For the Love of God: Read the Psalms (Part 1)

Authors note: The following article is adapted from an original academic essay. While I have removed much of the technical (nerdy) terminology, I hope this piece offers a challenging and stretching look at a very emotional and heartfelt portion of God’s word. It is my prayer that the hard work of digging deep intellectually will yield much fruit spiritually in your walk with Jesus.

Poetry and the Greatest Commandment are more closely connected than you think…

Of all the literary genres of the biblical text, it may seem at first that, strictly speaking, poetry is the least necessary. Consider the Psalter. It does not obviously advance God’s redemption narrative like Exodus or Judges, nor does it explicitly reveal prophesy like Daniel or Zechariah, or even provide pragmatic wisdom for godly living to the degree of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Rather, it appears to give us a mixture of all these things, mediated through the inner thoughts, emotions and lived experiences of people we have never met, often dealing with circumstances which we will never encounter, and asking questions which may never have crossed our minds. The cherry on top? We find this extraordinary breadth of content packaged in a poetic form which often requires more time and effort to comprehend than any other genre (except perhaps, for allegory-heavy prophecy as we might find in Revelation or Daniel).

However, I suggest that it is precisely the “unnecessary” poetic nature of the Psalter which uniquely enhances its theological message (the message being a mini theology of the Old Testament) and enables us to encounter the Author of that message. In fact, I suggest that reading and learning to love God’s poetry is absolutely essential to the pursuit of our highest calling and the obedience to God’s first & greatest commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul

and with all your mind.”[1]

In part one, we’ll take a brief walk through a few select Psalms to see: 1. What poetry actually accomplishes 2. How it impacts our theology and 3. Why it benefits God’s people.

In part two, we’ll see how the Psalter strengthens our understanding of revelation (that is, how God speaks to us) by 1. Showing us that God’s revelation is everlasting 2. That Jesus is the ultimate revelation and 3. Its purpose is for our relationship with him.

  1. What Poetry Accomplishes

First off, it’s important to clarify what we actually mean by “poetry”. After all, most literary genres use common devices like metaphor and hyperbole which we traditionally associate with the poetic form. Within the Old Testament however, the most consistent feature of Hebrew poems is the use of ‘parallelism’, in which an idea is established in the first line and repeated, contrasted, or otherwise emphasised by the following line(s).[2] To keep things simple, here are four key benefits of using parallelism which we’ll see in following examples: 1. It looks good! It serves a pleasing aesthetic function which gives poetry the ability to invoke emotion and cause the reader to respond to information. 2. Its rhetorical function can reinforce or even dramatize an argument. 3. It clarifies or adds additional meaning, sometimes subverting our expectations. 4. It structures poems through the use of repeated refrains or ideas, sometimes bookending (putting the same idea at the start and end) psalms with their key ideas/phrases.[3] Crucially, poetry is not defined merely by the presence of such devices, but the extent to which a text is characterised by them.[4] That is, the extent to which the Psalms liberate themselves from clinical description and strict economy of language. They enhance their message with poetic form so they can move beyond the presentation of bare facts to deeply expressive and evocative communication.[5]

For our first example, let’s consider the ‘voice of the Lord’. God’s voice is described in the Exodus narrative at Mount Sinai as sounding like a roaring thunder so powerful that Israel believed they would die if he ever spoke to them again.[6] It is one thing to simply receive this astounding fact, quite another to meditate on it as Psalm 29 does…

Over the course of this poem, we learn that the voice of the Lord thunders over many waters, is powerful and full of majesty, breaks the cedars of Lebanon, flashes in flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, makes the deer give birth and even strips the forests bare. While the narrative description of Exodus gives us pertinent information, helping us understand the gravity of Israel’s situation, the poetic abundance of metaphors in Psalm 29 metaphorically fleshes out the Lord’s voice to the point where we can almost feel our bones shake as we imagine standing directly beneath a thunderstorm decimating a forest. In other words, one account of the Lord’s voice tells you he is worthy of reverent fear, the other shows you. In this way, poetry demonstrates the power of creative language to stretch from the wilderness generation of Israel and encompass our own deeply personal experiences.[7] The effect of this power is that scripture helps the engaged reader to be moved in their entire being: ‘heart, soul and mind’ in praise of God. Try reading thoughtfully for yourself and consider what these descriptions of God’s voice are saying about him:

