Psalms

Module VII

 

Psalms

 

The Psalms: A Collection

The Psalms are a collection of prayers and songs which were composed throughout Israel’s history. They have been collected into five books, most likely patterned after the five books of the Pentateuch. Book I includes Psalms 1 – 41, where the name Yahweh (Lord) is most prominent; Book II — Psalms 42 – 72, with Elohim (God) being the usual name for the deity; Book III — Psalms 73 – 89, where the two names for God are used about equally; Book IV  — Psalms 90 – 106; and Book V, Psalms 107 — 150. In Books IV and V, the name of Yahweh predominates with 339 occurrences, and Elohim occurring only seven times. Each of these books concludes with a doxological verse. The entire Psalter is introduced with a wisdom Psalm, describing the two ways: of righteousness and of wickedness. The Psalter concludes with an outburst of praise, as Psalms 146-150 all sound the note of Hallelujah: (“Praise the Lord!”  [Psalms 146:1, 10; 147:1, 20; 148: 1, 14; 149:1, 9; and 150:1, 6.])

 

Within the collection of the Psalms, a number of smaller collections can be detected. Psalms 42 (43 is a final stanza of this Psalm; note the same refrain which occurs in 42:5, 11, and 43:5)—49 are all associated with the Korahites. Another collection of Psalms by the Korahites begins with Psalm 84 and stretches to Psalm 87 (with the exception of Psalm 86, which is attributed to David.)  Psalms 73-83 are ascribed to Asaph, as is Psalm 50, which stands by itself. Psalms 93-100 all celebrate the Lord’s kingship and his righteous rule.  In Jewish tradition, Psalms 113-118 are known as the “Egyptian Hallel,” with Psalms 113 and 114 being sung before the Passover meal, and Psalms 115-118 after it. Psalms 120-134 each have the superscription, “A Song of Ascents” and were undoubtedly used by the pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for the festivals.

 

How the Psalter actually came to take the form in which we now have it is unknown. The superscriptions often reflect the content of the psalms, the possible circumstances under which they were written, the types of psalms they are (like Maskil), musical notations (like “according to the Lilies, …Alamoth, …Mahaloth,” etc.), and so on. It should be noted that when the superscriptions note, “of David,” or “of Asaph ,” etc., the Hebrew behind this translation could also be rendered “for David,” or “about David.” Knowing David’s skill as a poet and musician, he undoubtedly wrote quite a number of the psalms, but scholars are disagreed as to whether the superscription itself indicates that he is the actual composer of every poem that is notated, “of David.”

 

Given the fact that a number of the psalms lack a superscription (called “orphan Psalms”), we will need to admit that we do not know the authorship of every psalm nor the circumstances under which they were written. Nor do we know when the Psalms were assembled in the collection we have today, though considering that some psalms appear to be written after the Babylonian exile (e.g., Psalms 126, 137), they probably were not assembled in the form we have them before the fifth century BC. The beauty is that these 150 psalms have survived the test of time and become the petitions and praises which have helped the people of God respond to the challenges and successes of life through the centuries.

 

Our prayer is that your study of the Psalms will assist you in discovering what a rich resource God has put together for your use–and will actually assist you to make these ancient prayers and praises your very own.

 

Poetry

The Psalms are all naturally cast in the form of poetry, which we have already encountered in many of the prophets and the Book of Lamentations. While Hebrew poetry is characterized by (a) sound or rhythm (accented or stressed syllables), (b) length of line (the number of syllables), and (c) especially parallelism of meaning, in English translation the third aspect is usually the only one that can be preserved. To reiterate what was said in the introductory module on interpretation, parallelism means that the second line of the verse will (1) restate the previous line, or (2) build upon it, advancing the thought, or (3) provide a contrast to it. For an example of how this poetic pattern works, please see Psalm 1.

 

“The most structured device of poetic form is found in a number of acrostic poems. Retaining parallelism of thought and rhythmic stress, they have the additional feature that the first word of each verse or group of verses begins with a letter in the order in which it occurs in the alphabet.” (CSSB, 338b) As James Mays says in his commentary, “Psalms composed on the pattern of the alphabet intend a kind of completeness and have a clear structure that guides the listener or reader.” (Psalms, 28) The following psalms fit this form: 9-10; 25; 33; 34; 37; 111-112; 119 [8 verses per letter], 145.

