Types of Psalms

One of the Bible’s most famous books, the book of Psalms centers around worship and prayer in the varied context of a life lived in pursuit of God. Written by various authors and spanning across a wide emotional spectrum, the book offers insights into how humanity processes their lived experiences within the context of their faith in and relationship with God.

Here we turn our attention to organization and categorization of the Psalms. What are the various types of psalms? How many different types of psalms are there? We offer you this overview in the hope that it might bring new insights on your next read.

Overview

White Blossom

Throughout their history, the psalms have been categorized in a number of ways. Some scholars have separated them based of their presumed authors, grouping them into “the psalms of David”, “the psalms of Solomon”, etc. Others have sought to arrange them by historical context, creating a theoretical timeline for when each was written, or linking certain psalms with the events they appear to be addressing/responding to.

Although these methods of organizing can be informative, they focus very little on the contents of the songs and poems themselves. With that end in mind, scholar Hermann Gunkel was one of the first to develop an outline for categorizing the psalms into different types categorized not by their assumed authors but on the basis of genre or theme. This type of framework looks at similarities in what the psalmists are writing about—what emotions they’re seeking to convey.

Gunkel’s framework identifies five major types of psalms with additional, more granular sub-categories. These types include Hymns, Communal Laments, Individual Laments, Individual Thanksgiving, and Royal Psalms. (Read more about each of these categories in our piece, “What is the Book of Psalms About?”) Other scholars and theologians have put forth their own categories, with some crossover with Gunkel’s list. Importantly, these categories are not intended to be harsh delinieations, or to be mutually exclusive. Not all psalms fit squarely into one category, but might contain elements of two or more different types. Considering the psalms by types is intend to 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.

Considering the Major Types

Let’s explore briefly the seven major types of psalms most commonly discussed by scholars. These include categories from Hermann Gunkel’s list as well as the lists and designations of other theologians and Biblical scholars. This list is not exhaustive; other subcategories, such as pilgrimage psalms and enthronement psalms, have been suggested. But on the whole, these smaller categories also belong to one of the broader psalm types.

Psalms of Praise

Blossom

Psalms of praise center around glorifying God and the works that God has done. These psalms frequently contain declarations—of God as mighty, good, and righteous. We might think of Psalm 19 as an example of this type:

“1 The heavens declare the glory of God;

    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

2 Day after day they pour forth speech;

    night after night they reveal knowledge.

3 They have no speech, they use no words;

    no sound is heard from them.

4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,

    their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.

5     It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,

    like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

6 It rises at one end of the heavens

    and makes its circuit to the other;

    nothing is deprived of its warmth.”

Hymns

A bunch of flowers

Once of Gunkel’s major types of psalms, hymns are joyful songs from the people who are rejoicing in their circumstances and goodness of God for providing. Hymns may begin individually, but frequently invite the community to join in their song. As one might expect, there is often quite a bit of overlap between psalms of praise and psalms categorized as hymns. For an example of a hymn, consider Psalm 98:

“1 Sing to the Lord a new song,

    for he has done marvelous things;

his right hand and his holy arm

    have worked salvation for him.

2 The Lord has made his salvation known

    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.

3 He has remembered his love

    and his faithfulness to Israel;

all the ends of the earth have seen

    the salvation of our God.

4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,

    burst into jubilant song with music;

5 make music to the Lord with the harp,

    with the harp and the sound of singing,

6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—

    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.”

Lament Psalms

Aesthetic flowers

While Gunkel separates individual and communal laments, for our purposes we can consider this type as a whole. Lament psalms cry out to God in the midst of emotional and spiritual turmoil. Asking of deliverence and comfort, these psalms serve in many ways as the flip side to the hymns which their joyful satisfaction with the conditions of life. An excellent example of a lament psalm is Psalm 88:

“I am confined and cannot escape;

9 my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, Lord, every day;

    I spread out my hands to you.

10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?

    Do their spirits rise up and praise you?

11 Is your love declared in the grave,

    your faithfulness in Destruction[e]?

12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,

    or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

13 But I cry to you for help, Lord;

    in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14 Why, Lord, do you reject me

    and hide your face from me?”

