Written by Pastor Ed
Psalms: Singing Our Faith
January 18, 2015
Books of the Bible Series
The first encounter I remember with Psalms was in either Grade 2 or 3 when our teacher, Miss Boring, and yes, that was her actual name – led us each morning in saying the Pledge of Allegiance and then singing Psalm 150. I don’t remember the tune, but I can still sort of hear her quavery voice on the high notes.
Each of us probably have particular Psalms or occasions when a Psalm has been particularly meaningful or significant. On a number of occasions I have had the pleasure of participating in morning and evening prayer with the monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. One of the features of these daily gathering is the reading of a certain number of Psalms in each service. And the Benedictine monks at St. John’s have developed their own unique style of reading the Psalms. They are read antiphonally, back and forth across the two sides, but with significant pauses.
So it sounds something like this:
“Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.”
and so on, and then there are longer pauses between psalms. It allows time to ponder what has just been said, and I find it quite meaningful.
On one occasion I was at St. John’s for a conference on clergy misconduct and as we read the Psalms in worship one morning, one of the Psalms for the day was Psalm 55 which includes these lines:
12 It is not enemies who taunt me—
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
I could hide from them.
13 But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend,
14 with whom I kept pleasant company;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
The Book of Psalms, to which we turn today, is really the Bible’s hymn book. And I’m not really sure how you summarized a hymn book, but there are some things we can say about its structure and purpose, as well as its usefulness for us today and what we might learn from it.
A friend of mine once said that when he visits a church for the first time, he often picks up one of their hymn books and checks to see where it gets used the most by looking to see where it’s the dirtiest along the front of the pages. Just as we have our favourite hymns, so we undoubtedly have our favourite psalms, ones we know by heart maybe, or sing.
Likewise individual psalms, like other poetry, have some interesting features, some of which are lost in our translations. So it is with the acrostic psalms, like both Psalm 11 and 112 which you might notice are exactly the same length of 22 lines. That’s because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and in Hebrew, each line of the Psalm begins with the next letter of the alphabet.
And if you want even more of a challenge, and wonder why Psalm 119 is so long, it is made up of 22 stanzas, one stanza for each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and each of the 8 lines in each stanza begin with the given letter of that stanza. So 8 lines beginning with A, then 8 lines beginning with B, and so forth. There’s an exercise in writing for you!
If we look at the book of Psalms as a whole, there are certain things we can say about it. Clearly, as with any song book, it is a compilation of songs written by different people, for different occasions and later compiled into its current form. We’re given some of that information for some of the psalms, but for others we can only guess.
So some of the psalm are indeed ascribed to David. So Psalm 57 has a superscript which says:
“To the leader: Do Not Destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.”
or Psalm 56 says:
“To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.”
But others are clearly ascribed to other people, particularly to Asaph & Korah who may have been individuals, or the leaders of a guild of temple song writers and singers that were developed during the time of David. All of these Psalms then were collected and arranged into 5 books or sections, which are noted in our Bibles. And each of the 5 books, or sections ends with a doxology.
So Book 1 – Psalms 1 through 41 ends with 41: 13 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
From everlasting to everlasting. Amen and amen.”
Book 2, Psalms 42 through 72 ends:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.” (72: 18-20)
and then notes:
“The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.”
Books 3 comprises Psalms 73 through 89 and ends:
Book Four – Psalms 90 through 106 has the following doxology:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
And let all the people say, “Amen.”
Praise the Lord!” (106: 48)
And Book 5, the largest section ends with Psalm 150, which serves as a final doxology both to the section and in many ways to the collection as a whole.
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament![a]
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
As many people have noted, you can find all the emotions of life in the Psalms and they can fit almost any occasion. James Waltner, in his Believer’s Church commentary on the Psalms, divides them up into 6 categories, which is helpful. Unlike our hymnals which tend to group like hymns together, different kinds of Psalms are spread across the 5 books of the Psalms. Waltner’s categories are these:
Clearly one of the categories is Psalms of Praise. These reflect Israel’s response to God for God’s sovereignty and protection. There are also songs of praise for Zion, the dwelling place of God. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.” (Psalm 84) Other familiar psalms of praise would be Psalm 100 “ Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” or 150 which cited earlier.
Closely related to psalms of praise are the psalms of thanksgiving, both from an individual perspective as well as communal songs of thanksgiving. Psalm 30 is an individual’s thanks for recovery from an illness:
1 I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
A communal psalm of thanksgiving that also serves as a history lesson would be Psalm 136 “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” probably recited or sung as a call and response with the congregation repeating the refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever.”
Some psalms are clearly liturgies, a third category, which were used in specific acts of worship, although undoubtedly most of the psalm were used in worship in some way. Psalm 24 is perhaps the best known of these, probably sung as the procession made its entrance into the temple.
1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
2 for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
5 They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
6 Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.[a]Selah
7 Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory.
Royal psalms were probably connected to King David and extoll the glory of the king. In Psalm 2 God says of the king:
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
These psalms were later reinterpreted to speak of an ideal king, and man, as you would have noted, were then applied to Jesus as that ideal king.
A fifth category of psalm are psalms classified as Torah or Wisdom psalms. Psalm 119 is the most noteworthy of these, extolling again and again the value of the Torah, the law. Likewise Psalm 19:
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure,
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
The sixth and largest category of psalms is the one that we have perhaps the most trouble with, and I might note is the one our modern hymnals tend to have the least of and when I did find ones that would fit the category, they aren’t hymns we generally sing or even know. These are the psalms of lament, again both individual laments as well as communal. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” laments the writer of Psalm 13. Psalms 42 and 43, which we heard earlier are songs of lament. “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”
Probably the best known communal lament is that of Psalm 137:
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows[a] there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator![b]
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Now we may recoil in horror at those last verses, and they are usually left off when this psalm is read, and yet who of us has not had similar thoughts at some tragedy or injustice that happens. And how do we express that? Generally we don’t, we keep it bottled up, or it explodes in some inappropriate way.
As I noted, songs of lament are sadly lacking in our current repertoire of hymns and songs. I don’t think there are any that would voice the anger of Psalm 137. There are some songs of confession which could be classified as lament, and Hymn 551, “In the stillness of the evening” would certainly qualify, but most of those songs we don’t sing or even know and I wonder if our worship would not be enhanced, and our faith deepened if we would include more of that in our worship. More liturgical worship at least usually includes a Kyrie, “Lord have mercy” refrain.
The Hebrew song book, which would have also been the song book of the early church, covers the whole range of human emotion, both individually and communally. Through it all the focus is on God. Even in those darkest times, God is seen as the one who delivers, who saves, who will vindicate those who follow the way of Torah. And because of that great trust in God, the writers can speak freely both of their praise and thanksgiving as well as their fears and anger. And from that we can also learn.
While I admit to falling out of the habit more recently, for a period of time I began each day in the office by reading 5 psalms, reading through the entire collection each 30 days. Whether you do it systematically, like the monks of St. Johns, or simply dip into the psalms at random, you find there something to fit your life and circumstances, just as you might by browsing the hymnal or listening to a mix on your ipod.
Some one has said that many people get more of their theology from the songs they sing rather than from anywhere else. Unfortunately today, in many cases, that means that people’s theology is rather shallow, in my opinion. But if you get your theology from the original song book, the Psalms, you won’t go far astray.