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The Psalms - Praises, Pleas & Protests

Rev. Brenda Bennett


PsalmLast week, as I met with family members to prepare a funeral, I was asked if I would include the “prayer” that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The psalm’s promise of Divine peace and protection had touched the heart of this next-of-kin just as it had spoken to her father in the days before his death.

     People who are bereft, bewildered or battered by life, find that the psalms can give utterance to their deepest thoughts and feelings. They were the prayers of ancient Israel but they have acted as the pleas and protests of persons in distress throughout the ages.

The Nature of the Psalms

     The Hebrew name for the psalms – Tehilim – means “praises”. From the songs of thanksgiving to the imprecatory petitions, the psalms are fundamentally praises to God - even those that are full of anger and complaint.

     Every hymn, song and prayer in the Psalter, in one way or another, recognizes God’s greatness and goodness. They honour Divine faithfulness, they place trust in Divine mercy, and they express confidence in Divine wisdom and justice.

     The psalms are human utterances to the Holy Other. They are praises and petitions that reveal God’s self and reflect upon the spiritual journey, both ancient and modern. The psalms are essentially relational both in nature and use.

     The relational character of the psalms has two important sequelae. Firstly, they are emotional. They may be passionate about God’s grace or furious about human conduct but feelings are foremost. Secondly, the language of relationship is not the same as that of legal mandates or moral exhortation. The vocabulary and style reflect the dialogic nature of the psalms.

      The psalms are also poems. They are verses that were written to be sung to musical accompaniment. Like the hymns we sing today, repetition and vivid imagery are essential components. And, like modern hymns & sacred songs, there is a theological story that unfolds in each stanza and which builds to a climatic ending. Whenever possible, a psalm should be read in its entirety.

The Need for Exegesis

     One of the favourite hymns in my church is “It is Well with My Soul.”[1] Parishioners draw comfort and strength not just from its words but from the knowledge that its composer understood suffering and loss. His hope in God despite his pain reaches across the years and inspires those struggling today.

      Knowing something about a hymn makes the singing of it more meaningful and more formative. This is equally true of the psalms which were written at least 2,500 years ago. Understanding their historical context, original purpose and role in worship helps us receive more from them whether we are studying them in our private devotions or listening to them being read during Sunday service.

      If we are to make the hymns and prayers of ancient Israel our own words to God then we must have a very clear understanding of what those words do and don’t mean. Like all of Scripture, the psalms must be carefully exegeted and interpreted .

Historical Background

     The psalms were written over many generations and by many authors.

      Robert Alter states that “the writing of psalms was a persistent activity over many centuries.”[2]

      In all probability, psalm composition began in the pre-monarchic period (1,000 BCE) and continued some time after the return from the Babylonian exile (538 BCE).

      David is possibly one composer though that is unclear from the Hebrew.

      The character that English translates as “of” can also mean “concerning” or “dedicated to” or “associated with”. Certain authors such as the Temple musicians, “the sons of Korah” and “Asaph”, can be identified with monarchs found in the historical books. It is also likely that individuals commissioned psalms to express their own piety or petitions.  Exact authorship of the psalms is unknown.

      Over the years, the psalms were organized into small collections. After the return from exile and the re-building of the Temple, these collections were edited and arranged into a single volume. Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts indicate that books I-III were in their final form by the 2nd cent. BCE, while the two later books were not fixed until just before the time of Christ. Content and organization indicate theological as well as liturgical intention and planning.

Book I:            1-41

Book 2:           42-72

Book 3:           73-89

Book 4:           90-106

Book 4:           107-150

       Psalms 1 & 2 are considered the introduction to the whole volume. They tell us the meaning and purpose of the entire collection, viz.

  • God’s rule over the entire world

  • the need for human beings to choose between the right way (God’s way) & the wrong

       The Psalter ends with a magnificent collection of praise hymns (146-150).

The Poetry of the Psalms

      Poetry was a highly prized mode of expression in the ancient world.  With its rhythms and balances, poetry has an internal structure that makes it easy to memorize. Therefore it was an important tool for learning and for handing on traditions & historical narratives.

     The Israelites drew upon the poetry of Egypt and Mesopotamia for inspiration. Similar images & metaphors for God & for the forces of evil & chaos are present in all the poetry of the ancient Middle-East. The human condition is also described using comparable language and images.

Uses of the Psalms

     The psalms were functional songs, that is, they constituted the worship service. They served the crucial function of making a connection between the worshipper and God.

     The psalms were:

  • Used in Temple worship

  • Sung by professional singers while the people were bringing their sacrifices to the Altar

  • Sung by both choirs & congregations

  • Used in both private & communal religious practices (Jesus uttering Psalm 22 on the Cross)

  • The mainstay of worship in the earliest churches

Classifying & Categorizing the Psalms

      Since the 19th C., Biblical scholars have attempted to classify & categorize the psalms. While these distinctions are useful in helping us analyze and understand the different psalms, many do not easily fit into one particular category. The groupings should serve as flexible (vs. rigid) guides to worship and study.

      Psalms were composed for a number of different ceremonies and events.  They were written for Temple services & commissioned by individuals for private use or public expression of their joys or sorrows.

      The major types of psalm are:

  1. Praises – praising God’s goodness & greatness; individual or communal thanksgiving

  2. Laments – pleas for Divine aid; protests against unfair treatment or perceived injustices

      Laments are the largest group of psalms (>60). Philosophical reflections (Wisdom psalms) & proclamations (civic, cultic) make up the remainder of the Psalter.


      The psalms express the full range of human feelings from the most noble and lofty to the basest. We too can use them to express our hopes and fears, our pleas and protests, our praises & thanksgivings.

      The psalms point us towards God’s greatness & goodness and show us how to praise with our whole hearts and minds. They demonstrate how to relate honestly to God; and they help us recognize & voice our negative feelings (cf. John Bradshaw: we must be willing “to feel as bad as we really feel”).

Psalms are authentic prayers to an authentic God!

Authentic prayers always honour and praise God!

[1] Horatio Spafford wrote this hymn in 1873 following a shipwreck that killed all four of his daughters.

[2] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms  (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007) xv.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.