Study Guide

Psalms Analysis

  • Genre

    Poetry

    You probably noticed that the Psalms are written in verse. If you didn't, you might want to go back for a reread. Songs and poetry appear elsewhere in the Bible, but Psalms is by far the biggest collection. 

    Many of them are attributed to King David (you'll see "a psalm of David" as a title a lot), an Israelite figure famed for his musical and poetic skills. Scholars are at odds on whether they were written by David, or for David, or in honor of David, but no matter what side of the debate you fall on, it's clear that David was a major formative influence. David, after all, was famously pious and spiritually developed, but also super-flawed. Classic profile of a poet, right?

    What we do know is that the Psalms are written to suit a bunch of different situations. The hilariously named German scholar Hermann Gunkel (elementary school couldn't have been easy) came up with five basic subgenres for the Psalms (there are other ways to do it, but let's go with the Gunks): 

    • Hymns: praise songs, celebrating God's supremacy or his actions in history. This is the "God, you're the best" subgenre.
    • Communal Laments: Everybody's sad, and everybody's complaining together. These are poems in which the community, as a whole, explains and complains that something awful has happened, and either (a) protests their innocence, (b) apologizes, or (c) asks for help...pronto.
    • Royal Psalms: As you could probz guess, these are Psalms that deal with royal themes, like the life and times of a human king or describing God as a king.
    • Individual Laments: These are like communal laments, but are usually a little more optimistic (apparently, the group drags everybody down)—individual laments are way more likely to express confidence that God will deliver the speaker from their turmoil.
    • Thanksgiving Psalms: This is when a speaker thanks God for something good (deliverance from suffering, Six Flags tickets, etc.)

    Keep your eyes peeled for examples of all of these—they'll help you recognize how similar the Psalms can be. It's not just a diverse soup of un-datable, anonymous compositions. They have a lot in common. 

    Speaking of similarities, here's some literary elements to be aware of:

    • Repetition: We've got that in spades. Passages repeat within the Psalms themselves and even pop up later in the book. Take a look at Psalms 7:15 and 9:15, 85:9 and 85:12-13 for some good examples. Certain Psalms even rehash earlier books, like Genesis (105) and Exodus (78, 106, 135, and 136). 
    • Parallelism: The writers of Psalms often used the same phrasing structure but with different words. So, He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? He who disciplines the nations, he who teaches knowledge to mankind, does he not chastise? (94:9-10) Packs a punch, right? Especially when these words are chanted or spoken aloud. Go ahead. Try it. We'll wait. Hungry for more parallelism? Check out 19:7-10, 20:2-5, 24:7-10, 35:5-6, 38:7, 103:19-22, 118:1-9, and 136. 
    • Selah: This word is littered throughout Psalms. Scholars are unsure of its meaning, but it probably indicates a pause, a musical interlude, or is just another way of breaking up the text (source).
  • What's Up With the Title?

    In Hebrew, Psalms is called "Tehillim," which roughly translates to hymns or praise songs. And that's exactly what psalms are—songs. Don't forget it, as you read through them. The Book of Psalms does more than just relate stories; it has the power to inspire with its music. Pretty nifty.

  • Setting

    The Where 

    The world seemed huge to the Israelites, but compared to what we know now, their world was actually pretty tiny. To put it in perspective, Biblical writers thought that Lebanon, which was a few hundred miles north of central Israel—the distance between Washington, D.C. and Philly—was far off. Basically, the scale of everything was much smaller.

    Israel had a varied landscape, with mountains, deserts, and valleys, and the Psalms, with their abundance of natural imagery, don't leave that out (107:4, 83:6-11). So it's pretty clear that most of the Psalms are set in Israel.

    Can we identify these locations? Well, scholars have tried to place the names of Biblical cities (see 60:6-12), but pinning them down is often difficult. Even the Jerusalem of today is about 15 feet higher than the ancient Jerusalem because of the buildup over the millennia. Thanks a lot, time.

    But there's some (unintended) tourism that leads to some serious literary development. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire seized Jerusalem, razed the Temple, and sent its citizens into exile. And those heartbroken Israelites got to work, composing lamenting Psalms to get some of their weepies out. Instead of writing from their home-turf, we read Psalms written in enemy territory, that speak as though they were written in prison. Check out Psalm 137:1: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept...How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?"

