Approaches to Psalms

July 1, 2010
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Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #25

The Book of Psalms is one of the most beautiful and meaningful books of the Bible, and it is agonizing to realize that our Sunday School schedule only allows one lesson to cover the entire oeuvre.  In this post, I’d like to outline several possible ways to approach a one-hour lesson on the Psalms, and to request your input as to which appeals to you personally.

1. Messianic Approach to Psalms

Our lesson manual begins with a list of 13 prophecies of the life and mission of Jesus Christ which can be found in the Psalms.  (A more complete list can be found here.)  There are several reasons why a study of Messianic prophecy is a helpful way to approach the Psalms.  The prophecies can be used as evidence to strengthen faith in the Savior and identify Jesus as the true Messiah.  They are also a source of insight into the Lord’s passion, resurrection, ascension, reign, and judgment.

2. Literary Approach to Psalms

The Psalms provide some truly transcendent examples of Hebrew literature.  Many teachers use this opportunity to instruct their students on the nuances of Hebrew poetry, including parallelism, chiasmus, figurative expression, and other literary techniques.  An example of a lesson prepared in this manner was recently posted on Feast Upon the Word blog.  Other good basic lessons using this approach can be found here and here (comes with a power point presentation!)  A literary approach to the Psalms can assist in proper interpretation of scripture and provide a glimpse into the power these passages contain in the original language.

3. Doctrinal Approach to Psalms

Because of its many strengths, students don’t always realize the wealth of doctrine that is covered in the Psalms.  Themes that are covered include the plan of salvation, sin, justification, sanctification, judgment, faith, repentance, forgiveness, evil spirits, immortality, eternal rewards, and many others.  I personally have been excited and enlightened to find clarifying doctrinal tidbits in these verses.  This approach might take much time to prepare, but teaching students where and how to extract doctrine from the Psalms could be an important and valuable endeavor.

4. Devotional Approach to Psalms

John Calvin said of the psalms:

“This book I am wont to style an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for no one will discover in himself a single feeling whereof the image is not reflected in this mirror. Nay, all griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, anxieties – in short, all those tumultuous agitations wherewith the minds of men are wont to be tossed – the Holy Ghost hath here represented to the life.”

The Greek word “psalmos” comes from the Hebrew word “zmr” meaning “to pluck”; i.e., taking hold of the strings of an instrument with the fingers. It implies that the psalms were originally composed to be accompanied by a stringed instrument.  We are to pluck the strings of our heart (or sing with emotion) as we recite the psalms.  An advantage of this approach is increased spiritual access to the Psalms which serves as a reservoir in times of need. A recent comment on one of my posts lamented that we Latter-day Saints don’t turn to the Psalms for worship and devotion as often as we should.  This lesson could be a perfect opportunity to remedy the situation.

5. Historical Approach to Psalms

The oldest of the Psalms originate from the time of Moses (1400 B.C.). We have three psalms penned by Moses:

  • Exo 15:1-15 – a song of triumph following the crossing of the Red Sea
  • Deut 32, 33 – a song of exhortation to keep the Law after entering Canaan
  • Ps 90 – a song of meditation, reflection, and prayer

After Moses, the writing of Psalms had its “peaks” and “valleys.”  In David (1000 B.C.), the sacred lyric attained to its full maturity.  With Solomon, the creation of psalms began to decline; this was “the age of the proverb.”  Only twice after this did the creation of psalms rise to any height, and then only for a short period: under Jehoshaphat (875 B.C.) and again under Hezekiah (725 B.C.).  The chapter headings often identify who wrote each Psalm.  We also have the “Psalm of Nephi” (2 Ne 4) which can be added to the canon.  A basic article on the authorship of the Psalms can be found here.  A more in-depth treatment is here.  An historical look at the Psalms aids our understanding because it places the verses in their context.

Caution: I certainly wouldn’t suggest trying to cover all of these approaches in one lesson.  Wouldn’t you love to have a Sunday to cover each one of these?  But since we don’t have that luxury, choose one of the above which appeals to you and embellish it.  I’d love to get some comments on which approach you find the most attractive and why.  Can you think of any other ways to consider the Book of Psalms?  Did your Ward Sunday School teacher use any of these approaches in teaching the lesson?

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen Marsh

    There is a lot about revenge and triumph in the Psalms as well. Makes me ponder some things.

  • Aaron R.

    BiV, I think that spelling out these different approaches at the beginning of a lesson on the Psalms, or even any scripture, is a really excellent way of helping people see that all texts can be read with different intentions and then inevitable produce different results.

    Y’know I would love it if teh SS Teacher in our ward started the lesson every week with: “Do you recall the 5(?) approaches we have discussed? Well last week we used a doctrinal approach to David and Goliath and this week we use a Historical approach to the Psalms.”