 

Psalm Types

In his introduction to the Psalms in the Concordia Self-Study Commentary, Dr. Roehrs acknowledges that according to the titles of the Psalms, there are nine different types. He admits that the distinction between some of the types is no longer clear. He further asserts that when one proceeds on the basis of the psalms’ purpose and content, only two general classes of psalms need to be distinguished: “They either express a plea because of some need or they offer thanksgiving and praise to God for some benefit. Some psalms even combine these two features.” (337a)

 

In considering the use of the psalms in public worship, as well as for personal meditation, another function in addition to prayer and praise should be noted: that of instruction. The didactic character of some of these songs shows itself when one reads Psalms 1, 19:7-14; 111; 112; 119, although these psalms too bear a prayer-like quality. For example Psalm 19 moves from assertions about the qualities of God’s Word (19:7-11) to a request by the Psalmist for forgiveness (19:12) and for the Lord to restrain him from proud thoughts, that his words and thoughts would be pleasing to God (19:13-14).

 

When one looks at the Psalms that are prayers for help (whether individual or corporate), certain components are often evident: descriptions of the distress that stands behind the petition, confidence that God will respond and can help, and frequently a vow or promise to sacrifice or praise God. In these prayers, one often will see evidence that God has already answered the petitioner’s plea.

 

In the course of time, many of these petitions became so generalized and adapted for broader use that the original distress which gave rise to the cry for help is no longer discernible. Reflected, however, behind these petitions are such things as “sickness and adversity, betrayal and abandonment, sin and guilt, slander and false accusation,” (HCSB, 798) on the personal level. On the communal level, “national disaster and defeat” are indicated, including the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile that followed.

 

A few comments are in order regarding two subsets of the psalms which are prayers: the so-called penitential and imprecatory psalms. As Dr. Roehrs explains regarding the latter, “Punishment is invoked on enemies in the so-called imprecatory psalms (Pss 58; 59; etc.). The rationale of these prayers is the conviction that hostility to a person consecrated to God’s cause is in the final analysis an attempt to frustrate His good and gracious will. Because their persecutors are God’s enemies, the psalmists pray that ‘God would break and hinder every evil counsel and will which would not let His kingdom come.’ (Luther)” (CSSC, 337b)

 

The ancient church identified seven psalms as penitential psalms (Pss 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143). While not all scholars agree that all of these are true penitential psalms, the awareness of one’s sinfulness is a strain that occurs every now and then in the psalms, when the psalmist is aware that he is being tested by God, being measured by the standards of God’s judgment, and does not measure up. In Psalm 25:7, the poet begs, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” His plea for forgiveness is based on the grace of God, “according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” Another example is Psalm 41:4, “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.'” Praying the psalms will hopefully help each of us to cultivate a deeper awareness of our relationship with God, and lead us to turn to him for all our needs–whether for forgiveness, help in dealing with enemies, healing from illness, restoring relationships and the like. Being reminded anew of his grace, our praying will hopefully lead to praise and thanksgiving, because “his grace will be sufficient for us.”

 

The song of praise can be called forth by the Lord’s deliverance from sickness or disaster, the recall of God’s gracious acts in history, the beauty of his creation, his lordship over creation, his righteousness and steadfast love. The psalm of thanksgiving gives words to a congregation to enable them to join in the celebration, or to enable an individual to turn his feelings into an outward confession!

In sum, the psalms give the people of God a wonderful gift for expressing their needs and declaring their praise. Using them faithfully and frequently will nurture an individual’s and congregation’s relationship with their God and Lord!

 

Theology Reflected in the Psalms

The Psalter is a collection of poems which pray to God or praise him. Its very nature is therefore not to provide a catechism of doctrine. Its expressions are personal, confessional, and doxological. Even its instructional songs have this character or quality.

 

Included are a wide variety of poems from different centuries and circumstances. Due to the diversity of expression, it is somewhat artificial to attempt to present a simplified, unified picture of these diverse elements. Nevertheless, the screening process, determining which psalms should be included in this collection and which should be excluded—overseen by the guidance of the Holy Spirit—suggests that there is an underlying theological core that pervades the Psalter which can be identified.

 

At the risk of oversimplifying, we share the following thoughts for your consideration as you read, pray, study and meditate on this portion of Holy Scripture. These thoughts are reflective of the longer article on this topic in the Concordia Self-Study Bible, pp. 783-786.

 

  1. God is the Lord of creation and history, upon whom all depend. All creatures find their identity and purpose under his lordship. His character evokes trust and awe. He is “good (wise, righteous, faithful, amazingly benevolent and merciful)” and he is “great (his knowledge, thoughts, and works are beyond comprehension).”

 

  1. As the sovereign Lord, by virtue of creation and his governance of the world “he will not tolerate any worldly power that opposes or denies or ignores him.” (784)

 

  1. “As the Great King on whom all creatures depend, he opposes the ‘proud’; those who rely on their own resources (and/or the gods they have contrived) to work out their own destiny” (784). Though these proud ones may seem to prosper for a while, eventually they will be brought down to death. God delights rather in the ‘humble,’ ‘the poor and needy,’ those who depend on him.

