20 Different Types of Psalms

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Psalms emphaised with a magnifying glass.


David is said to have written 75 of the Psalms with 73 of them bearing his name. The Jewish tradition, however, believes that David wrote 88 Psalms, Moses wrote Psalm 90-100, Jeremiah wrote Psalm 137, Haggai wrote Psalm 146, and Zechariah wrote Psalm 147.

The word “praise” is mentioned 211 times in the Psalms as compared to the rest of the Scriptures combined with only 129 occurrences.

Basic Types of Psalms

Basic Psalms

Book 1 of Psalms as seen in the bible.

Naturally, this is the biggest category of psalms. The word mizmôr, which is the Hebrew word for the psalm, literally means “melody.” However, the only place where you find this word in the Bible is in the titles of the psalms. You can find other categories of psalms, which are described below, and these include songs and the maskils. There is a total of 57 basic psalms in the Old Testament.

Psalmists for basic psalms include David, the sons of Korah, Heman, and Asaph.

Historical Psalms

Psalms 78 and 105 are perfect examples of historical psalms because they revel in the great acts of God perpetrated throughout Israel’s history. Festivals such as the Feast of Weeks and even Passover were likely used as reference points when writing these psalms. They emphasize God’s faithfulness and proclaim that that faithfulness was always a crucial part of Israel’s worship.

Psalms 42 through 72, although written by several different authors, are filled with important historical facts. The most popular writer of these psalms are the sons of Korah. In addition, many ritualistic or liturgical psalms, such as Psalms 73 to 89, also provide a lot of very valuable historical information. The latter types of psalms, which also have to do with worship, were written mostly by Asaph.

Hymns

These are basic songs of praise, also known as hymns, and they can be found throughout the Book of Psalms. One such example is found in verse 1 of Psalm 8, which goes this way:

Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

A hymn, or psalm of descriptive praise, is there to praise God just because of who He is — God. Thanksgiving psalms begin with the deliverance of God throughout history and they end in praise; however, hymns assume this deliverance and God’s actions throughout history. They praise God because He is the type of God who acts in certain ways. Hymns are only one step away from contact with God’s actions, not a response to an immediate or particular experience of God. They are grounded in the understanding that God has acted in the lives of the community and of individuals but they have moved beyond the immediate experience to a certain stability that allows people to reflect on the character and nature of God because He is the one who provides and delivers.

Although hymns lack the deep emotions that are associated with laments, they reflect a calm that goes along with the stability of life, which comes from reflecting on your journey of faith and understanding it. Hymns also present a certain truth about God that is based on that particular journey.

Imprecatory Psalms

Imprecatory, or cursing, psalms are one of the two types of psalms of lament, the other one being penitential psalms. Imprecatory psalms are a very radical version of the basic lament. There are only a handful of psalms that fit into this category but they usually involve curses placed on people who have caused an actual crisis. They can be placed upon people in the community who have perpetrated some type of injustice but they can also be placed on an entire people, such as the Babylonians who brought destruction on the nations according to Psalm 137.

Imprecatory psalms are not pious or positive but they are honest expressions of pain when faced with endings and grief. It is never a good idea to “Christianize” these psalms and pretend that they’re something that they clearly are not. However, they shouldn’t be excluded as “sub-Christian” either. Instead, these psalms should be taken seriously and considered a valid Biblical response to God through prayer. A few of the psalms that are included in this category are Psalms 35, 69, 83, 88, 109, 137, and 140.

Other examples of the types of psalms in existence can be found here.

Liturgical Psalms

In liturgical psalms, their language often deals with the requirements necessary to enter the temple and worship God. Psalms 15 and 24 are perfect examples of these types of poems and even though no one knows for sure, certain things are surmised when reading liturgical psalms, including:

  • They may have been songs that were sung by singers at the front of the temple while people poured into the temple court.
  • They may have been there mainly to celebrate and announce that God is the king of the entire world.
  • Psalm 24:7-10 might reflect what was going on as worshippers walked through Jerusalem with the ark of the covenant in front of them.

Maskil Psalms

The word “maskil” refers to either ideas or individuals associated with the Haskalah movement, which originated in Europe between the 1770s and the 1880s. Considered the European Jewish enlightenment, it was a time when Jews were re-educated so they could fit into modern society and it involved the establishment of schools and the publishing of works that had cultural significance. In the Old Testament’s list of psalms, the word is found in Psalms 47:7 and it can be loosely translated to mean a “skillful psalm” or “understanding.” Pieces can be a maskil, song, and a psalm all at the same time, and they can double as a prayer as well.

There are 12 maskil psalms in the Old Testament and they include authors such as David, Heman, the sons of Korah, Asaph, and Ethan.

