The Psalms: Categories of Praise

Before discussing how different kinds of psalms frame worship in different ways it is important to understand that studying the Psalms does not mean that one has to suck the life out of them devotionally.

Dr. W.H. Bellinger paraphrases fellow professor Walter Brueggemann as follows:

    ”It is only when we allow the words of a psalm to enter our experience that we come to the full impact of this life-centered language. The representative nature of the language makes that possible. Elsewhere Brueggemann constructs a typology of faith to organize a treatment of the Psalter. He speaks of Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.

    The Psalms of orientation are those that proclaim all is right with the world; life is oriented properly. Some of the psalms of praise and a number of the Wisdom Psalms would fit in this category. Psalm 1 with its clear delineation of the righteous life and its attendant prosperity and some of the Creation hymns with life properly constructed are examples. The texts resonate with the experience of readers when all is well.

    Psalms of disorientation relate to those times when life has fallen apart; the proper orientation no longer holds. The lament psalms are the classic examples for this category. In Psalms 74 and 79 life has literally fallen apart for the community as Jerusalem has been destroyed. The speaker in Psalm 13 fears the onslaught of death. The language of the psalms expresses the chaos of experience.

    “With the psalms of new orientation, the hope of life has surfaced again, but not in the same form as with the psalms of orientation. The experience of disorientation has brought a new awareness and vitality to life. The psalms of thanksgiving would be the classic examples here. Through the experience described in Psalm 30, the speaker comes to a new song. Psaom 107 speaks of joy after the experience of a variety of disorientations in the community. Thes psalms relate to the other side of crisis.

    “ This cycle of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation describes the life of faith as suggested in the Psalter. I find this description of the relationship between the various kinds of psalms and the life of faith to be helpful in studying the Psalter.

    “The language of the Psalms is often immediately analogous to life experience. Many people have been comforted with the words of trust in Psalm 23. Those who encounter the loss of public life coming apart at the seams find that Psalm 137 gives shape to their anguish and enables them to continue moving through their experience. Those who have been besieged by all manner of evil have found words of hope in Psalm 13. The Psalms speak directly to the rawness of life, and our study of these texts needs to be attuned to that.”

So the best scholarship should engage us even more deeply in feeling the movingness of the Psalms in our life of prayer. It should help us speak forth our joy and sorrow in honest, yet faith-enhancing ways.

The Apostle Paul claims that Gentile Christians are grafted into the rootstock of ancient Israel to become true children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we can take advantage of the prayer book of Israel to become educated in prayer to our Great God and Redeemer.

Refining the work of other scholars before him, he proposes a classification scheme with four categories of Psalms: Hymns, Laments, Royal Psalms and Wisdom Psalms. The first two categories have sub-categories.

Hymns come in several types:

    General hymns
    Creation hymns
    Hymns about trust
    Enthronement psalms
    Zion psalms
    Temple/Tabernacle entrance liturgies
    Prophetic Warning hymns
    Individual Thanksgiving hymns
    Community Thanksgiving hymns

Laments come in two varieties: individual laments and community laments.

At our Wascana Fellowship meeting we examined two General Hyms, Psalms 29 and 33.

Psalm 29 begins with a three-part step-ladder parallelism (vs. 1-2) that ascribes glory and strength to God. This begins a four-part section made up of step-ladder descriptions about “the voice of the Lord.”

1) The voice of the Lord first hovers over the waters, as in Genesis 1:2. This speaks to God speaking to create. God’s voice is the ultimate creative force in the universe. It is also the ultimate destructive force in the universe as displayed in Noah’s Flood.

2) The voice of the Lord shakes the earth, breaking trees and making mountains “skip like a calf.” The voice of the Lord is causes earth-shaking change. He tears down nations, represented by trees of Lebanon and Syria.

3) The voice of the Lord brings flames of fire that shake the wilderness. Here is a poetic reference, perhaps, to the wilderness wanderings of Israel behind of pillar of fire. God shook the earth to make a place for Israel, and he made a path through the wilderness to bring them there. This could also have been a reference to supernatural displays of fire at the inauguration of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. This could also refer to Elijah’s display of fire devouring the offering before the hundreds of prophets of Baal.

4) The voice of the Lord once again disturbs the trees and strips forests bare. Probably another reference to enemy nations failing to defeat the Israelites.

Verse 10 reiterates the Lord being in charge of the waters, but in kingly language. This is a synonymous parallelism with the whole section about the voice of the Lord. God’s voice is also His authority and power as King over the universe.

Verse 11 is a request that God use a portion of that great power and authority to empower His people in the face of some unnamed difficulty.

Verse 12 is a synonymous parallel asking the lord to grant his people peace.

The Psalm displays a pattern of talking about God’s power and authority through His creative and destructive power, which finishes with a request to use destructive power against enemies and creative power for the believers. It has a poetic unity framed mainly by step-ladder parallelisms that emphasize God’s greatness in creation and destruction and ties them into His authority and responsibility as Israel’s King.

Psalm 33 is another example of a general hymn. It begins with a call for the upright to worship the Lord, because praise is fitting for the upright. The basic logic is that God’s works prove that He is upright, and therefore it is fitting for the upright to worship Him. This is why, in verse 18, God watches over the upright to save them. The upright share a common cause with God.

Verses 4-6 explain that “the word of the Lord” is upright and faithful. It shows in all the earth, from the creation (v. 6-9) to His control over the nations (v.10-12) that follow or disobey Him. He looks down on all peoples from on high and keeps all things under His control, in spite of the machinations of humankind (v. 13-17).

From all of this we know that God keeps a sympathetic and saving eye on those faithful to Him (v. 18).

From the above issues a proclamation of faith in and trust in the Lord, followed by a request for that faith to be rewarded by His steadfast love

The call to worship in v. 1-3 is answered by a response of faith and worship in v. 20-22. Even though this is poetry, there is a logical flow undergirding it. Along with the logic, there is also a call to faithfulness to God and worship of the God who is worthy of worship and praise.

Psalms are not all about the heart. There is logic married with artistry in their composition. There is much to please both the head and the heart in this form of prayer.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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