Psalms – An Introduction 4

There are also ‘Kingship’ Psalms that declare that YHWH himself is the sovereign ruler over the whole of creation over which he reigns. Those Psalms are: 29, 47, 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99.

The ‘Royal’ Psalms present a humanly kingly figure who is anointed by YHWH and designated with royal approval for a specific role in the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes. Those ‘Royal’ Psalms are: 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, 144.

The Psalms regarded as ‘Messianic’ are: 2, 16, 22, 34, 41, 69, 72, 110. The ‘Songs of Ascent’ are Psalms 120 to 134.

There are also the ‘Imprecatory’ Psalms that are considered to contain curses. They are: 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 55, 56, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, 143. These psalms are frequently cited in the New Testament. Psalm 109:6-20 is even quoted in Acts 1:20 with regard to Judas. The New Testament also contains imprecations. ‘Anathema’ is expressed in Galatians 1:8,9; 2 Timothy 4:14 and 1 Corinthians 16:22.


The Psalms developed from:

  • Samuel’s political and religious reforms.
  • New sense of national unity with David’s successes.
  • Religious patriotism.
  • Importance of music in the prophetic schools.

Any serious study of the Psalms needs to be fuelled by a wide reading of the scholars’ work that has been done on the book. A comprehensive bibliography is at the end of this paper. When studying the Psalms, it is important to take into account:

  • Historical background.
  • Culture background.
  • Read what the text actually says in Hebrew.
  • Use your imagination.
  • Social history of the Old Testament people.
  • How did the people use the Psalms?
  • Family worship.
  • Group worship.
  • Choir-led worship.
  • Congregational worship.


There are two Hebrew verbs in relation to faith in the Old Testament. The first is that faith rests (BTH – BarTacH) which is found fifty-two times in Psalms, and the other is faith as a refuge (HSH – cHaSaH) which is very frequent in books one and two.

We need to be real, and the writers of the Psalms did not sweep reality and its problems under the carpet! There are a large number of individual laments, especially in books one and two, as well as communal laments. These deal with tragedy and the problems of life in a down-to-earth way through faith.

Faith is of crucial importance and faith-realism is found throughout the Psalms. Psalms is a book of faith written by people of faith for people of faith who bring everything to God. All experience drives the psalmist to God.

All Scripture has a background of faith, even in complaints and laments – since it is the fact of faith that causes the lament. Great objective certainties underpin the book of Psalms (and the Old Testament) which are expressed explicitly or implicitly in the Psalter. 

  1. The first certainty is God’s created order. Compare Psalm 104 with Genesis 1, and see Psalms 74 and 89. The psalmists fall back on the fact of God’s created order.
  1. The second is God’s redemptive order, and the psalmists often dwell upon God’s supreme act of redemption in the exodus from Egypt (no Christian perspective possible!), and this is where many psalms begin.
  1. The third is God’s covenantal order. The psalmists rest on God’s covenants. Abrahamic (105:8-11), Mosaic (111:5-9), Davidic (132). Where there is puzzlement in the midst of one covenant, the psalmist directs us back to an earlier covenant. Psalm 89 begins with faithfulness in the covenant with David (1-37) before changing to rejection and wrath and puzzlement; while Psalm 90 points back to the Mosaic covenant through Moses’ own psalm.
  1. Fourth is the moral order which begins in Psalm 1 where two ways to walk are spoken of. Psalm 15 speaks of the spiritual requirements of worship, and all the psalms relate to the moral order and contrast good and evil.

Brueggemann identified Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Orientation psalms affirm and rejoice in God’s order and stability for there is a God in heaven. Disorientation psalms agonise and raise questions about God’s order based on the difficulties being experienced, even to questioning God’s order. (Book 3 largely consists of disorientation psalms). Reorientation psalms examine the conflict between the first two types and affirm again God’s lasting order. 

The Psalms speak of the many-sided experiences found in life with God. We worship the same God as the psalmist and also depend on God’s revelation of himself to us. The Psalms are a melting pot of emotion that we can relate to. As the psalmist relates to friends, enemies and God, so can we; for life is all about relationships. Life is an extended exercise in trusting God!


