The collected psalms to be sung or read in worship
By David and other gifted musicians
Psalms is an anthology of hymns, laments, and songs composed of Hebrew poetry and collected over five centuries. It functioned as a kind of hymnbook for Israel, expressing the love and devotion of God’s people.
The Greek word psalmos refers to plucking a string or playing an instrument. So these “psalms” contain the words chanted and sung by priests, Levites, and perhaps other worshipers to musical accompaniment.
It is likely that many were sung along with sacrifices, offerings, and general prayers to God offered in the Jerusalem temple.
Tradition associates Psalms with King David, a celebrated musician and poet in his own right (1 Samuel 16:16–23; 2 Samuel 1:17–27), who not only composed psalms but inspired them as well.
As later generations of priests collected individual psalms, they added Super Scriptions to many that attribute authorship, provide musical direction, and offer a historical context for the psalms.
The association with David is so thorough that many psalms are said to offer insight into the mind of David during some of his most difficult days.
Songs, Hymns, Laments, and Wisdom
The Book of Psalms is comprised of many different kinds of songs. The most common are hymns of praise or thanksgiving that celebrate God’s love and goodness to His people.
Another large group of psalms are laments that complain to God about some threat (individual or national) and plead for His assistance.
Expressions Of Praise
Then there are royal psalms that celebrate the reign of God’s anointed king. Psalms 120–134 form a collection of psalms that were sung, apparently, on the journey to the Jerusalem temple.
Then there are wisdom psalms that teach and encourage the faithful to pursue life according to God’s teachings.
These categories are not exhaustive but do represent the rich prayers and expressions of praise in Israel’s response to God and His covenant.
Five Books, Divided
In its current form, the Book of Psalms is divided unevenly into five books, a clear association with the Torah (the first five books of the Scriptures). Psalms offers a different kind of vehicle to teach about God’s past, present, and future engagement with His people providing comfort as well as instruction.
Jesus and His disciples read some of the psalms prophetically and saw parts of their own story written within their lines. Today many people read the psalms devotionally, discovering in these ancient verses a way of expressing their cares, concerns, and love for the one True God.
Psalm 1:1 Book One
Book One ( Psalms 1–41) is attributed almost entirely to David; all but four of the psalms ( 1–2; 10; 33) are ascribed to him.
In Hebrew Psalm 10 is a continuation of Psalm 9 because it was composed as an acrostic poem. Likewise, many Hebrew manuscripts combine Psalm 33 with 32.
Only later are these divided into separate psalms.
Psalm 1 sets the stage for the entire collection by explaining that the study of the Word of God is the foundation of a meaningful, prosperous life.
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The various psalms reflect nearly every human emotion: unbridled joy, deep-seated jealousy, seething anger, hope, and depression. These are only a few of the emotions behind the poetry we hear expressed in individual psalms. Feelings and emotions are central to what it means to be human. We cannot escape them nor should we.
Psalms invites us to take the emotions we feel and bring them before God. This book models how to come before God in times of sadness, brokenness, and joy.
Psalm 5 is a cry for help and a plea for guidance by a person who suffered at the hands of an enemy. It talks about the morning as the time to pray and listen for God to answer. Like many laments, it begins with a cry but ends in confidence.
In the Hebrew manuscripts, Psalms 9 and 10 work as a unit because together they form an acrostic poem, meaning each stanza begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This literary device has several functions.
- First, it provides a mnemonic device for easier memorization.
- Second, it is inherently beautiful; the rigid structure is a showcase for the author’s literary talents.
- Finally, it conveys the idea of completion by describing the reasons God is to be praised “from A to Z.”
Psalm 9 offers David’s thanks and praise to God for defeating his enemies. Psalm 10, on the other hand, is a lament complaining that God is far off while the poor and helpless suffer.
Psalm 11 is a Davidic psalm expressing trust in the Eternal as a refuge and fortress for those who do what is right. David spent many years struggling first with Saul, then with the neighboring nations, and finally against the rebellion led by his son Absalom.
