A Psalm is a song that was written by King David, who wrote it for God. It is a form of worship, and the most common form of Psalm that you will see in the Bible is a hymn.
A psalm is a song or poem used in worship. The word psalm comes from the Greek word psallein, which means “to pluck.” That word gave rise to psalmos, which means “a song sung to harp music.” (The strings on a harp are plucked, at least some of the time.) Finally, the English word psalm means “song” but usually refers to a sacred song regardless of what instrument it might be played on.
What is a Psalm?
David is the author of many of the biblical psalms, and he is also known as one who played the harp, although the “harp” he played was not like a modern harp that might be used in an orchestra; rather, it was a small, handheld stringed instrument that today would be called a “lyre.” “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play” (1 Samuel 16:23). Most modern translations use the word lyre instead of harp. So David wrote lyrics and played the lyre, or we might say he would psallein his instrument and write psalms. Today, hymns might be the word that evokes an idea similar to psalms.
Today, we usually read the biblical psalms, often privately, rather than sing them. While many individual psalms came out of intensely personal and difficult situations, they were eventually put into a collection that was meant to be used in public worship.
The book of Psalms is a book of songs that is sometimes called “Israel’s National Hymnbook.” The title of the book in Hebrew is Tehillim, which means “Praises.” It is a book of praises, but some of the psalms are written out of deep despair and questioning. It is a book of prayers containing the writers’ innermost questions and doubts as well as their praises and thanksgiving.
Some of the biblical psalms tell us the names of the tunes that should go with them, but, alas, those tunes are lost to us. For instance, the heading of Psalm 22 says, “To the tune of ‘The Doe of the Morning.’” Perhaps “The Doe of the Morning” was a popular song and David wrote new words for it with spiritual content. It is also possible that “The Doe of the Morning” was a tune written specifically for this song/psalm, although there is nothing in the psalm that would seem to call for this title. It is not uncommon for modern songwriters to put the psalms to music, and one organization has written music for all 150 psalms.
Read the Bible in its context
There are a lot of ways to read the Bible. But if you want to understand it well, you need to read it in its context. What is that? In short, reading the Bible in its context means reading it according to the historical, literary, cultural and theological contexts of which it was written. Those four categories are just examples; there are many more possibilities for the ways we could define our contextual readings of scripture. For example:
Read through Psalms with an eye toward understanding how they were understood by ancient Israelite kings who wrote them (this would be political). Or look at Job as an ancient piece of literature from Mesopotamia (literary). Or consider how Jesus’ parables illuminate his view on money management during Roman times (cultural). Or better yet, see if Paul’s letters make sense when held up against first-century Greco-Roman philosophy (theological).
Use your Bible to study the Bible
You can use the same method of reading and studying the Bible as you would a regular book, but there are some important differences that you should be aware of. First, because we are studying God’s word, we need to treat it with respect and reverence. Second, because it is God’s word, we must understand that He has already revealed His truth to us through His Son Jesus Christ (John 1:1). Therefore, when we read the Bible it will be much different than reading a history book or even a novel. The way our mind works is different than anyone else’s; therefore no two people will interpret Scripture exactly the same way. Because of this there will be many different views on what certain passages mean or how they should be applied in our lives today; however remember that God alone knows how He intends each verse in His Word for us today!
Here are some technical facts to know when discussing psalms:
• When referring to the biblical book, Psalms is written with a capital P.
• When referring to psalms in a general (i.e., songs, hymns, psalms, etc.) a lowercase p is used.
• The book is referred to as “Psalms” (plural), but individual psalms are referred to in the singular, as in “Please open your Bibles to Psalm 145,” and “I am going to read a psalm this morning.”
• The book of Psalms has the most verses of any book in the Bible but no chapters. The individual psalms are songs, not chapters; therefore, it would be technically incorrect to say “Please open your Bibles to Psalms chapter 145.”
• Sometimes the book of Psalms is called “The Psalter,” which simply means “a book of psalms.”