Hermann Gunkel in his form-critical approach to the Psalms identified seven types or genres of psalms.1 The seven types or genres that Gunkel identified are: the individual lament, the communal lament, the hymn, the psalms of thanksgiving, the royal psalms, the wisdom and Torah psalms, and the entrance liturgies.2 Others have recognized only three general categories of psalms: praise, wisdom, and lament with subcategories within each category.3 For example, the individual lament and the communal lament that Gunkel identified could be generally categorized as lament psalms, then further subcategorized.
For the purpose of this article I will be identifying three general classifications of psalms: lament psalms, hymns, and wisdom psalms. I will give one psalm for each general classification of psalms describing how that psalm illustrates the classification. I will be presenting them in the order that they appear in the book of the psalms.
Psalm 1 is a good example of a wisdom psalm. Being that it is the first psalm, it sets the foundation for all of the other psalms. What is that foundation? The phrase “Fear of the Lord” is exposed throughout wisdom literature as being the beginning of wisdom. The actual phrase “Fear of the Lord” is absent from psalm 1, but its definition is manifestly present.4 Therefore, you must begin reading the psalms with a “Fear of the Lord.” Psalm 1, as well as other wisdom psalms parallel two very different lives; the life of the righteous and the life of the wicked. Read Psalm 1 yourself and see how it compares these two lives.
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.5
Psalm 54 is an example of a lament psalm. Lament psalms typically have five parts in their structure: an opening address (O God, My God, or Lord), a description of what is wrong, a plea to Yahweh for help, a profession of faith, and a promise to praise God or offer a sacrifice. Most all lament psalms have these five parts, but not necessarily in the order that I have listed.6 In Psalm 54 the author (David) begins with a plea for salvation followed by the vocative “O God”. Then he tells God that strangers have risen up against him (a description of what is wrong). Then after the exclamation “Selah” the author gives a statement of faith in God, the one who he is pleading to for help against his foes. The author then tells God that he willingly will sacrifice to God and give thanks to his name (Yahweh).
Save me, O God, by Your name,
And vindicate me by Your power.
Hear my prayer, O God;
Give ear to the words of my mouth.
For strangers have risen against me
And violent men have sought my life;
They have not set God before them.
Behold, God is my helper;
The Lord is the sustainer of my soul.
He will recompense the evil to my foes;
Destroy them in Your faithfulness.
Willingly I will sacrifice to You;
I will give thanks to Your name, O Lord, for it is good.
For He has delivered me from all trouble,
And my eye has looked with satisfaction upon my enemies.7
Psalm 117 is the shortest chapter in the bible and is a really good example of a hymn psalm. Hymns can also be called songs of praise; they make up about 20% of the psalms. Hymns have only three elements; an opening invitation to praise Yahweh, a reason or rational for that praise, and a reinvigorated call to praise Yahweh God.8 You can see this format easily in the short psalm of 117 being that it has three clear statements. The beginning statement is an opening call for everyone to praise Yahweh, “Praise the Lord, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples!”9 The second statement gives the reason that we should praise Yahweh, “For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the Lord is everlasting.”10 The author is stating that we should praise Yahweh because of his nature; Moses made haste to bow low and worship Yahweh.11 The third and final statement in the psalm is a renewed call to praise Yahweh, “Praise the Lord.”12
Praise the Lord, all nations;
Laud Him, all peoples!
For His lovingkindness is great toward us,
And the truth of the Lord is everlasting.
Praise the Lord.13
Hearson, N. B. "Notes on the Psalms." Kansas City: Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, n.d.
Longman III, Tremper, and Peter Enns, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom, Poetry & Writings. DownersGrove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008.
The Lockman Foundation. The Holy Bible, Updated New American Standard Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.
1 W. D. Tucker Jr., “Psalms Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom Poetry and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 581.
2 W. D. Tucker Jr., “Psalms Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom Poetry and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 581-585.
3 N. B. Hearson, “Notes on the Psalms”, I. b. i.
4 cf. Deuteronomy 10:12-13.
5 Psalm 1 (NASB).
6 W. D. Tucker Jr., “Psalms Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom Poetry and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 581-582.
7 Psalm 54 (NASB).
8 W. D. Tucker Jr., “Psalms Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom Poetry and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 582.
9 Psalm 117:1 (NASB).
10 Psalm 117:2a (NASB).
11 cf. Exodus 34:6-8.
12 Psalm 117:2b (NASB).