This is a wisdom psalm that grieves over the pervasiveness of sin and its sad effects. It is repeated with minor changes in Psalm 53. Paul refers to this Davidic psalm to explain how all of humanity is tainted by sin ( Romans 3:1–12).
A recurring theme in the psalms is the dwelling place of God and its importance in worship. This Davidic psalm considers the moral qualities of the person who wishes to approach God.
Psalm 23 is the best known and most beloved psalm in the collection. Surprisingly, it casts humanity as sheep — stupid, helpless sheep. But the long-lasting appeal of Psalm 23 is a direct result of that casting because the imagery is both soothing and accessible.
When he was a boy, King David was a shepherd watching his father’s flocks in the hills around Bethlehem. In those days, too, it was common to refer to kings in the Near East as shepherds; but not all shepherd-kings cared for their sheep.
Though David tried to shepherd his people well, he knew the truth: the Eternal is the true Shepherd. In John 10:11 Jesus makes a bold claim. He declares that He is the good shepherd. Immediately His disciples detected the resonance of Psalm 23 in His words.
Those of us who follow Jesus today come to know Him as that gentle but strong shepherd who guides us through life if we will follow Him.
A great theme throughout the psalms is the experience of coming before God. This Davidic psalm affirms the integrity of the worshiper before the Lord even while pleading for God’s mercy.
The psalms provide us with a way to think about and pray through the various threats we face. Our enemies today may not be the same as in biblical times, but they are no less real.
Consider the threats on the horizon. Some may be national. Others may be more personal. Still they come to surround us and destroy us if they could only get the chance. The reality is there are times when our enemies appear to have the upper hand and our cause is lost.
But wait and listen to the psalm! All is not lost because, ultimately, God is our light and salvation. The darkness will lift, and our Savior will come. He will settle all scores, and we will live in the beauty of His presence.
This Davidic psalm pleads with God to spare him and repay his enemies. It would be difficult to locate this psalm in any one event. During his life David faced many threats from different enemies; not only were these threats from outside his realm, but some of his most difficult challenges came from inside his own family.
The psalms celebrate God’s forgiveness that comes through confession and repentance. Some interpreters link this psalm to David’s sin with Bathsheba after Nathan had exposed his transgression, but the king certainly had other failings.
Even if we do not associate this psalm with any personal transgression by David, it serves well as a model confession for those who are painfully aware of their sin.
While there is nothing specific to tie this Davidic psalm to the events in 1 Samuel 21:10–15, the superscription recalls a time when David pretended to be insane to protect himself from the Philistines.
This is one of a group of psalms known in later tradition as the penitential psalms, namely, psalms that confess sins and express confidence in God’s mercy. In this psalm a serious illness threatens the life of the worshiper.
The first four books of Psalms end with a variation of the doxology found in verse 13: “Blessed is the Eternal, the True God of Israel. Always and Eternal. Amen and Amen.” This declaration not only provides a natural break — a seam — between the five books, but it also summarizes an essential theme of the psalms.
You see, the Book of Psalms is primarily a book of praise to God for His creation, mercy, and salvation. Even when life is hard, our enemies strong, and our health poor, God can be praised for life itself and the ultimate victory to come for those who trust Him.
Psalm 42:1 Book Two
Book Two This second book of psalms ( Psalms 42–72) has a few unique features.
- First, it is the only book of the five that contains psalms ascribed to the sons of Korah, a group of Levite temple singers.
- Second, it uses two rather obscure Hebrew terms in the super scriptions of almost half of these psalms. Maskil, which may be related to contemplation, is translated “contemplative poem” or “song” (42; 44–45; 52–55) and miktam, whose meaning is unclear, is translated “a prayer” (56–60).
