The Scope Of The Psalms Joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, hope and despair, anxiety and assurance, praise and prayer, penitence and pardon, worship and wonder – all these human feelings are mirrored in the Book of Psalms. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that our salvation in no way depends upon our feelings, but rather upon our faith in God and His Word (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 10:8-10,17). Nevertheless, the God who created us with these emotions has given us the Book of Psalms for our instruction and comfort. It is for this reason that the people of God down through the ages have been attracted to the Psalms.
It has been said that the first five books of the Bible give us figures of Christ; the Prophets give us foretellings of Christ; the Gospels give us the facts of Christ; the Acts give us the fruits of Christ; the Epistles give us the fullness of Christ; but the Psalms give us the feelings of Christ. Both metaphorically and physically, the best way to find Psalms is to open to the middle of the Bible, because this book represents the very heart of the Bible.
The Style Of The Psalms
The Hebrew word from which our word “psalm” is derived essentially means “songs of praise.” The dictionary defines “psalm” as a “sacred song.” It is good to remember what C. S. Lewis pointed out in the very beginning of his book, Reflections On The Psalms, that the psalms are poems intended to be sung, not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. The essence of Hebrew poetry is recurrence of thought so that similar thoughts are often expressed in two or three different ways. An example of this is seen in Psalms 1:2, 51:7, 95:2 and 119:105. Some Psalms, such as 25, 34, 37 and 119, occur as acrostics based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The Study Of The Psalms
Each psalm is better understood if considered in three ways: what led to its writing, its possible prophetic interpretation, and its present-day application.
What Led To Its Writing? Often the reason for a psalm’s writing is given as part of its heading, and as such is a part of the inspired Scripture. It throws light on the feelings expressed in that psalm. Two examples of this occur at the beginning of Psalms 34 and 51. Psalm 34 begins with this note: “A Psalm of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.” And Psalm 51 begins this way: “A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” We should always read these headnotes, and where possible we should also look up any references to the historical books to help fill in the background. A proper understanding of the background for a psalm will enable us to better identify with the feelings expressed.
Possible Prophetic Interpretation. It is clear that whereas the words of the psalmists – David, Asaph, Moses, the sons of Korah and others – were often born out of deep spiritual experiences, they have a further significance beyond the immediate understanding of their authors (Lk. 24:44; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 1:10-11). Thus David’s cry of abandonment in Psalm 22:1 –”My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” – is taken up by the Lord on the cross, where it acquires a totally new significance (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34).
The gospel writers speak of the innermost feelings of the Lord with considerable restraint and only occasionally give us glimpses of them (Mt. 11:25; Jn. 6:66-67; 12:27-28; 17:1-26; Lk. 22:39-46). However, in the Psalms these feelings find full expression, particularly in those messianic psalms, such as 22 and 69, which speak of the suffering of Christ. Approaching these psalms with unshod feet as it were, and listening to the Lord pouring out His heart, will bring us to our knees in worshiping wonder.
Other features of the Messiah are also presented in the Psalms: His sonship (Ps. 2), kingship (Ps. 2, 89), humanity (Ps. 8), confidence (Ps. 16), advent (Ps. 40), betrayal (Ps. 41), eternal existence (Ps. 102), and priesthood (Ps. 110). A recurring prophetic theme in many psalms is the feeling of the persecuted remnant of Israel in a coming day (Ps. 43, 74, 77, 94).
It is possible for us to go overboard in a prophetic interpretation of the Psalms and forget the immediate circumstances out of which these songs were born. Therefore we must keep a balance between these two approaches. Nevertheless it should be emphasized that the prophetic approach is completely justified by Scripture. No less an authority than the Lord Himself plainly declared that the Psalms spoke of Him (Lk. 24:44). Moreover, it is clear that the apostles found in the Psalms not only references to Christ but also applications to their own immediate circumstances and to God’s present dealings (Acts 1:16-20; 2:25-27,33-36; 4:24-28; Rom. 11:9-10; Heb. 4:7-9).
Present-Day Application. In the Psalms we find the feelings of servants of God as they sought to follow God in an ungodly world. That world has not changed its character and, for that reason, servants of God throughout the ages have readily identified with these feelings. As a young Christian, I preferred reading the Gospels and the Epistles. However with the passage of time and the varied experiences of life with all its ups and downs, the Psalms have become much more meaningful and precious. Psalm 23 may be part of classic English literature, but more than that, it has offered special comfort to children of God at times of special sorrow or need.
However, it must be remembered that the Psalms – written before that full expression of God in Christ appeared in the New Testament – fall short of the full revelation of Christian truth. Thus the psalmist might quite properly cry to God for vengeance upon his enemies – in such Psalms as 5, 94 and 109 – in a day when the blessing of God was to be seen in material prosperity and peace. Those sentiments will again be appropriate in a day when the besieged remnant of Israel is tormented by its enemies, but they are inappropriate in this Christian age. The Lord Jesus repeatedly urged forgiveness upon those who would follow Him (Mt. 5:43-48; 18:21-22; Lk. 23:34; Acts 7:60).
A Note Of Caution
One of the great characteristics of Christianity is that, by grace, we are brought into the family of God to know God as our Father (Jn. 17:1-3; 20:17; Rom. 8:14-15). God is nowhere addressed as Father in the Psalms, nor could He be known as such until the work of Calvary had been completed (Jn. 14:6). A note of caution then must be sounded in light of the present day over-emphasis on the Psalms in some Christian worship. Don’t sell our Father short! The Lord said: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (Jn. 4:23). Let us rejoice in the special relationship we have with Him, and let’s use every opportunity in our worship to acknowledge this wonderful relationship!
By Gordon Hughes
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org