No matter the circumstances of life, the Psalms affirm repeatedly that God is in charge! Every time that we recognize that spring follows winter, that is God’s affirmation to us that God is in charge. Every time that we see a new baby, that, too, is God’s affirmation to us that God is in charge. Every time these things, and more, happen, God is affirming that life – and not evil – is going to triumph. Providential monotheism.
The Psalms were addressed to God as Israel’s prayers of faith before God. They are God’s word of hope and encouragement of the people. They express both sides of the conversation of faith – both Israel’s faithful speech addressed to God, on the one hand, and God’s good word addressed to God’s faithful people on the other hand. The Psalms are one of the places where you can hear the answer to the prayer that was given, not necessarily in words, but in happenings.
The variety of Psalms allows us to start wherever we find ourselves in life. So whether we are new to the faith or have been in faith for years, there are Psalms that will address each and every particular situation. For this reason Luther loved teaching the Psalms. For those who didn’t know a lot about Scripture, Luther often used the Psalms to teach them a lot about God. And, in spite of the depth and breath of Luther’s own understanding, the Psalms still nurtured him throughout his life.
The Psalms reflect life’s ups and downs. In any given twenty-four hour period you might be sad, happy, depressed, elated, in a worshiping mood, alienated, suffering or experiencing someone’s death. Good things and bad things happen through our days. That’s just how life is and that’s what the Psalms reflect. The Psalms are consistent with the fact that life is an intermingling of well-being, alienation, death and with periods of surprise when we are just overwhelmed that God does these things for us. The very presence of God lifts us out of this sense of despair. Think about a time in your life when you have been very aware that knowing God’s love for you and knowing how God works has lifted you out of a moment of despair or out of a moment when you questioned what the purpose was for continuing on.
Life is not static. Everything is constantly in movement and constantly changing. Life is constantly in movement from periods of satisfied orientation to distress and then on to a new understanding (a new orientation). We see that reflected repeatedly in the Psalms. In one moment we are in the bottom of the pit (lamentation Psalms) and then all of a sudden God does something and there is a new understanding (new orientation Psalms). It may be as simple as a friend calling you. With one small word of encouragement you are reminded that God loves you, and all of a sudden you are not in the pit anymore. God has lifted you up. Most of the time we think it is merely coincidence when, in fact, it is God working in others and in us.
The Psalms allow us to speak of the most poignant things in a way that the dominant culture doesn’t really want us to speak. Our culture avoids and doesn’t want to talk about pain and sorrow and grief and aging and dying. The Psalms tell us that is malarkey because we are all going to experience those things. As such, we should be talking about them and asking for God’s intervention, understanding and comfort. It’s almost like we have to articulate before God all the parts of life that are messy. And, as our culture becomes increasingly individualist and youth oriented, we are going to have a greater need for the kind of release that the Psalms can provide.
Different Psalms have different purposes, each of them expressing the deep feelings of their composers. All of them “pour out their hearts” to God, counting on him to hear them as we see in Ps 62 8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Selah. Some Psalms explode in frustration and worry; some shout out thanksgiving and worship; some beg for help; some cry out for forgiveness; some explore God’s Word and his wisdom in deep wonder; some burst out in fury at God’s enemies and some invite God’s people to dance and sing together in praise. It’s a rather mixed bag.
Of course, time won’t allow us to study each and every one of the 150 Psalms in the book of Psalms (the Psalter) but we will study, at least partially, many of the Psalms of the nine or so major “kinds” of Psalms.
We begin by noting a very, very few of Luther’s comments regarding the Psalms, about which he wrote most extensively.
“I hold that no finer book of examples or of the legends of the saints has ever come, or can come, to earth than the Psalter. … For here we find not only what one or two saints have done, but what he has done who is the very head of all saints. … The Psalter … promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine enchiridion [concise reference book] or handbook.”
“Moreover, the psalter presents to us not the simple, ordinary speech of the saints, but the best of their language, that which they used when they talked with God himself in great earnestness and on the most important matters. Thus the psalter lays before us not only their words instead of their deeds, but their very hearts and the inmost treasure of their souls, so we can look down to the foundation and source of their words and deeds. We can look into their hearts and see what kind of thoughts they had, how their hearts were disposed, and how they acted in all kinds of situations, in danger and in need. … And this the psalter gives us most abundantly concerning the saints, so that we can be certain of how their hearts were towards God and of the words they spoke to God and every man …”
“Hence it is that the psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation Psalms and words that fit his ease, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”
“For the psalter teaches you in joy, fear, hope and sorrow to think and speak as all the saints have thought and spoken.”
“In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, the take up the psalter.”
No other book of the Bible is quite like Psalms. This book is not one continuous writing separated into chapters. Instead, the Psalms consists of independent units. Rather than having a single author, it has many authors. And, although some of the authors are identified, one third of the Psalms say nothing about their authorship.
Sons of Korah
Moses (died ca. 1406 BC) is associated with Ps 90. Moses led or provided for leadership in worship at the beginning of Israel’s independence (Ex 15).
David (1040-970 BC) was the second king of Israel, a warrior, prophet and poet. He is associated with Psalms 3-9; 10?; 11-32; 34-41; 51-65; 68-70; 86; 101; 103; 108-110; 122; 124; 131; 133; 138-145. David appointed 4,000 singers and musicians for the tabernacle. About half of all the Psalms are attributed to David.
Ethan (Jeduthun) was of the time of David and is associated with Ps 89.
Heman was of the time of David and is associated with Ps 88.
Asaph was of the time of David and Solomon and is associated with Psalms 50 and 73-83. Asaph was a Levite in David’s court as we see in 1 Chr 6 39 and 2 Chr 29 30.
The Sons of Korah were of the time of David and Solomon and are associated with Psalms 42; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88.
Solomon died in 931 BC and was Israel’s third king. To him are attributed the Proverbs, Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. Solomon is associated with Psalms 72 and 127.
Ethan was of the time of Solomon and is associated with Ps 89.
Anonymous authorship is attributed to 48 Psalms 1-2; 10?; 33; 43; 66-67; 71; 91-100; 102; 104-107; 111-121; 123; 125-126; 128-130; 132; 134-137 and 140-150. Psalms 113-118 form the “Egyptian Hallel” of later Jewish liturgy which is used at festivals, and Psalms 120-136 form the “Great Hallel.”
The Psalms were written over a period of hundreds of years, beginning ~ 1000 BC and continuing to ~ 400 BC. The final form of the book of Psalms was completed post Exile, after the building of the second temple and it therefore reflects the liturgical practices of this worshiping community. However, many of the Psalms, of course, necessarily reflect the practices of pre-exilic worship.
The circumstances surrounding the compilation of the five books of the Psalter are unclear. Although the order of the Psalms in the whole book is generally chronological, chronology was certainly not the organizing principle. The earliest Psalms tend to come in the first part of the book and so on, but there are many exceptions to that. For instance, the oldest of the Psalms, Ps 90 which was composed by Moses, appears in the same Book IV as several of David’s Psalms.
And it could be that each book existed on its own at one time. For instance, Ps 14 of Book I appears in essentially the same form in Ps 53 of Book II. Several other examples of such borrowing of materials between the books of the Psalter can be found in Ps 40 and 70 and in Ps 57/60 and 108.
It remains a mystery precisely when all five books were eventually brought together but this had to have taken place at least by the he third century BC because the translation of the Hebrew Psalter into Creation – the Septuagint – includes all of the Psalms in the order we know now – even though several Psalms are combined into one and several other Psalms are divided into two.
headings, titles, superscriptions, etc.
Many of the Psalms have headings identifying authorship and/or the circumstances of their composition. For instance, nearly half of the Psalms are identified as having been written by David. 1 Chr 16 7-36 also suggests that David wrote Ps 96 and parts of Ps 105.
As noted above, Ps 90 is attributed to Moses. Psalms 72 and 127 are attributed to Solomon. Asaph, a symbol player in 1 Chr 15 19 composed a dozen Psalms, 50 and 73-83. The sons of Korah (descendants of Korah, the Levite in charge of the threshold of the tent of meeting in 1 Chr 9 19) were responsible for eleven Psalms.
Occasionally, psalm headings refer to specific historical occasions. Ps 51 indicates that it was written when David was called to repentance for his sins of adultery and murder. Knowing the situation contributes to understanding the psalm. More than a dozen other Psalms of David provide similar kinds of references such as Psalms 52 and 57.
Many of the psalm headings provide instructions whose meanings are not always clear. For instance, six Psalms included the description miktam which may refer to a song inscribed on a tablet or to a poem of memorable thoughts. Thirteen of the Psalms have the heading maskil which may have meant a psalm intended for teaching or meditation. We also have these musical terms in some of the headings – Gittith; Sheminith and Shiggaion – but nothing definite can be said about these terms. The same holds true for other designations such as according to the Lilies (Ps 45) and according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths (Ps 56).
In any event, these headings remind us that the Psalms were intended to be sung, not just spoken. The Psalms were the prayers of the people which were mostly sung as a prayer.
Another term Selah (s´ lh) appears in numerous places within the psalm texts themselves. While various meanings have been suggested for Selah, no one knows exactly what it means.
The general consensus is that it was most likely some sort of musical or liturgical direction, perhaps a musical interlude calling for the singers to pause in order to ponder the text while the musicians played on. It may be like when we sing hymns, the organist takes off in between the verses and finally comes back and we sing the last verse. It might have indicated the lifting up of the voices of the singers in a doxology, or to call for lifted-up instrumental music in an interlude in the singing.
Or it could have been an instruction on the reading of the text, something like “stop and listen” for a moment of silence. Some see it as a form of underlining in preparation for the next paragraph.
The term Selah does not occur at the head of the psalm but in the body of the psalm. For instance, in Ps 46 after the first 3 verses you have Selah written down and then after the next few verses you have Selah and at the end you have Selah.
Hebrew: , also transliterated as selh) is a word used 74 times in the Hebrew Bible – 71 times in the Psalms and three times in Habakkuk.
The Psalms were sung accompanied by musical instruments and there are references to this in many chapters. Thirty-one of the thirty-nine psalms with the caption “To the choir-master” include the word selah. Selah notes a break in the song and as such is similar in purpose to Amen in that it stresses the importance of the preceding passage.
We know of many musicians among the Israelites. Miriam, Moses’ sister, led the women in song and dance in Ex 15 20-21. Isaiah composed songs (Is 26 1-6). Ezekiel was recognized to have a beautiful voice and the ability to play an instrument well (Ek 33 32). David played a lyre and probably a shepherd’s flute. He later served in Saul’s palace where he played music to soothe king Saul. David also wrote numerous Psalms – almost half of them, in fact.
Throughout the OT, including the Psalter, references are made to musical instruments. The Israelites uses different instruments for different purposes. It’s quite evident that making music was important. For instance, we have from 1 Chr 13 8 David and all Israel were rejoicing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets. When David led the procession that brought the Ark of the Covenant to Mt. Zion (2 Sam 6 3-5; 1 Chr 13 7-8), the people processed with these instruments. These instruments were used to lead the singing of the Psalms.
Although we have a limited knowledge of ancient instruments, still, some generalizations can be made.
Most important were the stringed instruments – which had various numbers of strings. A ten-stringed lyre was mentioned in Ps 144 9 I will sing a new song to you, O God; on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you. And when David served in Saul’s court, he played the harp to soothe the king’s troubled soul as we read in 1 Sam 16 23 Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
Chief among the wind instruments was the shophar, the ram’s horn, which most often gets translated as trumpet. Only two or three notes could be sounded with the shophar. The priests blew their shophars as Israel marched around Jericho in Js 6. Other wind instruments included pipes which were similar to flutes and reed-type instruments. Simple reed flutes sounded in celebration and in mourning. Shepherds carried flutes to pass the time while tending their flocks.
Finally their were the percussive instruments which included tambourines and cymbals that we read about in Ps 150 4-5. Women used these percussion instruments while dancing. The three most Levitical musicians – Asaph, Heman and Ethan – were cymbal players (1 Chr 15 19). Still another instrument were the castanets as we see in 2 Sam 6 5.
When the Judeans were exiled to Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar, they were to fall down and worship a golden image when they heard horns, pipes, lyres, trigons, harps and bagpipes (Dn 3 4-5). Sometimes the music of the Israelites must have been very loud, such as when it was used to call people to worship. It was also joyful as when the walls of Jerusalem were dedicated in Ne 12 27-43 and when a war was won or during a procession (2 Sam 6; 1 Chr 13). When music accompanied the singing of the Psalms it would have been softer and more beautiful.
Psalms, hymns and songs
The Greek word psalterion which came into the English as psalter is the term used to identify all of the 150 Psalms in the Book of Psalms when taken as a whole. The title of the book in Hebrew is Tehillim t h lm´, a word that means praise. The Septuagint translates Tehillim as Psalmoi from the Greek word YALMOI which is pronounced sal´ moi in the English because English makes the “p” silent. However, in the Greek it’s pronounced with the “p” sound to begin with psal´ moi.
A related Greek word is psállein which means to pluck, pull, play a stringed instrument.
A psalm is a hymn of praise to God which generally means a song sung with a stringed instrument. There are many different kinds of Psalms, some of which you wouldn’t necessarily classify as a hymn of praise because some are laments and cries for deliverance. All told, they are the Psalms, hymns of praise to God. Psalms, hymns and songs are interchangeable terms.
A second name the Israelites had for the Psalms is tepillot which means prayers. Cf. Ps 72 70. So the chief uses of the Psalms through all ages has always been as in praise and as their book of prayers.
