Patterns for Life:
Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms
Songs of Trust -
Form Analysis and Genre
After a period of focusing on the historical background of the biblical
text, early in the twentieth century biblical scholars refocused their
attention on the biblical text itself. One of the first and most significant
developments that emerged from that shift was the recognition that many of
the Psalms have recurring patterns of structure, flow of thought, and even
themes and compositional techniques. From this recognition, scholars
developed a field of study called form criticism
or "analysis of forms" (for an example of form analysis in prophetic
literature, see The Prophetic "Call"
Narrative: Commissioning for Service)
This method of study begins with the understanding that aspects of any
particular culture that occur at regular and repeated occasions, such as
religious practices, tend to take on stable forms or structure. We can see
this in most modern services of worship, where the flow of the service is
relatively predictable since many aspects of the service are repeated from
week to week. And in many cases, for example, we can even predict with a
great deal of accuracy the precise words a certain person will use in
prayer. This is why many churches develop an Order of Worship to structure
these recurring elements.
None of this is negative; it is just the phenomenon of social interaction
among people. We tend to respond to cues that are familiar and recognizable,
and those cues signal to us far more than simply what the words themselves
say. They evoke a whole range of thought or feeling or experience, simply
because they are familiar and repeated. We can even make jokes about the
familiarity of some of these forms. I recall the comment, with a certain
degree of truth behind it, that when a certain pastor came to the point of
his sermon where he said, "in conclusion," everyone knew that meant only
more minutes of preaching!
One of the most obvious uses of these forms is in prayers, simply
because they are repeated so often. Especially prayers before meals tend to
take on a ritual quality with the same words or phrases used repeatedly.
Again, this is not necessarily negative, because such repetition gives
structure to the occasion and provides cues to people that certain
activities are taking place and certain responses are expected.
Since the Psalms, the Psalter, is a collection of prayers of the
community of Faith, it is not at all surprising that we should find such
structure, repetition, and conventional methods of expression in them. Even
though there is a great deal of variety in the Psalms, there is also a great
deal that is shared, from major structural elements, to standardized ways of
referring to problems facing individuals or the community, to expressing
cries for help in the form of petitions to God. It is this structure that
gives evidence that the Psalms were part of the public spiritual life of
ancient Israel, as well as providing us with some tools to understand better
the theological importance and communication of these prayers.
As scholars studied the Psalms from this perspective, they discovered
that there were certain types of psalms that followed a fairly stable
structural pattern. They begin to group the Psalms according to these
patterns into categories they termed genre
(JAHN-ruh). Much of the early study still operated under the assumptions of
the primacy of historical investigation. So effort tended to focus on trying
to recover the original setting in the life of ancient Israel (Sitz im
Leben) in which each Psalm was originally used. However, interest
shifted increasingly toward the biblical text itself as a literary document.
As a result, there was a growing realization that, at best, the attempt to
reconstruct the historical setting of the psalms was largely speculation,
and was not as helpful as understanding the dynamic within the Psalm itself
as representative of a particular genre.
So, there is not as much focus on the "original" life setting of a psalm,
except in limited ways as some continue to explore the liturgical setting of
the psalms. Yet, the concern with the genre of the Psalms has itself proven
a valuable tool in understanding the Psalms, simply because we understand
that the form of the psalms is related to their function. That is, a lament
psalm that expresses pain to God and asks for help takes on a certain
pattern for addressing God, for presenting the problem, for moving to
petition, and then affirming trust. The form of this kind of prayer provided
the structure in which to express these feelings.
The recognition that a particular psalm is unfolding on the pattern of a
lament tells us the function of the psalm even apart from the particular
words that are being used. It also gives clues to how to understand some of
the stereotypical language that is a recurring feature of lament psalms.
That also gives important clues about how to understand the images,
metaphors, or other literary features of the text. The form serves the
function of the prayer, and that form is a way into the meaning of the psalm
for us today.
Before we turn to a survey of the various forms, a couple of observations
are important. First, the "form" or
pattern of a psalm is not just a series of fixed elements to which all
psalms of that type rigidly adhere. There is a great deal of variety and
freedom in the composition of individual psalms. The idea of genre is simply
a way students of the bible have identified and grouped those elements that
tend to recur in certain psalms. In other words, the genre is simply
descriptive of the psalms that have been preserved in our canon of
Scripture, an attempt to identify those recurring elements. There are no
"pure" forms, although some psalms demonstrate the elements better than
others. The writers felt a great deal of freedom in composing these prayers,
and did not rigidly hold to a prescribed form. This is understandable when
we realize that the psalms were not originally produced primarily as pieces
of literature to be preserved, but as elements of worship in the ongoing
life a living community of faith.
