Psalms Week 1
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
A Cherished Book
The book of Psalms is arguably one of the most favored parts of the Bible. Christians to whom the Old Testament might seem distant, perplexing, or forbidding nevertheless cherish the Psalms. These folks are in good company, for the Psalms and Isaiah are the two Old Testament books most quoted or alluded to by New Testament writers. Illustrative of this affection, some churches have historically limited their hymnody to the Psalms.
Similarly, Psalms is the only biblical book reproduced verbatim in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Christians who do not think twice about a volume entitled The New Testament and Psalms would find bizarre, if not absurd, one called The New Testament and Leviticus or The New Testament and Kings.
This is hardly surprising, since the book of Psalms exhibits passionate spirituality, radical honesty, soaring praise, agonizing lament, compelling poetic beauty, profound religious feeling, and intense personal struggle. One need not be a saint to get swept up in religious fervor of this sort. Psalms provides a window into the psalmists’ very souls. It is a cold heart indeed that is not penetrated by the psalmists’ poignant insights. Even those who are not necessarily religious, let alone committed Jews or Christians, find Psalms attractive in light of the human emotion and perception reflected in them, not to mention the majesty of their literary expression. [Author’s Note 1]
The Psalter: Psalms as Part of a Larger Whole
Still, while Psalms may be viewed as a product of literary genius, incomparable spiritual sensitivity, or exquisite religious expression, for Christians (and Jews) they are first and foremost Scripture and are therefore to be read as such. [Author’s Note 2] What does such a reading require?
The answer to that question is provided by the very structure of the Psalter. Indeed, using a word like Psalter — which refers to the 150 canonical psalms taken as a whole — is suggestive in itself. This is because it has been conventional from the vantage point of modern biblical scholarship as well as popular usage in the church (or synagogue) to approach the Psalms individually rather than collectively.
Biblical scholars in the modern era attempted to type each individual Psalm and locate it in a presumed original setting. Such scholars used the criteria offered by Form Criticism, which involves stereotypical features, common content, poetic meter, stock vocabulary, and the like. Accordingly, psalms were identified variously as wisdom poems, communal laments, individual laments, hymns, royal psalms, psalms meant for temple worship, imprecatory psalms, penitential psalms, and so forth.
In turn, these types were seen as a function of certain social or historical contexts, some of which were considered more likely than others. This academic effort was paralleled by how lay folk attended to the Psalms. That is, each psalm was viewed more or less as a decidedly individual statement on the part of the psalmist.
But the psalms do not come to us exclusively as a series of individual units. Instead, each psalm is part of a larger whole: a Psalter. Granted, the Psalms are highly personal, but that characterization needs to be distinguished from being individualistic. This means that each psalm is to be read not only in light of the other psalms but also in light of the whole biblical canon. That is one of the properties of canon: every book is affected by every other book in the collection. [Author’s Note 3]
Structure of the Psalter as a Clue to Interpretation
Moving beyond Form Criticism, in more recent years scholars have paid attention to clues found in the Psalter that indicate not only its structure but also the manner in which it is to be interpreted. A couple observations underscore this point. Perhaps the most obvious one is that the Psalter has been divided into five segments:
Each of these units is marked by concluding formulae of one sort or another:
- The first one ends with a benediction (41:13) [Author’s Note 4].
- The second one also has a benediction (72:18–19), plus the notation that “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended” (72:20). Since other Davidic psalms follow Psalm 72 (e.g., 101, 103) this statement must be taken as hermeneutical or interpretively suggestive rather than technically factual.
- Equally, a blessing concludes the third (89:52) and fourth (106:48) segments.
- The last segment ends not with a single pithy benediction but rather with a whole doxological psalm (150). In fact, Psalms 146 through 150 offer a number of admonitions calling not only for Israel, God’s elect people, to give lavish praise to God but for all the created order to do so, whether humans, animals, or inanimate objects (e.g., 148:1–4, 7–10; 150:6). As it stands, the conclusion of the whole Psalter is a benediction on steroids!
Titled and untitled psalms are another clue to the structure of the Psalter. Curiously, Psalm 3 is the first titled psalm: “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son” (3:2). [Author’s Note 5] This, too, is intentional and speaks to structure. By leaving Psalms 1 and 2 untitled, they in effect serve as the introduction — the titles, as it were — to the whole book of Psalms, just as Psalm 150 serves as the final title. Put sharply, Psalms 1 and 2 orient the reader to a proper reading of the Psalter, just as Psalm 150 provides the appropriate ending. The content of these psalms is decisive.
