Lesson 1 of 5
In Progress

Summary of Psalms


The book of Psalms contains the prayers, hymns, and meditations of Israel, 150 of them now gathered in a collection that includes joyful songs of praise and thanksgiving as well as sad songs of lamentation and distress. The prayers and songs are addressed to God, usually either pleading for help or bearing witness to God’s gracious acts on behalf of God’s people, which is an important function of Israel’s praise. Because of the scope of human emotion and divine activity in the psalms, believers in every generation have found them applicable to their own life and worship.


The psalms have served believers in every generation as a biblical source of prayer and praise and as models for their own response to God. The book is an invaluable resource for worship. The people of God have also heard God addressing them in the psalms, as the prayers and hymns bear witness to the nature and work of God. The Psalter is unique, bringing together human word and word of God in an inseparable unity.


Countless generations of children were taught to find the book of Psalms by opening their Bibles “in the middle,” and this often works. In Christian Bibles, Psalms is the nineteenth book of the Old Testament; it comes between Job and Proverbs in a collection of “writings” (Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon) that fall between the historical books and the prophets.


Many of the psalms are said in their titles to be “of David,” who was remembered by the tradition as a musician and patron of Israel’s worship. Still, because of their wide-ranging historical backgrounds, it is not possible for David himself to have written all the psalms ascribed to him. The psalms were written or gathered from other sources by the temple priests and associated with David as the great singer of Israel (1 Chronicles 16:7, 37-43; Sirach 47:8-10).


Psalms were written and collected throughout the history of ancient Israel. Moses and Miriam sang at the sea (Exodus 15:1-21), and the title of Psalm 30 (“A Song at the dedication of the temple”) probably indicates its use at the dedication (Hanukkah) of the temple after the Macabbean revolt (164 B.C.E.). The book of Psalms contains prayers and songs from every period of Israel’s history.


The book of Psalms is the hymnbook or prayer book of the Bible, containing 150 poems, addressed to God and varying widely in content and tone; included are cries of lament, shouts of praise, and other liturgies and meditations on Israel’s life before God.


The psalms are, first and foremost, poems and should be read as such–enjoying the figurative and metaphorical language, the emotional and rhythmic character, and the expansive and evocative style that invite the reader, as Martin Luther said, to “find in it [the Psalter] also yourself…as well as God himself and all creatures” (Luther’s Works 35:257). Second, the psalms are poems that were, for the most part, meant to be sung; they are the hymns and liturgies of the temple from which we learn about Israel’s worship and which now serve as elements of present worship. Third, these poems and prayers have been read since antiquity for meditation and instruction, by individuals and communities. They continue to offer solace–providing words of comfort and hope, lamentation and praise.