Enriching the Prayer Experience through Writing Psalms

  • by: Russell Jay Hendel

Russell Jay Hendel (RHendel@Towson.edu) is Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Towson University and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish studies at the Spertus Institute. He has written extensively on biblical exegesis as well as on education, and he also runs the Rashiyomi.com website whose goal is to defend the naturality of all Rashi comments based on literary techniques.

Russell Jay Hendel suggests that a deep understanding on Psalms and their internal structure can enhance prayer.


Prayer is a complex topic related to many areas including, the God-man relationship, emotional expression, literary structure, and even music and group performance. Pointing to this complexity, Devarim Rabbah (2:1) lists ten major biblical words describing prayer. For example: i) tehinah, supplication, connotes a self-perception of man as little better than an animal who comes to God to seek basic sustenance; (ii) contrastively, the word tefillah, self-appraisal, connotes a cognitive intellectual form of prayer where man (boldly) co-judges with God on what he deserves. The supplicatory and cognitive forms of prayer are equally legitimate; they both have a place in one’s daily life.

The goal of this paper is to improve student’s prayer experience by giving them tools to more keenly understand prayer structure. The paper will focus on answering the following question: “If you have a Psalm whose theme is thanksgiving, or the greatness of Torah and wisdom, or supplication for being saved from trouble, what components or sub-paragraphs will the Psalm have?”

The concept of Psalm structure sounds cold and unemotional. Perhaps at first blush one might think it better to concentrate on the emotional experiences of the Psalmist or the consequent God-man relationship. Nevertheless, it is established in other fields, for example, music, that knowledge of structure influences the emotional aspect of a musical piece (Gabrielsson & Lindstrom, 2010). Furthermore, it is common in introductory literature and music courses to focus on structure. Thus, we argue that a mere focus on Psalm structure can be enriching.

A second reason for teaching structure is that it facilitates habit acquisition. We all know the difficulty in praying especially when one is going through a crisis. Such difficulty and hesitancy is frequently attributed to the nature of the God-man relationship, man naturally is hesitant to approach God. However, an alternative explanation is lack of habit. An acquired habit done every day is much easier to do then non-habitual actions that are rarely done. By teaching structure and having people practice it we are removing one barrier from prayer, hesitancy, and facilitating praying in difficult times. And there is substantial literature, both in traditional religious sources and contemporary academic study, to support this endeavor.

An interdisciplinary high-school course in Psalms

Time resources are constrained in high-school. Consequently, this paper proposes using existing high-school resources to teach Psalms. More specifically, we propose an interdisciplinary course combining the English composition and Nakh courses. The course would teach both traditional English composition practices and Psalms. We propose that the Psalm module of the course focus on understanding Psalm structure and writing Psalm-like works.

We are advocating presenting structural models and rubrics of certain Psalm genres in class and using these models both to read Psalms and to have students write their own Psalms. These goals are consistent with The Evidenced Based Practices for Writing Instruction (Troia, 2014) which list the following important skills for high-school English composition courses: Paragraph Structure Instruction (Practice 4.1), Text Structure Instruction (Practice 4.2), Text Models (Practice 4.5), and Utilizing Rubrics (Practice 6.1).

Our focus on structure and form is also consistent with the commentaries of the classical medieval commentaries. We use Psalm 19, a wisdom Psalm (a Psalm praising wisdom and Torah), to illustrate (translations by Judaic Classics, v. 3.4, D. Kantrowitz, Davka.com, 2009). The analysis is presented in Table 1. We will further analyze this Psalm in Section 6 below.

Author inscription (v1)To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David.
Paragraph 1:
One can find God in nature (v. 2-7)
2. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 3. Day to day utters speech, and night to night expresses knowledge. 4. There is no speech nor are there any words; their voice is not heard.5. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun,

6. Which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and rejoices like a strong man when he runs a race. 7. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit to the ends of it; and there is nothing hidden from his heat.

Paragraph 2:

One can equally find God in the Torah and its precepts (v8-10)

8. The Torah of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. 9. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. 10. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Paragraph 3:

The Psalmist therefore seeks perfection and freedom from errors

11. More to be desired are they than gold, even very fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. 12. Moreover by them is your servant warned; and in keeping of them there is great reward. 13. Who can discern his errors? Clean me from hidden faults. 14. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me; then shall I be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

Table 1: Paragraph Structure of Psalm 19, a wisdom Psalm, a Psalm praising wisdom and Torah.

The classical commentators such as Rashi and Ibn Ezra discuss Psalm structure and form. For example, the Ibn Ezra writes (v. 8),

“In my opinion, after the Psalmist said that nature allows one to find God and see his deeds (v. 2-7), the Psalmist explains there is another witness to God’s greatness and his ways, and this other way is the Torah, with the commandments, statutes and ordinances.”

Rashi makes similar comments.

