In this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible, I talk with Mark Futato, the Robert L. Maclellan professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, where he teaches core classes on Hebrew and Old Testament books. Futato has written a number of books on Psalms that flow out not only from his study but also his love for and his living with the Psalms.
Topics in the discussion include:
- whether or not we should make the Psalms “about me”;
- allowing the organization of Psalms to inform our teaching;
- common mistakes made in teaching Psalms;
- the big three kinds of Psalms;
- how Psalms speaks to our emotions; and
- singing the Psalms about Jesus, to Jesus, with Jesus.
Here are some additional audio resources that you may find helpful in preparing to teach the Psalms:
- Mark Futato on Psalm 1, 23
- Dick Lucas sermons on Psalms
- Sinclair Ferguson sermons on Psalms
- Edmund Clowney sermons and lectures on preaching Christ from the Psalms
For further study, here are some books you may find helpful, including titles from Crossway, the sponsor of Help Me Teach the Bible:
- Knowing the Bible: Psalms: A 12-Week Study by Douglas Sean O’Donnell
- Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent by Josh Moody (Psalms 120–134)
- The Psalms: Rejoice, the Lord Is King, Volume 1, Psalms 1 to 41 by James Johnston
- Transformed by Praise: The Purpose and Message of the Psalms by Mark Futato
- Joy Comes in the Morning: Psalms for All Seasons by Mark Futato
- Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook by Mark Futato
- Psalms: Cornerstone Biblical Commentary by Mark Futato, George Schwab, and Philip Comfort
- How to Read the Psalms by Tremper Longman III
- Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary by Derek Kidner
- Psalms 73-150 by Derek Kidner
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Mark Futato: There are two dimensions to your teaching. What’s coming from your head and what’s coming from your gut. What I mean by that is it’s coming from your life experience. You have lived this psalm. You’ve seen how this psalm is applied to your own life. It gives your teaching another whole level.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie. This is the audio series for people who love the Bible, want to understand the Bible, but we not only want to understand it for ourselves, we also want to equip ourselves to give it back out, to teach it creatively, and to teach it rightly, to teach it in a way that God’s word to us is worthy of. And in this audio series, we’re talking with some of the very best Bible teachers and theologians of our day. And I’m sitting in the office here at Reformed Theological Seminary of a truly excellent Bible teacher and theologian, someone whose writings have really helped me to understand the book that we’re talking about today. I’m sitting in the office of Dr. Mark Futato and we’re going to talk about the Book of Psalms. Thank you so much for being willing to talk with me, Dr. Futato.
Futato: My pleasure, Nancy. Glad to be here.
Guthrie: You are the Robert L. McClellan professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. And you teach all of the core classes, don’t you? On Hebrews and the Old Testament books.
Futato: I teach all of the core classes on Hebrew, I teach two of the core classes on Old Testament. We have a class on Judges to Esther. I teach that, and then I teach the course on the poets, which includes the Books of Psalms.
Guthrie: Well, you’ve written a number of books. I counted four on the Book of Psalms and the one that I have read that really helped me when I was preparing to teach on Psalms is “Transformed by Praise: The Purpose And Message of the Psalms,” but you’ve written quite a few others, including, “The Psalms Cornerstone Biblical Commentary” in the Tyndale House series on the Book of Psalms. So, I guess I would say just on a personal level first, what has generated your interest? What makes you a man of the Psalms?
Futato: Well, I think a couple of things. Way back when I was first a Christian, God just gave me a real love for studying the Old Testament in particular. And I didn’t grow up in a church that really valued the Old Testament. It was kind of most Sunday school classes, most sermons out of the New Testament, very little out of the Old. But God just gave me an interest in the Old Testament and soon thereafter, that began to focus on the Book of Psalms. And actually, when I went to graduate school to do a Ph.D. in Hebrew, one of my real motivations was not so much that I would become a seminary professor as it was that I would be able to read the Psalms in Hebrew.
Futato: So, that’s kind of where it started. It goes way back.
Guthrie: Perhaps you said mostly the Psalms didn’t get taught. And I think that’s the case for me, maybe there would be a handful of Psalms that come up that we use in our worship, but I don’t know very much we actually pull them out to teach. So, pretend that I’m getting ready to…I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to teach in my Bible study in the next session. Would you make me a case for why I might want to teach Psalms?
Futato: Well, certainly one thing that I could say is when I reflect back on when I was in seminary and I think about my systematic theology classes, whether those classes were on the doctrine of God or the doctrine of man, the vast majority of texts from the Old Testament that my professors used in order to explain to us who God is and who we are, the vast majority of those texts came from the Book of Psalms. And so I just got, way back in the ’70s as a seminary student, this idea that the Book of Psalms is a rich repository for fundamental teaching in the Bible, like who is God and who are we? You can’t get much more basic than that, rich resource for that.
Guthrie: Perhaps another thing that challenges us when we teach Psalms is that we don’t know how to deal with them. And I can think of a number of things personally that are challenging to me when it comes to teaching the Psalms. One might be just a very deeply ingrained habit. I don’t know if it was taught to me or somehow I just picked it up in that when I go to the Psalms, I tend to make it about me. I’m reading it like it’s actually about my experience. But then I come across…there in the middle of the psalm will be something that I don’t know how to relate to my experience, something about an enemy or a war or something that’s happened to me. And so, then I get kind of stuck. Speak to that issue in regard to teaching and under the standing the Psalms. And then I wonder if you would tell us what you think some of the other stumbling blocks are that you’re familiar with that make Psalms a challenging book for teachers to teach.
