An Intro to the Psalms
Author: Jody Green, Member @ MSBC
“The book of Psalms is the heart of the Old Testament … [it] not only wants to inform our intellect, but to stimulate our imagination, arouse our emotions and stir us on to holy thoughts and actions.” (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries - TOTC) With the predominant posture of relationship with Yahweh, some consider Psalms the Hebrew hymnal (Psaltry), while others see it as a prayer book, or both. Certainly, the authors’ view of Yahweh - as their provider, protector and Sovereign God, is evident in their love, worship and praise that results in pouring out their hearts to Him.
No section of the Bible teaches us the language of the soul better than the Psalms, which reflect the movement of the human heart in rich, evocative, and startling language. In a voice that disrupts, invites, and reveals, the psalmist draws us to the voice of God. (Dan Allender)
Though this poetic book is often seen as a mirror of the human soul, it’s purpose is higher than self-awareness; the Hebrew title, Tehillim, means ‘Praises’ or ‘Hymns,’ revealing its core purpose of worship. Perhaps surprising to American believers, the psalms of laments outnumber songs of praise in this OT book. This reflects Hebrew worship’s holism; God was included in every aspect of life. Psalmists praised Him for the joyous events in their lives, lamented the evil leavening God’s good world and cried out to Him in brokenness over the injustice, grief and pain in their fallen world. Most Psalms of lament, however, end in a refrain of praise, confidence or hope as the author re-focuses on the LORD’s lovingkindness.
The basic theme of Psalms is living real life in the real world, where two dimensions operate simultaneously: 1) a horizontal or temporal reality, and 2) a vertical or transcendent reality. … All cycles of human troubles and triumphs provide occasions for expressing human complaints, confidence, prayers, or praise to Israel’s sovereign LORD. (MacArthur’s Study Bible).
King David’s relationship with God is a highlight, with this “man after God’s own heart” composing almost half of the 150 Psalms. “Other composers include Jeduthun, Moses, Solomon, the Sons of Korah and others,” (TOTC) while approximately fifty psalms are anonymous. If Ezra was one of these unidentified authors, as some suggest, the Psaltry contains over 900 years of Hebrew history - from Moses (Ps. 90) to post-exilic authors (Ps. 126). Though the Psalms may have been compiled, much like our modern hymnals, Israel’s songbook is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), unlike any other compilation of spiritual songs. “Internal passages suggest composers gave their songs to ‘sanctuary leaders who collected them over time.’” (TOTC) Sometimes the historical setting (i.e. context) of the Psalm is noted in our modern translations, but other times the circumstances prompting the poetic writing is only inferred by its titles or in its text, “in order to be relevant to later, similar, though not identical situations.” (TOTC) In this way, human struggles and divine deliverances are normalized.
When compiled, the Psaltry was divided into five sections (or books), with Psalm 1-2 introducing this worship hymnal and the last five Psalms bringing the book to a ‘HALLELUJAH’ finale. Most modern Bibles note theses five divisions (1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106: 107-150), but they are also identifiable by their (similar) ending doxology: “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting.” (41:13) Used for corporate worship, ancient Israel publicly sang these Psalms on Sabbaths, at Feasts and “on pilgrimage to Zion.” (TOTC) The community of God’s people were bound together through covenant with Yahweh; they corporately worshipped through these heart-felt songs with wisdom, remembrance, creation wonder, thanksgiving, lament, penitence, and royal-messianic themes. Psalms is the longest book of the Bible – with 119 its longest psalm – and is the most quoted OT book in the New Testament (NT).
Regardless of type, “all psalms are written in poetic style” (TOTC), using Hebrew terseness, parallelism and imagery. Since poetry, rather than prose, prevails in Psalms, “[it] calls for reflective reading … a process of unpacking a comparison in a simile or metaphor that deepens our understanding of God, others or ourselves.” (TOTC). Whether pondering a Psalms’ message, praying through it or singing it to God in worship, these Psalms were written to incite loving affection for God, to inspire hope in the Messiah-King, and endear our gratitude for God’s faithful, covenant love.
As divinely-inspired poetry, these songs engage the whole person, to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” (Deut. 6:5) and teach each generation to do the same. Theologically, the Psalms paint a glorious portrait of our faithful God, “as the Creator, Redeemer, Protector, Sustainer … and more. … [He] is Shepherd, King, Warrior, Father, Teacher [and] Judge.” (TOTC). The psalms can be sung, prayed, read, pondered or memorized; however, their greatest value may be in modeling for us how to relate honestly and holistically with God - as sinners in a broken world before a holy God - seeking to love, trust and praise Him. John Calvin spoke similarly of the Psalms: “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” (TOTC)
This year (2023) offers our own community of Faith, bound by the New Covenant in Christ’s own blood, an opportunity to individually and corporately worship our good, gracious and glorious God through these ancient, divinely-inspired Psalms. As communication to God, as well as about Him, this book invites us to join the Psalmists’ voice, to cry out to God “from the depths of our soul.” (Ps. 130:1) “The laments of the Psalms encourage us to risk the danger of speaking … personally to the Lord of the universe.” (Dan Allender) In this way, with open-hearted prayers to our Heavenly-Father, we can be transformed by His Spirit through the reading of God’s Word. As we corporately stay on the “same page” in Psalms, let us fellowship with God more fully, love Him more passionately and unite our hearts together in a “first love” for Jesus. Let us cry out from the depths of our soul, in honest lament, for the poor, the homeless, those without Christ around and among us, and for those in our midst with grievous losses, relational problems and physical suffering. May the reading of God’s Word rebuke our self-righteousness, humble our hearts and remind us we are fully dependent on God. May these Psalms tenderize our hearts for others and bring glory, honor, and praise to our Father-God.