Messianic Psalms

There is a simple definition for the messianic psalms because any psalm that refers to the Messiah is a messianic psalm. The psalm can deal with numerous subjects and references; however, in every one of them, there is the talk of the Messiah coming back in the future. There is some controversy surrounding the guidelines used to indicate which psalms pertain to the Messiah, but in most cases, both Jewish and Christian theologians usually mean the Messiah to come when talking about the Messiah in these psalms. There are more than a dozen messianic psalms, and some of them include 2, 16, 22, 34, 41, 68, 72, 102, 109, 118, and 132.

Mikhtam Psalms

There are six different mikhtam psalms in the Old Testament, all of which are written by David. No one knows exactly what a mikhtam psalm is but two things are clear: all but one of the mikhtam poems come with musical recommendations and four of the six psalms are connected to particular events that happened in David’s life.

Miscellaneous Genres and Mixed Types

This category includes every type of psalm that may not be prevalent in the Book of Psalms or is unable to fit under any other genre. In fact, some psalms include various types of psalms within the same book, including Psalms 9, 10, and 123. Other psalms are so few in number that they are not usually classified in an article concerning the different types of psalms. An example is psalms that describe the stories of Israel, including Psalms 78, 105, and 106, as well as the Songs of Ascent, which were meant to be sung by worshipers on their way to Jerusalem. The latter includes Psalms 120 through 134.

Penitential Psalms

Penitential psalms are one of two different types of psalms of lament, the other being imprecatory psalms. Penitential Psalms are prayers that ask for forgiveness from the sins you’ve committed. In addition to Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143, they can also be found in Jeremiah 14:1-10. Of course, most of these psalms don’t approach the situation from the perspective of sin; instead, they appeal to God from the point of view of a weak and even oppressed individual who is trying to draw on the basic understandings of God learned from the experience of the exodus.

There are, however, seven psalms that center on the covenantal or moral failure that most sinners believe is at the heart of the lament. Even if the immediate problem is an unrelated crisis, these prayers are offered specifically for forgiveness for a certain failure. In other words, at the heart of every one of these prayers is the forgiveness of sin even if you also want deliverance from other problems.

Prayer Psalms

Ironically, there are only four psalms considered psalms of prayer in the Old Testament and their authors are Moses and David. Just as the name describes, psalms of prayer demonstrate pleas or requests to God. One of these is Psalm 150, which is well known because of its continuous references to singing the praises of God.

Psalms of Lament (Complaint)

These psalms include both sadness directed at God or complaints directed at His enemies. Some of the psalms sound very negative even though they are set within a context of a God who is responding in power or love. Below are some examples:

Psalm 3:1: Lord, how many are my foes! How many rises up against me!

Psalm 44:23-24: Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?

Of course, laments can also represent grief, hurt, crisis, and despair or even moving a worshipper from darkness to light, hurt to joy, and desperation to hope. These are spiritual, liturgical, or psychological experiences that represent high levels of emotion. In fact, lament psalms are considered the most emotionally charged psalms out there because they deal with a wide range of emotional situations.

More details on psalms of lament can be found here.

Psalms of the Law

The lengthy Psalm 119 is a perfect example of this type of psalm and they reflect on the value of living life a certain way, mainly through God’s instructions that are preserved in the Torah. In some ways, psalms of the law are similar to psalms of thanksgiving, in part because the Torah is celebrated as the perfect gift from God because, in it, He provides clear instructions for the way you’re supposed to live in the world that He created. There is a call to faithfulness in these instructions and it picks up covenantal themes as well; however, the psalms move very close to the blessings of life that result from accepting a responsibility associated with a feature of the writings concerning wisdom.

Psalms of the law are also called Torah psalms for obvious reasons.

Psalms of Praise

Only one psalm of praise — Psalm 146 — can be found in the Old Testament and it is written by David. The psalm is a song and the name of it is derived from the Hebrew word that means showing praise and appreciation. The song recognizes the acts and character of God, and it responds perfectly in worship. Of course, in the Hebrew Bible, the entire book of Psalms is known as psalms of praise so in essence, all 150 of the psalms in this book could be grouped into this specific category.

There is, however, another psalm of praise that can be found in the Bible, in 2 Chronicles 20:21-22, and it is a short paragraph that goes this way:

Give thanks to the Lord,

for His lovingkindness is everlasting

Psalms of Thanksgiving (Todah Psalms)

Thanksgiving psalms include both thanksgiving from the community and thanksgiving from individuals. Below are a few examples.

Psalms 30, 32, and 34: Psalms of thanksgiving from individuals

Psalms 67 and 124: Psalms of thanksgiving from the community

Psalm 100:4-5: Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.

