Introduction to the Psalms (Part I)
A. The Relevance of the Psalms
In his commentary on the Psalms (Word, 1986), Don Williams describes several aspects of the Psalter that are especially relevant to the church today:
(1) Renewal in Worship. The Psalms model praise and devotion as they flow from the hearts of people who know the living God. They meditate upon God's majesty and respond to His intervention by giving Him glory. They ring with shouts and singing. They summon every living being and every human instrument into a choir of praise to the merciful and mighty God (Ps. 150). The renewal of the church begins in a renewal of worship. The psalms will lead us into a deeper intimacy with our Creator and Redeemer and show us how to praise Him properly.
(2) Renewal in our own self-awareness. As God reveals Himself, He reveals us; as we become intimate with God, we become intimate with ourselves (see Calvin's Institutes, I). The full range of human emotions is displayed in these living prayers, without the hypocrisy and pretense so often characteristic of the modern church.. Thus the psalms of lament teach us to accept ourselves before God, 'warts and all' (Cromwell), as the Lord accepts us.
[It was in this regard that Martin Luther said of the Psalms: "Where does one find finer words of joy than in the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself. . . . On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the Psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. . . . It teaches you in joy, fear, hope, and sorrow to think and speak as all the saints have thought and spoken" (Luther's Works, 35:255-56)]
(3) The display of the absolute mercy of God and the walk of faith which finds its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus Christ. In this sense the Psalms are 'evangelical' and 'gospel-centered.' No wonder Luther loved them. There he found the gift of God's righteousness shining as brightly as in Romans (see, e.g., Ps. 51). The psalms also have a prophetic dimension which points to the coming Messiah-King, thus they are knit into the fabric of the New Testament. As the evangelical awakening continues in the church, the psalms will nourish its mission and call.
(4) A realistic response to the suffering and warfare in this world. The cry of lament heard throughout these prayers has great relevance to our own troubled era and also to the individual believer who must engage in a continual warfare against Satan's deception. At one level, the Psalter is a bloody book for a bloody world. But not only do the psalms reflect crisis, they also witness to God's healing power. Here again, we are at a renewal point in the church. The good news for our brokenness is that the living, loving God not only forgives sins but also heals the whole person: spirit, soul, and body. The teaching of the psalms will nurture our faith and facilitate the release of God's healing power in the church today.
(5) The reflection of the community of God's people, worshiping the Lord, witnessing to His mighty deeds, and working together, upbuilding the whole body of believers. Our fractured church desperately needs its community rebuilt. The psalms will renew us together, if we allow them not merely to be great devotional literature but the mighty word of God in our midst, forming a people for God Himself.
To these five I would add a sixth.
(6) The great value of the Psalms is that whereas most of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. In the Psalms we find inspired examples of what we can and should and must say to God.
B. The Name of the Psalms
The Hebrew title applied by the Israelites to their anthology of hymns used in temple worship is the term tehillim, "praise". Although there are a variety of different songs in the collection, this term is the most appropriate insofar as most of the psalms contain at least an element of praise. The word psalm itself comes from a Greek term which in classical times meant "the music of a stringed instrument." However, "under the influence of the Greek Bible and of the advance of Christianity, . . . it came to have the meaning 'song of praise,' and the idea that such songs of praise might have been accompanied on stringed instruments fell into the background or was completely forgotten" (Christopher F. Barth, Introduction to the Psalms, 1).
C. The Genre of the Psalms
The word "genre" refers to the type of literature one is reading. When a group of literary texts share certain characteristics pertaining to mood, content, structure, or phraseology, we say they belong to a particular "genre". The genre of the Psalms is poetry.
Poetry is clearly different from normal prose literature, as a comparison of Exod. 14:26-31 (prose) with Exod. 15:1-5 makes clear. Poetry tends to stimulate the reader's imagination and to stir one's emotions. Prose, on the other hand, addresses the intellect and challenges the will. Poetry is evocative. It makes greater use of literary structure and vivid imagery and figures of speech, some of which will be noted below in greater detail. In general, the language of poetry is more distant from everyday speech than is prose.
In the psalms we can identify 8 different types of poetic literature:
(1) The Hymn
Hymns are known for their exuberant praise of God (cf. Ps. 103:1-2). Most hymns share a similar basic structure.
Call to worship
Reasons to worship God
A renewed call to praise
Often in the call to worship, the psalmist will enlist the praise of others in the covenant community (cf. 113:1). The reasons for praise are the specific deeds God has performed on behalf of his people or particular attributes of the divine character. See Pss. 92:1,4; 96:1,5. God is frequently extolled as creator (Ps. 19:1-4) and as king (47:5-6). Examples include Pss. 33, 36, 105, 111, 113, 117, 135.
(2) The Lament
The widest gap in the psalms, both theologically and emotionally, is the one between the hymn and the lament. As Longman has said, "the lament is the polar opposite of the hymn on the emotional spectrum" (26). The chief feature of the lament is its mood. See, for example, Ps. 22:1-2. Typical psalms of lament include Pss. 3, 6, 12, 13, 26, 28, 30, 42-43, 77, 142, among others.
a) Their passion:
"I am hurting!"
"They are winning!"
