Introduction to the Genre of Praise
"It is good to praise the LORD." (1) So wrote the psalmist in
Psalm 92:1. But how should God’s people praise Him? David
and the other psalmists would respond: by recalling God’s marvelous attributes and reporting the ways in which
He manifests, reveals, and expresses those general attributes to His people through His specific, mighty,
redemptive acts for them.
Such an understanding of the nature and quality of praise in the Psalms is different from that
of the past. The main traditional approach to classifying the psalms was to divide them into somewhat artificial
and sometimes arbitrary categories based on the primary subject or theme of each psalm. It was, then, essentially
a topical approach based on a study of the contents of each psalm. Thus individual psalms were labeled as
instruction, trust, praise, distress and sorrow, thanksgiving, aspiration, penitence, history, imprecation,
meditation, intercession, prophecy, etc.
The German scholar, Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), changed all that. (2) He was
a true pioneer in Psalms studies and marked a new point of departure by focusing on "types" (Gattungen) of psalms
according to their function, form (or structure), and "life setting" (Sitz im Leben), that is, the kind of situation
that produced each psalm, or for which each was composed, or on which each was used. This was a quite revolutionary
approach and has greatly affected and tremendously influenced all studies in the Psalms ever since. Johnson goes so
far as to say that whatever progress has been made in the study of the Psalter since World War I is largely due to
the influence of one man, Gunkel. (3) Consequently all study of the Psalms may be divided into
pre- and post-Gunkel phases. There has been no worthwhile Psalms commentary since his that has not built on the
approach he developed. (4)
What is Praise?
Claus Westermann’s work provides some significant insights into the nature and quality of true
praise. Based on usage in the Psalms, praise is seen primarily as reciting the attributes of God (Westermann’s
"descriptive" praise) and the acts of God (Westermann’s "declarative" praise), then praising God for both. The
worshiper thus rejoices in the fact that God is the kind of God He is and that He does the things that He does.
This, in turn, promotes greater trust in God, as well as a thankful heart.
Westermann observes that the Song of Miriam and the Song of Deborah show the unmistakable clarity
that the Sitz-im-Leben (life-setting) of the hymn of praise is the experience of God’s intervention in history.
God has acted; he has helped his people; now praise must be sung to him. (5)
What Kinds of Praise Psalms are there?
Praising God for Who He Is (Descriptive Praise)
There are two kinds of praise: descriptive and declarative. Originally psalms of descriptive
praise were intended to be used either chorally or perhaps as a solo in the normal round of public or national
worship. They are frequently called hymns of praise. The reason Westermann uses the term descriptive is that
in this category the psalmist is praising God basically by describing His character. Here the focus is on the
attributes of God – who He is and what He is like. The most common Hebrew verb used for this kind of praise is
hillel. English readers are familiar with it in its imperative form: Hallelu-Jah (or Yah), "Praise Yah (short
for Yahweh [the LORD])!" There are five main sub-categories of this type of praise (a partial list of psalms belonging
to each sub-category follows its label):
1. Hymns Proper: Psalms 24,
Some restrict descriptive praise to this first sub-category, but the following four types
also seem to be more specialized sub-categories of descriptive praise.
2. Enthronement Psalms: Psalms 47,
The expression "the LORD reigns" or "will reign" is characteristic of enthronement psalms.
Actually they are probably best labeled theocratic psalms, that is, psalms that celebrate the Lord’s universal and
eternal rule. All passages that speak of a future coming of the Lord to His people or to the earth, or that speak
of a future rule of the Lord over Israel or over the whole earth, are also ultimately Messianic – indirectly or by
extension – for to be fully and literally true, they require a future, literal Messianic kingdom on the earth.
3. Songs of Zion (including Pilgrim Psalms): Psalms 48,
Psalms 120-34 are also known as Songs of Ascent. Such psalms were probably sung by the
pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem (and on their arrival there) to celebrate the three annual festivals
4. Royal Psalms: Psalms 2,
Here praise is given to the heavenly King for the earthly king. In the period of the
monarchy, the reigning king was regarded as being in an intimate relationship with the Lord and thus as one who
played a leading role in Israel’s worship. Outstanding events in the life of such a king should be recalled as
possible settings for psalms clearly concerned with a royal figure – events such as the anniversary of the founding
of the Davidic dynasty and its royal sanctuary on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a king’s enthronement or the anniversary
of his enthronement, a royal wedding, the period just before the king departed for battle, and the celebration of
his victorious return.
