Psalms: The Believer’s Prayer Book

PSALMS
is a book about
WORSHIP
in which God is
WORTHY.

What Is Worship?

Worship is not music, but a posture of the heart. Etymologically, worship means worthship or worthiness; worship, then, declares his worth and our surrender to his good will.

What we worship ends up defining us. One definition of worship is “the reflection of the worshipped on the worshipper.” Our lives are a reflection of whatever we value most highly, whether that be an idol, a lover, or the Most High God.

Psalms: The Anatomy of the Soul

John Calvin wrote, “I have been accustomed to call this book [the Psalms], The Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul. There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”

While it is common to try to exclude the emotional life from our spirituality, the Bible makes it clear that the whole man is to be involved. The warning God gives us about emotions is not that we should avoid them; it is that emotion can make a useful servant, but a terrible master.

Ways of Categorizing Psalms

What follows is an attempt to delineate the most important categories of psalms, first by theme; by author; by historical context; and lastly, by Messianic context.

By Theme: Psalms’ Pageant of Experiences

While the Psalms have a traditional division into five books, it can be more useful in study to compare them based on the experiences which they convey. Some psalms are very closely connected or have shared material, like Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 (written as one psalm in many ancient versions). Other ways of grouping psalms, like the so-called “penitential psalms,” have been given that name and grouping for many centuries, although they are not adjacent to each other in the Psalter.

Hymns: 8, 100, 103, 104, 145-150
Thanksgiving: 32, 75, 116, 118, 136
Trust: 23, 27, 91, 121, 131
Penitential psalms: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143
Laments: 13, 42-43, 80, 120, 126

By Author

The psalms are unique in that many of them contain notes about their authorship, usage in worship, and sometimes the author’s circumstances. While these epigrams are sometimes considered later additions to the text itself, they appear to be very ancient and contain important information.

In the whole book of Psalms, David is listed as the author of 73 psalms. New Testament cross-references would add two more to the list: Psalm 2 (in Acts 4:25) and Psalm 95 (in Hebrews 4:7). Below is the full listing of psalms that are identified by author, although the remaining 48 are anonymous:

David wrote (or assisted in writing) at least 75 psalms: 2-9, 11-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 95, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, and 138-145.
Asaph wrote 12 psalms: 50, and 73-83.
The sons of Korah wrote 11 psalms: 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88.
Solomon wrote two psalms: 72 and 127.
Heman wrote one psalm, with the sons of Korah: 88.
Ethan the Ezrahite wrote one psalm: 89.
Moses wrote one psalm: 90.

Our understanding of some psalms is greatly enhanced, though, by knowing not just who wrote them, but when. Psalm 51, the greatest psalm of repentance, was written “when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” (ESV) We can go deeper by studying these contexts, especially the life of David.

By Context: Psalms with Jewish Contexts

A few psalms relate to specific aspects of Jewish life, like:

Torah wisdom: 1, 119, and 133
The temple: 24
God’s covenant: 78, 89 and 132

(See also, below, the “Songs of Ascents.”)

Other psalms are unique in their subject matter or require more contextual considerations for modern readers to understand their meaning. Imprecatory psalms, for example, implore God to intervene between the singer and his enemy. (While these might be difficult for believers living in power and influence, they are easier to understand when we are suffering persecution.)

Imprecatory psalms: 35, 52, 58, 69, 109, 137, 140

A specific group of psalms, 120-134, are traditionally known as songs of ascents and related to Jewish pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem.

Songs of Ascents: 120-134

Many other psalms relate to royalty. As always, it is best to read these first in light of their ancient context, before applying any metaphorical meanings.

Royal psalms: 45, 93, 95-99, 110

Prophetic and Messianic Meanings

Prophetic passages often refer to Jerusalem’s king or David, and, by extension, Jesus. Jews do not only find prophecies in passages specifically marked as prophecy; they also found prophetic meanings in Psalms, and the Book of Ruth for example.

The Epistle to the Hebrews explains the Messianic meanings of Psalms 8, 45 and 110. Psalm 2 and Psalm 22 are also somewhat difficult to understand outside the story of the Messiah, so that is the primary lens through which Christians see them.

Psalm 8 is the Hymn of Creation, in which man is the apex of God’s Creation since he bears God’s image.

Psalm 22 is the Psalm of the Messiah’s Crucifixion.

Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 are the Psalms of the Messiah’s Coronation.

Psalm 45 is the Psalm of the Messiah’s Wedding Day.

The Importance of Poetry to the Spiritual Life

Poetry, in and of itself, has always had importance for the spiritual life. Nearly every book of the Bible includes some poetry, and some world religions rely heavily on poetic language. Poetry has been called “language distilled.”

Poetry always resists dogmatic or one-sided interpretations. The abundance of poetry in the Bible shows us that the Bible is more than a cerebral book. It exceeds the limits of our brains, and involves the whole spiritual person.

Interpreting Psalms

Understanding poetry can be difficult enough in English. Although believers have always expanded outward from the Psalms by interpreting some of them as prophecy, it is much more difficult to interpret them in narrow limits but plucking proof texts from them. Of all the Bible’s books, the Psalter resists this practice the most.

Parallelism is the primary source of “prosody” in Hebrew poetry; it also serves as a hedge for interpretation, since it almost never makes sense to introduce a radically new theological concept on only one side of a parallelism. (The Masoretic text included the parallel lines in two columns, so the parallels were clearly seen as you read the text.)

Recommendations for Further Study

For study of the Psalms, I recommend the following books:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a very good devotional book called Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible.

John Calvin’s preface to his Commentary on the Psalms is a helpful introduction.

Dennis Bratcher’s website has a very helpful way of classifying the psalms, although there is no perfect way of dividing them. His list includes all 150.

John Owen’s Exposition of Psalm 130 (also called The Forgiveness of Sins) draws heavily on the Book of Psalms, although it ostensibly is written on Psalm 130. Owen deals with subjects related to depression, guilt, and the need for a continuing experience of grace.

Notes on the Psalms by G. Campbell Morgan gives a straightforward summary of themes in each psalm one by one.

Herbert Lockyer, Walter Brueggemann, Alexander Maclaren and C. S. Lewis all have books on the Psalms that I have not read yet! Brueggemann, in fact, has several, although most of his works are for a scholarly audience.

I also highly recommend the reading of devotional poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, William Cowper; or hymnwriters such as Isaac Watts and F. W. Faber. A hymnbook that you like is a great place to start.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s