The psalms invite us into fellowship with Jesus in every conceivable frame of mind, state of heart, and situation in life.
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:
For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.
To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Psalms Introduction
Today we will begin a new sermon series on the book of psalms. My goal is to have these sermons continuously available, so you might be reading this years after I wrote it. In my present time, however, I have just finished a sermon series on the book of 1 Peter. It took us 33 sermons to cover the five chapters in that book, or approximately 6.6 sermons per chapter. There are 150 chapters in the book of psalms. If we go at the same rate as we did for 1 Peter, it will take us 19 years to finish the psalms – and that’s if I never miss a single week!
Thankfully, I am planning to approach the psalms a little bit differently. In the first place, I will not preach a sermon on every single psalm. Secondly, there is a large difference between the genre of Psalms and the genre of 1 Peter. 1 Peter is an epistle, and it aims to teach us truth that applies to Jesus Christ in a straightforward, and theologically dense way, which means there is a great deal of meaning packed into every phrase and verse.
The book of Psalms is something else entirely. We will begin this time by considering what it is, and what that means for how we should read the psalms.
Let’s start with the name. “Psalm” is basically a Greek word that is a translation of a Hebrew word that means “song,” or “poem.” There are two other Hebrew words associated with the book of Psalms: one means “prayers,” and the other means, “praises.” The book of psalms, then, is a collection of songs and poems that have been used for many centuries by God’s people for prayer and praise. To reiterate: a psalm is a song or poem.
In a book like 1 Peter, each verse and chapter builds upon what was written before. If you read chapter three without reading chapter two, you will not fully understand what Peter intends to say. In the psalms, however, each “chapter” is actually a self-contained unit. This makes Psalms one of the only books in the Bible where it doesn’t really matter if you read it in order. You don’t need to read psalm 22 in order to understand psalm 23. You could flip to almost any chapter in the book of psalms and find it meaningful without reading the preceding chapters.
There are just a few exceptions to this. It appears that psalms 1-2 are meant to go with each other. It is likely that is also true of psalms 9-10 and also, perhaps, psalms 42-43. The reason for this is that although scholars can be confident about the content of the book of psalms, there has been some confusion, in just a few places, about how, exactly, it is to be divided into separate psalms.
Also, because we are talking about poetry, we won’t necessarily be analyzing each verse the way we do when we look at a letter, or the teaching of Jesus. In general, the best way to approach a psalm is to look at the entire thing, paying attention to the overall emotion and message. There are, however, a few psalms that are too long to do that with. In fact, the longest single chapter in the Bible is psalm 119. I guess we’ll see how it goes as we proceed, but the way we approach the psalms should be somewhat different from how we look at other parts of the Bible.
A quick word about how we talk about the book. The book overall is called “Psalms.” When we talk about a single chapter, however, we are speaking about a single psalm. So I might say “the book of Psalms.” But, about one single chapter I would say: “psalm 10 (no ‘s’).” Again, this is a reflection of the fact that normally, each chapter is its own, self contained poem or song (psalm).
Speaking of poems, at first glance, the psalms don’t appear to be very, well, poetic. This is because Hebrew poetry is a bit different than what we call poetry in English. In English, poetry often has rhyme. Even when it doesn’t, it still usually has meter – in other words, a poem conforms to certain rules about how many syllables should occur in each line of the poem. So there is a kind of obvious rhythm to most English poems. There is also a kind of English poetry called “free verse,” which has basically no rules.
Hebrew poetry – the poetry of the psalms – does not normally use rhyme, rhythm, or meter. Unlike “free verse,” however, It does have a typical form, and that is parallelism. In Hebrew poetry this means that ideas are set up “in parallel.” A parallel consists of the same idea that has already been written, but is now re-stated in a slightly different way. Just as in geometry, you can have a virtually unlimited number of parallel lines, so in Hebrew poetry, parallels might come in groups of two, or three, or even more. There is an almost infinite number of ways to combine parallels. They might be set up to repeat an idea, or to contrast other ideas, or to play off one another, or to highlight certain thoughts.
For an example of one kind of parallelism, look at Psalm 43:1
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man
deliver me! (ESV)
In the ESV, this is formatted to help us see the four parallel thoughts. The first line, “vindicate me and defend my cause” is parallel to the fourth line, “deliver me.” They are two different ways of expressing the desire of the writer, and he puts them in parallel. The second line: “Against an ungodly people” is in parallel with the third line “from the deceitful and unjust man.”
You can also see that these parallels are organized into a structure with an “outside” parallel (vindicate me/deliver me) containing an “inside parallel” (ungodly people/unjust man). To map it out in an overly simple way, the structure looks like this:
First thought: Help me O God!
Second thought: save me from ungodly people
Second thought in parallel: save me from ungodly people
First thought in parallel: Help me, O God!
But of course, the poet uses more interesting words and expressions to express these parallel thoughts. Besides being ingenious and beautiful, this particular poetic expression has a way of highlighting what is most important. God’s vindication or deliverance are the first and last thought; the ungodly people, though a problem, are contained within thoughts about God’s salvation. In other words, the main point is the writer is praying for God’s help. Though he is in trouble, his main focus is not on his problem, but on God’s help.