Futato: Well, there goes our hour.
Guthrie: We could talk about it a long time, huh?
Futato: A couple of things. One…and I know that I’m kind of counter evangelical culture here, but I’m going to say it anyhow. You approach the Psalms as if they’re about you. The main message that we get today in all sorts of literature and from many pulpits is these words, it’s not about you. The idea is it’s about God. And while I think that’s really well-intended, I think it’s completely off-base and it’s so popular that it’s hard to go against that grain. But if you just stop and think about a few things. One, God is covenantal and covenant is not I am God. Covenant is I will be your God and you will be my people. Covenant is not just about God. It’s about God and God’s people.
If you think about the 10 Commandments, the first 4 are our duty to God, the next 6 are our duty to humanity. The 10 Commandments are not just about God. They’re also about us. If you think about the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done,” it’s about God. But then it goes, “On Earth, as it is in heaven,” we’re transitioning. Then it’s, “Give us this day, our daily bread, forgive us our debts, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil.” So, is the Lord’s prayer about God or is it about us? See, it’s covenantal. It’s about God and it’s about us. I just wish people would say, it’s not only about you, or even, it’s not all ultimately about you. But to say that it’s not about you is to say, well, then why did God give us the Bible anyhow? And so, I think that your intuition to read it as if it’s about you is a good one. You just have to add that qualifier that it’s not ultimately about you or only about you. So, that’s a starting point.
Then I think we go on to ask this question. Well, I’m reading this psalm and I’m really relating to it and then there’s some weird line in it that I don’t connect with at all. And I say, that’s okay. Actually, there’s good biblical warrant for that. Now, it’s not in the Book of Psalms. It’s in the book of 1 Samuel. But if you read in 1 Samuel 2, you have “Hannah’s Song.” And if you were to take “Hannah’s Song” out of the Book of Samuel and you would read that psalm, you might never come to the conclusion that this was about a woman who was having trouble in pregnancy and finally got pregnant and had a baby because there’s this battle imagery, the bows of the warrior are broken and God’s exalting people to the seat of princes.
And, you know, how did that connect with Hannah? Well, there is something in that psalm that directly connected with Hannah when it talks about the one who didn’t have kids now has a bunch, and the one who had a bunch now doesn’t. So, I may be wrong, but I doubt that Hannah was inspired in the moment to write that psalm. I think it was a psalm that she knew from her childhood and the reason why she used it in her experience there was because part of it’s so powerfully connected to her experience, but not all of it did. It’s kind of like you’re in church and you’re singing a hymn. Sometimes there are stanzas in that hymn that’s so connect with what you’re going through. Others, not so much. That’s the nature of poetry.
One thing in particular about the Book of Psalms, there is a very graphic specificity to the Psalms. It connects with our lives because of all of the concrete images that it has. But on the other hand, there’s a mega generality about the Psalm. Who are the enemy, for example? The bottom line is we absolutely never know for sure who they are. And so, the specific graphic image-based language in the Psalms makes us connect with them. But the generalities of the Psalms allow us to apply them in all sorts of different ways. New Testament example, Paul’s thorn in the flesh. There are probably a dozen opinions on what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. I believe it was Martin Lloyd Jones who says, it’s a good thing that we don’t know what the thorn in the flesh was because if we did, say it’s an eye ailment and we don’t have an eye ailment, doesn’t apply to me.
But if we don’t know for sure what the thorn in the flesh was, then the metaphor can apply to all sorts of thorns that we might be experiencing in our lives. And the language of the Psalms is the same. And so, as we’re thinking about applying the Psalms to our own lives, or as we’re thinking about teaching those Psalms in various settings in the church or in the home, we have this richness about the Psalms because they’re very concrete. “The Lord is my shepherd,” not the Lord is the one who guides me and takes care of me. But they’re also very general, which allows a very broad application to us. And so, it’s really okay if there are parts of the Psalms that don’t apply directly to us, or we don’t see how they connect, we don’t need to feel constrained that we have to explain and apply every jot and tittle in every Psalm. And if we can’t, we’re not ready to teach it yet.
We can teach the Psalms in a very effective way and a very humble way, including the idea that, you know, this doesn’t really connect with me, and I don’t really see how this connects with us because this is something that was more specific to the original setting, I’m not sure. So, that’s really okay. So, there just a couple of perspectives on these initial hurdles maybe that you mentioned.
Guthrie: Maybe another challenge is it can appear from far away that there’s not any organization to the Psalm. It can seem like just a collection of all of these various thoughts, and we work our way from one psalm to another, and we’re in a radically different setting, a radically different problem, or a radically different thing that it’s addressing. So, can you help us understand a little bit about the organization of the Psalm that’ll help give us a little bit more confidence as we dive into teach it?
Futato: Sure. When I teach on the Psalms, whether it’s in a seminary class or whether it’s in a Sunday school class, I often ask people if they know what daily bread is. And usually they say yes, because they’re thinking of the devotional daily bread, but I say, “That’s not what I’m talking about.” What I mean by daily bread is when I first met the woman who would become my wife and I visited in her home, on the breakfast table was a little plastic loaf of bread, about 2 inches long, and out of the top were little cards. And they had lines from Psalms on them. And you would pull one out for breakfast and read it and that was your daily bread. And when you were done, you would shuffle them, put them back in, and then for the next month, you’d go through them again.
