The best way to study the Psalms, as Psalm 1 verse 2 tells us right at the beginning, is to meditate on the Psalms. Poems don’t release their richness by one single quick reading, so we have to read and reread. Psalms” comes from the Greek word meaning a song sung to a stringed instrument. The book is also called the Psalter. The Hebrew title, Tehillim, means “praises.” Every Psalm except Psalm 88 contains praise.
“The Psalms themselves were written throughout the entire period of Old Testament revelation, from the time of Moses (Psalm 90) to the period after the exile (Psalm 126). The titles of seventy-two psalms ascribe them to David, while others are by Solomon, Asaph, Heman, and the sons of Korah. Some of the psalms may have been used in temple worship (hence the phrase “to the choirmaster” in more than fifty psalm titles). The psalms are of different types. Some are laments, both individual (Psalm 42) and corporate (Psalm 44). Some are psalms of thanksgiving (Psalm 100), while others are hymns, or songs of praise (Psalm 96). Some of the psalms are commonly referred to today as “wisdom” psalms, such as Psalms 1 and 119. These psalms tend to be reflections on the Word of God. Some psalms, such as Psalms 69 and 109 are referred to as “imprecatory” psalms, in which the substance of the psalm is a prayer against the enemies of God (an imprecation).
The New Testament writers refer to the book of Psalms more often than any other book of the Old Testament. This tells the reader that one major focus of the psalms is the work of the Messiah and His kingdom. Since Christ had not yet appeared, He is spoken of generally in types and shadows in the character of the Davidic king. In some psalms, however, traditionally called “messianic psalms,” Christ is spoken of directly and clearly.” (Robert Godfrey)
The psalter is divided into 5 books. Book one (1-41) is the second longest of the books with 41 psalms. Book 2 (42-72) is the third longest with 31 Psalms. Book Three (73-89) and boo 4 (90-106) are the shortest with seventeen psalms each. Book five (107-150) is the longest with 44 psalms.
Each of these books is concerned with both the individual follower of God and with the whole people of God.
The various “styles” of the psalms can be described as…
- Didactic – Psalms of teaching and instruction (e.g., Psa 1).
- Liturgical – Responsive readings, for use in special services (e.g., Psa 136).
- Meditation – The ancient Hebrews were given to meditation, which spirit finds expression in many of the psalms (e.g., Psa 119).
- Praise and Devotion – Psalms of joyful praise (e.g., Psa 148).
- Prayer and Petition – Psalms which were sung in an attitude of prayer (e.g., Psa 51).
There are many themes running through the Psalms.
THE CHARACTER OF GOD
God’s attributes are frequently extolled in the psalms: His righteousness, power, sovereignty, mercy, faithfulness, lovingkindness, etc. (see Psalm 25:8, 10; Ps. 63:2‑3). The psalms reveal an almighty God who is gracious and compassionate to His people, but who will impartially judge the wicked.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
The concept of God’s ruling on the earth in justice and righteousness through His anointed king runs throughout the psalms (e.g., Pss. 2, 96-99, 110).
THE MESSIAH OF GOD
Closely connected with the kingdom is God’s Messiah. Many psalms are “messianic,” meaning that in whole or part they prophesy of Christ and His rule (Pss. 2, 22, 45, 72, 110).
THE WORSHIP OF GOD
The psalms put a great stress on both personal and corporate worship of God. There are frequent individual declarations of praise (Pss. 5:11-12; 9:1-2) as well as references to the sanctuary, the temple, and corporate worship (Pss. 5:7; 9:14; 84, 122).
John Calvin says the main them is the “providence of God”. Robert Godfrey goes further and says it is God’s good and unfailing love for the righteous. The regular response of the people is that they praise him.
Other subordinate themes are the sinfulness of the righteous, the mystery of providence, and confidence in God and in the future despite present suffering.
We should conclude that the Psalms are not only for the king, for Israel and for the church, but that all the psalms are also the songs of our great King, Jesus the Christ. David’s kingship and kingdom pointed forward to the coming of Christ and are fulfilled in Him. Jesus Himself declared that the Psalms are about him (Luk 24:44).
- Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
- He lived in the psalms, when he cleansed the temple, the disciples understood this action in the words of Psalm 69:9 .
- When he entered Jerusalem in triumph, the crowds greeted Him with the words of Psalm 118:26.
- That Jesus is the fulfillment of David’s kingship is made clear in Hebrews 2:12, citing Ps 22:22.
The first psalm, didactic (instructive) in style, serves as an appropriate preface to the entire collection of psalms. Its theme can be described as “The Truly Happy Man” as it depicts the blessedness, or happiness, of the righteous man in contrast to the wicked.
The blessedness of the righteous man is described first from a negative perspective, in what he will not do. The truly happy man is depicted as not allowing himself to be in the presence or under the influence of the wicked. Instead, he finds delight in meditating day and night on the law of the Lord. His blessedness is pictured as a healthy, fruitful tree, nourished by rivers of water. Whatever he does, he prospers (1-3).
The wicked, in stark contrast, are not so blessed. They are like chaff driven by the wind. In the judgment, they shall not be able to stand. Nor shall they be blessed to be in the congregation of the righteous (4-5). Chaff is the throwaway part of the grain.
The psalm ends with a contrast between the two “ways.” The way of the righteous is known (blessed, providentially cared for) by the Lord. The way of the ungodly shall perish, like a trail leading into a swamp that eventually disappears (6)
Here is a great article by Ligonier Ministries.