- Third, in referring to God this second book shows a preference for the word “God” over the name “the Eternal One” that appears as “YHWH” in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Throughout the Bible, the creator and covenant God is referred to in many ways. Generally speaking, the names and titles used indicate something of His character and nature. The title “God” implies His unique majesty and power; no one is like Him.
The name, translated “The Eternal One” and also “The Eternal,” is God’s covenant name revealed uniquely to Israel. As the translation suggests, the divine name implies that the one True God transcends time and yet He is “with” His people.
Psalm 45 describes the beauty, power, and influence of God’s anointed king and may have been composed in honor of a royal wedding.
Whether we realize it or not, the overall well-being of a nation is tied directly to its leaders. When the leaders are just and make good decisions, then the welfare of a nation is secure. But when leaders are unjust and make poor decisions, and they pursue personal agendas rather than the public good, then nations suffer.
This is why Scripture instructs those of faith to pray for all people everywhere, especially that those in authority would lead the world to dignity and peace (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Psalm 45 celebrates that rare breed, a godly king who pursues truth and justice.
It anticipates a joyful union and future children who will one day follow in the steps of their father. May the world witness a new breed of leader, fashioned in the image of this psalm.
This song is attributed to the sons of Korah. It praises God for His strength and protection and for Jerusalem and its temple where God uniquely dwells. It invites the world to witness a future when wars and striving will cease and all the nations know and worship the one True God.
Some songs are described as “wisdom psalms.” Similar in theme to the short sayings of Proverbs or the reflective essays of Ecclesiastes, these songs offer practical advice to the worshiper of the one True God.
In Psalm 49 we find a meditation on wealth and wisdom, but others describe daily activities (127–128; 133), encouragement when evil succeeds (37; 73), and the results of following God or wickedness (112). The purpose of these songs is to edify those who sing and those who hear, reminding them, and us, how to live life as God intends.
One of the most difficult episodes in King David’s life was his affair with Bathsheba and all that resulted from it. Psalm 51 reflects the emotions he felt after Nathan confronted him with stealing Bathsheba and murdering her husband, Uriah ( 2 Samuel 11–12 ). At one time or another, all people experience the painful consequences of sin.
Psalm 51 has been a comfort and a help to millions who have prayed these words as their own. It invites all who are broken to come before God and lean upon His compassion. It teaches that we need not only to be forgiven for the wrong we have done, but we also need to be cleansed of its effects on us.
Ultimately, it helps us recognize that if we are to be healed, it is the work of God to create in us a heart that is clean and a spirit that is strong.
Psalm 52 recalls the callous way Doeg and Saul put to death the 85 priests of Nob (1 Samuel 22:6–19). The psalm ends with a memorable image: the one who keeps faith with God is like a lush olive tree cared for in His garden.
While those who do not trust in Him are snatched up and torn away, those who do right will flourish under His care.
This is a lament reflecting the time when David was betrayed to Saul ( 1 Samuel 23:6–29 ). It expresses hope that God will save by His name. The name refers to the covenant name given to Moses at Mount Sinai ( Exodus 3 ). We have translated it “the Eternal One.”
For the ancients the name of God has power precisely because it embodies the presence of God. To call upon the name was to call upon God to remember His covenant promises and be present in power in order to rescue His people.
Psalm 56 brings to mind the time when David fled from Saul and sought help from the Philistines, his former enemies ( 1 Samuel 21:10–15 ). In his time of panic and fear, David found courage in trusting God to do what could not be done by human power and ingenuity alone.
This individual lament refers back to those perilous times when David fled from Saul and hid in caves ( 1 Samuel 22; 24 ). David found real security not in the hidden recesses of the caves but in the shadow of God’s wings.
Psalm 59 was inspired by the time there was a plan to kill David that was thwarted by David’s wife, Michal, who was Saul’s own daughter. She warned her husband, lowered him out of a window, and then deceived her father’s officers into believing David was bedridden with illness ( 1 Samuel 19:11–17 ).