And that’s how we often use the book of Psalms. If we just think, in general, there are two kinds of Psalms, happy Psalms and sad Psalms, when we’re happy, we dip in and we pull out a happy Psalm, when we’re sad, we dip in and we pull out a sad Psalm. It’s a way that many Christian…
Guthrie: Is that wrong?
Futato: That’s not wrong, but it’s not the only way to read the Psalms. I still read the Psalms that way. You probably still read the Psalms that way. Our listeners are going to still read the Psalms that way. So are the people that are teaching in Bible studies and Sunday school classes. That’s okay. But that’s only one perspective. It presumes this, it presumes that the Holy Spirit inspired 150 people to write Psalms. And then the Holy Spirit told somebody to put these on index cards and shuffle them. And that’s the 150 Psalms when that’s not the work of the spirit. The Holy Spirit really did arrange the Book of Psalms so that the order of the chapters in the Psalms is as important as the orders in the chapters in Matthew or in Romans.
Guthrie: And so, what are some of the patterns you see, or maybe you could talk to us about the Psalms, in many ways, being like the Pentateuch in that there would be five books in the Psalms. How do we see that framework within the whole of the book?
Futato: Yeah. There are a number of different ways to look at the question of the organization of the Psalms. The one you mentioned is a key one. We have to realize that the Book of Psalms originally, not later modern editors, but originally was broken into five books. And we know that because each of the books, Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, and Book 4, all end with a doxology, which in effect is something like, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and amen.” And those amens occur only in these places. So, we can see that the Book of Psalms was clearly punctuated and put into five. And we have to ask the question, why? And I think the answer is pretty clear from Psalm 1.
Psalm 1 says that the blessed person delights in the Torah of the Lord and meditates on that Torah. Now, traditionally, we translate that as law, and Torah certainly at times is translated as law. But I think that tends to narrow our focus because when we think of laws, we think of do this and don’t do that. The five books of Moses in Hebrew tradition are called Torah. They’re not all legal material, they’re genealogies, they’re stories, there’s poetry, and there’s legal material, but it’s all Torah, and Torah fundamentally is instruction. Whether it’s a narrative or a poem or a genealogy or a law, it’s all instruction. And that’s why the Book of Psalms was broken into five because just like the five books of Torah, the five books of Moses are there for our instruction. So, are the five books of the Psalms.
Again, this is a little bit counter-intuitive and counter popular, but we typically think of the Psalms as Israel’s hymnbook. And certainly many, even most of the Psalms were originally composed for public worship, but not all of them were. Fundamentally, the Book of Psalms was put together not as a hymnal, but as an instruction manual, an instruction manual to what end? Well, the first word in the Book of Psalms, ashrei, well-being in every area of life. The Book of Psalms was given to teach us how to live so that we would experience more and more of that abundant life that God originally designed for us in creation and has designed for us in redemption.
Jesus said, “I’ve come so that you might have life and that you might have it in all of its abundance.” Now, the full perfection of that life is waiting for the life to come, but Jesus said, “Pray, the kingdom come, God’s will be done on Earth that we pray and we labor to see more and more of heaven come to Earth.” So, those five books, the organization of the books in five, is there to show us the fundamental purpose of the Book of Psalms, and that is that it’s an instruction manual for the abundant life that Jesus came to give us.
Guthrie: Are the Psalms in Book 1 different than the Psalms in Book 4 and 4? Or do I need to have a deep awareness of which book it’s in to teach the individual Psalms within it rightly?
Futato: In general, I think, yes. It’s not always going to…this principle’s not always going to affect your interpretation of the Psalms in a dramatic and radical way, but it will affect…I’ll give you a couple of illustrations, just in terms of the scope. Book 1 is about the establishment of God’s kingdom, Psalm 2, and how God is reigning over the world through His anointed king, which originally was David, but ultimately it’s Jesus. Book 2 shows how that kingship covenant made with David was effectively transferred to Solomon. Then, Book 3, so everything’s going well, the kingship’s established, it’s confirmed, it’s passed on to Solomon. But then we come to Psalm 89, which is at the end of Book 3, and it raises that agonizing question, “Where, oh Lord is your former great love, which you in faithfulness swore to David?” It seems like the whole program has collapsed.
Guthrie: It’s a crisis point.
Futato: It’s a severe crisis point, a crisis point that many of us as evangelicals, in terms of our understanding of the history of Israel, don’t really grasp existentially. You see, the Book of Psalms was put into this final five-book form sometime in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. And remember, God had promised that David would never fail to have a son sitting on the throne. Well, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, we’re back from the Babylonian captivity, we’re living in Judah. We are like this poor province, marginalized in this massive Persian Pagan empire. And what happened to the promise that God made? We don’t see a throne and we don’t see a David. So, the end of Book 3 ends on that note. Books 4 and 5 teach us how to live in the absence of the Messianic king.
Guthrie: Were most of them written during that exilic period or after then necessarily?
