PSALMS; Prayer, Praise and Poetry

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Psalms ; Praise, Prayer, Poetry

Key Text: Psalm 150:1-2

Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.

As we have observed in previous studies the Hebrew Old Testament was divided into three sections; Law, Prophets and Haggiographa (Writings). The first book in the third and final section is the Psalms. As this is the largest and the primary book in this section the Haggiographa or the Writings were often referred to as “The Psalms” (Luke 24:44). This certainly highlights the importance that that the ancient Hebrew believer attached to this book and this fact has not been lost on the New Testament believer. Some of these passages within The Psalms are the most familiar in the entire Bible ( Psalms 1,23,100 for example) and many Christians have found comfort in this book alone in times of trouble and fear. The Gospel witness in The Psalms is also clear. This is illustrated by the fact that prior to his conversion Martin Luther was chiefly studying both Psalms and Romans, two books which changed his life and the face of Church History. C.H. Spurgeon called his commentary on this book , “The Treasury of David.” It is a treasury indeed and may God help us to mine its everlasting riches which out-value gold and diamonds.

Purpose

The primary purpose of the Psalms is designated by its title. The Hebrew title “Tehullim” means praises and the Greek “Psalmoi” means songs. This book certainly contains many songs of praise. These songs were sung by the people of God in their worship within the sanctuary (1st Chronicles 16:4). We limit the Psalms, however, if we resict it to public praise alone. It is clear that many of the psalms were unsuitable for praise alone and some are considered as being prayers. It is on this footing that many Christians have found personal comfort from this book:

The Psalter, rather, is primarily a manual and guide and model for the devotional needs of the individual believer. It is a book of prayer and praise, to be meditated upon by the believer, that he may learn thereby to praise God and pray to him.” (Edward J. Young)

An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul, for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.” (John Calvin)

Inspiration

The internal evidence within scripture clearly points to the Psalms as an inspired volume. There are numerous New Testament references to this volume; in fact only the book of Isaiah has more New Testament quotations. Jesus cried out from the cross quoting Psalm 22:1. The Apostles used the Psalms to prove that Jesus Christ was the Messiah (Acts 2:24-36, Acts 12:29-39). It is also evident that in the New Testament the Psalms played an important role in worship (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16).

There is testimony within the Old Testament itself showing that David, the most prolific Psalmist, was a man endued with the Holy Ghost who wrote with prophetic unction (1 Samuel 16:13, 2nd Samuel 23:2).

Authorship

The following table will show the variety of Psalmists employed in the composition.

Authors

Number of Psalms

David

73

Asaph

12 (Psalms 50 and 73-83)

Sons of Korah

10 (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 87, 88)

Solomon

2 (Psalms 72 and 127)

Heman the Ezrahite

1 (Psalm 88)

Ethan the Ezrahite

1 (Psalm 89)

Moses

1 (Psalm 90)

Orphan or Anonymous Psalms

50

As the Psalms are linked with David more than any other author it is worth pausing to consider his contribution to this volume. Everything we learn from David in Scripture points him out as a man with the God given talents for this work. Indeed we could add that his training and experience fitted him for the bequeathing of this his heirloom to generations of believers. What were his qualities which gifted him with the title “sweet Psalmist of Israel.”? He was a skilful musician (1 Samuel 16:18, Amos 6:5), he was a true poet (2nd Samuel 1:19-27), he was a man of deep feeling (1 Samuel 18:1-4), he was a true worshipper of Jehovah (2nd Samuel 6) and he was a man of rich and varied experience as a shepherd, a warrior, a king, an administrator, a musician, a poet, a worshipper, a lover, a friend, a parent and a sinner.

Composition

While there is some clarity in relation to the authors there is much uncertainty surrounding the assembling of the Psalms into their present form. The Jews considered the Book of Psalms to be a volume of five books.

Book 1 Psalms 1-41 (Mainly written by David)

Book 2 Psalms 42-72 (Mainly written by David and the Sons of Korah)

Book 3 Psalms 73-89 (Mainly composed by Asaph)

Book 4 Psalms 90-106 (Mainly unknown authors)

Book 5 Psalms 107-150 (Mainly written by David)

What is striking, however, about this arrangement is that the Psalms are not in chronological order. David’s Psalms appear early in the volume and also towards the end. The earliest Psalm, penned by Moses, appears as number 90. It is most likely that David began the arrangement of the Psalms playing a key role in assembling the material so that the present form would have been recognisable in his day. By the time of King Hezekiah we know that the Psalms of both David and Asaph were in use by the Lord’s people (2nd Chronicles 29:30). Nevertheless some Psalms were certainly composed after Hezekiah’s time and even during the exile (Psalm 137). The 126th relates the return from captivity which would place it in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. After the exile there was certainly a renewed interest in the Psalms (Ezra 3:10-11, Nehemiah 12:24-27). This adds weight to the theory that the Psalms were finally assembled after the exile, possibly by Ezra, one of the most dominant figures in Hebrew history.

Titles

We consider the titles of the Psalms, written in small print in the Authorised Version, to be inspired. The Hebrew manuscript does nothing to reduce their importance. These words prefacing the Psalms, supply us with useful information as to the authors and, at times, the circumstances when a particular Psalm was written. This is true of the following Psalms of David; 3, 7, 18, 30, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63 and 142.

The following table is a list of rather obscure words used in the titles of Psalms with the meaning:

Title

Meaning, if available

Mizmor (57 times)

To pluck, with reference to an instrument

Shir (30 times, 12 in connection with Mizmor)

A song

Maschil (13 times)

A Meditative Psalm or a Skilful Psalm

Michtam (6 times)

Either a Golden Psalm or an Atoning Psalm

Shiggayon (once in Psalm 7)

Meaning uncertain

Tephillah (5 times)

Prayer

Tehillah (once in Psalm 145)

Praise

Lamnatseach or To The Chief Musician (55 times)

Given to the director of music for use in the Sanctuary for worship.

