The Psalter has found massive popularity with Christians and non-Christians alike. The psalms have been sung, chanted, memorized, and meditated on by God’s people, and others, for thousands of years. Simply put, the psalms are beautiful poems that speak to the soul and aid the soul in speaking to God. Whether the soul needs a medium for expressing sorrow, grief, joy, or thanksgiving, the psalms act as a conduit between the heart of man and the heart of God. In its vastness, the Psalter is simultaneously a plentiful harvest of healing balms and a difficult river to navigate. Many people struggle to read the psalms simply because there are so many and because they are so diverse. As a result, some psalms find their way into popularity, like Psalm 23 and Psalm 51, while others reside in anonymity, like Psalm 87.
There is, however, a way to narrow down the psalms to help match them to the rhythms of life. Just as modern songs can be classified into genres—the blues, jazz, pop—these ancient songs can be classified into genres as well. Many genres have been proposed, ranging from dividing the psalms into just a few categories to dividing them into dozens of categories. Perhaps, though, classifying them into just a few categories will be of the most help in syncing the psalms with daily life. Mark Futato suggests three genres that do just that. He proposes that the psalms can generally fall into three categories: 1) Hymns, for when all is well. 2) Laments, for when something is wrong. 3) Thanksgiving, for when what is wrong has been set right.
Hymns are those psalms with praise God for his goodness. They follow the movement of life when all is well. The hymn generally follows a pattern of 1) an invitation to praise God because all is well, 2) praise of God for who he is and what he has done, 3) and an affirmation of fidelity to God or a final invitation to praise God.
Psalm 29 provides a helpful example of a hymn. The psalm begins with an invitation to praise God (29:1-2). In this case, the invitation is to the heavenly beings. Following the invitation to praise God comes praise for who God is and what God has done (29:3-10). Here, the psalmist praises God with vibrant figurative language, both for his nature and for his works. The hymn closes with an affirmation of God’s goodness in the form of a benediction or petition (29:11).
The lament mirrors the movement of life when something is wrong. In this movement, the psalm begins more negatively and ends more positively, as does the book of Psalms as a whole. Laments generally follow the pattern of (1) an address, identifying God as the recipient of the psalm, (2) the complaint, where the writer identifies the object of trouble, (3) an expression of trust in God, (4) a cry for deliverance, (5) an expression of assurance in God’s ability to deliver, and (6) an offering of praise to God for his goodness.
This form can be seen in Psalm 3. The psalmist immediately addresses Yahweh (3:1), expresses the complaint (3:2), expresses confidence in God along with a cry for deliverance (3:3-6), gives assurance that God will indeed deliver him (3:7), and ends the psalm with an offering of praise (3:8).
Thanksgiving psalms express thanks for when wrongs have been righted. This setting right of wrong is always attributed to God. These psalms generally have three sections: (1) giving thanks, (2) remembrance of past help in time of need, and (3) a final expression of thanks. Futato points out that the middle section may include content that appears to be a lament, so psalms of thanksgiving can be confused with psalms of lament.
Psalm 30 is an example of a psalm of thanksgiving. The psalmist begins by giving thanks (30:1) and immediately shifts into the middle section, where the psalmist not only remembers the past difficulty, but also the past help provided by Yahweh (30:2–10). This section is the lengthiest part of the psalm. If one were to skim over verse one, he or she might think that this is a lament psalm. However, the lament is actually remembering a lamentable situation with the goal of highlighting the outcome of God’s character in action coming to the rescue. Finally, the psalmist gives final praise to God (30:11-12).
While the psalms can, and should, be read with meaning as a collection, each psalm carries significant individual meaning. This is one reason that psalms should be read individually, instead of reading multiple psalms in a row. In order to connect to the specific sub-genre represented by the psalm, the psalm needs to stand alone. As such, the sub-genres help us grasp the meaning of the psalm, both through its function and its form. The sub-genres of the hymn, lament, and thanksgiving psalms help readers relate the psalms to each corresponding movement in their own lives.
So read the psalms, pray the psalms, memorizing the psalms, sing the psalms, and meditate on the psalms—do this in every season of life because the psalms are made to match every rhythm of your life. When all is well, read and pray and sing a hymn psalm. When something is wrong, let the lament psalms channel your response. When God makes your wrongs right, join in with thousand before you in reveling in a psalm of thanksgiving. This, in part, is why God gave us the psalms.
For more on the Psalms, see the following:
Mark D. Futato, “Psalms,” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, ed. Miles Van Pelt (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016)
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002)