How to Read Psalms

The Book of Psalms

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

The book of Psalms is a collection of songs and poems from ancient Israel. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book.The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the story of Psalms, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video.  

As the video points out, Psalms is a collection of ancient Hebrew poems. Since the entire book encompasses a vast array of themes and subjects, this post focuses on Psalm 1. Use the ideas from the video to inform your answers to the following questions about Psalm 1. 

Psalm 1:1-6 (ESV)

Book One

The Way of the Righteous and the Wicked

1Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

2but his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

3He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

4The wicked are not so,

but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the book at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 
Example: The psalmist compares a wise man to a tree planted by a river.  

Observe: As you watched the video, and then read the psalm, what observations could you make about Psalm 1? (Consider the characters, locations, objects, metaphors, comparisons, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters.)
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Where an observation determines what the psalm says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what it means. We’ve asked what Psalm 1 says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) The psalm compares a wise man to a tree planted by a river. (Interpretation) A wise person follows God and finds his or her life, foundation, and nourishment in Him. 

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Psalm 1? (Think about what the psalm teaches about God and humanity and what that means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Think about how Psalm 1 fits with theme of the book as the video described it.)
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Contextualization looks at how a book or chapter fits into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book or chapter fills in the biblical narrative. 

Example: The wise listen to and obey God throughout Scripture. Jesus compares those who hear and obey His teaching to a wise man who built his house on a solid rock foundation. 

Contextualize: What themes does Psalm 1 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Psalms? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) or the historical books (Judges through 2 Kings)?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of a book or chapter applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: To be a wise person, I need to first ask God for wisdom. Then, I need to use that wisdom to follow Him in obedience. For example, I can ask God for wisdom when I choose which college to attend. But, I also need to take action and pick a school using His wisdom—I shouldn’t base my decision on which school looks the coolest or has the best party scene, for example. 

Apply: How does the truth from Psalm 1 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Psalms, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Psalms this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.