The whole collection of these Psalms was the prayer book (the hymnal) of ancient Israel (second temple Judaism). They were the prayers sung in the temple antiphonally (because of their parallelisms), and they were used by Israelites in their own individual prayers.
classification: wisdom literature
Wisdom literature is different in style, focus and the approach from the prophets or the narratives, for example.
In a two sentence nutshell wisdom literature says two things over and over again.
1. The source of wisdom is the creator God, the God of Israel, YHWH. That’s how wisdom literature in Israel is different from that of other ancient eastern countries. This is thee theme of wisdom literature.
2. Wisdom consists in knowing the true creator God. That is, wisdom is to know this true creator God who is the source of this wisdom. It’s very God of Israel-centered. If you want to be wise, know that the source of wisdom is the God of Israel. Being wise consists in knowing and serving this one, true creator God of Israel.
That’s the message of these wisdom books. For example, see notes at Jb 28 12-28 and other texts cited there [Jm 10 12; Pr 8 22-31; Ps 90 1-2.]. Jb 28 is one of the most famous poems in the Bible. It’s a poem all about wisdom.
Within the larger structure of the OT the Psalms are counted among the Books of Wisdom and Poetry. That category includes: Job; Psalms; Proverbs; Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. The wisdom literature are those OT writings that contain practical wisdom for living life in accord with the will of God.
The main focus of wisdom literature has to do with God’s orderly Creation and living in harmony with that created order. Hebrew wisdom was not theoretical or speculative but instead practical and based on God’s ways observed in Creation. However, biblical wisdom is not simply a natural knowledge of God and his ways. Nor is it derived from human reason. As Jb 28 shows, wisdom is something God understands (v 23). Wisdom could not be the fear of the Lord (v 28) unless the Lord made himself known. Biblical wisdom is a special revelation from God, as surely as the Ten Commandments or the sermons of the prophets are revelations coming from God. Ultimately, wisdom is knowledge leading to repentance and faith in the Lord.
Wisdom is the art of life, living the way God intended humanity to live. As a result, biblical wisdom focuses on ethics and spiritual conduct – the way of righteousness. This wise way of life comes from a personal God who is righteous and holy. Wisdom is one of our God’s attributes. When we read the mundane details about life in Proverbs, we are to see in them the intimacy of the Creator’s care for his Creation. Wisdom is distinct from philosophy (as recorded in the Greeks), though these disciplines share a common interest in the created order, an interest that ultimately developed into what we call science.
By the time of Justin (c 100-165) the attitude within Christianity reflected a long-standing approach to wisdom that was found in ancient Israel, in Justin and among the first Christians. That is, since truth came from God, whatever is true belongs to God’s people. Yet biblical wisdom is different from that of other cultures and religions because it emphasizes one God as the source of all knowledge and understanding. It focuses on right and wrong and is fulfilled in Christ, who is our righteousness.
Over time, biblical wisdom focused more and more on the Scriptures – God’s Word – where God’s ways are faithfully recorded (Ps 1; 119). Just as God’s Creation is orderly and harmonious, so God’s Word is harmonious and orders our steps in the way of life. Biblical wisdom illustrates the faithful living found in the “legal” sections of the Books of Moses. Ultimately, wisdom embodied two things:
Scripture as Wisdom which was pursued by Judaism and Christianity and
Christ as Wisdom which was pursued by Christianity as described in Co and Jn.
The Psalms are poetry. While English poetry is distinguished by meter and rhyme, Hebrew poetry has no rhyme scheme associated with it. Any sense of meter is better described by the balance we see between two parallel parts of the connected thoughts. Parallelisms use repeated, complementary thoughts that unfold different aspects of a subject. Often the first line of a Hebrew poem is repeated with different words in the second line, or the second line repeats an aspect of the first while revealing something more about the subject. In this way, the lines of the poem build on one another and hold together.
There are three kinds of Hebrew parallelisms: synonymous; antithetical and synthetic. See examples discussed in Ps 1.
Synonymous parallelism repeats the thought in the first line by using synonymous language in the second line, often intensifying the emotion.
For instance, in Ps 19 1 we have:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
We see another example in Ps 1 1, 5. See notes there.
Antithetical parallelism This is “A” and not “A”. It’s a way of making the same point through contrast. See example in Ps 1 6.
Antithetical parallelism contrasts two opposite ideas. It’s used in both the Psalms and in Proverbs.
For instance, in Ps 90 6 we have:
In the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
In the evening it fades and withers.
Synthetic parallelism This we see in Ps 148.
Synthetic parallelism uses the second statement to add to what is presented in the first statement. Although not quite parallel in meaning, the succeeding lines carry the thought a little further.
For instance, in Ps 1 1 we have:
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.
These parallelisms are helpful for us because what goes on in the Psalms throughout the Bible – the OT but especially the Psalms – is what we in English might see as repetition. You want to say “A” and you do that be saying “A1″ and “A2″. You put two things in parallel with one another to say the same thing. If we don’t get the parallelism found all through the Psalms, we’ll constantly be stumbling at the Psalms, not understanding the psalmist. Therefore, parallelism helps prevent misunderstanding. When you misunderstand something in one half of the parallelism, it can be made more clear if you understand the other half of the parallelism.
Parallelism is not just being repetitive. It’s not as though you say the exact same thing twice; instead, you say the exact same thing a little differently so that each clause mutually enriches the other clause. For instance, we have antithetical parallelism in Ps 1 6. See notes there.
So how do we go about reading the Psalms?
First off, we must remember that it’s poetry. Just like poets today, and we ourselves do for that matter, the psalmists used metaphors, similes and other figures of speech to make their point. For example, we see in Ps 18 God harnessing a thundercloud and riding to our help. But we know that the Lord is omnipresent and that he doesn’t need to ride a cloud like a chariot to come to rescue us when we’re in trouble. Still, this picture in Ps 18 serves to reassure us at a level deep in our hearts that our Lord can help us and that he wants to help us!
Secondly, when reading Hebrew poetry don’t expect it to rhyme because it’s not going to do so in the sense we westerners understand rhyme. Hebrew poetry uses word pictures and repeats thoughts and ideas. Here are some common ways Hebrew poets use repetition – “rhyming thoughts” – instead of “rhyming words”:
Sometimes the second line repeats the main idea of the first line using different words such as in Ps 3 1.
Sometimes the second line adds ideas to the first line such as in Ps 33 13.
Sometimes the second line contrasts with the person, thought or description in the first line such as in Ps 44 3.
Sometimes the first line uses a word picture to illustrate a thought stated in the second line such as in Ps 52 8.
Sometimes the second line expands on and reinforces the thought of the first line as in Ps 61 5.
Thirdly, we should look for Jesus and how he is at work in our lives. “Is this a psalm Jesus has prayed or sung in my place?” As your read these Psalms try to imagine that your Savior is standing before God’s throne, adding your name, and describing your situation to your heavenly Father. Imagine Jesus asking for your forgiveness, telling about the help you need with a problem, shouting the praises of your heart. For Jesus is really doing that as we speak.
So the Psalms functioned in ancient times as a prayer book of ancient Israel. As noted previously, David was the key figure in the Psalter, and the so-called Psalms of David are a key part of the whole Psalter. Many of the Psalms in their titles are directly called “Psalms of David.” In these Psalms of David the king prays to God as representative of all Israel. These Psalms of David focus on the king’s sufferings and on the king’s deliverance by God. Other Psalms, not Psalms of David, are prayers of individual Israelites or prayers of the whole people.
Additionally, the Psalms were not only the prayer book of ancient Israel but they were also the prayer book of the Church.
For many Christians the Psalms are crucial for their prayers and their worship of God. From the earliest times Christians have continued using the Psalms to give voice to their prayer and praise lives.
The Psalms have also had an immense influence on Christian worship. Within the liturgical cycle of the Church, the Psalms play a central role. For instance, there are daily services within the liturgical cycle of the Church that most Christians do not pray but which are often used in the monasteries. In that daily cycle the whole book of Psalms – all 150 Psalms – is read within the liturgy of the Church each week. Within the feasts and seasons of the church role, the Psalms play an important role. For instance, Ps 22 is used during Lent. The Psalms also play an important role in the actual divine liturgy. Thus, the Psalms are central for the church.
The fact of the matter is that the Psalter constituted the first hymnal for God’s people. Recognizing that fact, the Lutheran Service Book includes a generous selection of Psalms in the front of the hymnal. All the hymns written later and included further on in this hymnal take their place in the tradition begun by the Lord himself when through inspiration he gave the Psalms.
As such, the Psalms remain contemporary. They are our songs. They are not just the sentiments of ancient people. These songs speak compellingly, even frighteningly, or our sin and the consequences of living in a sinful world. These songs also soothe our troubled hearts with the grace and forgiveness of God and his promised Messiah, Jesus, our Lord.
Again, the Psalms are the prayer book of ancient Israel, and they are the prayer book of the church. How does these two fit together? We see that in a very important teaching of the church from earliest times, a teaching which is crucial for understanding the Psalms. We’ll call this the twofold teaching of the church regarding the Psalms. We see this teaching of the church not only in the church’s exposition of the Psalms but also in the way the Psalms function within the church’s liturgy, readings and so on. We see an important key to reading and praying the Psalms.
what the Church teaches
The first part of the Church’s teaching is that the voice who prays in the Psalms is the incarnate Son of God. Within the church’s understanding of the Psalms, the voice, the psalmist, the righteous sufferer who cries to God and is delivered by God, the voice who prays in the Psalms is not the Son of God – because the Psalms are the voice of the human heart directed to God, not Son of God pre-incarnate or apart from the Incarnation. Instead, the Church has always taught that it is the incarnate Son of God whose voice we hear in the Psalms. The one who ultimately prays in the Psalms is Christ, the true, faithful Israelite who comes to redeem humanity and to restore humanity to rightful relationship with God, in the church’s teaching.
Within the teaching of Scripture, Christ was the climax of Israel’s history. Jesus was the climax of Israel’s history. He was the one who in his own person brought Israel’s history to its climax. So the prayer book of ancient Israel reached its goal in him. All the voices who pray in the Psalms – David, the righteous king delivered by God, the sons of Korah and so on, unjustly suffering but holding fast to God, and so on – all of them reached their fullness and their fulfillment in the perfect Son of God who was the perfect image of God and who was the perfect righteous sufferer who suffered for us and who was delivered and raised by God. So the voice who prayed in the Psalms was the incarnate Son of God.
One might suppose with that understanding that we are left out of the Psalms. But, in fact, that understanding is what brings us into the Psalms, because that’s what connects the Psalms as the prayer book of ancient Israel and the prayer book of the church.
The second part of the Church’s teaching is that “we” pray the Psalms. That is, we can pray the Psalms in Christ and only in Christ. In the first key Christ was the one who prayed the Psalms; he was the one to whom the prayer book of ancient Israel looked forward. Here in this second part of the Church’s teaching, it is we who are joined to Christ, we who are united to Christ, … it is we pray the psalter. We pray the Psalms in Christ and through Christ and only in Christ. Through Christ we have become united to Christ; in Christ we have become the heirs of the ancient promises. We have become a member of Israel. Our family tree is no longer Jane and Joe Pagan, although that may be our earthly family tree. Instead, as children of God, our family tree is now Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and David and all the rest.
So, in other words, in Christ, the prayer book of ancient Israel has become the prayer book of the Church. Notice how it is that Christ combines the prayer book of Israel and the prayer book of the Church and connects them. It wasn’t just some historical accident. ‘Oh, somehow this was the prayer book of ancient Israel and somehow it became the prayer book of the church. It’s theologically crucial that it is both. When Christ fulfilled the history of Israel, then “in Christ” we could pray the Psalms.
So it’s in Christ that the prayer book of ancient Israel became the prayer book of the church. That’s historically and empirically true but it’s also theologically important and significant. And the center of it all is Christ. Through Christ, Israel’s prayer book became the Church’s prayer book.
So some theologians will explain it saying that the ontological Son of God prayed the prayer book of ancient Israel and that now we pray in Christ typologically in the prayer book of the church. That’s OK but I think it’s more simple than that. It’s a simple and profound concept that is at the heart of the whole scriptural narrative. For instance, we know how the whole biblical story reached its climax in Jesus Christ. That is true of the Psalms as well. All the Psalms reached their climax in Jesus Christ. All of these Psalms in which the righteous king suffers and calls out and because of his faithfulness is vindicated by God. Those point to Christ.
All of the other Psalms also point to Christ. Was David truly the righteous sufferer? No. He was sinful like all of us. Because of his unfaithfulness to God he was not worthy of being vindicated by God. As the biblical authors say all of those things looked ultimately forward to Christ. So Christ was the fulfillment of the book of Psalms is the biblical idea here. Christ was ultimately the one who prayed these Psalms. The psalmist tells us in Ps 16 about David to whom the promise of the Messiah was given. In Ac 2 Peter said David looked ahead and spoke of the promises given to Christ. So the whole Psalter looked forward to Christ. Because of that, that’s how we can pray the Psalter because we have been united to Christ. We have been given everything that Christ won for us. So in Christ we can pray these Psalms. In Christ we are righteous because he was made us righteous. In Christ we have the hope of vindication and resurrection. We pray these Psalms in Christ. So it’s very important and liberating that it’s in Christ that we pray these Psalms.
