Have you ever wondered which one of the sixty-six books of the Bible you would choose if your choice were limited to one book? Think about it. If the Bible were only printed in single book formats, which book would be your first and only choice?
I asked myself that question and quickly decided that I would choose Psalms. Likely, I have spent more time in the Psalms than most other Bible books. Then I wondered if I could prove to myself my partiality to Psalms from the markings and wear of Psalms in previous Bibles I have owned. I found the Bible that I bought with my own paper route profits just before my thirteenth birthday in late December 1964, a hand-grained Morocco leather covered Scofield Reference Bible. I used it for at least a decade. Nearly half the 150 Psalms have some underlinings or notes taken from sermons I heard as a teenage boy and college student. I recall that when my time to read the Word has been very limited, I have chosen a Psalm because it is short and I could get through it quickly. Psalms have been to me like energy bars, compact spiritual nutrition that I could ingest on the run.
Now well into middle age, and an empty nester with less pressure and more time than ever to read and meditate on the Word of God, my Bible reading reflex still usually starts with Psalms. I could be inching toward an airport checkpoint, or sitting in Narrows Bridge traffic, or eating lunch on a mountain ridge overlooking lush valleys and snow peaks, or riding on a bus—and I will find my trusty pocket testament with Psalms and distract my mind with its thoughtful poetry. Sometimes I only get through a line or two before my meditations are distracted. But moments later I am coming back to the same lines, ruminating on the pithy expressions of a passionate poet.
Perhaps you as I find the Psalms to be like early morning jumper cables that jumpstart sleepy gray matter before one can hardly form a coherent sentence of praise, confession or petition. Daniel Estes in his brand new Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (2005: 141), summarizes: “From tearful laments to jubilant shouts of praise, the psalms reflect the emotions of Old Testament believers as they approached Yahweh. For the people of God of every age, the psalms serve as prompts and as patterns in drawing near to him.”1
In Christian traditions that emphasize human choice and personal individualism in one’s faith, prompts or patterns for one’s prayers sometime seem to gain less favor among Christians than spontaneous eruptions of words to God, whether in private or public. In some circles, if one would read a prayer rather speak a prayer off the cuff, he may even face criticism for being spiritually weak or unlearned as a Christian. On the contrary, the Psalms provide, as Estes points out, a rich collection of living material for use in one’s speaking to God. What could please our Heavenly Father more than for us to reiterate with sincerity the inspired expressions of believers contained in the Psalms!
Having spent so much time in the KJV translation of the Psalms during my younger years, it’s no wonder that I found a graduate level course in the Psalms so very intriguing. Dr. Allen Ross and his mentor, Dr. Bruce Waltke, both at Dallas Seminary in the 1970s, were instrumental in opening up the richness of the Psalms as Hebrew poems. I had never thought of a psalm as a poem because the KJV prints the verses of the Psalms not in poetic stanzas but in its usual prose format as throughout the rest of the Bible.
C. S. Lewis (1958: 3-4), not known for his biblical scholarship as much as his philosophical and literary genius, insists that we must recognize the Psalms as
poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons…. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.2
That was welcome news to me as Drs. Ross and Waltke laid it out in scholarly terms thirty years ago. They improved my proper understanding of the Psalms by a quantum leap. But their scholarship on the structure and proper interpretation of the Psalms took second place to their warm and reverent expression of personal worship and practical application of this glorious poetry. They galvanized my heart with a love of this hymnal of ancient Israel and taught me to love and worship Yahweh through its varied lamentations, jubilations, historical recollections and affirmations of faith.
We have five short class periods together in this course of study intending to survey the Old Testament. That’s too little time to summarize the message of each of the 150 Psalms in our Bibles. So I have selected a few psalms to consider in some depth. Our studies will develop the message of one psalm per week, using a simple, somewhat wooden outline of the poem and including specific life applications of the truth it expresses. The limitations of our studies will be all too apparent, and so I issue this caveat in the words of C. S. Lewis (1958: 3-4):
This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. . . I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope that I might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers. I am “comparing notes”, not presuming to instruct.
May I commend to you five works that have been most helpful to me in my appreciation and understanding of the Psalms. I have already mentioned Estes’ new work. Dr. Estes, an honored professor of Bible at my alma mater, Cedarville University, combines the most recent scholarship in a style that layman and scholar alike will appreciate. What’s more, he laces his writing with a lifetime of personal Christian experience and the reader will sense his delight in God and His Word. (He, too, was fellow student of Waltke and Ross.)
