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This introductory course is designed to provide key insights into the book of Psalms by pulling together a number of key resources: overview videos from The Bible Project, helpful contextual information from The ESV Study Bible, commentary recommendations from The Gospel Coalition, a single sermon that sums up the book from beginning to end by Mark Dever, and much more. By watching, listening to, and reading these resources, you’ll be better prepared to read, study, teach, or preach the book of Psalms.
As already mentioned, the book of Psalms is an anthology of individual poems. It is important to remember that these are poems to be sung, and thus are to be read differently than, say, a doctrinal or ethical treatise. Because the content of these songs is expressed in a poetic idiom, readers need to be ready to interpret such staples of poetry as image, metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and apostrophe (see chart on ESV Study Bible p. 940). All of these factors contribute to the rhetoric of a psalm—the way it enables the singers to own the psalm’s view of the world, and how it shapes their emotional structure so that they can “lean into” the world in a godly manner.
Guiding principles for reading the psalms include the following: The individual psalms should first be read as self-contained compositions. Sometimes it is helpful to see them as part of an ongoing sequence (e.g., Psalms 111–112). Further, within a particular psalm, the author does not always spell out his flow of thought; one must use a disciplined imagination to follow the connections. Finally, readers must begin with the premise that poets present their material in images rather than abstractions, and that they prefer the figurative or nonliteral to the literal.
All of the Psalms are written in the verse form of parallelism, on which see ESV Study Bible pp. 865–868.
Scholars have tended to identify psalms according to their types (praise, lament, etc.). Unfortunately, scholars vary in their list of types, and it is easy to multiply categories to account for the particularities of each psalm—and soon one can end up with 150 categories! Nevertheless, used reasonably, this approach can shed light on the different purposes of the various psalms. The basic categories include:
There are other elements in the psalms, such as penitence (see Psalms 6; 25; 32; 38; 51; 130; 143), claims of innocence (e.g., Psalm 26), yearning for God (e.g., Psalm 27), curses or imprecations (see ESV Study Bible p. 938). There are psalms that seem to have been written for specific liturgical occasions (e.g., Psalm 24 and possibly Psalms 68 and 118). There are groups of psalms, such as the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113–118) and Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134); see ESV Study Bible notes on the individual psalms. Further, a psalm may fit mostly in one category, but that does not mean that elements of another category cannot also appear (cf. the note on Psalm 34, a thanksgiving psalm with a wisdom section; and the note on Psalm 56, which combines lament and thanksgiving).
There are several Hebrew words and phrases in the Psalms, such as “Selah” (e.g., Ps. 3:2), “The Sheminith” (Psalm 6 title), “Shiggaion” (Psalm 7 title), whose exact meaning is uncertain—which is why the translators have simply transliterated them, as any attempt to translate would be misleading. The ESV footnotes indicate that these are probably terms for musical or liturgical direction. (Cf. how Psalms 4 and 5 refer to musical instruments in their titles.) In some cases these may be things like names of tunes or chant styles (see ESV Study Bible note on “Do not destroy” in Psalm 57 title).
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:
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.
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.
The OT certainly presents the Psalms as part of God’s inspired Word: 1 Chronicles 25:1–6 says that a number of sanctuary personnel “prophesied,” and that one was a “seer” (a synonym for “prophet”). Some of these men appear as authors of canonical psalms. It is important to clarify just how the psalms are to function for the people of God.
Their primary function has already been mentioned: the Psalter is the songbook of the people of God in their gathered worship. These songs cover a wide range of experiences and emotions, and give God’s people the words to express these emotions and to bring these experiences before God. At the same time, the psalms do not simply express emotions: when sung in faith, they actually shape the emotions of the godly. The emotions are therefore not a problem to be solved but are part of the raw material of now-fallen humanity that can be shaped to good and noble ends. The psalms, as songs, act deeply on the emotions, for the good of God’s people. It is not “natural” to trust God in hardship, and yet the Psalms provide a way of doing just that, and enable the singers to trust better as a result of singing them. A person staring at the night sky might not know quite what to do with the mixed fear and wonder he finds in himself, and singing Psalm 8 will enrich his ability to respond.
