Tag Archives: Psalms

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.

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Books and Bottles

“You have kept count of my tossings [or ‘wanderings’]; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8, ESV)

In the psalm quoted above, David recounts to God all that his enemies have marshaled against him. They have haunted his steps; injured his cause; plotted against him; oppressed him daily. But God is not unaware of David’s enemies. He keeps the books in heaven. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and all-encompassing, and there will be a day when God settles David’s account.

When we read of books and scribes in Scripture, we must keep in mind that literacy was a specialty, reserved for a privileged few, and still is in some parts of the world. Study was a luxury, and books were priceless. How much more priceless are they when we consider the books that God must keep.

Thou hast a book for my complaints,
A bottle for my tears.

Tears and Tossings

“You put my tears in your bottle.”

In most biblical contexts, a bottle would mean a skin, such as the wineskins Jesus refers to. In this verse, the psalmist is probably referring to a ceramic bottle used in ancient funeral rites. Ornate containers called lachrymatories were commonly added to graves all over the ancient world.

The symbolic act of putting tears in bottles is well-known to historians. Tear-bottles were added permanently to graves, perhaps both as a symbolic goodbye and an honor to the memory of the lost. Museums still hold plenty of examples of these from various centuries as well as regions. They were ceramic in New Testament times; glass was invented later on.

The fact that God puts our tears in his bottle suggests that God shares in our grief with us. The Creator alone knows the innermost self, in its sin, its suffering, and its solace.

Alabaster

“She broke an alabaster jar.”

Bottles were also used in funeral rituals to pour ointment on a body for burial in several ancient cultures. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus, she truly was proclaiming his death beforehand, preparing him for burial. (Mark 14:8) She understood what the disciples were blind to: Jesus had to face a shameful death. (John 12:7)

If we take Matthew’s estimation, the value of the alabaster jar was about a year’s wages. Alabaster was mined in Egypt and carved into exquisite containers; the rare spice inside, nard, grows at elevations above 12,000 feet, and is only found in the Himalayan Mountains. Why then did Mary have this priceless jar? Was it like a life insurance policy, saved for the day of death? Is it possible that she had been saving it for her deceased brother’s grave? In the light of Lazarus’ resurrection, did she surrender to Jesus the safekeeping that would follow her own death? He who holds the keys knows.

There is no blessing in being comfortable, but “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus himself wept at the grave of Lazarus. He wept not only because of Lazarus and his family, but because death is an enemy, and a result of the curse that our sin has brought to us.

God’s Books

“The books were opened.”

Daniel says in his end-times vision that court was convened, and “the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:10) We think first of the Book of Life, and those who are blotted out. God calls it in some places “my book.” (Rev.) The most important record that God keeps is those who receive his salvation.

There are other books in heaven though. Both Daniel and John mention that God has books. Malachi tells us that one of them includes the records of our fellowship, our faithful prayers, and the results they wrought in lives changed:

“Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” (Malachi 3:16, ESV)

There is a crumb of comfort here for ministers with few visible successes. We struggle to reconcile our experience with the thrilling accounts of missionary biography. We could read of the apostolic triumphs in Uganda, and how Bishop Hannington perished on the forbidden road, and yet a church rose in his wake. We could read about the Palm Beach Five in the jungles of Ecuador, facing death for Christ, but giving life to a marginalized tribe. These sacrifices and successes are what fill our books. These are the ingredients of bestsellers.

But heaven has a different best-seller list. The prophet tells us that God writes it down when two believers sit and talk of him. If Malachi’s words are to be taken seriously, God keeps each of our biographies in heaven, and a page-turner to him is when his people take heed, and fear him, and talk about how they may follow on to know him

What God Values

“The Lord paid attention.”

Books and bottles are both vessels of preservation. They tell us what is precious. Precious tears are preserved in bottles; precious thoughts are preserved in books.

God values our thought life. God noticed those that feared him, and thought upon his name. We could spend our whole lifetime in the library, scouring a thousand volumes on theology, history, religion, and ritual. But one honest moment thinking about his name, dwelling on who he really is, drinking in his character from his revealed Word, would outweigh a whole lifetime of any other study.

God values our fellowship. They “spake often one to another.” Speaking to one another about spiritual topics should not be rare or specialized. One preacher said, “We are not called upon to talk theology, but we are called upon to talk gratitude.”  We need to talk to God and of God long and often.

God values our mourning. We are not the ones who treasure up our tears; God puts them in his own bottle. Our suffering is not taken lightly by God, even when he leads his children into it. One prophet said, “In all their suffering he also suffered”; and another, “He does not willingly afflict the sons of men.” He treasures the pain that we have been through, not for its own sake, but because of the eternal weight of glory that it’s working in us. Shouldn’t we?

Never a sigh of passion or of pity,
Never a wail for weakness or for wrong,
Has not its archive in the angels’ city,
Finds not its echo in the endless song.