Futato: Not necessarily. But you see the Holy Spirit not only inspired the collecting of them or the original writing of them, but also the collecting of them and the batching of them together. Book 4, the heart of the Psalms basically says, “Here’s how you live.” When your faith says one thing and your experience in the world says something else, you see your faith says there will always be a Davidic king, and your experience is, there’s no Davidic k. How do you live? You live by faith. And that’s why in this book you have repeated in one way or another, the Lord reigns, the Lord reigns, the Lord reigns, the Lord reigns, say among the nations, the Lord reigns. These folks said, “You got to be kidding me. I am supposed to declare that our God…we’re poor, we’re a far Western province that means nothing in the massive Persian empire that basically controls the world. We’re supposed to say our God reigns?”
Yes, says the Book of Psalms. You’re to walk by faith, you’re to live out what the scriptures teach. You’re not to live out what you see in your circumstances. The rule of faith in life is the scriptures. It is not your circumstances. We have the same situation now. I’m guessing that most of our listeners haven’t seen Jesus lately. You know, Jesus, he’s at the right hand of the Father. And, you know, we have neighbors who will say, for example, “I’ll grant you one of two things that you say you believe.” You say you believe in a good God. And you say you believe in a God who’s in control. I’ll give you one or the other, but not both. Why not? I watch the news. And so, you see the Christian life ultimately is a life of faith. And we all have those struggles where we read one thing in the Bible, and it just doesn’t seem to fit with our circumstances.
And that’s when, kind of to paraphrase Paul, we have to say, “Let God’s word be true and our circumstances be a liar.” That we have to walk by faith in what God says, believing that in the end, it all is going to play out the way God says that it’s going to play out. So, Book 4 is the heart of everything. Book 5 then basically says, you know, this faith that you have, that God reigns, it’s got to be a faith that has rubber meeting the road, where you’re going to live it out in your daily living. And that’s why that real long Psalm 119, which is all about obeying God’s commandments, is at the very heart of the book because the faith has to be, as Luther would call it, a living faith, a faith that demonstrates itself in the keeping of the commandments.
And, of course, then you’ve got the grand doxology at the end, 146, 147, 148, 14, they all start and stop with, “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord.” And then 150, in case we didn’t get the message, 13 times says, “Praise the Lord.” And the last words in the Bible…in the Book of Psalms are, “Hallelujah, praise the Lord.” And so, you see the faith that we have that manifests itself in the keeping of the commandments also demonstrates itself in the worship of God, God as King, who is in control, even though our circumstances don’t always seem to indicate that. And so, reading the Psalms in this context really is the primary literary context in which to read the Book of Psalms.
How are they articulating the reign of God? How are they articulating the ideal world that God originally intended in creation and he’s bringing about through redemption? How do they articulate the struggles that I have when God’s word and my life don’t match up? And so, all of these very existential questions that we have, we get answers to in part, not in full, there’s mystery in life, we get answers to in part through the Book of Psalms, especially when we’re reading them in this ultimate literary context and reading them in the historical context of the post-exilic community in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Guthrie: That’s so helpful. Thank you. Another way we categorize Psalms sometimes has to do with differentiating if there are hymns of praise or laments or thanksgiving Psalms, and I’ve seen different ways of categorizing them. I wonder if you would talk with us about some of those categories, and then tell us specifically when we’re teaching them, is it important that we use and demonstrate that category, teach it in context of that being a category? Could that even, in fact, be a way we would organize some of our teaching of the Psalms is by the categories?
Futato: Sure. Now, this is going to get real technical because the first thing I would say is we’ve got to learn what are called, hang on, the big three. That’s what I call them. I know that’s tough, but I call them the big three.
Guthrie: I’ve got at least three fingers. So, I think I can count to the big three.
Futato: Well, you know, just like there’s a difference between blues, classical, and reggae, there are different kinds of Psalms. And really there are the big three. The first one we would call hymns, and hymns are those songs that we use when life is just going well, everything’s well–ordered. That’s the hymn. And hymns tend to praise God because of creation. After all, he did create a well-ordered world, which is why Genesis 1 says, “And God said, and God said, and God said, and there was evening and morning. There was evening and morning, day one day, two, day three.” If Genesis 1 teaches us anything about creation is that God was…I jokingly say God was a Presbyterian because he did everything decently and in good order. He shows us that he created this well-orchestrated, orderly world. And sometimes that’s what life is like for us. We go through these periods where life was just well-ordered and that’s why God gave us hymns.
But sometimes then that proverbial rug gets pulled out from under our feet. And we go into these deep valleys. We go into areas of darkness and maybe it’s not in all of life. Maybe it’s just in part of life. I was just chatting with somebody who said that in his professional life, everything was going really, really well. But in his personal life, everything was upside down. Life isn’t always neat and clean. So, but sometimes, in part or in whole, life gets turned upside down. Those we call the laments, and the laments are those, “How long, oh Lord? Why, oh Lord? Where are you, oh Lord?” But often in His grace, God doesn’t leave us there. Sometimes, as one psalm has said, “You’ve taken me out of the miry clay and you put my feet back on solid ground.”
Now what do we do? That’s the third of the big three, the songs of thanksgiving. The songs of thanksgiving are kind of like the hymns. They’re basically saying, “Praise the Lord.” But the difference is the hymn is praising God for what he’s done in redemptive history. The song of thanksgiving is praising God for what he’s done in my personal history. You see, once again, these are about me and my experience with God. That’s why the Psalmus will often say, and in a song of thanksgiving, “Stop…” I remember this little diddy as a kid, “Stop and let me tell you what the Lord has done for me.” That’s the “Song of Thanksgiving.” It’s a really personal testimony, not what God did in the exodus, or what God did in the flood, or what God did in creation, all wonderful things. This is, I was in trouble and I prayed to God and God got me out of trouble and now I want to publicly declare my thanksgiving.
