Lesson 5 of5
In Progress

Theological Themes in Psalms

Bonhoeffer on the Psalms

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian martyred by the Nazis in 1945, used the psalms regularly in his own devotional life and with his students at the Finkenwalde seminary of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. He wrote: “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power” (Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005] 162). Bonhoeffer understood the psalms to be given to Christians as the prayers of Christ.

Christ and the Psalms

Jesus died with psalms on his lips, quoting from or referring directly to Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34), Psalm 31 (Luke 23:46), and Psalm 69 (John 19:28). On Holy Thursday, Jesus and the disciples left for the Mount of Olives after “they had sung the hymn” (Mark 14:26), which was certainly a psalm. As faithful Jews, Jesus and the disciples regularly sang and prayed the psalms. The New Testament repeatedly uses verses from the psalms to describe or interpret the ministry of Jesus.


Many of the psalms include prayers against “enemies,” often sounding so harsh that present readers are shocked or repulsed. Sometimes the pray-er asks God for protection in the face of enemies (69:14); sometimes the petition is for retribution against them (69:23-29). The enemies are sometimes close and personal (41:5, 9); sometimes they are public and political–enemies of the people (74:4, 22-23) or of the king (45:5).

“Glory be to the Father.…”

Over the centuries, many Christians have ended their use of psalms in worship with a doxology: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” This brief hymn serves as a witness to the trinitarian understanding of God in the Christian community–the God to whom they believe the psalms bear witness. Christians do not thereby deny that they have “borrowed” the psalms from the Jewish people of God, who continue to pray them regularly and faithfully, but Christian believers acknowledge the gift of the psalms to them through Christ.

The hiddenness of God

Many of the psalms cry in distress over the perceived hiddenness, absence, or silence of God (for example, 13:1; 22:1-2)–a significant element of the lament psalms. Although the psalmists confess God’s faithfulness and steadfast love (25:10), they recognize that sometimes God seems far off.

The king in the Psalms

Many psalms speak directly about Israel’s earthly king, sometimes called the “anointed” one (Hebrew: messiah) (2; 18; 20; 21; 72; 89; 101; 110; 132; 144). Many mention David in the headings. These references show that the king played a major role in the worship life of Israel, not just the political life (“temple” and “palace” are the same word in Hebrew). The role of the king gives the psalms a messianic orientation, making them part of the biblical literature that looks forward to the future in messianic hope.

Luther on the Psalms 

For Martin Luther, Holy Scripture proclaims Jesus Christ, and the Psalter was no exception. “It promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly,” he wrote, “…that it might well be called a little Bible….I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short Bible…so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book.” Unique to the Psalter, however, is that one can find there not only Christ but also oneself: “Everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his ease, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not have put it better himself.” So, Luther said, in the Psalter “you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself…as well as God himself and all creatures” (Luther’s Works, vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960] 253-257.)

The name of God

Almost one hundred times, the psalms praise or appeal to the “name” of God. Psalm 75:1 understands why: “We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks; your name is near.” Israel worships at the temple because that is where God has promised to be present for them (Deuteronomy 16:11).

The New Testament and Psalms

Many Christians have carried pocket versions of “The New Testament and Psalms.” This unique connection of one particular Old Testament book with the New Testament marks the importance of the book of Psalms for the Christian church. The book was the prayer book and hymnbook of ancient Israel, and it has taken over that same function for Christians.

Prophetic critique of worship

On many occasions, the Old Testament prophets condemned worship when it became hypocritical or manipulative, as though acts and words could themselves secure God’s favor apart from faith and service; sometimes, this critique apparently condemned even the use of psalms (Amos 5:21-24). Based on this, some students of the Old Testament have suggested a sharp distinction between the religion of the prophets and that of the priests, but the psalms themselves include the same kind of critique of false worship (Psalm 50:7-15; Psalm 51:15-17).

The psalms as word of God

Unique among biblical literature, the book of Psalms, virtually in its entirety, is directed “upward” toward God rather than “downward” from God to humans. Though the individual psalms are songs and prayers addressed to God, the reader or hearer can find in this address testimony to the nature and work of God. Because they proclaim God, the psalms, once gathered into a book, can be read for meditation and inspiration; they can serve as texts for preaching and even function prophetically, pointing forward, for example, to the work of God in Christ (see, for example, Mark 12:35-37; Hebrews 2:5-9).

Sacrifice in the psalms

Many of the psalms make reference to sacrificial offerings–animal sacrifices (20:3), cups of libation (drink offerings, 116:13), or offerings of thanksgiving (50:23) and prayer (141:2). Psalms like these, no doubt, were sung to accompany sacrificial offerings in the temple. Sacrifice was done in a spirit of giving, along with prayer and praise, signs of faith in the grace of God.

Sheol (the Pit)

Several psalms pray for deliverance from Sheol or the Pit. Sheol was understood as the abode of the dead–not “hell” as the destiny of the wicked, but the place of all the dead, good or evil; the Pit was a synonym for Sheol or for the grave. For ancient Israel, death was the end of life worthy of the name, for in Sheol there was no relationship with God (6:5; 30:9). Psalm 139’s confession that “if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (v. 8) seems to be something of a breakthrough, recognizing there is no place cut off from God’s presence.

The soul

There are 144 occurrences in the Psalter of the Hebrew word for “soul” (nefesh). In the Bible, the “soul” is not something that exists apart from the body, but is rather the “self,” that which is most particularly and most fully “me”–all of “me,” including body, soul, and spirit. This frequent use of “soul” calls attention to the deeply personal character of the psalms.

The steadfast love of God

While the psalmists know well the troubles of human existence and the experience of God’s distance or anger, finally they give thanks for the enduring presence of God’s “steadfast love.” The Hebrew term (khesedh) refers to God’s faithfulness and loyalty. Israel can rely on God’s goodness and kindness, because this is who God has promised to be. The term occurs more than 120 times in the book of Psalms.