This is a book of prayers, and it is fitting that it should be literally in center of the Bible and is one of its longest books (with its longest (119) as well as its shortest (117) “chapter”), since what is more important to a believer than prayer, and what can be more valuable to him than models of how to pray? Good prayer habits can help cultivate faith. My pocket New Testament also contains the Psalms, alone among the books of the Old Testament, and in annual Bible studies a psalm is commonly included every day — and other folks make it a point to pray their way regularly through the Pslams, whether they’re trying to read the rest of the Bible at the same time or not. It is unusual among books of the Bible to recognize within in it multiple authors who wrote over a long period of time, nearly a thousand years. We all need to pray, always.
All that said, it would be foolhardy for me to attempt much in terms of summarization or commentary. I do have a separate post here on Robert Alter’s fine translation and commentary on the book — it does little more than endorse it — and I will likewise simply endorse C.S. Lewis’s book Reflections on the Psalms.
A short digression that’s not really a digression: Can there be a wrong way to pray? Sure. God should not be mocked or otherwise spoken to disrespectfully, even if He can be questioned and, certainly, complained to. We should be frank with Him, no matter how bad it makes us look; don’t lie or pretend to God. As I’ll discuss later in this post, that means that we can say things to Him that reveal our deepest feelings and that indeed in some cases we should not say to anyone else, understanding that in doing so this does not legitimate those feelings.
Psalms is explicitly divided into five parts, and some assert that there is a correspondence with the five books of the Pentateuch; I’m skeptical, though I’ll note that Psalms 105 and 106 are a summary of sorts of Genesis and Exodus. There are, in any event, a variety of ways to classify the psalms, quite beyond the standard ways of classifying prayers, each of which — adoration (the title of the book in Hebrew is “Praises”), confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (spelling, “ACTS”) — is represented. The Psalms teach that prayer can be intensely individual or communal. We can pray for ourselves, or some other person, or our communities. We can ask for forgiveness (I have to note here that, on the other hand, Psalm 26 is eye-opening in its theme, “I have led a blameless life”). I won’t belabor the various classifications possible, but when I googled this the variety quickly became apparent from the sites that popped up — for example:
Discusses the Pentateuch correspondence: http://www.muncherian.com/DivisionsofPsalms.pdf;
Generally good discussion: http://biblehub.com/psalms/
Interesting format: http://www.swartzentrover.com/cotor/Bible/Bible/OT/Poetry/Psalms/Classification%20of%20the%20Psalms.htm
Different from the usual: https://gospelsnippets.blogspot.com/p/the-psalms-topical-classification.html
Greatest detail: http://www.angelfire.com/adazio/page37.html
And my NIV study Bible discusses the purported Pentateuch correspondence, and also contains interesting sidebars on “Christ in the Psalms” (I wonder, by the way, if many of the “royal psalms” are put by Christians into this category), “Psalms That Have Inspired Hymns,” and “Anger and Vengeance in the Book of Psalms.”
That last sidebar brings us to an important “genre” point. One should not conclude that the texts here are normative in the sense of endorsing as moral all the sentiments expressed. In a prayer we can share our emotions with God, but what we feel is not necessarily true or right. Thus, when the psalmist (in number 137, one of the “imprecatory” psalms) endorses dashing out the brains of the Babylonian babies, this doesn’t mean it would be right for God, let alone us, to do so. As my NIV study Bible also notes:
Prayer is human communication with God. Psalms could be described as a collection of song-prayers. Probably the most striking feature of these prayers is their unedited honesty. The words often express our own feelings — feelings that we would prefer no one, much less God, ever knew. Making these psalms our prayers can teach us a great deal about how God wants us to communicate with him. Too often we give God a watered-down version of our feelings, hoping we won’t offend him or make him curious about our motives. As we use the psalms to express our feelings, we learn that honesty, openness, and sincerity are valuable to God.
Perhaps there should be a fifth category of prayer (in addition to the four in the ACTS acronym): simply crying out. There’s a stumbling block point here: We can say things to God that we should not say to anyone else, lest they succumb to the weaknesses we express. We can look at the imprecatory psalms as quasi-confessional: “God, let me tell you how I feel, how angry I am, how I hate my enemies, how I want them to be destroyed.” Note that sometimes the prayer’s state of mind has changed rather dramatically by the end (e.g., Psalm 22). And there’s an additional, somewhat related, genre point here: The psalms are poetry, and so perhaps some poetic license is to be allowed (by the way, C.S. Lewis noted the great poetry of Psalm 19, and I’ll note the power of Psalm 104 as well).
Finally, I should note that there is much mention of enemies in this book, and not just in the imprecatory psalms. Presumably this could sometimes be interpreted to include Satan and his demons, though I don’t recall them being mentioned directly.
P.S. I noted this in reading N.T. Wright’s biography Paul (45): “The scriptures, not least the Psalms, had made it clear that this God could be trusted to sort things out in the end, to be true to his promises, to vindicate his people at last, even if it had to be on the other side of terrible suffering.”