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The Hebraic Quality of Psalms

Series Title: Going Up with the Psalms of Ascent (chapter 1)

 

These edited transcripts are taken from Dwight's most loved audio series, Highways in Their Hearts. Click here to see the downloadable audio version in our online store.

 

How many of you want to join me in going up to the LORD in ever-increasing intimacy, knowledge, and fellowship? The Psalms of Ascent can help us do just that; they are this seminar's subject. I wish to explore them as an opportunity to help you grow up in Christ Jesus.


Let's begin our series by laying a firm foundation. To better comprehend the special section we'll be studying, Psalms 120-134, it is important to understand the entire Psalter and the various types of Psalms you'll find in the book.


In Hebrew the Psalter is called Tehillim, songs of praise (or sefer tehillim, songbook of praise). It is an incredible anthology of centuries of devotion that individuals have compiled for corporate and individual use in singing and expressing praises unto God.


Of all the books of the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms hold a very special place in our hearts, as it does in anyone who studies and reads God's Word. There are many reasons for this. It is a treasure of untold spiritual wealth, a gold mine that yields incalculable riches each time it is mined. Centuries of passionate seeking and devotion have been crammed into this series of 150 classics of the soul questing for God.


The Psalms give vivid expression to Hebrew life and worship, a heritage that we, as followers of Jesus, now partake in and share.

Psalms were sung and prayed long before they were written down. They were compiled and edited for all those who followed so they could also take these spiritual journeys spoken of in the book. The psalms emerged from the manner of Israel's worship of the one true God, Yahweh. If worship was the very heartbeat of the life of the people of God, then the psalms represent the veins that transport the life force of the blood throughout the body from the heart.


The Psalms convey the life-energy of devoted hearts turned to God and God's heart responding to them. They mirror the whole life of Israel from the Creator to his creation, from the Redeemer to his redeemed. And their history as his people, all the way down to the personal sufferings of individuals. Psalms are primarily directed to God, and they reflect all ranges and reaches of the religious life of Israel. Their piety is dynamic and their moods are diverse.


Approximately a third of the book is made up of laments with the balance consisting of praises of various types. Together, these reflect an openness, a communion with the God of Israel that I both envy and desire. They represent the spontaneous crying out, the praising and declaring of godly people, and God's gracious response. Sefer Tehillim is often referred to as the hymnbook of the 2nd temple period.

The Psalms hold much in the way of wisdom and instruction for you and me. They represent a gradual accumulation, an anthology of devotion, and a rich heritage that mirrors in the microcosm the macrocosm of God's dealings with mankind and his people—as portrayed in the Word of God. The book of Psalms has been compiled and edited. It is not just a random collection.

The 150 psalms in the book were grouped into five major divisions, each section ending with a doxology.

  • Group 1: Psalms 1-41

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen. (41:13)

  • Group 2: Psalms 42-72

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen! (72:18-19)

  • Group 3: Psalms 73-89

Blessed be the LORD forever! Amen and Amen. (89:52)

  • Group 4: Psalms 90-106

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the LORD! (106:48)

  • Group 5: Psalms 107 – 150

The entirety of Psalm 150 is a crescendo of praise that serves as a doxology for the whole collection. It ends with, Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! (150:6)

According to Israel's sages, these five divisions or groupings correspond to the five foundational books of the Torah. It's a beautiful symmetry, the five books of Moses and the five books of David. Here are some important points you can study on your own. From the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus quotes most from the Psalter, Isaiah, and Deuteronomy. He treasured the treasury we are exploring. In addition, Psalm 110 is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament.


Some psalms are gathered in various large or small collections.


Among the larger collections are those designated the Psalms of David (3-41). There is a grouping in which the word Elohim is used instead of the word Yahweh for God (42-83). Some are collected based on the guild of singers that were responsible for them: the Psalms of Korah (42-49) and the Psalms of Asaph (73-89).


And then there are the Psalms of Ascent (P120-134), processional psalms sung by pilgrims and choirs on their way up to the Temple in Jerusalem. This collection will be the specific focus of our seminar.

As a superficial but significant two-fold classification of the Psalms, we could say there are psalms of praise and psalms of lament. Within each of those categories are praises and laments both for individuals and the community.

It will transform your life if you will come to live in the Psalms. It will transform our communities of faith if we share in the life of the Psalms.

I want to help you do just that. You will come to dwell more consistently in the presence of the Most High God if you take these into your heart. These praises and laments correspond to the rhythms of joy and grief that characterize all of our experiences as we walk in but not of the world.

Life is full of ups and downs. These psalms do not come from theologians or theological ideas but from historical events. That is what we should expect from God's people. And it is a crucial lesson for us. Rather than springing from abstract ideas, the psalms spring from concrete events.

Something happens that occasions joy or grief, and in a spontaneous, open-hearted manner, the individual and/or the community expresses their joy or their sorrow in the form of a psalm. Again, psalms are reactions and responses to events rather than contrived theological speculations. As such they are personal and communal, concrete and real, and they touch us the same way.

My last foundational observation is very important and helpful. It is another example of the difference between typical Greek and Hebraic, more biblical ways of thinking. The Psalms are a specific kind of literature. We could say it this way: they are poetic as opposed to prose.


That may seem obvious today but up until the 8th century it was not believed to be the case. Christian scholars thought the psalms were prayers written in prose. They are not, they are poetry. More to the point, they consist of Hebrew poetry not Greek or Latin poetry. What is the difference? Hebrew poetic literature does not correspond to the metrical scheme of Greek and Latin poetry or the end rhyme of modern verse.


To better grasp the difference, think of it this way. The psalmists did not write with an aesthetic intent like Western literature and poetry. They wrote with a functional intent. As expressions of the heartbeat of Israel in its worship and pursuit of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Psalms are living, breathing functional expressions of praise and lament, of thanksgiving and petitioning and rejoicing—all unto God!


As such, they were written in a free and flexible rhythm that impressed itself on the minds of those who sang, read, or recited them. The chief way of creating this rhythmic character in Hebrew is not by concentrating on syllables, words, rhymes, or some artificial metric system. Rather, you do it by balancing whole sentences against one another—this is called parallelism in English. Once you begin to see this, it adds layers of depth, meaning, and personal application.



 

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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.


Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.


Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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