"How do you study Psalms?" I recently posed this question to the girls in my college small group, and in response, I received blank stares. Then, a few of them shared that they either read them for comfort or turn to them when they don't know what else to read. The picture I was getting was that they read the Psalms devotionally but didn't really study them.

To be honest, the Psalms were not my favorite to read growing up, and some of it stemmed from the fact that I didn't know what to do with them besides just read them. I also fall more into the thinker rather than feeler category of the Meyers-Briggs personality types, so I wasn't really "feeling" the psalmist's emotional outbursts. It wasn't until I went to seminary and took Psalms as my Hebrew exegesis class that I learned how to study, appreciate, and pray through this wonderful book of Scripture. But it's sad that it took 25 years and a seminary class to teach me how to study Psalms, especially considering I grew up in church!

If any of you can identify and want to know more about how to study Psalms, below is a quick sketch as well as some helpful resource recommendations.

Option 1: REAP

As you read a psalm, use the REAP (Read, Examine, Apply, Pray) outline. This method can be used with any passage of Scripture, and while you don't have to answer every question every time you sit down with your Bible, these questions are helpful in guiding how you study.

  • Read the psalm slowly and thoughtfully.

  • Examine the psalm and reflect on what it says and means.

    • What is happening in the passage?

    • What words, phrases, or ideas seem particularly important?

    • What does this text teach you about God?

    • What does this text teach you about people or about man's sinfulness?

    • What does this text teach you about who Christ is and why we need Him?

    • What does this text teach you about trusting and following Christ?

    • What does this text teach you about the hope of heaven or the horror of hell?

  • Apply what you have read to your life.

    • What sin(s) do you need to repent of and/or avoid?

    • What truth(s) do you need to believe?

    • What command(s) do you need to obey?

    • What principle(s) need to change the way you think, speak, act, etc.? How will you implement such changes in your life?

    • What relationship(s) do you need to establish, strengthen, or change?

    • By the power of God's Spirit, what can you do today to apply God's Word to your life?

  • Pray based on what you have read. With Psalms, this will easily lead to praise of God, confession and repentance of sin, asking or interceding for particular needs, and yielding your life to Jesus wherever and however He leads.

Option 2: What? So What? Now What?

Option 2 will likely appeal more to the literary types because it digs a little deeper into the types of psalms, how each type has a different structure, and how knowing that helps with interpreting and applying the psalm.

What are the different types of psalms? There's lament psalms, praise psalms, pilgrim psalms, songs of Zion, hallel psalms, enthronement psalms, royal psalms (even a psalm about a royal wedding!), and wisdom psalms. Two resources that are helpful in learning more about these types of psalms are A Commentary on the Psalms (vol. 1) by Dr. Allen P. Ross (who is incidentally the professor of the Psalms class I took in seminary) and Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis.

The way that I think about studying the Psalms is with the following three questions: What? So What? Now What?

What is the truth communicated in the psalm?

  • Read the superscription (the introduction to the psalm that tells who wrote the psalm or gives other information related to the psalm). If the superscription gives any information related to the events surrounding the psalm, read the related passage as well since it provide a context for the psalm. For example, 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15 is the backdrop for David’s confession in Psalm 51.

    • Side Note: Most of the weird superscription expressions such as "For the flutes" (Ps. 5), "maskil" (Ps. 32), etc. are either musical expressions or provide directions for how the psalm was to be played in the sanctuary.

  • Read the psalm and identify the structure. This is where knowing the types of psalms is helpful. For example, if it's a psalm of lament, it typically has an introductory cry ("Vindicate me, O God" or "Give ear to my prayer, O God") followed by a description of the psalmist's situation, an expression of trust in the Lord, a petition for God to intervene, and a vow to praise God when He acts. Knowing the type of psalm aids you in breaking the psalm down into sections.

    • Even if you don't know what type of psalm it is, how would you outline the psalm? How would you divide the psalm into smaller chunks?

  • The point of outlining the psalm is for you to summarize each section. What is the main truth of each portion of the psalm? What did that principle mean for the Jews who used this psalm when worshipping in the temple? What does it mean for believers today? The point here is to identify timeless truths that fit both the original audience as well as believers today. For example, Psalm 51:1-2 demonstrates that believers can turn to God for forgiveness of sin because of His character.

So What?
What effect(s) does that truth have? Why is it important?

  • After you have summarized the section and identified the main truth of that section, think through why that truth is important.

Now What?
What will you do with what you have read?

  • How you can apply the truth(s) gleaned from that section. It's important here to be specific with your application.

  • Lastly, pray! Psalms were originally used in the sanctuary for both individuals and Levitical choirs to use both in prayer and in song. In light of this purpose for the Psalms, how can this psalm or this one section of a psalm guide how you pray and what you pray for?

Psalms Recommendations

My three favorite commentaries on Psalms are: A Commentary on the Psalms by Dr. Allen P. Ross (three volume set, the 3rd volume hasn't been published yet), Commentary on the Psalms by J.J. Perowne, and Psalms 1-72 and Psalms 73-150 by A.A. Anderson.