The Bible: Psalms: Thematic Collections

Different collections of Psalms

In general, the psalms do not follow each other in any discernible pattern. One psalm may be a prayer of petition, the next a song of thanksgiving and the next some other type. Similarly, the subjects they discuss may be unrelated.

Occasionally, a couple of psalms may have been placed together because of some connection. For example, Psalms 34 and 35 are the only psalms to mention the “angel of the Lord.” Psalms 111 and 112 are both acrostic wisdom psalms. Psalms 57, 58 and 59 — as the superscriptions show — were all sung to the same tune: “Do Not Destroy.”

In other cases, what are now two distinct psalms may have been one psalm originally. Psalms 9 and 10, for example, form one continuous acrostic poem. Also, Psalms 42 and 43 were probably one song in three stanzas, each stanza ending with the refrain: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5).

Psalms 96–99 are Yahweh-Kingship psalms. Psalms 45–48 form yet another group of royal psalms: Psalm 45 is a royal wedding psalm, Psalms 46 and 48 are Zion hymns and Psalm 47 is a Yahweh-Kingship psalm. We will now examine three other groups of psalms: Psalms 113–118, Psalms 120–134 and Psalms 146–150.

Praising God Psalms

Psalm 113 begins and ends with the inclusio: “Praise the Lord” (verses 1, 9). It establishes the theme of praising God from the beginning: “Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord. Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised” (verses 1-3). Psalm 114 illustrates how nature obeyed God in aiding his people Israel. It concludes: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water” (verses 7-8).

David directed the Levites to organize a temple choir “to sing joyful songs” (1 Chronicles 15:16-22). A singer was admitted to the choir at the age of 30 (1 Chronicles 23:3-5), following a five-year apprenticeship, and served for 20 years.

The next three psalms all end with the phrase “Praise the Lord,” which in Hebrew is one word — hallelujah. Psalm 115 calls upon Israel to trust God: “O house of Israel, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield. You who fear him, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield” (verses 9-11).

Psalm 116 praises God’s graciousness and his righteousness: “The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The Lord protects the simplehearted; when I was in great need, he saved me” (verses 5-6).

Psalm 117 is the shortest chapter in the Bible, yet it summarizes the essence of this set of psalms: “Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord” (verses 1-2).

Psalm 118 emphasizes God’s mercy. It begins: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let Israel say: ‘His love endures forever’” (verses 1-2). And it concludes in like manner: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (verse 29).

Psalm of praise to the law

Psalm 119 has many unique and inspiring features. It is 176 verses long, which is more than double the length of any other psalm. It is easily the longest chapter in the Bible.

A complete eightfold acrostic psalm, it is broken into 22 stanzas, each containing eight verses, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse in the first stanza begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph; each verse in the next stanza begins with the second letter, beth; and so on throughout the psalm.

The length of this psalm is said to have saved the life of one man. George Wishart, who lived in Scotland in the 1600s, was sentenced to be hanged. Custom allowed the condemned to choose a psalm to be sung, and George chose Psalm 119. Before it was three-quarters through, a pardon arrived, thus sparing his life!

The purpose of Psalm 119 is to declare the joy and peace that come from obeying God’s law. The psalm continually emphasizes the blessings that come from walking in God’s way. It begins: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.”

All 176 verses of Psalm 119 have similar form to the verse above, consisting of two parallel parts. This uniform quality of the poem emphasizes that the law is sure and reliable.

Psalm 119 is probably the most highly structured of all the poems in the Bible. Some of the individual stanzas have a definite subtheme within them. Verses 97-104, for example, show how, by studying and meditating on God’s law, the psalmist has gained more understanding than his teachers.

Several key words recur within the psalm. These include: torah (law), mitswah (commands), dabhar (word), piqur (precept) and derekh (way). They are nearly always connected immediately with God, often by means of the possessive pronoun: your law, your way or your commands. In this form, they help illustrate God’s revelation of himself. Almost every verse contains a key word. These key words reinforce the theme of the majesty of God’s law.

Psalm 119 is a wisdom psalm. Like Psalm 1 and the latter part of Psalm 19, it idealizes the law and distinguishes sharply between the blessings of those who keep it and the curses that befall those who stray from it.

In addition to its intrinsic value, Psalm 119 also prepares the way for greater understanding of certain New Testament truths. For example, the apostle Paul’s declaration, “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), is reminiscent of Psalm 119:172: “All your commands are righteous.”