Otherwise we may look at these Psalms and say ‘I’m not worthy to prayer this prayer in my own strength and righteousness.’ In other words, it’s through the work of Christ that we are made righteous and transformed so as to be able to pray these Psalms. Hence, this is a very organic thing. The Psalms are the prayer book of ancient Israel and the prayer book of the church because Christ is one who is at the center of all of it. … In Christ we have become members of the family of Abraham, the family of Israel. That’s there in the ancient promises to begin with. When you have the promises made to Abraham of a nation that will come to him and the land of promise that will be given to him and the covenant relationship between Abraham and his family and God, you always have the fourth and climactic element of the Abrahamic covenant – and in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. That blessing comes through Christ. So it’s really simple. The whole biblical story is that all of God’s promises climax in Christ. Well, that’s true of the book Psalms also.
The Psalter is like the rest of the Bible in some ways and unlike the rest of the Bible in other ways. It’s like the rest of the Bible in that in the Psalms Christ speaks to us. God speaks to us, giving teaching, encouragement, exhortation, comfort and so on. This happens in the Psalms in a superlative way so that sometimes many have called the Psalms “the Bible in miniature” as did Luther himself. One might suppose that since the Psalms are prayers that there might not be much teaching, doctrine or words from God in the Psalms. Of course, one would be totally mistaken given those suppositions. Every teaching and theme you have in the rest of the Bible, such as Creation, are there in spades in the Psalms, albeit in a “mini” form. So the Psalms are like the rest of the Bible in that regard.
Still, the Psalms is unlike any other book in the Bible because in the Psalms we speak to God. In fact, it’s impossible to read the Psalms and not pray. You cannot read the Psalms without praying because they are prayers of humanity to God. So they are unlike the rest of the Bible. No other book is like that. In the Psalms we pray to God; we cry out to God; we appeal to God; we worship God; we praise God; and many other things. One of the ways the book of Psalms describe this whole process in which we are learning from God and also praying to God at the same time … one of the Psalms describes this is as “seeking the face of God.” (Ps 14 2). When speaking of the Psalms, the fathers of the church oftentimes used this language that through the Psalms, both in hearing God speak to us and in speaking to God, we seek the face of God in the Psalms.
When reading the Psalms we’re reading translations from two different texts: one is the Masoretic text (MT) written in ancient Hebrew and the other is the LXX (Septuagint) text written in koine Greek. Most of the time the translations will be pretty much the same although sometimes the Septuagint being a translation of the ancient Hebrew itself will differ from modern translations of the Hebrew Bible. Also, the numbering will differ as well. For instance, some of the Psalter is divided differently so the numbering is different. For instance, Ps 23 from the MT is Ps 22 in the Septuagint translation. Of course, the Psalms are the same in both the MT and the Septuagint but their numbering is different.
Note regarding the numbering of verses. The RSV follows the KJV and for some reason in the Psalms the KJV counted verses differently from the Hebrew or the Greek or the Latin. It’s almost always 1 verse lower than the rest of the versions. So the normal thing is to give you the standard versification 69 22 but if you look that up in the RSV or the KJV, you’ll find it 69 21. So if you ever looking a verse and can’t find it, look one verse lower. Or if you are using the RSV and can’t find it, look one verse higher and you’ll find it.
So the Psalms tell the biblical story of salvation history. As in reading any biblical text, always have the biblical story in mind when reading the Psalms. We often miss that story being told because we don’t have it in mind as we sit down to read through a psalm. And each of the various Psalms tell that story in different ways because there are different kinds of Psalms corresponding to the various aspects and features of the biblical story. For instance, the biblical story, of course, begins with Creation, so we have the Creation Psalms which emphasize the important truths about God as Creator, and we as his creatures, the sheep of his pasture. Then we go to the tragic turn in the biblical story, the “Fall” of which there are no Psalms because that was the tragic doings of what human beings did. They rebelled against their Creator God which brought evil, sin, suffering and death into the world along with its cosmic consequences for all of Creation.
The “Fall”, in turn, set up the whole story of the Bible which described how the Creator God would renew and restore humanity and all of Creation through his redemptive, salvific work which is told in our salvation history Psalms (below).
the structure of the Psalter
The authors, dates and circumstances for a number of the Psalms are not clear. These lapses in our knowledge can make it difficult to understand certain passages.
The Psalter consists of an opening psalm, the prologue – Ps 1 – followed by five books of Psalms – probably on the analogy of the Pentateuch for the Torah.
possible historical context
intensely personal Psalms of David
life of David; eleventh century BC; time of the tabernacle
Psalms of David and the kingdom; nationalistic
reigns of David and Solomon; eleventh and tenth centuries BC; time of the first temple
Psalms of Asaph and the Sons of Korah; nationalistic
reign of Solomon; tenth centuries BC; time of the first temple
anonymous Psalms and laments
historical context is less clear. Some of the Psalms refer to earlier writers such as Moses (Ps 90) and David (for example, Ps 122) but others refer to the time of Exile in Babylon (Ps 137) in the sixth century BC.
songs of ascents and praise; Psalms of David
Ps 1 serves as the introduction, the gateway to the entire collection. Ps 1 encourages us to study, believe and behave according to the truths the Holy Spirit reveals in the rest of the Psalter. Ps 150 serves as the conclusion. The first and the last Psalms were intentionally chosen to be the first and the last Psalms. These two Psalms serve as bookends which unite the whole Psalter.
Note: Some contend “Ps 1-2 are part of an overall introduction to the whole psalter. Ps 1-2 tell us the destiny of the righteous is life and blessing; the destiny of the wicked, those who forsake God, is death.” [So my question is, is the introduction Ps 1 or Ps 1-2?] Each book consists of from seventeen to forty-four Psalms
The Psalms not only give teaching about God individually but they also ordered into these 5 books in order to send a message of the book as a whole. The Psalms are not just individual, atomistic, disconnected Psalms. They connect up together into these 5 individual books and then further into the whole book of the Psalter itself. When one really digs into the Bible, one finds the Bible is much more mind-blowingly complex and interesting and incredibly nuanced and carefully assembled than one would have expected or even imagined.
Each of these five books concludes with a doxology as follows: 41 13; 72 18-20; 89 52; 106 48 and 150 or 145-150. Each doxology is a short hymn or an inscription of praise to God such as “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel who alone does wonders.”
For instance, we have these doxological NIV translations:
I. Ps 41 13 Praise be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting to everlasting. Amen, and Amen.
II. Ps 72 18 Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds. 19 Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen.
III. Ps 89 52 Praise be the LORD forever! Amen and Amen.
IV. Ps 106 48 Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the LORD.
And then we get a wonderful climax of the climax with Ps 150, the whole psalm serving as the full doxology concluding not only Book 5 but the whole Psalter as well.
V. Ps 150 1 Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.
Within the Bible the book of the Psalms is called Torah because it’s the teaching and instruction about God. See Torah in glossary file for complete definition.
The two major divisions of the psalter are:
* books 1-3 (Ps 3-89 which showcase the tragic drama of the suffering of the righteous)
Books 1-3 are this tragic drama which raises the question of God’s righteousness and goodness and the destiny of the righteous.
* books 4-5 (Ps 90-150 which prophetically answer Ps 3-89 and look forward to the coming reign of YHWH, to this coming kingdom of God in which God will reveal himself to the righteous and wicked alike as this faithful, true, creator, redeemer God).
Book 4-5 are this prophetic vision of how God will show himself to be this righteous, faithful God and that the wicked will be judged and the righteous will have a destiny of life.
In the way the world oftentimes works it appears – as we see in Ps 3-89 – that the wicked are prospering and the righteous are suffering. For instance, in Ps 22 we hear 1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Then in the Exile God seems to break all of his promises. He destroyed the Davidic kingship which he had promised would be forever. He sent the people permanently from their land which he had given them through Abraham. The people of Israel were to be a blessing to all nations. This raised the questions, “Is God in control? Is God righteous? Is God faithful?” The righteous were suffering; they had been exiled; God’s promises seemed to have been broken. So at the end of Ps 89, a Ps written after the Exile, we hear … See Ps 89 1-4, 38-39, 44, 46, 49, 52.
That brings us to books 4 and 5 of the psalter which are the prophetic answer to Ps 3-89. See Ps 96 to see some of the hopes of this people of Israel for this coming kingdom and reign of God. Ps 96 is representative of books 4 and 5. See Ps 96 1-3
The psalter is the repository of Israel’s faith and worship in which just about everything of importance is included. This faith of Israel and the expectation of the Bible is expressed in the Psalms. The Psalms echo the major themes of the Bible. The Psalms are like a mini-Bible. You see from the Psalms that the Davidic covenant is not some little thing that we first find in 2 Sam 7 and then the Bible forgets about it. On the contrary, the Davidic covenant is a major theme of the Bible, including the Ps. For instance, Ps 89 is all about the Davidic covenant.
The Psalms are all about the psalmist coming to worship in the very presence of God. The Psalms are all about God dwelling among his people in Zion.
Psalms are always doing one of three things.
1. They are either telling the story behind the Story and of God’s faithfulness to Israel.
2. They are lamenting Israel’ unfaithfulness to God and God’s judgment which has come.
3. Or they are looking forward to God’s promises in his coming kingdom and reign.
the Psalms structurally with respect to the story behind the Story
The Psalms are wonderfully structured so as to tell the whole theology of the story behind the Story. The Psalms talk about this biblical narrative beginning with God’s good Creation and the work of redemption which is being celebrated all through the Psalms. The Psalms celebrate the creator God and how God will redeem all Israel and all the earth. Remember how they fit together. We see this reflected in the Creation hymns within the psalter.
The biblical story then moved on to “the Fall” of humanity in which there was this disconnection from God because of evil. Redemption was needed because Creation had gone astray. These intruders of evil, sin, suffering and death had entered into God’s good Creation. God needed victory over these intruders which would be found in God’s plan of redemption. Creation was this guarantee of redemption. This was the creator God who would do what he promised to do. Hence, in Ps after Ps we celebrate God’s work of Creation in light of his work in redemption, and vice versa. The creator God is the redeemer God, the center of OT theology.
Then, in order to fix Creation, the whole biblical story further progressed in the giving of Abrahamic covenant, the promise of nation and land, of a covenant relationship with God and climactically, of a blessing to all nations. The promises of the Abrahamic covenant began to unfold with the Exodus – with the giving of the old covenant (Mosaic covenant) and with the people entering into the land of promise.
All of this story is told in the salvation history Psalms which tell of the story of God and his people. It’s then that the story behind the Story, the story of Israel reaches its climax with the Davidic kingship which we learn all about in the royal Psalms. The story then reaches its real, full climax with the dwelling of the LORD in Zion, with the dwelling of the God of all Creation in Zion, with the dwelling of YHWH with his people in the temple.
It was then that the story reached a tragic turn with the Exile. The story appeared to have reached a most tragic ending but that really was the beginning because Exile was the context of these wonderful future promises of God to his people. We then had the promise of this coming kingdom and reign of God. We’ve seen how within that promise there were still other promises made by God: the promise of a new Exodus event; the promise of a new covenant and so on. We saw how one of the promises was this promise tied up with the Davidic covenant and within that Davidic covenant the promise of an everlasting Davidic throne which later still in the royal Psalms became even more specific with the promise of this everlasting, ultimate Davidic king, who we usually identify as the Messiah (or Christ. Messiah and Christ are titles, not names.)
This promise of an everlasting, ultimate Davidic king coming out of the Davidic covenant, who would rule not only Israel but all nations, we see again in the royal Psalms. The royal Psalms not only tell of the Davidic kingship but they also tell of the promise to David and they tell of the everlasting ultimate Davidic king who would come from David’s line and who would rule over God’s people and over all the earth.
So we saw one important part of these kingdom of God promises, the promise in the OT of this coming kingdom and reign of God. We’ve seen that promise fulfilled gloriously in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.
We’ll talk about another type of psalm we’ve not yet seen, and we’ll talk about another aspect of the kingdom of God expectation. This aspect is less well known but still at least equally important in the Bible and to our Christian faith. It’s another promise that God made to his people. We’ve seen how the whole climax of the OT story and of the Exodus was not David, the Davidic king, but YHWH himself, God himself dwelling among his people. Of course, the great tragedy of the Exile was God’s presence no longer being with his people. In these prophetic promises of the coming kingdom and reign of God that we read of in Scripture, we see this promise of something that we can call the coming or the return of the Lord to Zion, and always in the prophetic promises this coming or return is not simply in the same way as under the old covenant in the old temple but in a way far transcending the old covenant and the old temple. The coming of the Lord to Zion.
This coming of the Lord to Zion stands beside the Davidic covenant and the promise of an everlasting ultimate Davidic king. We see these two promises in the OT, the promise that the human Davidic king would come and the promise that God himself would come. However, in the OT these two promises are never explicitly brought together. On the other hand, what we see in the NT is this surprising fulfillment in which the everlasting ultimate Davidic king comes in Jesus, and that everlasting ultimate Davidic king is also God himself in person, God himself in flesh. This promise of the coming of YHWH to Zion is fulfilled in what we call in Christian theology the Incarnation – the Son of God come in human flesh.
So we see that Jesus was not only the Christ but he was the Son of God in the full, divine sense of that term. He was truly the eternal Son of God. He was God himself come in human flesh.
So, from an OT perspective, for someone like Peter or James or John or any Jewish person, one of the surprises of the NT was not that the Lord would fulfill his promises of the kingdom of God and that he would bring his ultimate Davidic king. No. That was expected.
Nor was it that God himself would come to dwell among his people in a way that no Israelite could fully grasp how he would do that. No. They expected that too.
