An introduction to the Psalms

Martin Luther called the Psalms the “Prayer Book of the Bible” and the “little Bible” because the Psalms contain the story of God’s love, grace and forgiveness and desire for a real relationship with each of us.

Our Bibles are books, with front and back covers, and we have become accustomed to treating the Bible like other books and thinking of Genesis as the beginning and Revelation as the end, with everything inside happening in, more or less, chronological order. When we are reading the Bible, it’s important to remember that the original content of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was collected on scrolls which were not bound together. A single scroll would be opened and read from right to left, so readers and writers made connections by flow rather than flipping back and forth like we do with books.

The Book of Psalms, a single book in the Bible is actually 5 books (Book I: Psalms 1–41, Book II: Psalms 42–72, Book III: Psalms 73–89, Book IV: Psalms 90–106, Book V: Psalms 107–150) There is a flow between Psalms that are next to each other: for example, Psalm 22 is a lament and Psalm 23 is a statement of trust following the lament. Reading the two Psalms as partners can add depth to each Psalm as well as connect us more deeply with God.

Psalm is a Greek word for “songs accompanied by stringed instrument”. Psalter, the Latin word for the Book of Psalms was named for the psalter, an instrument that was used for accompaniment.  (It’s like referring to “guitar music book” today.) Before the printing press, monks would hand copy and illuminate collections of Psalms for monasteries, church leaders, and affluent men and women. It was a sign of great wealth and piety to own a Psalter, especially because most people couldn’t read.

Monks and nuns chanted or sang the psalms as they prayed 5 times each day. Today, in some churches, a psalm is chanted or sung, often using a tune that was written down centuries ago by those same monks. Many catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Episcopal churches chant the Psalms on Sundays. There are some beautiful versions of psalm chants online and great examples of how to chant the psalms

The next article will discuss the 5 different types of Psalms: Individual and Community Lament; Hymns of Praise; Individual and Community Thanksgiving; Royal Psalms; and Wisdom Psalms.

*The author relies heavily on Professor Walter Brueggemann’s Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary).