What does a “Psalm” mean?

“Because of your unfailing love, I can enter your house; I will worship at your Temple with deepest awe. Lead me in the right path, O Lord, or my enemies will conquer me. Make your way plain for me to follow.” Psalm 5:7-8

The Book of Psalms is located near the center of a typical Christian Bible. They were not in the Torah because they are considered artistic expressions. Jewish people use the Psalms in the temple and as a guide to pray, as do those of the Christian faith.

Characteristics and Purpose of the Book of Psalms

The Book of Psalms is a collection of expressive poems and is one of the only books of the Bible written by multiple authors. The only other book written in this way is Proverbs. The book, in Hebrew, was at one time called Tehillim. Translated, this means songs of praise, which is an accurate description. The word Psalms came from the Septuagint’s Greek title Psalmoi. Each of the songs in this book reflects the history of Israel and helps point people toward their true hope.

Psalms were written for Jewish worship and are also used in Christian communities. They are sacred songs or poems that continue to be used today for prayer and celebration. They exhibit emotional words of love and worship towards God during times when people were happy, discouraged, or depressed. King David wrote many psalms in order to express not only his feelings of loneliness, abandonment, and fear but also of love and thanksgiving. 1 Corinthians 23:5 records that King David compiled a 4,000-piece orchestra of lyres, flutes, horns, and cymbals for times of worship.

Historical Context

People, during the time when the book was written, prayed through song through times of difficulty or blessing. Although the Book of Psalms is filled with expressions of human emotion (joy, gladness, sadness, or fear) the real author of the book is God.

According to the introduction in the New International Version of the Bible, “The Psalter is a book of prayer and praise. In it, faith speaks to God in prayer and of God in praise. The Psalms are contained therein, however, it is different from the Book of Psalms in that it contains liturgical information for churches and synagogues. There are also Psalms that are explicitly didactic (instructional) in form and purpose, teaching the way of godliness. One of its main purposes was instruction in the life of faith, a faith formed and nurtured by the Law, prophets, and the canonical wisdom literature. Accordingly, the Psalter is theologically rich.”

People of the Jewish faith view the Book of Psalms the same way as the Pentateuch or Torah. Jews sang the Psalms in front of the temple The book educated as well as encouraged the Jewish community in both a personal and community-centered way. The Jews looked at the Psalms as the ultimate self-help tool.

Christians today utilize them in the same way. When life is hard or chaotic, the Psalms offer Christians words that relate to our emotional state and provide comfort. Christians often feel grateful for the guidance and solace found within.

The Structure of the Book of Psalms

The 150 individual psalms reflect anger, comfort, and acceptance, as well as devotion to God. The book is divided into an introduction and five books:

  • Introduction: Psalms 1-2
    • Psalms 1:1-2 “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”
  • Book 1: Psalms 3-41 were almost exclusively written by David, using the term Yahweh as God.
    • Psalms 41:13 “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel from everlasting-to-everlasting. Amen and Amen.”
  • Book 2: Psalms 42-72 are mostly attributed to David, or the sons of Korah, and Asaph. The term Elohim is commonly used. These sons grew in their relationship with God while serving as soldiers and musicians under King David after rejecting their father Korah’s rebelliousness and desire to reject God.
    • Psalms 72:18-19 “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who alone works wonders. And blessed be his glorious name forever; and whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen.”
  • Book 3: Psalms 73-89 was written by Asaph, sons of Korah and Ethan.
    • Psalms 89:52 “blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and Amen.”
  • Book 4: Psalms 90-106 are mostly untitled Psalms of praise to Yahweh.
    • Psalms 106:48 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting, and let all the people say “Amen praise the Lord.”
  • Book 5: Psalms 107-150 are mostly untitled, but there are 15 written by David.
    • Psalm 150:” Praise the Lord praise God in his sanctuary praise him in his mighty expanse praise him for his mighty deeds praise him according to his excellent greatness praise him with trumpet sound praise him with harp and liar praise him with timbrel and dancing praise him with stringed instrument and pipe praise him with loud cymbals praise him with resounding symbols let everything that has breath praise the Lord praise the Lord.”


Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), a German Old Testament scholar, sought to classify all 150 by genre. The genres of the Psalms a) have a similar setting; b) are characterized by common thoughts and feelings; and c) have a shared diction, style, and structure. He wanted to relay a different way to organize the Psalms. He sought to align them by genre instead of historically or via their literary content. Gunkle highlighted four primary types of psalms: hymns, community laments, individual thanksgiving psalms, and individual laments. There are also various subcategories as well as several mixed forms.

Relevance of Psalms in Jewish Culture

Psalms are relevant to Jewish culture because active Jews have three set prayer times every day. Shacharit in the morning; Michael in the afternoon and Maaravin in the evening. These prayers reflect the Psalms. There is one for each day of the week mirroring the five books of Moses. The Psalms are sometimes uncomfortable. However, they are honest and raw outpourings from laments to rejoicing. The text opens with a description of a tree, a symbol of God’s blessing.

The Jewish people often refer to the Torah as the Tree of Life. Trees are important within the culture. Once a tree is planted, it is not harvested for three years so it can gather enough energy for strong roots. Jewish people also have a holiday called Tu Bishvat, which is their New Year of Trees. On this day, they often eat fruit affiliated with the Holy Land, especially those listed in the Torah.

Psalm 1 shows the implication of paradise, which to the Jews was their temple, created according to directions God had relayed. God gave King David instructions on building the first temple in 1 Chronicles 28. Another meaningful picture in Psalm 1 is water. For Christians, water represents the way God’s son, Jesus, washed away sin. For Jewish people, it represented trees, their temple, and signifying the word of God. To modern-day Christians, the symbol of water represents the feeling of replenishment many experience when reading about God’s protection and love. For Jewish people, the tree of Psalm 1 is the Torah. It represents the security provided by God, how to live, and where to get wisdom.


C.S. Lewis stated it best when he wrote:

“What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible ‘as literature’ sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about…most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyrical poetry”.

Psalms allow one to cultivate an intimacy with God through prayer and worship. Most people read in a quiet place to calm their thoughts. It helps to acknowledge God’s presence and then read. Share your heart, listen for a response, and end in gratitude.


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