However, the big surprise was that both of those expectations were fulfilled in one person, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God. Jesus was not only Jesus the Messiah, Jesus Christ, but he was also the divine Son of God, God incarnate in human flesh.
While the promise of the everlasting ultimate Davidic king is told about in the royal Psalms, the coming of YHWH to Zion is told about in a special kind of psalm, the enthronement Psalms. See notes above.
One of the neat things about the fulfillment in Jesus was that it solved a tension point, a problem, a difficulty, a mystery within the original story. In the story behind the Story a really sharp Israelite who knew their Scriptures would have asked something like, “If God alone is to be our king (which is what the enthronement hymns are all about, God being enthroned as king, ruling and reigning in his Creation as God must rule and reign for all people to be blessed and for evil to be defeated and for goodness to reign, God retaking his Creation back from the evil and suffering which has entered through “the Fall”), … if God alone was to be our king, why would we need a human Davidic king anyway? They seemed to be in tension with one another. The human Davidic king was going to reign and yet, more importantly, God himself was going to reign. So this served as mystery – a tension point – in the story behind the Story.
We see this tension in our OT. When Israel first asked for a king, it was let known that they were not to ask for a king. It was sinful to do so. See discussion at Jd 8 22-23. YHWH alone was to be their king. Gideon expressed this quite well. When Gideon, one of the great early judges of the people of Israel wondrously, miraculously defeated Israel’s enemies, the people wanted Gideon to reign over them. Reign over us, you and your son. Gideon said he would not reign over them, nor would his son. The LORD alone shall be your king. That’s why the people of Israel don’t even have a king at first and instead had judges because you could not have a human king.
Then the people of Israel asked for a human king, and God acceded to their request and gave them a king. And then God turned around and made this human king the center of his plan with the Davidic covenant in which he promised David an everlasting Davidic throne.
So there was this mystery in the story, a mystery that did not seem it could be reconciled. The devout wondered how was God going to work this tension out. Everything was, of course, reconciled, however, in the NT when Jesus came as the fulfillment of both expectations in his one person, Jesus of Nazareth. There was, therefore, no longer any tension between having a human Davidic king and God as your king because your human Davidic king WAS your God come in the flesh. So this tension point in the story was wondrously resolved, and we now understand why we had both of these streams of expectation. Both streams of expectation were looking forward to the one who would fulfill both streams.
Next we’ll look at these enthronement hymns in their OT context, and we’ll look at them within the church where as Christians we read them now knowing the fulfillment of them all was accomplished in Jesus. For instance, see Ps 96.
the Psalms tell Israel’s story of rescue
New nations usually come into being in one of two ways. Either a nation gradually moves into its new state of being without a single defining event, or a clearly defined occasion serves as a catalyst or starting point. The nation of England, which is now part of the United Kingdom, is a good example of the former. While England has a long and rich history, one would be hard pressed to identify a single moment as the nation’s starting point. By contrast, the founding of the United States occurred in specific events. Some might argue whether the foremost event was the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the opening skirmish at Concord, or the final victory at Yorktown, but no one would deny that in these events a new nation was in the making.
If anything defined Old Testament Israel, it was the Passover and Exodus from Egypt. These events were seared into individual and collective memory of all Jewish people. The circumstances leading up to the Exodus were important, such as God’s call of Abraham, the birth of Isaac, and the interactions of Jacob’s twelve sons that led first Joseph and then the whole family to Egypt. Yet, it was the mass movement of a vast nation out of bondage in slavery that marked Israel as the people of God. Not surprisingly, then, the Exodus is recalled frequently in the Psalter.
Sometimes the reference is brief, while in other places, the psalms set forth a virtual litany of God’s mighty acts. In Ps 81 10, the reference is quite simple: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’
Another brief allusion is found in the preceding psalm: ‘You brought a vine out of Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it’ (Ps 80 8).
Although made in passing, such references undoubtedly served as powerful reminders of God’s role in establishing His people’s identity.
Brief passages like these were so effective because of the more extensive treatment elsewhere in the psalms. The table below provides the most important references. Several of these psalms include a brief recital of many of God’s dealings with His people. Ps 136, for example, begins with Creation itself. God’s first great wonder was making the heavens and the earth! In Ps 106, the psalmist carries Israel’s story beyond the Exodus by recounting events such as their worship of the golden calf and their rejection of God after they were settled in the Promised Land.
event / psalm
v 12, vv 42-50
angle of death / Passover
crossing the Red Sea
vv 13, 53
pillar of cloud and fire
gave them water in the desert
gave manna and quail
Why do we get these frequent recollections of God’s mighty deeds? One reason was to help the Israelites solidify their identity as the people of God. Again and again, God made it clear that He was the One who rescued His people, leading them out of bondage and settling them in a rich and prosperous land. All this was done to fulfill His promise:
He remembers His covenant forever, the word that He commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that He made with Abraham, His sworn promise to Isaac, which He confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance. ‘ . . . For He remembered His holy promise, and Abraham, His servant. (Ps 105 811, 42)
This rehearsal of God’s mighty deeds, especially those connected with the establishment of His own people, was meant to identify the proper relationship between God and His people. The relationship is fleshed out in a sub-theme found in these and other psalms. It has to do with calling Israel to account for breaking the covenant that God had made with them. Ps 78 is especially descriptive. In the verses preceding the retelling of Israel’s rescue from bondage, we are told this:
They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to His law. They forgot His works and the wonders that He had shown them. (vv 1011)
This was how they repaid God, after all He had done for them!
Yet they sinned still more against Him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. (v 17)
God chastised His people, to wake them from their spiritual slumber.
In spite of all this, they still sinned, despite His wonders, they did not believe. (v 32)
A similar pattern continues throughout this lengthy psalm – Ps 78. Although one might conclude that God eventually gives up on His people, His mercy comes through:
Their heart was not steadfast toward Him; they were not faithful to His covenant. Yet He, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; He restrained His anger often and did not stir up all His wrath. (vv 3738)
Ultimately, this forms the point of all of God’s dealings with His people. Today God wants not only to show you your sin but still more to lead you to recognize His merciful heart. His love led Him, ultimately, to give His very Son to take our place. His very Son endured God’s wrath and secured the final victory for us by His cross and resurrection.
Law and Gospel in the Psalms
For example, we can look to the Ten Commandments and the Creed. The Ten Commandments, of course, teach us what we are to do and the Creed summarizes God’s many acts and gifts for us. For instance, the Father gave His Son who redeemed us and he gave the Holy Spirit who called us to faith in Christ and who bestowed Christ’s righteousness on us.
The Psalms are amazingly filled with examples of the dramatic distinction between Law and Gospel, especially in those in which our sin is confessed and God’s forgiveness of that sin is spoken, such as in the penitential Psalms. Perhaps one of the most succinct examples, a familiar one from the Divine Service, is in Ps 32 5:
I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.
The Law of God, with its demands to be holy as the Lord is holy, leaves us with one of two possibilities. We can either reject the Law’s demands and live in a state of unbelief, or we can acknowledge the truthfulness of God’s guilty verdict on us. That’s what confession of sin is all about, admitting that God’s Law speaks the truth about me: that I am a sinner. When that ‘word’ (the Law) from God puts me to death, then I am ready to hear His other ‘word’ (the Gospel) which is the word of forgiveness.
In fact, this distinction between Law and Gospel is often portrayed in colorful and dramatic ways. Consider Ps 51 which is another of the penitential Psalms. The heading to this psalm indicates that it originated from David’s encounter with the prophet Nathan when David’s sins of adultery and murder were exposed. The prophet showed no mercy when he nailed David with the particulars of his transgression. You are the man! See 2 Sam 12 7-12.
David had no place to hide but was beaten down until he uttered the simplest of confessions, I have sinned against the LORD. In reply Nathan ceased his application of God’s law and offered the comfort of the gospel instead with the words: the LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die (2 Sam 12 13).
In this setting we are to consider the opening verses of David’ Ps 51:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing (steadfast) love; according to your great compassion (abundant mercy) blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge (so that you may be jusd in your words and blameless in your judgment).
Here we clearly see that the source of David’s hope is nothing other than God’s steadfast (chesed) love and abundant mercy. He has nowhere else to turn. With confidence in that mercy, David could ask for cleansing which is yet another image of God’s merciful dealing with us. Later in the psalm David asks God to create in my a clean heart, O God (v 10) – which are well-known words from the Offertory of the Divine Service.
So God does speak out of both sides of his mouth. He speaks words that condemn (the Law) and forgive (the Gospel). God speaks them to us, also, through the Psalms. The good news is that his forgiving Word most clearly reveals his fatherly heart of love in Christ Jesus.
The distinction between Law and Gospel is a particularly brilliant light. It serves the purpose of rightly dividing God’s Word (2 Ti 2 15] and properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures.
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, V (Concordia: The Lutheran confessions [CPH 2006], 552).
Law is … anything that refers to what we are to do. On the other hand, the Gospel, or the Creed, is any doctrine or Word of God which does not require works from us … but bids us simply accept as a give the gracious forgiveness of our sins and everlasting bliss offered us.
Martin Luther as quoted in Creed. Father. Word. Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel [CPH, 1929, 1986], 19.
How Many Ways are There to Say “Gospel” – that is, “Good News”?
Particularly striking in the Psalter are the many ways in which the Gospel is portrayed. For instance, Ps 32 12 offer three distinct images for our salvation.
First, our sin is described as being forgiven much as a debt is forgiven so that the debtor is free from all obligations.
Second, our sin is described as being covered. Although the Law condemns us and strips us bare of any defenses, our sins are covered by the blood of Christ. When the Father looks at us, He sees His beloved Son, who has borne not only our sin but also the sin of the whole world.
Third, the language of justification is used: ‘Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity.’ Our sins are not counted against us but against Christ, for ‘the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all’ (Is 53 6). What is counted (or imputed) to our account is Christ’s innocence and righteousness . ‘For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5 21). Note that St. Paul quoted Ps 32 12 in Ro 4 78.
the Psalms in worship in the past
Hard evidence of worship life among early Christians is difficult to come by. We do know, however, that use of the psalms was essential. (The Psalter, it should be noted, is quoted more often in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book.) Intertextuality!!!
With the development of a daily worship life, the psalms took on even greater significance. As morning and evening services were developed for each day of the week, specific psalms were assigned to be sung at the appropriate times. By the sixth century, the development of monasticism resulted in an even more elaborate use of the psalms. One practice, specified by Benedict of Nursia, became widely accepted in the Western Church. Eight services of prayer were observed each day. The chief morning service, Matins, became the primary service at which psalms were used. The number of psalms could vary from twelve to thirtysixin one service! Benedict’s goal was recitation of the entire Psalter every week.
Martin Luther, in fact, was trained in this system. Singing all 150 psalms on a weekly basis, he and others like him became steeped in the language of the psalms. Over many years, they likely learned all the psalms by heart. Such a pressing schedule took its toll, though. Even Luther would complain during the early years of the Reformation that all his other duties left him little time to attend to the prescribed plan of prayer.
Then, with the Reformation, monasticism met its end among the Protestants. Luther proposed simple morning and evening services (Matins and Vespers) that would be appropriate for the laity. These services followed the historic use of the psalms, although on a muchreduced scale. Some of Luther’s earliest hymns were paraphrases of psalms. For example, see ‘From Depths of Woe’ (LSB 607) which is a clear paraphrase of Ps 130.
The psalms also figured prominently in other churches of the Reformation. The Reformed churches in Switzerland made extensive use of the psalms, at first limiting singing in the churches to hymn-like versions of the psalms. Often, these were called metrical psalms because the text was translated into a regular meter. In other words, metrical psalms were psalms set to music. Among the revisions of the daily services in Anglicanism (the Church of England), the psalms assumed a prominent place. They were usually sung to simple chant tones. Later, hymn writers like Isaac Watts began to write hymn paraphrases based on the psalms (e.g., ‘From All That Dwell Below the Skies,’ LSB 816, which is a paraphrase of Ps 117).
There seems to have been a general decline in sustained use of the psalms in worship until the second half of the twentieth century. With the publication of new hymnals came a renewed interest in using the psalms. Simple melodies coupled with an easy method of singing the psalms has put a premium on singing the psalms for a new generation.
the Psalms in the liturgy today
Portions of the psalms are built right into the liturgy. For instance, the confession of sins relies on the blunt language of guilt for sin as found in the psalms, especially the penitential psalms. When we confess ‘I, a poor, miserable sinner,’ we echo words like these of David:
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Ps 51 3)
I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not cover my iniquity. (Ps 32 5a)
Over the years, many people have prepared to confess their sins by quoting the next few words:
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Ps 32 5b)
A newer setting of the Divine Service (LSB, p 203), employs these words from Ps 130:
If You, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared. (vv 34 NIV)
The Divine Service also draws directly from the Psalter in the Offertory. For years, we sang ‘Create in Me’ (LSB, p 192), from David’s psalm of confession (Ps 51), praying that God would make us new and restore the joy of His salvation to us. Recently, another psalm portion has been sung as an Offertory:
What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord. I will take the cup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. (LSB, pp. 159160,176)
Drawn from Ps 116, this text teaches us that the very best we can offer God is thanksgiving in faith for the gifts He has so freely given us.