 

  1. God is the ultimate Executor of Justice, the court of last appeal. He is the Defender of the defenseless and the wronged. One cannot escape his scrutiny. This is why the psalmists can cry to him for justice and deliverance–the solid conviction that God will defend them.

 

  1. As the universal Lord over all, God “has chosen Israel to be his servant people.” He has united them with himself by the covenant that they should be an initial embodiment of his redeemed kingdom. “She was to sing his praise to the whole world—which in a special sense revealed Israel’s anticipatory role in the evangelization of the nations” (785).

 

  1. The Great King, as Israel’s covenant Lord, chose David as his royal representative on earth. As God’s adopted son (Psalm 2), he was to rule in his name. This included ruling with godlike righteousness—that the nation might experience the qualities of their eternal king, the Lord himself. As the Lord’s vice-regent, he was also to function as Israel’s intercessor and as priest, calling Israel to worship the Lord. In that connection, Jerusalem was established as the holy city, with the temple as the place where the people could gather to worship their God.

 

  1. God’s good will and faithfulness toward his people was evident in a most striking way in his presence at the temple, but “no manifestation of his benevolence was greater than his readiness to forgive the sins of those who humbly confessed them and whose hearts showed him that their repentance was genuine and that their professions of loyalty to him had integrity” (785).

 

  1. “Unquestionably the supreme kingship of Yahweh . . . is the most basic metaphor and most pervasive theological concept in the Psalter–as in the OT generally. It provides the fundamental perspective in which man is to view himself, the whole creation, events in ‘nature’ and history and the future. The whole creation is his one kingdom. . . . To be a human being in the world is to be dependent on and responsible to him. To proudly deny that fact is the root of all wickedness–the wickedness that now pervades the world” (785).

 

  1. “God’s election of Israel and subsequently of David and Zion, together with the giving of his word, represent the renewed inbreaking of God’s righteous kingdom into this world of rebellion and evil. It initiates the great divide between the righteous nation and the wicked nations, and on a deeper level between the righteous and the wicked, a more significant distinction that cuts even through Israel. In the end this divine enterprise will triumph. Human pride will be humbled, and wrongs will be redressed.” (785)

 

  1. Finally, what might the relationship be between the Psalter and Christ? The Psalms do not predict the coming Messiah as the prophets do. When they speak of the king on David’s throne, “the initial, historical application is to the king who is being crowned (as in Ps. 2; 72; 110–though 110 may be an exception), or is reigning (as in Psalm 45) at the time. They proclaim his status as God’s anointed and declare what God will accomplish through him and his dynasty. Thus they also speak of the sons of David to come—and in the exile and postexilic era, when there was no reigning king, they spoke to Israel only of the great Son of whom the prophets had announced as the one in whom God’s covenant with David would yet be fulfilled. So the NT quotes these psalms as testimonies to Christ, which in their unique way they are. In him they are truly fulfilled. Christ, the ‘second David,’ is the antitype or higher counterpart of the first David” (785-6).

 

  1. Another point of contact between the Old Testament, Christ, and the church can be made with the psalms that the righteous sufferers prayed, such as Psalm 22 and 69. Initially they were the cries of those who suffered innocently, without wrongdoing on their part. Christ, by his identity with the people of God, made these petitions his own, and prayed them more rightfully than anyone else ever could, for he was truly innocent. By his perfect fulfillment of God’s plan, he has given access to all those who trust in him, and thereby the authority and encouragement for the people of his New Testament church to make these petitions their own, as they face the challenges of living for him in the world today.

 

The best thing the child of God can do is to use the psalms and make them his own. To assist you in this process, we list a sentence or two to identify and highlight Psalms that have been favorites of the people of God through the years. While we do not list all 150 of the Psalms, we trust that this rather extensive list will be your invitation to draw on the Psalter’s rich and varied resources to nurture your relationship with God.

 

Psalm 1                The two ways contrasted, highlighting the blessedness of the way of the righteous.

Psalm 2                A royal, enthronement psalm. The king was seen as God’s son, ruling as God’s                                                      representative; his rule is universal, fulfilled ultimately by Jesus Christ.

Psalm 6                A prayer for recovery from a grave illness.

Psalm 8                A psalm expressing awe at man’s place in God’s universe

Psalm 19              The creation proclaims God’s glory; the law reflects God’s goodness.

Psalm 22              An intense plea to God from a petitioner who feels abandoned, forsaken, and ridiculed.                                           Jesus prayed this Psalm (at least the first verse, if not the whole psalm) while hanging on                               the cross. It concludes with the expression of victory.

Psalm 23              A personal expression of trust in the Lord as his shepherd.