    Luckily for culture at large, they managed to pull a Sam Smith and channel their pain into their art. Turns out they could sing songs of the Lord on alien soil—though the songs were certainly very different than those that came before.

    The Israelites, by the by, made it back to Israel in 539 BCE, older, wiser, and desperate to get things right. It's sort of like Frodo and Sam returning to the Shire: it's home, but they've been through too much to see it the same way.

    The When

    Speaking of which, time is no easy topic in Psalms either. The Psalms were all written down over a period of about six hundred years, from about 1000 BCE to 400 BCE (ish! The Psalms are nearly impossible to date, and some people think they were all composed around 1000 BCE, while some scholars defend that a few Psalms date as late as 200 or 150 BCE.) Imagine if it took J.K. Rowling that long to get each Harry Potter story out. 

    But it's a bit trickier than that. Because they're all songs, it's possible that some psalms were in the culture long before they were written down. Before writing was common, people transmitted their stories through singing and reciting stuff together around fires at night. (No s'mores included.) So, some stories may have been written down centuries after they were imagined and composed. 

    Yeah, we said it was tough.

    More unhelpfully, the writers didn't bother to date their work. And a lot of the Psalms deal with really timeless themes, like faith, doubt, a relationship with God, and so on.

    However, it is possible to tell when a particular psalm was written based any given odd political event referenced in the text or based on themes and theological ideas that rose and fell in popularity through the ages. So, if the poem references Jerusalem as conquered, which happened in 586 BCE (see Psalm 79), we know it was written after that and is post-exilic. Conversely, if the poem isn't so sure that God is the only god around and seems to hint at a larger pantheon, it's probably an earlier, or pre-exilic, Psalm (Israel got pretty stridently monotheist after the exile).

    Basically, all anyone can do is make an educated guess. A bunch of scholars today refuse to spend too much time dating the Psalms or call it an impossible task. 

    Scaredy-cats. 

    (But they're probably right.)

  • Jerusalem and the Temple

    Where exactly does God hang out?

    Sometimes it seems like God is wherever his worshipers are, but he does live in a specific place. Worship of the Israelite God started off in the Tabernacle, which was essentially a big tent. Then, about three thousand years ago (900 BCE or thereabouts), Solomon, David's son, built a temple in Jerusalem—or Zion—that was literally God's home.

    The Temple got trashed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (Psalm 79, for example, laments this destruction), but got rebuilt in 539 BCE when the Persian Empire took control of the land and agreed to let the Israelites return home. This ushered in the Second Temple period (you can guess why it's called that), and an even more fervent defense in the post-exilic period of the Temple as the center of worship (absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that).

    So, in Psalm 18, God listens to his people "from his temple" (18:6). And when the writer seeks guidance, he asks God, "O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and your dwelling" (43:3). The temple lent Jerusalem a kind of aura: this was the place to be if you worshiped God. The whole "perfection of beauty" (50:2) thing didn't hurt either.

    If you go to Jerusalem today, this language is everywhere, from government documents to city plaques. The Zionists took a ton of inspiration from these passages when they were first writing, and made sure it was part of the government's mandate when Israel took Jerusalem in 1967.

  • The Covenant

    God's covenant with the Israelites is like a legal agreement: God gets worshipers, his people get protection. (It's a little more personal and spiritual than that, but you get the picture.) Sounds pretty simple, right?

    But here's the thing: the writers wouldn't endorse the contract so much if it were a given that everyone was faithful. Would you put up a "no smoking" sign where people never smoke? No. And sure enough, not everyone is faithful.

    Much of the Hebrew Bible is spent chronicling the Israelites' failure to live up to the terms of the covenant, either by worshipping other gods or by ignoring God's other specific requests of their people (circumcision, observe the Sabbath, wear "God is #1" foam fingers on Wednesdays, etc.) Check out the Book of Judges for a great example of some covenantal screw-ups. But things don't get too dire until the exile.

