers of David (Ps. 72:20), psalms of Asaph (Pss. 73–83), miktam psalms (Ps. 56–60), enthronement psalms (Pss. 95–100), psalms reflecting morning and evening prayers (Pss. 3–6), psalms that celebrate the “name” of the Lord (Pss. 7–9)—these are among the more obvious evidences of editorial arrangements within the Psalter. Psalm 90 stands at the head of Book 4, it seems, for interpretive reasons. Davidic psalms are placed even in the later “books” preserving the Psalter’s Davidic/royal orientation.

Moreover, Psalms 1–2 together form the gateway to the psalter. Psalm 1 tells us for whom the Psalms are written—those who treasure God’s law and live accordingly. Psalm 2 tells us about whom the Psalms are written—the Lord’s King who, in fulfillment of God’s decree, will reign over his kingdom universally. These two psalms together set the stage for the entire psalter.

The Psalter may rightly be understood as a hymnbook, but we do well to recognize that the songs are placed not haphazardly but intentionally.

9. The Psalms focus on the king.

The Psalter has a distinct royal orientation. It is not just a hymnbook—it is a royal hymnbook, and we may picture ancient Israel singing these songs as they gathered around their king at the temple.

The evidence of this royal orientation is extensive. Most obvious is the prominence of David, whose name appears in the superscript of about half of the psalms and who is the subject of others (e.g., Ps. 89). Beyond David himself are Solomon (Ps. 72; Ps. 127) and other Davidic kings (e.g., Ps. 45). The “enemies” so often in view in various psalms are nations and military forces. The alternating “I” and “we” also reflects the king who represents the people.

All Christians read the Psalter “devotionally,” as we ought. But we will miss the psalmists’ message if we assume the “I” and the “me” is Mr. Everyman or some other pious Israelite. The psalms are not in their first instance about us; pervasively it is the king who is in view.

10. The Psalms are about Jesus.

The significance of this royal orientation goes further as we seek to understand the psalms in canonical perspective. We have it on Jesus’s authority (Luke 24:44) that the psalms are about him. Some of the psalms are more directly predictive, such as Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. In others David stands as a “type” or picture of Christ and is prospective of him in more subtle ways. In some, the language describes the king in terms that go beyond the historic kings and can refer, finally, only to the Lord Jesus (Ps. 45:6; cf. Heb. 1:8). And we can see from the use of the psalms in the New Testament, both from Jesus and his apostles, that the Davidic king ought to be recognized as prospective of David's greater son. Often the psalms present the king in his ideal, an ideal of which all David’s other sons fell far short. Yet this ideal anticipates a king still to come. David and his kingdom foreshadow Christ and his kingdom.

When David hands his psalms “to the choirmaster” for the congregation to sing, he gives them to us to sing also. And as ancient Israel sang of their king, so we sing these same psalms now in recognition of their fulfillment in God’s Anointed, the Lord Jesus Christ, who in his death, resurrection, and ascension has inaugurated God’s universal kingdom, and who in his return will bring that rule to glorious consummation.

Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel are the authors of How to Read and Understand the Psalms.

Popular Articles in This Series

View All

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.