Worship is an important Old Testament theme. Genesis has the setting up of altars where God revealed himself, with offerings and prescriptions for worship such as places and people (etc).  2 Samuel 7 (and the books of Samuel generally) quote the psalms, and kings were evaluated by worship criteria (not justice or cruelty, etc).  They were measured by loyalty to YHWH, and the prophets condemned insincere and shallow worship.

The temple was a very busy worship area and the Psalms are connected with the temple and entry to it (cf: Psalms 15 and 24). The Psalms speak of moral and spiritual qualifications (rather than genealogical) and focus around the worship calendar. (See Numbers 28 and 29, Exodus 29:38-46, 1 Kings 18:36 and 2 Kings 16:5).

The Psalms were used in daily worship, weekly worship, monthly worship and annual worship. Psalm 24 was read on Sunday, then 48, 82, 94, 81 93 and 92 for the rest of the week respectively. Weekly Psalms are referred to in Numbers 28:9,10 and 2 Kings 11. Monthly (new moon) psalms are mentioned in Numbers 10:10, 28:11-15, 1 Samuel 20:5, 2 Kings 4:23 and Hosea 2:11.

Psalms were used at annual feasts linked to agriculture (Creator) and history (Redeemer), Unleavened (Barley) Bread and Passover. The Pentecost Wheat Harvest (seven weeks after Passover) later became associated with the giving of the law. Psalms were also linked to the Feat of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement.

The Zion psalms (46, 48, 76, 87, 125) focus on Zion as the place of true worship and were probably sung by the crowds who came to the festivals. Pilgrimage Psalms such as 42 and 84 were used on the pilgrimage to worship, and the Songs of Ascents (120 – 134) were also Psalms of pilgrimage that may have been used at the entrance to the temple.

There were some special acts not associated with calendar feasts (especially in Chronicles). (Thanksgivings, penitence, re-dedication, renewal of covenant). 2 Chronicles 29 speaks of Hezekiah’s return, see also Nehemiah 8 and 9. Zechariah 7 refers to fast days associated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Public worship was very stylised and different types of Psalms were used as appropriate. For example: Psalm 113 on Oppression, 114 on the Exodus, 115 on Idols, 116 on Thanksgiving, 117 on Covenant faithfulness of God, 118 on Thanksgiving. 

Worship must have a theological dimension. Gunkel distinguished Psalms (individuals finding God’s way out of a situation from hymns (communal focus on God). Westermann used different terminology. He spoke of declarative psalms of thanksgiving – what is proclaimed, and hymns of teaching – what is taught. Praise begins with what God has done for his people and must have God-content and be based in who and what God is and what he has done.

This has an emotional dimension – praise must come from the heart and be geared to life’s realities. (92:1-4, 147:1, 98) The Psalms represent spontaneity in Old Testament worship, and some of them show spontaneity in their form.

There is also a physical dimension to praise in the Psalms. (23:4 – stand, 42:4 – leading, 47:1 – clap, 63:4 uplift, 95:6 – bow, 95:6 – kneel, 150 – dance.) Furthermore, there is a necessity of praise in which all that is in me – the core of my being – cries out to praise. This involves the surrender of the will in the life of worship (40:6-8).

There is a corporate dimension, too, and the psalmists frequently call on others to join them in worship. See Psalms 22, 34:3, 98:4 and 148. The Psalms have long been used in worship and have a special place in many cultures, being used in chants, metrical form, prayers, hymns, songs and readings.

The people who led the sung worship in the temple had full-time jobs, unlike some of the other priests, who were part-time. (See 1 Chronicles 9:33,34). The instruments used in the worship are listed in 1 Chronicles 15:16-22; 16:4-6 and 16:42. David invented new instruments for worship. (See Amos 6:5).

There were twenty-four choirs that each consisted of twelve men. That was 288 people involved in leading public worship.