Academic study of Psalms suggests that each Psalm theme – thanksgiving, wisdom, supplication – has a unique structure associated with it. This idea is known as form-critical analysis. For example, Gunkel (1967) who introduced form-critical analysis into current academic study, asserts that any Psalm of supplication has up to five distinct parts: i) Call to God, ii) Description of one’s trouble, iii) Request for God to save the supplicant, iv) Reasons why God should answer the supplicant (e.g. i) supplicant is righteous or ii) unworthy but deserving of grace, iii) God’s honor will be magnified if the supplicant is saved, iv) the supplicant should be saved lest the wicked enemies brag how they defeated a man of God), v) Expressions of certainty of being answered with promises of thanksgiving.

While there may not be complete agreement on the details of these structures (see, for example,

Howard, 2004) ), there is nonetheless a consensus that understanding the form of a Psalm influences our understanding of its content. The diversity of opinions in both the traditional religious and contemporary academic literature allows for students (and teachers) to experiment with their own views on Psalm structure.


It is worthwhile to explore two concrete examples to illustrate the point.

  1. Psalm 19 (see Table 1, above). This Psalm is a wisdom Psalm, a Psalm that praises Torah and wisdom. The following bullet points emphasize the Psalm’s structure and show how students might try and imitate it to write their own Psalms.
  • The Psalm’s theme is contained in the second paragraph: Torah is praiseworthy and restores the soul
  • That theme is developed in terms of the types of commandments: judgements, statutes, commandments etc. (mishpatim, hukim, mitzvot, etc.) These keywords are bolded in Table 1.
  • The second paragraph is introduced using an analogy: The order of the heavens (Paragraph 1) mirrors the harmony and order of Torah life.
  • The second paragraph is followed by a prayer, Paragraph 3, yearning for wisdom and perfection. The Psalmist prays to God to help the individual achieve this perfection.
  • Possible student exercise:
    • Pick something praiseworthy
    • Develop this praiseworthiness in 3 paragraphs similar to Psalm 19
    • The opening paragraph should be an analogy for the thing you selected
    • The closing paragraph should be a short prayer yearning for perfection.



  1. Psalm 13, a petitionary Psalm, is presented below.
Author Attribution (v. 1)1. To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David.
Paragraph 1:
Statement of misfortune (v. 2-3)

·         How long will you forget me, O Lord? For ever?

·         How long will you hide your face from me?

·         3) How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?

·         How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Paragraph 2:
Prayer/ petition for salvation (v. 4)
4. Look and answer me, O Lord my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
Paragraph 3:
Why God should answer supplicant (v. 5)
5. Lest my enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved.
Paragraph 4:

Certainty of being answered and Thanks (v. 6)

6. But I have trusted in your loving kindness; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Table 2: Paragraph structure of Psalm 13

Comments and possible student exercises are as follows

  • Paragraph 1 states the complaint. Notice the development of this complaint with a repeating motif (how long?)
  • Paragraph 2 is a modest request for salvation
  • Paragraph 3 gives the reason why God should listen to prayer. Possible reasons could be i) supplicant’s righteousness, ii) God’s grace to supplicant, iii) So enemies do not brag of victory, iv) so God’s honor is sustained. This Psalm chose the third option. Paragraph 4, is a modest statement of certainty that God will answer with promise to thank God
  • Note that paragraphs 1-4 follow Gunkel’s supplication form
  • Student exercise:
    • Think of some misfortune you wish to avoid
    • Compose a Psalm: The first paragraph should be a description of the misfortune. Can you find some device like a repeating theme to describe the misfortune
    • In the 2nd paragraph ask God to save you
    • The 3rd paragraph should explain why God should save you. Can you use reasons other than those in Psalm 13
    • The 4th paragraph thanks God for listening. How would you thank God?

By presenting many Psalm themes and many writing exercises in the proposed course, the student experiences a diversity of techniques making him or her a better reader and writer.


In this paper, we have advocated enriching the prayer experience by focusing on understanding Psalm structure. The vehicle for this focus would be a high-school interdisciplinary course addressing English composition and Nakh study. The course would focus on using structure, form and rubrics for both reading and writing. The course is consistent with approaches of the traditional commentaries to the Psalms. The course would encourage writing Psalms either as acts of i) thought, ii) pure writing, iii) stand-alone recitation, or possibly iv) for inclusion in the daily prayers. The course would encourage reading both traditional commentaries and modern academic scholarship.



Gabrielsson, A. & Lindstrom, E. (2010). The role of structure in the musical expression of emotions, in P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda, Handbook of music and emotion: theory, research and applications, pp. 367-400, N.Y., NY: Oxford University Press.

Gunkel, H. (1967). The Psalms: A form-critical introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.

Howard, D. M. (2004), Recent Trends in Psalms Study, in D. W. Baker & B. T. Arnold The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches, pp. 329-368, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Troia, G. (2014). Evidence-based practices for writing instruction (Document No. IC-5). Retrieved from University of Florida, Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Accountability, and Reform Center website, March 2017. http://ceedar.education.ufl.edu/tools/innovation-configuration/



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