This Davidic lament complains to God of enemies, false witnesses, insults, abandonment by friends and family, and even poisoning. Early Christians interpreted this psalm prophetically in order to understand Jesus’ experience in His suffering and death on the cross.
Woven throughout the psalms are songs describing and praising those anointed as kings over God’s people.
Psalm 2, one of the introductory psalms, describes the king as the son of God, the ruler of nations, and the anointed one.
During the monarchical period in Israel, psalms like these were tied to the kings themselves, idealizing them as perfectly just and righteous and victorious. But during the exile, God’s exiled people longed for freedom and the implications of these songs began to change.
Many Jews began to interpret these psalms as referring to a coming ruler, a Davidic king who would usher in an eternal kingdom and perfect peace. This hope was realized in Jesus.
So this is why the earliest followers of Jesus went back to the psalms again and again. They found within many of the psalms, the story of Jesus anticipated and celebrated.
Psalm 73:1 Book Three
Many of the psalms in Book Three ( Psalms 73–89) are attributed to Asaph. He was a Levite musician appointed by David to lead the worship that surrounded the covenant chest in the congregation tent (1 Chronicles 16:4–6).
Asaph and his descendants continued this work through much of Israel’s history, specifically when Solomon dedicated the temple (2 Chronicles 5:12), when Josiah revived the worship of the Eternal One in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 35:15), and when Ezra and Nehemiah dedicated the wall around Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:35).
The psalms attributed to Asaph were liturgical, that is, they were chanted or sung as a part of the regular worship of God in the temple by the priests, Levites, and perhaps other worshipers too.
Whether songs of lament, requests for guidance, or pleas for mercy, these psalms were sung in the one place God would hear them best — at His temple — the nexus between heaven and earth.
This lament was written shortly after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. Now in exile and separated from God, His city, and His land, the people of God experience pain that is palpable.
The Book of Psalms records both the highs and lows in the lives of God’s covenant people.
Psalm 79 is an example of a communal lament after the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of God’s temple. Songs like these address God with a complaint resulting from some sort of national tragedy. Communal laments share a common structure.
- First, the singers address God and tell Him of their problems.
- Second, they beg Him for help and express trust that He will answer them, often remembering how He has saved Israel in the past.
- Finally, the singers promise to praise God once He has resolved their problem.
The specifics of the situation determine the thrust of the song.
Communal laments are often the people’s poetic and practical response to their perception of God’s inaction in their affairs.
God’s covenant people celebrated many festivals honoring God and His provisions. Poets composed songs specifically for use on feast days.
Psalm 81 is one of those. It was written to celebrate the Festival of Booths. God commanded His people to celebrate this festival every year so they would remember how God provided for them as they moved toward the promised land ( Deuteronomy 16:13–15 ). A portion of this psalm (verses 5b–16) would have been sung by the lead musician as if he were speaking for God.
In the annual rhythm of festivals and praise, God is reminding the people of all He has done for them and of their past disobedience in spite of His love. He is also calling His people to renew their commitment to Him, a reasonable request on a holiday honoring Him.
Psalm 89 begins on a note of praise and ends with a lament. The heart of this psalm recalls God’s choice of David as king and God’s covenant with him to establish an eternal dynasty ( 2 Samuel 7 ).
Psalm 90:1 Book Four
There are endless reasons to praise God, and many of them are included in the Book of Psalms. Book Four (Psalms 90–106) is made up of songs that praise and celebrate God for His creation, strength, work in history, and kingship.
Although these songs are written to honor God, many require something from us. Throughout these psalms is the Hebrew word hallelujah, translated “Praise the Eternal!”
That’s not just a passive verb, as in, “Praise be to the Eternal”; it’s an active imperative! We are commanded to praise Him. We are commanded to join angels above, people below, and all creatures in praising Him!