Another portion from the Psalter appears in the Sanctus, the communion liturgy’s grand hymn of praise. Our voices are joined with all the saints on earth and the whole heavenly host. At its conclusion are these words:
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! (Ps 118 26a)
These words appear in the New Testament in a very intriguing place, at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem:
And the crowds that went before Him and that followed Him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ (Mt 21 9)
T’hat One who came in the name of the Lord was, of course, none other than the Lord God Himself our Savior, Jesus Christ. How fitting to sing the same words in preparation for the Lord’s Supper, where this great and almighty Lord comes humbly to give communicants His body and blood under the bread and wine.
In a church service, we are never very far from the Psalms. We are to take these Godgiven words and use them. We are to use them as He wants us to use them. We are to hear them, learn from them, meditate on them, pray and praise with them. Above all, we are to receive from them the blessings of forgiveness and salvation!
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types (categories) of Psalms Some Psalms may be in two or more categories. [Others categorize the Psalms differently. ]
This is a real grey area for many commentators on the Psalms. We have all these different types, kinds, categories and whatever into which the 150 Psalms have been variously categorized over the centuries, and no one theologian’s findings fully agrees with another’s way of doing it. For example, modern scholarship has sought to categorize the Psalms by establishing the life situation out of which they arose and by determining the liturgical purpose they were to serve. In some instances this has helped, but the results remain dubious. Overall, it’s one big mess, at least in my humble estimation.
From the viewpoints of purpose and content, only two general classes of Psalms really need be distinguished. They either express a plea because of some need OR they offer thanksgiving and praise to God for some benefit. But some Psalms even combine these two features. So there.
All of that now said, each of these Psalms represent a different aspect of the kingdom of God and of God and of the Church (although, of course, some of them combine the various aspects of the kingdom of God). Still, once you get a handle what type the psalm is, it helps you to better understand and enjoy and pray the psalm.
What follows is one study Bible’s categorization of the Psalms. It has it’s shortcomings. There are others and, of course, you can use whatever system you prefer. Once you’ve read all the Psalms and feel you have a handle on the best way to categorize all the Psalms individually, give me a call, and we’ll chat.
includes the following Psalms by number
1, 19 8-15, 34, 37, 49, 73, 78, 111, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133 and 139
messianic / royal
2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144 and enthronement Psalms 47, 93 and 96-99
3-7, 10-14, 16, 17, 22, 23, 25-28, 31, 35, 36, 38-43, 51-59, 61-64, 69, 71, 73, 86, 88, 102, 109 and 130
44, 60, 74, 77, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, 94, 123, 129, 129 and 137
6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143
35, 58, 69, 83, 109 and 137
individual Psalms of praise
9, 18, 30-32, 40, 66, 92, 116 and 138
23, 27, 62, 63, 71 and 131
community Psalms of praise
106, 124 and 129
hymns / Psalms of descriptive power
8, 19, 29, 33, 57, 65, 66, 89, 100, 103, 104, 111, 113, 117, 134-136, 139 and 145-150
8, 19, 104 and 139
46, 48, 76, 84 and 87
24, 66, 107, 118, 121, 122. Ps 120-134 are Songs of Ascent to the temple for Feast of Weeks. The Hallel Psalms (113-118) were sung at the Passover meal and at other major festivals.
Each of these types represent a different aspect of the truth, a different facet of the diamond, a different dimension of the gospel or the salvation of Christ.
1. The hymns.
These are some of the most important of all Psalms. It’s the type of psalm that’s actually behind the word psalm. In the hymns the psalmist extols the greatness and glory of God. Still, not all Psalms are hymns in the narrow sense. There are three different kinds of hymns:
Creation hymns are those in which you praise God as the Creator God of all, as the Creator of the beauty and wonder of God’s good Creation. These Creation hymns celebrate the Creator God and our identity as created creatures of the Creator God. For instance, Ps 148. They tell the story of God and his Creation just like Ge 1-2 do. This truth of Creation that we see in these Creation Psalms is foundational for the whole Christian life, and for all wholeness and truth, so that we can know we are creatures of the one, true creator God.
The Creation Psalms tell this truth, this story, just like Ge 1-2 do. The Creation Psalms do this in a unique way. Unlike Ge 1-2 in Ps 148 we enter into that truth; we experience the truth of God as Creator by actually engaging in worship of God, in praise of God as Creator. Whereas in Ge 1-2 we hear about God as Creator; in the Creation Psalms like Ps 148 we worship and praise God as Creator. So the Psalms have this element in which we actually enter into this worship and praise of God as Creator. So the Creation Psalms tell the first part of the biblical story, the story of Creation.
Hymns of Zion
In the time of promise before Christ, the hymns of Zion celebrated the dwelling of God in Jerusalem. They celebrated Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place. The hymns of Zion extolled the covenant relationship of the people of God with this God of Israel. I am your God and you are my people. The hymns of Zion extolled the wonders of Zion and God’s people and God’s place and God’s dwelling among his people. Zion is a way in Scriptures to refer to Jerusalem when YHWH is present, the place of God’s special dwelling among his people. The foreshadow of this, the type of this was God’s dwelling in Zion among his people in the OT in the Jerusalem temple. This dwelling of God among his people in the temple of the OT actually looked forward to something much greater, the coming of the LORD to Zion when God would dwell in fullness among his people.
God dwelling among his people in the temple was fulfilled in the Church. So we now in our own times read and pray the Psalms in the time of fulfillment, and the Psalms celebrate the Church where Christ’s presence and glory has been poured out. So Israel’s prayer book has become the prayer of Christians. In fact, Israel’s prayer book always looked forward to the time when it would become the prayer book of the church.
In the original context a hymn to Zion was all about Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place, but it always looked forward to the time when God would come and dwell among us in person, in Christ, in the Incarnation.
So the NT and the Church itself has always read these hymns of Zion as prophetically looking forward to and celebrating the Church of God where the fullness of Christ’s presence is with us, this wonderful refuge and dwelling place into which believers in Christ flee for refuge. For instance, Ps 87.
Hymns of Zion talk about the city of God because it’s a way of talking about God because God dwells there. If you were an ancient Israelite, you’ve loved Zion because God dwelled there. If you’re a Christian, you love the Church because God dwells there. So these hymns of Zion are really hymns of the Church. Paul will say this explicitly when he cites a hymn of Zion, Ps 87, as he does in Ga 4 25-26.
Note: the pilgrimage songs
These are much like the hymns of Zion in that they celebrate God’s presence among us in Christ. These would have been sung originally by the people of Israel on pilgrimage up to the holy dwelling place of God in Jerusalem. A famous group of these pilgrimage songs are “the Psalms of Ascents” which make up an entire section within the psalter – Psalms 120-134. They are called “the Psalms of Ascents” because there were sung by the people when going up to the holy dwelling place of God in Jerusalem. For instance, Ps 121.
Enthronement hymns focus on the heart and center of the story behind the Story which is the expectation and hope when the Lord, God himself, would come to dwell among his people. Something unique about the Psalms and the OT is that it doesn’t say ‘here is the full salvation of God.’ Instead, it looked forward to a coming salvation of God, to a coming kingdom and reign of God which we know was fulfilled in Christ, who is God with us. This coming kingdom and reign of God was, of course, inaugurated at his first coming in his Incarnation and it will be consummated at his second coming.
While you might think the enthronement Psalms concern the ultimate Davidic king, they don’t. Remember the distinction between the two major streams of expectation: that expectation of the human Davidic Messiah and that expectation of the divine YHWH himself coming to Zion. The enthronement hymns never mention the Messiah – even though, for sure, that is part of the expectation that the human king is coming.
Instead, these enthronement hymns are all about God himself – YHWH – coming to dwell with his people. They look forward to this coming kingdom and reign of God. They look forward to the coming of YHWH to Zion to rule and reign.
Now, within these enthronement hymns you basically have the whole biblical story in miniature: Creation; Covenant with God and then the Coming kingdom and reign of God. Creation, Covenant, Kingdom.
These enthronement hymns are so neat and especially so in how they are wonderful in their original context of the OT (the story behind the Story) but even more wonderful for us as Christians who know the One who has come and fulfilled these enthronement Psalms, who as inaugurated them and who will come again to consummate everything. These enthronement hymns are all about the coming of Christ but not like the royal Psalms which are about the coming of Christ as the Messiah. Instead, these enthronement hymns are about the coming of Christ as God. Two streams of expectation!
One big emphasis on the enthronement hymns is that on the inclusion of the nations which is the climax and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, this event of the kingdom of God in which we were brought in.
For example, Ps 96 and Ps 97.
As always, when we look back at this OT story, we see that the OT story was a “type” of the ultimate fulfillment yet to come. The Exodus was a type of the new Exodus. And the OT sacrifices looked forward to the cross. And David looked forward to the ultimate Davidic king, Jesus. And the temple – Jerusalem, Zion in the OT – was a type, a foreshadow, a partial reality of the full reality come in Christ, God incarnate, God’s presence come to be with us forever. Christ, God with us. And the OT story was the type; the fulfillment in Christ was the “antitype”, the full reality, the fulfillment. So we always read the Psalms in light of their fulfillment in Christ.
2. The laments.
Within the language of the Church these are called the penitential Psalms. There are 7 penitential Psalms (22, 143, 51, 130, 32, and ???). [Ps 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143] Different commentators cite different penitential Psalms. Remember, I already told you not everyone agreed on categories.
In the laments the writer in great distress calls on God for help and deliverance. Problems surround us everywhere. Christians are not exempt from life’s troubles. Still, Jesus’ death on the cross has redeemed us. Yet, we still live in a sinful world that is hostile to God. And each day, each week it only seems to get even more hostile. Further, we face stress in our relationships at work and at home. We face problems we cannot control, nor could anyone. We face failure because of our own shortcomings. That’s just life. Still, God is our helper and God wants us to come to him in every time of need. Yet, at times we pray and do not experience the comfort we desire.
Actually, the people of the OT had their problems too. The Psalms record some of what these people said to God about their problems which gives us these laments found in the Psalms.
Psalms is a very personal book. When we realize that it contains forty-three (this number varies) individual lament Psalms, six national laments and twenty-one (this number also varies) individual praise Psalms, we can see that the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Psalms, meant much of it for use by us individually as we approach the heavenly Father one-on-one. Most times the psalmists speak from deep emotions as they communicate their needs and their joys to their Lord. The prayers portray the psalmist’s deep and intimate relationship with God.
People in our culture can find the Psalms challenging. These poems / prayers demand that we take time to meditate on God’s character and majesty. The Psalms require a contemplative state of mind. In fact, as we move through these Psalms of lament each of us may experience personal difficulties that we had not expected to encounter. There may be cathartic moments for each of us when studying the laments. I’ve seen this happen with the laments before. Things can get a little rough emotionally-speaking so try to be forewarned.
One of our goals in this study would be that we all use the Psalms in our own personal worship life,
that in times of trouble and sorrow we would use the Psalms of lament to lay our sorrows before the Lord,
that in times of joy we would know how to find and pray the Psalms of praise and
that in times of sin we would fall back on the words of confession found in the penitential Psalms.
Often, things are not as they seem. Seeds planted in the ground appear to be dead, but the experienced farmer or gardener knows that beneath the surface a miracle is taking lace. The seed is preparing to sprout and begin its growth. Things are not as they seem. So it is in the Christian life. While one might logically expect life to be good for God’s children, this is not always the case. Often, it seems to be quite the opposite, as though God has abandoned his followers and hidden himself from them. That is the sense one gets when reading the Psalms of lament, especially those of David.
Considering David’s struggles it’s not surprising to hear him wrestle with God. For example, in Ps 6 David voices his confidence in God’s deliverance. Yet, he also expresses the agony of waiting for God to act.
My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD – how long? V 3
And then David continues with I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. Vv 6-7
David’s confidence, however, remains solely in the Lord, even in the face of seeming abandonment as we read in v 9:
The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer.
Of the various types of Psalms, Psalms of lament are by far the most numerous. They are not limited to David’s Psalms. Ps 77, written by Asaph, provides an excellent example of how God’s faithful people struggle during times of doubt.
Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Vv 7-9
To the one who is undergoing trial and hardship, the answer to such questions might seem a disheartening “yes.” But to believers, there is a deeper, more profound truth to which faith must cling – namely, that God will not abandon his faithful. In that light, the psalmist confessed:
The I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the most high.” I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Vv 10-12
Even when all evidence points to the contrary, the psalmist – and the Christian – appeals to God’s saving deeds, confident that he will carry them through even the worst trials.
“How long?” is one of the frequently used phrases in the lament Psalms. We have these examples:
My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD – how long? Ps 6 3
1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Ps 13
17 O Lord, how long will you look on? Rescue my life from their ravages, my precious life from these lions. Ps 35
10 How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Ps 74
In each case the heartfelt plea of God is followed by a confident confession of faith:
9 The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer. Ps 6
5 But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me. Ps 13
18 I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people I will praise you. Ps 35
12 But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. Ps 74
Ps 22 is perhaps the most famous of the lament Psalms. It’s better known as a messianic psalm. It expresses the feelings of anguish and abandonment that sometimes accompany us in times of severe trial.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
While most of us may have felt this way, no one can know the utter abandonment that our Lord underwent as he bore the sin of the world. Even in our own moments of agony, however, we can still confess:
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. 4 In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. 5 They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
Like Jesus, whose confidence was completely in his Father, we can confidently trust that God will deliver us from our tribulations.
structural patterns in the Psalms
The most usual pattern found in the Psalms is as follows:
1. An invocation or address to God
2. An expression of the lament or difficulty
3. A confession of confidence in God
4. A petition or request
5. Words of praise to the Lord
We see in the Psalms that God’s people were not afraid to bring their deepest needs to the Lord. We, likewise, can bring any need, any concern to the Lord. He is eager and willing to listen and help in our every need.
