Jon Gary Williams
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Article 0139 - Overview of Psalms

Overview of the Book of Psalms

Jon Gary Williams

The Old Testament Hebrew word for psalms is tehillim. The New Testament Greek word for Psalms is psalmos. The root meaning of psalms is "to praise."

The book of Psalms is the largest book in the Bible with 150 psalms (chapters). It is the most often cited book in all of religious literature. It is cited more than 100 times in the New Testament, fifty of which are cited by Jesus.

Psalms is one of the three great divisions of the Old Testament. "These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me." (Luke 24:44)

The Jews divided Psalms into five books: Book I (chapters 1-41); Book II (chapters 42-72); Book III (chapters 73-89); Book IV (chapters 90-106); Book V (chapters 107-150).

Some psalms have titles and/or superscriptions. These titles are not inspired words but have been added to give the writers' names or to highlight the contents of the psalm. These added words are found in 116 of the psalms.

Although the book of Psalms is often referred to as "The Psalms of David," David wrote only 73 of them - - a little less than one half. One psalm was written by Moses (Psalm 90). Two were written by Solomon, twelve by Asaph, ten by sons of Korah, one by Heman and one by Ethan. About one third of the Psalms have no names given. Beginning with Moses, the writing of the Psalms stretched over a period of about 1000 years. With God's guidance the Hebrew nation preserved these writings through the centuries.

The New Testament confirms that the book of Psalms was given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:16 the apostle Peter said, "Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus." Then in verse 20 Peter cites from Psalm 69:25, "For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take."

What was the purpose of the Psalms?

With the word itself meaning "praise," the book of Psalms is a marvelous, inspired collection of human praise. No other book compares to it. The book is often referred to as lyric poetry. The writers expressed their thoughts deeply, intensely and personally.

The Psalms show how man is to place himself in subjection to God, his Creator. The book reveals the complete nature of God - - His omnipresence (present everywhere), His omniscience (all knowing) and His omnipotence (all powerful).

The Psalms contain inspired teachings that reflect not only man's relation with God but also man's relation with man. They reflect high standards, both moral and ethical. They reveal concepts and guidelines that could have only come from a superior, omniscient mind.

Classifying the Psalms

The Psalms can be generally divided into different types.

Psalms of praise
Praise is a focal point of a great many of the psalms. Used frequently and eloquently, the eternal nature of God is exalted in words of praise.

Historical Psalms
Some of the psalms speak of the historical Biblical events including Joseph in Egypt, the ten plagues imposed by Moses and the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites

Ethical Psalms
These are psalms that emphasize moral responsibility and stress man's accountability for misconduct.

Psalms of Penitence
Many of the psalms serve to illustrate how man is to turn from sin and back to God, David being prime example: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the m ultitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me."Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest." (Psalm 51:1-4)

Messianic Psalms
These are Psalms concerning Jesus, the coming Messiah. They speak of Christ's divine and human nature, His betrayal, His death, His resurrection and His ascension.

The Types of Psalms

In our day we think of poetry as involving rhyming words. The Psalms of the Old Testament were constructed differently, being built of rhythmic thought patterns. This is called "parallelism." There are three different kinds:

Synonymous parallelism
A thought is provided and then the same idea is given in a slightly different way. "O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure." (Psalm 16:1)

Synthetic parallelism
A thought is given, then followed by an additional true thought. "O Lord my God, in thee do I put my trust: save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me." (Psalm 71:1)

Antithetic parallelism
The second line is in contrast with the previous line. "For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish." (Psalm 1:6)

Psalm 119

The size and composition of Psalm 119 make it quite different from the other psalms and are worthy of a closer look.

Psalm 119 is the largest of all the psalms, containing 176 verses.
 It is divided evenly into 22 sections, each containing eight verses.

It is an acrostic psalm, meaning that each section is sequentially labeled with each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, from the first letter (aleph) to the last (tav).

The first letter of the first word of each section is the labeled letter. For example, the
first letter of the first word of the first section of Psalm 119 is the first Hebrew letter aleph. Likewise, the first letter of the first word of the second section is the second Hebrew letter beth.

Another notable feature of Psalms 119 is the repeated use of synonymous words describing God's inspired scriptures. There are eight of them: "testimony," "way," "precepts," "statutes," "commandments," "judgments," "laws," and "word."
These terms are dispersed throughout the chapter, found in 172 of the 176 verses. The only exceptions are verses 90, 121, 122 and 132.

Psalms 22:1

This passage was cited by Jesus in Matthew 27:46. "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

This sometimes confusing passage is really not a difficult one. In His passionate remark the human side of Jesus can be seen. With His earthly life ending on the torturous cross, Christ was suffering enormous pain and demonstrating unfathomable emotion. The writer of Hebrews spoke vividly of Jesus' weakened despair. "Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared." (Hebrews 5:7).

Prophetically, Jesus' condition is parallel to that of David who, as seen in Psalms 22, was suffering from extreme hopelessness. What a unique analogy - - two people suffering in different ways, yet both experiencing similar distress.

Jesus did not actually believe His Father was forsaking Him, but, knowing His death was imminent, the human side of our Lord was exhibited through unimaginable pain and agony.

Jesus did not speak these words for the benefit of those standing near the cross. In fact, they did not understand his words - - they thought he was calling out the name of Elias (Matthew 27:47). Rather, He cited this passage from David's psalm so that all who would later read it could see the fulfillment of this prophetic scripture and would realize that He is, indeed, the Messiah. Those of us today who believe the inspiration of the scriptures can clearly see the accuracy and importance of this prophecy.


While reading the book of Psalms people will come across the word Selah and wonder what it means. This word is found 71 times in the book of Psalms. (It is also found three times in the book of Habakkuk.) The exact meaning of this word is uncertain. No doubt, it was a musical sign, possibly indicating a poetic pause.