Such psalms are also called Messianic psalms. We have already referred to the enthronement
psalms (for which our preferred label is theocratic psalms) as examples of indirect Messianic prophecy (or Messianic
prophecy by extension from God in general to the Messiah in particular). Other categories of Messianic prophecy
include direct, typical (or typological), and typical – prophetical. Probably most evangelical scholars would
classify Psalm 110 as directly Messianic. Most of the other royal psalms listed above would be classified as
typically Messianic, in the sense that most (if not all) of the historical kings in the Davidic dynasty function
as types of the ultimate Son of David in some capacity. A few other psalms would be classified as typically –
prophetically Messianic, such as Psalms 2. Here the language at
times so transcends the experience of the psalmist, and even stretches hyperbole, to the point that it becomes
more directly prophetical of the antitype, the Messiah.
5. Creation Psalms: Psalms 1,
Psalm 19 is a mixed type, with verses 7-14
being more like a Torah (or wisdom or didactic) psalm.
The Structure of Descriptive Praise
Psalms of descriptive praise (or hymns of praise) have three main parts (7):
1. Call to Praise (Introduction)
The imperative call to praise is sometimes replaced by a reflection on praise.
2. Cause for Praise (Main Section)
The reason for praise is often introduced by "for."
3. Conclusion to Praise (Recapitulation)
Frequently this type of psalm concludes with a renewed call to praise, echoing the note
struck at the beginning.
The structure of descriptive praise is beautifully illustrated in
Psalm 33: (1) Call to Praise (vv. 1-3); (2) Cause for Praise
(vv. 4-19; note the "For" at the beginning of v. 4); (3) Conclusion to Praise (vv. 20-22).
Praising god for What He Has Done (Declarative Praise)
Here the psalmist has been in dire need and has prayed to God for deliverance, and God has
intervened by granting the psalmist an answer – a specific act of deliverance. Now, in front of the entire
assembly, the psalmist voices thanksgiving to God by declaring what God has done (usually also presenting a
public thank offering to God).
Such psalms are often called songs of thanksgiving. The reason Westermann uses the term
declarative is that in this category the psalmist is praising God primarily by publicly declaring His
mighty deeds. Here the emphasis is on the acts of God – what He has done and given (or provided). The most
frequently used Hebrew verb for this kind of praise is hodah (from the root yadah). Many English
readers are familiar with it in the form todah, a modern Hebrew way of saying "Thank you." There are two
sub-categories of this type of praise, depending on whether the thanksgiving is by an individual or the whole
community (a partial list of Psalms belonging to each sub-category follows its label):
1. Psalms of Individual Thanksgiving: Psalms 18
(2 Sam 22), 30,
(mixed type), 66:13-20 (mixed type),
138, Jonah 2
2. Psalms of Community Thanksgiving: Psalms 46,
65, 66:1-12 (mixed
type), 67, 107,
Occasionally descriptive praise and declarative praise are found in the same psalm. Perhaps the lesson to be
learned is that praise should be neither all descriptive nor all declarative. Rather, it should be both
descriptive and declarative.
The Structure of Declarative Praise
Sometimes a psalm of declarative praise (or song of thanksgiving) follows the same pattern as
that of a psalm of descriptive praise. When it does, one must decide whether it is descriptive praise or
declarative praise by the emphasis of the contents. Is the psalm more general, stressing the attributes of God?
Then it is descriptive. Is it more specific, focusing on the acts of God? Then it is declarative.
Psalms of declarative praise have three main parts (8):
Here the worshiper announces his intention to give thanks to God, or he simply announces
what God has done.
2. Main Section: A Narration of the Individual’s Experience
The section typically includes a portrayal of the distress the psalmist was in, his cry
to God for help, and his deliverance.
The worshiper again testifies to the Lord’s gracious act of deliverance. A prayer for
future help, or a confession that the Lord is gracious, or some other formulation may be added.
For an example, see
Declaring praise in the Belly of a fish (K. Barker).
Praise in the Ancient Near Eastern World
In the Babylonian psalms the praise of God is almost exclusively descriptive. Praise based on
the mighty acts of God, that is, declarative praise, is only represented meagerly. The Babylonian psalms primarily
praise "the god who exists in his world of gods. In Israel (the psalms or hymns) primarily praise the God who acts
marvelously by intervening in the history of his people and in the history of the individual member of his people."
(9) In Egypt the situation is similar: While there is some declarative praise in the Egyptian
psalms or hymns, it occurs very sporadically there as well.
A sample of descriptive praise in the Akkadian language is this translation of part of the
Babylonian hymn of praise to the sun-god, Shamash:
Your splendor covers the vast mountains,
Your fierce light fills the lands to their
You climb to the mountains surveying the earth,
You suspend from the heavens the circle of the
You care for all the peoples of the lands,
And everything that Ea, king of the counselors, had
created is entrusted to you.
