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The Book of Psalms: Lesson Plan

 Psalms = Tehillim (derives from Hebrew word for 'praise' and 'shine') (1)

As one sings and praises, they shine forth light.

(maybe play this song in the background while I go over the introduction)


Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has written that “the book of Psalms may be the one biblical text admired nearly equally by both Christians and Jews, to say nothing of those of other faiths—or no faith at all—who find comfort in its verses and encouragement in the hope they convey." (Jeffrey R. Holland, For Times of Trouble (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), 7)

In Jewish tradition, it is suggested that David wrote the Book of Psalms along with some additions by other authors. Modern Scholarship, in contrast, puts the authorship of these Psalms after the death of David. But, traditionally, the Book of Psalms is divided into 5 different parts that correspond to the Five Books of the Torah, but these separations are not found in our Bible.

The list of  authors in the Psalms includes:

  • King David (77 Psalms)
  • King Solomon (2 Psalms)
  • Anonymous (Korach) (40 Psalms)
  • Moses (1 Psalm)
  • Asaph (a director of music in the temple) (14 Psalms)
  • Heman the Ezraite (1 Psalm)
  • Ethan the Ezaite (1 Psalm)
These Psalms were written to sing or perform during temple worship or various Feast/festivals. Jewish Festival's or holidays always seemed to revolve around the temple. Therefore, the Book of Psalms could be characterized as a Jewish Hymn Book/Repository for ritual plays and dramas in their temple worship.

The worship of Israelites was a very sensory experience. You can imagine being near the temple, perhaps during the Day of Atonement or the Feast of Tabernacles, and having all the senses being filled.
  1. You would smell the scents of the animal sacrifice or the sweet smells of incense.
  2. You would see the color-filled robes of the High Priests, the color-filled veils of the temple, and see the performances of these Psalms.
  3. You would hear the singing or speak of these Psalms written by Holy Men of Israel's past.
We don't have the music that would accompany these Psalms, but we do have a relic of it within the Book. You might have noticed the word 'Selah' used many times as you have read the Book of Psalms. It always shows up at the end of a verse and means "intermission" in the Greek translation or "to lift up" in Hebrew.

Either way, scholars generally agree it was some musical or theatrical notation for the music to play without singing. It would be a time for the crowd around the temple to ponder on what had just been said or sung. So as you go back through the Book of Psalms later, you might want to try and pause after every 'Selah' to really try to ponder and soak in what is being communicated.

Interestingly, the Book of Psalms is the most quoted book by Jesus in the 4 Gospels. One biblical scholar has estimated that the New Testament quotes the Book of Psalms roughly 350 times (Henry M. Shires, Finding the Old Testament in the New (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 126). According to the folks at Book of Mormon Central, The Psalms are quoted at least 60 times in the Book of Mormon (2).

With all that said, it might be shocking to realize that God never speaks in the Psalms. He is talked about at length, but He never speaks in the text. This highlights the purpose of the text. One of my favorite Latter-Day Saints scholars mentioned to a group this week, "You don't read Psalms for the plot". God never directly speaks because these songs or dramas are real-life people trying to show forth their praise, worship, lament, despair, depression, cheerfulness, gratitude, repentance, and basically, any emotion or action that every human experiences during mortality. That sums up why it is so appealing.

If I were to ask any one of you how many scriptures you can quote word for word, that number for most of us is probably not that many... But, we all know exactly the words to some or many hymns that we sing. They often bring us comfort and we can understand why the Psalms have been so quotable and comforting throughout time.

Have the class read Ephesians 5:19-20, Colossians 3:16, & D&C 25:12

What do we learn about psalms in these verses?

As we dive into just a couple of Psalms today, The Oxford Study Bible has this insight to offer as we discuss just a few of the Psalms today:

"Some of the poetic voices seem muffled by our own world view, yet others break through such barriers, for in many passages the Hebrew poets sang of a reality which is only on the horizon of our comprehension." (The Oxford Study Bible, p. 551)


This is arguably the most popular Psalm, The Shepherd's Psalm. There is some very interesting scholarship that suggests this song was initially a stage play performed during the Feast of Tabernacles. It is a stage play of the plan of salvation: verses 1-4 take place in the premortal world, verse 4 summarizes our earthly existence, and verses 5-6 refer to the temple or gaining entrance back into Heavenly Father's presence.