Psalm 1 describes how someone who avoids certain things is blessed, happy, or joyful. Such a person does not live according to counsel offered by the wicked, does not stand where sinners do, and does not sit among religious cynics (1:1). However, this blessed person who keeps the wicked, sinful, and religiously cynical at an appropriate distance also embraces something. That something is the Lord’s Torah. The Lord’s Torah is the blessed one’s delight; indeed, the blessed person will recite or meditate on the Torah all the time: day and night (1:2). But what is this Torah?
Usually, Torah is translated law or instruction. These are apt translations as far as they go. But neither word sufficiently conveys Torah in all its dimensions:
- First, Torah refers to a major section of the Bible: the Pentateuch, or the first five books (Genesis through Deuteronomy).
- Second, Torah refers to the commandments, statutes, rules, and the like that indicate how to respond to God’s love and grace (Exodus 19 through Numbers 10:10; Deuteronomy).
- Third, Torah recounts a story, beginning with creation and the mess humanity makes of the created order (Genesis 1–11), and moving to the election of the ancestors of God’s people Israel (Genesis 12–50). Then, once the ancestors have become a people, they are rescued from Egyptian bondage, travel through the wilderness, and covenant with God (Exodus 1–18; Numbers 10:11ff.). This story accents the grace of God to which law is a response.
Seen in this manner, Torah is ultimately a story, a liturgy, and a way of life. The story features God’s creation, God’s plans for the created order, and God’s election of Israel to accomplish the ultimate goal of blessing “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1–3). It forms the identity of God’s chosen people, orients and informs them, and is to be constantly believed, enacted, and recited by them (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:4–9).
In turn, Torah is also a liturgy, not exclusively in the sense of guiding worship, but as a comprehensive way of being in the world. Everything God’s people do is in response to and a further promotion of God’s agenda. Finally, Torah is a way of life in that Israel is a Torah-people through and through. Israel is a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), both of which designations speak to Israel’s manner of living out every facet of its sanctified life according to divine mandates.
Consequently, Psalm 1 asserts that the one who recites or meditates on Torah “day and night” will be like a tree planted by a stream whose nourishing water induces luxurious growth (Psalm 1:3). Those who ignore Torah and live against Torah — the wicked — are characterized by an opposite image: no water, no growth, and no produce. Instead, the anti-Torah crowd may be compared to dry, dusty, useless grain hulls — chaff — which the wind carries away effortlessly (1:4). Anti-Torah leads to judgment and death, whereas living out Torah promotes life, righteousness, and divine recognition (1:5–6).
As a title for the Psalter, Psalm 1 admonishes readers to read Psalms as Torah. Even though the individual psalms are human words addressed to God and therefore a response to God, this is reversed by Psalm 1. Reading individual psalms as Torah requires our reading them as God’s word to us. In effect, Psalm 1 transforms individual prayers into Scripture. This does not diminish the Psalms’ powerful human element. Rather, it enhances them by God’s addressing us through those who spoke so effectively to and about God.
Psalm 2 is a companion title with Psalm 1 but orients in a different direction. Psalm 1’s emphasis on Torah, indicative of God’s will and agenda, has its antithesis in Psalm 2. In the latter the world’s ruling elites — nations, peoples, the earth’s kings and officers — rage and plot against God (2:1). Tellingly, the Hebrew word that connotes meditating on or reciting Torah in Psalm 1 (1:2) is used in Psalm 2 (2:1) to refer to anti-God conspiracies and schemes.
Clearly, the world is not inclined to comply with God’s will for the created order. Its resistance is not passive, but aggressive. As though the war room in which this nefarious plot is being hatched were tapped, the psalmist quotes their rebellious design to break away from what they perceive as enslavement (2:3).
However, this global plot is directed not only against the God who elected Israel, but also against God’s anointed one, or messiah. The messiah is the ideal Israelite king who rules in God’s behalf and implements God’s sanctified agenda (Deuteronomy 17:14–20). This anointed one is none other than the ideal David (2 Samuel 7; 21–24).
Without question, the importance of this figure is such that it prompts God to laugh in the face of those who see their anti-God stance as formidable. Yet this laughter is derisive, not humorous (Psalm 2:4–5). God asserts that the king’s position is a function not of earthly power but of divine appointment (2:6). The king is a son whom God has begotten (2:7).
In spite of all the conventional power at the world’s disposal, in the end God will grant to the messiah the whole earth as his own heritage (2:8). It may appear that the world’s conventional power is superior, but ultimately the messiah will prevail (2:9). Given that reality, the kings and rulers who plot foolishly against God would be wise to assess where actual power resides. Divine wrath renders the powerful impotent (2:10–11).
