Reading the Bible the Way It’s Written: Psalms

Doxologies, Laments, and Songs of Trust

Psalm 41
Psalm 72
Psalm 89:46-52
Psalm 106:6-8, 34-48
Psalm 150

Laments, also called Entreaties
Psalm 7
Psalm 12
Psalm 22:1-7, 25-31, An Individual Entreaty
Psalm 44
Psalm 56
Psalm 64
Psalms 74, A Collective Entreaty; Job 7; John 20:24-25
Psalm 79:1-9, A Collective Entreaty
Psalm 80, A Collective Entreaty
Psalm 86, An Individual Entreaty
Psalm 130:1-8, An Individual Entreaty

Songs of Trust
Psalm 4
Psalm 23
Psalm 27

More Psalms

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Psalm 41, Doxologies (4/10/17)

We already know that in order to understand each biblical writer’s intent, we must learn to recognize history as history, prophecy as prophecy, and so on for each type of writing. This study looks at a common type of literature, songs. Songs are found throughout the Bible, but they are concentrated in the book of Psalms.

When was the last time you sang a Christmas carol on the Fourth of July or played a march on Christmas? No, you sing Christmas carols around Christmas, and you listen to patriotic songs on the Fourth of July. Many of you read a psalm every day – which is great, more power to you! – but when we read them, we should be aware that not all psalms are intended for all occasions.

Psalms is actually a hymnal that includes several different kinds of songs for both public and private worship. It is divided into five books, which we’re going to call “booklets,” and each of the five booklets ends with a doxology. Now, you already know that a doxology is a hymn, typically brief, of praise to God.

The first booklet in Psalms ends with Psalm 41, and Psalm 41 ends with a doxology, “May the Lord God of Israel be praised, through eternal days and for ever. So be it. So be it. “

As a side note, the Bible in Basic English seems to me to do a lovelier job on the psalms than any other modern translation that I have read.

Psalm 72, Doxologies (4/11/17)

As far as I know, most churches sing a doxology on most Sundays. Doxologies often go something like this:
“Doxology” means “word of glory.” Doxologies glorify God, and any brief statement that glorifies God is a doxology. The second booklet of Psalms ends with Psalm 72, and Psalm 72 ends with “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, the only doer of wonders. Let the Lord be praised for ever. So be it, So be it.” (Verse 20 is a kind of footnote; it comments on the text, not on God.)

So what’s the deal with “So be it. So be it” in the Bible in Basic English? Amen is a Hebrew word that means so be it. It indicates agreement with what has just been said, which is why we say, “Amen, brother!” “Amen, Amen” indicates fervent agreement. Amen is found in only four verses in the Psalms, and guess what? Those four verses are in four of the five doxologies ending the booklets. We affirm the truth that God is glorious, and how else would we end a book of songs about God and our relationship with God?

Psalm 89:46-52, Doxologies (4/12/17)

The third booklet in Psalms ends with Psalm 89 and the doxology, “Let the Lord be praised for ever. Amen, Amen.”

Meantime, back in vs. 48, there’s a mysterious word: selah. This Hebrew word occurs 74 times – 71 times in the psalms, and 3 times in the prophet Habakkuk. Nobody knows what it means. I don’t mean that I don’t know what it means; I mean that nobody knows what it means. In translation, “selah,” that is, no translation at all, seems to be the most common choice. Omitting it entirely is another popular option. Some scholars speculate that it is a musical instruction meaning “pause,” and the Jerusalem Bible, for one, has that. Others speculate that it might be a musical instruction that means “musical interlude,” and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that one somewhere, too. The Amplified Bible says, “[pause, and calmly think about that].”

Now, I actually don’t recommend the Amplified Bible, because it puts in a lot of stuff that isn’t in the Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible, making it difficult to know what really is in the Bible. In this case, however, I think the advice is good, even if the translation isn’t. It will never hurt you, while you are reading any part of the Bible, to pause, and calmly think about that.