Psalm 91 is a beautiful psalm of trust in God. But how does God take care of all His people, all at the same time? Well, keep reading because Psalm 91 is one of just a few places in Scripture that describe what we might call “guardian angels” ( Exodus 23:20; Psalm 43:3 ).
Though rare, these passages teach that God is not alone in maintaining and protecting His creation and His people. He has made a host of heavenly messengers ready to do His bidding, and His bidding is often to guard His people throughout their lives and protect them — sometimes from dangers they are not even aware of.
One of the great themes of Scripture and Psalms is the kingship of God. While lesser kings come and go, God is the One who ultimately rules and reigns over His people, and by extension over the rest of creation.
Psalm 96 and others in the collection are often referred to as “enthronement” psalms because they declare boldly and unequivocally that the Eternal is King. There is evidence to suggest that an annual festival at the beginning of the year provided an opportunity to reaffirm the people’s loyalty to the one True God.
Psalm 96 calls for new songs to be composed and sung to God and about God as a witness. The enthronement psalms call the world and all its inhabitants to come and recognize His beauty and majesty.
Psalm 100 is one of the best known and most loved psalms. This hymn of thanksgiving invites the whole world to come to God’s temple in Jerusalem and enter its sacred spaces with unbridled joy and hearts filled with gratitude. And why should we? The psalm provides the answer.
Not only has God created us — a gracious act of love in and of itself — but He has made us His own people. He has chosen us and loved us. As with Psalm 23, God’s people are cast in the role as sheep living well in His pasture. The psalm ends on a high note of confidence and hope.
At all times — but perhaps more in times of difficulty — we need to be reminded of what is true. Regardless of what seems to be happening around us, the Eternal is good; His love and faithfulness will endure forever.
The last phrase of Psalm 104, “Praise the Eternal,” gives us a clear picture of the use of these songs in Israel. This phrase, which not only ends Psalm 104 but often opens and closes other psalms (for example, Psalms 146–150 ), is not part of the song itself. It is a direction for worship.
The Bible indicates that praise is the natural response to God’s gifts to His people. When David brought the covenant chest to Jerusalem, he appointed Asaph and his relatives to lead in praise. After the Levites chanted a marvelous psalm, the people responded in praise to the Eternal (1 Chronicles 16:36).
In John’s vision of the final destruction of Babylon — a symbol for God’s enemies throughout all the ages — a vast number of creatures in heaven, the 24 elders and the 4 living creatures offer praise and adoration to the Lord (Revelation 18 and 19).
Praise is simply the inevitable response of God’s people to all He is and all He has done.
Psalm 106 was composed during the exile offering a historical review of the ways God’s people rebelled against Him. It is a fitting closure to Book Four of Psalms. After this liturgy of failure on the part of the people, the psalmist cries out in thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and in the final verse proclaims praise “from everlasting to everlasting.”
Psalm 107:1 Book Five
Book Five ( Psalms 107–150) succinctly presents many of the major themes of the previous psalms. It tracks along Israel’s history as God’s nation, from the united monarchy, through the exile, to the restoration.
Psalm 107 is a song of thanksgiving composed by those who survived exile and made their way home. As in Isaiah, the return from exile is described as a new exodus. Three Davidic psalms toward the beginning of Book Five represent the monarchy and recall Israel’s golden age.
The Songs for the Journey to Worship ( Psalm 120–134) are composed for use by God’s people as they traveled from their homes up to Zion to worship God at the temple. Representing their time in exile are songs of lament, heartbreaking testimonies to individuals’ pain when they are crushed by their enemies and separated from God’s blessings.
Finally, Book Five concludes the collection by offering praise and thanks to God, for the story of Israel does not end with its exile and separation; rather, it ends in restoration and hope. Those who edited and compiled the Book of Psalms were relieved to be back in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — rebuilding their temple and reestablishing their connection with God.
Psalm 110 may have been written to celebrate the coronation of one of David’s sons as king. The Eternal invites the royal son of David to take his rightful place at His right hand, the place of power and authority — not just over Jerusalem but over his enemies as well.
