Approaches to Psalms

By: Bored in Vernal
July 1, 2010

OT SS Lesson #25

The Book of Psalms is one of the most beautiful and meaningful books of the Bible, and it is agonizing to realize that our Sunday School schedule only allows one lesson to cover the entire oeuvre.  In this post, I’d like to outline several possible ways to approach a one-hour lesson on the Psalms, and to request your input as to which appeals to you personally.

1. Messianic Approach to Psalms

Our lesson manual begins with a list of 13 prophecies of the life and mission of Jesus Christ which can be found in the Psalms.  (A more complete list can be found here.)  There are several reasons why a study of Messianic prophecy is a helpful way to approach the Psalms.  The prophecies can be used as evidence to strengthen faith in the Savior and identify Jesus as the true Messiah.  They are also a source of insight into the Lord’s passion, resurrection, ascension, reign, and judgment.

2. Literary Approach to Psalms

The Psalms provide some truly transcendent examples of Hebrew literature.  Many teachers use this opportunity to instruct their students on the nuances of Hebrew poetry, including parallelism, chiasmus, figurative expression, and other literary techniques.  An example of a lesson prepared in this manner was recently posted on Feast Upon the Word blog.  Other good basic lessons using this approach can be found here and here (comes with a power point presentation!)  A literary approach to the Psalms can assist in proper interpretation of scripture and provide a glimpse into the power these passages contain in the original language.

3. Doctrinal Approach to Psalms

Because of its many strengths, students don’t always realize the wealth of doctrine that is covered in the Psalms.  Themes that are covered include the plan of salvation, sin, justification, sanctification, judgment, faith, repentance, forgiveness, evil spirits, immortality, eternal rewards, and many others.  I personally have been excited and enlightened to find clarifying doctrinal tidbits in these verses.  This approach might take much time to prepare, but teaching students where and how to extract doctrine from the Psalms could be an important and valuable endeavor.

4. Devotional Approach to Psalms

John Calvin said of the psalms:

“This book I am wont to style an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for no one will discover in himself a single feeling whereof the image is not reflected in this mirror. Nay, all griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, anxieties – in short, all those tumultuous agitations wherewith the minds of men are wont to be tossed – the Holy Ghost hath here represented to the life.”

The Greek word “psalmos” comes from the Hebrew word “zmr” meaning “to pluck”; i.e., taking hold of the strings of an instrument with the fingers. It implies that the psalms were originally composed to be accompanied by a stringed instrument.  We are to pluck the strings of our heart (or sing with emotion) as we recite the psalms.  An advantage of this approach is increased spiritual access to the Psalms which serves as a reservoir in times of need. A recent comment on one of my posts lamented that we Latter-day Saints don’t turn to the Psalms for worship and devotion as often as we should.  This lesson could be a perfect opportunity to remedy the situation.

5. Historical Approach to Psalms

The oldest of the Psalms originate from the time of Moses (1400 B.C.). We have three psalms penned by Moses:

  • Exo 15:1-15 – a song of triumph following the crossing of the Red Sea
  • Deut 32, 33 – a song of exhortation to keep the Law after entering Canaan
  • Ps 90 – a song of meditation, reflection, and prayer

After Moses, the writing of Psalms had its “peaks” and “valleys.”  In David (1000 B.C.), the sacred lyric attained to its full maturity.  With Solomon, the creation of psalms began to decline; this was “the age of the proverb.”  Only twice after this did the creation of psalms rise to any height, and then only for a short period: under Jehoshaphat (875 B.C.) and again under Hezekiah (725 B.C.).  The chapter headings often identify who wrote each Psalm.  We also have the “Psalm of Nephi” (2 Ne 4) which can be added to the canon.  A basic article on the authorship of the Psalms can be found here.  A more in-depth treatment is here.  An historical look at the Psalms aids our understanding because it places the verses in their context.

Caution: I certainly wouldn’t suggest trying to cover all of these approaches in one lesson.  Wouldn’t you love to have a Sunday to cover each one of these?  But since we don’t have that luxury, choose one of the above which appeals to you and embellish it.  I’d love to get some comments on which approach you find the most attractive and why.  Can you think of any other ways to consider the Book of Psalms?  Did your Ward Sunday School teacher use any of these approaches in teaching the lesson?

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