The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 hymns originally written for use in Jewish temple worship. Later, the psalms became part of the Old Testament. The psalms express a wide range of the deepest feelings and emotions that we all experience—joy, sorrow, anger, repentance, and so on. The psalms can serve as a model to help us pray. Jesus prayed the psalms and used them when he taught his followers.
Psalms have been an important part of Jewish and Christian worship throughout history. At Mass they are used during the Liturgy of the Word. During the Liturgy of the Word we call it a Responsorial Psalm, because it is a response by the people to the First Reading and because it is sung back and forth between the psalmist or cantor and the assembly.
Importance of the Psalms
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls prayer “a reciprocal call between God and the human family,” (2591) and mentions the psalms as prayers that best illustrate how God calls each person into a mysterious encounter with him. The Book of Psalms is a book of prayers and also a book that shows us how to pray.
The Psalms in Christian Worship
The poetic device used in the psalms is not rhyme or rhythm but a system of echoing in which a line is restated in different words or is contrasted with a different perspective. With no song books available, this device would have made it easier for the worshiping community to remember the psalm. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that we use the psalms in our liturgy. The entire Liturgy of the Hours is based on the recitation of psalms so that a person praying the Hours recites each of the psalms at least once a month.
Psalms of Praise
Many of the psalms are expressions of praise to God for his creation. Psalm 8 praises God for the dignity of the human life he created. Psalm 33 invites people to praise God for creating the heavens, the waters, and the earth.
Creation in the Psalms
Creation is a constant theme in the psalms. Psalm 104 gives a beautiful poetic description of God’s action in creating the world and then in renewing “the face of the earth.” The glory of God is displayed in the universe (Psalm 19). The earth and all that is in it belongs to the Lord (Psalm 24), so that, while we have dominion over the earth (Psalm 8), we are obviously caretakers of what is not ours but God’s.
The psalms run the gamut of human emotions. Some of the psalms express anger at the way others are treating us. Other psalms express our frustration at not being able to control the situation or to change the direction in which things are going. There are psalms about fear, depression, and despair. Psalm 23 is special because it expresses complete and total confidence in the providence of God. The psalmist never once considers the possibility that God will not take care of him. He is realistic, recognizing that there will be dark times in his life, but he knows that even in those dark times, God will be at his side to guide and protect. Because of this overwhelmingly positive trust in the protection of God, Psalm 23 is popularly used in times of trial, such as at funerals, and it is perhaps the most widely known and memorized of all the psalms.
Activities for Learning About the Psalms
Praying Your Emotions
Singing the Psalms
Books for Exploring the Psalms
| ||A Treasury of Psalms |
By Martin Manser
This beautifully illustrated, keepsake collection of psalms gives voice to our deepest human emotions.
| ||Psalms: An Invitation to Prayer |
Six Weeks: Psalms
The psalms teach us to pray with passion, honesty, and zeal.
| ||Psalms II: Praying with Jesus |
Six Weeks: Psalms 2
We deepen our prayer by praying the psalms the way Jesus prayed them.
| ||The Lord Is My Shepherd |
By Rob Lewis
A contemporary, age-appropriate retelling of the most familiar psalm helps bring Scripture to life for children through its bright illustrations.