Second, there is little historical
setting available for most of these psalms, especially in the headings or
superscriptions that seem to provide such information. A careful analysis of
the psalms with historical superscriptions that place them in a historical
setting will reveal that the psalm itself following that heading most often
will give no details that connect it directly with that setting. Also, we
have learned that the headings were probably not part of the original
compositions, but were added to the text later (the superscriptions are not
counted as part of the psalm in the Hebrew Bible). This suggests that the
headings serve other purposes than to provide the "real" historical context
for a psalm. They serve much more to historicize a prayer, to provide an
example of a historical situation in which such a prayer should or could be
prayed. Therefore, we should not use the heading or the superscriptions of a
psalm as a primary interpretive tool for the psalm. Yet, they may provide us
valuable clues to the theological purpose to which certain psalms were put
to use in the community of faith.
Still, the historical or cultural setting of a psalm itself can be
significant, particularly if the setting is related to the particular form,
or if specific historical elements are clearly present within the psalm
itself. For example, it is important for understanding the perspective and
theology of Psalm 137 to know that it comes from the period of the
Babylonian exile. It is important in other psalms, for example Psalm 2, to
know that the psalm comes from a particular cultural and historical context
in the life of Israel, in this case the crowning of a new king. That
cultural and historical background is important for understanding the impact
of the psalm as a certain genre of psalm, but also in establishing
parameters of meaning for the theology of the psalm.
In all study of psalms, the fact that they were prayers set to music,
intended to be sung by the worshipper, must be kept in mind. The psalms are
worship material, much as our modern prayer books or hymnals. And worship is
a dynamic activity. Prayer is most often a response to experience, and that
experience of the people as a part of a worshipping community must govern
any study or application of the Psalms. This material was not written to
communicate abstract, propositional theology for us. It was written to
facilitate people coming to God from all the turmoil of life, good and bad.
This material is emotive poetry set to music in the form of prayers. Any
interpretation that loses sight of that fact will likely misunderstand the
meaning and impact of this material.
Types of Psalms
While the 150 Psalms of our canon are widely diverse, and some will not
fit into categories easily or are conflated from more than one type, most of
the Psalms of the Psalter can be classified into three basic types:
thanksgiving, and hymn. There
is also a significant relation between these three types as well as their
setting and function within the Psalter that will be discussed below.
I. Address to God, Invocation
a) first person address to God (I, you)
b) an initial plea
II. Complaint to God
a) description of problem, questions asked
b) crisis of any kind; in
psalms it is sin
c) claim of innocence
d) often includes an initial plea for help
e) condemnation of "wicked" or "enemy"
III. Affirmation of Trust
a) "But as for me" or "Nevertheless"
b) turning point of the psalm; theological
a) plea for God’s intervention
b) often uses the words "save" or "deliver"
V. Acknowledgment of Response
a) assurance of hearing
b) vow of praise, worship
VI. Doxology: blessings, praise
The function of a Lament or
Psalm of Petitionary Praise (Westermann), is to provide a
structure for crisis, hurt, grief, or despair; to move a worshipper from
hurt to joy, from darkness to light, from desperation to hope. This movement
from hurt to joy is not a psychological or liturgical experience only,
although it includes those. And it is not a physical deliverance from the
crisis, although that is often anticipated. The movement "out of the depths"
from hurt to joy is a profoundly spiritual one.
Since laments are the most emotionally charged of the psalms, they
exhibit a wide variety of composition to deal with the range of crises that
they address. Yet at the same time they also follow most closely the basic
elements found in most lament psalms. This relative stability of structure
provides a framework within which to express the deepest of human emotion.
Individuals or the community can pray laments (see the article
A Prayer of Hope for an example of a community lament outside the
Psalter). Some laments were written for the king to pray on behalf on the
community or nation. There is little difference theologically between
individual and community laments, especially since the same metaphors occur
in both, the structure is similar, and the same theological conclusions are
expressed in both.
