Genres of the Psalms: The 6 Types of Psalms

Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
Genres of the Psalms: The 6 Types of Psalms

The Six Genres of Psalms

An aid in reading the Psalms is to be able to arrange them in literary categories or genres. Based on thematic elements that are shared between the Psalms and literary features, we can more precisely classify the lyric poems of the Psalms. While some of the following literary categories may overlap as well as the rubrics for each may differ with varying sources, it is possible to place the psalms into six primary genres. Today we will briefly examine the first three of these.

1. Lament Psalms

Psalms of Lament is the most dominant genre found in the Psalter. More than one-third of the psalms are of this nature. The chief defining characteristic of the lament is its mood. In this type of psalm, a psalmist will often be mourning about the attack of his enemies. At other times, a psalmist may make a complaint about himself, and, at times, he expresses disappointment with God (Psalms 22:1-2). In addition, lament psalms move from mourning to expressing trust in God.

A problem often encountered in laments is that the enemy is described in vague terms. We need to avoid becoming too specific in our identification of the enemies. Some commentators have gone to extremes in identifying the enemy. Unless the context is clear, we should avoid this extreme because the psalmist generally wanted to be vague in determining the specifics of a historical situation. As Longman has stated: “In most cases, the references are vague, and we have every reason to believe they are so intentionally. The psalms are purposefully vague in reference to historical events so that they can be used in a variety of situations” (How to Read the Psalms, 27).

The lament psalm may be written from an individual or national perspective. Psalms 3 is a personal lament highlighting what took place when David fled from Absalom. An element of trust concludes this psalm in Psalm 3:7-8 (other examples include Psalm 4, Psalm 5, Psalm 6, Psalm 7, Psalm 9, and others). Psalm 12 is a national lament composed on behalf of Israel. David laments the oppression of Israel by their enemies. An expression of trust is found in Psalms 12:7, where a prayer for deliverance is offered (so also Psalm 44:1-6, Psalm 58, Psalm 60, and others). The lament also includes the penitential psalms such as Psalms 51 (also Psalms 6, Psalms 38, Psalms 102, Psalms 130, Psalms 143) and psalms with imprecatory elements such as Psalms 137 (also Psalm 12, Psalm 35, Psalm 58, Psalm 59, Psalm 69, Psalm 70, Psalm 109, Psalm 140).

2. Praise Hymns

The Praise Hymns are easily identifiable because of their emphasis on praise to God. With the lament, the psalmist is at the lower end of the emotional spectrum, but with the hymn, he moves to the opposite end of joyful praise. God is praised for his greatness and goodness. He may be praised as Creator as in Psalms 8, Psalms 19, Psalms 29, Psalms 104, Psalms 148, as the deliverer of Israel in Psalm 66, Psalm 100, Psalm 111, Psalm 114, Psalm 148, and as the Lord of history in Psalm 33, Psalm 103, Psalm 113, Psalm 117, Psalm 145, Psalm 146, Psalm 147 (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible, 213). Another type of hymn is the Songs of Zion. In these psalms, God is extolled for having made Mount Zion the place where his presence would be uniquely manifested (Psalm 46, Psalm 48, Psalm 76, Psalm 84, Psalm 87, Psalm 122).

3. Thanksgiving Psalms

These are joyful expressions of thanksgiving. The dominant feature is an expression of gratitude to the LORD for having responded to a request of an individual or a group (Longman, Psalms, 30–31). An individual psalm of thanksgiving is found in Psalm 32 (also Psalm 18, Psalm 30, Psalm 34, Psalm 40, Psalm 66, Psalm 92, Psalm 116, Psalm 118, Psalm 138). In this psalm, David thanks the LORD for forgiving him of his sin that involved his adultery with Bathsheba and responsibility for the murder of her husband. His prayer for forgiveness is found in his penitential lament in Psalms 51. A national psalm of thanksgiving is found in Psalms 124. Israel expresses gratitude to the LORD for delivering them from impending destruction (other examples include Psalm 65, Psalm 67, Psalm 75, Psalm 107, and Psalm 136).

4. Kingship and Covenant Psalms

These Psalms celebrate and affirm loyalty to God as King, the theocratic king, and God’s covenant. This category has three subcategories. First, divine kingship psalms celebrate the LORD’s sovereign rule over the universe. The psalms in this category are Psalms 24, Psalms 29, Psalms 47, Psalms 93, Psalms 95, Psalms 96, Psalms 97, Psalms 98, and Psalms 99. Second, theocratic kingship psalms, generally known as “royal psalms,” celebrate the Davidic dynasty and the universal kingdom. These psalms are joined by their focus on Israel’s earthly king. Further, they have the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7 (also 1 Chronicles 17) as their foundation. Finally, they may focus on the importance of the Davidic line and its relationship to God, as in Psalms 2, Psalms 89, and Psalms 132. Psalms 18 is a royal thanksgiving psalm. Psalms 20 requests God’s blessing on the king. Psalms 45 focuses on a royal wedding. Therefore, the focus of these psalms is the Davidic king, but it can refer to various phases of kingship. The remaining royal psalms are Psalms 21, Psalms 72, Psalms 101, Psalms 110, and Psalms 144. The royal psalms are especially significant for Christians because they provide the background and find their culmination in our Lord Jesus Christ. Third, two psalms, Psalms 50 and Psalms 81, are intended to encourage Israel to renew her allegiance to God and the Mosaic Covenant (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible, 213).

5. Songs of Trust

These are dominated by their emphasis on trusting God and the safeguard that trusting in God produces. Though enemies surround David in Psalms 11 and Psalms 23, he puts his trust in the LORD, and from this, he finds security. In Psalm 121, the worshippers traveling to Jerusalem were faced with danger, yet they focused their eyes of faith on the LORD. In Psalms 131, the psalmist’s submissive trust in his LORD is graphically compared to a weaned child with his mother. Other psalms in this grouping are Psalms 16, Psalms 62, Psalms 63, Psalms 91, and Psalms 125.

6. Wisdom Psalms

Psalms of Wisdom have a didactic nature and emphasize the Torah as fundamental for blessing. In addition, they contrast the lifestyle of the righteous with that of the wicked. Two rhetorical elements that dominate this genre are the blessing pronouncement and the use of similes. Psalms in this category are Psalms 1, Psalms 15, Psalms 36, Psalms 37, Psalms 49, Psalms 73, Psalms 112, Psalms 119, Psalms 127, Psalms 128, and Psalms 133.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we recognize genre whenever we read a psalm, as well as any portion of the Bible. For example, when reading Joshua 1, we know it is history; and looking at the Psalter, it is evident that each psalm is poetry. The poetic genre of the Psalms is a general literary category. More precisely, Psalms 13 is an individual lament, as v. 1 indicates (“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”).

To assist in a more precise reading of the Psalter, I recommend that you read Fee and Stuart’s chapter, “The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth) and Longman’s How to Read the Psalms. As you read the Psalms, both sources will assist in identifying each Psalm’s genre. May God help us to master Israel’s hymnbook and ours.

by Bob McCabe