“We have now before us one of the choicest parts of the Old Testament, wherein there is so much of Christ and his gospel, as well as of God and his law, that it has been called the summary of both Testaments. “
― Matthew Henry, Famous theologian from the 1600’s – Introducing his exposition of the Psalms
Psalms….the one book in the Bible that I didn’t pay much attention to. I mean, I read verses of Psalms that were constantly quoted in my devotionals (Ex: Psalm 19:1 23:1, 27:4), but that is about it– I just thought that the book consisted of multiple poems, a lot of poems!
Therefore, I decided to take a class about Psalms, and I am much more blessed for it. I want to share two major things I have learned about Psalms—its history and its value.
The History of Psalms
The book of Psalms (or the Psalter) consists of 150 psalms written by various authors. Some of the well-known writers are David (assigned 73), Solomon (assigned 2) and even Moses (assigned 1)—I say assigned because theologians disagree about the authorship of some of the psalms. They were also written by Asaph and Sons of Korah; two musical families established by David to write and perform music in the temple of God. However, about 48 psalms don’t have an assigned author.
Many of the psalms were written to music (they are lyrics!) so you will see certain psalms that have introductions like “For the director of music. On wind instruments” or “For the director of music. With string instruments”. Certain psalms were sung by the people as they made their way to the temple or the high priest during worship (Palms 120-134: The Pilgrim Psalms)
Many theologians classify psalms by content. Some of the classifications are meditations of God’s creation, messianic psalms, wisdom psalms, psalms about the author’s personal circumstances, psalms of vengeance, thanksgiving psalms, psalms about faith and joy in God’s presence, etc.
The Value of Psalms
While I find all the facts above interesting, it is not what has blessed my life. The book of Psalms draws out how, as broken humans, we feel and act, and how God responds.
Take for example Psalm 1, also called the Preface Psalm.
1 Blessed is the man[a]
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law[b] of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
It lays out the three main characters of psalms: the righteous, the wicked, and God. Psalm 1 is a short description of who the righteous are, who the wicked are and how God interacts with both.
Who are the righteous? The righteous are people who are seeking God and delight in God’s law (not to be confused with the Mosaic/Jewish law). In Matthew, Jesus told us God’s law:
Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:37-40
If the righteous man follows God’s law, he is planted to receive many blessings –later psalms flesh out what those blessings are.
Who are the wicked? In Hebrew, the wicked are not evil people (those are Baal worshipers who are the equivalent to Satan worshipers), but rather people that don’t know God. They go about their day fulfilling their desires without caring about how it might affect others, and without the fear of God.
Psalm 1 is called a preface because later psalms flesh out the three characters, their interactions, their rewards or punishments. In other words, it lays the foundation for the rest of the book. Some psalms are sad, some are happy, some are angry (calling curses upon our enemies) and God responds with love, mercy, grace, and salvation—while still being a fair judge.
Reading through the Psalms, and digging deeper has shifted my relationship with God and strengthened it. The deeper I go into psalms the richer my prayers get. They have built a bridge between how I feel, living in a fallen world, and how God reaches out with to me with justice, grace and love.
Truer words could not be spoken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident:
“Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.”
So, let’s give the book of Psalms the respect, time and understanding it deserves.