In essence, these are psalms that praise God for something that He has done for the psalmist. In other words, it is a way to offer thanksgiving to God in the form of worshipping Him. They can further be divided into three categories: an immediate response resulting from God’s action, praise for one of God’s deeds, and a tone that exhibits joy. Not just basic thanksgiving, these psalms are an outpouring of celebration via a form of worship that is based on the immediate experience of God’s grace and goodness.

After any type of lament, there is usually thanksgiving. Lament psalms expect God to act on a request while thanksgiving psalms are thanking Him for doing so. The Hebrew word “todah” is often translated into the word “thanks”; however, it does not mean that exactly. It has been adapted to the English language and it, therefore, comes very close to the meaning of the word “thanksgiving.”

Psalms of Trust and Confidence

Psalms of trust are a specialized type of thanksgiving, or todah, psalm yet they are closer to hymns than psalms. In these psalms, there is a sense of immediately experiencing God but they often focus more on a reflective type of praise that is more generalized in its affirmations about God. They reflect an experience that is extrapolated to trust.

Psalms of Wisdom

There are numerous psalms that discuss various aspects of wisdom but certain ones concentrate on the theme of that wisdom and speak of the fear of the Lord or even the offering of words of wisdom. Psalms 1, 37, and 49 are perfect examples of this characteristic, and Psalm 1:1-3 says:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.

Wisdom psalms share features with certain wisdom traditions mentioned in numerous books of the Old Testament, including Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs, especially as they concern literary structures, concepts, and even vocabulary. Topics dealt with in these types of psalms generally include the justice of God and the injustices of life, the relative value of riches, the responsibilities associated with choosing the correct and best way to live, and the transitory nature associated with human existence.

Royal Psalms

Also called enthronement psalms, royal psalms are those performed in the presence of dignitaries or kings. For example, in Psalm 18:50, it says:

He gives his king great victories; he shows unfailing love to the anointed, to David and to his descendants forever.

Originating from the belief that God made a special covenant with David, royal psalms reflect and celebrate the promises God that made to him long ago. There is a certain language included in the royal psalms, which helps the reader decide on their specific use in the very beginning. Since the psalms are reserved for very important people, they may have been originally used for events such as coronations. Some of the royal psalms include 2, 18, 21, 45, 101, and 144, among others.

Shiggaion Psalms

There is only one shiggaion psalm in the psalms of the Old Testament and it is written by David. There is another one contained in the book of Habakkuk in the very last chapter but only one in the Book of Psalms. The word “shiggaion” comes from the Hebrew word for going astray or reeling and it may even mean that this type of psalm is a “wild, passionate song,” according to some sources. It also refers to a poem that was written while the writer was experiencing some type of strong emotion, which is why these psalms tend to be so impassioned in their overall feel.

Songs

In Hebrew, the word that means “song” is the noun form of the word “sing” so these are psalms that are meant to be sung. In fact, this term is used more generally in the Bible than the word for “psalm” even though these songs are not always directed towards God. In the Old Testament, there are songs that are sung by the Lord’s priests (2 Chronicles 29:27), by prostitutes (Isaiah 23:16), and even by the birds in the sky (Zephaniah 2:14).

When it comes to the songs and psalms in the Bible, there’s a lot of overlap between the two; in fact, a total of 13 pieces are actually labeled as both. This makes sense, however, since psalms are types of melodies and songs are always sung. Of course, one should never forget the ultimate when it comes to songs and psalms, which begin in Solomon 1:1.

There are 31 songs in the psalms located in the Bible and some of their authors include Heman, the sons of Korah, David, Asaph, and, of course, Solomon.

Songs of Ascent

Solomon and David wrote a total of 15 songs of ascent in the Book of Psalms and they are a special subset of songs. The word used for “ascent” refers to an upward pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem. Each year, according to the law, Jews had to go to the temple there for certain festivals and the songs of ascent may have been a way to prepare the hearts of the travelers for worship in those days. Conveniently, Psalms 120 through 134 are considered the 15 songs of ascent in the Book of Psalms so they are all grouped together.

Zion Psalms (Songs of Zion)

Part of Psalms that talk about the song of Zion.

There are 30 psalms in the Old Testament considered to be Zion psalms and they are some of the happiest psalms in the entire book. Zion and Jerusalem are sometimes used interchangeably in the Bible but when they are mentioned in the psalms, the overall outlook regarding Zion is a little holier and more optimistic than most of the references to Jerusalem. Above all else, psalmists consider Zion to be the primary city of God. In fact, in many places, Zion is called and considered the City of David. It is a special city because it loves God and it listens to God’s commands at all times. Zion psalms include Psalms 2, 48, 45, 74, 99, 135, and 20, among others.

You can find samples of all types of psalms at this website.





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