The Psalms are the language of faith for the full spectrum of human experience. The Psalms provide examples of and language for talking to God unfiltered, whether in the heights of celebration or the throes of despair. From despondent sorrow to ecstatic joy, from ravaging guilt to profound gratitude, the Psalms are in touch with most raw, elemental issues of human life.
The Psalms detail Israel’s journey from faithfulness doubted to faithfulness trusted, from anguish to praise, from doubt to hope. Interestingly, this journey parallels the fluid movements of human life, which seems to flow between three locations or experiences: from settled, familiar rhythms into seasons of total disruption; and then from those dark times of dislocation into new rhythms that hold fresh beauty all their own.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann uses the framework of orientation – disorientation – new orientation to describe this movement of human experience as it plays out in the Psalms. We will use this framework during our sermon series. How does the psalter give us the language of faith, prayer, and worship in experiences of settled familiarity; in upside-down disruption; and in surprising renewal and redemption?
Psalms of Orientation
These psalms reflect the good order and wisdom of God’s creation. These are psalms where the Torah is celebrated and the God of creation is praised. In Psalms of orientation, life is as it’s supposed to be, and God is known to trustworthy and reliable. They often include a summons to the community or the individual to join in the “hallelujah,” the praise of this good and wise God. Examples include Psalm 8, 24, 33, 37, 104, 133 and 145.
Psalms of Disorientation
These psalms are the reaction of the faithful to God when the world they knew was broken. They include individual complaints, such as Psalm 13, as well as communal lament over the disruption and dislocation experienced by a community, such as in Psalm 137. In the Psalms of disorientation and lament, the speaker or community often brings a plea or complaint against God, calling for God’s just and righteous or merciful action. Examples include 35, 74, 86, and 95.
Psalms of New Orientation
These psalms reveal the movement from disorientation and darkness into a fresh season of hope and unexpected grace. Common themes include praising God for his deliverance and salvation, and experiences of surprising renewal and redemption. Examples include Psalm 30, 40, 103, and 116.
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The Psalms, a collection of poems, songs and prayers for Israel’s worship in the temple, were intentionally edited together by the leaders of Israel’s worshipping community to make clear statements about who God is, and what it looks like for the people of God to be faithful to Him in their obedience and their worship.
The Psalms are divided into five books, which each have common themes and make directed statements about God and His people. Psalms 1 and 2 function as twin introductions to the themes that will unfold throughout the Psalter. Scholars agree that Psalms 1 and 2 have been placed intentionally by the editors as a preface of sorts, clearly laying out what the readers should be attentive to as they engage the psalms. Namely, Psalm 1 articulates that those who meditate on God’s wisdom and teaching for life (i.e. “torah”) will be blessed; in other words, the editors of this collection of songs and poems seem to be saying that the Psalms are intended to be a guide for prayer and worship as Israel seeks to be faithful to God’s way of life. Similarly, Psalm 2 indicates that those who take refuge in God’s promised messianic Ruler will be blessed. Taken together, these twin introductions to the psalter tell the reader that the Psalms are intended to be the guide to prayer and worship for God’s people as they seek to be faithful to God’s design for life, and as they wait for God’s promised King.
The five books of the Psalter expand upon these twin themes presented in Psalm 1 and Psalm 2.
Encompassing Psalms 3 – 41, the psalmists call the people of Israel to faithfulness to God’s promises (i.e. covenant), and uphold David as an exemplar of this covenant faithfulness, as well as a prototype of the Messiah, who will be the eternal, forever King that God has promised His people.
Encompassing Psalms 42-72, lays out the future hope of Israel’s return to the temple in Jerusalem (also called Zion), and the hoped-for reign of God’s messianic King who will bring to fulfillment all of God’s covenants, and will bring God’s blessing to all people.
Encompassing Psalms 73-89, focuses on Israel’s rebellion against God and the ensuing exile in Babylon. The psalmists plead with God to never forget His promises to Israel through the covenant with David.
Encompassing Psalms 90-106, responds to the crisis of exile. The opening psalm in this book calls upon God to show mercy on His rebellious people, and the rest of the book affirms the future reign of God that will bring restoration and justice to all the world.
With its “hallelujah” conclusion, includes gratitude to God for the future messianic King who will ultimately defeat evil and establish God’s kingdom forever. This parallels the promised hope of God’s restoration for His people
Motifs and Themes
The Character of God
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of God in the Psalms is His “hesed.” This Hebrew word usually translated as “steadfast love” is a compelling, expansive term that describes God’s faithfulness toward His rebellious people, and the lovingkindness He pours out upon them.
Additionally, the psalmists frequently describe God’s righteousness, justice, compassion and mercy – either pleading for God to act according to His righteousness, justice, compassion and mercy; or, recounting how God has already acted in ways that demonstrate these characteristics.
The covenants (i.e. promises of faithfulness and blessing) that God made with Israel through Adam and Eve, through Noah, through Abraham and Sarah, through Moses, and particularly through David provide a theological framework for the Psalter.
Many of the Psalms recount God’s saving acts of deliverance on behalf of Israel, culminating in the miraculous escape from Egypt through the waters. The Psalms also call for God to act in similar ways in Israel’s present circumstances, pleading for a fresh act of deliverance.
The Plight of People
The paths of the righteous and the wicked, especially as it relates to God’s justice for the downtrodden and the oppressed, are particularly noticeable in the Torah/instruction psalms.
Confession and Lament
The psalmists find much to petition or grieve about. More than half of the Psalms employ language of confession or lament, where the psalmist or community cries out to God in sin, trouble, or despair.
There are at least three collections of “praise the Lord!” psalms employing the Hebrew word, “hallelujah” which means something along the lines of “all of you, praise Yahweh!” Yahweh is God’s specific, personal name that He reveals to Israel through Moses. In the hallelujah psalms, the name Yahweh has been shortened to the poetic abbreviation, Yah. Hence, Hallelu-YAH! Praise Yahweh, the Lord!
Many psalms highlight God’s action on behalf of His people or an individual, and express reasons why the psalmist or community can trust in God.
Enthronement or Kingship
The unique kingship of Yahweh, and His promised Messianic ruler, are highlighted in many psalms, especially later in the Psalter.
Psalms of Ascent
Psalms 120-134 refer to the return of Israel from exile.
Many psalms highlight the wisdom of God seen in the good order of creation, and in the Torah, God’s instruction and design for life.
Songs of Zion
These psalms recall the splendor of God’s dwelling place in the temple in Jerusalem; or more frequently, they echo the future promise of God’s kingdom and its symbolic capital city, Zion or New Jerusalem, which represents the hope for restoration of Israel.
Fuller Studio's Intro to the Psalms
Psalms: The Bible Project Overview
Quick Reads & Devotional/Prayer Guide
Even More Resources
An expansive list of resources to engage the psalms, including the Psalms and art, the Psalms and prayer, the Psalms and justice, the Psalms and worship, even the Psalms in the music of U2 & Bono, can be found at Fuller Studios.