Psalm 106:6-8, 34-48, Doxologies (4/13/17)

Most of Psalm 106 is a review of the bad behavior of the Jews from the time of Moses through the time of the judges. Parts of the psalm remind the Jews (and all of us) that their (and our) ancestors sinned and had to return again and again to God, who took them back. The beginning and end praise God and ask him to take us back again! The very last verse is the doxology that ends the fourth booklet, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting, and let all the people say: ‘Amen.’ Hallelujah.”

We often hear “hallelujah” used to mean, “That was lucky!” or “I’m glad about that!” In fact, “hallelu yah” is two words in Hebrew. Hallelu in a song means praise!, sing!, shout! Yah is one of the names of God that we looked at before. This booklet ends with a doxology that glorifies God’s eternal nature, affirms the truth of God’s glory (amen/so be it), and commands us to praise God (hallelu Yah/praise God).

Psalm 150, Doxologies (4/14/17)

Psalms 143 through 150 are my favorites, and Psalm 150 is my “most favorite.” Each of the first four booklets in the book of Psalms ends with a one- or two-verse doxology, but the earlier part of each song is about something else. The last psalm is a doxology in its entirety. In the whole song there is nothing but praise for God – and the instruction to us to praise God. Hallelu Yah! Praise the Lord!

Psalm 7, Laments, also called Entreaties (4/17/17)

Sometimes we are sad or mad or bad, and we just don’t feel like singing a happy song. The book of Psalms includes songs for just those times. Individual or collective Laments, also called Entreaties, describe the misfortunes of the psalmist or the nation and ask for God’s help.

Psalm 7 is an individual lament. I’m not certain what the occasion was, but David is feeling very put upon, because, he says in vss. 1-5, he didn’t do anything to deserve the treatment he’s getting! In the rest of the psalm, he calls upon God to rescue him from his haters and to give wrongdoers their just deserts. This is a good lament for times when you absolutely know you are in the right. Since I often fall into the category of “wrongdoer” myself, I’m hoping for mercy more than for my just deserts.

Psalm 12, Laments, also called Entreaties (4/18/17)

I personally would call Psalm 12 more of a “whine” than a “lament.” Even so, I like the way the first four verses about the lying words of people are placed in contrast to the last four verses about the true words of the Lord.

In many psalms, there are words at the beginning of verse 1 that are not, strictly speaking, a part of the song. Typically they give musical directions, authorship, or an explanation of the circumstances in which the song was written. Some include the hymn tune that the words should be sung to (of course, we no longer have those tunes). In this psalm, for example, we see that it is written for the chief musician and is to be played on the sheminith, or eight-stringed harp. Some translations just put in Hebrew words like sheminith. Yesterday’s psalm was labeled a shiggaion, or rambling poem, and we learned that David was lamenting the words of Cush the Benjamite, whoever he was.

Since the words are actually in the Hebrew and Greek Psalms, most translations include them. They may leave in some of the Hebrew words, like sheminith, as in the King James Version or the Bible in Basic English, or they may translate them, as when the International Standard Version says, “To the Director: On an eight stringed harp.” Some translations leave these notes out altogether, e.g., the Good News Bible begins with “Help us, LORD!” Some translations don’t use bold or italic lettering, so you need to learn to recognize the musical directions for what they are, maybe pause briefly (Selah!), and then read the song beginning where the song truly begins.

Psalm 22:1-7, 25-31, An Individual Entreaty (5/4/09)

From Abraham onwards, the Jews recognized that the message of salvation given to them was not for them alone. They were "blessed to be a blessing." Even though they frequently forgot the part about "being a blessing," as we also routinely forget, the Old Testament overflows with references to God's eventual Lordship over all the peoples of the earth.

The prophets – including David – predicted that not all of the Jews would participate in God's plan for them, and unfortunately this turned out to be the case. First the ten tribes of Samaria fell into apostasy and were lost to the kingdom of God, and later most members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin fell away as well. Only a tiny remnant remained loyal to God – but from this seed the Jewish nation continued to grow and eventually brought forth the Messiah. His righteousness was and is declared to the new people that has been born from the Jews for both the Jews and the Gentiles: the Christians.

