But although they may feel the same, individual psalms often have some feature that sets them apart as unique and communicates their distinctive emphasis. The challenge is to spot these distinctive or unique features of each psalm.
What should you look for in a Psalm?
One thing that can help break up the sameness of the psalms is taking into consideration the title of the psalm, especially if it hints at the circumstances that gave birth to the psalm. More psalms in our reading for today (Pss. 51-100) have this kind of information in their title than in Psalms 1-50 or Psalms 101-150. See, for example, the title of Psalms 51, 52, 54, 56-57, 59, 60, and 63.
Best of category
Some psalms shed their sense of sameness by being the superlative in their category. For example,
- Psalm 51 is the best-known of the penitential psalms—the psalms that lament one’s sinfulness and beg for pardon.
- Psalm 73 is a premiere example of wrestling with why the wicked prosper and the righteous seemingly do not.
- Psalm 89 is the most extended treatment in the Psalms of God’s promised faithfulness to the Davidic Covenant.
- Psalm 90, the oldest of all the psalms, is written by Moses and, fittingly, reminds us of God’s eternality and man’s brevity.
- Psalm 91 arguably provides the most beautiful assurance of divine protection found in all the psalms.
Often, individual psalms will communicate their distinctive emphasis through repeated words or phrases. Sometimes these repetitions take the form of a refrain, where an entire verse (typically) will be repeated two or three times in the course of the psalm. See if you can spot the refrain in Psalms 56, 57, 67, and 80.
A number of psalms in today’s reading have repeated words or phrases:
- Psalm 59 - Refuge (vv. 9, 16-17)
- Psalm 62 - God alone (vv. 1-2, 5-6)
- Psalm 69 - Reproach (vv. 7, 9, 10, 19, 20)
- Psalm 70 - Hurry (vv. 1, 5)
- Psalm 71 - Youth v. old age (vv. 5-6, 9, 17-18)
- Psalm 76 - God to be feared (vv. 7, 11-12)
- Psalm 97 – Words for rejoicing (vv. 1, 8, 11-12)
- Psalm 98 - Shout (vv. 4, 6, 12)
- Psalm 99 - He is holy (vv. 3, 5, 9)
Repeated words or phrases reflect a psalm’s unique emphasis. For example, no other psalm uses the word refuge (misgab) more than Psalm 59, and reproach occurs more times in Psalm 69 than in any other. A psalmist’s being in crisis and needing help is found in many psalms, but Psalm 70’s motif of Hurry! is what sets it apart.
Sometimes what sets apart a psalm is not so much a specific word or phrase but a concept. For example, many psalms depict the psalmist as crying out for deliverance from enemies. But in Psalm 55 the enemy is a man who was a friend but has betrayed him.
What sets apart some psalms is not some specific word or phrase but the imagery they use to convey their theme. Psalm 64 adopts the imagery of shooting (see vv. 4, 7) to describe what evildoers do with their tongues. It uses the verb associated with shooting arrows three times (a verb that only occurs once elsewhere in psalms). Evildoers use their tongues to shoot arrows at the righteous, so God will shoot arrows at them! Many other psalms call for justice, but Psalm 82 reminds officials of their exalted position by alluding to them as gods--a reminder that as God’s representatives they will face heightened accountability.
Sometimes themes recur across multiple psalms, creating a cluster or bunch that share a certain likeness to each other. For example, in today’s reading look for references to God’s people Israel as the sheep of His pasture (74:1; 79:13; 83:12; 95:7; 100:3). God as the just Judge of all the earth occurs in several psalms (67:4; 75:2, 7; 82:1, 8; 94:2; 96:13; 98:9). Since Psalms 93-99 so emphasize God’s reigning (93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1), they are sometimes viewed as a collection of kingship psalms. While some psalms are decidedly Jewish (Ps. 83, 78), the kingship psalms broaden the scope to include all nations: “Sing to Yahweh a new song; sing to Yahweh all the earth” (96:1). All the earth, not just Israel, is included in God’s kingship and all will give account to Him as judge (96:13).
Psalm 100, the last psalm in our reading today, closes with an Old Testament refrain: “God is good and His covenant loyalty endures forever” (v. 5a). David appointed special singers and musicians to sing this refrain before the Lord (1 Chron. 16:34). As the singers repeated this refrain in Solomon’s day, the glory of God filled the Temple like a cloud (2 Chron. 5:13-14). Even after the Babylonian Exile, The priests and the Levites still echo this refrain (Ezra 3:10-11).
So before you yawn your way through a psalm and dismiss it as the same as other psalms you have read, play detective and hunt down the details that distinguish that psalm from its neighbors!
- Give some examples of psalms that are the “superlative” in their category.
- What is the refrain in Psalm 80 and how many times is it repeated in that psalm?
- What psalm uses the word refuge more than any other psalm?
- What psalm uses the word reproach more than any other?
- What sets Psalm 55 apart from other psalms that pray for deliverance from enemies?
- Give an example of a theme (or two) that recurs across multiple psalms in Psalms 51-100.
- What psalms are referred to as “kingship psalms” and why?
- What’s refrain in Psalm 100 recurs throughout the Old Testament?