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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Types of Psalms

Commentators classify the psalms in slightly different ways. (The categories here are quite general.) There is widespread agreement, however, that the major headings are three: lament, hymn, and thanksgiving. In addition to these major groups, there are royal psalms, wisdom poems, and some psalms that might fit into more than one category. Since psalms are the prayerful responses to life experiences, a study of their forms as well as their content will throw light on the life situation of the community from which they sprang.


The type of psalm that occurs most frequently in the Psalter is the lament. Nearly a third of all the psalms belong to this category. Depending on the identity of the speaker, laments are further classified as community laments or laments of the individual. The structure of the lament is not exactly the same in every case. Not all laments appear to be complete, and even when the most common elements are present, they do not seem to have any fixed order. Still, laments are usually comprised of an invocation directed toward God; the actual lament or complaint that describes the suffering endured by the one(s) praying; a plea for deliverance from this misfortune; some kind of praise of God, often an expression of confidence that God will come to the rescue of the community or the individual; a vow to perform an act of worship in gratitude for God's intervention. Some laments also include an acknowledgment of guilt or an assertion of innocence. Finally, there is frequently a curse hurled against those believed to be responsible for the intolerable situation that precipitates the lament. This last feature has caused considerable difficulty for those who wish to use the psalms in their own prayer.

It is quite clear that the community laments (Pss 12, 14, 44, 53, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, 94, 106, 123, 126, 137 ) were somehow associated with the official cultic worship of Israel. Most probably they were used when the people gathered to fast and pray on special occasions arising from national humiliation or distress. The enemies referred to are usually national enemies who, by being opponents of Israel, were viewed as opposed to the Lord. These psalms often contain a recital of the former marvelous deeds that God had accomplished in the history of the nation. This was meant to remind God of past favors and thus encourage God to grant new ones, as well as to remind the people of God's earlier blessings in order to instill confidence in their hearts.

The laments of the individual (Pss 3–7, 13, 17, 22, 25–28, 31, 35, 36, 38–40, 42/43 [considered a single psalm, as explained in the NAB footnote], 51, 52, 54–57, 59, 61, 63, 64, 69–71, 77, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, 140–143 ) were most likely prayerful responses to personal misfortunes such as illness or persecution. Commentators believe that they were an integral part of personal liturgical devotion. Frequently, people who were suffering went to the Temple or to some shrine for the purpose of making a formal request to God for deliverance. Laments, with their declaration of trust in God, were simultaneously prayers to God and testimonies of hope for the benefit of the community gathered around the one suffering.


The hymn is a song in praise of God. While many hymns appear to be the prayers of individuals, most of them seem to have been composed for use in the liturgies of Israel's major festivals. The reason for praising God, as expressed in the psalm itself, enables us to further classify certain hymns as psalms of the kingship of the LORD or as songs of Zion.

The structure of the hymn (Pss 8, 19, 29, 33, 100, 103–104, 111, 113, 114, 117, 135, 136, 145–150 ) is quite simple. It begins with a call to praise, which suggests that this type of psalm originated within a community setting and, at this point, some kind of liturgical leader is calling the others to prayer. This introductory exhortation is followed by an account of the wondrous acts of God, deeds that cause us to stand in awe. Depending upon the psalm, God is praised for the glories of creation (for example, Ps 8 ) or for the marvelous feats performed specifically for the people of Israel (among others, Ps 114 ). Having proclaimed God's glorious deeds, the psalm ends with a repetition of the initial call to praise, some expression of exaltation of God, and a plea for God's blessing. (This is a general description. Not all of the elements are present in every psalm.)

Hymns of the Lord's kingship (Pss 47, 93, 96–99 ) are a distinct group among the psalms. Their focus is the Lord, the universal king, and they have many images and motifs in common. Some scholars claim that these psalms were composed for the annual celebration of the feast of the Enthronement of the Lord. Therefore, they refer to this group as “enthronement psalms,” and they place them in a category of their own. No account of such a festival can be found in the Bible itself, however. For that reason, and also because this group of psalms fits the general hymnic pattern perfectly, they are here simply classified as hymns.

The songs of Zion (Pss 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122 ) extol Mount Zion as God's holy mountain and Jerusalem as the city that God chose to inhabit. There is a variation in the structure of these psalms. Both the introductory and concluding call to praise, which are typical of hymns, are missing. Still, the body of this type of psalm celebrates the mighty God of Israel, who held back every kind of primeval attack on the city and who now dwells on its sacred mountain. As with the psalms in praise of the Lord's kingship, we are not certain about the cultic setting at which the songs of Zion were sung. We may be heirs to Israel's songs, but we do not know more than a few general facts about its cultic calendar, and we cannot reconstruct its system of worship.