Whatever has breath you shepherd without exception,
You are their keeper
in upper and lower regions.
Regularly and without cease you traverse the heavens,
Every day you pass
over the broad earth. (10)
A sample of descriptive praise in Egyptian literature is this translation of part of Pharaoh
Akhenaten’s hymn of praise to the Aten (the sun disk as the source of life):
When thou settest in the western horizon,
The land is in darkness, in the manner of
They sleep in a room, with heads wrapped up,
Nor sees one eye the other …
At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
When thou shinest as the Aton by day,
Thou drivest away the darkness and givest thy rays…
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire.
While there are some undeniable parallels or similarities between these hymns and the psalms
of descriptive praise in the Old Testament, there are even more remarkable differences. One must therefore be
very careful not to conclude too hastily that one depended on, or borrowed from, the other.
Israel’s religion is quite different from those all around them. Indeed it is unique in the
ancient Near Eastern world. One thing is clear: The Israelites believed that Yahweh, their God, had defeated
Pharaoh and Egypt’s gods through the plagues and the exodus
(Ex 12:12; 14:17-18, 30-31;
15:11). So there is polemical value in comparative studies.
Many scholars have demonstrated that while there is much to learn of a positive nature from the
study of parallels between Biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature, one must proceed with due caution and
with a balanced approach. So it is with the study of praise literature in the Bible and the ancient Near Eastern
world. While there are numerous instructive parallels (though more in form than in content), there are even more
significant differences. For example, why is declarative praise comparatively rare in the ancient Near East? The
qualification "comparatively rare" is used because pagan peoples did sometimes acknowledge the help of their god(s)
in war chronicles. Still those immersed in mythology, polytheism, and idolatry apparently could not attribute very
many divine interventions to their (false) gods in their hymnic literature. They had few "mighty acts" to celebrate,
particularly in their hymns of praise. From the perspective of Old Testament theology, the reason for inaction by
the other so-called gods is stated I such Scripture passages as the following:
I, even I, am the LORD,
and apart from me there is no savior.
I have revealed and save and proclaimed –
I, and not some foreign god among you.
Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain?
Do the skies themselves send down showers?
No, it is you, O LORD our God.
Therefore our hope is in you,
for you are the one who does all this.
… no other god can save this way.
Isaiah repeatedly mentions the worthlessness and impotence of the pagan idols that represented
false gods (e.g. Isa 30:6-7;
All such passages obviously function as polemic thrusts against competing religious beliefs.
Guidelines for Interpreting and Using Praise Literature
In addition to the usual hermeneutical (interpretative) principles used in the study of all
other literature, there are some special interpretative principles that must be applied in analyzing praise
literature. They are as follows:
1. Since the praise genre is part of Hebrew poetry, make allowance for Hebrew poetic features.
One such feature is semantic, as well as grammatical, parallelism. Parallelism may be defined as thoughts (or
grammatical elements) arranged in a certain formal relationship to each other. The three most common kinds of
parallelism are synonymous, antithetical, and synthetical. In synonymous parallelism one or more poetic lines
not only repeat the basic idea of the first line in different words but also stress, intensify, or refine the
thought in some way. Psalms 19:1 provides an example:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of His hands.
The heavens or skies bring glory to God in that they are the work of His hands. In antithetical parallelism
one thought is contrasted with another. A sample is found in Proverbs 15:1:
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
In synthetical parallelism the thought is further extended, developed, supplemented, complemented, or completed.
Psalms 3:4 illustrates it:
To the LORD I cry aloud,
and He answers me from His holy hill.
While the definitions of synonymous, antithetical, and synthetical parallelism have been refined
over the many years, they are still valid forms of parallelism. (13) In fact, paying adequate
attention to parallelism is important because it can help one avoid certain mistakes in interpretation. For example,
in Psalms 30:3 the synonymously parallel line "you spared me from
going down into the pit" prevents one from understanding the first line "O LORD, you brought me up from the grave"
to mean that David had actually died and had been buried in the grave. Rather, "grave" (Hebrew Sheol) is a
hyperbole (an exaggeration) to depict forcefully a near – death experience. We might put it: "I was as good as
dead." David is thanking God for delivering him from death and the grave.
2. After parallelism, another common characteristic of Hebrew poetry (and so of praise literature)
is figurative language. Obviously, such figures of speech as simile (e.g.
Ps 1:3: "He is like a tree"), metaphor (e.g.
Ps 84:11: "For the LORD God is a sun and shield"), metonymy (e.g.