A lament arises from an immediate crisis or emotional state that faces
the worshipper. This can range from physical threat either externally (an
invading army) or internally (physical illness), to interpersonal conflict
with others in the community, to betrayal or injustices perpetrated by
friends or family. All of these can be referred to metaphorically as "the
enemy" or "foes," even when the crisis is physical illness. This becomes a
stereotypical way of describing any crisis that threatens or diminishes the
vitality of life. In this same vein, "death" is a frequent metaphor for this
crisis, whether or not the crisis is physically life threatening. Also the
metaphor of water, drawn from the cultural language of the Ba’al myths where
water is the metaphorical imagery of chaos that threatens the order and
stability of the world, frequently occurs to describe the problem facing a
person of the community.
The theological significance of a lament is that it expresses a trust
in God in the absence of any evidence that He is active in the world. Through
a sequential and deliberate structure, the lament moves from articulation
of the emotion of the crisis, to petition for God to intervene, to an
affirmation of trust in God even though there has been no immediate
deliverance from the crisis (see the Sermon on
There are two specialized types of lament psalms that deserve particular
attention, Penitential Psalms and
There are seven psalms that the church has traditionally understood as
Penitential Psalms, prayers specifically for forgiveness from
sins committed (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143; see also Jer. 14:1-10). While
there is contact in some psalms with the cultural idea that sickness or
tragedy is the result of sin in the life of a person or the community, most
laments do not approach the crisis from the perspective of sin. Instead,
they appeal to God as protector of the weak and defender of the oppressed,
drawing on traditional understandings of God built from the exodus
However, in these seven psalms moral or covenantal failure is at the
heart of the lament. The prayer is specifically for forgiveness for that
failure, even when the immediate problem is some other crisis. While there
may be petition for deliverance from those other problems, the forgiveness
of sin is at the heart of the prayer.
The Imprecatory Psalms
Cursing Psalms are a much more radical
version of the lament. In this handful of psalms, there are curses
pronounced on those who have caused the crisis. Sometimes these are people
within the community who have committed injustice, and sometimes people
outside who, like the Babylonians, have invaded the country and brought
destruction on the nations (Psa 137).
While these psalms are not positive and pious, like all laments they are
honest expressions of pain in the face of grief and endings. We should not
attempt to "Christianize" these psalms by pretending they are something they
are not. Yet neither can we exclude them as "sub-Christian." Rather,
we need to take them seriously as a valid biblical response to God in prayer
from the depths of our humanity. Since we accept these psalms as Scripture
for the church, we need to allow them to inform our theology rather than
using our theology to change the psalms.
I. Summary of the Testimony of the Psalmist
a) recalls plea for help
b) recounts God’s intervention
II. Narration of the Psalmist’s experience
a) the original problem
b) the cry for help
c) God’s deliverance
III. Acknowledgement of God’s aid in
a) worship, with the word
praise, sacrifice, blessings
b) cry of praise
The function of a Thanksgiving or
Todah Psalm, or Psalm of Declarative
Praise (Westermann) is to praise God for something He has
done for the Psalmist, to offer thanksgiving in the form of worship. There
are three main aspects to Todah Psalms: 1) praise for a deed God has
done or an experience of God by the Psalmist; 2) it is an immediate response
evoked by God’s action; 3) the tone is one of joy. This is not a general
attitude of thankfulness in most cases, but an outpouring of emotive
celebration in worship based on some immediate experience of God’s goodness
Thanksgiving is the next step after lament. In lament, the petitions are
brought to God with an affirmation that he will act. The thanksgiving prayer
is the response to God’s actions, acknowledging that he has heard the
petition and answered in some way that has been experienced by the
worshipper. However, the word todah that is characteristic of these
psalms in Hebrew is not directly equivalent to "thanks," even thought it is
usually translated that way. In some sense the term "thanksgiving" is more
an adaptation to English that it is an accurate description of this type of
The sequence of lament-todah
is not "please-thank you," but petition-praise.
"Thanks" is only one aspect of the praise of todah, and is a way to
give content to the praise. But the real impact of todah is that God
is acknowledged as the source of all goodness in life. This moves todah
psalms to theological confession rather than simply "thanks" for positive
Todah is really a kind of praise offered to God that arises out of
personal or communal experience yet in the context of overall commitment to
God. The experiential dimension of todah psalms is easily seen in the
middle section of the psalm as the worshipper recounts or gives testimony of
his experience. This fact places this "thanksgiving" firmly in community
worship as a visible sign of praise to God for his grace.