So, knowing these categories helps us in a couple of ways. One, just like blues, 12-bar blues can be kind of predictable. You’ll have 12 bars that basically say, “I lost my girlfriend.” And then you have another 12 bars and they say in repetition, “I lost my girlfriend.” And then you have another 12 bars that change it up and they say, “But everything’s going to be okay.” There’s a rhythm to the 12-bar blues. And in the same way, the hymn has a rhythm, the lament has a rhythm, and the song of thanksgiving has a rhythm. They come in component parts, in segments, and understanding this can help us understand an individual hymn or an individual lament. For example, if you’re studying Ephesians, it’s helpful to keep your eye on Colossians and vice versa because these two covers so much of the same. So, you might have a question about what something means in a lament. One of the places to go are the laments. Because they’re the same category, they’re a context that’s going to help you to understand. So, that’s one thing that’s important, understanding the individual Psalms.
The other thing is, if you’re thinking about how to teach the Psalms, in all likelihood, you’re not going to start with 1 and go through 150. Your audience probably can’t take that. It’s too big of a dose. So, one of the ways that you might think about teaching, if you say…let’s just say you have 10 weeks for a Sunday school class. One of the things that you can do is have an introductory lesson, and the introductory lesson might introduce your class to the concept of the big three. I guarantee you, most of them have never thought about the Psalms occurring in these kinds of categories or genres. Then the next three weeks, you could pick three of your favorite hymns, the next three weeks, three of your favorite laments, and the next three weeks, three of your favorite songs of thanksgiving. And I do emphasize your favorite.
Futato: Because if you’re going to be teaching these things to somebody else, there are two dimensions to your teaching, what’s coming from your head and what’s coming from your gut. And if you’re only teaching what’s coming from your head, that has value. But trust me, you’re going to connect with your class in a much more profound way when they can tell that what you’re teaching them from this Psalm is coming from your gut. What I mean by that is it’s coming from your life experience. You have lived this Psalm. You’ve seen how this Psalm is applied to your own life. It gives your teaching another whole level.
Guthrie: Well, I had someone who told me that when you teach the Psalms, who’s been in some of your classes, that everyone weeps and they need a Kleenex nearby. Why?
Futato: Well, that’s unfortunate, and it’s unfortunate in this way. I’ve had to live a lot of what the Psalms talk about. I know their heights of joy and I know their depths of pain. I get what the Psalmus says when he says in 88, “The darkness is my closest friend.” And so, it’s unfortunate that my students at times weep because that’s an indicator of stuff that I’ve had to go through. Actually, I wrote the commentary that you mentioned on the Book of Psalms. And when I started to write that commentary, for a variety of reasons, my world went completely upside down. And I often would go to my wife after a day of writing and I would say, “You won’t believe what today’s Psalm was about and how that Psalm met me in my darkness.”
And so, I often say, you’ve probably heard seminary students preach and you say, “Everything that he said is right but I think he was just telling me what he read in books.” And there’s nothing that a seminarian can do about that. They’re just young, they haven’t lived enough, and there’s only life experience that can make that difference. And so, I really do emphasize that if you’re going to be teaching a Sunday school class, pick texts that you really connect with, in a personal way, and that’s going to really help you enable your class to connect with those texts as well because they’re going to be able to tell that it’s coming from life experience and not just because you read my commentary, which, of course, you should read.
Guthrie: Of course. But this kind of hits on something unique, certainly, about the Book of Psalms and that the Book of Psalms is emotional. It intends to connect to our emotions. And could I even say sanctify our emotions, that its very purpose would be these divinely ordained words that have been written down that should impact my heart? So, as we’re teaching the Book of Psalms, what’s the impact we want to have on the hearts of our people, as you said, not just their minds?
Futato: Yeah. I just heard about five questions.
Guthrie: I know it. So, you tell me what you want to tell me about that.
Futato: Well, first of all, John Calvin, in his introduction to the Book of Psalms, refers to the Book of Psalms as an anatomy, that’s always hard to say, an anatomy of every part of the human soul. If we went, you know, as adults to our local community college to take an anatomy class, we would be studying the parts of the body. Well, Calvin says, “If you want to study the parts of the soul, God’s given you a textbook, it’s called the Book of Psalms.” Because he goes on to say, “There’s not a single emotion that you can feel that doesn’t get articulated in the Book of Psalms.” Now, I love my seminary training that I had many years ago. I’m very grateful. As I reflect back on our study of the doctrine of God, I don’t remember a section on God’s emotions. I remember teaching on God’s impassability, which kind of could be interpreted to say God doesn’t really change or have emotions.
When I think of our class on the doctrine of man, the study of the human being, I don’t remember segments on the emotions. And that ought not to be because if you just stop and think about how God reveals himself in the scriptures, God is love, God is patient, God is kind, God is jealous, God is angry, all of these emotions. We’re created in God’s image and if God has all of these emotions, whatever that means, because we’re finite talking about the infinite, if God reveals himself as having all these emotions, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have them as well. And we shouldn’t think when we’re feeling whatever it is that we’re feeling that our first job is to turn it off. Our first job is to embrace it for whatever it is. Years ago, Dan Allander and Tremper Longman wrote a book, the title slips my mind. You probably know it. Does it ring a bell with you?
