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What Is A Psalm Anyway?

Posted by Gary Pauley on

A number of the words you may hear in church are unique to the Christian world. Words like “baptize” and “evangelize.” These words are used almost exclusively when speaking about Christianity or in a church context. Another such word is “psalm.”

In the Old Testament there is a collection of 150 short entries that is collectively referred to as the Psalms. The word “psalm” comes to us from Greek, psalmos. It translates a Hebrew word that refers to singing praise or making music. The Hebrew word for the collection (Tehillim) also means praise. This collection was meant to be used as a kind of songbook.

Since “psalm” is not a part of our daily language, it is fair to ask what one looks like Obviously, a psalms are literature. But a psalm is not a book, an essay, or a research paper. They have their own qualities. I will suggest five qualities that distinguish the Psalms.

  • Personal. Psalms are intensely personal. I would even think this to be the chief characteristic of a Psalm. Often people liken Psalms to personal journal entries of their authors. They include the reflections of the author at times of loss, stress, hurt, or even elation.
  • Stylistic. Psalms are poetic in nature, though the poetry is often hidden in the Hebrew they were written in. There may be an acrostic structure or poetic meter that is hidden to the English reader, but they are stylized pieces—not really historical narrative or teaching texts. Some ancient words found in the Psalms suggested their musical use, and we are still not entirely sure what they mean (Selah, higgayon).
  • Brevity. The longest of the Psalms is not long enough to be considered a “book.” For some short Psalms we do not know the context in which it was written. In those cases, all we know is what the author expresses and the values he suggests in his reflections.
  • Historical. There are clues as to the historical situation in which some Psalms are written. All are written from the perspective of Israel in history. Many of the Psalms are dated to the time of King David of Israel (approx.1040-970 BC), and other names associated with him are found in other parts of the Old Testament (Heman, Asaph, Ethan).
  • Spiritual. This characteristic is most important. “Casey at the bat” would not qualify as a Psalm. Psalms are not merely poetry, but express the spiritual outlook of the writer in a given moment in history. Given his situation, the Psalmist asks, and usually answers, his own personal questions about what is happening in his life. The answers often involve issues like God’s sovereign care, His faithfulness and His covenant with Israel.

On Sunday mornings as we walk through the Psalms, we will be hearing David and other writers ask profound questions and propose spiritual truths. They will express the ways they see God’s hand in the messiness of life and praise him for his sovereign care in it all. Even though the authors predate us by about 3000 years, we will find a relevance in their expressions. They address the issues of stress, fear, alarm, and anxiety that we moderns face in our own context. We hope you can join us in person or online as we learn together from the Psalms.

Tags: psalms