The Hebrew label for the psalms, “Praises,” may have originally reflected the idea, readily found today, that adoration and thanks to God are the primary acts of worship; but it would be better to learn from the title of the entire Psalter that the whole range of the psalms—from adoration and thanks to the needy cry for help (even the desolate moan of Psalm 88)—praises God when offered to him in the gathered worship of his people.
The Psalter is fundamentally the hymnbook of the people of God at worship. The Psalms take the basic themes of OT theology and turn them into song. Thus, themes common throughout the OT (see ESV Study Bible pp. 29–31) reappear in the Psalms and include the following:
- Monotheism. The one true God, Maker of heaven and earth and ruler of all things, will vindicate his own goodness and justice, in his own time. Every human being must know and love this God, whose spotless moral purity, magnificent power and wisdom, steadfast faithfulness, and unceasing love are breathtakingly beautiful.
- Creation and fall. Though God made man with dignity and purpose, all people since the fall are beset with sins and weaknesses that only God’s grace can heal.
- Election and covenant. The one true God chose a people for himself and bound himself to them by his covenant. This covenant expressed God’s intention to save the people, and through them to bring light to the rest of the world.
- Covenant membership. In his covenant, God offers his grace to his people: the forgiveness of their sins, the shaping of their lives in this world to reflect his own glory, and a part to play in bringing light to the Gentiles. Each member of God’s people is responsible to lay hold of this grace from the heart: to believe the promises, to grow in obeying the commands, and to keep on doing so all their lives long. Those who lay hold in this way are the faithful, as distinct from the unfaithful among God’s people; they enjoy the full benefits of God’s love, and they find boundless delight in knowing God. Each of the faithful is a member of a people, a corporate entity; the members have a mutual participation in the life of the whole people. Therefore the spiritual and moral well-being of the whole affects the well-being of each of the members, and each member contributes to the others by his own spiritual and moral life. Thus each one shares the joys and sorrows of the others, and of the whole. The faithful will suffer in this life, often at the hands of the unfaithful, and sometimes from those outside God’s people. The right response to this suffering is not personal revenge but believing prayer, confident that God will make all things right in his own time.
- Eschatology. The story of God’s people is headed toward a glorious future, in which all kinds of people will come to know the Lord and join his people. It is part of the dignity of God’s people that, in God’s mysterious wisdom, their personal faithfulness contributes to the story getting to its goal. The Messiah, the ultimate heir of David, will lead his people in the great task of bringing light to the Gentiles.
Challenge: Curses in the Psalms
Many psalms call on God for help as the faithful are threatened with harm from enemies (often called “the wicked”—frequently the unfaithful who persecute the godly, and sometimes Gentile oppressors). In a number of places, the requested help is that God would punish these enemies. Christians, with the teaching and example of Jesus (in passages like Matt. 5:38–48; Luke 23:34; 1 Pet. 2:19–23; cf. Acts 7:6), may wonder what to make of such curses: How can it possibly be right for God’s people to pray in this way? Many have supposed that this is an area in which the ethics of the NT improve upon and supersede the OT. Others suggest that these only apply to the church’s warfare with its ultimate enemy, Satan, and his demons. Neither of these is fully satisfying, both because the NT authors portray themselves as heirs of OT ethics (cf. Matt. 22:34–40) and because the NT has some curses of its own (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9; Rev. 6:9–10), even finding instruction in some of the Psalms’ curses (e.g., Acts 1:20 and Rom. 11:9–10, using Psalms 69 and 109). Each of the psalm passages must be taken on its own, and the notes address these questions (e.g., see ESV Study Bible notes on Ps. 5:10; 35:4–8; 58:6–9; 59:11–17; 69:22–28; 109:6–20; and the note on Psalm 137, which contains the most striking curse of all). At the same time, some general principles will help in understanding these passages.
First, one must be clear that the people being cursed are not enemies over trivial matters; they are people who hate the faithful precisely for their faith; they mock God and use ruthless and deceitful means to suppress the godly (cf. Ps. 5:4–6, 9–10; 10:15; 42:3; 94:2–7).
Second, it is worth remembering that these curses are in poetic form and can employ extravagant and vigorous expressions. (The exact fulfillment is left to God.)
Third, these curses are expressions of moral indignation, not of personal vengeance. For someone who knows God, it is unbearably wrong that those who persecute the faithful and turn people away from God should get away with it, and even seem to prosper. Zion is the city of God, the focus of his affection (cf. Psalms 48; 122); it is unthinkable that God could tolerate cruel men taking delight in destroying it. These psalms are prayers for God to vindicate himself, displaying his righteousness for all the world to see (cf. Ps. 10:17–18). Further, these are prayers that God will do what he said he will do: Psalm 35:5 looks back to Psalm 1:4, and even Psalm 137:9 has Isaiah 13:16 as its backdrop. Most of these prayers assume that the persecutors will not repent; however, in one place (Ps. 83:17), the prayer actually looks to the punishment as leading to their conversion.
Fourth, the OT ethical system forbids personal revenge (e.g., Lev. 19:17–18; Prov. 24:17; 25:21–22), a prohibition that the NT inherits (cf. Rom. 12:19–21).
Thus, when the NT writers employ these curses or formulate their own (as above), they are following the OT guidelines. Any prayer for the Lord to hasten his coming must mean disaster for the impenitent (2 Thess. 1:5–10). Yet Christians must keep as their deepest desire, even for those who mean harm to the church, that others would come to trust in Christ and love his people (cf. Luke 23:34; Rom. 9:1–3; 10:1; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Hence, when they pray for God to protect his people against their persecutors, they should be explicit about asking God to lead such people to repentance. With these things in mind, then, it is still possible that the faithful today might sing or read aloud even these sections of the Psalms, if it takes place in a service of worship, under wise leadership, for the good of the whole people of God.
History of Salvation Summary
Throughout history God has been fashioning a people for himself who will love and obey him, and who will express and nourish their corporate life in gathered worship. The Psalms served as a vehicle for the prayers and praises of God’s people in Israel, and Christians today, who have been grafted into the olive tree of God’s ancient people (Rom. 11:17, 24), can join their voices together with these ancient people in their worship. There are indeed adjustments to be made, now that Jesus has died and risen (see The Psalms as Scripture, next), and yet Gentile believers in Jesus may rejoice with the people of God of all ages.