"You don't care!"
b) Their progression:
from pain to praise
from sighing to singing
though helpless, never hopeless
The feeling of being abandoned by God is perhaps the most striking feature of these psalms. Scholars have identified at least 7 elements associated with the lament: (1) invocation, combined with (2) a plea to God for help (see Ps. 12:1; 17:1); (3) complaint (22:6-7); note well, however, that in virtually all laments there is (4) an expression of trust in God); (5) either a confession of sin or a declaration of innocence (69:5; 26:5); (6) a curse or imprecation on one's enemies (109:8-9); and finally (7) a hymn of praise in which the psalmist acknowledges what God will do for him, resulting in worship (26:12).
On occasion the lament is national rather than individual, as the psalmist speaks on behalf of all Israel (see Ps. 83).
(3) The Thanksgiving Psalms
When God does respond to the psalmist's lament and brings deliverance or healing or victory over his enemies, there is immediate thanksgiving. In other words, "the thanksgiving psalm is a response to answered lament" (Longman, How to Read the Psalms, 30). See Pss. 32:1; 34:1; 18.
(4) Psalms of Confidence
Here the psalmist declares his trust in God's goodness and greatness and power. At least nine psalms seem to fall into this category (Pss 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 91, 121, 125, 131). These psalmists often employ vivid imagery to describe God's nearness (shepherd, refuge, rock, help, fortress, etc.).
(5) Psalms of Remembrance
Although the psalms rarely refer to specific historical settings, they do make reference to the great redemptive acts of God in the past, most often the Exodus and the establishing of the Davidic covenant (Pss. 89, 132). See Pss. 78, 105, 106, 135, 136. God's wonderful acts are recounted so that the entire nation of Israel might praise him.
(6) Wisdom Psalms
Here we read of the concrete and practical ways God wants his people to live. Psalms 1 and 119 are good examples.
(7) Kingship Psalms
One form of kingship psalm focuses on the earthly king of Israel, such as Pss. 20, 21, 45. Others proclaim the kingship of God himself, such as Pss. 47 and 98.
(8) Imprecatory Psalms
A separate lesson will be devoted to this confusing and controversial type of psalm.
It is important to remember that genre is flexible. Some psalms reflect characteristics of several categories.
The reader will also often come across certain technical terms which describe the type of psalm in view: (1) "psalm" (Heb., mizmor); a song accompanied by the plucking of the strings of an instrument (57 psalms are so labeled); (2) "song" (Heb., shir; 12 psalms are labeled with this term); (3) "a contemplative poem" (Heb., maskil; 13 psalms are described this way); (4) "a poem containing pithy sayings" (Heb., miktam; found 6 times in superscriptions); (5) "prayers" (Heb., tepillah; found in 5 psalm titles); (6) "praise" (Heb., tehillah; Ps. 145); (7) the term shiggaion occurs only in Psalm 7 and is of uncertain meaning (perhaps it is a musical term or a literary designation, such as psalm of "lamentation").
D. The Titles (Superscriptions) of the Psalms
"The titles introducing the individual psalms give information about the author, the historical occasion which prompted the writing, the melody, the psalm's function and, occasionally, other matters" (Longman, 38). Most psalms have titles; those that don't (e.g., Ps. 33) are called "orphan" psalms. Whereas most English translations place the title above the psalm, making it appear separately, in Hebrew the title is usually the first verse of the psalm itself. This explains why the verse numbers in the Hebrew text are frequently one higher than the verse numbers in the English versions. Generally speaking there are two types of titles: those indicating authorship and those describing historical occasion. Psalm 3 contains both: "A psalm of David [authorship]. When he fled Absalom [historical occasion]."
It should be noted that the phrase translated in English, "of David", can also be translated "to David" or "for David". The argument has been made, therefore, that David did not necessarily write each of these psalms, but that they were written in the style which he established. However, a close examination of the content of these psalms reveals that David was indeed their author. The reason for denying Davidic authorship is usually theological: liberal scholars want to "late-date" the psalms, placing their composition hundreds of years after David, usually during the post-exilic period.
Historical titles specify the event which inspired the writing of the psalm. See, for example, Pss. 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142. Virtually all historical titles are connected with something in the life of David. More important is the fact that the title usually refers to David in the third person, whereas the psalm itself is written in the first person. This suggests that someone other than David later added these titles. How should we understand these titles? Some, such as Longman, do not believe they are canonical:
"After all the evidence has been surveyed, it is best to treat the titles as noncanonical, but reliable early tradition. Practically speaking, the implications for reading a psalm are twofold. We should let the psalm title initially inform the reading of a psalm. However, we shouldn't bend the interpretation of a psalm unnaturally to make it conform to the title" (41).
Others, however, insist that nothing suggests that these superscriptions are anything but credible. Most conservative OT introductions, as well as the commentaries, argue persuasively for the inspiration of these titles.
Here are the authors noted in the psalter along with the compositions ascribed to them:
Moses: Ps. 90
David: 73 psalms, all but 17 of which are in Books I and II (see below)
Asaph: Pss. 50, 73-83
Heman, the Ezrahite: Ps. 88
Ethan, the Ezrahite: Ps. 89
Solomon: Pss. 72, 127