Because it was a stage play, I am going to request that we all read this in unison (you don't have to participate). As we read this, keep in mind this was performed and summarized the Plan of Salvation.


The Lord is my Shepherd, within the context of the Plan of Salvation how is Jehovah or Christ our Shepherd?

In verse 2, green pastures and still waters are signs we see associated with the tree of Life in Lehi's vision. It is a reference to the time we lived with him and were taught by him.

Verse 3 speaks paths and righteousness for His name's sake. BYU Ancient Near East Professor, Stephen Ricks, comments on this verse (this is very cool):

"Name is almost always a key word because new covenants are almost always associated with new names. The psalm’s “he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” is about as straightforward as it can be. Paths equal ordinances, righteousness is zedek cf. the name “Melchizedek” = my name is righteousness, and name is “covenant.” Without changing its meaning, it might read, “He leads me through the priesthood ordinances for the sake of the covenants we make together.”...
"During the festival temple drama, those ordinances were shown to have taken place in the Holy of Holies of the celestial temple." (Who Shall Ascend Into the Hill of the Lord? p. 444-445)

In other words, we followed a covenant path there and then (in the pre-earth life) like we are asked to follow here and now. How do ordinances and covenants with Christ "restore our soul"?

In verse 4, we encounter "the valley of the shadow of death". In better translations, this is translated as "dense darkness", "a deathly shadow", or "the darkest shadow". Therefore, this is not necessarily just referring to death, but all the spiritually dark moments in our mortal lives.

As we walk through this dark shadow we are told that the Lord is with us and his rod and staff comfort us. Rod probably better translates as scepter and, anciently, it was understood as Jehovah holding out a branch of the tree of life. The Lord comforting us in the Hebrew means "empowerment or enabling" and doesn't just mean consoling us. To roughly quote him again, Stephen Ricks says this verse is actually saying that as we walk through the dark times in our lives the Lord is with us through the empowering symbols of priesthood and kingship/queenship (p. 467-469).

How is the Lord with us in these symbols or tokens? How do they empower us to wade through the "valley of the shadow of death"?

Verse 5 has obvious references to anointings and sacramental tokens. We are being told a place is being prepared for us. The anointings we receive and the cups we are given are the Lord preparing us for his Temple.

Verse 6 speaks of angels. How so?

One of the foremost Biblical scholars of the 19th century wrote:

"... [goodness and mercy] were not adjectives but personal nouns, actually name-titles, and probably represented guardian angels who were members of [God's Divine] Council and who had covenanted to come to earth to assist the king [or kings & queens] during [their] lifetime[s]." (p. 450)

As we trudge through the valley of the shadow of death, we have received anointings that allow Jehovah (or Christ) to be with us and empower us. We also have angels around us to bear us up.

In ancient Israel, this was a summary of the King of Israel's foreordination and mortal sojourn. It is the same for us. Coming unto Christ through the ordinances of the Lord's house is heavily implied.

With Psalm 23 in mind, Spencer W. Kimball once said:

"If you understood the ordinances of the House of the Lord, you would crawl on your hands and feet for thousands of miles in order to receive them." (3)


Do we have any hymns in our hymn book that are repentant in nature? Any that convey godly sorrow?

Imagine singing a song in our sacrament meetings where one's personal anguish for a serious sin is the message of the song. Imagine singing a song about the worst mistake you have ever made in your life.

This is what we have in Psalm 51. King David is achingly seeking repentance in beautiful poetic language that is quite moving to read.

Ask if anyone recalls the story of King David and Bathsheba.

Read Psalm 51:1

"... according to the multitude thy tender mercies", where have we heard that phrase before?

Read 1 Nephi 8:7-8, this is Lehi speaking during a dark moment in his vision of the tree of life. He is obviously quoting King David here and Psalm 51.

Why would Lehi quote something from a Psalm about repenting for breaking the law of chastity in his sacred vision of the tree of life? In Lehi's moment of being caught in a dark and dreary waste, why quote King David here?

Read Psalm 51:2-5

Imagine singing that in our services... "My sin is ever before me." How many of us can relate? How many of us have experienced being continually horrified by our worst mistakes?

Interestingly, it appears Nephi quotes this theme in his Psalm in 2 Nephi 4:18-19 (have someone read them).

