“Because of your unfailing love, I can enter your house; I will worship at your Temple with deepest awe. Lead me in the right path, O Lord, or my enemies will conquer me. Make your way plain for me to follow.” Psalm 5:7-8
The book of Psalms is perhaps the most read and reread of all of the books of the Bible. A collection of hymns, biblical poetry, and prayers, the Psalms serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement; they reveal to us the character of God and help to give shape to our own prayers. The book of Psalms is one of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament and the Ketuvim in the Hebrew Bible, which all center around teaching humans how to live well in the world and how to know God.
We invite you to look more closely at the book of Psalms with an overview of what this Biblical book is all about and how it is arranged. We hope that this overview will encourage you to engage the Psalms with new insight.
At its core, the book of Psalms is about worship and the trials and triumphs of a life lived in pursuit of the Lord. The psalms were written by various authors, with many of the psalms attributed to King David. With psalms spanning across a wide emotional spectrum, the book offers insights into how various people process their experiences within the context of their faith in and relationship with God.
Types of Psalms
Scholar Hermann Gunkel was one of the first to develop an outline for categorizing the psalms into different types. Gunkel proposed categorizing the psalms not by their assumed authors (or historical context) but on the basis of genre. Under his framework, all psalms can be divided into five types.
The first of Gunkel’s categories are the hymns. These are the psalms praising God’s work through creation and time. They recount the glory and wonder of the Lord and call readers and listeners to lift their voices in praise.
Hymn psalms have two additional subcategories: enthronement hymns (which refer to God as king and ruler of all) and Zion hymns (which point to Mount Zion, the location known as God’s dwelling place).
Communal laments make up the next type of Psalm. These psalms lift up the griefs and sorrows of the nation or community following a disaster. Generally speaking, lament psalms all contain eight key elements:
- An address to God,
- A description of the suffering,
- Denunciation or cursing of the party responsible for the suffering
- An assertion of innocence or admission of guilt
- A plea for divine assistance
- A statement of faith in God's receipt of the prayer
- A refrain of anticipation of a divine response
- A song of thanksgiving
In their own category are the individual psalms of lament. Individual laments are by far the most common type of psalm. Like the communal laments, these psalms contain the same eight elements and focus on expressing sorrow in the wake of a tragedy.
As the name suggests, individual psalms of laments are set apart by their scope, lifting up the griefs of a particular singular person. These two types of lament psalms can usually be distinguished by their use of “we” or “I”, with communal laments using the plural pronoun and individual laments using the singular.
Individual psalms of thanksgiving are the counterpoint to psalms of individual lament. Here an individual is moved to offer a prayer of praise and gratitude following deliverance or blessing from God.
Finally there are the royal psalms, a difficult category to define. Gunkel uses this category to refer to psalms centered around events of a king--coronation, marriage, battle, etc. No one king is referenced directly, leading some to assert that these psalms are designed to point back to God as the true ruler of all.
In Gunkel’s form of categorization, there still exist some psalms that do not fit neatly into just one category. Likewise, there are other subcategories, aiming at an even greater level of specificity, such as the wisdom psalms and the pilgrimage psalms. These “type” designations are not hard and fast rules; instead they help readers to think about the book of Psalms as a whole. These major psalm types illuminate the flow and pattern of worship poetry and prayer.
After considering the various types of psalms, we turn our attention to the book’s overarching themes. God and His righteousness and majesty are at the center of this book. All of the Psalms--even those expressing lament--give thanks and glory to the Lord. Through the words of the psalmists, we are presented with a picture of life lived in true relationship with God; all circumstances, whether positive or negative, elicit an response to God. And in every matter, the psalmist actively anticipates a reply from God.
The Psalms illuminate the greatness of the Lord and affirm His faithfulness and provision in times of trouble. They also unite us with those who have come before us. In their struggles, celebrations, songs, and petitions, we see our only lives reflected and we can be reminded that we are not alone. God blessed and preserved them; He will be there for us too.
History and Application
The book of Psalms has a long history of use in worship services--being used in synagogues and the Temple and during Jewish festivals and holidays, as well as regularly being incorporated into Christian worship and liturgical use. Often in modern worship services, the Psalms are used as a "call to worship" at the start of the service, setting the tone for all that is to follow and welcoming participants to praise God.
Individually, many Christians turn to the psalms to help guide and shape their prayer life. When we feel unsure of what or how to pray, the words of the psalmists can serve as a starting point, structuring our thoughts and connecting us to the legacy God’s relationship with humanity.
The book of Psalms is a beloved part of scripture for a reason. Through poetic and emotionally charged language, the psalmists tap into universal feelings of lament, celebration, and hope. After all this time the Psalms continue to help us to fix our eyes upon the Lord and encourage us to give thanks for the blessings we have received.