The Psalms are an amazing collection of songs, poems and prayers. The people of Israel, returning to Jerusalem after years of exile in Babylon, were in need of words to help inspire them in their worship, and so they gathered together 150 psalms. They come from across the ages. Some are very personal. Some are to be said by whole nations. Some were written for particular occasions (the anointing of a new king in Israel, for example). Others could be said in any time or place.
And they work differently from most of Scripture. Whilst most of scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. They are not primarily God’s words to us, but our words, inspired by God, to Him. And they are words that cover the whole gamut of human emotions, and explore the highs and lows of both personal and national life.
It can be helpful in reading the psalms to recognise that they often have different emphases:
Laments are the most common type of psalm. They express struggles, suffering or disappointments. They are prompted by personal difficulties such as false accusations (Ps 17) or illness (Ps 39), or by national disasters such as war (Ps 44), or drought or famine (Ps 126, 144). As well as asking God for help, they often, but not always, express trust in a God who can and will deliver.
Thanksgiving psalms are those offered in response to answered prayer. They express joy to God for his help, his deliverance, his healing, whether for them personally (Ps 138) or as a nation (Ps 138). They were likely to have been sung while offering a thanksgiving offering in the Temple, and act as a wonderful testimony to God’s goodness.
Hymns of praise centre on praising God for who He is. Whilst laments and thanksgivings have particular, specific situations in mind, these psalms proclaim God for being the creator of the universe (Ps 8), or for being lord of history (Ps 33) or for being the protector and benefactor of Israel through the generations.
Psalms of trust express a belief that God can be trusted, even in the hardest times, and his goodness and care for his people ought to be expressed, no matter one’s current circumstances. Psalm 23 is a beautiful example.
Penitential psalms are psalms that acknowledge the psalmist’s own sin and guilt and ask for God’s forgiveness. Psalm 51 is the best well known, but psalms 6, 31, 38, 102, 130, 139 and 143 also touch on this theme.
Royal psalms were written for specific occasions, such as the annual celebration of the enthronement of the king (Ps 24), or a royal wedding (Ps 45), or on the eve of battle (Ps 20). Today, they take on new meaning as we worship Christ as King of Kings.
Hallelujah psalms (146-150) are so-called because they all begin and end with “Hallelujah!” They are wonderful explosions of joy and praise, and are a fitting way to finish the Psalter.