The Plot of the Psalms

The Plot of the Psalms

Written by T.M. Suffield |
Tuesday, February 14, 2023

[The Psalms] end on Psalm 150 a parallel to Psalm 1. Those who love the Torah will worship. Wisdom turns to song, Word and Spirit together. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said “All creatures, after the disunion and disorder caused by sin have been removed, are harmoniously united for one choral dance.” We end in praise, because the King is coming.

The Psalms have a plot.

Which might seem like a revolutionary statement, or the most obvious one in the world. The Bible is a carefully crafted book. All of the elements of all of the books of scripture teach us—the Holy Spirit is a masterful editor and has written the grand story everywhere in carefully nuanced ways.

I stumbled across this when asking what I thought was an innocuous question. Why are the Psalms organised into five books?

It’s the sort of detail you might have noticed last time you read through the Psalms, but it also might have easily escaped your notice. There are five little heading that give us the book number, but nothing more than that.

These are original titles, too—though they might look like just another organising apparatus like verse or chapter numbers, these ones have the benefit of being part of the scriptures. If you crack open a few commentaries a surprising number will chalk this up to ‘Torah piety’, which amounts to saying that the editors who put the Psalms in their final collected form liked the Torah so much that as an act of devotion they collected the Psalms into five books.

Though, these books are of seemingly wildly different lengths, which ought to at least raise the question of why they grouped them as they did.

Beyond that, we should be more curious in our Bible reading. If there is a numbered feature in the Biblical text, like the five books of the Psalms, it is reasonable to ask why they have been grouped as they have. If we truly believe that the final editor of the scriptures was the Holy Spirit, then we should never assume that details are arbitrary.

So, I started to explore. Turns out a number of scholars have written in detail on the topic, and that the Psalms have a discernable plot. There is plenty of disagreement about the more intricate details, but we rest sure in this at least: each Psalm tells a story, and its placement by the editor tells another story. The first is primary, but the second is meaningful and can often shed some light on the Psalm’s text as it stands.

What are you reading?

Unfortunately, this is not a fully referenced paper interacting with the relevant Psalms in English and Hebrew—partly because I don’t currently have the capacity, mostly because I think that would stretch to a short book.

Instead, this is a short introduction to a topic well-trodden by scholars and a sketch of an idea—at some points you’ll notice I suggest a direction of thought that I won’t flesh out, that’s simply because I haven’t got that thought further than that along the track. I have not clearly referenced my sources, suffice to say that my work is mostly a harmony of the best of those scholars I’ve read: I have provided a bibliography of the most useful sources. This is where these ideas come from.  The only thoughts here which could be referenced as ‘mine’ are those in the section on the shape of the Temple and the connections to our story as modern Christians.

Why do we think the Psalms have a plot?

This might all sound a bit mad, or galaxy-brained, but there are features that make us suspect that something is going on in the editing of the Psalms into these five books. For example, we find in the first two books a series of 72 Psalms of David—especially if we understand those in between Psalms epigraphed as being from David to be by David as well—that end with a declaration that we have come to the end of David’s Psalms at the end of Psalm 72. Then there are a further 18 Psalms of David, which is surprising to say the least.

Books 1 and 2 predate 3-5 and were the original Psalter, so some of this is explained by the history, but it still leaves us with hanging questions.

Or maybe we notice the wildly different lengths of the books and wonder why a random arrangement wouldn’t have wrought even lengths.

Or perhaps we notice the parallels, the messianic Psalm paired with the law Psalm (1 & 2, 18 & 19, 118 & 119), or the way that in book 1 an acrostic Psalm is always preceded by a Psalm about creation.


I have two methodological strategies.

Firstly, I align with the method of G. K. Beale for reading the Bible generally, which is to pay attention to the ‘bookends’. We read the whole story in the light of Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22, but we can helpfully read each book of the Psalms in light of its first and last Psalm. I go a little further than Beale in suggesting that these are chiasms, and we should pay as much attention to the central ‘tentpole’ or hinge of the chiasm—the death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit by Jesus in the case of the whole Biblical story—though identifying these in the books of the Psalms is typically more speculative.

Secondly, I read the Psalms as though they were all about Christ, because they are. This is the witness of the Church Fathers, but more importantly, we should take Jesus seriously in his lesson on Bible reading on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24): all of the scriptures are about him as well as all the other things they’re about.

The Plot

Introduction: 1-2 WISDOM
Book 1: 1-41 (3-41) THE KING SUFFERS
Book 2: 42-72 THE KING REIGNS
Book 3: 73-89 WAITING
Book 4: 90-106 REPENTANCE
Book 5: 107-150 (107-145) RESTORATION
The Hallel (Conclusion): 146-150 PRAISE

I’ll now proceed through each book of the Psalms to make some brief comments on its plotting.

Introduction: Psalms 1 & 2


These two Psalms are widely considered the introduction to the Psalter as a whole—considering Psalm 1 as an introduction is an almost universal opinion and there are lots of reasons for connecting the two Psalms together. They share vocabulary enough to think they’ve been selected as an introduction—maybe even written to be one. Psalm 2 ends as Psalm 1 began, which is an indication that we should take them as a pair, and they both end in the same way.

Psalm 1 is our guide to reading the Psalter, and to some extent the Bible. It is worthy of careful study. The Psalm introduces the wisdom theme that continues through the Psalms—this is wisdom literature as well as ‘a book of songs’. There is a connection between wisdom and singing.

We have placed front and centre an individual’s relationship to God. The tree symbolism links us to the start, middle, and end of the Bible—to every significant encounter that God has with people and to the Temple. This text is a frame for the whole Bible.

Then in Psalm 2 we escalate from the wicked people of Psalm 1 to wicked nations, and we narrow the righteous everyman to the figure of the King. In other words it particularises the theology of Psalm 1, and it grounds it in the narrative of Scripture. It turns wisdom to story.

Between the two we have the first hints of God’s grand plan in history to install his son over the earth. This is a summary of the Psalms, and of the whole Bible. Tom Schreiner summarises the introduction as “Those who submit to Yhwh’s kingship keep the Torah, and they also place themselves under the reign of the Lord’s anointed king.” Greg Beale points to the theme as “eschatological kingship throughout all creation and judgement … is the heartbeat of the whole Psalter.”

If that’s our entry point, that should define how we read and sing and pray the rest of the Psalms—our twin themes are Wisdom and the King.

Book 1

The King Suffers

Book 1 is the book of David—especially his attempt to become king. These Psalms can be situated in the early part of his story as related in 1 Samuel.

It begins with the introductory Psalms of 1 and 2 as we’ve just explored, though in Psalm 2 we see the covenant David made with Yahweh. The book ends in Psalm 41, where David rests secure in those same promises. 41 is a prayer of triumph over the enemies that the King has wrestled with from Psalm 3 onwards.

The book travels through the tentpoles of 8 and 9, a messianic Psalm that is a meditation on the Adamic commission of the king and a Psalm devoted to the law, to the central pillar of Psalm 22. This sits in the middle of a poetic pyramid of Psalms (20-24, a common feature of the Psalter), and the collection turns on the King in suffering, struggling for victory. It pivots on the cross—book 1 is the book of the cross.

Most of Psalms 3-41 are laments. If we siphon off the introduction as its own thing and treat Psalms 3 and 41 as the bookends of book 1—which may not be a reasonable move, this isn’t how Psalms presents itself—then we see that despite treachery to the king (in 3 from his own son, in 41 from his closest friend), God still gives the king triumph over his enemies.

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