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Jewish Poetry (2): Psalms

The book of Psalms contains one hundred fifty sacred songs, each designed for use in private devotion and public life. They express, in musical form, the deepest emotions of the human heart.

And while many of them may reflect upon earthly circumstances and secular situations, all — without exception — are decidedly spiritual in thrust, each psalmist recording the passionate ruminations of men whose hearts yearn for the Almighty.


There are at least seventy-three psalms ascribed to David, and several more, though lacking reference to authorship, were also most likely written by David. David is so closely connected with the book of Psalms that, when the writer of the book of Hebrews chose to quote from that book, he identified the cited passage of Scripture as that which is found, not in the ‘book of Psalms,’ but “in David” (Heb. 4.7). Indubitably, David’s impact on the book of Psalms is paramount.

Nevertheless, the book of Psalms contains sacred songs written by several other individuals, including: Moses (90), Asaph (73-83), Solomon (72), the sons of Korah (87-88, et al.), Ethan the Ezrahitie (89, or possibly Hezekiah), and possibly Heman (cf. 1 Chron. 15.17) and even Isaiah (45).

Though these men each contributed to the anthology of the Psalter, all of the psalms were nonetheless written “by the Holy Spirit,” God employing the human tongue to convey his very words in communicable poetic form (cf. Mt. 22.43; Mk. 12.36; Acts 1.16f; 4.25; 2 Sam. 23.1-2).

In light of this fact, this point becomes especially salient: there exists no ally better equipped to comprehend and articulate the urgings of the human race; no aid more suited to address the deepest needs and desires of the human condition; no judge more righteous to vindicate the innocent and prosecute the guilty, than the Almighty God from whom all blessings flow. Indeed, no reader of the book of Psalms, as authored by God himself, could ever justly charge God with not being able to empathize with the human experience.

Subject Matter

The Psalter includes a wide variety of subjects. At times, it may be difficult to identify a singular theme to each psalm. Generally, however, it is possible to connect the psalms with an approximate subject matter. Consider a few of these spiritual motifs.

Praise — Many of the Psalms are meant to exalt the majesty of God. Psalmists often present a case as to why God is worthy of such praise (cf. Psalm 8). They also establish who ought to praise him (cf. Psalm 148).

Thanksgiving — Godly individuals are frequently inclined to express gratitude to God for his kind provision and/or wise intervention in their lives. Psalm 116 and 107 are examples of this category of psalms.

Repentance — Human weakness is frequently mentioned in the psalms. The authors of these psalms were fallible. Yet, in their humility, they sought to repair their broken relationship with the heavenly father (cf. Psalm 51). They extolled the value of confessing and repenting of sins. On the other hand, the proud, irreverent, and impenitent ways of the wicked produce nothing but senseless sorrow (cf. Psalm 32).

History/nationalism — Some of the psalms outline major events in history, bringing the plan of God into broader focus. Psalm 78 addresses the history of Israel during the days of Moses. Psalm 105 embraces that same history, and extends all the way back to Abraham. The faithful few ought to be proud to be a part of his chosen people — a people whose history is replete with faith-fortifying narratives (cf. 1 Pt. 2.9).

Prophecy — There are dozens of psalms containing predictions of events then forthcoming, including many involving the then-coming messiah. Psalm 2 and Psalm 22 are of this sort.

Imprecation — Several psalms (e.g., 35, 69, 109, 137) contain petitions to God for vengeance against evil-workers. The desire for sacred justice does not stem from impulsive passion, but from righteous deliberation.

Ceremony — A few of the Psalms are ceremonial. Psalm 30 was apparently written for the dedication of the temple. A number of the psalms were designed to accommodate Sabbath-day worship (Psalm 92).

Let Us Sing!

Sacred providence and redemption is a truly marvelous theme, and the psalms abound with references to the majestic kindness of the Almighty (see my article, Psalm 23, for an example). It is these enduring characteristics of God that cause men to worship him in jubilant song.

May we accordingly aspire habitually to “sing praise” to the name of the “most high” God (Ps. 9.1-2; cf. 34.1-3; 89.1-2).

Part 2: Jewish Poetry (2): Psalms


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