Lesson 15 – Psalms
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
We now come to the third and the final section of the Old Testament books. This section is called The Writings. This is the most diverse of all the materials that we have. The law is a pretty standard mixture of narrative and commands and case laws. The prophets are a fairly solid mixture of narrative and of history and interpretation of that history and preaching and teaching and writing about it. The writings span everything from Psalms and Proverbs and narratives, to laments and love songs. It is a very diverse set of books. These books together tell us how it is that Israel lived throughout their history, how the faithful people related to God and related to one another.
As we are going to see, The Writings begin with the book of Psalms, which tells us how to worship, and it goes clear on to the end to 1 and 2 Chronicles to tell us how to view the past. Along the way, it tells us how to live wisely, how to live in the midst of suffering, how to live in exile and how to mourn terrible losses, and how to enjoy love. So this diverse section is the “how” part of the Old Testament book. The law and the former prophets tell us what has happened. The latter prophets tell us why it has happened. Now The Writings give us instruction in how it is that people lived for the Lord and for one another throughout these great events of history that we have already learned.
The Psalms represent the best prayers, hymns and calls to worship that Israel produced. They were collected over a long period of time as the different historical events they describe indicate. All are poetic in form. Their broad subject matter and poetic genius have long made the Psalms popular with readers. They have blessed Christians for 2000 years and prior to that, Israelites for centuries.
Three Ways to Interpret the Psalms
Individual Expressions of Spirituality
There are basically three ways in which we can interpret the Psalms. First, many people read them as general, individual expressions of spirituality. These readers expect Psalms to speak to the personal lives, regardless of the text’s original setting or purpose. Unfortunately, this type of interpretation too often misuses Scripture. A text can be made to mean whatever the reader wishes. Too, this kind of interpretation misses the opportunity to apply the Psalms to national and community issues.
According to Literary Type
Second, the Psalms can be interpreted by their literary type or form and then applied to worship. The pioneer of this type of study is named Herman Gunkel. He wrote about 100 to 125 years ago. He argued that we ought to group Psalms that are similar in content, tone and settings, and then understand how they were used in their original setting, and then use them in similar circumstances today. Gunkel stated that there were five basic types of Psalms, and here they are: First type, hymns of praise. Second type, royal psalms. Third type, individual thanksgiving songs. Fourth type, individual laments. Fifth type, community laments. Let me repeat those: Hymns of praise, royal psalms, individual thanksgiving songs, individual laments and community laments. Other scholars have observed that you can basically boil these five categories into two, praises or laments. Though the list is not perfect, Gunkel these five types provide an adequate introduction to the various types of psalms that we find.
Hymn of Praise
Let me go over a few of these with you. The hymn of praise: A hymn of praise usually unfolds in the following manner. First, there is a call to praise, then there are reasons given for praising God, and then there is a concluding praise. So, three sections: Call to praise, reasons for praise and concluding praise. And a hymn of praise usually is stating something wonderful about God’s character and his deeds, but the emphasis is on God’s character and his greatness. Examples of this type of psalm can be found in Psalm 8:29 and 104, where worshipers praise the Lord as creator. Other hymns of praise, Psalm 100 and Psalm 103, these two psalms praise God as our savior. Also, you could look at Psalms 46 and 48. These psalms stress that God is the King of Israel and the king of all nations. So hymns of praise are fairly common.
The second type of psalms that we have already mentioned are royal psalms. As you can expect, these psalms comment on the lives and actions of Israel’s kings. While doing so, they often refer to the Messiah, the coming king, the son of David, the Davidic descent who will rule Israel and all nations. Royal psalms do not follow a set pattern. They also cover a variety of situations. For example, Psalm 2 probably is about a coronation. Psalm 45 is about a marriage. Psalm 144 is about a battle. I think the clearest Messianic royal psalm is 110, which speaks of a king who is also a priest after the order of Melchizedek (see verse 4). Hebrews refers to this text five times to describe the person and work of Jesus Christ. So quite often, when the New Testament cites a psalm that it claims is a psalm speaking about the coming Messiah and thus about Jesus, they pick a royal psalm to cite.