Consider also verse 105, which says: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” In the New Testament, the apostle John described the pre-existent Christ as “the Word.” He wrote: “In [the Word] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:4-5).

Prayers of petition

Much of the time when we pray, we have something to request. There is nothing wrong with this. Jesus told his disciples to ask God to supply their needs (Matthew 7:7-11). Similarly, the most common type of psalm is the prayer of petition in which an individual or a community asks God for help with some particularly difficult situation.

Prayers of petition are distinguished by two elements: a complaint and a petition. In the often lengthy complaint section, the individual describes the problem to God. Even though God knows our needs before we pray, he still wants us to tell him our troubles. The apostle Peter tells us, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). In the petition, the individual calls upon God to act, to intervene, to help. This is the purpose of the prayer.

Ezra reading the covenant
The renewal of the covenant under Ezra included a public prayer of petition (Nehemiah 9:5-38). It began with an acknowledgment of God’s majesty and concluded with a confession of sin and a commitment to keep God’s law.

Psalm 44 is typical of the communal prayers of petition. It begins with the community recalling God’s goodness to Israel in previous generations (verses 1-3), and the people expressing their faith in God (verses 4-8). Then comes the complaint. The people describe how, despite their faithfulness, God has allowed them to be persecuted by their enemies (verses 9-22). They cry out: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (verse 22).

This type of community prayer should inspire us when we are wrongly persecuted. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). We can, however, still pray for deliverance. The community in Psalm 44 certainly did. “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (verses 23-26).

These words, asking God why he is sleeping and pleading with him to awake, may seem strong, but God allows for such emotion. In fact, other psalms are stronger still. Psalm 74, for example, is a communal petition that continually reproaches God for not intervening when enemies attack his people. It starts: “Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed — Mount Zion, where you dwelt” (verses 1-2).

The community tells God the atrocities he has allowed: “Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs…. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name” (verses 4, 7). The community reminds God of his great deeds in the past (verses 12-17). The people point out that the enemy has blasphemed his name (verse 18). And they call upon God to act, to intervene: “Rise up, O God, and defend your cause” (verse 22).

In the New Testament, the church earnestly prayed to God on behalf of the apostle Peter (Acts 12:5). God responded by miraculously enabling Peter to escape from prison (verses 6-11). The communal petitions show that God’s people as a whole can interact with God emotionally — pleading with him, reproaching him, expressing frustration with him — but still affirming their faith in him.

The individual petitions, which are more frequent in the Psalms, demonstrate that individuals can also plead their causes to God. When David fled from Absalom, he complained to God about his situation: “O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me” (Psalm 3:1). He then recalled God’s previous responses to his pleas for help and confidently petitioned God to help him again: “Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked” (verse 7).

This form of petition, asking God to destroy one’s enemies, is called an imprecation, and such psalms are called imprecatory psalms. The imprecatory psalms must be understood within the context of the old covenant. Christians today should not pray for God to destroy our enemies. Jesus taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). We appeal for God to send his Son, Jesus Christ, to return to the earth and end all wickedness and misery.

Most prayers of petition are not imprecatory psalms, but pleas for help, or for deliverance. David consistently petitioned God when he was in danger: “Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you” (Psalm 25:20).

Despite often starting in a tone of despair, the prayers of petition characteristically end on an upbeat note. In Psalm 54, David begins by complaining to God about the enemies that have risen up against him and sought his life (verses 1-3). At this point, David is desperate. But after pleading with God (verse 5), David feels confident about the outcome: “I will praise your name, O Lord, for it is good. For he has delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes” (verses 6-7). The next three psalms have a similar pattern, beginning with despair, but ending with expressions of trust in God.

The very act of praying can lift our spirits. Christian men and women throughout the centuries have found that expressing their fears, doubts, frustrations and anger honestly in prayer to God is a large part of the solution in resolving their emotional turmoil.

Prayer is a natural vehicle for expressing emotion. Listen to David in this psalm: “I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head; many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me” (Psalm 69:2-4).

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David has sunk into depression. He pleads to God, “Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters” (verse 14). David expresses extreme anger at his adversaries verses 19-28). But again the psalm ends in praise of God (verses 30-36).

