How to Read: Psalms

This is part of a series of posts based on the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. To see the previous posts in this series, click below:
Are You Reading the Bible Wrong?
How to Read: New Testament Letters
How to Read: Old Testament Narrative

How to Read: The Gospels
How to Read: Parables
How to Read: Jewish Law
How to Read: Prophetic Books


The Book of Psalms is a beautiful collection of poetry which expresses a full array of human emotion: joy, happiness, sorrow, depression, and anger to name a few. The Psalms teach us how to pray our emotions rather than be destroyed by them.

The Psalms are one of the most loved parts of the Bible. This is evident in the fact that many New Testaments also contain the Psalms. God’s people have used the Psalms for thousands of years to commune with Him and express emotion.

As your heart is drawn into worship through the Psalms, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Understand the Parallelism of the Psalms. 

The Psalms are Hebrew poetry and as such, the poetic features tend to be lost in our English translations. Although Hebrew poetry has many characteristics, you need to remember the concept of parallelism. Parallelism is when a writer repeats the same idea in a different way in order to express a certain emotion or belief.

For example, let’s look at Psalm 17:10. In this Psalm, David is speaking about those who are attempting to harm him:

They have become hardened;
their mouths speak arrogantly.
They advance against me;
now they surround me.

As you can see when you are reading it, lines 1 and 2 express the same idea and lines 3 and 4 express the same idea. This is known as parallelism. This is vital to understand so that you do not try to pull abstract meanings from lines which are meant to express similar concepts. Often, the second line expresses the same idea in a different way OR the second line expresses the opposite (such as the contrasting in Psalm 1) – Both are parallelism.

2. The Psalms are often Metaphorical.

Poetry is not meant to be read the same way as the Epistles in the New Testament. Unfortunately, many people neglect to think about the special literary features in the Bible. Christians often pride themselves on taking every part of the Bible literally. This is a mistake as not every type of literature in the Bible is meant to be understood in an absolutely literal sense.

This is true for the Psalms.

The Psalms, as Hebrew poetry, are a direct appeal to our emotions. Since the Psalms are a collection of poetry and music, many of the images are not meant to be taken literally. For example, let’s look at Psalm 98:7-8:

Let the sea and all that fills it,
the world and those who live in it, resound.
Let the rivers clap their hands;

let the mountains shout together for joy before the Lord.

Do you really think the fish are going to be singing? How exactly are the rivers going to clap their hands? When was the last time you heard a mountain talk, let alone shout?

This Psalmist did not live in Middle-earth! As such, we need to understand that much of the Psalms are not meant to be taken literally but as beautiful images of the glory of God. Ultimately, all images and metaphors fall short when describing our transcendent King!

3. Understand the Types of Psalms.

As poetry and music, the individual Psalms can be grouped into different categories. Each different type of Psalm has a similar structure and purpose. In order for us to enter into the beauty of the Psalm, it is helpful to understand some of the major types.

  • Psalms of Lament
    • Psalms of Lament make up the majority of the Psalter. This is a powerful reminder for us to express depression, sorrow, and anger through prayer to our Father. The authors of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth mention hearing Psalm 88 read within hours of 9/11. The Psalms of Lament unite us in a common humanity and allows to speak to God in our misery.
  • Psalms of Thanksgiving
    • On the opposite end of human emotions are the Psalms of Thanksgiving. These Psalms were used to celebrate God’s favor and provision in the lives of His people. There are both individuals Psalms of Thanksgiving and corporate Psalms of Thanksgiving which are helpful in expressing gratefulness for God’s faithfulness in our lives.
  • Psalms of Praise
    • Psalms of praise often have no reference to a specific joy or sorrow in the life of the writer. Rather, the focus is on the beauty, glory, and majesty of God. These Psalms teach us that God deserves praise and He is the center of the Psalter – not human beings. These Psalms are helpful when they are read or sung during corporate worship.

Many artists have re-created the Psalms to contemporary music. This helps restore the Psalms to their original purpose – helping God’s people express emotion through music and poetry. I recommend checking out the Psalm Project on YouTube! 


What is your favorite Psalm and why? Let me know by leaving a comment, I would love to hear from you!

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