Individual Thanksgiving Psalm
The third type of psalm, the thanksgiving psalm. These mention particular times and ways God has blessed an individual or the nation. The hymn of praise emphasizes God’s character and then God’s deeds. Thanksgiving psalms do mention God’s character, but focus on God’s deeds. They are therefore more specific in nature than hymns of praise. They often unfold in the following way: They open with a statement of praise, describe some past trouble, then note how God helped in that situation and conclude with a statement of gratitude. For instance, Psalm 30 begins by thanking God for his help (verse 1), calls the problem he faces life threatening (verses 2-5), claims God heard the cry for help (verses 6-9) and promises to thank God forever (verses 10-12). Other thanksgiving psalms include Psalms 18, Psalm 32, 107, 116 and 138.
The fourth type of psalm is the individual lament. Interestingly enough, individual laments appear more often than any other psalm type. They appear for a variety of reasons. They mourn personal sin, as we find in Psalms 6, 32 and 51. They also mourn the presence of enemies, Psalms 3, 7 and 13. They often also mourn or lament sickness and disease, Psalms 31 and 102. Typically, individual laments unfold in four segments, as Psalm 51 illustrates. First, the worshiper offers a general prayer for deliverance, verses 1 and 2. Then he describes the problem, verses 3-6. He then asks for help in verses 7-12 and pledges to serve God when forgiveness is granted, verses 13-19. I find it interesting that individual laments are so prevalent in the Psalms, when in my church tradition we so rarely ever use laments at all. I think it is important for us to recall that people in the Scriptures were willing to share their sorrows with God in clear and telling ways and ask for his help.
The fifth type of psalm, the community lament, is of course similar to the individual lament. They differ in that the whole nation, or at least a large group of people, mourn together when war, famine, drought or some other disaster afflicts Israel. Psalms 44, 74, 79 and 80 are all community laments. Psalm 80 shows us the format of a community lament. First, the community calls on God, verses 1-3. Then the community complains about a situation, verse 47. Next, the community reviews Yahweh’s help in the past, verses 8-11. Next, they petition for help in the current situation, verses 12-17. Finally, they vow to serve God when trouble passes, see verses 18, 19.
Sometimes contemporary readers are offended at the way community and individual laments complain to God. We must remember, though, that the psalmist believed God will solve the problem. Therefore, they base the complaint on faith in God. I also want to remind current readers, we often do complain to God. We may as well learn to pray in a way that would be pleasing to him. He is willing to hear our complaints. The Psalms gives us ways to complain with the purpose of having greater faith in God, not less faith in him, and not to develop a bitter spirit.
Not all psalms fit neatly into these categories, as Gunkel and other scholars admit. Still, readers can understand most psalms by following these patterns. Now the main problem with this approach is that it doesn’t make sense of the order of The Psalms as they appear in the Scriptures. In this approach, readers must take each individual psalm, classify it and move on to the next text. Little continuity emerges. So, I want to mention a third way to interpret the Psalms and I want you to see ways to link it with the second way that we just mentioned. The first way to interpret the psalms, we mentioned, was to treat it individualistically, find words or phrases that comfort or encourage us in the psalms, and read them regardless of context. The second way is to read them by their literary type, by the five different literary types that we mentioned, and how they function. I think that’s a very important way for us to read the psalms.
Reading the Psalms as a Whole Book
Recently however, scholars have given us a lot of help in trying to understand how the psalms may be read as a whole book. Pioneers in this form of study of the psalms include Gerald Wilson and John Walton. You know by looking at your Bible that the psalms are divided into five parts: Chapters 1–41, chapters 42–72, chapters 73–89, chapters 90–106 and chapters 107–150. This division reflects some purposeful arranging of the book.
