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3 Methods for Reading Psalms

Written by Joe Bartemus on

So, 2022 is well underway and I’m enjoying starting my year by reading Psalms. As part of my preparation for this year, I prayed for guidance in my daily time with the Lord in his Word during 2022.

Over the years, I have done many reading plans and enjoyed some more than others. In thinking over what I was to focus on this year, I came to the book of Psalms. I decided to read slowly though the psalms—diving a bit deeper into them as I did. It sounded like a “no brainer” for my devotional time. After all, everyone loves the Psalms, right?

Studying Psalms: Getting Started

I bought two new commentaries on Psalms to get started. One was by Dr. Jim Hamilton (a previous THINK conference speaker) and the other by Dane Ortlund. So far, I have found Hamilton’s commentary to be “deeper” and Ortlund’s as more of a short devotional. In reading both, I realized that there are many ways to look at the psalms.

On one extreme, you can “cherry-pick” the psalms by picking the ones that feel the most uplifting and positive. That can be helpful. I list my top ten psalms using that criteria and there are times in life when searching out specific psalms is helpful—we need to see the hope and positive reality of faith.

The other extreme is to study the historical background, original language, poetic structure and other wonderful but complex realities of Psalms. The psalms are indeed incredibly wonderful on a literary level, but your time in the psalms ought to be more than an academic endeavor.

So, how do you study Psalms? There are a few different approaches you can take. In this article, I aim to help you by sharing my views on methods of reading Psalms

Method #1: Pick your Favorite Psalm

As I mentioned above, one way to start reading Psalms is to pick your favorite passages or the ones that feel the most upbeat. As of this writing, my list of favorite psalms, from #9 to #1 (this list is not inspired) is:

  1. Psalm 146-150: I know this is technically more than one psalm, but they group so well together. These are praise psalms to the max. My wife is a music person and loves Psalm 150!
  2. Psalm 32: This is a great psalm of David that give hope for forgiveness to sinner like us.
  3. Psalm 119: I took an entire class in seminary on this huge psalm. It is full of poetic beauty and theological delight. The message is to get into the Word.
  4. Psalm 103: This psalm is often quoted to me by a friend who had brain damage and his memory is mostly gone. He cannot remember what he had for lunch on any given day, but he can recite “bless the LORD O my soul.” It warms my heart to hear him recite that psalm and it is now one of my favorites.
  5. Psalm 136: This psalm repeats the great Hebrew word, “kesed.” This word is translated as “mercy” in the KJV and “steadfast love” in many other translations. It fills us with wonder—the Lord is committed to his people, who often sin. He never, never let’s go!
  6. Psalm 19: Reading Psalm in its entirety is a great reminder of the beauty of creation which shows the glory of God. Reading Psalm 19 is no exception. I thought of it a lot when I visited the Grand Canyon last fall. In addition to expressing the beauty of creation, Psalm 19 also portrays the delight one receives from the nourishment of God’s Word. It’s a reminder that we should love to see a beautiful sunset and a beautiful portion of Scripture.
  7. Psalm 100: This psalm is short but sweet. Growing up, we had an annual church service on the morning of Thanksgiving. It was the best service of the year, and it was anchored in a reading from Psalm 100.
  8. Psalm 23: This was on all the lists I saw online, and for a good reason. I use Psalm 23 in all the funerals I officiate and I hope it is at my funeral if the Lord calls me home before he returns. It is a wonderful poem.
  9. Psalm 139: I memorized Psalm 139 in fourth grade—just a few years ago. . .I still remember it fondly! “Where can I go from your presence?” This song is such an exalted presentation of the glory of God and his care for his people. I will quote parts of this when I wake up unexpectedly at night and find it so helpful.

While these are the top nine, I must say that honorable mentions go to Psalm 8, Psalm 22, Psalm 27, Psalm 42, Psalm 51, Psalm 73, Psalm 84, Psalm 90, Psalm 91, and Psalm 121.

Method #2: Do a Deep Dive in the Book of Psalms

The second method I recommend for reading Psalms is to read all 150 of the individual psalms in order.

In order to understand why this is helpful, we need to understand the structure of the psalms. There is an intentionality in their order and structure. Without going into detail (I am no psalm expert, for sure), here are a few important structural realities of Psalms:

  • Psalms is made up of five books
  • These books could be described as (taken from Dr. Hamilton):
    • Book 1: The suffering of David (Ps. 1-41)
    • Book 2: The reign of David (Ps. 42-72)
    • Book 3: The end of David’s reign (Ps. 73-89)
    • Book 4: Moses intercedes for the Davidic covenant (Ps. 90-106)
    • Book 5: The conquest of the future Davidic king (Ps. 107-150)
  • Each psalm should be read in the context of the other psalms around it. Look for similar words and read the subscripts if there is see a setting of the psalm.
  • Do not overlook the more challenging psalms which describe hardships and struggles (Pastor Vroegop helps with that in his book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy)
  • Look for New Testament quotes of psalms to see how the apostles read these psalms; there are well over a hundred quotations and allusions from Psalms in the New Testament.
  • Use an interlinear Hebrew/English work to see how the Hebrew is constructed.

Method #3—Hybrid of Devotional & Deep Study

Using your time with the Lord to do a devotional and deep study hybrid—they should go together—is “in” now—I think. . . I really do not know what is “in,” but I have a hybrid car and hybrid golf clubs, so I suppose I’m somewhat on trend.

In any case, a hybrid study model can be helpful! Here is a suggested combination of devotional and deeper study of the book of Psalms.

  1. Read Psalms in order and slowly meditate.
  2. Allow the Spirit to speak to you in his Word.
  3. Utilize a good devotional—there are many good ones, but I personally recommend In the Lord I Take Refuge, by Dane Ortlund. It is a short, daily devotional designed to reach our hearts while not ignoring the deep truths of Psalms.
  4. Focus on three key things as you read (as advised by Dr. Hamilton):
    1. List the characters in the psalm
    2. Notice key words—pick out some words to follow in all the psalms (Ex. “kesed,” LORD or Lord, temple, thanks, joy, hope, suffering, pain, oppression)
    3. Pull out key themes in the psalm (or application)—I have seen the themes of praise, forgiveness, hope suffering, joy, etc.

Conclusion

There is so much more that can be said about Psalms. These are just a few items that have encouraged me so far in 2022.

In Psalm 22, I recently read David’s anguish as he cried out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In previous psalms, David had described many dangers, toils, and snares—the pinnacle of suffering and the type of suffering Jesus endured for us.

Despite his pain, though, David ends this psalm with great hope: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (v.27) This is an acknowledgment of the greater suffering and resurrection that was to come, and this good news is hope for all people.

Soli Deo Gloria—to God be the glory! The Psalms screams it for all to hear.

Joe Bartemus

Joe serves as the Pastor for Theological Development & Shepherding at  Crosspointe Community Church in Greenwood, Indiana. There, he is also an elder and has been a part of the church since it was first adopted into the College Park Family of Churches. Joe is passionate about helping people to know God in his Word by his Spirit.

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