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Literature / Book of Psalms

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The Vespasian Psalter, from 8th-century England

"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want."
Psalm 23:1

The Book of Psalms is the first book of the Ketuvim ("Writings"), the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and a book of the Christian Old Testament. It is a rich collection of poems, hymns, and prayers that express the religious feelings of the Jews throughout many periods of history. With each of its 150 poems (151 in Eastern Christianity) having its own chapter, it has more chapters than any other book of the Bible.

The Psalms have played a core part in Jewish and Christian liturgy, and are frequently used for devotion and prayer. Psalters are sometimes sold as their own books apart from the Bible, and some Metrical Psalters have been made to better fit English poetry.

Note that some old-fashioned Catholic and Orthodox bibles (being based on the Vulgate and Septuagint) number the Psalms differently than Hebrew-based modern bibles - see this here on Wikipedia for more info.

Structure of the book:

  • Book I (Psalms 1-41)
  • Book II (Psalms 42-72)
  • Book III (Psalm 73-89)
  • Book IV (Psalm 90-106)
  • Book V (Psalm 107-150)
  • Psalm 151 (usually listed separately)


  • Added Alliterative Appeal: The original Hebrew texts of Psalm 119 is an acrostic consisting of 8 lines per 22 stanzas that are associated with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
  • Anaphora: This book may feature the first use of an anaphora on the 29th psalm:
    The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over the mighty waters.
    The voice of the LORD is power; the voice of the LORD is majesty.
    The voice of the LORD breaks cedars; the LORD shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
    The voice of the LORD kindles flames of fire;
    The voice of the LORD convulses the wilderness; the LORD convulses the wilderness of Kadesh;
    The voice of the LORD causes hinds to calve, and strips forests bare; while in His temple all say “Glory!”
  • Arc Words: "For His mercy endures forever" or some variation thereof in the later Psalms. Psalm 136 has this line repeated no more than 26 times throughout the entire psalm.
  • Army of Lawyers: Psalm 127 suggests that a man who is blessed with a lot of sons will have this at his disposal, for they will "speak with their enemies at the gate", which is where court decisions were usually held in ancient Israel.
  • The Atoner: Some of David's Psalms appear this way, particularly Psalm 51 where he laments on his sin of adultery.
  • Banana Peel: Psalm 37:14-15, from The Message:
    Bullies brandish their swords,
    pull back on their bows with a flourish.
    They’re out to beat up on the harmless,
    or mug that nice man out walking his dog.
    A banana peel lands them flat on their faces—
    slapstick figures in a moral circus.
  • Blood Bath: Invoked in Psalm 58:10 (KJV).
    The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
  • Bowdlerise: Many of the religious traditions that use the Psalms in worship leave the Imprecatory Psalms out of regular rotation, reasoning (not unfairly) that the Values Dissonance of the psalmist asking God to smite his enemies requires more contextualizing than a face-value congregational reading would allow.
  • Bully Hunter: “LORD, who is like You? You save the poor from one stronger than he, the poor and needy from his despoiler.” — Psalm 35:10
  • Call-Back: The psalmist mentions about how God smote the firstborn in Egypt in Psalm 105:29-36.
  • Cargo Cult: Psalms 115 and 135 both comment on the worship of idols by saying this about them:
    Their idols are silver and gold,
    the work of men’s hands.
    They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
    eyes, but they cannot see;
    they have ears, but they cannot hear;
    noses, but they cannot smell;
    they have hands, but they cannot feel;
    feet, but they cannot walk;
    neither can they speak with their throat.
    Those who make them are like them;
    so is everyone who trusts in them. (Psalm 115:4-8)
  • Clingy Costume: From Psalm 109:18-19 (NIV 2011 edition):
    He wore cursing as his garment;
    it entered into his body like water,
    into his bones like oil.
    May it be like a cloak wrapped about him,
    like a belt tied forever around him.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: "I hate people with divided loyalties, but I love your law." (Psalm 119:113, NET Bible)
  • Deal with the Devil: From Psalm 58:1-2 from The Message:
    Is this any way to run a country?
    Is there an honest politician in the house?