Wilson notes the titles of the Psalms and he notes how the end of each segment of the psalm is often reflected in the first chapter of the next section of the psalm; and he notes that every section of the psalms ends with a doxology with praise to God. Based on his analysis of the book, Wilson thinks the Book of Psalms discusses how Israel has kept or broken her covenant with Yahweh.
According to Wilson, chapters 1–41 focus on proclaiming the covenant. Then, chapters 42-72 discuss the passing on of the covenant to the next generation. But, chapters 73–89 reveal that the covenant has not been kept. Therefore, chapters 90–106 may state how an exiled Israel should repent. Chapters 107–150 then conclude the book by offering hope to those who ask the Lord to forgive them. You will probably notice that this format parallels the prophet’s emphasis on election, sin, punishment and restoration.
John Walton agrees that The Psalms charts Israel’s relationship to the covenant. He takes the psalm titles seriously and uses them to date the five sections of the book. He says Psalms 1 and 2 introduce God’s love for the righteous and special covenant he has made with David. Then, chapters 3–41 deal with David’s conflict with Saul and chapters 42–72 with David’s reign. Next, chapters 73–89 discuss the Assyrian crisis, the era in which the Assyrians dominated Israel’s and Judah’s history. Chapters 90–106 reflect on the temple’s destruction after 587 B.C. Chapters 107–145 contemplate the return of worship in Jerusalem and Psalms 146–150 complete the book by commanding the nation to praise Yahweh. Walton’s scheme helps readers see how Psalms parallels the historical events discussed in Samuel and Kings, as well as using the great prophetic themes of election, sin, punishment and restoration.
Outline of Psalms
In the rest of the time in Psalms, I will give you an outline of the book that will help you see how they worshiped God. I will make a few comments on psalm types. But in a study of this type, we do not have a long time to spend on a great book like Psalms.
Worshipping God in Times of Trouble (1–41)
Psalms 1-41, in my opinion, stresses worshiping God in times of trouble. Worship must be durable to be authentic; and Psalms 1-41 stress maintaining faithfulness to God under extreme pressure. Most of these psalms are personal laments and most of the titles connect them to David. Of course, David endured many problems, such as Saul’s jealousy and Absalom’s rebellion and so forth. Israel also experienced many national problems, even when they tried to follow Yahweh. These troubles helped strengthen and purify Israel and David’s faith. Their problems were real, but they were not the most important reality in their lives. God occupied that position. I want to mention Psalms 1-3 and Psalm 8 as a way of reminding you of the major types of psalms.
Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the book’s main emphasis, the human struggle to honor God and God’s greatness. In other words, how to worship. Psalm 1 contrasts the fate of the righteous and the wicked. The righteous refuse the counsel of the wicked. They spurn the lifestyle of sinners and obey God’s law. Thus, they are secure in life and will be secure after death. In a strong contrasting statement in 1:4 the text says, on the other hand the wicked will blow away like chaff from the threshing floor on judgment day. Yahweh knows and will not tolerate the breaking of the law. So the Psalms are intended to distinguish between those who are righteous and those who are wicked, so that those who want to serve the Lord will walk with him and worship him. Those who are wicked should be warned to turn away from their sins and come to God.
Psalm 2 is a Messianic psalm. It shows us that the wicked never accept God’s sovereignty willingly. In chapter 2, verses 1-3 the nations oppose the Lord and his people. But this rebellion is described as foolish. God laughs at the wicked in 2:4. He reminds them that he rules the earth and he has established David’s throne forever. See 2:5-7 and remember 2 Samuel 7 and all the prophetic passages associated with it. In 2:8-9 Yahweh tells the nations they belong to David and God’s son, so they should stop their ridiculous behavior. They should bow to David’s authority as God commands in 2:10-12. As you may know, the New Testament cites Psalm 2 on more than one occasion to explain that Jesus will rule all nations, but also to explain why people are often so rebellious against him. Unfortunately, Israel’s enemies often ignore these warnings. As a result, troubles abound. In Psalms 3-7 individuals and the nation ask God for deliverance from harm, as do Psalms 9-14 and 16-17.