Guthrie: Something of the heart.
Futato: I can’t remember what it is, but at any rate, it’s on the emotions, and in particular, what we might call the dark emotions, but, you know, even calling them the dark emotions is prejudicial, isn’t it? It’s like, “Oh, these are the bad ones.” One of their points is that whether you’re talking about anger or jealousy, that if you don’t embrace that, you’re missing not only an opportunity to be as a human being, but you’re also missing a wonderful opportunity to find out something of what God is like. Because all of these emotions that we have, among other things, are windows on God. Just think about jealousy, ooh, bad. We think jealousy’s a bad thing. Well, the Bible says, God’s name is jealous. So, we think of jealousy as a vice. It’s got to be a virtue also.
And I think, without getting too far off the subject, the time that jealousy is a virtue is unique. Most of the time, jealousy is a vice in our experience. But you see God’s jealousy is in the covenant relationship for his bride. And that is an exclusive relationship. And the way God has orchestrated things, there’s only one exclusive relationship. And that’s the marriage relationship. Let’s say you have a girlfriend, you and she had been girlfriends ever since undergrad. And all of a sudden another girl comes into the scene. You feel a little jealousy because like you’re being ousted, not good because that relationship is not exclusive, but in the marriage relationship, when somebody else comes along that’s a threat to that marriage relationship, jealousy can be a virtue. Not necessarily is, but it can be. If the jealousy is for the sake of the other to preserve the relationship, virtue. But even then most of the time, our jealousy is self-preservation. And so it ends up being a vice.
The point is…just that’s one illustration. The point is even something like jealousy, whether it’s a virtue or a vice, can help us have a window on who God is as well as allowing us to be the full emotional beings that we are. And if the Holy Spirit does anything for us existentially in the Book of Psalms, he says, it’s okay to feel that and to feel it fully. And then once you feel it, then you can process it. And in the same way, it’s okay to think that. And once you think it, then you can process it. So, this picture of Calvin, an anatomy of every part of the soul, the Holy Spirit’s given us the Book of Psalms to show us, as redeemed people, how to feel, how to feel in the full gamut of life.
My last name’s Hungarian and my grandfather was an immigrant. So, I’m only second-born, second-generation American, another side of the family is Polish, same thing, immigrant. I’m totally like Eastern European old-school in my models for what it means to be a father, what it means to be a husband, my wife and I realized this a number of years back. But, you know, I’ve had a dinner with a man who was describing what a Hungarian father was like and what a Hungarian husband was like, and they don’t show their emotion, they don’t feel…I remember my wife asking my dad once, “You know, what’s one of the most exciting times you’ve ever had?” And my dad looked at her and said, “What do you mean, exciting?” It’s just not how we were…
When we were in this dark time that I mentioned moments ago, friends of ours gave us tickets to go see a movie that had just come out called “The Preacher’s Wife,” Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir. For reasons completely unknown to me, I came out of that movie in tears. I still don’t know why. But there was something in that movie that unlocked a door. And from that moment on, I can still picture myself standing in front of the theater weeping. From that moment on, I’ve begun to feel. It just opened up this chasm. And the Book of Psalms says, that’s okay, that’s godly, that’s God-like because God is a God of rich emotion.
Guthrie: So, offer us some warnings, warn us away from some poor ways of teaching the Psalms. I imagine over the years, you’ve heard the Psalms taught badly or incorrectly or just insufficiently. Would you just tell us what some of those things are that we need to watch out for?
Futato: Well, two things come to mind. One is when you’re studying to prepare a Psalm to think, okay, before I can really understand or teach this Psalm, I’ve got to find where it fits in the life of David, a very common approach, but off-target. There are only about a dozen Psalms that have any kind of historical information in them as to where they occurred. Most of them don’t have any of that historical information. So, the attempt to root a Psalm in the specifics of David’s life often can get you on the wrong foot from the beginning. So, I would basically say unless the Psalm has historical information in the title, like Psalm 3, a Psalm of David when he fled from Absalom, don’t try to match the Psalms with David’s experience.
This goes back to the…who were the enemies? The generalities. We really often can’t locate those Psalms. We’re going to be better off locating those Psalms in the literary context of the Book of Psalms and reading them as they would have spoken to the people in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. So, that’s one thing, just watch for that kind of common mistake of thinking that all of the Psalms kind of have to be read out of the life of David. Another thing, and this is going to sound odd, but I think it’s true, don’t go to Jesus too quickly.
Guthrie: Okay. That’s interesting because my next question was going there, but you’re not saying don’t go to Jesus, but you’re saying too quickly, what’s too quickly?
Futato: Well, you see, sometimes people will ask me, which Psalms are Messianic? And what they’re really asking, I think, is like Psalm 22, which Psalms have some kind of prediction about Jesus? But my answer to them is they’re all Messianic. Ultimately, they’re all about Christ in one of two ways. Jesus is the Lord of the covenant. And as the Lord, he’s the one to whom we sing the Psalms, but Jesus is also…Isaiah 53, he’s the servant of the covenant. So, he’s the one that sings the Psalms. So, they’re all about Jesus. And it’s good to say, what would this Psalm sound like if sung to Jesus? What would this Psalm sound like if sung by Jesus? But that’s a little bit down the pike in our study and our teaching of the Psalm.