Psalm 44, Laments, also called Entreaties (4/19/17)

Psalm 44 is a collective lament: “our ears,” “our fathers,” “we will overcome,” “our savior,” and so on. The first eight verses remind God of the great things he has done for his people in the past; that doesn’t sound much like a lament so far, does it? Pause. Then come vss. 9-26: But lately, O God, we don’t see you doing anything for us! We’re in trouble over here! Wake up! That’s the lament and entreaty.

The sons of Korah were a prominent family of singers and worship leaders under David and Solomon (see 1 Chronicles 6:31-32, 37; 9:19). Psalms 42, 44 – 49, 84, 85, 87, and 88 are all for “the sons of Korah.” Presumably they were used in worship services. A maschil is a poem for contemplation or teaching, depending on who you ask.

I should point out that when you see these Hebrew words at the beginning of a psalm, you can just search for “{word} definition” online. You’ll usually get more than one definition, but at least you’ll be able to tell whether the word indicates a person (Korah), a kind of song (maschil), or a kind of instrument (sheminith).

Psalm 56, Laments, also called Entreaties (4/20/17)

Here’s another individual lament from David. The introduction gives the occasion: “When the Philistines took him in Gath,” although I can’t tell whether this is referring to 1 Samuel 21 or to 1 Samuel 27. Six psalms are labeled michtam, but no one seems to know exactly what it means, other than some kind of song.

Last Sunday we sang “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which is usually sung to the hymn tune Beecher; however, a note in the bulletin said, “Tune: HYFRYDOL.” Practically everyone was familiar with the tune Hyfrydol, so we had no trouble singing the hymn, even though the notes were not what was in the hymnal for that song! Some hymn tunes you just recognize and sing. Psalm 56 is one of the songs for which the ancient hymn tune is specified; Jonath elem rehokim means roughly, “A Silent Dove Far Away.” We no longer know what that tune was, but the people who originally sang this psalm would have recognized it and sung it without any trouble.

Psalm 64, Laments, also called Entreaties (4/21/17)

This song brings to God’s attention those who are speaking evil against David. We certainly know that rumor and innuendo can be as damaging to a politician’s career as the politician’s own wrongful acts. David, as the king of Israel, probably came in for his share of such rumor and innuendo, particularly since some of his actions and those of his family deserved public condemnation. The best we can do is keep our tongues still about others, and try to behave in such a way that no one believes bitter words about us. If we fail on either front, this individual lament is the one for us.

Psalms 74, A Collective Entreaty; Job 7; John 20:24-25 (9/23/11)

Asaph says, “You’re God! You shouldn’t let people get away with scoffing at you, especially if they’re my enemies!” Job says, “You’re God! What harm can it possibly do to you if I sin? Why should you even care?”

The answer is Jesus’ answer to Thomas: “Here – see for yourself how much I love you.” That’s the point at which Thomas says, “You’re God!” God can’t bear to be separated from us by sin, which is why sin makes God angry and provokes punishment. God can’t bear to be separated from us by doubt, which is why doubt is met by gracious reassurance.

Psalm 79:1-9, A Collective Entreaty See Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 for comments.

Psalm 80, A Collective Entreaty (5/5/09)

One of the most beautiful symbols of the people of Israel is the grapevine or vineyard. Generally speaking, the passages that talk about the vineyard have three motifs:
We see all of three of these motifs in today's psalm.

You have to give the Israelites credit, though. When they fowled up and are being punished, they don't whine. They confess, they ask for forgiveness, and they express confidence that when they turn back to God, God will receive them. Note carefully the wording of the refrain: "Turn us again, O God." When we are separated from God, God is not the one who has turned away. We turned away, and God is gracious to turn us back.

See Isaiah 5:1-7 for additional comments on Psalm 80.

Psalm 86, An Individual Entreaty, Rejoice the soul of thy servant, O Lord. (11/18/09)

David wrote many psalms in a wide variety of styles.  Monday we read a psalm he wrote for a celebration; today's psalm is quieter and more thoughtful.  "Compassionate and merciful, long-suffering, slow to anger, and full of mercy and truth" is one of the most frequent descriptions of God's character to be found in the Bible.