    Many of the Psalms were written in the post-exilic period, or after Israel was kicked out of its holy land by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE (and watched its holy Temple get destroyed). A whole bunch of pious Israelites looked at their disastrous geopolitical situation and got all upset, but then realized that they just couldn't blame it on God: after all, God's supposed to be all-powerful and on their team.

    So, they figured that they must have done something wrong. God wouldn't arbitrarily let Israel get squashed...so the exile must've been some sort of divine justice. Israel broke the covenant (must've!), and the exile was their punishment.

    In this context, it makes sense that much of Psalms is worried about what happens when God or the people don't do their part. What happens when God stops showing up? What happens when the people stop following God's law? As the post-exilic authors knew way too well, it's not pretty. And if they were a little anxious about covenant, well, who can blame them.

  • Music

    Kanye knows that the Psalms are meant to be put to music. We might read them as poetry today, but the Psalms were designed to be memorized and sung by the Israelites together.

    Surprised? Then you probably missed Psalm 150 completely:

    Praise him with trumpet sound;
    praise him with lute and harp!
    Praise him with tambourine and dance;
    praise him with strings and pipe!
    Praise him with clanging cymbals;
    praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
    (150:3-5)

    The message is pretty loud and clear. We're even told which instruments to use (Psalms 4 and 5 help us out there, too).

    Psalms could be sung in a variety of contexts: at royal events, before battle, and at parties and festivals. Bottom line: singing God's praises was a privilege, not a chore:

    "Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices and shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord." (24:6)

    This shouldn't sound unfamiliar. After all, we still do it today. Maybe not with Psalms, but we sing cultural tunes at presidential galas and inaugurations, and we have certain music associated with battle and other military events.

    Looking for some other good musical moments? Check out Psalms 33:2, 40:3, 43:4, and 81:2.

  • Gold

    Gold was as much a part of biblical society as it is today—a symbol of power, prestige, and taste. But gold isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Sure it's a marker of value—kings wear it, it's nice and shiny—but it can lead down the wrong path.

    So even though God "set a crown of fine gold" on the king's head in Psalm 21:3, we're also readily reminded that God's laws are "more to be desired than gold" (19:10). Money can never buy God's favor, and after all, as we're told in Psalm 49, you can't take it with you.

    And we can't think about gold without thinking about idols. For the Israelite writer, it's a major slandering of God's power by giving such a worthless item so high a value:

    The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
    They have mouths, but they do not speak;
    they have eyes, but they do not see;
    they have ears, but they do not hear,
    and there is no breath in their mouths.
    Those who make them
    and all who trust them
    shall become like them.
    (135:15-18)

    So there you have it. The Biblical writers acknowledge the power of gold, but they also lament that it is often used for purposes they don't buy into. Looking for more? Check out Psalms 45:9, 52:7, 62:10, and 68:13. Just remember, all that glitters is not gold.

  • Sheol

    Sheol is the Biblical underworld, and is similar in many ways to Hades in Greek mythology. The Israelites did have an idea of Heaven, but it was purely a divine domain—you know, where the angels hung out—and you couldn't go there in death.

    Nope, everyone goes to Sheol, a grim underworld where God forgets about you and your voice is silenced. That means no praising God, either: "In Sheol, who can give you praise?" (6:5).

    We never really get an idea of what exactly Sheol looks like, but we're pretty sure no one wants to be there. In modern Judaism, Sheol is less of a focus, but it is believed that the dead will rise from Sheol on the day the Messiah returns (source).

    Looking for more Underworld nuggets? Check out Psalms 30:3, 49:14, and 141:7.

  • Idols

    A lot of things bugged the Psalms writers, but there was one thing that really pushed them over the edge: idol worship.

    By declaring idols uncool, they were trying to start something big. Really big. After all, idols were very culturally present in Israel.

    The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
    They have mouths, but they do not speak;
    they have eyes, but they do not see;
    they have ears, but they do not hear,
    and there is no breath in their mouths.
    Those who make them
    and all who trust them
    shall become like them.
    (135:15-18)

    People believed their idols had powers, but the Israelite writers were trying to place a new kind of value on human life. Humans were created in God's image in Genesis, and so distortions of that image were not taken well.

