Here are some observations to keep in mind while reading the Psalms and especially for reading Psalms 1-50.
First, the Psalms are divided into five books: chapters 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150.
- Book One - Psalms 1-41
- Book Two - Psalms 42-72
- Book Three - Psalms 73-89
- Book Four - Psalms 90-106
- Book Five - Psalms 107-150
Second, virtually all the psalms in the first “book” of psalms (Ps. 1-41) are Davidic. Only three do not claim to be Davidic, and the New Testament confirms that one of those (Psalm 2) was written by David. It could be that all 41 are Davidic.
Third, reading Psalms is unique from reading other books of the Bible because each chapter, with only a few exceptions (such as Psalms 42-43), is a stand-alone composition. While in other books of Scripture, a flow of thought extends through the book from start to finish, each chapter in the Psalms has its own internal development. Thus, in each psalm, the author introduces a theme, develops that theme, and then concludes it, all within the framework of that psalm.
Fourth, in reading the Psalms you will feel, at times, like you are reading a Jewish book of prayer. You are! Thus, you will read of divine deliverances for Jacob (44:4), references to Jerusalem (Ps. 15, 46, 48), and encouragements for the Davidic king (Ps. 18, 20-21). Psalm 37 gives advice for dwelling in the land of Israel. “How happy is the nation whose God is Yahweh” may have some application to any nation, but it specifically applies to Israel—“the people He has chosen for His inheritance” (33:12). At the same time, the psalms are for all peoples because God is a great King over all the earth (47:2, 7, 8-9), and all peoples need to heed the advice given in the psalms (49:1). Think of it this way: Jacob’s God invites you to praise Him for what He has done for Israel and to discover in Him that same praiseworthiness for yourself.
Fifth, the psalms fall into at least five major kinds or types:
Sixth, the purpose of the psalms is communion with God. The psalms should be sung and prayed more than taught or preached. If reading the psalms does not move you to pray or sing, you have failed to appropriate what you read. After all, psalms are songs! Allow the psalm to move you to the kind of prayer or communion with God that it exemplifies. Lament psalms demonstrate how to commune with God when the bottom falls out of life. Praise psalms help you articulate the greatness of God. Wisdom psalms call you back to the way that leads to life. Let the psalmist’s words and emotions stir up similar responses of your own. Have none of your own? Pray the psalmist’s until you develop your own worship vocabulary.
Much of Scripture is an inspired record of God’s words to His people. The psalms are different in that many of them are an inspired record of God’s people’s words to Him. That should tell us something. If communion with God is important enough to preserve for us inspired patterns of it, God must greatly desire the prayers, petitions, praise, and thanksgiving of His saints. Jesus truly does stand at the door and knock, wishing for communion with any believer who will open the door to Him (Rev. 3:20).
- What are the five books of the Psalms?
- What does each book of Psalms end with?
- Who is the author of most of Psalms 1-50?
- How is reading chapters in Psalms different from reading other books of the Bible?
- In what ways is reading the Psalms like reading a Jewish book of prayer? (How then is the Psalms still relevant to readers like you and me?)
- List five basic types of psalms and explain the emotion (or situation) that each portrays. (Can you give an example psalm for each of the five kinds?)
- What is the primary purpose of psalms?
- Explain how the Psalms point to God’s great desire for communion with Him.