    Behind the scenes you weave webs of deceit,
    behind closed doors you make deals with demons.
  • Decapitation Strike: In Psalm 141:6, David prays for that a rival leader would die (either by slipping on rocks or falling from a cliff, depending on the translation), and that fallen leader’s followers would now follow him.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The form of Hebrew poetry used in most of the psalms is called "parallelism," meaning that rather than rhyming single words with similar sounds, the same idea is repeated in similar ways. note  One characteristic example:
    The law of the Lord is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
    The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
    The precepts of the Lord are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
    The commands of the Lord are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes.
    —Psalm 19:7-8
  • Divine Right of Kings: Psalm 2 is considered this kind of psalm for the kings of Judah (particularly "You are My son; today I have begotten you") while standard Christian interpretation states that it also refers to Jesus Christ's coming reign over all creation at His Second Coming.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: In Psalm 89:31-32, God symbolically threatens to do this to those who don't obey His commandments.
    "If they violate My laws, and do not observe My commands, I will punish their transgression with the rod, their iniquity with plagues."
  • Downer Ending: Psalm 88 is the only psalm that is strictly lamentation and includes no statement about hope in the LORD.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: From Psalm 55:12-14:
    For it is not an enemy who reproaches me;
    then I could bear it.
    Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me;
    then I could hide from him.
    But it was you, my peer,
    my guide, and my acquaintance.
    We took pleasant counsel together,
    and walked to the house of God in company.
  • Evil Is One Big, Happy Family: Found in Psalm 83.
    Unanimous in their counsel they have made an alliance against You—
    the clans of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites,
    Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre;
    Assyria too joins forces with them; they give support to the sons of Lot. Selah.
  • Fairytale Wedding Dress: Psalm 45 describes the Pimped-Out Dress a princess wears at her wedding to the king.
    All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold.
    In many-colored robes she is led to the king,
    With her virgin companions following behind her.
    With joy and gladness they are led along, as they enter the palace of the king.
    — Psalm 45:13-15
  • Fell Asleep Crying: David, in Psalm 6:6.
  • Fire/Water Juxtaposition: In Psalm 66:12:
    You have allowed people to ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
    but You brought us out into a well-watered place.
  • Foreshadowing: According to Christians, Psalm 22 foretells the crucifixion of Christ. Christ while suffering on the cross cries out the opening line, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It then foretells how the Pharisees mocked him while he was on the cross and that Roman soldiers would cast lots for his garments.
  • Forgiveness: Psalm 32:
    Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
    Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
    And in whose spirit there is no deceit.
    For when I kept silent my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
    For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
    I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not cover my iniquity;
    I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
    And you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
    Psalm 32:1-5 (English Standard Version)
  • God Is Good: Many verses of the Psalms revolve around praising God for His goodness and mercy, much like common passages such as Psalm 100:5.
  • The Gods Must Be Lazy: The Psalmist says in Psalm 44:23:
    Lord, wake up! Why are you sleeping?
    Get up! Don’t say no to us forever. (New International Readers' Version)
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: Discussed and ultimately defied in Psalm 50:8-13:
    "I censure you not for your sacrifices, and your burnt offerings, made to Me daily; I claim no bull from your estate, no he-goats from your pens. For Mine is every animal of the forest, the beasts on a thousand mountains. I know every bird of the mountains,
    the creatures of the field are subject to Me. Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of he-goats?"
  • Good Is Not Soft: While there are many verses centered on praising God for his goodness, there are also many verses where He will punish the wicked.
  • Good Shepherd: The quote at the top of the page, the opening of Psalm 23: "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want." The rest of the Psalm goes into how He guides the psalmist like a shepherd.
  • Hanlon's Razor: "Have those who work evil no knowledge?" (Psalm 53:4)
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: Psalm 2:11 has the Psalmist tell the kings and judges of the earth (particularly the ones who are to witness the Lord's anointed being made king, and eventually Jesus Christ, as interpreted by Christians) to "serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling."
  • Have You Seen My God?: Psalm 22 asks, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: The Psalmist says this in Psalm 77:6-9:
    During the night I remembered my music.
