The Poetic Nature of the Psalter Teaches Us

Genre influences how we read and seek to understand a written word. We respond to something written with implicit bias that helps us make informed judgments about what we read and how we should think about the message of a thing. For example, a general news article presents serious content by describing facts or details in a non-judgmental or objective manner. The reader uses these details as signals to understand that this story attempts to convey an account of something that occurred in the real world. Some entertainers use similar features in satire. A satire of a news article might contain the same elements (facts or details described objectively). Still, it also weaves in wild hyperbole to signal that the article is meant to entertain rather than report. The form and format of writing ques us to receive it in a particular way.

Psalms as Song

“The Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperbole, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise, we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.”

C. S. Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms (1958)

The Psalms are poems, and many of them profess to be songs, a sub-genre of poetry. Songs register differently than narratives. The aural quality of a psalm is sometimes richer than its meaning content. Readers should expect a psalm to include metaphor, allegory, or imprecise, inherently lyrical language. It is precisely these qualities that make a psalm stick in mind. Music activates parts of the brain in complex ways that simple speech cannot. The psalms may not always be set to music, but their inherent lyrical quality makes them better memorization candidates.

Because the design of psalms engages the mind and reinforces memorization, it is no wonder that psalms have received so much attention. For example, the Psalter is the only complete book of the Bible included in many Prayer Books. Many New Testament Bibles contain only one Hebrew Bible/Old Testament book—the Psalms. Furthermore, the Psalms are often attested in modern worship and praise music. Psalms are the most read scripture in liturgical readings and prayer. Psalms are not only influencing our minds by the nature of the genre but also because of their prolific use in the Christian tradition.

Psalms as Torah

The psalms are primed to influence how we think about God, how we feel about each other, and how we think about the world. Their lyrical, musical quality encourages memorization and learning, even if we sing or recite along without being conscious of what message we absorb. And because our thoughts influence our actions, the psalms should be considered ethical. The psalms can influence us due to their lyrical and poetic qualities more than a list of regulations or legal codes. It is no wonder that ethics is a theme in the very first psalm; Psalm 1 talks about instruction.

A quick search of uses for the Hebrew Bible Psalms reveals that many people believe the Psalms have magical properties. They think that particular psalms have power when used as a daily mantra to either boost one’s self-esteem and control or decimate one’s enemies. This is not a Christian use of psalms but a remarkable reminder that they may be seen as influential. Despite this, scholars have not explored the psalms much for ethical instruction.

My research on the ethics of Psalm 82 found that there are many ways that a psalm is instructional. Its poetic form makes the psalm a suitable vessel for teaching. You can read more about this in Gordon Wenham’s book, Psalms as Torah. In addition, themes in the Psalter include references to caring for the environment, wisdom for leaders, and care for the marginalized. My research found language about the poor and disenfranchised is dense in the psalms. In every way, the psalms encourage people at all levels of authority to do what they can to care for the disenfranchised in their sphere of influence.


The psalms are prioritized in liturgical readings, their wide use for worship and praise songs, and printed Bibles and biblical materials. The message of the psalms bears the weight of ethical instruction. So, we should take the psalmist at his word in Psalm 1 when he says to meditate day and night on Torah, that the Torah, or instruction, referenced, may be found in the psalms that follow.

For more information about my research on Psalm 82 and ethics in the psalms, please check out my book, Divine council, Ethics, and Resistance in Psalm 82, available at Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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