I want to remind you about Psalm 8. This psalm breaks the chain of lament by praising Yahweh’s majesty, by describing the person who pleases God. Psalm 8 emphasizes how kind God has been, to make human beings in his image and cause them to rule over the world. It wonders why God is so concerned with human beings. The answer is always, his love and his kindness endure forever.
So these psalms remind us that psalms are about worshiping God and following his ways. The Psalms will remind us of the importance of the coming Messiah. They will remind us of how God expects and loves for us to bring our troubles to him. So, Psalms 1–41 is about worshiping God in times of trouble.
Teaching Worship to the Next Generation (42–72)
Psalms 42–72 are about teaching worship to the next generation. Faithful worship will not be passed on by accident, it must be taught to each new generation. Remember what Moses says in Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “You are to teach your children to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Laments, praises and thanksgiving psalms like those in Psalms 1–41 can aid any person who knows them. It is important, though, for such psalms to be handed down, or faith my die out.
The titles in part 2 of The Psalms continue to highlight David’s life. They also feature psalms of Korah, Asaph, and Solomon. The psalms attributed to David model proper worship. The other psalms focus on God’s continuous relationship with Israel. I won’t take time to describe all of these, but the next generation theme is highlighted in Psalm 72, which describes the changing of kings in Israel.
The psalm is attributed to David, but it also mentions that the prayers of David the son of Jesse end here. Apparently David prays for his son here. He asks God to make his son judge correctly, aid the afflicted and thus enjoy a long and prosperous reign. In other words, David is passing on the faith and the responsibility of being king to the next generation. In this way it parallels 1 King 2, which describes the advice David gave to Solomon upon becoming king.
The Consequences of Rejecting a Godly Heritage (73–89)
The third section of Psalms, Psalms 73–89, show us the consequences of rejection a godly heritage. Godly parents do not always produce godly children. Remember Judges 1:1 to 2:5 show us that a generation after the conquest of the land and those faithful people, their children and their grandchildren do not trust the Lord. So godly parents do not always produce godly children, even if they are trying their very best. David himself fathers both Solomon and Absalom. Of course, 1 and 2 Kings chronicle Israel’s sin into idolatry and national defeat. Hezekiah was a good king who had a bad son. Similarly, Psalms 73-89 describe a nation that loses the faith that had sustained David. As a result, the people experienced devastation and exile. Even during these bleak times, the righteous continue to seek God and pray for their nation’s restoration.
Two psalms may be of interest to you. If you want to know how Israel continued on into sin and how The Psalms reflect that, read Psalms 78, which surveys the nation’s history. Also read Psalm 89, which talks about God’s special covenant with David and how the Lord had made promises to him that are outlined in 2 Samuel 7. But 89 also notes that David’s lineage has now ended, so probably Psalm 89 is reflecting the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 587 B.C.
This destruction, in relationship to the promises of God to David, lead to some conflicting emotions. In verses 1-18 the psalmist exalts God’s greatness. Yet in verses 38-45 he recognizes that Israel is under judgment. Therefore he asked God in verses 19-37, “What has happened to the Lord’s promises to David? Will David always have a son on the throne? How can it be that God has forsaken Israel and allowed Babylon to destroy them?” The psalmist asks a common question, “How long will the punishment last?” in verses 46-48. So at the end of 89, we see that Israel has lost everything, including the Davidic kingship; and the question is, What will God do now?
Israel Must Exercise Worship While Being Patient (90–106)
Psalms 90–106 emphasize what Israel must do in this situation is exercise worship while being patient. The righteous are forced to wait for some time before they see Yahweh redeem Israel. While waiting, they attempt to strengthen their commitment to the Lord. Psalms 90–99 stress God’s sovereignty.
First, Psalm 90, which is attributed to Moses, notes that Israel’s secret sins have brought them public shame. Still, Israel can trust in the Lord who is eternal, he is from everlasting to everlasting. In fact, Psalms 95 and 96 and 99 and 100 praise God as the sovereign creator of all things. It is he who has made us, not we ourselves. He has made the sea and all that is in it. His hands have formed the dry land. Therefore, we should worship him and not harden our hearts. We read these things in Psalm 95 and 96 and Psalm 100.