Ps 139:5: "You have laid your hand [= power and / or control]
upon me"), synechoche (e.g. Ps 3:3: "You lift up my head [= me]"),
hyperbole (see above and below), and personification (e.g. Ps 77:16:
"The waters saw you, O God") should not be understood literally. (14) For instance, metaphors
such as king, shepherd, and rock are used in praise of God. Clearly, in that context, such metaphors are not to be
understood literally but in the sense of what they symbolize.
3. Where it is possible to do so, try to discover the historical occasion for the particular
psalm being studied. As already mentioned, this is commonly known as the psalm’s Sitz im Leben, that is, the
specific situation in the life of the individual or of the people that produced the psalm. To discover such a
historical context, make use of the psalm – type and its form (or structure) and contents. Where they exist, the
psalm titles, headings, or superscriptions are often helpful for reconstructing the historical background.
Unfortunately, most psalms have no historical notion (only three of the praise psalms have such superscriptions,
namely 18, 30,
and 34). And the content of many psalms is frequently too general
to use in determining the occasion. So it is better to admit ignorance of the specific historical setting than to
arbitrarily assign a particular historical "setting in life" when there is not adequate evidence to justify such
4. Determine the psalm’s type (Gattung), that is, whether it features descriptive praise or
declarative praise and whether the praise is by an individual or the people as a whole. Then interpret accordingly.
For example, Psalms 33 (see above) is classified as a psalm of
descriptive praise (or hymn of praise), not as a psalm of declarative praise (or song of thanksgiving) by an
individual. This means that it is a psalm for public worship. So it should be expounded in view of that fact. Here
it must be remembered that "I" in certain psalms is occasionally collective, representing the people instead of an
5. For a legitimate devotional use of spiritual application of praise literature, formulate
timeless general spiritual principles that are valid and applicable at all time periods to all people in the same,
or in a similar, situation. Of course, descriptive praise of God is inherently timeless and can be used by any
true worshiper. Declarative praise of God can be used by those in the psalmist’s situation or in a similar
situation. In addition, new songs of thanksgiving (declarative praise) can be composed by those who experience
their own answers to prayer and divine deliverances. (15)
Indeed, because God’s new mighty acts, such as His redemptive acts through Christ, call for new
songs of thanksgiving, it is not surprising to find such declarative praise in the New Testament (for example,
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46-55 and Zechariah’s
song, the Benedictus, in Luke 1:68-75). Even in modern times,
we are encouraged to continue the practice of praise and thanksgiving by
Ephesians 5:19-20 and
What bearing should all this have on church hymnology today? The church’s music should focus
primarily on (1) putting the psalms of the Old Testament to music, (2) praising the Trinity (Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit) for all that they are and for what they are like (descriptive praise), and (3) thanking the Trinity
(three divine persons) for all that they do, give and provide (declarative praise). The songs of thanksgiving are
basically testimony songs, but the focus must always be on what the Lord has done and on the fact that He has
done it. Church hymns (as well as praise and worship songs and choruses) may also include prayers, songs of trust,
and instruction (in wisdom and in God’s Word), but those subjects for a later time.
Some of the most important points about the genre of praise that interpreters should keep in
mind are: (1) God is to be praised by recalling and meditating on His marvelous attributes (love, grace,
faithfulness, holiness, righteousness, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc.) – descriptive praise for
who He is and what He is like. (2) He is also to be praised by reporting divine interventions and answers to
prayer through His specific, mighty acts of deliverance – declarative praise for what He has done and provided.
(3) The principal kinds of descriptive praise to look for are hymns proper, enthronement (or theocratic) psalms,
songs of Zion (including pilgrim psalms and songs of ascent), royal psalms, and creation psalms. (4) The major
kinds of declarative praise to discover are individual thanksgiving and community thanksgiving. (5) While there
are similarities between praise in the Old Testament and praise in the ancient Near East, there are also significant
differences. For example, there is much more declarative praise to the Lord in Israel’s hymns than in the hymns to
the gods of the surrounding pagan countries. One should even look in Israel’s praise literature for polemic thrusts
against competing religious beliefs.
Interpretative principles for the praise genre should include: (1) Pay attention to the kind of
poetic parallelism involved. (2) Make allowance for figures of speech, which are not to understood literally. (3)
Where possible, discover the historical occasion or "life-setting" (Sitz im Leben) of a particular psalm being
studied, and interpret it in view of that background. (4) Determine whether a praise psalm’s type (Gattung) is
descriptive praise or declarative praise and whether the praise is by an individual or the community. (5) Formulate
timeless general spiritual principles that are applicable today to people in the same, or in a similar, situation.
