The Book of Psalms, or Psalter, is essentially the songbook for the worshipping people of God. It is theology set to music. It contains 150 poems which have been used as, and inspired many, songs for God’s people to both publicly and privately worship Him. The psalms express a wide range of human emotion and teach us how to centre those emotions on God, regardless of our personal circumstances. They teach us how to rightly express our love and adoration towards God and sorrow over sin; devotion to the word of God; to have dependence on God in desperate circumstances; how to respond in the battle of fear and trust; how to walk with God even when the way seems dark; thankfulness for God’s care and provision; and confidence in the eventual triumph of God’s purposes for the world.
Most psalms contain titles which tell us who the author was, historical notes, as well as directions for their liturgical use. Although the majority of psalms were authored by David, leading Spurgeon to title his published works on the psalms as the “Treasury of David”, the other authors include the Sons of Korah, Asaph, Solomon, and Moses. The individual psalms, therefore, come to us from a wide variety of periods in Israel’s history (Moses – David – Exile/Post-Exile). The standard Hebrew text divides the psalms into 5 books (taken from the ESV study bible):
|Book 1||Psalms 1–41||Psalms 1–2 have no titles that attribute authorship (but see Acts 4:25 for Psalm 2); they provide an introduction to the Psalms as a whole. The remainder of Book 1 is made up almost entirely of psalms of David: only Psalms 10 (but see note on Psalm 9) and 33 lack a Davidic superscription. Prayers issuing from a situation of distress dominate, punctuated by statements of confidence in the God who alone can save (e.g., 9; 11; 16; 18), striking the note that concludes the book (40–41). Reflections on ethics and worship with integrity are found in Psalms 1; 14–15; 19; 24; and 26.|
|Book 2||Psalms 42–72||From the Davidic voice of Book 1, Book 2 introduces the first Korah collection (42–49, although 43 lacks a superscription), with a single Asaph psalm at Psalm 50. A further Davidic collection is found in Psalms 51–65 and 68–69, including the bulk of the “historical” superscriptions (51–52; 54; 56–57; 59–60; 63). Once again, lament and distress dominate the content of these prayers, which now also include a communal voice (e.g., Psalm 44; cf. Psalms 67; 68). The lone psalm attributed to Solomon concludes Book 2 with the Psalms’ pinnacle of royal theology (72; cf. 45).|
|Book 3||Psalms 73–89||The tone darkens further in Book 3. The opening Psalm 73 starkly questions the justice of God before seeing light in God’s presence; that light has almost escaped the psalmist in Psalm 88, the bleakest of all psalms. Book 2 ended with the high point of royal aspirations; Book 3 concludes in Psalm 89 with these expectations badly threatened. Sharp rays of hope occasionally pierce the darkness (e.g., Psalms 75; 85; 87). The brief third book contains most of the psalms of Asaph (Psalms 73–83), as well as another set of Korah psalms (Psalms 84–85; 87–88).|
|Book 4||Psalms 90–106||Psalm 90 opens the fourth book of the psalms. It may be seen as the first response to the problems raised by the third book (Psalms 73–89). Psalm 90, attributed to Moses, reminds the worshiper that God was active on Israel’s behalf long before David. This theme is taken up in Psalms 103–106, which summarize God’s dealings with his people before any kings reigned. In between there is a group of psalms (93–100) characterized by the refrain “The Lord reigns.” This truth refutes the doubts of Psalm 89.|
|Book 5||Psalms 107–150||The structure of Book 5 reflects the closing petition of Book 4 in 106:47. It declares that God does answer prayer (Psalm 107) and concludes with five Hallelujah psalms (146–150). In between there are several psalms affirming the validity of the promises to David (Psalms 110; 132; 144), two collections of Davidic psalms (108–110; 138–145); the longest psalm, celebrating the value of the law (Psalm 119); and 15 psalms of ascent for use by pilgrims to Jerusalem (Psalms 120–134).|
Using the Psalms as Scripture
The Psalms are recognised as inspired Word of God in scripture. As such, they do not just help the believer express emotions, but also allow the Holy Spirit to shape them. As scripture, the psalms can deeply act on the emotions in a transformative way, especially when dealing with “difficult” passages, calling on God’s people to use their minds in worship as well as their hearts and voices. Emotions are never treated as a mere problem to be solved, but are part of the raw material (together with the mind) that the Holy Spirit can continue to use to shape us, changing our wants and desires to become more holy as He is holy. The brutal emotional honesty of the psalms frees us to be brutally honest with ourselves and with each other, and teaches us how to minister God’s grace to one another within the gospel community of the church. In this ongoing process of accountability and transformation, we see more clearly our dependence on God and his church as his Holy Spirit works amongst us.
As for the “difficult” passages of the psalms, none can be more jarring to our understanding for those of us living on this side of the cross of Christ, than those verses containing the “curses”. Here are some helpful principles for understanding these passages (taken from the ESV study bible):
- one must be clear that the people being cursed are not enemies over trivial matters; they are people who hate the faithful precisely for their faith; they mock God and use ruthless and deceitful means to suppress the godly (cf. Psalms 5:4–6, 9–10; 10:15; 42:3; 94:2–7).
- it is worth remembering that these curses are in poetic form and can employ extravagant and vigorous expressions. (The exact fulfillment is left to God.)
- these curses are expressions of moral indignation, not of personal vengeance. For someone who knows God, it is unbearably wrong that those who persecute the faithful and turn people away from God should get away with it, and even seem to prosper. Zion is the city of God, the focus of his affection cf. Psalms 48; 122); it is unthinkable that God could tolerate cruel men taking delight in destroying it. These psalms are prayers for God to vindicate himself, displaying his righteousness for all the world to see (cf. 10:17–18). Further, these are prayers that God will do what he said he will do: 35:5 looks back to 1:4, and even 137:9 has Isaiah 13:16 as its backdrop. Most of these prayers assume that the persecutors will not repent; however, in one place (Ps. 83:17), the prayer actually looks to the punishment as leading to their conversion.
- the OT ethical system forbids personal revenge (e.g., Lev. 19:17–18; Prov. 24:17; 25:21–22), a prohibition that the NT inherits (cf. Rom. 12:19–21).
Thus, when the NT writers employ these curses or formulate their own (e.g. 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9; Rev. 6:9–10; Acts 1:20 and Rom. 11:9–10), they are following the OT guidelines. Any prayer for the Lord to hasten his coming must mean disaster for the impenitent (2 Thess. 1:5–10). Yet Christians must keep as their deepest desire, even for those who mean harm to the church, that others would come to trust in Christ and love his people (cf. Luke 23:34; Rom. 9:1–3; 10:1; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Hence, when they pray for God to protect his people against their persecutors, they should be explicit about asking God to lead such people to repentance. With these things in mind, then, it is still possible that the faithful today might sing or read aloud even these sections of the Psalms, if it takes place in a service of worship, under wise leadership, for the good of the whole people of God.
So as we delve deep into the psalms, let us together drink deeply from the unlimited reservoir of God’s grace, mourn at our sins, and seek rest, comfort, guidance and protection from our Mighty Rock, Shepherd and King.