Let’s take that Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David didn’t write that first and foremost so that Jesus would have something to quote on the cross. Now, notice I said first and foremost, I didn’t say ultimately, ultimately that’s the target of that text. Why did David write that? David wrote that because David felt like David had been abandoned by God. And so, this Psalm has to be understood as about David in David’s experience before we can understand how it applies to Jesus. And so, we don’t want to short circuit that interpretive process by just jumping straight to Jesus. “Blessed is the man who,” Psalm 1, oh, that’s about Jesus. Well, it is, but it’s also about you, and how do we put that whole thing together?
Well, let me take a Psalm as an example. Psalm 8, “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the Earth.” So, we have that line at the beginning and we have that line at the end. You might think of that as the top and bottom of the frame of a picture. And then right inside that, kind of the second paragraph, so to speak, is a description of what heaven is like. And in the fourth paragraph, the next to the last, when there’s a description of what earth is like. And so, in Psalm 8 you get paragraph one, “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic.” Paragraph five, “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic.” The middle paragraphs in between, “What’s heaven like, what’s Earth like?” then the very center is this question, “What’s humanity?” So, you see, we asked the question, what’s this Psalm about? And some people would say, “Well, this Psalm is about God,” because after all, it starts and stops with, “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name.”
I would say, well, this Psalm is about humanity because what this Psalm has put right at the center, that question, “What is humanity?” And we don’t have time to go into a whole explication of this Psalm. But the answer to that question is not humanity is a good-for-nothing work. The answer to that question is humanity’s created in the image of God, made a ruler, crowned with glory and honor, given dominion over the whole earth. We see this rich picture. Now, the Psalm is not ultimately about humanity because of the surrounding, “Oh Lord, our Lord.” So, what’s this Psalm about? You can teach this Psalm in terms of what is man or the son of man? Oh, son of man, it must be about Jesus. Well, I think that we have to see that Hebrews 2…
Guthrie: I was going to say, could you teach that Psalm 8 rightly or completely if you don’t go to Hebrews 2?
Futato: No, but you see what happens is this, Hebrew 2 is so marvelous because it quotes the Psalm. But it says basically, what is humanity that you made him a little lower than humanity and you crowned humanity with glory and honor? See, Hebrews is presuming that this Psalm is not about Jesus. It’s about humanity and we have to read it as about us. But then he goes on to say, Now, we don’t see all of this yet, do we? See the tension? We have this beautiful description of humanity reigning over creation. But then he says, “Hey, I watch the news and I don’t see it.” But what do I see? “I see Jesus who for the joy set before him,” to quote from a later part, “endured the cross and scorned the shame.” You see, Jesus came to be the true humanity.
And so theologically, here’s the way it works. First of all, we read the Psalm about David, for example, if it’s a Psalm of David. Then we say, how does this Psalm now, now that I understand the fullness of this Psalm, the richness of it in David’s experience, how do I understand this Psalm as applying to Christ, either sung to Christ or sung by Christ? And then once we see that, then we say, “Ah, now I really see how this is my Psalm,” because I, by grace through faith, have been mystically united to Christ. And as I now see how David sang it and how Jesus sings it, the life that I live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. To paraphrase, the song that I sing, I sing by faith in Christ who loved me and gave himself for me. So, first we understand it in its original context, then we understand it as related to Christ, as sung to Christ, as sung by Christ. And then we can see how we are the singers, how we can sing, and trust me, it makes a difference.
Let’s go back to Psalm 22. David said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David felt forsaken, but he wasn’t because God says to his people, “I will never leave you nor forsake you. “Jesus sang, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He not only felt it, he was it. He was truly forsaken by God so that you never will be. So, now you see the freedom that you have in Christ. You can freely…when you feel forsaken by God, you can freely say, “God, I feel like you’ve abandoned me,” but you say it by faith because you know that no matter how far down you may sink, you will never sink as far as Jesus did. And he did it for you. And you will never go so far down that you will go beneath the everlasting arms that are underneath you.
So, understanding how this Psalm related to David and how it related to Jesus, it just gives you the total freedom to feel everything, to understand everything, to not understand everything, and to bring all of that to God in worship so that when the worship pastor starts worship by saying, “It’s not about you, leave yourself at the door,” you say, “I don’t think so. I’ve studied the Book of Psalms and I’m coming just as I am with all of my joys, with all of my questions, with all of my perplexities, with all of my victories, with all of my defeats, I’m coming to worship God like they did in the Book of Psalms, regardless of what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, because I’m coming by grace through faith.” And my coming doesn’t depend on where I am at any one moment up, down in between. It only depends on who Jesus is and the fact that he went all the way down and then all the way up so that ultimately, I know my destiny and my destiny is not down. My destiny is up. It has to be because Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to the father. And he did it not only for himself, he did it for me. He did it for you. He did it for the whole church. We know where we’re going.
There used to be a, I’ll call it a denomination called People of Destiny, and they no longer go by that name. They changed their name. And I say what a great name for Christians because the Book of Psalms tells us our destiny. If you want to know your destiny, just read the grand doxology 146 to 150. It tells you who you are. You’re somebody that’s destined for glory. It has to be because Jesus has already gone there for you. And you’re united to him. In fact, you’re already there. You already are new creation in Christ. So, these kinds of things just give us an ability to kind of use the Psalms with abandon. I was going to say recklessly, but that probably wouldn’t communicate, but to just use them with abandon, feel them with abandon wherever we are on our journey.
