Scripture Notes: Psalms

Scripture Notes: Psalms

17 min read

Image: Section of Dead Sea Psalm Scroll

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  • From Greek name of book “Psalmoi” (ψαλμός) meaning: songs played on a stringed instrument
  • Hebrew name Tehillim (תְּהִלָּה) meaning “praises” or “songs of praise”
  • Selah (סֶלָה) - marker of divisions of stanzas; meaning “lift up” or “exalt”

Influence & History

  • Anthology (or anthologies of anthologies) so no single author
  • Mostly composed first half of first millennium by anonymous authors
  • Used in liturgies of both first and second temple
  • Appears in Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Jesus was familiar with, studied, and cited many of these same Psalms
    • Most cited Old Testament book in the New Testament
    • This gives us a valuable window into the spiritual language and aesthetic that Jesus had
  • Isaiah was familiar with them
  • Attributions:
    • Psalms 42-49; 84; 85; 87; 88 attributed to Korahites (priestly family)
    • Psalms 50; 73-83 attributed to Asaph (one of Korah’s sons)
    • Psalm 72 attributed to Solomon
    • Psalm 88 attributed to Heman (another of Korah’s sons)
    • Psalm 89 attributed to Ethan the Ezrahite
    • Psalm 90 attributed to Moses


  • Genres:
    • Hymn
      • Call to worship
    • Individual petition
      • Cries for help
      • Expression of complaints
      • Mini drama with Psalmist, enemies/trial, and God as actors
      • Focus mostly on loyalty and trustworthiness of God
    • Community petition
      • Expresses feeling of abandonment (note exile histories)
      • Call for God to remember bringing Israel nation into existence with promises
    • Individual thanksgiving
      • Report acknowledging God’s answers to petitions
      • Expression of gratitude
  • If there’s one over-arching theme it is the efficacy of prayer or petitioning God


  • Five books (paralleling 5 books of Torah) - relatively late in formation:
    • 1-41 - most of Psalms attributed to David here
    • 42-72 - some Psalms of Korah and Asaph
    • 73-89 - mostly Psalms of Korah and Asaph
    • 90-106 - untitled Psalms
    • 107-150 - Liturgical Psalms for pilgrimages to Temple and festivals
    • Rabbis sometimes say, “Moses gave the five books of the Torah to Israel and David gave the five books of Psalms to Israel.”
  • Anthologies crossing book structure:
    • Psalms 34-83 referred to as written by “Elohistic Psalter” because it uses Elohim over Yahweh
    • Psalms 120-134 called “A Song of Ascents” Psalms for pilgrimages to Temple
    • Psalms 113-118 are Hallel Psalms sung at times of festivals


The following are devotionals (spiritual interpretations/readings) on specific scriptures in Psalms.

Restoring the Spiritual Art of Lament

The compilation of Psalms went through various authors, ordering, selection, revision, editing, etc. Yet through it all these lamenting Psalms that deal with moments when we feel God’s absence were kept in. In fact, approximately 65 Psalms (about 50%) deal with themes of lament. There’s a temptation in seeking God to only ever equate God with a kind of manic joy or stoic calmness. I believe that we can seek God in the range of human emotions we experience, including emotions that feel loss, abandonment, sadness, and depression. God is just as capable of meeting us in the lows of life as God is in the soaring highs. These Psalms belong here because these feelings, these emotions, these experiences are part of the life of faith in God. We don’t address it by going around it or avoiding it. We must go through it (see Lehi and mists of darkness). And the book of Psalms can help us to face the full range of life with its hopes and doubts as we mediate on it.

Structure of Lament

  • The Address - usually directly to God
  • The Lament - a description of the occurrences for which the people are requesting assistance or rescue
  • Confession of Trust - a statement showing the nation’s belief that God will hear their prayers
  • The Petition and Motivation - a usually very specific statement of what the people want God to do
  • Vow of Praise - portion of the lament where the people promise to offer thanksgiving once seeing God’s intervention

Psalm 1 gives a simplistic view: Those who meditate on God’s word are like healthy trees planted by water and the ungodly are like chaff that are blown away in the wind (Psalm 1:3-4). But then you have the whole mess of the Lamenting Psalms when things aren’t that way and the good suffer while the evil are in power. The Psalms take us through a journey of faith where, despite real injustice and our sometimes feeling God is absent, God is patient and leads us to praise. Psalm 150 depicts all that has breath (v6) as praising God - the whole of creation. That’s the hope of Psalms: that we can find reason for hope even while we acknowledge and respect the realities which genuinely challenge that hope.