Derek Kidner’s two-volume commentary on the Psalms in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series ranks as a favorite of many. I find its succinctness useful to get the general sense of a psalm and to understand some of the more cogent aspects of the psalmist’s vocabulary and message.3
Joseph Addison Alexander’s 19th-century work on the Psalms enriches much of my study, too. Like many of you, I know just enough Hebrew to recognize his thoroughness in explaining the richness of the Psalms linguistic character. Truth be told, you don’t have to know a whit of Hebrew to make Alexander a useful addition to your Bible study library.4
Among my most prized books is Spurgeon’s The Treasury of David, a 3-volume work given to me by a most sincere Christian layman and his wife (a milkman in Des Moines, Iowa) upon my graduation from seminary. Although it was written more than a century ago and lacks insights from recent scholarship, it overflows with the abundance of biblical knowledge and passionate devotion of an experienced and prolific English preacher and pastor. The Treasury is really a collection of Spurgeon’s verse-by-verse commentary and the prose and poetry of other writers who preceded him. And there’s even an interesting (perhaps slightly humorous) section at the end of each psalm entitled “Hints to Preachers”.5
Finally, I commend to you a work not commonly found in a Bible student’s bibliography of the Psalms, but one that has been a great help to me. It is entitled Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God6. It’s authors, Dr. Dan Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman, both graduates of Westminster Theological Seminary, masterfully apply the truths of several psalms to the common difficulties that we all face, some more pungently and pathetically than others, in a fallen world.
Now, before we launch into a brief study of Psalm 1, I want to lay out some introductory material that pertains to the Psalter. This will be very basic and may whet your appetite or stimulate your curiosity to dig more deeply on your own. As Estes outlines the material, we will consider four topics briefly: authorship and date, poetry, structure, and theology.
Authorship and Date
Just like newly composed hymns or worship songs circulate publicly before they are collected and published in a songbook or hymnal, so the written poems of the ancient Hebrew worshippers originated as individual lyrical compositions before they were gathered into one corpus called Psalms. Likely the book of Psalms originated in Israel’s worshipping community under the skillful ministry of the Levitical musicians. Westermann (1980: 15-16)7 proposed a reasonable scenario for the history of a psalm:
It was first prayed, sung, and spoken by many extremely different kinds of people. Only later, at the point where these many voices were gathered in worship, did it receive the form that is normative for all and accessible to all. This process of liturgical shaping of the Psalms took many generations.
[As a church musician, I have held a long interest in Old Testament Levitical musicians. In future studies together (perhaps in the autumn of this year), I hope to unpack some of the Old Testament historical data that provides rich, practical applications for the role of music and musicians in our corporate worship. For example, the Levites assigned to the work of leading the public praise and thanksgiving were skilled in their craft even as the artisans who worked metals, woods, and fabrics in the temple’s construction. These musicians (along with doorkeepers and floor sweepers) were men consecrated and dressed in the same manner as the Levitical priests who offered the sacrifices for sin. What lessons there are for us to learn regarding the public worship of God’s people even today! But I digress.]
Many of the psalms begin with a title (or superscription) that links the poem to an individual poet such as David, Solomon, or Moses, or a group such as the Sons of Korah. In addition to identifying authors, various superscriptions “provide data about the types of psalms, the intended performers, instrumentation, melodic indicators and liturgical occasions” (Estes 2005: 143). Extensive scholarly debate centers on the interpretation of these titles. The complexity of the debate places it beyond the scope of this brief study. “Although the superscriptions should not be dismissed out of hand, they should be used with caution as ‘they suggest a circumstance in which the introduced psalm would be appropriate and thus provide an illustrative clue to interpretation’” (Estes 2005: 143). Using the superscriptions, the dates of authorship range from Moses in the 15th century (Psalm 90) to some time after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century or later (Psalm 126).
We have already introduced the Psalms as poetry. They express heartfelt worship of God and poetry accomplishes this better than prose. Prose reports an author’s experience; poetry endeavors to recreate that experience in the reader (Estes 2005: 144). A poem expresses content in highly artistic form, “makes use of unusual aspects of the semantic range of a word, chooses terms with emotive connotations, and employs sounds that help to convey the message…. Poetry makes extensive use of imagery—word pictures that evoke sensory impressions through verbal associations. Because poems are characteristically brief, they are highly condensed and concentrated forms of utterance in which each detail is consciously selected” (Estes 2005: 144). We shall see this in the psalms that we study together.
One other note about the Psalms as poetry: It is useful to recognize that the basic form of all Hebrew poetry is parallelism, saying the same thing twice in different words, Sometimes known as thought-rhyme, it is the practice of echoing one thought with another, a matching of an idea using different words (Kidner 1973: 2). For example,
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
Nor repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10).
“Typically, two lines, or bicola, are linked together, although there are occasional examples of three lines (tricola) or four lines (quatrain). The parallel lines are related to one another in several possible ways. Sometimes the lines are synonymous in restating the same concept in similar terms” (Estes 2005: 144) (as seen above in Psalm 103:10). “In this form of parallelism, the second line (or sometimes a second verse) simply reinforces the first, so that its content is enriched and the total effect becomes spacious and impressive” (Kidner 1973: 3).
At other times, “the lines are [often] antithetical as they present both positive and negative expressions of the same reality” (Estes 2005: 144). We are familiar with this form in the sayings of Proverbs (see chapter 10ff) as well as didactic psalms. For example,
The wicked borrows but does not pay back,
But the righteous is generous and gives (Psalm 37:21).
“In other cases, the second line extends the thought originated in the first line” (Estes 2005: 145). Sometimes called climactic parallelism, the second line, “like a second wave, mount[s] higher than the first, perhaps to be outstripped in turn by a third” (Kidner 1973: 3). For example,
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
To all who call on him in truth (Psalm 145:18).