Psalm 33 explicates the theme of Psalm 2. It starts by calling on the righteous and upright to praise the Lord with voice and instruments (33:1–3). This expression of praise amounts to a new song (33:3). The lyrics of that new song are not specified, but presumably they should accent the uprightness of the Lord’s word, the faithfulness of the Lord’s work, the notation that the Lord actually loves righteousness and justice, and the fact that the Lord’s lavish grace fills the earth (33:4–5).
If those properties do not evoke a new song, nothing will. In turn, those features of the world God envisions are rooted in creation itself. Divine utterance led to the created order (33:6; compare Genesis 1). Changing the image, this Creator gathered the waters of the mighty oceans as though in common receptacles (33:7). Power of this magnitude can elicit only awe and amazement, not only on the part of the religious but on the part of any who have eyes. If one does not fear a God like this, one is simply not paying attention (33:8–9).
God, who is the object of the conspiratorial counsel and plans of nations or peoples, easily negates these efforts. In contrast, divine counsel or thoughts remain (33:10–11). In the end, blessedness belongs to nations or peoples whose God is the Lord (33:12). Then there is a repeat of the imagery of God’s heaven-eye view of all the peoples whom God created (33:13–15). It is a strange notion that created beings have little trouble surmising that they can rebel against their creator and come out on top. It is actually a ludicrous idea. Apparently, the human ability to amass conventional power feeds this delusion.
But the psalmist debunks the belief that true power lies in the king’s army, or in the warrior’s horse (33:16–17). How should power of this sort stand up to the One who has created peoples, kings, nations, armies, and war horses? The answer is obvious. Ultimately, what God wants to see from the heavenly perch are those who fear the divine, those whose hope is in God’s gracious love, and those who maintain that life itself comes from God (33:18–19). Thus, even in the midst of a world where nations or peoples continually attempt to exert conventional power, ultimate hope is in the Lord (33:20–22). Psalm 33 in effect puts Psalm 2 in italics.
Interestingly, Psalm 1 begins (1:1) and Psalm 2 concludes (2:12) with a “Blessed are …” formula. The former promises blessing to those who attend assiduously to Torah in its several dimensions. The latter offers blessing to those who rely on divine power as expressed through the Lord’s anointed one, or messiah (Psalm 33 expands this motif). The effect of beginning the Psalter with these two untitled psalms is to instruct the reader to read the Psalter in two ways:
- One, we are to read the Psalter as Torah, as God’s word to us, the community of faith, even though these psalms are magnificent human responses to God.
- We are to read the Psalter messianically. This means that we take seriously that God’s efforts in the world to neutralize conventional power and promote a different sort of power involve God’s people and the anointed one who not only leads but embodies that people.
Of course, for the Christian, this messianic emphasis dare not bypass Jesus the Christ (i.e., Messiah). In Acts (13:33) Paul argues that Jesus is the one spoken of in Psalm 2:7. Equally, twice in Hebrews its author portrays Jesus as the begotten son referred to in the same passage (Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). At least some manuscripts of Luke cite this same text (Luke 3:22).
In this sense, Jesus is the embodiment and ultimate fulfillment of all that the Old Testament says about the ideal David and his role as the anointed one whom God places as king over God’s people. When Christians read the Psalter messianically, they perforce think of David not only as ideally portrayed but as the precursor of the Son of David whose coming inaugurated the dawning messianic age and the seminal establishment of the Kingdom of God.
Thus, we read the Psalter as Torah and we read messianically, and therefore we end appropriately in doxology. The praise notes are astounding. The Lord is to be praised in all the temple and in the vast firmament (Psalm 150:1). It is hardly a local expression of praise. All manner of instruments are to be employed in this praise (150:3–5). When we are praising God, there is never too much noise!
Finally, everything that God has done, is doing, and will do through Israel and Israel’s messiah is for the eventual benefit and blessing of the whole created order. That is, it is for all who breathe, and for all who have breathed, and for all who will breathe. Surely, then, it is only fitting that everything that breathes join in this grand doxology.
Questions for Further Reflection
- The Psalms have long played a cherished role in the life of the church. How have the Psalms functioned in your life to present? What are some of your favorite Psalms and why?
- What does it mean for the Psalms to be highly personal, but not individualistic? Why is this distinction important? What might it look like for the corporate worship in our churches to be personal but not individualistic?
- What sort of lifestyle does Psalm 1 lift-up? In what ways do you currently meditate on Scripture? Are there new practices that you might endeavor to make part of your regular rhythms of study and worship?
- Dr. Spina notes three different things that make-up Torah. What are they, and how do they align with or challenge your previous conceptions of this word?
- The Lectio sets-out two ways we ought to read the Psalter. What are they and how does our Scripture reading for today lay this groundwork?
- If you have time, re-read Psalm 1 and spend some time in prayer for our study of the Psalms, asking God to help you delight in these sacred texts.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.