Remember from our previous study that LORD is written in place of God's holy name, whereas Lord is written where the Hebrew has "lord" in the sense of "master."

Psalm 130:1-8, An Individual Entreaty

During Passover, Jews and Gentile believers streamed into Jerusalem from all parts of the civilized western world.  Even today, a Passover feast held anywhere else ends with the words, "Next year in Jerusalem!"  A Song of Ascents is one that is sung during the climb up Mount Zion and into the Holy City.

Psalm 4, A Song of Trust (4/21/09)

Songs of trust are similar to entreaties, except that they say, "O God, I know you will help me," rather than "Help me, O God!"

What does your Bible say in the first part of Psalms 4:4? The Hebrew word ragaz/tremble, is variously translated in this verse as "Tremble," "Stand in awe," "Be moved with anger," "Be angry," "Tremble with fear," and even "However angry your hearts," depending on which translation you are reading. Ragaz means tremble, shake, or quiver, and when it's applied to people, it seems to mean "tremble with some unspecified strong emotion." Many translators prefer to specify the emotion.
Let's look at the context a little bit. David says, "Ragaz and turn from your sins. Silently search your heart as you lie in bed. Offer the proper sacrifices and trust the LORD." Imagine silently searching your own heart as you lie in bed, in the dark, just you and God. You contemplate your sins. I don't know about you, but at this point I might be angry. How on earth could I have been so stupid, or so careless, or so cruel, or so ... ? I might tremble with anger about my sins.
Back to your own contemplation. You decide to give up your sins. Now what? Can the unholy me possibly be accepted back into the presence of a holy God? Ouch! Probably you are a less sinful person than I am, but I have reason to tremble in fear.
OK, over to you again. You offer sacrifices of repentance, and you trust God, because you know that Jesus came to save you, and has saved you and cleansed you from your sins. That is awesome! That makes me tremble with awe.
So overall, I think the translators who specify the emotion are cheating you out of some of the content of this wonderful psalm about sin, repentance, and the goodness of God.

Psalm 23, A Song of Trust (2007)

Domestic sheep are completely dependent on the people who take care of them.  There are feral horses – that is, wild horses who descend from domestic horses that escaped from their owners.  There are feral cattle, feral goats, feral pigs, feral donkeys, feral dogs, feral cats, and feral ducks and chickens, but to the best of my knowledge, there are no feral sheep.*   Sheep cannot survive without someone to take care of them.  The Bible says that we are sheep, and the LORD is our shepherd. 

* It turns out that there are a few feral-sheep populations, primarily on islands with no predators.
There are also a couple species of wild sheep, which isn't what I was talking about. (1/29/13)

Psalm 23, A Song of Trust (4/28/09)

An email making the rounds says that a Sunday School teacher decided to have her young class memorize one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, Psalm 23. She gave the youngsters a month to learn the chapter. Little Rick was excited about the task, but he just couldn't remember the Psalm. After much practice, he could barely get past the first line. On the day that the kids were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Ricky was so nervous. When it was his turn, he stepped up to the microphone and said proudly, 'The Lord is my Shepherd, and that's all I need to know.'

David knew that just as he was the shepherd who took care of his father's flocks and protected them from lions and bears, the LORD was the shepherd who cared for him and protected him from human predators. The LORD was David's shepherd, and that was all he needed to know.

Psalm 27, A Song of Trust (10/20/11)

We had a nice young man doing some work in our home the other day. (Have you noticed that the “nice young men” are getting older? They used to be in their early twenties, but now they’re in their late thirties. I don’t know what’s going on.)

Anyway, the conversation came round to church, and he said he often goes to two or three different churches to attend worship on a Sunday. He said he “just doesn’t feel right” if he doesn’t go to church. He’s got a lot in common with David, who says his main request is that he be allowed to dwell in the house of the LORD every day.

More Psalms
Psalms – Doxologies, Laments, and Songs of Trust
Psalms – Thanksgivings and Hymns
Psalms – Royal Psalms and Others

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