Most of us love the psalms. They hit us right where we are. They move us to praise God, love God, honor God. They help us deal with some of the difficulties we face in life. But if you’re like me, you always feel like you are missing something when you read one. You know there is a deeper meaning, you just can’t seem to grasp it. Maybe I can help.
I’ve been teaching a class on the Psalms at the Brownsburg Church of Christ and just getting an immeasurable amount of wealth from psalms I have read my whole life. I feel like I’ve finally started getting beneath the surface of these poems and songs. This past Sunday, instead of just examining the psalm assigned by the workbook we are going through, I used it Psalm 8 as an example psalm to show how to study a psalm.
Now, I’ll admit, I’m no scholar. I’m not a psalm expert. But I’ve really been helped by following this 8-step process in examining the psalm. If you, like me, are just a simply Bible student and want some simple tools to help you study deeper, perhaps this will help you as it has me.
I’ll share the 8 steps here in this post. However, I have also uploaded a pdf of how I used these steps to study Psalm 8, along with the visual map of the psalm I shared with the class at Brownsburg. Use it if it is helpful. Download it by clicking here.
8 Steps to Study a Psalm
Step #1: Pigeonhole the psalm
What kind of psalm is it? Being able to label a psalm helps us know which direction the psalm is going and lets us see the forest before looking at the trees. Different authors have delineated different genres. I use the genres defined by Tremper Longman III. Find out more by downloading my example of studying Psalm 8.
Step #2: Be leery of reading yourself into the psalm too quickly
Okay, this is not so much a step as it is trying to keep you from taking a misstep. No doubt, you will eventually read the psalm in the context of your life. But if you do it too quickly, you may miss the real meaning of the psalm and then not apply it to your life as intended. Psalm 8 is a great example of where I had made this mistake.
Step #3: Look for context clues of when and why the psalm was written
Some psalms come with an attribution and even a setting. There is some question regarding how accurate those are. But, if they can’t always tell you exactly when a psalm was written, they can at least give you the concept that an early editor of the Old Testament hymnal had about when and why the psalm was written.
Beyond the attribution, look for statements in the psalm that give evidence about when and why the psalm was written. For instance, Psalm 8:2 speaks about God giving strength to defeat enemies. This indicates that this psalm was written in response to some victory granted by God.
You can’t always get a specific setting for every psalm. But at least you may be able to determine a general basis for the writing of the psalm.
Step #4: Look at the structure of the psalm
Strive to develop an outline. Look for the sections of the psalm. What are the themes? What are the supporting points? How are they made? Did the psalmist use statements, questions, commands, praises, laments? Does the psalm shift in person and who is speaking? Are there repeated structures? Are there parallel concepts? Are there repeated words or phrases?
This is the toughest and most involved step. In this step, I often do what I call a visual mapping of the psalm. That is I print the psalm out on paper and start drawing connections between the words and phrases. It can produce a messy sheet of paper, but when you step back, a map of the psalm stands out that almost always helps me see the structure and meaning of the psalm.
Once again, I encourage you to download my example study of Psalm 8 to see greater detail of how to accomplish this step and to see an example of a mapped out psalm.
Step #5: Examine keywords
Keywords are words upon which the meaning of the psalm hinges. They may be words repeated throughout the psalm. They may be words used in special ways with which you have to come to terms. They may be words that you struggle with to know the meaning. They may be words that you can tell are simply important because of how they are used. Don’t just work on the denotations of the words–the actual definitions. Also, work on the connotations in the context of the psalm. Consider not what the word means all by itself, but how the psalmist is using the word in the psalm.
Step #6: Consider the Old Testament Context
Does the psalm include any concepts, references, allusions, or even quotes from other passages in the Old Testament (even in the Psalms). Keep this step in the Old Testament. That will help provide the original intended meaning in the Old Testament context. We need to know that meaning before we can see how the psalm applies to our lives and before determining any New Covenant or Messianic meaning.
Step #7: What lessons do you learn from the psalm based on your study so far?
Having pigeon-holed, outlined, examined the keywords, and considered the original context, what lessons do you get out of the psalm for your own life? List them and test them against the psalm to see if they really are there.
Step #8: Examine how the psalm is used in the New Testament to see if there is a greater New Covenant/Messianic meaning
In many cases, the New Testament writers quoted the Psalms and demonstrated that while the psalm had a meaning in the original historical context, God had a greater meaning behind the psalm that was not understood until the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is not necessarily the idea of double meaning or dual fulfillment. This is the concept that in Jesus, the meaning of the psalm is intensified and made more full. I often refer to this as a greater fulfillment or an ultimate fulfillment.
Please, don’t discount the meaning in the original context and just skip to the ultimate meaning in Jesus. If you do that, you’ll gain insight into the nature of Jesus, but you may miss the personal help and direction the psalm can give you for your life. At the same time, don’t stop with simply having figured out the meaning in the original context. If you do, you may gain help in your daily life, but you’ll miss the truly awe-inspiring nature of the prophetic nature of the psalms and exactly how Jesus fulfills all that God revealed in the Old Testament.
In this step, I exercise some caution. While there may be some psalms that seem Messianic, and we can develop some interesting points, I’m leery of supplying my own Messianic meaning to a psalm. I tend to only supply that meaning if the New Testament writers pave the way to find that meaning.
I hope this was helpful. Let me know if it is. Also, let me know what you do to help you study the psalms. Make sure to leave a comment with your suggestions and helps.
And, once again, I encourage you to download my study example of Psalm 8 to see these steps and the mapping worked out in a real-life Bible study example.
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