  • http://millennialstar.org Geoff B

    BiV, great stuff! I am printing this out right now to help with Sunday’s lesson, which I am giving in my ward.

  • Kevin Barney

    For the literary approach, folks might find useful my article on Understanding Hebrew Poetry from the June 1990 Ensign.

  • http://kolobiv.blogspot.com Bored in Vernal

    Here’s a link to Kevin’s article: Understanding Hebrew Poetry, which was First-Place winner in the 1989 Old Testament Article contest.

  • Thomas

    I love the Psalms for the same reason I love the hymns.

    Regardless of who is credited with writing the Psalms, I believe it’s more likely that they, like the hymns, were written as devotional poetry, chiefly by believers outside the formal governing structure of the religion of the day. One thing I love about religion, is how regardless of how a faith gets started, when decent people get ahold of a tradition, they project their highest aspirations onto it, and create a beautiful truth.

    Founders of religions get most of the credit for them, but time and again, I see the “supporting Saints” as the real creators and custodians of a tradition’s goodness.

  • Matt

    BIV,

    Thanks for another well-written post. I don’t comment often, but I check in here when I can and I really enjoy and appreciate your thoughts.

    I agree with your general lamentation about the futility of trying to do something substantive with the psalms in only one hour (probably more like 30 minutes after getting everybody settled after sacrament meeting). I think all of your options sound interesting and promising. Let me suggest one more alternative to add to your list:

    Some time ago I taught a gospel doctrine class on the Psalms and approached it entirely from a musical perspective. I brought in a CD player and some decent speakers. I spent the entire lesson having people read certain psalms, then playing and asking people to listen to various musical adaptations of the same psalms. I had a handout which had the text of the psalms that were being sung. We even had a quartet sing one or two. There are hundreds of beautiful choral arrangements of the psalms. Three that you could start with are from John Rutter’s Requiem: “Out of the Deep” (Psalm 130); “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes” (Psalm 121) (I think this one is also on MoTab’s recent album “Heavensong”); and of course “The Lord is My Shepherd” (psalm 23).

    Music has an astonishing power to bring meaning to words in any context (would anybody recite “she loves you yeah yeah yeah” if it weren’t for the Beatles), but this is particularly true with respect to the psalms. If you’ve never experimented with this read Psalm 121, then go to Itunes and download a recording of “I will lift up mine eyes” and you’ll see what I mean.

    I’m not generally very creative, but the people in my ward at the time really appreciated and enjoyed the lesson. I’ve never heard of anyone else approaching the psalms in a Gospel Doctrine class this way, although my own musical background is somewhat limited and I can’t be the only one who’s thought of this. There are dozens of arrangements of the 23rd psalm alone, but there are probably hundreds of the various psalms. One could easily spend an hour listening to various arrangements of the 23rd psalm, seeing what different musicians emphasized in setting the psalm to music.

    Anyway, just a thought. Good luck with your lesson, and please keep writing.

  • http://kolobiv.blogspot.com Bored in Vernal

    Matt, that sounds like a wonderful lesson, a perfect way to present the Psalms. It sort of goes along with a devotional approach, but with a little twist. The music would really add to the appreciation of this book of scripture. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Aaron R.

    I’m not an expert in this area but I did enjoy reading Sidney Sperry’s book on the OT (The Spirit of the Old Testament), especially regarding the Psalms. I think it is a very worthwhile resource that would be a comfortable read for LDS folk across the spectrum of belief.

  • Rich

    Matt – 7

    ” (probably more like 30 minutes after getting everybody settled after sacrament meeting).”

    Start on time (class ready or not) end on time. That gives you a good 47 minutes if I remember the block right (a quater after to five after).

    Until just recently I held the psalms as one of the most boring books in the world and yet I knew the Saviour had a very different idea of them. I could never figue that out. Then the last time I read them I found myself marking a lot of verses – they were interesting – and I wasn’t just making it up. I still can’t figue that out but I’m not going to fight it.

    Teachers like you appear to be should always take the whole time. Start teaching more keep up the good work.

  • Angus

    Great lesson ideas! Thank you. By the way, the Sunday School period is ONLY 40 minutes long if the CHI is followed exactly.

  • Mrs. Britt Daniel

    Cheryl – I LOVE the five approaches. I will outline these at the beginning of the lesson I give tomorrow, and Matt, thanks for the references. I knew I was going to use some songs … but now realize that there are more available than I knew of. Glad to know, too, that it worked for your class & I look forward to sharing your approach with my class.

  • LeeAnne

    I thank you for the ideas – I am teaching this to course 14-15 and was struggling with how to present.
    I thought of making a chart about the different purposes for the psalm and giving them a reference and
    having them match them up. The musical approach may be more interesting to them.

    I have less than 40 minutes because I have Teachers who are putting away the Sacrament items and we wait for them.

    I am open for ideas for teaching this to teens.

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