There are also two specialized types of todah psalms that deserve
special attention, the Salvation History Psalms
and Songs of Trust.
psalms recount in some way the story of God’s creation of the people of
Israel. Most often, this includes an abbreviated version of the exodus
story, concluding with praise to God for his deliverance, or calling the
people to respond in praise and faithfulness to God’s grace. These tend to
be more theologically reflective than other psalms, since they move to
exhortation based on Israel’s experience of God in her history. However,
they can also call for praise that comes very close to hymn.
The Songs of Trust
psalms that move even closer to hymn. There is still some sense of the
immediate experience of God, yet they usually are focused more on reflective
praise that is generalized into affirmations about God. They are experience
generalized to trust.
I. Call to Praise
a) uses an imperative
b) addressed to the community (plural)
II. Reason for Praise
a) "because" or "for"
b) God described with participial clause,
"God, who [activity]"
c) God’s deliverance
III. Renewed Call to Praise (balances
a) uses an imperative
b) addressed to the community (plural)
The function of a Hymn or
Psalm of Descriptive Praise (Westermann) is to praise God because
He is God, and we know He is because we have cried to Him and He has
acted. While Thanksgiving Psalms
begin with deliverance of God in history and end in praise, hymns
deliverance and God’s actions in history, and praise God for being the kind
of God who acts in certain ways.
Hymns are one step removed from dynamic contact with God’s actions in
history and are not in response to any particular or immediate experience of
God. While they are firmly grounded in the understanding that God has acted
in the past in the lives of people and the community, hymns have moved
beyond the immediate experience to a stability in life that allows
reflection on the nature and character of God as the one who delivers and
provides. There is lacking the deep emotion of the laments, as well as the
immediacy of testimony. Yet there is a calm depth to these psalms that
expresses that stability of life that comes from understanding and
reflecting on the journey of faith, and is willing to declare a truth about
God based on that journey.
While not related to immediate experience, Hymns
still exhibit features of description, the reason or ground for praise. Yet,
they often move to Doxology, a type of
hymn in which there is usually no reason given for the praise. There is
simply a repeated call to offer praise to God. Doxology moves to the most
abstract form of praise, where God is honored in joyful abandon simply
because he is God.
But even here, this should not be understood as praise more "pure" than
other types of praise. It is not that this type of praise has any more value
in the biblical traditions than any other type. In fact, the occurrence of
doxology is far more infrequent than either todah or lament. And, as
outlined in the summary section below, even doxology is tied directly to the
God’s actions in the past, and to the cycle of lament-todah-hymn that marks
the biblical collection of prayers in the form of Psalms. This ought to
raise some cautions about drawing superficial conclusion about praise from
either hymn or doxology.
There are several other types of Psalms that are well represented in the
Psalter. They do not exhibit a stable pattern and so are usually grouped by
topic and content rather than by internal structure. That also allows a few
to fit into one category by structure and another by topic.
One of the largest groups of these are the
Liturgical Psalms, so called because they were most likely used
in special festivals or services of worship in the life of Ancient Israel.
For example, the Royal Psalms
likely had their original setting in the coronation of Israel’s king. While
they were preserved and adapted to other uses long after the monarchy came
to an end, the remnants of their original purpose is often obvious and helps
understand some of the features in the Psalms. The
Covenant Psalms may have had their original setting in an annual
covenant renewal ceremony, while the Songs of Zion
and the Temple Liturgies could be used
for any of several festivals celebrated in Jerusalem.
Two final specialized types are related in that both are reflective and
come closer to being theological treatise than prayer. Again these are
grouped by similar topics and concerns rather than a shared structure or
are so called because they share features with the
Wisdom traditions of the Old Testament (Job,
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) in terms of literary structures, vocabulary, and
concepts. They frequently deal with topics such as the injustices of life
and the justice of God, the responsibilities of choosing the correct path or
manner of living, the relative value of riches, and the transitory nature of
Poems of the Law,
which includes the lengthy Psalm 119, are simply psalms that reflect on the
value of living life by the instructions of God preserved in the torah.
In theme, these are close to thanksgiving psalms, in that the torah is
celebrated as a gracious gift of God whereby he provides instructions for
living life well in the world that he has created. The call to faithfulness
to these instructions, in terms of being blessed or suffering consequences,
picks up convenantal themes as well, but moves more closely to the
"blessings" of life that come from accepting responsibility that is a
feature of the Wisdom writings.
Concluding Observations and
The theological implications of the Psalter are far too extensive to deal
with here, and really only emerge fully from close examination of the Psalms
themselves. However, there are two concluding observations that are
important in any theological reflection on these prayers.
