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Why Study the Psalms?

Have you spent time in the Biblical book of Psalms? In “Why Study the Psalms,” William Van Ornum talks about the literary and spiritual characteristics that make this collection of ancient Hebrew poetry so compelling today:

Compellingly, [psalms] were used by Jesus in addressing his Father. Martin Luther noted that “the entire Bible is contained in the Psalms.” The Psalms put our inchoate longings, or as St. Paul would say, groanings, into words. Wordsworth echoed this when he wrote “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The Psalms express our feelings in hymns, pleadings, sorrows, penitence, petition and thanksgiving. In understanding the Psalms, it is helpful to compare and contrast them to English poetry. Whereas rhyme is one hallmark of English poetry (excluding, of course, the free-rhyming poetry of recent years), parallelism is the structural component that distinguishes Hebrew poetry. While parallelism may not be as pleasing to our contemporary ears as rhyming (and this may be because of our own historical conditioning—who knows what calming and hedonic effect it had upon ancient listeners?), it served a very practical purpose in Old Testament times: since the Psalms were presented orally, the repetition of themes in a slightly different way helped create a meld of what was being expressed. The second line is often an intensification of the first, as in the beginning of the Divine Office: “O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”

There’s much more about the unique appeal of the Psalms at the full essay.

The psalms are Hebrew poems collected as the book of Psalms in the Bible. Most people, regular Bible readers or not, are passingly familiar with a few of the psalms—chances are you’ve heard parts of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”), Psalm 14 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’…), and other oft-quoted psalms.

But for all their familiarity, reading through all 150 psalms can be surprisingly challenging. For one, most modern readers are not accustomed to reading large volumes of poetry; trying to read the psalms straight through in the same way you read the other Bible books can dull their poetic power. As the article above notes, the psalms make heavy use of literary techniques like repetition, parallelism, and symmetry that we’re not used to encountering (or even noticing). And the great variety in mood and tone across the psalms—the psalms cover crushing despair, ecstatic joy, and everything in between—makes them best appreciated in small, thoughtful doses.

If you’re just starting out reading the psalms and want to get a feel for some of the most famous and representative passages, try reading these first:

  • Psalm 1: This short psalm famously contrasts the blessings that await the virtuous with the disaster that will befall the wicked.
  • Psalm 23: The well-known “The Lord is my shepherd” psalm—memorable and encouraging.
  • Psalm 74: A desperate plea to God to rescue the author from the troubles that are engulfing him.
  • Psalm 77: This psalm opens with a prayer to God for help, and concludes with a reflection on God’s majesty and holiness.
  • Psalm 119: The longest chapter in the Bible, this psalm beautifully works its way through the Hebrew alphabet, pondering mankind’s relationship with God.

As you read through the psalms, you’ll notice many notations directed at “the director of music” and other indications that these poems were originally set to music. That’s a tradition that continues to this day—the hymnal at your church is full of songs with lyrics inspired by or drawn directly from the psalms. If you’re musically inclined, you might find listening to or singing the psalms just as rewarding as reading them.

However you choose to read the psalms, it’s a deeply worthwhile experience. They cover the entire range of human experience and emotion, and they ask important questions about God, humanity, and the purpose of life. And once you’ve read a few of them, you’ll see why so many Christians incorporate them into worship services, daily devotions, and personal prayer.

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