The Classification of the Psalms

It is not easy to classify each individual psalm in a specific category. That would be like trying to put all ten of your fingers into the holes of a bowling ball. But some psalms are easily classified. They jump out at you, they grab you by the arm, they scream at you and you immediately know what type of psalm they are. Here is a summary of such psalms.

Psalms of Praise

Many Psalms are pure praise. They are composed simply to extol God, His deity, His nature, His mercy, His justice, and all His manifold attributes. A great example of this kind of psalm is Psalm 19. This is one of my favorite psalms. Psalm 19 praises the work of God in creation (vv. 1-6), then it extols the magnificent Word of God (vv. 7-11), and finally focuses on rousing the workers of God to offer acceptable service to Him (vv. 12-14).

Historical Psalms

Some of psalms are a record of God’s dealing with His people throughout their history. More than 20 historical psalms have been identified. Psalm 105 is one of them. It begins with an anthem of praise to God for all that He has done for His people (vv. 1-5). Then it reiterates Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham (vv. 6-15). It turns to Joseph and God’s providence in His life and the sojourn of Israel in Egypt (vv. 16-24). Psalm 105 records the journey of Moses, Israel’s great deliverer, and the plagues with which God devastated Egypt (vv. 25-38). Verses 39-41 address Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Finally, the psalm celebrates the conquest of Canaan (vv. 42-45). This genre of psalm proves that even poetry can highlight history.

Ethical Psalms

Some of the 150 psalms stress the moral responsibility of man and his ultimate accountability to God. For example, in the first psalm of the Psalter, a contrast is made between the person who lives to please God and the one who does not. To please God we must not be one who walks “in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers”-all ethical no-no’s for righteous living. The wicked on the other hand, will be judged by God and they “will not stand in the judgment.” Psalm 8 highlights the dignity of man where, while addressing God’s glorious creation, the psalmist asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him?”

Psalms of Penitence

Some psalms reveal the deep contrition that comes when a person acts contrary to God’s will or His Law, is broken by their sin and repents of it. These psalms reflect the holiness of God and, by way of contrast, the sinfulness of man. They demonstrate the psalmist’s understanding that sin is a slap in the face of God and an assault on the character of God. A perfect example of a psalm of penitence is Psalm 51 where David genuinely confesses his sin with Bathsheba and the pain and shame that resulted. Other psalms echo this same contrition (cf. Psalm 6, 32, 38 and 143, etc.).

Imprecatory Psalms

An imprecation is a prayer for the defeat and/or destruction of an enemy. The imprecatory psalms feature a highly nationalistic sense of love for God and country. While to the unprepared reader they may seem to be venomous, to the person who has stood on the battlefield and watched the atrocities of war, they seem more in keeping with the desire for God’s help in defeating their enemy. Examples of imprecatory psalms are Psalms 35, 69 and 109). These psalms do not reflect personal vendettas by the psalmist but rather they cries for justice and reprisal for persistent enemies of God. The Holy Spirit carefully guided the writer of these psalms just as He did the psalms of praise (cf. Psalm 69; Acts 1:16-20).

Messianic Psalms

It has become the popular sport of liberal scholarship to deny that any psalms in the Psalter reflect a messianic character of prediction. But rational critics being what they are, most fail to grasp the spiritual implications of the Psalms anyway. It is certain that the Lord Jesus understood particular psalms to be Messianic in character for He addressed them as such.

When Christ encountered Cleopas and friend returning to their village of Emmaus after the events of Resurrection Day, He helped them understand the truth about the risen Lord by, as Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” This would have included the Psalms. Within the Psalter you can come to appreciate that the Messiah would be both divine and human (Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 22:22). The Psalms predict that Messiah would be betrayed (Psalm 69:25), that He would suffer a cruel death (Psalm 22:1-31), but He would rise from the grave and conquer death (Psalm 16:10) and then ascend into heaven to be seated as King and to serve as our great High Priest (Psalm 110:1-7). It seems a bit foolish to deny the Messianic character of some psalms when the evidence is so plain.

Ceremonial Psalms

Some of the psalms of the Psalter were composed for Temple worship, for special festivals, holy days and to aid Jewish worship. For example, Psalm 30 was composed as “A Song at the Dedication of the Temple.” Psalm 92 is “A Song for the Sabbath.” Other psalms were dedicated to the Choirmaster to be a part of the worship of God (Psalms 4-8, 9, 11-14, 18-22, 31, 36, 39-42, 44-47, 49, 51-62, 64-70, 75-77, 80, 81, 84, 85, 88, 109 and 140). And Psalms 120-134 were sung as pilgrims made their way up the Judean hills to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts of Israel. In fact, most of the psalms in the Psalter were used in the ceremonies of Israel.


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