Study Guide

Psalms

Psalms Introduction

Fact: The Bible is stuffy, overblown, and boring. So and so, son of so and so did such and such a thing to this ruler and then X, Y, and Z happened. (Snore.) Well, that may be a Dull Fest, but Psalms will set the record straight. Think fire and brimstone, giant sea monsters, cannibals, and even drunks. Yeah, ancient poetry is juicy.

Psalms is one of the longest books of the Bible, but that's because it's actually a collection of 150 poems about life back in the day. We're talking Real Housewives of the Negev. The Bible mostly comprises stories, prophecies, and laws, but Psalms brings the poetic punch.

Most of the Psalms are attributed to David, the Israelites' greatest and most famous king. Turns out King David was a poet too—yeah, he did know it. King David's plan worked just like every US presidential candidate who publishes a book before (and after) running for office. Think of Obama's Dreams from My Father, but way more poetic and—sorry, Barack—way more long-lasting.

The Psalms are all written in Hebrew, and have been jazzed up, classed up, and mistranslated ever since they were written starting 3,000 years ago. Part of Psalms' appeal is its poetry. If Leviticus looks as stale as a tax code, then Psalms is a chance for the authors of the Bible to show off their skills and impress their audience, all while getting to the heart of current events. They worry about idol worship, God's wrath, local weather patterns, and even trash talk their most hated enemies.

What does this mean for us? Just that Psalms is a goldmine of historical goodies as much as it's a precursor to almost every good piece of poetry written since. Not too shabby.

What is Psalms About and Why Should I Care?

King David and his courtly assistants were putting pen to paper around the 10th century BCE (source). Since then, Psalms has been popping up in operas, reggae songs, and your brain. Yep, your brain. Remember, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want"? How about "By the rivers of Babylon"? Or "Out of the mouth of babes"? Yeah, those are all psalms: numbers 23, 137, and 8, to be exact.

What we're trying to tell you is that Psalms has staying power. Yeah, it's part of the bestselling book of all time, but it stands on its own, too.

Why?

The poems address subjects that we all face every day: uncertainty about our position in the universe, doubt that we can succeed, emotion over a loss, and a desire to destroy the Amalekites with fire and water…oh wait, is that us? We may not know much about interstate ethnic rivalries in the 12th century BCE, but we sure can relate to the rest of those feelings. Talk about universal.

Psalms Resources

Websites

Get Your Psalms On
Read 'em all, King James style.

All Psalms, All The Time
Itching for some Psalms at 3:00AM? We'll do you one better—here, they're set to music.

Documents

Psalms go to Jamaica
Rastafarian culture has used Pslams in reggae music for decades. What do you think—a good mix?

Psalms Unearthed
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, the writings contained a collection of psalms, and a few original writings that are psalm-ish.

Video

See It For Yourself
A Holocaust survivor depicted all 150 psalms in painting. And now he's here to tell you about it.

Still in Action
These things were written thousands of years ago, and here we are reading them out loud today. Barack Obama chose Psalm 46 for this particular occasion.

Thank you, J.J. Abrams
The Psalms even move Charlie.

Audio

1-150, Out Loud
Not the most moving reading, but a nice way to hear what they sound like out loud.

U2, Take It Home
U2 has dabbled in the Psalms, and in this live video they perform Psalm 40. Awesomely, we might add.

Rivers of Babylon
Psalm 137 has been set to music more times than you can image. Here you can check it out in reggae.

Images

Israel—Kind of a Big Deal
Ancient Israel was a crossroads between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Oh, and those rivers up there on the right? Those are the rivers of Babylon (remember Psalm 137?).

In the Time of the Ancient Kings
This older map tries to place Biblical cities in context. Plus it's colorful.

Ruins in the Negev Desert
Even in the desert, former empires left their marks.