Imprecatory Psalms

Pink flowers

Often closely linked with the lament psalms, the imprecatory psalms call out for God to send judgement to the psalmist’s enemies. Declaring that vengeance belongs to God alone, these psalms ask for God to act and to bring justice in the aftermath of wrongdoing and pain. We see this type of psalm in Psalm 69:

“19 You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed;

    all my enemies are before you.

20 Scorn has broken my heart

    and has left me helpless;

I looked for sympathy, but there was none,

    for comforters, but I found none.

21 They put gall in my food

    and gave me vinegar for my thirst.

22 May the table set before them become a snare;

    may it become retribution and a trap.

23 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,

    and their backs be bent forever.

24 Pour out your wrath on them;

    let your fierce anger overtake them.

25 May their place be deserted;

    let there be no one to dwell in their tents.

26 For they persecute those you wound

    and talk about the pain of those you hurt.”

Thanksgiving Psalms

Book

Thanksgiving psalms represent another category of psalms defined by joy. But where the psalms of praise or the hymns present they joy broadly, thanksgiving psalms highlight and celebrate a reason for their happiness. Giving thanks to God for blessings and provisions, these psalms reflect on God’s faithfulness. We might think of Psalm 107:

“1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

    his love endures forever.

2 Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—

    those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

3 those he gathered from the lands,

    from east and west, from north and south.

4 Some wandered in desert wastelands,

    finding no way to a city where they could settle.

5 They were hungry and thirsty,

    and their lives ebbed away.

6 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,

    and he delivered them from their distress.

7 He led them by a straight way

    to a city where they could settle.

8 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love

    and his wonderful deeds for mankind,

9 for he satisfies the thirsty

    and fills the hungry with good things.”

Psalms of Remembrance

Aesthetic Picture

A subcategory of the psalms of thanksgiving, remembrance psalms reflect back on and point to the works and promises of God. In doing so, the psalmist seeks to highlight the prayers that God has answered and to direct the people to recommit themselves to their faith. Psalm 136 is a prime example of this types of psalm:

“3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords:

His love endures forever.

4 to him who alone does great wonders,

His love endures forever.

5 who by his understanding made the heavens,

His love endures forever.

6 who spread out the earth upon the waters,

His love endures forever.

7 who made the great lights—

His love endures forever.

8 the sun to govern the day,

His love endures forever.

9 the moon and stars to govern the night;

His love endures forever.

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt

His love endures forever.

11 and brought Israel out from among them

His love endures forever.

12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;

His love endures forever.”

Wisdom Psalms

shadow of flowers

The book of Psalms, as part of the Wisdom literature of the Bible, devotes much attention to instructing humanity how to live our lives well. The wisdom psalms offer guidance and warnings, helping to direct people to live as God desires for us. We see an example of a wisdom psalm in Psalm 119: 

“9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity?

    By living according to your word.

10 I seek you with all my heart;

    do not let me stray from your commands.

11 I have hidden your word in my heart

    that I might not sin against you.

12 Praise be to you, Lord;

    teach me your decrees.

13 With my lips I recount

    all the laws that come from your mouth.

14 I rejoice in following your statutes

    as one rejoices in great riches.

15 I meditate on your precepts

    and consider your ways.

16 I delight in your decrees;

    I will not neglect your word.”

Royal Psalms

Green Leaf

Finally, we have the royal psalms, making use of the bold regal imagery of thrones, coronations, and processions. A royal psalm is usually written about a king or seeking to depict God as king. For an example of a royal psalm, consider Psalm 21:

“1 The king rejoices in your strength, Lord.

    How great is his joy in the victories you give!

2 You have granted him his heart’s desire

    and have not withheld the request of his lips

3 You came to greet him with rich blessings

    and placed a crown of pure gold on his head.

4 He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—

    length of days, for ever and ever.

5 Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;

    you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.

6 Surely you have granted him unending blessings

    and made him glad with the joy of your presence.

7 For the king trusts in the Lord;

    through the unfailing love of the Most High

    he will not be shaken.”

Final Thoughts

The book of Psalms is a rich part of scripture. With poetic and emotionally charged language, the psalms speak to our souls—to what it looks and feels like to be human. When we consider the various types of psalms, we are presented with an invitation to turn to God in every season of our lives—in our joy and in our grief. After all this time the Psalms continue to help us to fix our eyes upon our Creator and encourage us to give thanks for the blessings we have received.

To learn more about the book of Psalms and the rest of the Bible, take a look at the complete collection available from  Alabaster.