3The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
    the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
    and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

Excerpt from Psalm 29 (NIV)

2. How Poetry Impacts Theology

The Psalms are a “microcosm” of the message of the Old Testament[8] with their theological content spanning God’s covenant relationship with his people, the messiness of human life, and the need for forgiveness of sin and deliverance by God’s coming Messiah. These are all crucial topics, and it’s worth considering how the Psalms uniquely approach them. To that end you will best enjoy this article if you can see and read the psalms as we walk through them together!

Psalms 1 & 2 serve as the gateway to the psalter by framing their use and function in the context of obeying God’s law and living under his covenant reign.[9] The focus of Psalm 1 is the contrast between the righteous and the wicked. In vv.1-3 comparative parallels teach us that he who “delights” in God’s law is like a “tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in season and its leaf does not wither.”[10] The stacking of plant metaphors not only adds emphasis but demonstrates that God’s law is as life-sustaining to his people as water is to a tree. That is, living by God’s law is the natural course of life under which one can not only survive but thrive with ongoing nourishment!

Consider then the dramatic contrast of the wicked in v.4 who is like “chaff” driven by the wind.[11] This comparatively brief description of the wicked compliments the image of lifeless scraps of plant matter getting blown away in an instant. [12] Now, the reader is prepared for the following parallel which shows us the consequences of being ‘chaff’: “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” Psalm 1 graphically illustrates to us that as a well-watered tree to chaff, so the righteous will ultimately prosper and endure, while the ways of the wicked will perish, never to return.

This simple moral lesson prepares us for the ‘messianic’ Psalm 2 which speaks of the reign of the Lord and his ‘anointed’ (Israel’s king). By using synonymous parallelism (the same idea worded differently), the pair of rhetorical questions in v.1 are emphasised: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?”. This is jarring! it subverts any expectation that we would begin the poem with God. Instead, the writer confronts us with contempt and shock at the futile attempt of Israel’s enemies to overthrow her king.[13] The scandal is heightened by conveying the distance in honour and authority between the two parties with corresponding physical descriptions: the “kings of the earth” versus “he who sits in the heavens”.

However, strategic word repetition begins to alleviate the tension by telling us the Lord’s anointed will receive these ‘nations’ as his ‘heritage’; the ends of the ‘earth’ on which the kings rule will become his ‘possession’.[14] In contrast to Psalm 1, Psalm 2 describes the end of the wicked through a violent climactic parallel: they will be broken with a rod of iron and dashed in pieces like a potter’s vessel.[15] By doing this, Psalm 2’s conclusion powerfully reinforces Psalm 1’s teaching on the righteous and wicked while adding a new element: obedience to God involves faithfulness to his anointed king, one of whom will eventually inherit all the nations! For now, let’s see poetry at work in some other ways…

Examples of lament

The psalms of lament, deeply personal and emotional in their content, compromise the single largest category in the Psalter.[16] The classic lament commonly follows a pattern of invocation (appealing to God), complaint, profession (of trust in God), imprecation (calling for judgment on the wicked), and ends with praise.[17] This movement from sorrow and frustration to hope and relief in light of God’s intervention (or the hope thereof) takes the psalmist and his readers on a journey of honest self-examination, engagement with God, a desire for justice and responsive praise in light of his goodness.

It is through this deliberate, meditative process that we receive genuine comfort and strength to persevere in the midst of life’s trials. Whenever you face trouble, doubt or suffering, learning to properly express your lament through the Psalms will bring deep comfort to your soul! The psalms of lament teach us, through both their words and structures, how to pray and wrest control of even our darkest feelings, offering cathartic expression and preparing us for the comfort of God’s promises. Their words give us permission to express how things are or at least seem to be from our limited perspective. They halt our rush toward simplistic, pious or asinine responses which too quickly dismiss the pain of genuine grief and suffering ( “Well God has his reasons so I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end!”). Even when we suffer because of our own sin and desperately need forgiveness, king David’s cries in Psalm 51 show us this merciful process of lament remains effective.