Perhaps a personal testimony about how our Lord has used praise and thanksgiving to enrich my
own spiritual life would be an appropriate concluding application. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night
and have difficulty falling asleep again. Rather than become frustrated, one of the things I often do is meditate
on God’s marvelous attributes and how He has graciously expressed those traits to me and my family through His
mighty, saving acts. This is a form of descriptive and declarative praise. It is an immensely profitable spiritual
exercise. I highly recommend it to others. Certainly now more than ever, with the coming of the Christ and His
redemptive acts, we Christians have even more reason to praise and thank God for the person and work of His Son
and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
"On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night"
"My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
that I may meditate on your promises" (Ps 119:148).
"Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt His name together" (Ps 34:3).
May we say yes to the Lord’s call to thus praise and thank Him.
Dr. Kenneth Barker is an author and speaker living in Lewisville, Texas. Until
his retirement from International Bible Society in 1996, he was Executive Director of their NIV Translation Center.
He is one of the original translators of the New International Version of the Bible and a regular spokesperson for
its Committee on Bible Translation - the governing body that produced the NIV.
Ken Barker has given talks about the translation process of the NIV all over the U.S. and abroad, and much of
his time is spent writing, editing, preaching, and teaching. He also worked on the New International Reader’s
Version (a simplification of the NIV for those who read at a lower reading level), three books about the NIV,
and the tenth - anniversary edition of the NIV Study Bible as its General Editor.
Dr. Barker and his wife, Isabelle, have four children - Ken, Patricia, Ruth, and David - and 14 grandchildren.
When at home, the Barkers worship and serve at First Baptist Church of Carrolton, Texas. In his spare time Ken
enjoys music, reading, table tennis (ping-pong), swimming, and walking.
He holds the B.A. degree from Northwestern College, the Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and the Ph.D.
from the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning. In the past, he has served as Academic Dean of Capital
Bible Seminary, Professor of Old Testament at three theological seminaries, and Visiting Professor at two others.
He is also author of commentaries on the books of Micah and Zechariah.
1. All translations are from the NIV.
2. See his The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction, tr. Thomas M. Horner (Philadelphia:
3. A.R. Johnson, "The Psalms," in The Old Testament and Modern Study, ed. H.H. Rowley (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1951), p. 162.
4. John Bright, "Modern Study of Old Testament Literature," in The Bible and the Ancient Near
East, ed. G. Ernest Wright (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), pp. 26-27. Also influential in the study of the
Psalms is Sigmund Mowinckel, a Norwegian scholar who stresses the cultic character of the Psalms even more than Gunkel
(see Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, tr. D.R. Ap-Thomas [Nashville: Abingdon, 1962]). Mowinckel
also makes much of psalms containing references to the so-called enthronement of Yahweh as King. He connects this
with an alleged Jewish festival of the New Year, analogous to that in Babylon honoring the god Marduk. (In the Akkadian
language, the Babylonian New Year festival is called akitu.) for cogent arguments against Mowinckel’s view,
see K.A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: Inter-Varsity, 1966), pp. 102-06.
5. Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, tr. Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen
(Atlantic: John Knox, 1981), p.22.
6. Kenneth L. Barker, "Zechariah," in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, general ed. Frank
Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 7:619.
7. See Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), pp. 100-1;
cf. Westermann, Praise and Lament, pp. 122 ff. and chart on pp. 156-57.
8. See Anderson, Out of the Depths, pp. 84-86; cf. Westermann, Praise and Lament, charts on
pp. 85-86, 103-4.
9. Westermann, Praise and Lament, p. 42.
10. W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), p. 127, lines 17-28.
11. John A. Wilson, "Egyptian Hymns and Prayers," in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the
Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 370.
12. For further development of such a polemic purpose in many parts of the Old Testament, see my article,
"The Value of Ugaritic for Old Testament Studies," Bibliotheca Sacra 133 (April-June, 1976): 120-23; cf. now
Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., "The Polemic against Baalism in Israel’s Early History and Literature," Bibliotheca
Sacra 150 (July-September 1994): 267-83.
13. See John H. Stek, "When the Spirit Was Poetic," in The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary
Translation, ed. Kenneth L. Barker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), pp. 72-87, 158-61; cf. also Stek’s Introduction
to the Psalms in The NIV Study Bible, general ed. Kenneth L. Barker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), particularly
14. Cf. Herbert M. Wolf, "When ‘Literal’ Is Not Accurate," in The NIV: The Making, especially
pp. 134-36; E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968 reprint of 1898
15. See William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical
Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1993). Altogether, they list eight principles for interpreting poetry (pp. 290-91).