One important type of petition is the request for forgiveness. The supreme example is Psalm 51, but there are several others. In this type of psalm, the complaint is replaced by a confession of sin. In Psalm 38, David cries to God for mercy: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath” (verse 1). David acknowledges his sin: “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly” (verses 4-5). The psalm ends as it began — with a heartfelt appeal to God (verses 21-22).

David knew what a blessing forgiveness is: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1). Then David recounts his personal experience: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ — and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5).

David knows he can confidently proclaim, “The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him” (verse 10). This is a tremendously positive message. God does respect our earnest confessions of sin and prayers for forgiveness; he does forgive our sins.

Forgiveness is also available on a national level. The composer of Psalm 130 understood that sin infects everyone, but that God can forgive everyone’s sin: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (verses 3-4). The composer concludes: “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (verses 7-8).

Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120-134

These 15 psalms are each titled “A Song of Ascents” [Hebrew: shir hamma‘aloth]. We do not know precisely what this term means. Mitchell Dahood writes: “[This term] has been explained by some as a ‘Pilgrim Song’ sung by pilgrims as they ‘went up’ to Jerusalem for the great annual feasts. Cf. Exod xxiii 17; Deut xvi 16; I Kings xii 28; Matt xx 17; Luke ii 41f. Others hold that these psalms were sung by the returning exiles when they ‘went up’ to Jerusalem from Babylon” (Psalms III: 101 – 150, The Anchor Bible, vol. 17A, p. 195).

Later, these psalms were connected with the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. At the water-drawing ceremony there, the Levites stood “upon the fifteen steps leading down from the court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to The Fifteen Songs of Ascent in the Psalms; upon them the Levites used to stand with musical instruments and sing hymns” (The Mishnah, Sukkah 5.4). The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated Israel’s period of wandering in the wilderness. As part of their observance, families built small booths (sukkoth) in the streets and on the rooftops and shaded them with palm and willow branches and other greenery. The Hebrews lived in these booths during the week of the Feast.

Jerusalem (Zion) is prominently mentioned in these psalms: “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:2); “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion” (Psalm 125:1); “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed” (Psalm 126:1); “May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life” (Psalm 128:5); “May all who hate Zion be turned back in shame” (Psalm 129:5); and “The Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling” (Psalm 132:13).

Peace is an important concept in the Songs of Ascents. Two psalms end with the blessing: “Peace [shalom] be upon Israel” (Psalm 125:5; 128:6). Psalm 122 is a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem. The apostle Paul later gave a similar blessing to the church: “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

God’s protection is another theme of these psalms: “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8); “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore” (Psalm 125:2) and “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

The pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festival seasons were important events in the lives of the ancient Hebrews, serving to remind the people of their covenant relationship with God.

Two consecutive psalms mention the blessing of children: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them” (Psalm 127:3-5) and “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table” (Psalm 128:3).

The Songs of Ascents are short: They average about seven verses, whereas in Psalms as a whole, the average psalm length is about 16 verses. But for all their brevity, they are profoundly inspirational. The returning exiles sang: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:4-6). The last verse became the basis of the famous Protestant hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Similarly, a popular Hebrew folk song is based on Psalm 133:1, which proclaims: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”

Psalm 134 provides a fitting conclusion to this collection: “Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord. May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion” (verses 1-3).

Hallelujah Psalms: Psalms 146-150

The last five psalms begin and end with the phrase “Praise the Lord” (hallelujah). Some scholars consider the previous psalm to end in a doxology concluding the fifth book of the Psalms: “Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever” (Psalm 145:21). The last five psalms would then form an epilogue to the Psalter as a whole, corresponding in number to the five books of the Psalms.

All these hallelujah psalms are hymns of praise. Psalm 146 praises the God who “upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow” (verses 7-9). The next psalm exults in God’s omnipotence: “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes” (Psalm 147:15-16).

Psalm 148 calls upon everything to praise God: “Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars” (verses 2-3). Psalm 149 emphasizes that God’s people have particular reason to praise their Creator: “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation. Let the saints rejoice in this honor and sing for joy on their beds” (verses 3-5).

Psalm 150 brings to climactic conclusion this fanfare of praise. This last psalm is a doxology for the whole Psalter, for all five books of the Psalms. After the initial “Praise the Lord,” it gives 10 commands in climactic parallelism to praise God in different ways and with a variety of musical instruments (verses 1-5). Then comes the majestic finale, in which the congregation sings, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord” (verse 6).

Author: Jim Herst and Tim Finlay

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