    With my heart I pondered, and my spirit asked,
    “Will the Lord reject forever?
    Will he never again show favor?
    Has his mercy vanished to the end?
    Has what he said failed for all generations?
    Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has he really shut up his compassion in anger?” (Evangelical Heritage Version)
  • Heroic Second Wind: The final three verses of Psalm 110 speak of this about the Lord:
    The Lord is at your right hand.
    He will crush kings on the day when he is angry.
    He will judge the nations. He will pile up dead bodies on the field of battle.
    He will crush the rulers of the whole earth.
    He will drink from a brook along the way and receive new strength.
    And so he will win the battle. (New International Readers' Version)
  • The High King: Psalm 24 describes God as “the King of glory” to whom others make appeals if they are worthy to ascend His holy hill.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Invoked in Psalm 35:7-8
    For without cause they hid their net for me
    Without cause they dug a pit for my life.
    Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it!
    And let the net that he hid ensnare him
    Let him fall into it—to his destruction!
    • Shows up in several other passages as well:
    "The wicked have drawn out the sword, and bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation. Their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken." (Psalm 37:14-15, KJV)
    "Let the wicked fall into their own traps, while I walk away safely." (Psalm 141:10, ESV)
  • Hollywood Atheist: Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1 describe this about atheists:
    "The fool hath said in his heart, "There is no God". Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good."
  • Humans Are Bastards: A constant theme throughout the psalms, as the psalmists face persecution, abandonment, and betrayal, and as the people consistently fail to obey God’s commandments.
    God looks down from heaven on the children of man
    To see if there are any who understand,
    Who seek after God.
    They have fallen away
    Together they have become corrupt
    There is none who does good,
    Not even one.
    Psalm 53:2-3 (English Standard Version)
  • Humiliation Conga: Some scriptures like Psalm 52:5-7 have the righteous (and God) laughing at the wicked for their failures.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The "valley of the shadow of death" from Psalm 23:4 (King James Version). Even the more recent (and, technically, more accurate) translations,note  such as "the darkest valley" (New Revised Standard Version) or "a valley of deepest darkness" (New Jewish Publication Society) suggest this trope.
  • In the Back:
    • "They mark the luckless, then wait like a hunter in a blind; When the poor wretch wanders too close, they stab him in the back." (Psalm 10:9, The Message)
    • Psalm 144:5-8, from The Message:
    Step down out of heaven, God;
    ignite volcanoes in the hearts of the mountains.
    Hurl your lightnings in every direction;
    shoot your arrows this way and that.
    Reach all the way from sky to sea:
    pull me out of the ocean of hate,
    out of the grip of those barbarians
    Who lie through their teeth,
    who shake your hand
    then knife you in the back.
  • Invulnerable Horses: Psalm 20 defies this view of horse-drawn chariots at the time by declaring that the power of horses and chariots is nothing compared to the power of God.
    Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    But we trust in the Name of the LORD our God.
    They collapse and fall,
    But we rise and stand upright.
    Psalm 20:6-8 (English Standard Version)
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: The writer of Psalm 73 wondered how the wicked seem to go to their deaths in peace and without problems in their lives while he himself is constantly afflicted, until God pointed out that He had set them on slippery slopes to their eternal damnation.
  • Karmic Death: "Evil shall kill the wicked; and they that hate the righteous shall be held guilty." - Psalm 34:21
  • Kill It with Fire: Psalm 21:10:
    "You set them ablaze like a furnace at the time of Your anger. The LORD in anger destroys them; fire consumes them."
  • Loose Canon: Psalm 151, which retells the story of David Versus Goliath. It appears in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Hebrew Scriptures) and in a fragment in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but not in the accepted Hebrew Masoretic text. So was it part of the original canon that was lost, or a later spurious addition? Naturally enough, its canonicity has a Broken Base: It's accepted as canonical by Orthodox Christians, apocryphal by Roman Catholics and Jews, and not at all by Protestants.
  • Lost in Translation: Several of the psalmsnote  are acrostic poems, with the first letter of each successive line spelling out the Hebrew alphabet in order. Naturally, this doesn't usually come across in translations to other languages.