Neginoth (6 times in combination with Lamnatseach

Stringed Instruments

Al Hasshemineth (twice in Psalms 6 and 12)

On the octave

Gittith (3 times)

Word is connected with the wine, possibly a song for the grape harvest

Nechiloth (once in Psalm 5)

Wind Instruments, it is thought this kind of music was associated with mourning

Al-tashcheth (4 times)

Means, do not destroy.

Ayyeleth Hashachar (once in Psalm 22)

Hind of the Morning, a hunted animal.

Shoshanim (twice in Psalms 45 and 69)

Lilies or roses, associated with love

Shashan Eduth, twice in Psalms 60 and 80)

A lily or rose is my testimony

Jonath elem rechokim (once in Psalm 56)

A dove far away

Al muth habben (once in Psalm 9)

Meaning unclear

Songs of Degrees or Ascents (Psalms 120 -134)

Thought to be the songs of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for worship.

Selah (Not a title but appears at the end of a section, 71 times in 39 Psalms).

Some take it to mean a pause, others have claimed it means an increase of volume.

Style

Psalms were written as poetry. Hebrew poetry differs from English poetry which is dependent upon rhyme and rhythm. Hebrew poems embraced a style that has become known as Parallelism. In Hebrew Parallelism the words of one line always lead on to a parallel line which expresses a similar idea or at times a concept which is the exact opposite.

We will take Psalm One as our example. In the first verse there is an example of synonymous parallelism where the thought within the first line is contrasted:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

Nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful”

In the sixth verse on the other hand the author employs antithetical parallelism where the thought within the first line is contrasted with the second:

For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous:

But the way of the ungodly shall perish”.

Parallelism is a study in its own right and can help us understand the Book of Psalms. These few examples, however, help us appreciate that Psalms are indeed a form of poetry.

Themes

Christ – The Messianic Psalms are among the most important passages in the Old Testament foretelling the coming reign of the Messiah. Among the most well known are Psalm 1 (His Perfection), Psalm 2 (His Dominion), Psalm 8 (His Humility) , Psalm 22 (His Passion), Psalm 23 (His Compassion), Psalm 24 (His Royalty), Psalm 45 (His Marriage to the Church), Psalm 110 (His Priesthood), Psalm 118 (His Resurrection) and Psalm 128 (His Scourging). Christ himself related the Messianic theme of the Psalms (Luke 24:44-47).

Praise – There are many Psalms of praise and thanksgiving throughout the volume, some of which we sing in God’s House today; Psalms 40, 103, 121, 124. There are many others besides. The Jews called Psalm 118 the Great Hallel, singing it at the Passover Feast. These were probably words which our Lord and the disciples sang before leaving the upper room. The Songs of Degrees are very much the praises of the pilgrims making their approach to Jerusalem. The volume concludes like an orchestra reaching a mighty crescendo as God is praised over and over; Psalms 144-150.

Prayer – The Psalms are also a prayer book where the supplications of saints are recorded. At the beginning of the volume there are a set of 5 Psalms where David’s prayer in adversity is recorded (3-7). Throughout the book we discover a sad, lonely and suffering people who found refuge in their God in days of trial. In tragedy we can read Psalm 46, when betrayed we can turn to to Psalm 55, when anxious Psalm 37 will be of assistance and when bereaved Psalm 39 will give us a a godly view of life. The list is endless. There is a prayer for every difficult occasion in this book that we can incorporate into our own prayer lives.

Confession – When we sin we discover a way back to God in the book of Psalms. The most notable example is the 51st, which we would be all the poorer without. The Psalm written after David’s terrible sin reveals a God who shows mercy to the penitent.

Gospel – The assurance and hope that the Christian has in Christ is revealed throughout the Psalms. In Psalm 32 we observe a man whose sins are covered, in the 40th the sinner is drawn out of the horrible pit and in the 103rd we are informed that our sins are cast away as far as the east is from the west.

The Gathering of the Nations to Christ – The Psalms speak of a day, which has not yet dawned, when all nations of the earth will be gathered into the family of the redeemed; Psalms 86:9, 22:27, 2:8, 47:2-8, 72:7-11,17,19, 110:1. The day of revival and mass evangelism followed by conversions is not yet over, in fact it has not even begun. The Church can approach the future with optimism.

The Scriptures – From the opening Psalm where Christ, our greatest example, spends his time meditating upon scripture, we are taught throughout this volume that God’s word is precious. The two most obvious Psalms in this category are Psalm 19, where God’s general revelation in nature and his special revelation in scripture are set forth by way way of thanksgiving, and Psalm 119. As well as being the longest chapter in the Bible the 119th gives the highest honour to the Word of God, line by line. It has given us such remarkable words as:

Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might sin against thee” (v11)

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (v105).

Judgement – The most difficult and for some the most unpalatable aspect of this volume are the so called Imprecatory Psalms. Throughout the Psalms the inspired writers cry out for justice and the overthrow of their enemies. From Psalm 2 where David foretells the Lord breaking the heathen with a rod of iron (v9) to the 139th where he declares that he hates those that hate the Lord the volume is littered with expressions of vengeance. This is unpalatable for this pluralist ecumenical age where God’s justice is seldom spoken of. Nevertheless it is a salutary reminder that justice is a godly principle. It is never vindictive to represent justice and righteousness. It is never wrong to demand that evil doers are punished. It is a Christian and godly virtue to pray that evil is punished, if not in this life, certainly in the life which is come:

But thou, O God, shalt bring them down into the pit of destruction: bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in thee.” (Psalm 55:23).

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