But the royal son is to be more than a king, he is to be a priest according the order of that mysterious and enigmatic figure, Melchizedek ( Genesis 14:17-24 ).
God promises to give this royal priest-king victory over his enemies as he marches out to war. This psalm is the psalm most quoted by early Christian writers in the New Testament.
As they considered the significance of Jesus, they found that this psalm, more than any, expressed their conviction that the risen Jesus now occupies a unique place at God’s right hand and will be victorious over His enemies.
Psalms 113–118 comprise an important unit called the Hallel, which in Hebrew means “praise.” Composed after the exile, these six psalms are recited together by observant Jews during some of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar.
The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus and His disciples sang a song following their last meal together, which was the Passover ( Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26 ). That may have been the Hallel.
Early Christians found in the words of this psalm a wonderful way of describing the significance of Jesus. He was the rejected stone whom God made the cornerstone of a brand-new temple ( verses 22–24 ).
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the collection. It is a hymn in praise of and appreciation for God’s instructions to His people. You see, God not only called Israel to be His people and gave them a wonderful land, but He gave them a blueprint for living.
The Hebrew word for that is torah, sometimes translated “law” or “teachings.” In torah God tells them how to structure their lives and communities so that they will live long, prosperous lives in the land He has given them.
As you read through the psalm, you will notice words like law, teachings, precepts, word, decrees, and commands. Each of these words is a synonym highlighting some attribute of God’s instructions to His people. Another memorable feature of this psalm is its form.
The psalmist constructs this hymn as an elaborate acrostic poem that moves artfully through each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Essentially, all the elements of this psalm combine to emphasize the importance of God’s Word to His people, to the praise and glory of the one True God.
The Songs for the Journey to Worship ( Psalms 120–134) celebrate the journey to Jerusalem to worship in God’s temple.
Centuries before these psalms were composed, the Lord chose to make His earthly home on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and directed David’s son to build His house.
King Solomon built the first temple and dedicated it to God in an elaborate ceremony that brought Israel together on the holy mountain (1 Kings 8).
Now, clearly, the wise king believed that the one True God was present everywhere in the world, but he knew that Jerusalem was a special place, a sacred space picked by God.
Solomon understood what we seem to have forgotten: those created in God’s image long to encounter God in His holiness. And if we try to make every place holy, then no place is holy because holy means “set apart,” “distinct,” “special.” So we need sacredness in our lives: sacred times, places, and people in our search for wholeness, for shalom.
For centuries God’s faithful people of the first and second covenants have gone on pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Often these songs have gone with them, for they desire to draw close to God and to walk in the steps of those who have passed the faith along.
This is a Davidic psalm celebrating the grandeur and significance of Jerusalem and its temple. It is ironic that Jerusalem means “city of peace” since more battles have been fought over it than over any other city.
Psalm 147 is a post exilic hymn of praise to God as Creator and Sustainer. It celebrates the rebuilding of the walls and gates that protect Jerusalem. God secures the city, grants peace to the border towns, and controls the elements.
If Psalm 150 is any indication, then the worship of the one True God ought to be full of life and energy.
Consider what it must have looked and sounded like in those days: voices lifted, shouting for joy, trumpets blaring, stringed instruments playing, people dancing, pipes humming, tambourines keeping rhythm, cymbals crashing.
There are times when worship ought to break out in joy. Is it possible that our worship is too quiet, too reserved, too structured?
This doxology not only closes Book Five, but it also closes the entire Book of Psalms. Up until now, the songs in this book have reminded us of all the reasons we should praise God.
Some songs have even commanded us to praise Him. But this closing remark takes the command to praise one step further: everything alive — humans, animals, and heaven’s creatures — must praise Him.
Praise is what God created us to do; it is one of our highest purposes in life. So it is no wonder that the longest book of the Bible is purely devoted to helping us do just that.
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