As Athanasius noted in the fourth century, while most of scripture speaks to us, the psalms of the Old Testament speak for us. In the psalms we find people complaining to God when in distress and perplexity, thanking God in moods of liberation and joy, praising God for God’s goodness and wonder, and declaring their faithfulness to God even when they do not agree with Him or understand His ways.
These are the same emotions we find ourselves expressing today as we seek to remain faithful to a God who is often beyond our comprehension. Consequently, our psalms study will focus not only on instruction, but also on reflection and how we can live the psalms in our time.
The Psalter is at once a collection of songs, poems, and prayers that were composed and beloved by the Hebrews of the Old Testament. They are, as Bernhard Anderson and Steven Bishop say in Out of the Depths – the Psalms Speak for Us Today, “the songs that accompany the people of God on their journey through history.” They were used repeatedly in the worship of Israel in both Temple and synagogue. In the Hebrew Bible, the title for the book of psalms is tehillim, which means “praises.”
The psalms, says C. S. Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms, “Are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. They must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections that are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not” (pg 3).
The psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. – C. S. Lewis
The psalms were also a great part of the worship of early Christians, who considered themselves Jews who had recognized and received the Messiah. The first Christians would have continued to use the Hebrew Bible, but they would have read it in the Greek version (the Septuagint) where the collection was known as the psalmoi, meaning songs that were sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.
While the psalms were written over the course of hundreds of years, the Book of Psalms that has come down to us was likely arranged during the period of the Second Temple ((586 BC-AD 70) after the Jews had returned from exile and rebuilt the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
The association of King David with the psalms is consistent with David’s prowess with the lyre, a harp-like musical instrument. In fact, almost half – 73 – of the psalms are attributed to David. But others contributed also, notably Asaph and Korah who were leaders of musical guilds. Moses may have composed psalm 90, and two psalms are attributed to Solomon (72 and 127). Other psalms have no title and are known as “orphan psalms.”
However, as Anderson and Bishop point out, the study of psalms is not merely about the context in which they were written, or who the authors were, or into what categories and types we place them in an effort to analyze them. Rather the psalmists “invite us into a world quite different from the world of ordinary life, in which God is taken seriously as sovereign, judge, and redeemer” ( 18).
When we read the psalms, sing the psalms, recite the psalms, we are allowing ourselves to enter into the imagery and metaphor and poetic rhythm of these words and commit ourselves to the generosity and everlasting love of our God.
Contents of the study
Let All the Earth Give Praise
Psalms of creation
In the beginning, God created – well, everything. The moon and the stars and animals of every kind. And the psalmist praised God, singing, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1). The creation psalms remind us that our God is a God of abundance. read more . . .
Psalms for the Journey
The psalms of ascent
As they journeyed to Jerusalem for the major festivals each year, the Hebrews sang psalms along the way. We can appropriate them for our own journey to the place of God. Read more . . .
The Storytelling Psalms
The History of the Journey
The Hebrews remembered their salvation history by telling their story in psalms. They wrote them, they sang them, they told them to their children.
The Penitential Psalms.
God’s love includes kindness, faithfulness, mercy, loyalty, and steadfastness. We call it God’s hesed.
Trust in the Lord with All your Heart
The psalms of trust.
The psalmist voices hs complaint, then assures himself and us that God will intervene.
Psalms of Wisdom
The wisdom psalms remind us that those who remain faithful to God – even as God remains faithful to His people – will find more peace and joy than those who seek the fleeting satisfaction of worldly goods based on their own craftiness.