See now discussions in Psalms 77, 27, 42-43, and 71. Then return here.
Ps 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143 The penitential Psalms: prayers of repentance – crying to the Lord for mercy
In each of the penitential Psalms the psalmist pleads for God’s forgiveness. With the penitential Psalms we will see that the Lord hears as we confess our sin and grants us His mercy and forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. We can bring all our sins to Jesus, our Savior, without fear of anger or rejection. We can believe with confidence that God will act in love on our behalf and God will forgive us for Jesus’ sake. We are to worship God for His continuing forgiveness and grace toward us in Christ. These penitential Psalms are helpful at any time but especially when we as God’s people prepare our hearts to receive Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion.
Repentance is not a natural part of human nature. As sinful beings, we have the inborn tendency to run away from God when we become aware of our guilt. Only through God’s grace and mercy and love for us in Christ Jesus are we led to turn back to him, to admit our wrongs and to tell him we are sorry for what we have done. Only by God’s grace in Jesus are we forgiven by God and declared by him to be his righteous people.
Our culture tends to reserve the word sin to describe only the most heinous wrongdoing. In a misguided effort to instill self-esteem, people avoid the terms right and wrong, preferring instead words like appropriate or inappropriate. People deny sin or blame others for their sins. This is a trend as old as Eden.
Christians know that sin does exist and that it has deadly power. We’re born with it and, without Jesus, we’ll die because of it – eternally. But we also know that because of Jesus, our sins can no longer condemn us. Our Lord gave his life on the cross and came alive again to give us right standing before God. That is, it’s Jesus who gave us his righteousness – that he alone earned – so that when he returns in his role as judge in the consummation, we have a right to stand in his presence, and not having “earned” that privilege by anything we ourselves have done but because, and only because of what Jesus did on the cross and in his resurrection. In Christ, we have the assurance of God’s forgiveness. We can confidently ask him to bring us to repentance, to forgive us, and to help us want what he wants, to live as he would have us live.
Each of the penitential Psalms contrasts human sin with God’s grace. God offers all Christians, whether long in the faith or new, the same amazing love, forgiveness and power to lead godly lives. We pray that our confidence in God’s care, love and forgiveness be strengthened through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in each of us.
The penitential psalms are prayers that ask much from our God. Sin is part of our nature since the fall of Adam; therefore, all people sin. That sin must be dealt with or it will destroy us and others around us. We struggle under our sin, yet the nature of our sin and its consequences will not let us go. The answer for our sinful nature lies in the nature of our God. In His forgiveness, His faithfulness, and His love, He has provided the answer to people’s sin and its consequences. The psalmists ask God in the penitential psalms to forgive our sin and to deal with the effects of sin upon our bodies, minds, and relationships.
The penitential psalms are built on the bedrock of God’s forgiveness and mercy. Instead of having to appease God, Christians can lay their sin before Him in confident expectation of God’s mercy. They wait for that mercy (Ps 130 5), which is sure and unfailing (Ps 130 7). Our God does not destroy repentant sinners, but wipes away their sin, bringing real forgiveness and a real solution to sin.
The penitential psalms flow from an understanding of the faithful love of our God. While there is no earthly reason to believe God will help or hear, God’s people trust in His character and His desire to act on our behalf. We can look to the lives of the biblical saints. For example, the lives of Abraham, Peter, and David demonstrate how great God’s forgiveness is and those lives show us that we can trust God to forgive even those sins of which we are most ashamed.
We will look at one of the seven psalms that have been labeled, since the Middle Ages, as penitential psalms. The seven penitential psalms (Ps 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) express humility before God. The psalmist admits his guilt and expresses sorrow for his sin. The psalmist acknowledges God’s justice in judging, but also asks God to give mercy instead of justice. The psalmist seeks not to justify himself, but to have God justify him. If individual laments are the prayers of request and individual praises are the prayers of thanks, then penitential psalms are the prayers of confession. These are the psalms of those on bended knee before their God in anguish and sorrow because of their sins.
In the penitential psalms, the psalmist is often alone and ashamed, like a man in a dark alley searching for his friend. The two have walked together, but the psalmist has gone his own way. Now he huddles in pain, hoping to see his friend’s face to receive his forgiveness, and to see the friendship restored again. Sin has separated the psalmist from God, his friend. The psalmist pleads that God restore the relationship that the psalmist has broken. God’s mercy is his only hope. And its our only hope as well.
The penitential psalms also call on God to save the psalmist from the results of his own sins. He complains of physical weakness (Ps 38 58), spiritual anguish (Ps 130 12), and broken relationships (Ps 38 11) all of which result from sin. The psalmist cannot save himself from those consequences any more than from his guilt. He could easily fall into despair. Yet these psalms show us that like the psalmist, we too can cry out to God for help with our sin and with its consequences.
In the penitential psalms, we see a desire for a stronger relationship with God, an ongoing relationship. Forgiveness and deliverance from the current difficulty are not enough because those remedies wonderful as they are could become merely ‘quick fixes’ apart from a close fellowship with God. Such continued fellowship gives us confidence that God will always forgive us and that He will work in us the faith and power we need to grow in faith and obedience.
conclusion: penitential Psalms
Often, problems bring us to our knees in such a way that we readily see the sins that have upset our lives and our relationship with God. In the agony of broken relationships, mental anguish, or physical pain, our lives slow down or even stop.
The penitential psalms focus our attention on the fact that God is the answer to our problems, not the source of them. It would be easy to blame God when things go wrong rather than seeing our pain as the consequence of sin in our world or in our own lives. Yet, blaming God only makes things worse, because blaming separates us from the only one who can forgive our sin and restore our lives. Confession of sin and an appeal to God’s mercy puts us in a place where God can touch us and heal us with the power of Christ’s cross.
We need not deny our sin or blame others for it or cover it up. Instead, we can run to our gracious God to confess it, certain of His pardon in Jesus Christ. We also have of the opportunity to encourage others to share in his forgiveness and to help when they sin. The phrase fear of the Lord takes on a new meaning for us. It is not the cry of those afraid of God but those who have deep awe and respect for the one who has loved us and forgiven us.
Conclusion to the individual laments
As you read the laments, you will notice the great swings in emotion. We, too, find our old nature, the ‘Old Adam’ as theologians call it, worried about itself and wrestling with the ‘New Adam,’ the new nature that is ours through faith in Christ Jesus. We need not be upset by this struggle. It simply means that we are saints and sinners at the same time. The same child of God both trusts Him and worries sometimes about the troubles and challenges of life.
We need never be afraid to come to our Lord with our deepest distresses. Holding back will only cause us further fear and dismay. We can be confident that our Lord will not turn away from His children but will always listen to our cries. The LORD is tender and compassionate toward us, kinder than the kindest earthly Father.
We also need to take notice that the path that leads to confidence in the laments always passes through thanksgiving and adoration. The psalmists find their hope in God’s past actions and in His character. Hope for the future never comes because of our own goodness or power. It does not come because we can control God or somehow magically make Him do our bidding by praying hard enough or long enough. Rather, we have a God who loves us and who cares about the lives of His people. His past actions affirm His character and give us hope that He will always care and always help. We have even more reason for confidence than the psalmists of old because we’ve seen Christ’s cross and the commitment of love He made to us there. We’ve seen the open tomb and the power of God revealed there. We know the resurrection! We need never doubt His willingness or His ability to hear and to help us in our time of need.
We will help ourselves when we include thanksgiving in our prayers. God’s children thank the Lord for the help He gives. We can do that even before we see it materialize. As thanks continue to roll off our lips, and doubts about His mercy will find it harder to take root in our hearts.
At times when we find ourselves down, we should feel free to find a psalm that expresses our mood. We should read the psalm and let the confidence that the psalmist expresses help us through our difficulties. In doing so we will find that in the psalms God will speak to our heart and give confidence to our soul.
Community laments and praise
America is, or at least once was, the land of rugged individualism so it’s more difficult for us to grasp the importance of community when compared to the ancient world. We travel to jobs in other towns. We may not even know our neighbors. We often live far from family and may have only a few “close friends”.
God, on the other hand, designed and created his Church to be a community of interdependent members. The Church is a body designed so that members need one another and serve one another in love. This community of believers is not composed of “everyone in general” but is a community of people who belong to God. We have been called out and separated from the world in order to confess and worship the one, true God. We are diverse yet bound together by the lordship of Christ.
The community lament and praise Psalms give expression to our collective pains and joys. We are to sense the importance of community life, the importance of the family of God shown in them. In these Psalms we are to see the importance of the interdependency we Christians share with one another. Each Christian is challenged to see himself or herself as dependent on others in the Church and to recognize that each member of the body of Christ is affected by the joys and victories, needs and hurts of each other member.
Christian community was God’s gift to his people. In the Church of Jesus Christ, God’s people walk together, laugh and cry with one another, and they share joys and sorrows. Such community comes about not by chance but by the choice of God. As we work through Ps 90 (as a representative example of this category of psalm), listen for our voices all speaking together in prayer to our Lord. Hear the pain of our laments in Ps 90, 80, and 44 and also experience our joys in praise in Ps 124.
God’s people are able to use the past as a frame of reference for the present. Present troubles may seem great. But as we hear the people of God recall as in Ps 44 1-3 his past victories, we draw strength to face the future. We can place our hope in our unchanging God, who will act with the same kindness toward us that He has shown to other believers in the past. That hope unites us and brings us peace.
In these community psalms, we also see the strength of the people of God. Disaster or deliverance often comes to us as a group, not just as individuals. Even so, we become by God’s grace a source of strength for one another as we join together in prayer and praise to our God. The Christian community is stronger than its individual members.
The community psalms use patterns of organization similar to those of individual lament or praise psalms. Yet, they reflect a disaster or blessing that has come upon the whole community, not just upon a single person. While the pleas may be spoken by one person (as Moses does in Ps 90), yet these psalms reflect the community’s pain. Often the problems are so great that the Lord is the only hope. Look for elements in these five psalms that could be useful in the worship of you and those in your congregation as you walk through life together.
Conclusion: community lament and praise Psalms
The community of faith gathers around our Lord, our Savior, who has called us into relationship with Himself. He is the hub of the community, and this calledout, holy community and our unity would dissolve if He were not our center.
In this community, we all need one another. As we study and pray the community lament psalms and praise psalms, we remember we are not alone either in tragedy or in joy. Together we praise God and plead with God for help. God has united us to other believers in a wonderful union, His Church.
See now Ps 90.
3. The pilgrimage Psalms.
These are a very important part of the whole biblical picture and teaching about God and God’s relationship with his people.
4. The entrance liturgies.
Why would you need an entrance liturgy, what are you entering into and how do you do it?
A study of the liturgical Psalms shows us the great honor we have at being invited into God’s presence for worship and to enjoy a deep fellowship with our God. We are to
1. understand that God invites us in Jesus Christ to come into His presence and to experience His glory in worship as He renews our lives;
2. believe that God sent His Son to die on a cross so that we might have access to His throne; and
3. worship an awesome God who has drawn us near into fellowship with Him so that we may delight in the honor of being near Him.
While most of the Psalms in the Psalter were used for public worship, the liturgical Psalms were used either at one of the three yearly Jewish festivals in Jerusalem or at other times of worship in the temple. Bring in pilgrim festival information from glossary file and festival chart from Le 23.
Liturgy and liturgical seasons have been important to God’s people throughout the ages. Modern hymnals usually include several liturgies and even liturgical hymns. Psalms, which is the hymnal of the Bible, has its own liturgies and hymns for special occasions as well. The liturgical psalms center on the sanctuary, the place where God touches the earth and human beings come to meet with Him. Here in the sanctuary, the bond God established with us in the cross and at the baptismal font is strengthened. In worship, God recounts what He has done for us. We respond in repentance and faith. The liturgical psalms express the faith of God’s people and invite others to come and share in a faith relationship with Him.
It’s important that we look beyond the ‘how’ of worship to the Who. While it’s tempting to get wrapped up in wondering about the details of Israelite worship, it is far more important to see the character and majesty of the God whom they worshiped. While the psalms give us a few of the details we wonder about, their real focus is on the God who is worthy of all honor and worship. Christians today can learn much from the psalmists about the God who truly is worthy of our worship and praise.
The liturgical psalms are not really a type of psalm like the laments, which have their own distinct pattern and theme. Instead, we group them together because they have a common purpose: All of the liturgical Psalms are used in the worship of God at the temple or in preparation for that corporate worship. As we look at the liturgical psalms our goal is to gain a sense of awe and wonder in God’s presence.
Conclusion: liturgical Psalms
The liturgical psalms extol God’s glory and teach us how greatly God deserves our praise. We worship an awesome God, who has drawn us into fellowship with Himself. His presence in our midst brings unity, justice, and spiritual prosperity. How blessed we are to have an invitation to come into His presence and to experience His glory and renewal in our lives in Jesus, our Savior.
For example, see Ps 113.
5. The wisdom Psalms.
What is the way of wisdom? How does one become wise? How does one live wisely? What is wisdom all about?
Wisdom Psalms have a teaching function. Through the psalmist God is teaching us the way of wisdom, of blessing, of the wise. Wisdom Psalms tell about the true path to life and blessedness. They provide us with true, practical wisdom for life from the spiritual perspective, different what one might consider practical instruction in another context. For example, Ps 14.
wisdom Psalms See separate handout on wisdom literature from glossary file.