How are the 150 songs that comprise the Psalter organized? Most modern versions of the Bible divide the Psalms into five books which respectively begin at Psalms 1, 42, 73, 90, and 107. Each of these groups concludes with a crowning doxology. For example, we commonly sing the concluding lines of Book 2 as an offertory response:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
Who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
May the whole earth be filled with glory!
Amen and Amen! (Psalm 72:18-19).
Essentially, Psalms is a collection of collections of individual lyrics. The superscriptions hint to the possibility that there were collections of:
- David’s psalms (total, 70: 3-41; 51-70; 108-110; 138-145);
- Asaph’s psalms (total, 11: 73-83); (Asaph was the founder of a temple guild of musicians);
- the sons of Korah’s psalms (total, 13: 42-49; 84-88); (a hereditary guild of temple officials; Kidner 1973: 7);
- songs of ascents (total, 15: 120-134);
- hallelujah psalms (total, 11: 113-118; 146-150) (Estes 2005: 146).
There are thirty psalms without superscriptions inserted throughout the Psalter with no certain rationale for their placement.
The final form of the Psalter’s order and arrangement takes on a “mixture of order and informality” (Kidner 1973: 6). Scholarly attempts to discover a scheme for each psalm’s position “probably throws more light on the subtlety of its proponent than on the pattern of the Psalter” (Kidner 1973: 7).
One more word is in order about the doxologies that conclude each of the five books of Psalms: It appears that the Psalter is “structured to focus praise on Yahweh” (Estes 2005: 146). Mays writes: “The making of the Psalter turns out to have been a project to put praise on the scriptural agenda. It was an enterprise that made praise canonical.”8
Finally, we come to the place of Psalms 1 and 2 at the gateway of the Psalter. Neither of these psalms is titled (no superscription). Both serve an introduction to the whole collection. Psalm 1 sets forth “the precondition of life under the law (tôrâ) of Yahweh” (Estes 2005: 146). The desirable life that yields happiness and fruitfulness is theocentric. It embraces the law of Yahweh. It avoids the lure of the scoffer who is a law to himself and will have not a leg to stand on at the final judgment day. Psalm 2 presents Yahweh as the king who reigns over all. Mays (1994) notes: “It is this theme of the reign of God that is the integrating center of the theology of the entire book. All else is one way or another connect to and depended on this divine sovereignty.”
Whereas the Psalter opens with the central place of Yahweh’s law in the believer’s life and the reign of Yahweh over all, Psalm 150 closes the hymnal with a mighty ecstasy of praise to Yahweh. Everything receives summons to praise Yahweh. The implication is clear: When God’s people are obedient to God’s law, they attain to the vocation, destiny and purpose for which they are created—to adore their Creator. Through all the varied expressions of the believer—his fears, doubts, and tragedies, as well as triumphs, joys and hopes—the Psalter propels the worshipper of God into a life of continuing praise (Estes 2005: 146, 151).
What theology does the Psalter present? Four primary themes emerge from the Psalms.
- Sovereign Yahweh. “Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the universal Sovereign who rules justly over all the earth” (Estes 2005: 151). For example, “The Lord reigns, let the people tremble” (99:1). This reality often moves the psalmist from despairing lament to confident hope and praise.
- Present Yahweh. Yahweh’s presence dwells in Zion, in the Jerusalem temple. See Psalm 46.
- Revealing Yahweh. Yahweh’s worship finds root in his revelation in history. “The Pentateuch narrates how Yahweh initiated a covenant with Israel, and in the book of Psalms the people express various aspects of their unique relationship with him. The songs, ranging from petitions to praises, are centered on the character of Yahweh” (Estes 2005: 150-151). See Psalm 78.
- Relational Yahweh. Yahweh unites with the believer in a concrete (not abstract) relationship through the full range of life’s experiences. Westermann (1980: 24) describes this phenomenon graphically:
“[The psalms] reflect life with its depths and heights, life lived in manifold environments between the deep seas and the high mountains, life lived in common with trees, animals , and fields, life lived in the context of the vast history which extends from creation to God’s advent to judge the world. [They] reflect individuals’ joys and sorrows between birth and death, their toil and celebration, sleeping and waking, sickness and recovery, losses, anxieties and confidences, temptations to despair, and the comfort they receive.”
1 Estes, Daniel J. 2005. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
2 Lewis, C. S. 1958. Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Walker and Company.
3 Kidner, Derek. 1973. Psalm 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press. Also Psalms 73-150, published by the same in 1975.
4 Alexander, Joseph Addison. 1975. The Psalms Translated and Explained. Grand Rapids: Baker.
5 Spurgeon, C. H. 1966. The Treasury of David in Three Volumes. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
6 Allender, Dan. B. and Longman II, Tremper. 1994. Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
7 Westermann, Klaus. 1980 . The Psalms: Structure, Content and Message. Rev. ed. Trans. Ralph D. Gehrke. Minneapolis: Augsburg. Quoted in Estes 2005: 141.
8 Mays, James Luther. 1994. Psalms. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox. Quoted in Estes 2005: 146.