Guthrie: So, you’ve convinced us, by the way, that we should teach Psalms in this next quarter or whatever we’re coming up on in where we teach. And now we want to prepare ourselves. You’ve written a commentary on Psalms that we might want to look at as well as several other books on Psalms that will be on the page. On the anchor page of this audio, there’ll be links to those. Are there two or three other sources for us? We don’t read Hebrew like you do. Are there two or three other sources that you might point us to that would be really helpful resources as we study Psalms to prepare to teach it?
Futato: Yeah. I think one good resource that anybody who’s preparing to teach a Sunday school class might rea with benefit is a book by Tremper Longman, I already mentioned him, he has a nice little introduction to the Book of Psalms called “How to read the Psalms.”
Guthrie: I have that. That is excellent.
Futato: And it’ll be complementary. Tremper and I don’t see eye to eye on all questions. My take on how organized the Book of Psalms is is not his take. He thinks it’s a little bit more, yup, shuffle the deck, but given those caveats, it’ll be a good read for somebody along the way. So, that’s something that I would recommend. They’re older and they have been kind of almost shifted to the back burner. InterVarsity Press’s Old Testament commentary series, there’s a group of paperback commentaries, and there’s two small paperbacks by Derek Kidner. And those are concise, but they’re rich. Remember, I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Sorry for the long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Derek Kidner took the time to write a short one and it’s a good one.
Guthrie: Do you have a favorite Psalm?
Futato: I’d probably have to say Psalm 104. Now, it’s hard to say that because I have spent so much time in Psalm 1. I’ve spent more time studying and teaching Psalm 1 than any other Psalm. For the laments, Psalm 13 is just such a marvelous example of learning how to deal with those emotions that we have. But Psalm 104, it’s a creation hymn. And it just describes the glory of God’s creation and God’s glory in creation, and out ability to enjoy God by enjoying His creation. We can be kind of a gnostic in our understanding of the world and of God. But let me just show you just one small thing out of that Psalm.
The Psalmus says, in verse 31, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever.” And here glory is not some abstract concept. We could translate this, “May the glorious creation of the Lord endure forever.” That’s what’s being referred to because notice it goes on to say, “May the Lord rejoice in his works.” So, glory and works correspond to each other. God’s glory is that his glorious works. Well, what works? Duh, the works I’ve been describing in the Psalms, His work of creation. So, may the glorious creation of the Lord endure forever. May the Lord rejoice in His works. See, the Psalmus wants God’s good order to be so manifested in the world that God can look down and not be grieved as he was in the days of Noah, but that God might look down at the world that He has made and His heart just sing for joy at it. That’s the prayer.
Now, notice what it goes on to say then in verse 33, “I will sing to the Lord all my life.” You see, 34, “May my meditation be pleasing Him as I rejoice in the Lord.” It’s this simple. The Psalmus wants the Lord to rejoice in his creation. The Psalmus wants to rejoice in the Lord. What’s one way we rejoice in the Lord? By rejoicing in His creation. See, we are creation-affirming people, that God made everything good, good, good, good, good, very good. Now, to be sure, it’s been subjected to frustration and futility, but underneath all of that, it’s still very good. And so, to have the eyes of faith…I love that song, “What a Wonderful World.” You see, that’s not articulating a romanticism from the ’50s. That’s profound theology. That’s the theology of Psalm 104 that this world in which we live is a wonderful world.
Now, to be sure, it can be like grandma’s pewter vase. It’s covered up, it’s tarnished, it’s dented. But the gospel, why did Jesus come? He came as pewter polish. He came to get rid of all the dents and he came to polish that so that it shines with the brilliance of God’s glory once again. And we don’t have to wait for heaven, by faith we can begin to see that now. Now, I don’t have time to go into this, but to bring it back to Psalm 8, “What is humanity?” Created in the image of God, glorious.
What do you see when you look at this disheveled, dirty guy at the intersection that has a sign and he says, “Will work for food?” Do you just see somebody who’s made a bunch of bad mistakes in life and is getting what he deserves? Or by faith, can you see underneath that? And you see the beauty of the glory of God that is there. See, God sees it, Christ sees it. And that’s why he came. He came to transform that dirt and dishevel, and not just in his life, but in yours and in mine because it’s all there. He came to transform that. So that as Paul says, we are now in the process of being transformed from one glory to another until we see Christ face to face and we become like him as he is in all of his glory, albeit we’re going to be finite versions of his infinite glory.
Guthrie: The Lord reigns.
Futato: The Lord reigns.
Guthrie: Let the Earth praise Him and let us praise Him. Let us worship Him even as we give out God’s word through the Psalms. Thank you so much for helping to equip us to do that well in the way that this glorious God is worthy of.
Futato: Well, you’re welcome. And I always like to talk about the Book of Psalms.
Guthrie: Yeah. I thought you might. Well, you’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway offers several resources on the Psalms, including the “Psalms Rejoice,” “The Lord is King: Volume 1,” Psalms 1 to 41 by James Johnston, in their “Knowing the Bible” series of Bible study book, “Psalms: A 12-Week Study,” written by Douglas Shawn O’Donnell, and also “Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent” by Josh Moody. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks, and learn more about their gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.