Introduction to Psalms
and Study of Psalms 1-8
June 4th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

Psalms (Overview)

The book of Psalms consists of 150 chapters of poetry that offer praises to God and share instructions for following him. King David is the primary author, as more than half of the Psalms are attributed to him. Other authors include his son, Solomon, and writers from other eras, including at least one from the time of Moses.

As we read the Psalms we will see the heights and depths of human emotion expressed in lyrical forms directed at God. These emotions are described with great passion and often in very raw terms. Many of the Psalms may have originally been written for the purpose of musical worship intended to be celebrated in either the tabernacle, which was the movable house of worship, or the temple, which was the stone and timber house of worship in Jerusalem. Some were intended to be sung as the people approached Jerusalem or as they entered the gates to the temple. Many of the Psalms served as the basis for the great hymns composed in the 18th and 19th century A.D. as well as inspiration for contemporary worship music of the 20th and 21st century.

The theologian Eugene Peterson explains that the Psalms are the "requisite toolbox" for understanding how to pray to God. Certainly we can pray to God without knowing any Psalms because the Spirit understands our grunts and moans and the Father understands our needs. However, Peterson emphasizes that the Psalms are "God's gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive (not patched together from emotional fragments scattered around that we chance upon) and honest (not a series of more or less sincere verbal poses that we think might please our Lord) (1).

The chapters of the Psalms can be divided into several parts (2):

We will be reviewing the Psalms at a relatively high level during the next several weeks, but will be looking at major themes. This collection of writings requires a reasonably in-depth level of study to develop a full understanding and appreciation of the complex verses and symbolism. However, the rewards include the opportunity to appreciate the timeless beauty and truth that is captured in these words and the opportunity to understand the messages and share with others.

The authors of How to Read the Bible Book by Book note that "The five books are carefully arranged so that they mirror the story of Israel from the time of David until after the exile. Books 1 and 2 reflect the themes of the time of the early monarchy, with David speaking words of lament and praise, for himself and for the people, based on Yahweh's unending goodness and righteousness." Book 3 on the other hand represents themes from the fall of Jerusalem. We will see that the psalmists repeatedly ask "Why?" and "How long?"

The authors further explain that Book 4 goes back to Moses, and reminds Israel that God has been with them through all generations. The book ends with Psalms of praise (101-106). The last book also includes a lot of psalms of praise, including psalms of ascent and ones that describe the anticipation of a future king, and ends with psalms that remind the audience of God's ultimate sovereignty(3).

The Psalms in their original language were raw and emotional - not always pleasant and not always polite. Sometimes desperate, sometimes calling for violence. Peterson's translation of the Bible, known as The Message, seeks to capture this raw form in the modern English language. We encourage you to reference passages from multiple translations and will provide quotes from a variety of these.

Perhaps you might want to printout the chapters for the day and bring it with you wherever you go today, or maybe you might like to write down just a few select ones so that you can re-read the scripture and reflect on each word. You may also find satisfaction in reading them quietly aloud, in the Jewish tradition. Then, digest them slowly, consider the structure of the Psalm, try to identify with the emotions and rationale of the writer, meditate on the meaning, and consider how these phrases might influence your prayer life with God. Our goal should be to understand these emotions and the meaning without getting overly entangled in the complexities that result from interpreting ancient poetry. The Biblical expert T.K. Cheyne advises that the wrong way to read the Psalms would be in the "spirit of an anatomist, or (like) a visitor from another planet." Instead, he recommends that one reads the Psalm with "the sympathy born of consciousness that the essentials of religon are permanent, and that modern thoughts and beliefs may often be folded up in ancient gems (4)."

We have enlisted a number of subject matter experts to help us with this study. References used for the analysis of this book include the following sources, which are also worthy references for further study:

Psalms 1-8 (Delight in the Law of the LORD)

Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

- Psalm 1:2 (KJV)

Summary of Chapters

Today's set of chapters represents the beginning of Book 1 of the Psalms, and are assumed to have been written by King David. Most of the Psalms in this first group of eight are prayers for protection and deliverance from specific situations. The last one praises God for the majesty of his name.

Peterson notes that the first two Psalms are not prayers, but prepare us for the prayers in the remaining set (5). The first Psalm is designed to wake us up and gain our attention. It sets the stage for the entire book by contrasting the prosperous life of a man who “meditates day and night (Ps 1:2 - NIV)" on God’s law versus the wicked, who are blown away like the worthless chaff (husks) of the grain.

Psalm 2 describes a rebellion against the LORD and his Anointed One, which prompts God to laugh at their presumption. He then “rebukes them with his wrath (Ps 2:5 - NIV).” This Psalm concludes with a warning to “Serve the LORD with fear (2:11 - NIV)” and a promise of blessing for those who take refuge in him.

