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Interpreting the Psalms

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Modern readers face some challenges interpreting the Psalms, especially those living in Western countries. This is due to differences in cultures and time.

The differences between ancient Israelite and modern Western cultures are greater than one might expect. What readers may not know at first observation is that the Psalms were not originally written in English, Spanish, or Kiswahili, but in Hebrew. Once we grasp the implications of this simple fact, we are on our way toward much better reading and interpretation of the Psalms.


One thing that changes for the reader is that these holy words were not written according to the rhythm and rhyme of English poetry, or in the forms of Spanish poetry. Rather, they follow Hebrew poetic norms, which are less concerned with rhyming and strict structures than they are with telling a story, with emotional reporting, and with expression.

A great way to see this dynamic in action is to read the story of the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 13-14), a Western mind-friendly narrative, alongside the song of Moses and Miriam (chapter 15). You will catch the stylistic difference between the two forms and how certain details are presented about the same event.

Another instance of this is the story of Deborah in Judges, followed by the song of Deborah right after (chapters 4-5). We can compare the story with the song or compare the story with Psalm 78, the report of God’s works and Israel’s struggles through the Exodus. What should stand out is the factual reporting of the narrative versus the emotional expressions (joy, sorrow, wrath, hate, despair) of the poetry. The narratives tell what happened, while the poetry tells how the people, the narrator, and/or God felt.


The second thing to recognize about the Psalms is that, in most cases, they were not meant to be read in a book. They were made to be sung! Many, but not all, of the psalms are noted with superscriptions of the tune they go with (e.g., “the tune of lilies,” “the tune of Do Not Destroy,” “a maskil,” etc.), or are noted to be for the choirmaster, or both.

This presents an extra challenge for the modern reader, who does not know these tunes and often interacts with them by reading the Psalms devotionally. It is not that they can’t simply be read, but something is missing in the original intent when we don’t sing them. Thankfully, many modern Christian musicians have used lines and whole psalms in their music to give us at least some idea what singing psalms can be like, even if we don’t know the original tunes or sing them in the original language.

One advantage for this scenario is that the original Hebrew of the Psalms didn’t tend to utilize rhymes or cadence (rhythm and meter) that is more common in our modern and even medieval Western poetry. Instead, the Hebrew poetic style leaned toward various formations of couplets. The purest form of couplets can be found in most of Proverbs, in which two lines interact to convey or develop an idea. They may contain simile, metaphor, or repetition. The couplets may state an opposite or compare and contrast themes. In this sense, the main mechanism employed to convey meaning is still intact in Hebrew poetry no matter what language it is translated into or what tune is given. What a stroke of God’s wisdom!


Finally, the Psalms proclaim truth and wisdom about God. They are quoted often by Jesus in His incarnation to make a theological point or note a prophecy about His ministry.

Some psalms are so heavy in prophecy, it’s hard to see them any other way, such as the description in Psalm 2 of the coming king of God’s kingdom and Psalm 22’s connection to Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and death. Hebrews makes heavy use of the Psalms in some of its main arguments about Melchizedek and Psalm 95’s report of Israel’s grumbling in the desert exodus.


Given this elementary review of interpreting the Psalms, what can the modern reader do to better interact with them?

We can begin by better setting expectations. We can understand that the Psalms were written in a different language and don’t follow some of the defining features of Western poetry ­— though using some of the same techniques (simile, metaphor, hyperbole) — and that they were often written to be sung.

For those musically inclined, try singing the Psalms to a simple tune. For more analytical minds, recognize the Psalms’ focus on emotional expression and the value this has in our walk with God. Sometimes the Western mind can be so focused on cold, hard logic that the evocative nature of the Psalms is like being stuck in a mire (simile intended!). On that occasion, you can much better understand the trials and challenges of the psalmist in Psalm 40 and God’s deliverance.

Psalms covers a wide array of emotions that are harder to include in logically constructed narratives. They run the gambit of not just praise and joy but also frustration, anger, bitterness, despair, depression, confusion, and grief. These emotions are part of the experience of this life. God walks with us through them all. That is astounding!

Finally, seeing the many connections to Jesus’ ministry, reading the Psalms can bring revelation of the work of the Messiah and build faith in God’s plan described beforehand. As Jesus told us, “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, KJV).

Brian Franks
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Brian Franks serves as dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and as pastor of the Tulsa, OK Church of God (Seventh Day). Brian is a graduate of LifeSpring School of Ministry (predecessor to Artios). He has served as an instructor for Artios and holds a master’s in Education in Online Curriculum and Instruction. He is scheduled to complete a master’s in Divinity in April 2023. He is married and has four children.