Modes of Praise
The psalms of the Psalter express praise in different modes, depending on
the life situation of the worshipper or community. These different modes of
praise each express a different perspective on God in relation to life
experience. This reveals that the psalms conceive God, not in static
categories of being or ultimate reality, but in dynamic terms that see God
active and interactive in human affairs.
Much of our modern concept of praise is shaped by images of positive
emotive expression ("let’s just praise the Lord"), often in the context of
feeling good or expressing happiness in public worship. Yet, the Psalter
teaches us that praise in the mode of lament is just as important as praise
in the mode of doxology. In fact, there are far more lament psalms than of
any other type. And they are all collected together into a prayer book whose
very name in Hebrew, tehillim, means "praises."
This suggests that our modern ideas of praise as a positive emotion are
much too narrowly conceived. It also suggests that laments, with all the
pain, grief, despair, even anger that they express, are just as much acts of
worship and faithfulness to God as are the more socially acceptable and
popular positive expression of hymns. This fact is a crucial theological
truth that is in danger of being lost in some circles of the church that
only values the positive. The simple fact is, not all of life is positive,
but all of life comes under God in these prayers.
The Dynamic of Faith: Life
in the Psalms
Related to this same misconception about praise is the idea frequently
expressed, openly or subtly, that "good" Christians should end up in
doxology or "pure" praise, and then remain there as a sign of spiritual
maturity. The implication is that anything less indicates spiritual
problems. But if the above observation about the use of these prayers is
valid, this perspective is distorted at best. It is simply not how life
works. And one of the most important aspects of Psalms that have value
for us today is that they are life oriented.
There is a flow and a rhythm in the use of these prayers that is even
reflected in how the Psalter itself is organized. The Psalter contains
psalms that were composed over at least an 800 year span in Israel’s
history. And the book itself is composite, showing clear signs of being
compiled over a long period of time (see
Introducing the Psalms). Yet, there is still some overall flow to the
book. Much of the first part of the Psalter is composed of laments, todah
psalms are more frequent later, while hymns occur more toward the end. The
conclusion of the Psalter is a collection of doxologies.
This suggests that the sequence
is a deliberate progression. That is, lament (petition) leads to
thanksgiving that leads to hymn. While that may seem to suggest that the end
of proper worship, and Christian living, should be doxology, when we
consider that these prayers were a dynamic expression of the life and
experience of the worshipping community, a deeper perspective emerges.
Two Old Testament scholars have made observations about the Psalter that
are helpful here. Claus Westermann has described the Psalms in terms of the
unifying element of praise, supporting the observation above that the psalms
are simply different modes of praise.
God will act
God has acted
God is God (we know He is God because
we cried to Him and He acted)
There is a sequence to this understanding of the Psalms whereby the
attitude expressed in Hymn becomes the basis for a new petition, a new
Lament. Walter Brueggemann picks up this dimension and describes the psalms
in terms of the dynamic of life experiences.
The stability of life in which nothing
threatens the status quo
Crisis precipitated by
circumstances that threaten or challenge stability of life
Crisis is resolved, a new trust in
God is expressed in terms of resolution of crisis
New Orientation (that becomes Old
Return to stability of life in which
nothing threatens the status quo
This clearly illustrates that hymn and doxology are not the "end" of
faith in God or Christian living, but part of the process of life. We may be
at various points in that process, and therefore praying certain kinds of
prayers at a particular moment. But the fact that one is at doxology is not
necessarily the measure of spiritual "success." It may simply be where the
journey of life has led at a particular moment. Life is dynamic and presents
us with challenges in terms of crises or events that threaten our sense of
stability, order, and well- being. And yet the range of psalms provides the
structure for a theological response at each juncture of experience, so that
no aspect of life falls outside a worshipful response to God.
It is not that we must strive to achieve a life of doxology. As desirable
as that might be on some level, life will most likely not let that kind of
stability last very long. The prayers of the Psalter, while showing a
progression from lament to doxology, also suggest that the progression is
related more to the seasons of life and a never ending journey of faithful
response to God. Thanksgiving, hymn and doxology provide the basis for new
Lament. It is that dynamic relationship between them that is crucial in
understanding the Psalter. And it is this dynamic related to the fluidity of
life itself that makes the Psalms so valuable as a structure for response to
God in worshipping communities today.
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg,
Claus Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content, and
Message, Augsburg, 1980.
Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, John
Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for
Us Today, 3rd. ed., Westminster, 2000.