  • Malicious Slander:
    • David in Psalm 101:5 sings "He who slanders his friend in secret I will destroy."
    • From Psalm 140:11, the NET Bible: "A slanderer will not endure on the earth; calamity will hunt down a violent man and strike him down."
  • Misery Builds Character: Psalm 119:71.
    "It was good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn Your laws."
  • Money Is Not Power: From Psalm 49:6-9:
    Those who trust in their wealth,
    and boast in the multitude of their riches,
    none of them can by any means redeem the other,
    nor give to God a ransom for anyone,
    for the redemption of their souls is costly;
    even so people cease to exist forever,
    making efforts to live eternally,
    and not see the pit.
  • Mood Whiplash: Most of Psalm 137 is a beautiful, haunting lament of the loss of Jerusalem and the tragedy of the Hebrews made captive in Babylon. Then the second-to-last verse promises that God will exact terrible revenge upon the Babylonians, before the last verse then promises that Babylon's armies will brutally kill all of their children by smashing them against rocks. Unsurprisingly, most of the many musical adaptations of this psalm omit the last line.
  • No Holds Barred Beat Down: David in Psalm 18:37-42:
    I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
    I did not return until they were destroyed.
    I wounded them, and they were not able to rise;
    they are fallen under my feet.
    For You clothed me with strength for the battle;
    You subdued under me those who rose up against me.
    You gave me the necks of my enemies,
    and I destroyed those who hate me.
    They cried for help, but there was none to save them;
    even to the Lord, but He did not answer them.
    Then I beat them small as the dust before the wind;
    I cast them out as the dirt in the streets.
  • Old Windbag: "The wicked are windbags, the swindlers have foul breath." (Psalm 10:3, The Message)
  • Only the Pure of Heart: In Psalm 24:3-4:
    Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
    Who may stand in His holy place?
    He who has clean hands and a pure heart;
    who has not lifted up his soul unto vanity,
    nor sworn deceitfully.
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Inverted by Psalm 8, which truly marvels at the glory of God and “the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars, which You have set in place,” and wonders, “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You have taken note of him?” The psalmist then makes clear that everything special about humanity is due to God’s grace. The psalmist then ends as he began by declaring, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your Name in all the earth!”
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: A recurring theme in the Imprecatory Psalms, though the psalmist asks God to punish the wicked rather than taking matters into his own hands.
    As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.
    —Psalm 109:17
  • Power Echoes: Psalm 29 describes the powerful voice of the LORD, declaring that it “shatters the cedars of Lebanon” and “convulses the wilderness of Kadesh.”
  • The Power of Hate: In some passages, the psalmist declares that he hates the wicked. For example, Psalm 139:21-22 has the psalmist declaring hating those who oppose God.
    "O LORD, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe Your adversaries. I feel a perfect hatred toward them; I count them my enemies."
  • Prayer of Malice: Many of the Psalms involve the psalmist praying to God that He punishes his enemies, especially those who persecute and oppress God's people; these are known as the Imprecatory Psalms.
    When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.
    Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
    Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow...
    —Psalm 109:7-9
  • Pre-Violence Laughter: In Psalm 2, verses 4 to 6 states to the kings of the earth amassed against the Lord and His anointed king: "He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord ridicules them. Then He will speak to them in His wrath and terrify them in His burning anger: 'I have installed My king on Zion, My holy hill.'" However, it is not God that commits the violence against the kings, but rather His anointed king, as verse 9 states: "You will break them with a scepter of iron; you will dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel."
  • Quicksand Sucks: From Psalm 40:1-2 (Evangelical Heritage Version):
    I waited and waited for the LORD.
    Then he turned to me and heard my cry.
    Then he pulled me up from the deadly quicksand, from the mud and muck.
    He made my feet stand on a rock to keep my steps from slipping.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: In the type of psalms mentioned above, the psalmist mentions the destruction of enemy nations, including their civilians. One particularly jarring example is Psalm 137, mentioned above, where the psalmist curses the women and children of Babylon to be killed by Babylon's own enemies in war.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: God gives this to the wicked in Psalm 50:16-22.
