Four Steps to Appreciating the Psalms
The Psalms have not always been my favorite book of the Bible. There was once a time when, like many others, I could recite Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd…’), and I knew that Psalm 119 was the longest chapter in the Bible. Otherwise, I could hardly tell you about any other Psalm.
Perhaps you already appreciate the Psalms as the inspired Word of God, but do not yet recognize their inherent poetic beauty, and their application to your own life. How do you learn to appreciate the Psalms so that they are the songs of your soul? I’ve identified four steps to better appreciating these poems.
#1 – Become familiar by reading.
We appreciate more when we understand. Reading through a few Psalms every couple months is not sufficient to become familiar with the book. Instead, you need a steady diet of these Psalms.
As you read the Psalms more, you will attune your ear to their natural rhythm and poetry. Eloquence is beautiful and vivid wording that captures and transports the reader’s thoughts and emotions. While we would still love all of God’s Word if it were dull and boring, we can be thankful that it is full of eloquence – especially the Psalms.
Take the following verses as examples. As you read them, notice how they vividly describe the Psalmist’s thoughts and feelings:
“From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:2)
“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” (Psalm 9:10)
“Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD.” (Psalm 36:6)
It can be daunting to try to read 150 Psalms. If you were to read just one a day, though, you could easily read through the entire book twice a year. Commit to a plan like this, and you will soon appreciate the Psalms more.
#2 – Learn about Hebrew poetry.
The ancient Hebrews had poetry, but it was quite different from our English type. While English poetry focuses on rhyme, Hebrew poetry focuses on restatement.
You can see the English focus, rhyme, just by reading the first verse of the famous hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’
Amazing Grace, how sweet the SOUND
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am FOUND,
Was blind, but now I see.”
Hebrew poetry, however, restates the main theme, without rhyme –
“O God, you have rejected us,
Broken our defenses;
You have been angry;
Oh, restore us. ” (Psalm 60:1)
Notice how the same main idea was stated three different ways. Or look at this example:
“Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
Protect me from those who rise up against me;
Deliver me from those who work evil,
And save me from bloodthirsty men.” (Psalm 59:1-2)
Here also, the same idea is stated four different ways.
But there is more to Hebrew poetry than just restatement (also called ‘parallelism’). As you learn more about this ancient style of composition, you will appreciate the Psalms more.
For a short introduction to Hebrew poetry, click here.
For a much deeper look at Hebrew poetry, click here.
#3 – Study the cultural and historical background.
The Psalms were not written in a vacuum. They were the product of their age and place, as much as any other writing. As you learn about the geographic, cultural, and historical background to the Psalms, you will begin to appreciate the depth of the Hebrew poets.
Psalm 63, the ‘Hymn of the Negev,’ was written by David when he was ‘in the wilderness of Judah.’ Just take a look at these pictures of the wilderness Judah, and now read the first verse of the Psalm:
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)
As you can see, this Psalm is much more expressive when you understand the geographic background. An excellent resource to learn the geography of Palestine is the ‘ESV Bible Atlas.’
Let’s see one example of how the cultural background to the Psalms helps us appreciate them.
Psalm 10, ‘The Cry of the Oppressed,’ is a call for vengeance on persecutors. Like many of the Psalms, it describes the wicked lying in wait to destroy the righteous –
“He sits in ambush in the villages; in hiding places he murders the innocent. His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless.” (Psalm 10:8)
While this may sound like a stretch of the imagination today, read what this traveler to Palestine in the 19th century wrote:
“The Arab robber lurks like a wolf among these sand-heaps, and often springs out suddenly upon the solitary traveller, robs him in a trice, and then plunges again into the wilderness of sand-hills and reedy downs, where pursuit is fruitless. Our friends are careful not to allow us to straggle about, or lag behind, and yet it seems absurd to fear a surprise here – Kaifa before, Acre in the rear, and travellers in sight on both sides. Robberies, however, do often occur, just where we now are. Strange country! and it has always been so. There are a hundred allusions to just such things in the history, the Psalms, and the prophets of Israel. A whole class of imagery is based upon them.”
When you realize how eastern bandits behaved, this Psalm is much more meaningful. To learn more about the cultural background of the Psalms, I recommend a book like ‘The New Manners and Customs of the Bible.’
Psalm 57, the ‘Golden Psalm in the Cave,’ is better understood when we understand the historical background. This Psalm was written by David, ‘when he fled from Saul in the cave.’
“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.” (Psalm 57:1)
When you see David hunkered down in a cave, deep in the wilderness, pursued by a powerful king and his army, the words of David become alive. Suddenly his cry for mercy makes so much sense – it is the plea of his heart in a terrifying situation.
To understand the historical background, it is especially important to learn the story of king David. Reading the books of 1-2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles will help you understand this fascinating hero of the Bible.
#4 – Understand Psalms in the Christian Worldview.
The Psalms are more than ancient Hebrew poems. They are an integral part of the Christian’s life and worship. This is because, as Jesus explained, all of Scripture points to him. If you are reading the Psalms correctly, you will be constantly pointed to Jesus.
This does not mean that the Messiah is explicitly mentioned in every Psalm, but the Psalms cannot be viewed as completed without him. Jesus is the framework that we read them through. When David cries for mercy, we understand that God’s mercy is given to us through Christ. When the righteous man is described, we are left to long for the truly perfect God-Man, Jesus. Many of the Psalms are even explicit prophecies of the Messiah, such as Psalm 22 and part of Psalm 40.
In James 5:13 we are instructed, when cheerful, to sing praise (literally, sing Psalms). The Psalms should be part of your ‘worship vocabulary,’ since they are as applicable today as ever. The wicked still slander the righteous (Psalm 7). God’s Word is still dear to us (Psalm 119). The church is persecuted more than ever (Psalm 44). Sins still need to be repented of (Psalm 51). When you realize that the Psalms talk about the daily hopes, fears, joys, and desires of the righteous, you see their importance for the Christian’s life.
Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “D’Israeli says…that in the time of the Commonwealth, “Psalms were now sung at Lord-Mayor’s dinners and city feasts; soldiers sang them on their march and at parade; and few houses which had windows fronting the streets, but had their evening Psalms.” We can only add, would to God it were so again.”