Psalm 22 is one key example of learning to lament well as it opens with the shocking question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Stereotypical word pairs (my God, my God) and frequently paralleled ideas work across the psalms as well as within them to establish particular categories of thought or, in this case, subvert them completely.[18] For example, where we probably expected an outburst of blessing or praise,[19] here, repetition of the first-person “my God” evokes the desperation of intense sorrow and encourages those who read and sing Psalm 22 to identify with king David’s struggle and make it their own.[20] This first-person perspective is comparatively rare in standard prose and here demonstrates the unique power of poetry to engage and involve its reader.[21] At first, David feels forsaken, repeatedly pleading with God not to be “far” from him in what seems like a hopeless situation up to v.21.[22] Then, in a dramatic reversal, “praise” becomes the keyword from v.22 as he witnesses God transform his situation: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted.”[23]

This dramatic turnaround has profound implications. When Jesus takes these words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” on his own lips upon the cross (Matt 26:46), he shows us that his sacrificial death brings together an apparent paradox: the deepest sorrow and sense of abandonment, married to the fullness of hope in God to deliver and vindicate him in his hour of suffering. In Jesus, we are able to make sense of the fullest extremes of human experience and emotion because he embodied the perfect life of godly worship, lived out in a tragically fallen world. The fact that joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure all existed together within Jesus means we who are made in his image can move from confusion and despair to find sense and purpose in these emotions as we realise that our marred experience of sinful human life is moving according to God’s sovereign plan towards perfect restoration and renewal. As Jesus died and was raised to glory, so even facing death, we who know him might suffer, but do so with unshakable hope of our own resurrection which he has won for us. In light of a truth so worthy of celebration, let’s look at a Psalm which guides us in praise!

Examples of praise

Psalm 119 exemplifies the genre of praise and is perhaps the most technically impressive piece of poetic rhetoric in the Bible.[24] As an acrostic poem, the stanzas of Psalm 119 span the Hebrew alphabet as they declare love for God’s law; often bookending stanzas already permeated with this theme and creating a sense of the law’s complete sufficiency, from “aleph to taw”, or from “A-Z” as we might say in English![25] Within the poem itself, the seemingly endless but subtle variations on the same theme, executed with mathematical precision demonstrate the depth and extent to which we can delight in and praise God for the goodness of his revealed word.

Psalm 119 uniquely exemplifies the praising of God with heart, soul and mind by taking what could be stated in a couple of verses and lavishly expanding on them. By doing so, the psalmist highlights the inexhaustible treasure that is Yahweh’s law. In other words, this unique song is certainly not a creation of pure of “necessity”, rather, it arises from the author’s sincere heart for the appointed end of true joy in God: the overflow of the inner heart into outward praise.[26]

Despite the various tones and genres of the Psalms, it is significant that they designate themselves collectively as ‘praises’.[27] Whether we find ourselves in its highest peaks or deepest valleys, the Psalter captures our shared humanness and reorients our deepest thoughts to the worship of God.[28] Their range of experience echoes Israel’s often-fraught relationship with Yahweh, revealing a God who is not distant, and so merely declares how things ought to be, but instead meets his people in the messiness of where they really are. In the Psalms, we see the full range of human emotion stimulated by evocative poetry which enters through the gateway of our imagination;[29] from the comforting shepherd imagery of Psalm 23, which could be read as a lullaby to the sound of rustling trees or babbling brook, to the grieving mother whose bed is ‘flooded with tears’ over a lost child in Psalm 6. We may not inhabit the world of the psalmists, but they are able to draw us into that world, communicating their individual experiences with divinely inspired language which we can take hold of and use to make sense of our own lives.

3. Why Poetry Benefits God’s People

In short, one reason the Psalms possess such potential for growth in our love for God is because ‘music’ is an unparalleled tool for teaching and learning. The term “Psalm” indicates singing with musical accompaniment[30] and is evident from many of the individual psalms’ inscriptions.[31] Psalmic compositions set to music undoubtedly helped God’s people memorise their content over years of practice,[32] while the corporate nature of their performance enhanced their theological impact. Not only were worshippers taking personal responsibility for the words they sang; they were committing themselves to God’s word publicly as they encouraged, strengthened and held one another accountable.[33] Even those compositions designed for acapella performance are still imbued with internal rhythm and motion conducive to our internalisation of their message.

