The word psalm originally meant “to pluck or strike (strings) with the fingers (in song)” Our English word psalm is taken from the Greek psalmos, although the word in the original Old Testament Hebrew is mizmor for an individual psalm and Tehillim for the collection known as the Book of Psalms.
What are psalms?
There is no question that many of the psalms in the Bible are also prayers, some of praise and some of petition. While some of the psalms are epic or storytelling, others are intensely personal. Those of a personal prayer nature are often examples of honest groaning and wrestling deep within the heart. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, even these type of psalms typically begin and end admissions of just who God is and what He is capable of.
Some scholars think that the Biblical psalms are Hebrew poetry, as discussed in this article What is a Psalm. Poetry is broadly defined as writing with a patterned presentation. Whether or not Biblical psalms fit any one person’s idea of poetry doesn’t seem like it should matter much. The main thing to grasp is that they sometimes use word images that are not meant to be literal. However, that doesn’t mean every word or description is using poetic license. The reader is expected to use some judgement in that, which is not hard to do in most cases when taken in perspective with the whole Biblical record.
Why write a psalm?
The other day, I had an issue that I have prayed about, but was not feeling satisfied with my prayers. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. My prayers have usually been verbal and I have felt refreshed afterward. This time, however, it felt like I was struggling both to express what I was concerned about and to be at peace about it. I recalled the psalms and decided to write a prayer.
The thing about writing is 1) someone else might read it some day, and 2) you have to form your thoughts more carefully to proceed. I have always been cautious about journaling because of 1). It is fine to have a place to record things and hope it remains private, but I didn’t want to regret something being accidentally exposed and hurtful just because I wrote down some things in an emotional turmoil one day.
How to write a psalm
Thinking about the psalms helped me solve this problem. By writing directly to God, it automatically adjusted my attitude to a higher degree of humility, instead of just venting. This didn’t mean I didn’t specifically address what was on my mind, but it meant I felt a strong need and desire to begin with just talking/writing to God about who He is, which involves a lot of love. The added advantage is that anyone who might read it should see the honest humility of my struggle.
Next, as I delved into what was swelling in my heart and mind, the prose built on themselves. I didn’t have to say things exactly right. This wasn’t being graded. It was simply me asking questions in light of what I thought I knew and finding out that even as I wrote there were angles to consider that I hadn’t previously thought of. I was not attempting any poetic pattern, but it began to feel like it was taking on a rhythm of sorts.
The result of writing a psalm
I thought of how God already knew every word that would be written down as I wrote, yet, like praying sans writing, it was really a process for me. He was glad, like a parent that listens to a children explain a problem, then watches as the child discovers at least part of the solution while explaining it.
It was very natural to also end with thanks, permeated by a new sense of patience with the issue. I not only had better ideas of how to pray about it all, but also saw small steps I might take when faced with the concern. No one should be surprised that these “steps” have more to do with how I choose to act or think than about changing outside factors or other people. Other things and people will (still) be God’s domain.
What to do with a psalm
I don’t know if my psalm will every be sung. If I find the issue beginning to churn in my heart again, maybe singing those already written words will be one way to pray. That is one reason why singing any song repeatedly is nice, isn’t it? Because music allows us to express ourselves to some deeper level that just saying the words doesn’t engage?
As Christians, we are encouraged to sing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs. We are also encouraged to sing new songs. The ritualistic and/or performance nature of many religious services has squelched the personal songs in most people. They do not feel qualified, and they are probably correct that what they have to offer would not be accepted by many. But there is something missing if we are always praying or singing someone else’s words.
Maybe you will want to keep your psalms private. Maybe there will be a time to share them with others for mutual encouragement. Publishing or becoming well known for writing psalms is not the goal. Like many things, if we make the wrong thing our goal, it tends to bleed the life right out of the endeavor. Our goal is to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind, and soul; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Writing psalms can be a part of that, both in prayer and in fellowship.