Lamenting Psalms

  • Psalm 22 - “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (quoted by Jesus on cross - in that moment of darkness Jesus turned to lament in Psalms)
  • Psalm 30:8 - God “hides his face”
  • Psalm 44* - save us Lord for they mercy’s sake
    • v1-8 Begins with praise to God
    • v9-14 Laments their seeing God abandon them
    • Reflecting on this the psalter laments: v15 My confusion is continually before me, and the shame of my face hath covered me,
    • v17-18 reaffirms loyalty to God in them midst of suffering:
      • 17 All this is come upon us; yet have we not forgotten thee, neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant.
      • 18 Our heart is not turned back, neither have our steps declined from thy way;
    • v21-end are the petitions to God
      • v21 Shall not God search this (injustice) out?
      • v23 Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever.
      • v24 Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression?
      • v26 Arise for our help, and redeem us for thy mercies’ sake.
    • Interestingly, tragically, it ends there with the petition hanging.
  • Psalm 73* - the wicked prosper and those who do good suffer for it
    • v3 I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
    • v4 For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm.
    • v12 Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches.
    • In the midst of this, the Psalter doubts their faith:
      • v13 Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.
    • v16 the psalter, reflecting on this injustice, despairs “[this is] too painful for me”
    • But v17 flips the tone after the psalter “went into the sanctuary of God; then…”  they realize, “I understood [the wicked’s] end.”
    • Clarity returns:
      • v25 Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.
      • v26 They admit their weakness, “My flesh and my heart faileth” but reaffirm their faith, “God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.”
    • v28 ends the Psalm with this clarity, “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord God” while not undermining the path of lament taken to get there.
  • Psalm 88* - existential crisis
    • v2 Petitions God to hear their prayer
    • v3 For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.
    • v6 Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.
    • Psalter rhetorically doubts whether God’s goodness exists
      • v11 Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?
    • Psalter blames God
      • v14 Lord, why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?
    • v15 I am afflicted and ready to die
    • Psalter feels like they are drowning in sorrow
      • v17 They came round about me daily like water; they compassed me about together.
    • Psalm ends in psalter feeling alone and in darkness
      • v18 Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness.
  • Psalm 89* - doubting whether God is keeping his covenants
    • v1-3 begin with the psalter pointing out how they have trusted in God and his covenants
    • v4-37 proclaim God’s goodness
    • But v39 on laments what appears to be God’s breaking his covenant and forgetting his people
      • v39 Thou hast made void the covenant of thy servant
    • v40-45 lists ways the psalter wonders if God isn’t keeping his covenant
    • v46 How long, Lord? wilt thou hide thyself for ever?
    • Psalm abruptly ends with rushed praise
      • v52 Blessed be the Lord for evermore.
  • Other lamenting Psalms
    • 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 90

Joseph Smith and Lament

(Doctrine and Covenants 121:1-18)

O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?

How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?

O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol

Stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us. Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs. Remember thy suffering saints, O our God;

and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.

Nephi and Lament

(2 Nephi 4:16-35)

v16 delighteth in the things of the Lord

v17 “O wretched man that I am!”
v18 “I am encompassed about”

v19 “nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”
v20 “My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness”
v22 “He hath confounded mine enemies”
v23 “Behold, he hath heard my cry”
v30 “Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever”

v32 “May the gates of hell (Sheol) be shut continually before me”
v33 “O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies”

v34 “O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever.”
v35 “I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God”

I think it is important to acknowledge this voice of lament within the prophetic tradition. What are we do with Psalms , scripture, and prophetic voices of Lament and places of pain? Perhaps it tells us that we can cry to or even at God in our pain, that God is listening even to our cries of pain, cries of injustice, cries of anger, cries of exhaustion. We tend not to do well with voices of pain in our spiritual discourse. These feelings of brokenness, devastation, and mistakes can become resource out of which we minister to one another. As we do this, we realize that God is doing something in us and often is healing us in ways we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to had we repressed or ignored these feelings. Including the spiritual art of lament can improve our ability to minister to one another as we mourn with those who mourn and lament with those who lament.

Jesus and the Psalms

Imagine you’re going through a second-hand music store and you stumble upon an old songbook signed by your favorite musician. You thumb through it and you see annotations, ideas, and markings made by this musician. You see how many of these ideas later made it into their songs and lyrics. This would be an invaluable treasure and insight into how that musician composed. This is the position we are in when we turn back to the Psalms. Jesus had these. Jesus grew up with these. Jesus sang these. And Jesus used these throughout his teachings.

Through Psalms we can weep with Jesus because of the pain of the world and we can celebrate with Jesus because of the life of the world. Jesus quoted Psalms more than any other Old Testament book. Jesus and disciples sang Hallel (praise) Psalms at last supper (Matt 26:30). Hallel Psalms are 113-118, sung at pilgrimage festivals (including passover). Listen to parts of Psalm 116. What might Jesus have been thinking as they sang this together?

Jesus and Psalm 116

Psalm 116
Jesus Finishes His Work
3 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell (Sheol) gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.
Mat 26:38 My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death
4 Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.
Mat 26:39 [he] fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me
6 … I was brought low, and he helped me.
Luke 22:43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.
7 Return unto thy rest, O my soul
Luke 23:46 Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit
8 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
Mat 28:6 He is not here, but is risen
9 I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
Luke 24:5 Why seek ye the living among the dead?
13 I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.
Mat 26:42 if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
Mat 27:52 many bodies of the saints which slept arose
17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice …
Mat 20:28 the Son of man came … to give his life a ransom for many.

Psalms in the Gospels

Psalm Quoted in Gospel
Psalm 8:2 Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings
Matt 21:16 Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings …?
Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Matt 27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Psalm 35:19 (69:4) neither let them wink with the eye that hate me without a cause.
John 15:25 this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.
Psalm 41:9 Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.
John 13:18 I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.
Psalm 78:24 And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven.
John 6:31 Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.
Psalm 82:6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
John 13:34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
Psalm 110:1 The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
Matt 26:64 I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
Psalm 118:22-23 The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.
Matt 21:42 Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?
Psalm 118:26 Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord: we have blessed you out of the house of the Lord.
Matt 23:39 For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.