The wisdom Psalms acknowledge the great wisdom of God as we look to him for guidance and direction concerning practical and philosophical matters, which he provides to us in his Word. God also helps us grapple with tough questions about the problem of evil and the earthly prosperity of the wicked.
With these wisdom Psalms we will:
1. affirm that the Lord holds the answers to the questions that we face and that He wants us to come and learn from Him;
2. confess that the Lord understands our problems and we will trust in His solutions to meet their needs; and
3. worship God as we listen to His Word and, in the power of Christ’s cross, respond in obedience to His will.
The Wisdom Literature of the OT includes the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and some of the Psalms. Wisdom Literature was common among the peoples of the Near East, particularly the Canaanites and the Phoenicians. The metrical style of the Book of Proverbs has much in common with some of the Ugaritic epics. Many Canaanite expressions are similar in thought to sections of Job and Ecclesiastes. The wisdom of the pagan nations around Israel centered in the magicians and astrologers who supposedly imparted the secret knowledge of the gods.
The Wisdom Literature of Scripture likewise shares the mysteries of God, but not for the elevation of the writer in the eyes of the reader. Scripture seeks to elevate God in the readers’ eyes so that we may understand, affirm, and obey God’s ways.
At the heart of the wisdom psalms is the contrast between God’s wisdom and ways over against worldly wisdom – the contrast between what God says is wise and what people think is wise. In the end, only God’s wisdom is the path to true blessings. The wisdom Psalms show us that true wisdom comes as we confess Jesus as our Savior. It’s through this faith that God graciously gives us the enduring riches of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The only way we can escape the eternal, spiritual death that sin and Satan bring is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus as our Redeemer. Jesus alone saves. He alone gives everlasting life.
Conclusion: wisdom Psalms
We can learn the lessons of life in one of two ways: by stubbing our own toes or by learning from the mistakes and discoveries of others. The wisdom psalms call us to learn from the experiences of the psalmists. In some ways, these are the most practical of all the psalms. We don’t want the truths that they bring us to be quickly read and soon forgotten. We will want to meditate on them day and night, incorporating their truths into our lifestyle.
I would encourage you to continue to ponder the truths from the wisdom psalms and all the other psalms, for that matter. It is my humble prayer that our time in the Psalms will have not just taught you about the psalms, but that also through you indwelling Holy Spirit you have been brought closer to our God.
6. The royal Psalms.
Like the enthronement hymns these, too, look forward to God’s coming kingdom and reign – but they especially focus on the coming ultimate Davidic king, the one who will fulfill the promises to David of an everlasting Davidic throne. The Davidic covenant was the promise God made to David of an everlasting Davidic throne. That’s a promise so crucial in the Bible because that will be ultimately fulfilled by the one ultimate Davidic king who is Jesus of Nazareth. He will fulfill both the Abrahamic covenant and the Davidic covenant. So when we look back at the Davidic covenant and these royal Psalms, we are looking forward to the coming of Christ who fulfills the Davidic covenant. They tell us important things about the nature of Christ and his kingdom.
So many Psalms contain explicit predictions of the Messiah’ life and work. For instance, Ps 22 describe our Lord’s crucifixion in remarkable detail, and this is being told centuries before crucifixion was invented. Ps 23 also tells of the Lord, our Shepherd. Jesus called himself that in Jn 10. Other Psalms placed by some into this category of messianic Psalms include 24, 45, 61, 72, 110 and 118.
Still, if we read the Psalms looking only for direct prophecies about our Savior, we will miss much of what the Holy Spirit is telling us about Jesus. When reading the Psalms we shouldn’t let that happen and instead we should remember that we are sinful and, hence, we cannot pray any of the Psalms and expect God to hear and help us in the ways he has promised. However, Jesus died in our place. Because of that, Jesus shares his own righteousness with us and, therefore, we can boldly come to God, asking for everything the Psalms promise! In other words, in Jesus we are the “righteous people” whom the Lord always hears and helps. So there!
For most commentators royal and messianic refer to the same thing. But not for all. Hence, in this next section I’m going to treat them as being separate although most of me sees them as being the same thing. Confused yet?
With the messianic Psalms we will see how God’s plan of salvation for all generations through Jesus is reflected in the psalms. In these Psalms we read of important truths being foretold about the coming Messiah (whom we will come to learn is Jesus of Nazareth in the NT). Many examples within the Psalms foretell of the life, work and power of Jesus. These Psalms serve as wonderful examples of the unity of all Scripture – both Old and New Testaments. They demonstrate that the Bible is one book that tells the one story of God’s saving love for the world. Narrative unity.
Only the four gospels, and perhaps Isaiah, give us more information about our Savior than do the Psalms. These messianic Psalms – while showing a partial fulfillment (typology) in the works and lives of God’s earthly kings find their ultimate expression and fulfillment in the life and work of Jesus. Still, we should not get ahead of ourselves when reading these Psalms. Instead, we should take from our OT what God intended us to know before too quickly jumping into the fulfillment of the NT. There will be plenty of time to do both.
In these Psalms we will
1. understand that the Messiah knew the suffering He would endure and the victory His ministry would bring to all people;
2. confess that in love, God sent His Son to bear their sins and to redeem His people;
3. worship our resurrected Lord and celebrate His victory foretold long ago in the psalms.
Several psalms are considered messianic because they prophetically describe the life, death, resurrection, and kingdom of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we learn in the NT was the fulfillment of the messianic hope of the OT.
Some of the prophecies in the psalms are direct prophecies, since they speak only of Jesus and do not refer to something in the psalmist’s life, what I’m going to call ‘indirect typology’ for now. Examples of such direct prophecies would include Ps 16 10 ( ‘You will not … let your holy one see corruption’) and Ps 110 4 (‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’).
Other messianic prophecies are typical prophecies. In them, a real person, event, or thing in the Old Testament points ahead to something similar in the life of Jesus (direct typology). For instance, in Ps 22, David receives insults (v 7) and attacks (vv 1415), and is stripped of his clothing (v 18) much like Jesus would be on the cross. The psalmist’s experiences foreshadow the more vivid reality to come in Christ.
Both types of prophecy are remarkable in the precise descriptions they give of the situation that Jesus lived out during His earthly life, death, and resurrection.
The messianic psalms provide an opportunity to see the heart of Jesus as the psalmist wrestles with struggles similar to Jesus’ own. For example, Ps 22 provides a perspective on Jesus’ wrestling in the Garden of Gethsemane with the task that the Father has given Him. And we are to pay particular attention to Ps 110, as God Himself tells His plans for the world under the rule of His Anointed, His Messiah.
The psalms reveal a great deal about God’s plan of salvation for our sinful world. They also show us that Jesus knew full well the price He would pay to earn salvation for us. He had counted the cost. He knew that He would be forsaken by God (Ps 2 1). He knew that His friends (Ps 22 11) would abandon Him and that He would be betrayed by a friend (Ps 41 9). It comforts us to see God’s great love for us, active centuries before the birth of the Messiah and millennia before we were born.
The psalms reveal the victory of the Messiah as well as His suffering. Jesus knew He would rise (Ps 16 10) and reign (Ps 110) as Priest and King over the whole world, especially His people. The nations (Ps 2 13) would conspire against Him, but He would someday reign in power (Ps 110 2) and dash those who would come against Him. On the Last Day, He will judge (Ps 110 6) the nations and destroy the wicked (Ps 2 12) who refused His offer of mercy. While the Jews (Mt 22 4146) of Jesus’ day did not understand how both sets of prophecies could fit together, we know now that both were fulfilled in Jesus as evidenced in his resurrection. The psalms present a balanced picture of Jesus, both as the Suffering Servant and the victorious King.
It would be easy to overlook the psalmist, however, in all this. While some messianic prophecies in Psalms do speak only of Christ, several of the psalms speak first about the psalmist (Ps 16 and 22), and then find their final and ultimate fulfillment in Christ. The pain and torment David expresses in Ps 22 is real. David wrestles with faith and fear, just as we often do. We lose a major part of the psalm’s meaning and its power for our own struggles if we forget the psalmist if we forget his pain and the victory God promised through His anointed King.
The comfort and hope that these psalms bring to us come as the psalmist’s experience merges with the fulfillment of the psalm in Jesus Christ. In the psalmist, we see someone just like us, someone dealing with the pains of life that often come from obedience and faithful service to God. While we may feel forsaken by God (Ps 22 1), we know that Jesus has experienced in full the same difficulties that we face, and He has conquered them in His death and resurrection. Jesus’ victory is our victory and our confidence at difficult times in our lives. As we use these psalms in our own devotional lives, we want to be sure to see the psalmist’s trials so much like our own and also the victory that God has promised in the Messiah, who triumphed over sin and Satan, hell and death for us.
conclusion: messianic Psalms
The messianic psalms provide a great testimony about Jesus’ life and death. Only the four Gospels and Isaiah surpass the psalms as a source of information on the words and deeds of Christ. The messianic psalms can be a source of encouragement and strength for us today, just as they were for the people of the Old Testament. As we ponder their message and, especially, the work and victory of our Messiah, we find strength to live in the victory He has won for us.
Here in the royal Psalms we will see that as those who have been redeemed by Christ the crucified one, we can boldly ask our God to preserve and extend His Kingdom, the Church. We also want to live in that Kingdom, by the power of His Spirit, in obedience and love for our King.
In these Psalms we will:
1. describe how the blessings God bestowed on the king brought blessings to the people of God;
2. affirm the Lord’s care for His Church; and
3. worship Jesus, our King from David’s line, who has brought us into the kingdom of God and bestowed on us the crown of salvation.
These royal Psalms include prayers by kings that ask God for victory over enemies and for wisdom to rule according to God’s will. They include prayers by God’s people for their ruler, and they also give us a portrait of Christ, our perfect, eternal king.
The royal Psalms provide a God-given blueprint for our earthly leaders. They show us the importance of having leaders who place their trust in God and in his strength and guidance. They show us that the blessings God bestowed on Israel’s king became blessings for the people he ruled.
Still, these Psalms go far beyond hints of earthly governments. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, and we no longer live under that kind of governmental arrangement. [We now live under a ever-evolving dictatorship orchestrated by the few over the many. We have become the sheep of the wrong shepherd. Anyway, that now off my chest …]
Instead, we Christians hold a dual citizenship. True, we are citizens of particular countries and we pray for our earthly leaders. But our true and eternal citizenship is always with God, where God is currently, in heaven in the new Jerusalem that is already there – and, ultimately, where God will one day be – in the renewed and restored Creation (Re 21, for instance) which is the renewed Creation here on earth. We Christians treasure our place in the holy Christian Church. And we do all we can to extend the kingdom of light into every dark corner of our world. At least, that’s what we’re supposed to be about in our lives. We are to be about telling others of the privileges that citizenship in Christ’s kingdom brings.
Israel lived among pagan nations. The people of these nations honored their earthly rulers as gods. While parts of Ps 45, the royal wedding psalm, may seem almost to deify the king, the kings of Judah were never seen as gods. Their strength and their position itself came from the special relationship that God established between Himself and David’s heirs. In 2 Sam 7 14, God promises ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to Me a son.’ Thus the king is God’s son (Ps 2 7). He is chosen to lead God’s people and to bring justice to the weak and oppressed.
The portrait presented in the royal psalms is often an idealized picture of what a ruler representing God should be like. No earthly ruler, not even King David, lived up to that perfect picture of power, goodness, and mercy. For that reason, many of the pictures of the perfect King find their true fulfillment only in Jesus, David’s greatest Son. In this class you will notice that I have tried to show how the psalm applies both to the earthly king at the time and to Christ, the King who would come. Typology. As always, we need to see both of these aspects in order to get the full picture God intended to show us as He inspired the psalmists with their words.
We, currently, live in a society without a king so it is hard for us to understand the pleas of the psalmist that the Lord would bless the king. Yet, these pleas remind us that as the king went, so went the nation. Of course, Judah’s kings did not live up to the ideals portrayed in the psalms. In fact, David’s descendants often abandoned God completely. Still, all of these kings collectively always served as types of the ultimate antitype to come, Jesus of Nazareth. Only Jesus would fulfill all the hopes the psalmists express.
It is our joy as members of Christ’s kingdom by faith to have blessings of spiritual prosperity, the true justice and mercy that king Jesus has brought to the lives of His subjects. While we live in an imperfect world, we also are members of the perfect kingdom under Christ. He rules the world (Ep 1 2122) on our behalf. We do not, of course, live under an earthly king, but the royal psalms apply to us as members of Christ’s kingdom here on earth and, one day soon, we will have life in the renewed heavens and earth (Re 21). We will have life in the renewed Creation.
Conclusion: the royal Psalms
The royal psalms are a reminder of the joys of God’s people when the ruler depends on God and leads the people to trust their Savior. Christ is the perfect ruler who brings the joys no earthly ruler could. We respond in faith to Jesus’ love for us as we pray for the leaders of our nation and our church so that they will serve as bearers of God’s blessings in the lives of the people entrusted to them.
7. The salvation history Psalms.
Just as we have Psalms about Creation which tell the story about the Creator God and his Creation, we also have salvation history Psalms which tell the story of God and his people. Salvation history Psalms assume the reality of the fallen Creation, and they tell the story of God’s redemptive work of redemption and salvation.
Act I of the biblical story, Creation in Ge 1-2, is followed by Act II, “the Fall” of Ge 3 in which evil, sin, suffering and death enter into God’s good Creation, thereby undoing God’s good Creation.