Psalm 24              A psalm asserting the Lord’s ownership of all the earth–and the purity that is necessary                                          to draw near to God in worship (often used in the Advent season of the church year).

Psalm 25              A prayer for guidance–“Make me to know your ways, O Lord;/teach me your paths.”

Psalm 27              A psalm expressing confidence in the Lord that he will protect his servant.

Psalm 29              The Lord is to be praised as the Lord who is over the thunderstorm.

Psalm 32              A psalm celebrating the relief and joy that come with forgiveness.

Psalm 34              The Psalmist praises God for his deliverance–and invites others to join him (34:3), urging                   people to look to God for help. “O taste and see that the Lord is good” has often been                                              used as an invitation to Holy Communion.

Psalm 37              An exhortation to confidently, patiently and humbly trust in God, for he will deliver!

Psalms 42-43      “Why are you cast down, O my soul, / and why are you disquieted within me? / Hope in                                          God; for I shall again praise him, / my help and my God.”

 

Psalm 45              An Ode for a Royal Wedding

Psalm 46              The basis for Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Psalm 47              A psalm celebrating the Lord’s kingship.

Psalm 51              A psalm of confession, most likely prayed by David after his affair with Bathsheba —                                              “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

Psalms 54-59      Psalms asking for help when one is being persecuted, betrayed by his friends, being                                              pursued by his enemies.

Psalm 62              A song of trust “in God alone.”

Psalm 65              Thanksgiving for Earth’s Bounty

Psalm 67              A great psalm for a mission emphasis

Psalm 69              A Messianic psalm predicting Jesus’ passion (see 69:9, 21)

Psalm 72              A royal psalm celebrating the enthronement of  a new king

 

Psalm 73              A great psalm to pray when one feels that the wicked are prospering more than the                                              righteous.

Psalm 78              A psalm recalling God’s goodness in caring for and delivering his people–and their                                              ingratitude (a wisdom psalm; see 78:1-8).

Psalm 84              The joy of worship in the temple.

Psalm 86              A prayer for God to help, as the psalmist is confronted with his enemies.

Psalm 89              A psalm celebrating God’s covenant with David.

Psalm 90              Attributed to Moses; great for New Year’s worship, as one considers God’s eternity and                                      man’s mortality.

Psalm 91              A psalm assuring us of God’s protection.

Psalm 95              A call to worship–and to obedience. The first seven verses are called the Venite and                                              used in the Matins service

Psalms 96 & 98   Great Psalms for Christmas worship: “O sing to the Lord a new song! Tell of his salvation                                            from day to day! Declare it to the nations!”

Psalm 100            A great call to worship!

Psalm 103            An excellent psalm to thank God for his steadfast love and forgiveness that removes our                                       sin and renews our life.

Psalm 104            A song extolling God for the wonders of his creation and his care of it.

Psalm 105            A hymn of praise for God’s faithfulness in caring for his people throughout their history–                                             that they might obey him.

Psalm 106            A hymn rehearsing Israel’s sinfulness throughout her history–thanking God for his                               faithfulness and seeking his help for their failures.

Psalm 107            A liturgy giving thanks to God for delivering his people from a variety of disasters.

Psalm 110            A royal psalm declaring God’s establishment of the kingly and priestly office—ultimately                                          fulfilled in Jesus Christ (See Matthew 22:41-46 and parallels; Hebrews 1:13; 5:5-6;                                       7:17, 21).

Psalm 111            Praise of God for his wonderful works and character.

Psalm 112            The blessedness of the righteous life.

Psalm 116            Thanksgiving for deliverance from death.

Psalm 118            A powerful liturgy of thanksgiving often used as part of the Easter celebration. Note the                                       Messianic overtones in 118:22-23, referred to in I Peter 2:7; Acts 4:11; Matthew 21:42;                                              Mark 12:10.

Psalm 119            An acrostic poem of 176 verses celebrating the glory of God’s law, asking for help in                                              keeping it and for help in trouble.

Psalm 121            The traveler’s psalm!

Psalm 124            Thanksgiving for the Lord’s deliverance of Israel

Psalm 125            A Psalm expressing confidence in the Lord’s protective care.

Psalms 127-128  Psalms celebrating the godly family!

Psalm 130            A classic penitential psalm

Psalm 136            A psalm with the same refrain in each verse, “for his steadfast love endures forever,”                                              responding to God’s work in creation and history.

Psalm 137            A psalm asking God to take vengeance on Israel’s enemies as she remembers her exile in                           Babylon

Psalm 139            A psalm acknowledging God’s presence everywhere.

Psalm 145            A wonderful psalm helping the believer realize God’s care embraces everyone. (An                                              alphabetic acrostic hymn of praise.)

Psalm 148            Praise for God’s universal glory!

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