    Idol worship can be a touchy subject today, even within Judeo-Christian religions. For example, people will argue till they're blue over the appropriateness of Catholic saint statues. The Israelites wouldn't have been down with it, that's for sure.

  • Angels and Other Gods

    Angels in the House

    We have some big news for you: God isn't the only divine being in the Bible. And Psalms makes that very clear. They have a pretty big job to do—asserting the dominance of God and all—that they don't have a ton of time to devote to the angels, but they don't forget about them.

    So what do the angels do? In Psalms, they seem to protect the weak and serve God, doing his bidding. When God hears a plea for help, he sends an angel, who "encamps around those who fear him, and delivers" the Israelites (34:7). In Psalm 89, we get a more visual image of the whole shebang: God is depicted as sitting amongst a gathering of other holy, divine beings that serve him.

    You might be thinking that this sounds a lot like polytheism, but it's not even worth speculating. Why? Because the ancients didn't think in those terms. That's our modern thought sneaking up on us.

    The One and Only…Right?

    If you were worried about the existence of angels, here's another doozy for you: God wasn't the only god back in the day. That's right. Many times in Psalms, the authors refer to God as the best of other gods. Huh?

    Throughout the ancient world, other gods were all over the place. Psalms captures centuries and centuries of religious development, and most scholars agree that, in the early Israelite days, God wasn't exactly the only game in town. So, some Psalms just let us know that God could kick the other gods' butts: he's described as "the God of gods" in Psalm 84:7 and again in Psalm 136:2. Because the Israelites are facing competition, asserting their own God's awesome-ness is essential to making their case to the masses.

    However, lest you think that God's always jockeying for supremacy in the Psalms, there are a whole bunch of Psalms which make it super clear that he is the only one, and shout that any reports to the contrary are lies, lies, lies. So, in Psalm 86:10, we read "For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God." Wraps that up, eh?

    Or, doth the speaker protest too much? Are there still people who need to hear that sentence and who aren't convinced God is the only deity around? How faithful is Israel being to God, really?

    Oof. 

    Suffice it to say, God and Israel's relationship status is "it's complicated."

    • Sex Drugs And Violence Rating

      Psalms is a book about faith, but that doesn't mean there won't be a fight over it. The Israelites of old lived in a rough neighborhood, and victory or defeat often meant enslavement, death, and the demise of your entire culture. Israelites lived next door to people getting massacred left, right, and center. In Psalms, they talk about their enemies as part-human cannibals who would stop at nothing to force idols on the Israelites.

      In Psalms, God also makes a habit of completely annihilating his enemies. We're talking The War of the Worlds style. And if you're loyal to God, you earn the right to use his powers to wipe your enemies off the face of the earth.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      De Profundis by Oscar Wilde
      When Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for "gross indecency," he penned a 50,000-word letter to one of his friends. The letter was written at a bizarre point in Wilde's life, and he expressed much more admiration for religion in this letter than in previous writings. Lord Alfred Douglas received the letter, and later published it as De Profundis (Out of the Depths) in reference to the dark place both the Psalms writer and Wilde occupied while writing. Sad but true.

      "A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
      This 1830s poem mimics a psalm in form, but is much less fatalistic than many of the biblical Psalms. This contrast makes the poem both a commentary and a tribute to the biblical sources. Fancy-shmancy.

      Pop Culture References

      Rivers of Babylon by The Melodians (1970)
      This song retells the story of the Babylonian exile—sounds like Psalm 137 to us. The song was used in Jimmy Cliff's 1972-3 film The Harder They Come, and was featured on the soundtrack, a breakthrough reggae album in the U.S.

      "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West (2004)
      In the second stanza of this song, Kanye cites Psalm 23: "I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Just one more example of how these psalms still resonate today. A few millennia can't change a thing.

      Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky (1930)
      In the 1930s, Igor Stravinsky created a symphony based on Psalms 38, 40, and 150. Sounds like a long afternoon at the orchestra.

      Ark of the Covenant, Indiana Jones (1981)
      Remember the Ark of the Covenant? That sweet gold box in Raiders of the Lost Ark that kills all the Nazis? Yeah. That's in Psalms—132:8, to be exact. There are more descriptions of the ark throughout the Bible, but the Psalms version is a good one for understanding its relationship to God.