This is the context for the next great scene of the biblical narrative, something foundational for all the rest, God’s great covenant with his people, the covenant which is at the heart of the Abrahamic covenant beginning in Ge 12. See notes there in v 3. In other words, God’s response to “the Fall” is the Abrahamic covenant which undergirds all salvation history Psalms.
These salvation history Psalms tell how the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled by God. These Psalms tell us it isn’t just one act of salvation but, instead, it’s a salvation plan consisting of many scenes that God has put into place for us, the first of which was the Exodus and the conquest.
Ps 78 is a salvation history Psalm. See notes there. Ps 78 tells the story of the Exodus, of God delivering his people. The Creator God is the delivering, saving God who brings his people into the land of promise.
We also see that part of the promise of nation and land in the Abrahamic covenant also involved that they would be rightly governed by their Davidic king. As such, Ps 78 climaxed with the Davidic kingship. And the covenant relationship would be more than just some sort of head game with God. It would actually be a true relationship with God in which the Creator God, in a mysterious, sacramental but true and powerful way would dwell among his people in the temple. We see that important theme coming to the fore in Ps 78 – the dwelling of YHWH in Zion. So Ps 78 is telling the story about that fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Hence, it told of the fulfillment of parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Abrahamic covenant but not part 4. See notes there.
8. The individual Psalms of praise – the privilege of giving thanks
The Book of Psalms includes twenty-one Psalms of praise offered by individuals and thirty-five hymns of thanksgiving and adoration. Some of the most familiar Psalms in the Bible are Psalms of individual praise. These Psalms extol God for his power, strength, salvation, rescue and goodness. They differ in several ways from the Psalms of individual lament. Many of these Psalms follow a set organizational pattern just as do the Psalms of individual laments.
1. an introduction, invitation, summons or announcement for the reason for praise
2. call to the people to praise
3. an account of the help God gave
4. words of praise or a vow to praise God
The Psalms of thanksgiving detail the variety of situations in which our God helps us. These Psalms praise the Lord for his care (Ps 23), deliverance (Ps 30), forgiveness (Ps 32) and kindness (Ps 118). Psalmists sometimes offer thanks for specific help but often psalms of thanks broaden into litanies of praise about the character of God.
Notice that the psalmists find great joy in praising God. While we may at times see thanks as a duty we owe to God for services rendered, praise in the Psalms often comes out as unbridled joy. The relief and delight evoked by the Lord’s answers to the psalmist’s prayers seem to rush forth and take shape in words. When God has turned hopelessness and pain into security and happiness, both praise and thanksgiving flow from the psalmist’s heart. Because this happens, the study of the Psalms can humble us. In the Psalms we see the vastness of God’s goodness contrasted with our unworthiness to receive it. God owes us nothing but gives us everything – freely out of love, especially in our Lord and Savior Jesus. The Psalms of individual praise can help us celebrate our relationship with him.
The Psalms of thanksgiving and praise can seem out of place in the world in which we live. People seldom say thanks today. The newspapers are filled with the voices of angry people demanding that their needs be met – while few sing the praise of a stranger who helps others. We ourselves often cry out to the Lord for help, yet we forget to recognize his kindness and mercy with thanks. Pain drives us to raise our voices to God, yet relief from misery sometimes fails to evoke the same response.
Prayers of thanks retell the great deeds of God so that we will not be afraid to ask in faith for even greater miracles in the future. When we forget to give thanks, we cut ourselves off from this encouragement.
Let’s look at four examples in Psalms 30, 118, 23 and 32 and at how this pattern plays out in specific psalms of individual praise. See the individual Psalms for that discussion.
As we do, we will see what the Lord has done for His people in the past and also what He can and will do for us today.
imprecatory Psalms 35, 58, 69, 83, 109 and 137 – judge between me and them
In these imprecatory Psalms we see that God takes up the cause of His people. He is our protector from every kind of evil. He will work justice for His own. With these psalms and led by the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word, we will
1. understand that God is our loving heavenly Father, who jealously protects His children;
2. believe that God constantly acts in justice for the benefit of His people and the Gospel; and
3. worship our great Lord, who is our defender, protector, and deliverer from every kind of evil.
the “politically incorrect” Psalms
We live in an age where political correctness rules the day. What may have started as a way to minimize the giving of offense is now viewed by many as the chief criterion by which speech is to be judged, most often even at the price of the truth. And this means all speech. The Church does not stand immune from the pressures imposed by political correctness. In particular, pressures from gender issues impact speech about God Himself. They also cause significant problems in handling subjects such as marriage. The evidence for these assertions are found all over the place in our current culture.
So then, in an age that wants to minimize offense of any kind, what is the Church supposed to do with the category of psalms known as the imprecatory psalms? For instance, what answer would we have if someone accused us of promoting the murder of babies, quoting from one of the psalms?
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps 137 89)
Imprecation is an act of calling down a curse on one’s enemies or praying for the punishment or defeat of that enemy. Imprecatory Psalms ask God to punish all of the psalmist’s enemies. While some might include others, there are six psalms that are generally recognized as thoroughgoing imprecatory psalms (35, 58, 69, 83, 109, 137. All but Ps 83 are by David.). The enemies described in these psalms vary, but generally they fall into three categories.
First, there are psalms that speak against the nations that had treated Israel harshly. These were the nations that had as their goal the destruction of Israel:
For behold, Your enemies make an uproar; those who hate You have raised their heads. They lay crafty plans against Your people, they consult together against Your treasured ones. They say, ‘Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more!” (Ps 83 24)
Given that God had promised to send the Messiah through the nation of Israel, the destruction of Israel would not do. Since these enemies were often too numerous and too powerful for the Israelites to defeat, the psalmist singles them out and calls on the Lord to defeat them.
Second, there are Psalms that focus on being betrayed by a friend. Psalms 35 and 109 by David are good examples of this type of imprecatory psalm:
In return for my love they accuse me, but I give myself to prayer. So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love. (Ps 109 45)
In these psalms, there is a sense of an injustice that needs to be righted. The imprecations can get quite personal, including calls for creditors to seize the possessions of individuals, for posterity to be cut off, and even for children to become fatherless (Ps 109 615).
Third are imprecatory psalms directed against those who abuse a godly trust. Nothing can be more detrimental to society than a ruler or judge who abuses his authority for personal gain. Thus, David writes:
Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods [mighty lords]? Do you judge the children of man uprightly? No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth. (Ps 58 12)
In calling on God for vengeance, the psalmist seeks justice from the true judge of Israel.
Imprecatory Psalms and the Christian
Beginning in childhood and proceeding into the present, most of us at one time or another have found ourselves as the target of unjust attacks. Whether it was at the hands of a schoolyard bully in childhood, or, more recently, someone close to us who was taught an incredibly wrong, deceitful, destructive and damaging narrative about who we were, all of us have experienced terrible wrongs being meted out to us. For instance, we may have suffered terrible abuse from those we thought to be friends and even worse, from those in our own families – people in our own families to whom we had shown nothing but love and caring and provision, but yet who still did terrible and unjust things to us, things once not even considered remotely possible. It happens.
It happens to us, and it happened to our Lord Jesus who himself suffered unjustly and terribly – to the point of death. He alone truly never deserved such attacks because he had nothing but love for his enemies. And yet he was tortured, and he was killed.
Imprecatory Psalms ask God for help and especially for justice. Some of these Psalms include vivid curses that ask God to punish our enemies as he protects and defends us from evil. The cries of the imprecatory psalms may bother us at first. Many people feel uncomfortable with the shocking bluntness of the imprecatory psalms. They may even seem contrary to the teachings of the New Testament. In fact, some have suggested that these psalms have no place in the life of the Christian. That is, in light of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, these prayers may seem improper and even unchristian. God is, after all, a God of love. Further, Jesus has told us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies, and he has forbidden us to take revenge (Mt 5 3844). This is the constant witness of the New Testament.
However, in each of these imprecatory Psalms, the psalmist cries out for God to take revenge. So there is no doubt about it: the imprecatory psalms are forceful. They are not the prayers of an armchair believer whose life has always run smoothly. Instead, they grow out of life in the real world, a world in which real evil causes real pain and real death yes, even to God’s people. In this real world, we encounter real injustice. And we sometimes wonder how a God of justice can let unjust, hurtful things happen. The imprecatory psalms can help us when we feel that life and God are being unfair.
So these psalms were inspired by God and their harsh pleas were born out of the pain of the authors. Since that is so, we must ask how prayers that call for such violence can be reconciled with our Lord’s command to love one another (Jn 15 12; Ro 12 10). How is it then that these Psalms can please God?
The imprecatory psalms reflect the cruelty and evil of the enemies of God and His people. These imprecatory Psalms put the psalmist squarely on the side of God – God who hates injustice and who rescues his abused children. Yet, Scripture itself shows us in several ways that these psalms were the proper prayers of God’s people. For instance, the psalmists were never rebuked for their feelings anywhere in Scripture. Also, Peter quoted Ps 69 25 in Ac 1 20 to prove that God had judged Judas. Hence, the imprecatory psalms are not the cries of a bloodthirsty people or of a people somehow less merciful than the New Testament people. Instead, these are the cries of a people in pain appealing to their God for help.
While the language may seem harsh, the psalmists consider the enemies of Israel to be the enemies of God who must be judged so that God’s name and reputation are cleared. These psalms are not psalms of personal vendetta but psalms reflecting a ‘holy war,’ in which God is called to lead the fight against evil. The enemies are corrupt as we read in Ps 58 35. Egged on by Satan the source of all evil the enemies of God oppose God’s people (Ps 83 5) in order to destroy God’s influence on the earth. These enemies must be destroyed so that evil does not triumph.
Cruelty may be far removed from some people’s experience in our own times, but it was very much a part of the lives of the imprecatory psalmists. The writers faced intense personal or national suffering. They called on God to repay the wicked, rather than they themselves falling into the sin of revenge. Only God has the right to avenge wrongdoing. He does not want us to take matters into our own hands. We are to pray to God for help rather than trying to settle matters for ourselves.
We first need to remember that God hates evil and the pain that evil has brought into His Creation. The psalmists are simply asking God to act in line with His character, in line with His holiness and justice, in line with His promises to hear and help His people. For example, we should indeed pray that God will lead our enemies to repentance. And we can ask God to make it possible for us to desire their salvation with Christlike love. Even so, we also can pray that all who continue to defy God will receive the justice that they deserve.
So, while we leave vengeance to the Lord, and while we yearn for the ungodly to turn from sin to the Savior, we still hate wickedness and evil. Ultimately, Satan instigates all injustice, and the imprecatory Psalms find their true target in Satan as we pray them against the kingdom of darkness. God is the final court of appeals for His people in times of pain and persecution. We can always turn to God for help when evil attacks and threatens to destroy us.
A careful examination of these imprecatory psalms reveals that the curses, while directed at specific persons or nations, are actually directed at evil that is directly opposed to God. The nations that sought Israel’s destruction, for example, were directly at odds with God’s plan of salvation. Their evil had to be thwarted, so the psalmist made the case to God that He had to act. If the evil nation would have repented, then so would have had God in the sense that He would have withheld His wrath. Such was the example of the Ninevites, who heeded Jonah’s call to repentance (Jh 3).
The turning of the enemy’s heart was always the preferred goal. Even in a psalm as caustic as Ps 83, the psalmist says:
Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek Your name, O LORD. Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever, let them perish in disgrace, that they may know that You alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth. (Ps 83 1618)
Where hearts are turned toward God, Christians will rejoice, even as the angels in heaven rejoice whenever a sinner repents (Lk 15 10). Still, where evil continues to hold sway, Christians can continue to pray that God will thwart evil and cause justice to be done.
We are to pray the imprecatory psalms, knowing and confessing that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and grace as much as anyone else in this world. We are to pray these psalms in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, knowing and believing that in Him all our enemies have been conquered.
So among us are those who certainly are struggling because of unjust treatment. We are to help those take their burdens to God in prayer, to help them see that God does indeed love them and that he has both the willingness and power to help them. We are to pray together, trusting that God will answer his children’s cries for help and will use every trouble in our lives for our final good.
Conclusion: imprecatory Psalms
Our God is the defender of His people. He does not take it lightly when we are hurt by evil. He stands up for those who are downtrodden for their faith. The psalmists do not ask for personal satisfaction. Instead, they ask the Lord to act on behalf of His Church when we who belong to Him are attacked by Satan and the forces of evil.
The cry of the imprecatory psalms is not a cry for vengeance, but for justice and holiness. By asking God to bring justice, the psalmist is able to avoid personal hatred. He does not bloody his hands and thus become like his enemies. The Lord must administer justice and bring about, if possible, repentance and restoration. David may have said it best when he replied to his sworn enemy, King Saul, ‘May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you’ (1 Sam 24 12).
other imprecations in the Bible
Imprecations in the Bible are not limited to the Psalter. Centuries after David, the prophet Jeremiah was continually hounded by false prophets who sought to discredit him. On several occasions, Jeremiah spoke curses against them such as we see in Jm 15 15; 17, 18 and 20 12. Jeremiah’s most forceful imprecation is found in Jm 18 21-23 in which he used language reminiscent of the imprecatory Psalms.
Perhaps more surprising are several such statements in the NT. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul bemoaned how his readers had been swayed from the truth by false teachers. In no uncertain terms he wrote I wish on those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Ga 5 12). Similarity, at the beginning of this same letter, Paul wrote, If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Ga 1 9). In every case, these curses called upon God to intervene lest the truth be turned to falsehood.