The Psalms also provide guidance in the approach to worship: at times they offer content that is difficult to digest, calling on God’s people to use their minds as well as their hearts and voices. They show profound respect for God as well as uninhibited delight in him. They enable the whole congregation to take upon themselves, to own, the troubles and victories of the individual members, so that everyone can “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). They enable God’s people more fully to enjoy being under his care, and to want more keenly to be pure and holy, seeing purity and holiness as part of God’s fatherly gift rather than as a burden.
David is the author of about half the Psalms. His role as king over Israel was more than that of a ruler, and more than that of an inspired author. The king was to represent and even embody the people, and the well-being of the whole people was tied to the faithfulness of the king (see ESV Study Bible notes on the royal psalms, e.g., Psalms 2; 89; 132). As a representative, the king was to aim to be the ideal Israelite. David, then, writes as a representative, and the readers must discern whether the emphasis of the psalm is more on his role as ruler—which he does not share with “ordinary” Israelites—or more on his role as ideal Israelite, in which he is an example for all. Most of the historical occasions in the psalm titles allow the reader to appreciate the way in which exemplary faith meets concrete situations, and then to apply that faith to features of his or her own situation that are analogous to those in the psalm.
These notes reflect the conviction that Christians are the heirs of the ancient people of God. Much has changed: the final heir of David has arrived and taken his throne (Rom. 1:4), and the people of God are no longer defined as a particular nation. The sacrifice of Jesus has radically altered the way that Christians look at the Levitical system. And yet Paul can include Gentile Christians as heirs of Abraham (Rom. 4:11–12), and ask Gentile Christians to think of the OT people as their “fathers” (1 Cor. 10:1). Therefore a large portion of these functions of the Psalms already mentioned still apply to Christians. The notes include suggestions as to how Christians might employ the psalms, making the necessary changes for application to their own lives.
Christians have generally used the Psalms in their worship (cf. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), even though they have not agreed on whether they may use only canonical psalms. That topic goes far beyond this discussion; it will be enough to say that all Christians would profit from a more deliberate effort to use the Psalms in their worship.
The most basic structure of the Psalter is the easiest to see: it is a collection of 150 separate songs. It is possible that Psalms 42–43 are really two parts of one combined song, and Psalms 9–10 are companions (though not part of the same psalm; see ESV Study Bible note on Psalm 9).
The standard Hebrew text divides the Psalms into five “books,” perhaps in imitation of the five books of the Pentateuch. The psalm that ends each book finishes with a doxology (see ESV Study Bible note on Ps. 41:13), and Psalm 150 as a whole is the conclusion both of Book 5 and of the entire Psalter.
There are other evidences of editorial arrangement: e.g., Psalms 1–2 form the doorway into the whole Psalter; Psalms 111–112 illuminate each other; and some “affinity groupings” of psalms celebrating God’s universal kingship (Psalms 93; 95–99), historical psalms (e.g., Psalms 104–107; see ESV Study Bible note on Psalm 107), the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113–118), the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134), and the final Hallelujah Psalms (Psalms 146–150). There appear to be other factors that have led to psalms being grouped together, as the notes observe.
However, the question of whether there is an overarching scheme that governs all 150 psalms remains a recurring topic in scholarly discussion. It is entirely possible that those who compiled the Psalter arranged the individual psalms to address the concerns of their age. The difficulty is that many structural schemes have been proposed but none has won universal agreement, nor does any of them seem fully persuasive (therefore no overall outline of the book has been included here). But the absence of an overall structural scheme is no surprise when dealing with a songbook, which is what the Psalter is.
Nancy Guthrie interviews Mark Futato
Substantial exposition for conscientious readers.
Substantial exposition for conscientious readers.
Substantial theological analysis and exposition for knowledgable readers.
Substantial theological analysis and exposition for knowledgable readers.