How to Read the Psalms

“When we read the Psalms, we are meant to learn things about God and about human nature and about how life is to be lived. Some poetry makes no claim to instruct the mind. The Psalms do. They are meant to be instructive about God and man and life.”  -John Piper

The Psalms make up the largest book in the Bible.  There are over 150 of them.  Some are a couple of lines long; others are several pages long.  They are prayers in the form of songs and poems.  They are prayers that praise, thank, and even cry out in agony to God.  They cover every part of life and every emotion a person may go through from joy to discouragement.  If you are an Orthodox Christian or a Roman Catholic, they are incorporated into the hourly prayers of the church and at regular church services.  They have formed and to a large degree still form the basis for Christian worship either directly or through inspiring modern day songwriters with their material.

Yet, many feel threatened to read the Psalms because they are not a story like many of the other books of the Bible.  Also, a possibility why some may not read them is because they do not understand how to approach poetry in the Bible.  As English speakers, poetry for us means rhyme and meter, yet we do not see those features in the Psalms.  However, there is a poetic structure that regardless of language appears in the Psalms.  This structure can help us understand and be immersed in the beauty of the Psalms.  As a result we can begin viewing the world through the lenses of the Psalms and begin praying using the Psalms.  As a result, we will deepen our relationship with God.

An Example

To begin to understand the Psalms, we need an example.  Let’s use Psalm 1.

Psalm 1

“Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;

And whatever he does shall prosper.


The ungodly are not so,
But are like the chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.


For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.”


Image © Inge Wallumrød 2016

1. Parallelism

To begin to understand the Psalms, we must understand what the poetic structure of the Psalms is.  It is not rhyme nor meter, but it is a structure called parallelism.  What parallelism means is that the Psalms are written in couplets (two lines at a time).  These couplets can take three main forms; there are others forms, but the following three are the most common.

Synonymous Parallelism

Synonymous Parallelism means that in the couplet, the first line states a thought and the second line states the same thought in different words.

For example, verse 2 above says,

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.”

Delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating in the law mean the same thing.  This is because we are always thinking about what we delight in.  It could be a movie, our friends, our spouse or our children.  The Psalmist here says that the person who delights in the law, his delight is meditating on that law.  He equates delight and meditation.  This is an example of Synonymous Parallelism.

Antithetical Parallelism

A second type of common parallelism in the Psalms is Antithetical Parallelism.  This type of parallelism means that in the couplet, the first line states a thought, and the second line states an opposing idea.

Verse 6 above has an example of Antithetical Parallelism,

“For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.”

The Psalmist here is contrasting the righteous way, which God knows with the ungodly way, which shall end in death.  Since God is source of life, the righteous way is totally different from the way of the ungodly, which leads to death.  There can be no compromise between the two; it is either the way of God or the way of death.

Synthetic Parallelism

The third main poetic structure in the Psalms is Synthetic Parallelism.  This type of parallelism presents one thought in the first line of the couplet, then expands on and completes that thought in the second line.

Verse 3 above is an example of Synthetic Parallelism.  It has two couplets and ends with a final thought, and each one is expanding upon the previous line.

“He shall be like a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,

That brings forth its fruit in its season,
Whose leaf also shall not wither;

And whatever he does shall prosper.

The Psalmist compares the godly man with a tree, and then expands on that in the following line that it is a tree by a river of water.  If you have ever seen a tree planted by a river, they are always very thick, large, and strong.  Even if the river has receded or dried, the tree continues living.

The next two couplets expand further.  Those trees by rivers bear fruit (which are our virtues) and like observed above, that tree does not die.

The final thought is that the godly man will prosper in what he does.

Those are the three main types of parallelism.  If we have a basic understanding that the Psalms are written in couplets that are for the most part structured in one of the three types of parallelisms above, then we will begin to understand the Psalms.  With all that said, I would recommend you read the Psalms under pastoral guidance as you begin.  This will help you read the Psalms for the rest of your life.

2. Types

The next thing we need to bear in mind is that there are several types of Psalms.

Three common types are:


Many of the Psalms are songs of praise to God.  They express our joy of living with God.

An example is Psalm 100:1-2,

“Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before His presence with singing.”


In other Psalms, we often find an expression of gratitude toward God.

An example is Psalm 35:18,

“I will give You thanks in the great assembly;
I will praise You among many people.”


Then, sometimes life gets very hard.  People go through very hard times and grow up in tough circumstances.  It is a dark world out there.  Sadly, Western Christian churches, especially Protestant and non-denominational churches seem to be oblivious to this fact.  They try to have a feel-good environment and atmosphere all the time, and when a stark and sobering situation comes up, they are often totally ineffective in giving pastoral help and guidance for the people in these situations.  The people feel as if they have nowhere else left to go.  The Psalms, however, are often quite opposed to this type of feel-good thinking.  The Psalms often express grief, anger, loneliness, and even discouragement.  Up to 68 Psalms are laments or have laments in them expressing these types of emotions.

An example can be seen in Psalm 60:1,

“O God, You have cast us off;
You have broken us down;
You have been displeased;
Oh, restore us again!”

These negative emotions and the events which cause them are a reality.  They are not sins, and they should not cause people to feel ashamed, but like all other emotions like joy and gratitude, we should approach God with them, and bring Him into our lives when we have this pain.  The Psalms clearly did, and they did not shy away, since almost half the Psalms are laments.

Read them, and you will find comfort.

3. Figurative Language

The third thing we must bear in mind is that the Psalms are poetry, so they will use a variety of figures of speech.  Similes and metaphors are very common in the Psalms and they are intended to highlight points about the topics of which they sing.

In Psalm 1 above, there were two similes:

  1. The godly man was compared to a tree planted by rivers
  2. The ungodly man was compared to the chaff which the wind blows away.

The reason these figures of speech are incorporated into the Bible is for beauty and for helping keep our minds immersed in the Psalms and changing the way we think about the world.

A tree planted by rivers is green, tall, and strong with a wide thick canopy, and it produces rich fruit.  It is beautiful in every way.

Chaff, however, is the outer shell or covering of wheat or corn.  It is not desirable.  It is often thrown away after the wheat or corn is harvested.  Sometimes, it is given to farm animals.  It is kind of like comparing a plastic wrap that a product is wrapped in.  It is fit only to be thrown away.  Chaff is not desirable.

That is the difference between the godly man and the ungodly man.  It is quite a difference!  The Psalms help us think about this topic through the use of similes.

The Psalms are extremely rich.  They can change our lives and the way we view the world.  If we read 3 Psalms a day, then we can finish the entire book in a little under 2 months.  The results will be that our mindsets will change, our worldviews will change, our relationships with others will become better, our prayers will be more heartfelt, and our relationship with God will become deeper.

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