Confidence and Thanksgiving

It is rather difficult to classify psalms of thanksgiving, because expressions of confidence and gratitude are often found within laments. This has led many interpreters to list these psalms with either community or individual laments. There are some psalms, however, that might be considered explicit psalms of confidence, either communal (Pss 115, 125, 129 ) or individual (Pss 11, 16, 23, 62, 91, 121, 131 ). Psalms of thanksgiving, again either communal (Pss 65–68, 75, 107, 118, 124 ) or individual (Pss 9/10, 30, 32, 34, 41, 92, 116, 138 ), also comprise a distinct category. It is the subject matter rather than the form that characterizes these psalms. Like the laments, they were probably part of the communal and personal liturgical life of the people and were used in cult and devotion when the religious sentiments that they express were in order (perhaps at a time of great peril, in the case of the psalm of confidence, or during a harvest festival or after a threat had been successfully resisted, in the case of the psalm of thanksgiving.

Royal Psalms

There are several psalms that direct our attention specifically and exclusively to the king. Some scholars believe that they point to a prominent royal role in the cult. Others contend that the king did not have to be a cultic leader to enjoy a significant place in the ritual. His political and religious importance was enough to assure him of a cultic function. We must remember that Israel was a nation that perceived its king as the representative of the whole people before God and as God's special envoy for the people. This shared perception entitled the king to the prominence he enjoyed.

Various occasions in the life of the king constitute the setting of these psalms. There are coronation hymns (Pss 2, 72, 101, 110 ), an anniversary hymn (Ps 132 ), a royal wedding song (Ps 45 ), petitions in behalf of the warrior‐king (Pss 20, 144 ), and prayers of thanksgiving for his successes (Pss 18, 21 ). These royal psalms are often referred to as “messianic psalms.” “Messiah” means “anointed one,” and the king is called “messiah” or “anointed” in Psalm 2 . To read them as messianic psalms implies that they refer to an ideal king who is to come in the future. These psalms take on new meaning in the Christian tradition when they are applied to Jesus, the king par excellence and the one “anointed” by God.

Wisdom Poems

These poems (Pss 1, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128 ) are clearly different from those psalms that probably originated in, and were used during, liturgical celebrations. They differ in both content and style. The wisdom tradition in general is concerned with the problem of evil, the suffering of the righteous, and the justice of God. These same themes, along with language and imagery characteristic of that tradition, are found in the wisdom psalms. Finally, the manner of address here is intended to instruct rather than evoke a response. The wisdom psalms call people to listen and learn, not to pray.

Although wisdom psalms do not follow a uniform style, they do have some distinctive literary characteristics. The sages of ancient Israel made use of several techniques that were judged helpful for learning. Some of these techniques appear in the wisdom psalms. One of the most popular ones is the acrostic arrangement. This is a poetic form in which the alphabet determines the initial letter of the first word of each successive line. Several wisdom poems follow this arrangement (for example, Pss 37; 112 along with the hymns 111; 119 ). Because they conform to this pattern, some commentators include as wisdom poems some of the psalms listed here under other categories (hymn—Ps 145 ; lament—Ps 25 ; thanksgiving—Pss 9/10, 34 ).

It may be difficult to understand how and why this type of psalm originated and was included in the various collections. What may be even more puzzling is the fact that the Psalter begins with a wisdom poem (Ps 1 ). Most likely a postexilic compiler placed this psalm first at a time when there was neither Temple nor temple worship, and those responsible for the religious life of the community wanted to keep the psalms alive in Israelite devotion. At this particularly critical time the psalms might have been seen as a treasury for much‐needed instruction as well as for prayer. The organization into five books might well have been patterned after the Torah or five books of Moses, wherein the major teachings of the faith were found.

Various Psalms

There are other psalms that quite obviously were used during a pilgrimage to or procession around Jerusalem and the Temple. The Songs of Ascent, one of the early collections alluded to above, preserves the memory of such psalms. In addition to this group, there are other psalms that were sung during processions (Pss 15, 24, 95 ). A few psalms appear to have been composed after the style of prophetic speech (Pss 50, 81, 82 ). Since people frequently came to the Temple or to a shrine in search of some word from the Lord, it is understandable that traces of this form would remain in some psalms. Finally, a small number of psalms seem to defy classification. They are either historical recitals of the salvific feats of the Lord (Pss 78, 105 ), composites of other psalm forms (Pss 108, 133, 139 ), or general liturgical songs (Ps 134 ).

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