Sunday School Lessons

What’s a Psalm, Anyway?

The next few articles are from Psalm 1.  Or, does the book of Psalms even have chapters?  Do we really turn to Psalms chapter 1, or do we turn to the first Psalm?

In any case, welcome to the Psalms. I encourage you to look up the first psalm, and read it in your own Bible (or online).  Now, to be clear, I’m an engineer by training and by temperament.  I design and write computer programs for a living.  I like factual accounts like the book of Luke or Acts.  And normally, the Psalms aren’t my personal go-to book of the Bible.  However, God inspired them, and they have both value and a purpose.  As a result, I choose to study them with you for the next series (whose Bible passages – but not most of my content here – are suggested by the Lookout, cited below), so that we can all learn from them.

I think of the book of Psalms like a hymnal, which I sang out of a lot when I was younger.  I also think of the Psalms like the hymns of the Lutheran tradition, which I learned about from my dad’s family members.  While the hymns that I sang as a kid (and still enjoy today, in both classic and modern settings) were more harmonious, the Lutheran songs – while still musical – were closer to a chant: more emphasis on the sung words than on the melody of the music.  In the same way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Israelites had a wide range of musical styles, and commentary suggests that even the Psalms vary in style among themselves.

The first Psalm pretty much jumps into the content, but some of the Psalms have a heading (or “superscription”, if we want to get fancy), which might tell us who it was by, who it was for, what it was written for (or about), or perhaps the style that it represents.  Opinions vary on when these headings were added, but I think that they probably fall somewhere along the range of “inspired word of God” to “chapter headings added by translators”.  That’s a pretty wide range, though, and I won’t claim to know where each Psalm heading (for those that have a superscription) falls among those bounds.

We also don’t necessarily know what exactly every term in the Psalms means.  Some terms found in the headers of Psalms might be forms of music, or meter (like Shakespeare’s poetry, that had a certain pattern to it).  The term “Selah” sometimes shows up inside Psalms, and while we can try to deduce what it means, we don’t necessarily know for sure.  That’s OK – even if we can’t replicate (for certain) the musical or spoken framework of a Psalm, we can appreciate the words that were written.  Even if we don’t experience the Psalms in exactly the same way as the original audience, we can learn from them, and use them in our own prayers and worship to God.

Now, after translating Hebrew into another language, we probably shouldn’t expect the lines to rhyme or anything like that.  (In fact, commentary suggests that Hebrew poetry generally doesn’t rhyme, anyway.)  However, there are poetic or lyrical elements that we can still appreciate.  As the Lookout says, “…the main characteristic of Psalms is parallelism…” [emphasis added], so when we see the same thought expressed in different ways, we can appreciate how the authors were making their points clear

A commentary [Tesh & Zorn] points out that parallelism doesn’t always mean repetition of a phrase or thought.  There are a number of ways that two points in a Psalm can be tied together, if we keep our eyes open for it.  In addition, the same commentary suggested that the form of this particular Psalm (i.e., Psalm 1) seems to be more like portions from the book of Proverbs than lyrics to a song.  In fact, this chapter might even be an introduction to the Book of Psalms.

So, welcome to the Psalms.  Let’s take a closer look, whether you dive into them in your own reading and study, or follow along with the upcoming articles (and hopefully, you do both!).


From Sunday School lesson prepared for October 2, 2022

References:

  • The Lookout, October 2, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
  • Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
  • The College Press NIV Commentary, Psalms, Volume 1, S. Edward Tesh and Walter D. Zorn, © 1999, College Press Publishing Co., Joplin, MO.

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