    And to the wicked, God said: “Who are you to recite My laws, and mouth the terms of My covenant, seeing that you spurn My discipline, and brush My words aside? When you see a thief, you fall in with him, and throw in your lot with adulterers; you devote your mouth to evil, and yoke your tongue to deceit; you are busy maligning your brother, defaming the son of your mother. If I failed to act when you did these things, you would fancy that I was like you; so I censure you and confront you with charges. Mark this, you who are unmindful of God, lest I tear you apart and no one save you."
  • Religious Bruiser: David. Psalm 18:34 sums this up:
    "He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms."
  • Rule of Seven: Psalm 12:6.
    "The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times."
  • The Sacred Darkness: Referenced in Psalm 139:12-14 — "The darkness and light are both alike. I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
  • Sacrificial Lamb: The verses about "The Suffering Servant" are often cited by Christians as omens about Jesus' arrival, whereas Jewish sources interpret them as references to David and the widely-supported coup against him by his son Absalom.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The Psalmist says in Psalm 78:59-60:
    God heard, and he showed his anger.
    He completely rejected Israel.
    So he abandoned his dwelling in Shiloh,
    the tent where he dwelled among people. (Evangelical Heritage Version)
  • Song of Prayer: This is a collection of songs of prayers with instructions and breaks written down when singing.
  • Tame His Anger: Psalm 4:4 says in some translations: "Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah." (Also partially repeated in the Book of Ephesians by Paul the apostle.)
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: The Psalmist in Psalm 69:21 (Evangelical Heritage Version) says, "They put bitter poison in my food. For my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink."
  • There Is a God!: In Psalm 58:10-11:
    The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
    Then people will say, ‘Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth.’.
  • To the Tune of...: Many of the psalms have introductory lines indicating that they were possibly set to preexisting music; the titles "Do Not Destroy", "The Doe in the Morning", "Upon Lilies" and others each appear several times. Unfortunately, what exactly those tunes would have sounded like is lost to history. (The wording of the instructions is also a bit ambiguous, leading some scholars to believe they were more performance instructions or modes than specific melodies.)
  • Tongue Trauma: Psalm 55:9-11 from The Message:
    Come down hard, Lord—slit their tongues.
    I’m appalled how they’ve split the city
    Into rival gangs
    prowling the alleys
    Day and night spoiling for a fight,
    trash piled in the streets,
    Even shopkeepers gouging and cheating
    in broad daylight.
  • The Tooth Hurts:
    • From Psalm 3:7:
    Arise, O Lord;
    save me, O my God!
    For You have struck all my enemies on the cheek;
    You have broken the teeth of the wicked.
    • From Psalm 58:6:
    Break their teeth in their mouth, O God;
    break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord.
  • Warrior Poet: David.
  • What Could Have Been: In-universe, Psalm 124 bases it praises on wondering what would have happened if the LORD had not protected Israel against its enemies.
  • Where Is Your X Now?:
    • From Psalm 42:1-3.
    As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, “Where is your God?”
    • And from Psalm 79:10.
    Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let there be known among the nations in our sight the avenging of the blood of Your servants which has been shed.
    • And from Psalm 115:1-2.
    Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory, because of Your mercy, because of Your truth. Why should the Gentiles say, “So where is their God?”
  • Words Can Break My Bones: From Psalm 29:4-9:
    The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
    The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
    He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion like a young wild ox.
    The voice of the Lord strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
    The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
    the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
    The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
    and strips the forests bare.
    And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (NIV 2011 edition)
  • The World Is Just Awesome: Several passages talk about the majesty and wonder of the world God has created and commanded.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Psalm 137:9, speaking about children getting dashed against the rocks as part of God's coming judgment against Babylon.
    "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."
  • Your Days Are Numbered:
    • David in Psalm 39:3-5:
    While I meditated, the fire burned;
    then I spoke with my tongue:
    "Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.
    You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.
    Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure." (NIV 2011 edition)
    • Psalm 90:10 says that our years of living are numbered:
    The years of our life are seventy,
    and if by reason of strength eighty;
    yet their length is toil and sorrow,
    for they soon end, and we fly away.