Psalms 3 and 7 are prayers for protection from enemies, written with the confidence in deliverance. Psalm 3 is related to the story of Absalom's rebellion against David. It demonstrates David's faith in the face of danger, "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about (Ps 3:6 -KJV).”

The 4th Psalm can be considered an evening prayer in which the writer declares “At day's end I'm ready for sound sleep, For you, God, have put my life back together (Ps 4:8 - MSG).” The 5th Psalm serves as an appropriate complement for the previous Psalm, as it begins with references to morning prayer.

The psalmist requests include asking for God’s justice to be served to the deceitful, “let their intrigues be their downfall (Ps 5:10 - NIV).” Consistent with the division of type of people described in the first Psalm, this one asks for God’s blessings and protection for those who love him.

Psalm 6 is a prayer for mercy from a weary psalmist who declares, “I am worn out from groaning and drench my couch in tears (Ps 6:6 - NIV).” He concludes with a confident statement that the LORD hears his cry and will rescue him.

In Psalm 8, the writer offers a prayer of praise that begins and ends by declaring the majesty of the LORD’s name.

Reflection and Application

The Psalmist opens the book by presenting us with a choice of going with the wicked, sinners, and scoffers or delighting in the way of the LORD by meditating on his words. Jesus describes a similar choice when he talked about the narrow gate and the wide gate, as recorded in the book of Matthew:

Barclay points out that this choice was true for the people of the Psalmists era, the followers in the days of Jesus, and in our own time. He also explains an apparent contrast between the instructions in Psalm 1 and the behavior of Jesus. Didn't Jesus spend time with sinners and scoffers? Yes, but his goal was to influence them. Our goal can be the same. It would be difficult to entirely withdraw from the world and avoid all the non-believers. Instead, we can seek to be with them and serve as a shining light - with the help of the Holy Spirit. We can be like the tree described in the 1st Psalm - firmly rooted and sharing the fruit of our spirit with the world.

This set of Psalms is consistent with the instruction from the Apostle Paul to pray without ceasing because we read about the Psalmist praying in the morning and at night and when in trouble and when elated. If we pray without ceasing, then we too can find “delight in the law of the LORD (Ps 1:2 - NIV).” How can we do this? We could choose to begin our day in prayer and study, in order to get a fresh start and orient ourselves for the remainder of the day. Then, throughout the day, we can reflect on what we read and continue our conversation with the LORD. If we fill our minds with the words of the Psalms or other scripture then it becomes easier to keep the momentum throughout the day and delight in the LORD’s instruction. We will also be more alert to the ways in which he may respond.

The second Psalm might have been written for a coronation or may have been a prophecy of things to come. There are some parallels with the verses here and those in Revelation. For example, in verse 2, the Psalmist says the kings of the earth have come together against the LORD, which is very similar to the scene described near the end of Revelation (19:19), when the kings of earth prepare for the final battle. In the Psalm, as in Revelation, the Son is victorious, so the kings are warned to fear and worship him.

If we bring our problems to the LORD and trust in his justice as the Psalmist did in Psalms 3-6, then we can sleep in peace with the confidence that we are under his protection. We will also want to give praise to the majesty of his name.

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. What is one of your favorite poem or songs of all time?
    2. What do you pray for in the morning?
    3. How can we get to the point where we share the enthusiasm of this writer who “delights in the law?”
    Recommended Prayer
    Father in Heaven we acknowledge you as the Great Protector and we know that you win in the end. Help us to make the right choices and delight in your law throughout the day.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Legitimate leaders who are facing a rebellion

    Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

      Related Questions
      1. What is your favorite poem or song of all time?
      2. What do you pray for in the morning?
      3. How can we get to the point where we share the enthusiasm of this writer who “delights in the law?”
      Recommended Prayer
      Father in Heaven we acknowledge as the Great Protector and we know that you win in the end. Help us to make the right choices and delight in your law throughout the day.

      Suggested Prayer Concerns
      Legitimate leaders who are facing a rebellion


      (1) Peterson, Eugene H., Answering God, The Psalms as Tools for Prayers Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989, p. 2-4
      (2) Boadt, Lawrence, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ; 1984, p. 280
      (3) Fee, Gordon D., Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002 , p.132-133 (4) Barclay, William in The Lord is My Shepherd,The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1973, p. 33
      (5) Peterson, Eugene H., Answering God, The Psalms as Tools for Prayers Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989, p. 32

      Looking Ahead

      Tomorrow's reading: Psalms 9-17 (Protection and Praise)

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