The Psalms: Israel’s prayers and ours

These are my notes on Chapter 11 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The psalms contain words spoken to God and about God. So how do these words to God function as a word from God for us? They help us express ourselves to God and to consider His ways.

Some preliminary exegetical observations

Special care needs to be taken in understanding the Psalms’ nature: their various types, their forms and function.

The psalms as poetry

Things to remember:

  1. The language of Hebrew poetry is intentionally emotive, therefore one needs to be careful not to over-exegete what is said.
  2. The psalms are musical poems. They are intended to evoke feelings rather than teach doctrine (though they do contain and reflect doctrine).
  3. The vocabulary of poetry is purposefully metaphorical. It is therefore important to look for the intent of the metaphor, and not to take the metaphor too literally.

The psalms as literature

Literary features of the psalms:

  1. There are different types of psalms—laments, thanksgiving, etc.
  2. Each psalm has a form/structure that follows the characteristics of its type.
  3. Each type of psalm had a specific function, for example you wouldn’t recite a royal psalm at a wedding.
  4. One must learn to recognise various patterns within the psalms—repetition of words and sounds, use of acrostics, etc.
  5. Psalms must be read as literary units, not atomised into single verses. Each psalm has a pattern in which ideas are presented, developed and brought to some kind of conclusion

The use of psalms in ancient Israel

They were functional songs used in temple worship, though their use eventually spread beyond the temple. From the NT we know that Jesus and His disciples sang them. Similarly, Paul encourages the early believers in their use (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).

The types of psalms

It is possible to group them into 7 categories which may overlap somewhat.

Laments

These form the largest group in the psalter. They express struggle and suffering or disappointment to the Lord. They may be individual (Psalms 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 12, 139, 142, etc.) or corporate (Psalms 12, 44, 80, 94, 137, etc.).

Thanksgiving psalms

These express joy to the Lord. They may also be individual (Psalms 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138) or corporate (Psalms 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136).

Hymns of praise

These centre on praise to God without particular reference to previous miseries. God is praised as Creator in Psalms 8, 19, 104 and 148. He is praised as protector and benefactor of Israel in Psalms 66, 100, 111, 114 and 149. He is praised as Lord of history in Psalms 33, 103, 117, 145-147.

Salvation history psalms

They review a history of God’s saving works among the people of Israel (Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136, etc.)

Psalms of celebration and affirmation

These include:

  • Covenant renewal liturgies such as Psalms 50 and 81;
  • Royal psalms, which deal specifically with the kingship (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110 and 144). Psalm 18 is a royal thanksgiving psalm while Psalm 144 is a royal lament.
  • Enthronement psalms – Psalms 24, 29, 47, 93, 95-99.
  • Songs of Zion/songs of the City of Jerusalem (Psalms 46, 48, 76, 84, 87 and 122)

Wisdom psalms

We can place Psalms 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128 and 133 in this category

Songs of trust

These centre their attention on the trustworthiness of God, even in times of despair (Psalms 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125 and 131).

A special note on the “imprecatory psalms”

Elements of imprecation may be found in parts of Psalms 3, 12, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 83, 109, 137 and 140.

They use hyperbolic language to honestly express anger.

Some concluding hermeneutical observations

3 basic benefits of the psalms

  • First, as a guide to worship.
  • Second, as a demonstration of how we can relate honestly to God.
  • Third, they invite us to reflect and meditate upon things that God has done for us.

A caution

The Psalms don’t guarantee a pleasant life. David, author of many psalms, lived a life that was anything but trouble-free. Yet he praises (and laments) enthusiastically.

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