How (and How Not) to Read the Psalms

This article is part of the How (and How Not) series.

Hunt and Find

For many reasons, the book of Psalms is a favorite of most Christians. Although we all have derived spiritual benefit from this ancient collection of poems on many levels, there are ways to read the Psalter that are more beneficial than others.

Perhaps the most common approach is what we might call the “hunt and find” approach—reading through a given psalm and looking for that little nugget that gives a spiritual boost. In this approach, the reader gives little consideration to historical context, the superscript, the flow or structure of thought in the psalm, the way the psalmist conveys his meaning, the theme, and so on. The approach is in search of a gem that stands out and is in some way striking in and of itself. This approach yields a certain benefit, as probably all of us have experienced. And on the plus side, it requires virtually no study and little thinking on the part of the reader! But the yield is limited in that it likely misses the psalmist’s own purpose in writing.

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. 

So how can we read the Psalter more profitably? By way of broadest direction, we must read the Psalms thoughtfully. This, of course, is required of all reading, and we will expand on this in each of our suggestions below.

Read Thoughtfully

First, it is the nature of poetry (and the psalms are poems) that it is not made for speed reading. It requires thoughtful consideration. In prose we read “linearly”—we can read quickly through the narrative to learn the outcome or the point of emphasis. But poetry, as that of the Psalms, is marked by a distinct compactness of thought and brevity. The meaning is expressed in few words. The language is terse, and often the psalmist’s meaning is even somewhat veiled behind brief expressions, allusions, and figures of speech. This is the nature of poetry. And so if we read too quickly straight through to the end, we are likely to miss something.

For example, who are these who turn David’s honor to shame (Ps. 4:2)? Are they enemies from the outside, as many assume? Or are they potential opponents from within? What is the “good” that is sought from God (Ps. 4:6), and in what way does this inform the opposition in view? Just what is the significance of God portrayed as a shepherd and then as a wealthy dinner host (Ps. 23)? How do the latter verses of the psalm explain? What is the significance of all the military terminology in Psalm 91? Who is the endangered person in view? These kinds of observations are not generally evident on a quick read; they require thoughtful attention to the details.

Brevity and figures of speech are not the only factors that the thoughtful reader will want to be careful to notice; parallelism is another. Hebrew poetry is not generally based on rhyme or rhythm, as in English poetry. Rather, it is based on parallel of thought. Most commonly, verses of the psalms consist of two lines in which the second in some way supports, extends, amplifies, or clarifies the meaning of the first. Sometimes there may be three lines, in which case the second two reflect the first. “Synthetic” parallelism is the norm, in which the second line advances the thought of the first in some way. Take Psalm 119:63 as an example:

I am a companion of all who fear you,
of those who keep your precepts.

Here, the parallel second line is broadly synonymous, but it does more than merely repeat the thought of the first; it specifies in practical terms what it means to fear the Lord. To fear the Lord is to obey his word.

We will do well also to take note of structures and flow of thought in the Psalms. Laments, for example, typically express lament, confidence, petition, and praise. Praise psalms typically consist in a call to praise, cause(s) or reason(s) for praise, and a renewed call to praise. And there are other genres of Psalms also. Psalms of individual grateful praise typically consist in praise and a reflection on God’s goodness which gives rise to this praise. Taking note of these standard components directs our attention to the psalmist’s own flow of thought and, in turn, serves to inform our own prayers. Often, pastors have found that outlining a given psalm for exposition is a difficult endeavor, but a recognition of these standard psalm “forms” can be enormously helpful.

Notice the Speaker

To read the Psalms profitably we must also be careful to notice the identity of the “I” who speaks. Who is he? Is he Mr. Everyman or just any pious Israelite? And if so, can we rightly place ourselves in his place as we read so that we are the “I” who is speaking? A careful reading of the Psalms will reveal that, pervasively, it is the king who is in view. About half of the Psalms are “Of David.” Military terminology is used throughout, and the danger in view is often that of warfare. Some of the Psalms are prayers for the king, and many reflect the Davidic promise in some way, whether in lament or in hope. On the welfare of the “I” hangs the welfare of Israel. The Psalter is pervasively by and about the king. This explains how “I” and “we” are often interchangeable, for the king represents the people. The Psalter has a pronounced royal orientation. It is essentially a royal hymnbook with all the people of God gathered around the king at the temple.

We will often miss the point if we too quickly personalize the Psalms and overlook the fact that, by and large, they concern the king.

This is not to say that the Psalms offer nothing to us or have no application to our own circumstances—they very often do! But we will often miss the point if we too quickly personalize the Psalms and overlook the fact that, by and large, they concern the king. The well-being of God’s people hangs on the well-being of their king. They are inseparable.

Read in Context

This, in turn, lays a firm foundation for reading the Psalms in light of the larger biblical canon and seeing in them an anticipation of David’s greater son and King, the Messiah. Jesus and the New Testament writers cite and allude to the Psalms repeatedly, overwhelmingly in reference to Jesus. The prayers and laments of David are found now on the lips of Jesus. Jesus prayed Psalm 22 as he was dying on the cross. The promised triumphs of the king become the triumphs of the King. The king who in the Psalter is so often presented ideally anticipates the King who was yet to come. The Lord Jesus himself tells us so (Luke 24:44; cf. Matt. 22:41–45), and the New Testament writers follow in step (e.g., Acts 2:25–28). We, in turn, read the Psalms well when we read with one eye to David, his ancient sons and the kingdom of God over which they were given to administer faithfully, and with another eye to the Lord Jesus Christ who in his first coming established and secured God’s kingdom and who in his return will bring that kingdom to its final consummation.

The Psalter is a rich book of poetry, and its devotional “gems” are many. Paying attention to its poetic forms and expressions, its historical setting, its theological orientation, and its Christocentric prospect, we will find its devotional value still more deeply rich.

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

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