It appears that Lehi and Nephi both were big fans of this very emotionally deep Psalm. As we read the rest of Psalm 51, you might recall other similar words or phrases Nephi used in his Psalm.

Read Psalm 51:9-14

David really wants to be cleansed. For us, how do we go about seeking repentance? How does one know they can change or have changed?

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said:

"[One of life's most crucial challenges] is once you have recognized the seriousness of your mistakes, will be to believe that you can change, that there can be a different you... Repentance is simply the scriptural invitation for growth and improvement and progress and renewal. You can change! You can be anything you want to be in righteousness.
If there is one lament I cannot abide—and I hear it from adults as well as students—it is the poor, pitiful, withered cry, “Well, that’s just the way I am.” If you want to talk about discouragement, that phrase is one that discourages me. Though not a swearing man, I am always sorely tempted to try my hand when I hear that. Please spare me your speeches about “That’s just the way I am.” I’ve heard that from too many people who wanted to sin and call it psychology. And I use the word sin again to cover a vast range of habits, some seemingly innocent enough, that nevertheless bring discouragement and doubt and despair.
You can change anything you want to change, and you can do it very fast. That’s another satanic suckerpunch—that it takes years and years and eons of eternity to repent. It takes exactly as long to repent as it takes you to say, “I’ll change”—and mean it." (4)

Read Psalms 51:16-17

David's message is that the real sacrifice we make to God has always been that of one of a broken heart and contrite spirit. What does this mean?

The word contrite here in Hebrew more fully means to be crushed or pulverized. Therefore a contrite spirit is one who has been beaten down or pulverized by circumstance. The broken heart, more fully in the ancient near eastern world, meant one did not have the law written on their hearts or had lost it (see Romans 2:15). Therefore, one who has a broken heart seeks to be restored to this point where the law (A.K.A. the light of Christ) heals the heart (see Luke 4:18).

Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said:

"... real, personal sacrifice never was placing an animal on the altar. Instead, it is a willingness to put the animal in us upon the altar and letting it be consumed! Such is the “sacrifice unto the Lord … of a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” (D&C 59:8), a prerequisite to taking up the cross, while giving “away all [our] sins” in order to “know God” (Alma 22:18) for the denial of self precedes the full acceptance of Him." (5)

Many of us in this room have made a specific covenant to keep the law of sacrifice. What might this have to do with keeping the law of sacrifice?

Isn't it interesting that the destruction and the following message of hope in 3 Nephi 9 mirror the godly sorrow and repentance of King David? This is an example of God consecrating our even weakest moments for his purposes if we offer up the sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit.

Addition Tidbits to Conclude with if Time Permits?


Psalms 82:1-8

This Psalm wasn't in the reading, but it is one of the most radical theologically in the Christian world. The very first verse hits like a lightning bolt and has been glossed over by Christians for ages. Interestingly, Dr. Michael Heiser, one of the foremost Evangelical Christian Scholars tells of when he read this verse after reading it many times before:

At the end of Psalm 82, the message can be confusing, but Dr. Heiser gives his interpretation that should ring true to us as Latter-Day Saints:

"[God's heavenly council] will include believers who have been exalted into its membership, returned to displace the gods of the nations. Christian[s] - do you know who you are? The day will come when the elohim (the plural form of the word that refers to the gods of nations) will die like men - and you will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3)." - Dr. Michael S. Heiser (The Unseen Realm, p. 375)

This segues into the overall theme of the Book of Psalms, especially in light of it being a hymnbook for the ancient temple.

While the Book of Psalms runs the gamut of human experience and emotions, there is one overall theme that fills the Book from almost beginning to end. LDS Scholar and theologian Andrew Skinner express his opinion on what this theme is:

"Given all that we have examined, it is impossible for me to believe that seeking the face of God was a minor theme... or a passing fancy in the mind of the Psalmist. Rather, the Psalmist and other biblical writers seem, at times, to be consumed by this idea... I think we should take very seriously the idea that in the minds of many biblical writers, especially the Psalmist, seeking the face of the Lord was the quest of mortality and that it was against the backdrop of this belief that the Psalmist encouraged every true follower of God to “seek the Lord, and his strength: seek his face evermore” (Psalm 105:4)." (7)

How does this inform our modern temple worship? How can the Psalms and the themes therein inform how we worship today in the temple and come unto Jesus Christ?


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