This summer I’m teaching through Psalms in my small group Bible study. I thought I would share some tips for reading Psalms that can help you in your devotional reading, and in leading a group through reading Psalms.

Reading Psalms is different from reading other books in the Old Testament.

Some helpful distinctions are listed below:

  1. Psalms are often written from the perspective of people speaking to God, or people speaking to each other about God. The Psalms are different from prophetic books that contain God’s speech toward his people.
  2. Psalms are poetic. They aren’t poetic in the way we think of poetry in the 21st century though. They don’t really rhyme. Instead Psalms are made up of two or three lines of words that relate to each other. Modern interpreters of Psalms call this phenomenon parallelism.
  3. Psalms are condensed. The 23rd Psalm is only six verses. But, it is densely packed with meaning. The language of psalms is very subtle, so that deep meaning can be conveyed in a small amount of words.
  4. They are also meant to be read slowly, rather than quickly. It is often beneficial to think about (meditate on) Psalms over a period of time. Rather than skimming and looking for a phrase to pull out and apply to your life, it is best to slowly think through the psalm to see if the imagery spurs something in your mind.
  5. Watch for a shift from 3rd person to 1st person or 2nd person in psalms. These changes in the perspective often help us see what the author’s intended meaning is.
  6. Pay attention to metaphors/similes. Often times the author will use figurative language to convey something that isn’t quickly obvious. For example, Psalm 1 uses figurative language that says, “he (one who follows God) is like (simile) a tree firmly planted beside streams of water.” So the one who follows God is like a tree, but also the stream of water is a representation of how God’s instruction feeds and nourishes the believer.
  7. The Title may give clues about the Psalm. For example, you might read a psalm with the title “A Psalm of David” within the context of David’s life as told elsewhere in scripture. You should read Psalm 127, “A Solomonic song of ascents” in a different context.

When Reading Psalms some general reading rules still apply:

  1. Look for words/concepts that are repeated. These usually indicate what the main point is, and often develop into themes that stretch into other chapters.
  2. Pay attention to the beginning and ending of sections/books. An author often sends signals to the reader within the beginning and ending that give clues about how to understand the writing.
  3. Pay attention to keywords/phrases. If you feel like you’ve heard those words before – maybe you have. Look for cross-references to see if the author is using those words to signal something larger than the immediate words. Perhaps Jesus gives new or fuller meaning to these words in the Gospels. Perhaps the Psalmist is using language similar to words in Deuteronomy to develop an idea like the theme of God’s blessing through the promised land.

I hope that this short cheat-sheet to Reading Psalms will help you notice some things in scripture that you had not seen before. Hopefully these observations will lead you to better understand the meaning of the text and the significance that it has for your life.

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