Psalms 104 to 106 are like Psalm 78; that is, they give a comprehensive history of Israel. In fact, 104 begins with creation and tells of all God’s wonderful works as we come into 105 and Psalm 106 says that despite all God has done, the people have sinned against God and have suffered the consequences of exile. So Psalm 106:47 ends, “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give praise to your holy name and glory in your praise.”
So the history of Israel, according to Psalms 104-106 is that they have sinned against the creator, the one who redeemed them from Exodus and he has fulfilled the threats of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27 and 28. The people have been driven from the land. But, as Deuteronomy 30 has promised, if they will repent, they can come back to him. And it is the attempt to repent that Psalm 106 is trying to achieve.
Worship and Restoration (107–150)
Psalm 107 to 150 emphasizes worship and restoration. Eventually the righteous have their patience rewarded. Psalm 107:1: “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the land, from the east and the west, to the north and the south.”
In other words, Psalm 107 celebrates the fact that God has begun to bring his people back. As we know, he did in 538 to 535 B.C. when Cyrus allowed some exiles to go home. The Lord has begun to bring them back, so how shall they serve the Lord in these days? Psalm 1:10 stresses that they need to serve the Lord by recognizing the Messiah. This Messiah is the king and he is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek; that is, he has no beginning and he has no end. For his sake, the Lord will shatter all enemies. So, how should the people live now? With trust in the promise of the coming Messiah.
How else shall they live? Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the book, 176 verses long. Each section of eight verses, 22 in all, beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. In other words, it is an acrostic psalm. It is saying that everything from A to Z is in this psalm. And the psalm stresses everything from A to Z about God’s Word. That we know God’s Word is true and perfect, as Psalm 19 that we studied at the beginning of our course, teaches. The Bible, God’s Word, is perfect and flawless and it shapes our souls and helps us to live for God.
So if the people are going to be faithful to the Lord, they would look to the Messiah (Psalms 110), they would follow God’s Word (Psalms 119), they would journey to Jerusalem to worship according to Psalms 120-134. These Psalms are often called the songs of ascent, that is the psalms the people sang as they journeyed upward to Jerusalem for worship. Worship and fellowship together is very, very important. And daily, chapters 146-150 tell us, praise and honoring and glorifying God in our lives and with our lips will help the people live for God as they wait for the Messiah and faithfully proclaim his name to the nations.
In conclusion, Psalms is a beautiful and potent book. It contains soaring praise and horrible confessions. It spurs individuals and the whole nation to pure worship. Yet it also condemns the behavior of God’s people. Psalms provide instruction, rebuke and encouragement. In other words, it defines, inspires and safeguards worship. All who accept its principles nurture their relationship with God. All who ignore its truth seek God on their own terms, an attitude that will lead to destruction.
What is worship? In the Old Testament it is bowing before the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It is giving God the King his due, his due in praise, his due in service, his due in confession. Worship is bowing before a king. It is about who he is, it is not about who we are. By confessing our sin and enjoying God’s forgiveness, we worship. By lamenting our pain, but expecting Yahweh to help us, we worship. By thanking God properly and by sharing our faith with the next generation, we worship. By keeping God’s word and waiting for our final redemption, we worship. All of these actions honor God. They demonstrate our commitment and love for the Lord. In short, they give glory to God, glory that he deserves.
These days worship is being defined in many ways. But only worship that begins and ends and has its goal in God is Biblical worship. Only worship that stresses the importance of relationship with God through the Messiah and stresses that our walk with God is defined by the Word of God, and we who accept the Word of God will then live out the ways of God in our life. Only this sort of worship is actual worship. Singing is not worship. Dancing is not worship. Exuberance is not worship. These things may go alongside worship, but the truth is, it is only the person who bows before the Lord and goes from his presence to serve the Lord has truly worshiped.