Psalms and worship

Psalms are poems intended to be set to music and sung in worship to God. Music and poetry are important features of Jewish worship. After the Egyptians had been overthrown in the waters of the Red Sea as they pursued the Israelites during the Exodus, when they escaped from slavery, we read that Moses and the Israelites sang a song of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. Miriam, Moses' sister, took a tambourine in her hand and led the women in a dance (Exodus 15:1-20). Singers had an important role in the religious ceremonies of the tabernacle, and later the temple. King David, to whom many of the psalms are attributed, was known as ‘Israel's singer of songs' (2 Samuel 23:1). See Big ideas: Moses; Temple, tabernacle.David on the harp singing a psalm

The Book of Psalms is found in the Old Testament, and is a compilation of different psalms written over many years by a variety of writers. Some of the psalms are attributed to King David. Psalms were used at the time of Jesus. There are 150 psalms (plus some additional ones in the ‘Apocrypha'), divided into five books. Psalm 150 indicates various types of music-making which accompanied their use:

‘Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals' (Psalms 150:3-5).

The form of the Psalms

The Psalms are rich in imagery. In the original Hebrew language, they are full of assonance and alliteration. Some metaphors recur to express aspects of God's character, ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress and … my shield' (Psalms 18:2). Hebrew poetry does not use rhyme or regular metre; its distinctive stylistic feature is parallelism. The quotation from Psalm 150 above shows this clearly; each line is made up of two balanced segments, the second rephrasing and amplifying the first. Some psalms take the form of alphabetic acrostics, such as Psalm 119, the longest psalm, which is divided into 8-line stanzas, each named for a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It praises ‘The word of the Lord' in each of the 176 verses, using a range of synonyms.

Expressing emotion

Many psalms express collective worship and thanksgiving to God. Others express grief or shared sorrow. Some later ones, dating from the period of exile, are particularly poignant (see Big ideas: Exile)

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion.' (Psalms 137:1)

‘When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them.' (Psalms 12:1-2)

Other psalms are intensely personal appeals to God:

  • ‘Answer me'
  • ‘Save me'
  • ‘I am in distress'
  • ‘Why have you forsaken me?'
  • ‘How long will you hide your face from me?'

Psalms nearly always end with an expression of trust in God's goodness and protection, ‘But as for me, I trust in you' (Psalms 55:23). There is sometimes freely-expressed anger against the enemies of God and his people, and a desire for their punishment, which modern readers can find distasteful.

Some psalms express deep sorrow and repentance, and ask for forgiveness; the most famous of these ‘Penitential Psalms' is Psalm 51, attributed to King David after he had been confronted with his sins of adultery and murder, as a consequence of his affair with Bathsheba:

‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.' (Psalms 51:1-3)

Like other psalms used in Christian worship through the centuries, this psalm is also known by the first word of its Latin translation, ‘Miserere' (have mercy). See Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace; Penitence, repentance, penance.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century poets of the Puritan movement versified the psalms in English to use as hymns. These ‘metrical psalms' are still used in Scotland and Ireland. Psalms, or hymns derived from Psalms, have been sung in many types of Christian church through the ages, right to the present day.

Psalm 23

The most famous psalm is probably Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd' (Psalms 23:1-6). Its imagery evokes the life of David, who was a shepherd before he became a king. The words, ‘Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil', have comforted many facing death or bereavement. See Big ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb.

The horrors of journeying through this ‘valley' of death are powerfully evoked by John Bunyan, in his allegorical story, Pilgrim's Progress.

Related topics

Big ideas: Exile; Forgiveness, mercy and grace; Moses; Penitence, repentance, penance; Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Temple, tabernacle

Other cultural references

John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress

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