In Order to Dwell in God’s Presence: Seven Ways to Read Psalms

IMG_4667This month brings us to the Book of Psalms in the Via Emmaus Bible Reading plan. And I say “Book” because Psalms is more than a collection of random songs; it is a highly structured book which tells the redemptive story of David and his greater Son—the king who is enthroned on Zion.

In fact, the Psalter is composed of five books (Pss 1–41; Pss 42–72; Pss 73–89; Pss 90–106; Pss 107–50) and demonstrates many convincing proofs that the order of the Psalms is intentional. If you have spent any time on this blog, you know how much time I have spent arguing this point and showing how (I think) the Psalms are organized. 

In this post, which begins our look at the Psalms this month, I want to offer seven reading strategies for reading, understanding, and praying the psalms. These approaches are suggestive, not exhaustive; there is not one right way to read the Psalms, but knowing that the Psalms possess a unified message may be helpful for reading the psalms this month. If you have another way(s) to read the Psalms, please include them in the comments. Here are my seven suggestions.

1. Read the Psalms in order.

If you start with Psalm 1 and go through the Psalter until the end, you will follow the inspired order of the book. This is how the book is supposed to be read, and a straightforward reading will take you from the psalms of David (contained mostly in Books 1–2) to the psalms which look for a new David.

There are plenty of resources to help you see the bigger picture of the Psalter, but even if you don’t avail yourself of those aids, reading through the Psalms, you will encounter every doctrine of God and every emotion of man. The Psalms are God’s inspired hymnbook and they teach us who God is and how we are to respond to him with repentance and faith.

Indeed, the simplest way to read Psalms then is just to read them—one, two, or ten at a time. We can meditate on them by reading one psalm over and over or we can read them more like a narrative. As we will see below, both options help us to grasp, respectively, the depth and the breadth of the psalms. However you choose, just start reading them.

2. Read the Psalms in one sitting . . . or five.

Like the other books of the Bible, the Psalms is a literary whole. And sometimes the only way to catch the overarching message is to read the book in one sitting. To do that would take around five hours, but what could be better than spending that time in God’s Word. You could do that on a Sunday afternoon or any other day when a worldwide pandemic slows down the pace of life.

If marathon reading sessions are not your thing, however, you could break down the psalms into five parts. That is, you could read the psalms 30 at a time, or you could read them in the five books prescribed by the original organizer. In most Bibles, Psalms 1–41 are grouped as Book 1, Psalms 42–72 as Book 2, Psalms 73–89 as Book 3, Psalms 90–106 as Book 4, and Psalms 107–150 as Book 5.

Each book has a unique place in the Psalter and possesses a unique emphasis. Following the chronology of David, we can outline the five books like this.

  • Book 1: David’s suffering his exaltation to the throne
  • Book 2: David’s exaltation, downfall with Bathsheba, and restoration leading to Solomon
  • Book 3: The downfall of David’s throne leading to exile
  • Book 4: The return of Yahweh as the king
  • Book 5: The LORD appoints a son of David to rule in Zion (just like Psalm 2 promised)

Following this five-fold division, we can read the whole Psalter in five sittings, one session per book.

3. Read the Psalms with the grain of the whole Psalter.

Whether or not you read the Psalms in one or five sittings, you should be aware of where you are and where you are going when you read the Psalms. To help our church read the Psalms, we developed five infographics that visualize the five books of the Psalms.

With these infographics, you can pick a section of the Psalms to read each day. For instance, today and yesterday I read Psalms 3–14, always keeping in mind the chiastic structure of these psalms. You could do the same with any section of the Psalter, for not only do we find poetic structures within individual psalms, but there are literary connections between adjacent psalms, as well.

Book 1

Further resources on the shape of the Psalter can be found here: Resources for Reading the Psalms canonically.

4. Read groups of psalms together.

Picking up the idea of reading with the grain of the Psalms, you can find a group of psalms and read them together. For instance, within the Psalter, we find many groupings:

  • Law and Messiah Psalms (Psalms 1 and 2; Psalms 18 and 19; Psalms 118 and 119)
  • Psalms of David I (Psalms 3–41)
  • Psalms of the Sons of Korah I (Psalms 42–49)
  • Psalms of David II (Psalms 51–65)
  • Psalms of Asaph (Psalms 73–83)
  • Psalms of the Sons of Korah II, with a Davidic Psalm in the center (Psalms 84–85, 87–88)
  • Kingship Psalms (Psalms 93–99)
  • Hallel Psalms (Psalms 111–17)
  • Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120–34)
  • Psalms of David III (Psalms 138–45)
  • Hallelujah Psalms (Psalms 146–50)

The advantage of reading the Psalms in groups is that it teaches us to see the message, theology, and emphases of the Psalter. This is especially true when the psalm groups are read in the order of the Psalter.

