by Bob McCabe

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 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 basic genres. Today we will briefly examine the first three of these.

1. Lament is the most dominant genre found in the Psalter. More than one-third of the psalms are of this nature. The dominant defining character 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 identifying 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 as an individual lament highlighting what took place when David fled from Absalom. An element of trust concludes this psalm in Psalms 3:7-8 (other examples include Psalms 4, Psalms 5, Psalms 6, Psalms 7, Psalms 9, and others). Psalms 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 Psalms 44:1-6, Psalms 58, Psalms 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 Psalms 12, Psalms 35, Psalms 58, Psalms 59, Psalms 69, Psalms 70, Psalms 109, Psalms 140).

2. 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 deliverer of Israel in Psalms 66, Psalms 100, Psalms 111, Psalms 114, Psalms 148, and as the Lord of history in Psalms 33, Psalms 103, Psalms 113, Psalms 117, Psalms 145, Psalms 146, Psalms 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 (Psalms 46, Psalms 48, Psalms 76, Psalms 84, Psalms 87, Psalms 122).

3. Thanksgiving psalms 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 Psalms 32 (also Psalms 18, Psalms 30, Psalms 34, Psalms 40, Psalms 66, Psalms 92, Psalms 116, Psalms 118, Psalms 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 an impending destruction (other examples include Psalms 65, Psalms 67, Psalms 75, Psalms 107, Psalms 136).