The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 separate poems. These are poems that were set to music, so we can also call them songs. Many of them have titles that give us information about various matters including the composer, the type of psalm (though these names shiggaion, miktam, and more aren’t often translated because their meaning is obscure to us), musical instruments, and in a few cases even the particular historical setting that inspired its composition (see, for example Psalm 3, “when he [David] fled from his son Absalom). From these titles we learn that the earliest poem comes from the time of Moses (psalm 90) and then from the content we find out that some psalms were written in the post-exilic period (psalm 126). The book of Psalms came together over a one thousand year period, from the earliest to the latest period of Old Testament history.
During its long period of growth, the book of Psalms was the hymnbook of Israel, used primarily for corporate worship. Like our own hymnbook, it could be sung, read, or prayed by individuals, and we see Hannah (1 samuel 2), Jonah (jonah 2), and even Mary (luke 1:46–56) doing exactly that—using it as a prayer book. When all the poems of the book were finally written, an unknown editor put the poems into their final order including dividing them into five books (psalms 17–41, 42–72, 73–89, 90–106, 107–150).
Scholars today discuss whether the final order of the book of Psalms has a contribution to the meaning of the book, but all agree that Psalm 1 and 2 were placed intentionally at the beginning, introducing the themes of the law and the Messiah, while Psalms 146–150 form a fitting conclusion to the book with their recurrent refrain of Hallelujah. Indeed, there is a subtle movement from psalms of grief and lament to songs of joy and praise as one reads from the beginning to the end.
A Psalm for Every Season of Life
John Calvin, the sixteenth century theologian, famously called the book of Psalms a “mirror of the soul.” Just as we find out what we look like on the outside when we look into a mirror, so we discover how we are doing on the inside when we read the psalms. After all, as Calvin also pointed out, the psalms are an “anatomy of the soul,” expressing every emotion ever felt by human beings. There are hymns of joy, laments that express anger or despair or confusion, thanksgivings that express gratitude to God for help, psalms of trust, and we could go on. As we read the different types of psalms, we can find psalms that help us express what is going on in our hearts. They also minister to us as they move us toward God.
A Portrait Gallery of God
Indeed, every psalm brings the reader into the presence of God. When we discussed figurative language earlier, we saw how the psalmist presents us with many different pictures of God including shepherd, warrior, king, mother, and more. The psalms also speak directly to God. So, when we read the psalms, we not only learn about our own spiritual state, we also come to know God better and more intimately.
Pointing to Christ
Jesus himself told his disciples that all of Scripture anticipated his coming (luke 24:27, 44–45), and indeed specifically mentioned the book of Psalms. Jesus’s words here remind us that when we read the psalms we should always reflect on how the psalm might point to Jesus. After all, Jesus is the good shepherd (john 10:11; psalm 23); he is the Christ, Greek for Messiah (psalm 2:2); he is our divine warrior who defeats the spiritual powers by his death and resurrection (ephesians 4:8, citing ps. 68:18). We could go on and on speaking about the many ways in which the psalms anticipate Christ. In fact, the book of Psalms is close to being the most cited book of the Old Testament in the New Testament.
Encouraging Our Worship
Previously, we talked about how the psalms were used in public worship and how still today they encourage us to worship God with our whole selves. Listen to the psalmist call on his hearers to “clap your hands, shout to God with cries of joy” (psalm 47:1). Perhaps our best response then to the book of Psalms is to join in as we enthusiastically and passionately worship our God.