It’s no surprise then that poetry was a crucial tool for immortalising periods in Israel’s history. In turning accounts of these events into songs[34] they are now able to transcend mere historical facts to become lessons of God’s goodness written on his worshippers’ hearts in each new generation.[35] If we pause to consider the Psalms as a common means of experiencing God’s grace, it is impossible to know how many sins his people throughout history have repented of or even avoided entirely because their love of God’s holiness, catechised through poetry, convicted them in a way mere head-knowledge of his law had not. in other words, the divinely inspired poetry of the Psalms was often the vehicle through which God’s truth penetrated his people’s hearts.

The applications of the Psalms’ poetic nature could occupy much more space than this article can support. But for now, consider how our prayers to God could develop from a form that can honestly be a little repetitive, clichéd and feel like we’re simply ‘going through the motions’. Imagine cultivating a habit of rich, honest expression of our fears, doubts, hopes and joys before God that leaves us satisfied after prayer, rather than feeling like we’ve simply fulfilled a duty.

The Psalms give us so many words and tools to feel as well as think about our creator and saviour in the full range of life experiences available to us, because Jesus experienced them for us. The incarnate Son knows firsthand what it means to be fully human, and the very ‘human’ Psalms which point toward him are also fulfilled by him. Thus, to know Jesus’ songs more deeply is to know his heart more deeply. To sing, meditate and reflect on those songs more deeply, is to have our hearts more deeply transformed into his likeness. For the love of God, read his psalms!

In part two, we’ll see how the Psalter strengthens our understanding of revelation (that is, how God speaks to us) by 1. Showing us that God’s revelation is everlasting 2. That Jesus is the ultimate revelation and 3. Its purpose is for our relationship with him.

[1] Cf. Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37.

[2] Kugel rejects synthetic parallelism’s distinct nuances (explanatory, climactic etc). Regardless, parallelism is almost universally recognised as extremely flexible in its use and effects. G’aims Ḳugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), 2; 58.

[3] Alastair G. Hunter, An Introduction to the Psalms (T & T Clark approaches to biblical studies; London; New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 15–16.

[4] Alastair G. Hunter, An Introduction to the Psalms (T & T Clark approaches to biblical studies; London; New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 123.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007), 29–30.

[6] Cf. Ex 19:19; Deut 5:25.

[7] Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 29–30.

[8] Longman, T., III. How to Read the Psalms, Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Inter-Varsity Press (1988), 52.

[9] Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1) (Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament, 7.1.; S.l.: Pickwick Publications, 2021), 10–11.

[10] Psalm 1:3.

[11] Psalm 1:4.

[12] Bratcher, R.G. and Reyburn, W.D. A translator’s handbook on the book of Psalms. New York: United Bible Societies (UBS Handbook Series, 1991), 15.

[13] Bratcher & Reyburn, A translator’s handbook on the book of Psalms, 23.

[14] Psalm 2:8

[15] Psalm 2:9

[16] Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 138.

[17] Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1), 17.

[18] Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1), 36. See also the refrain of Psalm 136 subverted by Psalm 77:8.

[19] Psalm 63:1; 118:28.

[20] Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1), 18–20.

[21] Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 10.

[22] Psalm 22:1; 11; 19.

[23] Psalm 22:24.

[24] David Noel Freedman, Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah (Biblical and Judaic studies from the University of California, San Diego; Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 25.

[25] Freedman, Psalm 119, 28.

[26] Sam Storms, Praise: The Consumation of Joy, Desiring God, Nov 17, 2013 (accessed 02/08/22),

[27]Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1), 11.

[28] Psalm 104; 105, Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 74.

[29] Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1), 11.

[30] Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1), 12.

[31] “With stringed instruments”, Psalm 4, 6, 54, 55, 61.

[32] Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 204–5.

[33] Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 204–5.

[34] Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 93–95.

[35] Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 165.

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