There is another way to read groups of psalms, and that is to read certain types of psalms together. For instance, you could read the royal-messianic psalms (Pss 2, 22, 45, 72, 89, 110, etc.) or the imprecatory psalms (Pss 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 94, 109, 137, 139, and 143) as two respective groups. This approach is helpful in that it gives context for the type of psalm you are reading, but it might be unhelpful in that it takes the psalms out of their literary context.

Going back to Hermann Gunkel, higher critical scholars, have divided the Psalms into various “forms” (e.g., lament, praise, wisdom, etc.). This form critical study, as it came to be known, pays large attention to the literary traits of a given psalm; it then groups similar psalms together. The advantage of this approach is that it provides a context for understanding laments, praises, hymns, etc. The disadvantage is that it obscures the shape of the Psalter.

In more recent years, scholars have returned to looking at how the Psalter hangs together. This the approach I am suggesting here. There is a place for understanding various forms, but we must not let an extra-textual grid for psalm types erase the order and the message of the whole Psalter.

5. Read five Psalms a day.

Not forgetting the literary shape of the Psalms, you might find that reading a certain number of Psalms per day is a better approach. With some flexibility, this is how I will read the Psalms this month.

If you read five Psalms a day, you will finish the Psalter in a month. May has 31 days, so you could add in Psalm 119, with its 176 verses, as one day of your reading. Together, you would read the whole book in one month.

If you miss a day, just make it up with a couple extra psalms, or you could skip those psalms and come back to them later—this month or next. Psalms, like Proverbs, is a book we should be reading and praying regularly—not just in our yearly reading plan. Even when I am reading other books, I always come back to the Psalms to pray and meditate. Proverbs is a book we should also read each month, as its 31 chapters confronts us with wisdom we need for making daily decisions.

Thus, more than any other biblical book, the Psalms are a book we should be praying, memorizing, and meditating on daily. The difference in this month then, if you already have a habit of dwelling in the psalms, is to understand their big picture. Or, for those who are reading the Psalms for the first time, take this month to become familiar with the whole, so that next month you might meditate on one psalm for the month, or one psalm per week.

All in all, reading five psalms a day is a very realistic way to read the whole book this month.

6. Read the (Five) “Psalms of the Day”.

Another popular approach to reading the Psalms in a month is to read the “Psalm of the Day” plus it’s four companions. Here’s what I mean. On May 1 you could read the Psalm of the day (Psalm 1), plus Psalm 31, 61, 91, 121. May 2 would be Psalm 2, 32, 62, 92, 122. May 3 would follow suit until the end of the month. In this approach, you read the whole book over the course of the month, with 30 sets of 5 psalms.

The advantage of this approach, in addition to having a clear path to reading the whole book,  is that it gives you a wide range of praise, prayer, lament, thanksgiving, and messianic expectation. While it does not keep the literary shape of the Psalter in front of you, it does give you five psalms to ponder and pray back to God.

Unlike all the other books in the Bible, the Psalms are inspired words of God to God. Whereas the other prophets and apostles speak words from God to man, these psalms are addressed to God. They make, therefore, excellent source material for prayer.

Indeed, if you struggle to pray, the first book to read is the Psalms. And instead of trying to read the book, you can simply pray it back to God. The psalms of the day approach is especially well-suited for prayer. Not only does it give you reverent language with which to approach God, it also gives you joy, sorrow, penitence, thanksgiving, etc. It enlarges your heart by introducing you to praise and petition that you did not even know you needed until the Spirit gives them to you in the psalm of the day.

Therefore, if you are looking to read and pray God’s word, this five psalm a day plan that doesn’t focus on the whole Psalter is an excellent approach.

7. Take time with the Psalms . . . even if that means you don’t read them all this month.

Finally, do not feel obligated to read the whole Psalter this month.

If it would be better to take one psalm for the day and to read it over and over and to pray it back to God, take the time to do that. Especially, if psalms are something that you are incorporating into your devotional life throughout the year, this month might be a wonderful time to memorize a psalm or two. Focus on one psalm and meditate on it.

Often I will read one psalm 2–4 times. When I read the Psalms, I want to feel what is being said, and that never happens the first time I read it. As poetry, the psalms are meant to tasted, savored, chewed on, regurgitated, and reconsidered. Reading a psalm once and dashing off to breakfast, work, or school misses the point. The psalms were written by those who dwelt in God’s temple (David, Moses, Solomon, the Levites), and they are meant to bring us into God’s presence too. Even more they are meant to make us stay in God’s presence (see Psalm 27:4).

Therefore, take time with the psalms. If you finish reading the psalms in five minutes—Psalms 1–5 won’t take much more time than that, then read them again. If one psalm, or one verse, catches your heart or pricks your conscience, spend time on that word from the Lord. Pray it back to God and ask him to grant you grace by that inspired truth.

Indeed, the goal of reading the psalms is not finishing them, it is finding God in them. Truly, they are his words and we need to hear from him. For that reason, take time with the psalms and let them lead you to him. If you read the whole book this month or not, let the Psalms be a means of leading you to worship God. After all, this is what the Psalms are for, and this is why we should read them.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds