Six Weeks with the Psalms
When we read the Psalms, we are meant to learn things about God and about human nature and about how life is to be lived. Some poetry makes no claim to instruct the mind. The Psalms do. They are meant to be instructive about God and man and life.
Our six-week study of the Psalms will hold John Piper’s words as something of a touchstone. It won’t be an in-depth study, there are innumerable books and articles to turn to for that, instead it’s intended to give us just a little more insight into what the Psalms mean to us. Today’s blog serves just as an introduction, and in subsequent weeks we’ll examine some Psalms in particular, we’ll dig a bit deeper into them, into the language used, how they’re structured, matters like that. Most importantly, though, the intention is to discern what they mean to us, how they can be instructive to us, and to our lives.
To understand the psalms, of course, you’ve really got to read them. Better still, sing them…
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
The first Psalm serves not only as a good introduction to the Book of Psalms, but as (I think, at least) a decent introduction to the whole of scripture. It identifies two ways man (or woman) can be – they can be blessed and good or they can turn the other way. It’s a little like the beginning of Genesis, where we hear of man’s choice between taking the right path or the wrong one and it’s a message we will return to, but in the meantime, a question:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
This is from the English Standard Version of the Bible. Some translations, such as the King James Version, say ‘let him sing psalms.’ (It’s maybe appropriate here to mention that the Psalms are better read in some versions than others. My preference is for the ESV as, without becoming too archaic in language, it retains most of their lyrical, poetic aspects. Some, such as the Good News Version, lose a little of this.)
Is it as simple as that? Pray if you’re suffering, sing if you’re happy? I’d say that prayer is more than just asking for help in difficult situations, it’s about thanksgiving, it’s about worship. And I don’t think psalms are just for singing when we’re happy – many of them are just about the opposite.
There are happy psalms, in fact in the original Hebrew they were written in, the very first word of Psalm 1, ashrei, is most often translated as ‘blessed’ but it can equally be translated as happy. The poet John Donne said that that word, ashrei, happy, ‘runs like a bright thread through the whole book.’ There are plenty of happy, worshipful psalms – Psalm 92: ‘’You thrill me, Lord with all you have done for me.’ Psalm 16: ‘No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice.’
But there are plenty of sad psalms too, psalms of lament. Psalm 13: ‘O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?’ Psalm 86: ‘O God, insolent people rise up against me; a violent gang is trying to kill me.’ If you were happy when you sang psalms like this, you wouldn’t be for long.
Psalms can be happy or sad, praise or lament, but there seems to be a psalm for just about every human emotion. I read somewhere that there are 126 psychological experiences contained in the Psalms, such as happiness, sadness, disappointment, anger, jealousy. One day I’ll try to identify them all…
Is the Book of Psalms a hymn book? A prayer book? A book of evidence of God’s work? A training guide on how to live a good life? I think it’s of these things, really. Maybe best describe it as a book of poems, or songs (the word itself comes from the Greek, psalmos, meaning something like ‘song sung to a harp.’) The book didn’t originally have a name in Hebrew, that’s why the name comes from Greek. In fact, most of the Old Testament books have Greek names, the original Hebrew texts didn’t name the books.
We can’t be absolutely certain of authorship. King David is commonly regarded as the author of around half of them, although there are doubts as to the historicity of David himself (there’s a good article on the myth or reality of David here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/myth-and-reality-of-king-david-s-jerusalem). We know which ones can be attributed to him because they are indicated by ‘A Psalm of David’. Incidentally, this hasn’t just been added to modern Bibles, it’s in the original Hebrew and the psalms where the author is known are usually indicated, ie ‘A Psalm of Asaph.’ Asaph was apparently the musical director during David and Solomon’s reigns, and he can be attributed to about a dozen of them, as can the Sons of Korah, who served in the temple. Solomon is thought to be the author of just two which is a bit of a surprise as it says in 1 Kings 4:29 that ‘he composed some 3000 proverbs and wrote 1005 songs.’ Moses is thought to some to have written Psalm 90, which is commonly regarded as the earliest of the Psalms. And the authorship of the rest, although reasonable hypotheses can be put forward, remains in doubt.
There is a structure to the book of Psalms, there are five books, the first is from 1-41, 2nd from 42-72, 3rd from 73-89, 4th from 90-106 and 5th from 107-150. The intention here was to reflect the original five books of the Bible, the Torah. Each of the books ends with a doxology, or as we would more likely see it, a benediction. 41 – ‘Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and amen.’ Something similar is tagged on to 72, 89, 106 and 150. I think it’s quite hard to study the Psalms this way – there are studies which do that, for instance Psalm 1 is equivalent to the early part of Genesis, with man in perfect blessedness, Psalm 2 is rebellion, Psalm 3 is rejection and so on. But I think that’s quite hard, there’s a lot of compromises you have to make to keep that theme running. There are a great many studies into structure, one of which can be found here, and it’s a very good summary of the Psalms in general, https://youtu.be/j9phNEaPrv8,
So there are many ways of categorising the Psalms, apart from into just happy and sad ones. Some teach moral principles, some are imprecatory Psalms – not very pleasant, these, they invoke God to bring punishment on the Psalmist’s enemies, and as Jesus taught us to love our enemies I’m not too sure about those. But one of the simplest categorisations I’ve seen has five categories: praise, wisdom, royal, thanksgiving and lament. So that’s how we’ll look at them over the next five weeks, beginning next week with Psalms of Praise.