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Psalm Questions

Questions and Considerations for Researching Psalms


Before pursuing answers to the question listed below a complete parsing of your text should be performed—identifying the roots of all words, locating the subject of each verb, and repeated words. It is probably best to tackle the overall analysis in the order listed below. Identifying the structure will help with the close reading, which in turn will contribute to the remaining sections. The sources should be defined before the date because they can influence your final decision on its determination.



Ø  What are the thematic divisions?

Ø  Are there any poetic division markers (Inclusion, Acrostics, Repetition, Chiasmus)?

Ø  Does the psalm have a concentric structure, with the central meaning at its center?

Ø  Does it build up to a grand finale?

Ø  Can you locate a change in time, space or speaker?

Ø  You should exercise caution when dividing texts, and common sense should always dictate you final decisions.



Close Reading[2]

Ø  This section is preferably performed before consulting commentaries. By the time you have completed the close reading you should have a list of questions enabling you to interrogate the various commentators.

Ø  What is the subject of the verse?

Ø  Is there a concentration, or lack, of verbs in the verse?

Ø  How do the verses relate to each other?

Ø  Can more than one meaning of a word be relevant in the context?

Ø  What poetics does the psalmist employ (Merismus, Repetition, Wordplay, etc.)?

Ø  Are there problematic words that need explaining?

Ø  How does the verse contribute to the psalm’s meaning?

Ø  Can you justify your choice of translation?

Ø  What verse structures are present in each verse, types of parallelism, staircase, terraced etc,. (use a top-down approach)?

Ø  How does the verse structure contribute to the meaning of the psalm?

Ø  How do repeated words function (similar/different meanings than other occurrences in the psalm, do they create emphasis or contrast, etc.)?

Ø  How do variances in the ancient versions affect the reading of the text?

Ø  How do the various versions (LXX, Vulgate, Dead Sea Scrolls, Peshitta, Targums) understand the difficulties in the text?

Ø  What imagery is being evoked in the psalm?

Ø  It is critical to develop the imagery used by the psalmist by seeing how it is used elsewhere in biblical literature.

Ø  Be careful to note how the psalm progresses. Compare the beginning and the end, and try to identify how the situation has changed—was there a difficulty solved, was there a gradual revelation, has a prayer been answered etc.




Ø  What are the recurrent themes?

Ø  What are the recurrent words?

Ø  Does the end give meaning to the psalm?

Ø  Does the meaning occur in the middle of a concentric structure?

Ø  Can you identify secondary themes?

Ø  How would the text have functioned in real life?



Ø  Are there rare or unique words between your text and any others?

Ø  Can the repetitions be classed as “incidental”?

Ø  Is there a contextual match between the contexts of the repeated words?

Ø  Are there common features of the sources located (are they all in the Torah, for instance)?

Ø  List all potential sources before you start to narrow down?

Ø  Can you fully justify your selection of sources?

Ø  Why has the psalmist selected the specific sources?



Ø  The final objective here is to ascertain a relative dating (Archaic, Classical or Late)?

Ø  What is the historical period covered by the psalm?

Ø  Are there any late words in the psalm?

Ø  Are there any late syntactic features?

Ø  Can you date any of the people/places/events in the psalm?

Ø  Does the psalm depend on a datable source?

Ø  Do any other datable texts depend on the psalm?

Ø  Try to ascertain if the psalm has a complex redaction history; this will influence the final outcome?



Ø  Our objectives here are strictly interpretational; we are concerned with associations made by the author and the arranger, and not with the reader.

Ø  What is the same in both the source and the psalm?

Ø  What are the differences between the source(s) and psalm (additions/minuses/rearrangements)?

Ø  Why would the psalmist make such alterations?

Ø  How does reading the source affect the reading of the psalm?

Ø  Does the psalm seek to correct the source in any way?

Ø  Does the psalm develop the meaning of the source?

Ø  Does the psalm give the source text a new meaning?

Ø  How has the psalmist altered the source to suite his purposes?

Ø  Is the psalmist’s work reused in another text?




Ø  What words are common to the neighboring psalms?

Ø  Are there common words in each of the psalms that can be said to create a link between the psalms?

Ø  Do the common words have the same meaning in each psalm?

Ø  How does the reading of the one psalm affect the reading of its neighbor?

Ø  What is the relationship between the two psalms (development, contrast, corrective, etc.)?

Ø  Why did the editor place these psalms together?


[1] This should primarily be done by you, the reader of the psalm. Only then is it wise to compare your results with commentators.

[2] Tools: Watson, Classical Biblical Hebrew: a guide to its techniques; Concordances; BDB; JM; BHS; HALOT. For additional help on close reading, consult the works in the bibliography by Weiss, and Muilenburg. Two other useful works are: Trible, P. Rhetorical Criticism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994; Watson, W. G. E. “Chiastic Patterns in Biblical Poetry.” In Chiasmus in Antiquity, ed. Welch, J.W. Hildesheim: Gertensburg, 1981, pp.118-168.

[3] This should primarily be accomplished by the reader.

[4] Tools: BHS together with Massorah; Concordances; BDB; commentaries.

[5] The following list should provide a reasonable starting point for determining a pool of Late and Archaic Biblical Hebrew language and syntax: Badillos, S. A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973; Hurvitz, A. Dating the Priestly Source in Light of the Historical Study of Biblical Hebrew. ZAW 100 (1988): pp88-100; Hurvitz, A. Can the Bible Be Dated Linguistically? Vetus Testamentum Supplement, 80 (1998): pp143-162; Hurvitz, A. A Linguistic Study of the Relationship between the Priestly Source and the Book of Ezekiel. Paris: 1982; Kutscher, E. The History of the Hebrew Language. Jerusalem: Magnus, 1984.

[6] This should primarily be accomplished by the reader; however, assistance can be found in the books listed in the bibliography under this section.

[7] This should be accomplished by the reader.