Understanding the Psalms… Types of Literature part 4 (31 Days to Better Understanding the Bible) {Day 10}

I was hoping to post this sooner— but we were on a little family getaway here (a couple hours drive from our home):

A few of you have emailed… wanting to know a bit more about me. I am a mom to three little ones— ages 6 (girl), 4 (girl), and 2 (boy). They keep me very busy! So though I’d like to post more frequently, sometimes it is hard to find time to sit down and write. Here I am below, with my husband of 7 years (we met when he showed up at my house for a church small group- about 10 years ago):

And now I’ll get on with the post. :-)


The Psalms (the word Psalms means “a song sung to the accompaniment of a plucked instrument”) were written and complied over a period of about 1,000 years. They were written by a number of authors— 75 by King David, 12 by Asaph— a priest who lead the musical worship services, ten were by the sons of Korah— a guild of singers and composers, two were by Solomon, one was by Moses, one by Heman, one by Ethan, and the remaining 50 are anonymous— though some are attributed to Ezra.

“Because of their broad chronological and thematic range, the psalms were written to different audiences under many conditions. They therefore reflect a multitude of moods and as such are relevant to every reader.” (The Wilkinson and Boa Bible Handbook)

Historically they were used as temple hymnals and devotional guides for the Jewish people. There are several different types of psalms— but they have a common theme of worshiping God. The type of the Psalm refers to a group of texts similar in their emotion, content, or structure. They are flexible— a psalm can be part of more than one style.

The types of Psalms are:

1. Praise Psalms— A description of the nature and qualities of God (for example, Psalms 146-150).

2. Lament— Expression of sorrow or regret. They are a cry out to God in great distress. The author is honest about his frustration. They usually include a petition, a description of distress, and an expression of trust. (Examples are Psalms 44, 74, 79, 80, 137).

3. Penitential Psalms—  The Psalmist asking forgiveness for his own unrighteousness and failure. (Examples are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143.)

4. Messianic Psalms— They predict the Messiah, the “anointed one”, the coming king, priest, and prophet. (Examples are 2, 8, 16, 22, 31, 40, 45, 69, 72, 89, 102, 109, 110, 132.)

5. Wisdom (proverb)— These psalms emphasize a contrast in ways of living which bring about different consequences. Also they teach that through prayer and praise men can approach God and live by faith and obedience to the law. (Examples 1, 19:7-14, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 133, 139.)

6. Historic Psalms— Psalms with specific settings. You will be able to identify these by their titles (see more on titles below). (Examples 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142.)

7. Social Psalms or Psalms of Remembrance— The history of Israel and God’s past acts of redemption are the focus. Also speaks of the origin, nature and purpose, and destiny of man. These lead to thanksgiving or supplication. (Examples 78, 105, 106, 135, 136.)

8. Imprecatory Psalms— Crying out to God for justice for the failure of other men, prayer for the defeat and overthrow of the wicked. (Examples 35, 59, 69, 109.)

If you open your Bible to the Psalms, you will notice that some have titles such as “A Maskil of David, When He Was In the Cave. A Prayer.” (Psalm 142) Unlike other paragraph titles found throughout the Bible which were not part of the original text but were added in later by publishers, these titles were part of the original text so they are considered “inspired”— or part of the Word. These titles— in some cases—  tell the authorship, occasion for writing— any history, literary style,  musical instructions, and aim/purpose of the psalm. The different literary styles you will come across in the titles and their meanings are:

  • Psalm (mizmor): written to a well-known tune with musical accompaniment, composed for a specific occasion.
  • Song of Ascents (shir ha ma’alot): A group of songs sung while going to feasts in Jerusalem.
  • Maskil: Didactic or meditative, intended to teach or make one wise (wisdom literature).
  • Miktam: “Golden Psalms” silent prayer for atonement or expiation. All are laments.
  • Prayer (tefillah)
  • Song of Praise
  • Testimony (edut)
  • Shiggaion: An expression of emotion and grief.
  • Unclassified (some are not defined.)

A few benefits of  The Psalms

~The Psalms reveal the character of God. For example, in Psalm 23 we learn about God as shepherd, comforter, guide.  As you read a Psalm, look for what it teaches you about who God is.

~ The Psalms teach doctrine in a different way— not by presenting anything new but by supporting doctrine found elsewhere in Scripture.

~ The Psalms teach us to relate to God honestly and should draw out emotions.

~The Psalms demonstrate the importance of reflection and meditation upon who God is and what he has done.

When reading the Psalms, remember that they are poetry, so read them as such. Lots of symbolic language is used.

Some things to try when reading the Psalms

~Meditate through a Psalm.  Meditating means taking time to read through the psalm several times, thinking about what you are reading (or better yet, if you have it memorized you can think through it while you go about your day!) Here are some questions to help guide your thinking:

  • What is the major theme?
  • What does this psalm tell us about God? About life?
  • What relates to you?
  • What pictures or images are used? What do they represent?
  • What interesting figures of speech are used? (Metaphors, hyperbole, etc.)
  • What emotions are shared? Does it stir that same emotion in you?
  • What did the psalm mean to the psalmist? What situation may he have been in when writing the psalm?

~If you are an artist, try illustrating the psalm— considering its major theme and what the psalm reveals about God.

~Write a poem in that same style (praise, lament, etc.) Try writing your own Psalm using parallelism (thought rhyme— which I talked about here.)

~Pray through the Psalm— applying it to your own life.

Since the Psalms and Poetical Books contain many figures of speech, I will cover those in the next post.




Written by Anne

Hi I’m Anne. My husband Grant and I have 3 young kids and we live in our hometown in Colorado. We homeschool (in a blend of Charlotte Mason, Classical, and Montossori styles). I love reading, books of all sorts, running, Pilates, bikes with wicker baskets, coffee, my friends, good conversation, the mountains, gardening, cooking for friends and family, experiencing new places and cultures, giving presents, teaching, writing, and creating things.


  1. Hello, I have been enjoying these posts and learning new things about the bible that I did not know or did not consider. Thank you for your time in posting these. Although, I noticed that while this is a 31 day plan, it seems to have stopped two months ago on day 19. Do you plan on still writing these?

    • Hi, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you are enjoying the series. Yes I do plan on finishing and really meant to by now but I just haven’t had time to write. I’m hoping this week- with the holidays- will provide some down time so I can write the next post!
      Thanks, Anne


  1. [...] and Ecclesiastes, though wisdom literature is found in other books— such as in Song of Songs, Psalms, and Habakkuk. Wisdom literature is mostly written in poetic form and therefore many figures of [...]

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