By the way, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for a verse to help me demonstrate this. My Bible app was bookmarked to Psalm 43, and I just picked the very first verse to show us how Hebrew “parallel poetry” works. It’s all over the psalms, though it has many different types of configurations. We’ll consider those different configurations when we encounter them in the psalms that we study.
By the way, when it comes to the psalms, I think it pays to be picky about the Bible translation you use. Not all of them capture the beauty and poetry of the psalms equally well. For instance, I checked a few other English versions, and they did not really capture the inside/outside parallelism I just described for Psalm 43:1. To make sure, I double checked the Hebrew, and the ESV did indeed portray it as it was originally written. Other English translations changed the word order to make it easier to read, but then they lost the underlying structure of the poetry.
By the way, though I know just enough Greek to be dangerous, I am basically incompetent with Hebrew. However, I have been trained in how to use various tools designed for incompetents like me, and so I know how to find the information we need when it comes to that language.
Now, at this point, I know that some of you are thinking, “I’m sorry Tom, but I’m not going to spend hours analyzing ancient Hebrew poetry.” Don’t worry, you won’t have to. But I want you to start with the psalms by understanding that, in fact, they are made out of a very intricate, complex and beautiful poetry. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the psalms contain some of the world’s greatest literature of all time.
If you want to, you can spend time analyzing the parallels, but you don’t need to do that in order to appreciate the psalms. The biggest thing is to understand that the psalms are expressed in poetic, emotional language. Enter into the thoughts and feelings that are expressed here. Let them move you. If you find you are not being moved, try a different Bible translation.
On the other hand, if, with any given psalm, you are having trouble understanding what the poet is trying to say, you might want to try to see the parallels he uses, and how he groups them. For that, you probably want a version like the ESV.
I say “he” about the poet, because in every instance where we know who wrote a given psalm, it was a man. However, there are many psalms for which we don’t know the author, and some of those could have been written by women.
So, for those we know about, who did write these psalms? A number of them say, in Hebrew “of David.” In some cases, it is almost certain that King David himself wrote them. He was definitely a poet and musician, and a couple of these same psalms also appear in 1-2 Samuel. In other cases, “of David” might mean something like “in the tradition of David.” The same is true for the psalms attributed to Asaph, or the Sons of Korah. It could mean that they were written by those actual people, or that they were written in the tradition and style of those people, or, more likely, sometimes the first, and in other cases, the second. One psalm says it is “Of Moses” but it isn’t clear whether Moses himself wrote it, or it is about Moses, or in the tradition of Moses.
Generally most of the psalms were probably written during a six hundred-year period, going from the time of David in 1000 B.C. until after the time the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon, around 400’s B.C.. It is likely that many of the older psalms were well known and used in worship by the people of Israel for many centuries.
Some time after the return from exile, in the 400’s B.C., prophets and priests organized the psalms into the order that we now find them. They gathered them into five “books,” which were probably originally, five scrolls with the psalms divided up between them. Certainly, having them all together would have made for a large scroll that would be difficult to use, so it makes sense that they would be divided up into smaller scrolls. Most Bibles indicate these book divisions somehow, usually just by a bold heading saying “Book II” and “Book III” and so on. Also, If you pay attention, you will notice that the last psalm at the end of each book contains a kind of blessing that uses words like: “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen!” or something similar, and then some other phrases.
It appears that someone (probably a group of people) deliberately organized the psalms within the five scrolls into a certain order. The majority of psalms of lament, and cries for help, are within the first two and a half books. The majority of the psalms of praise and thanksgiving are found in the latter half of the collection.
There are several different types of psalms. Some of them are laments. A lament is an expression of pain and grief, or a cry for help and deliverance, or a cry for God to punish enemies. Others are psalms of praise, which I think is pretty straightforward. There are wisdom psalms, which are poems primarily written to teach us something. There are psalms that seem to be intended for specific worship occasions – some of which are, even today, typically used during the Jewish festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Sukkoth). And there are several psalms that seem to be focused on Israel’s king.
When I preached through Matthew a few years ago, during part of that time I happened to be re-reading the psalms for my daily devotional. I was deeply impressed to realize that Jesus quoted from the psalms constantly. Sometimes, he used direct quotes. Other times, he just used the language of the psalms to express something he was saying, without declaring it as a quote. Since Jesus clearly loved this book, and it was in his heart, it is well worth studying.
Therefore, the very first way we interpret the psalms is to remember that they reveal Jesus to us. Sometimes, they show us his character, what he is like. Sometimes, they remind us what he has suffered for us, and a few of them even prophesy about his sufferings, or prophesy other things about his life. In other places, the psalms show us the types of things Jesus does for us. Many of them can be used to praise Jesus. So, first and foremost, as you read the psalms, ask yourself: Where is Jesus in this psalm? You might be surprised and delighted as the Holy Spirit shows you.
The psalms are also a tool for prayer. Sometimes I simply read a psalm out loud, and with my heart I agree with the words, as a kind of prayer. There are other ways to use the psalms in prayer and worship, and we will talk about those more during this series as we engage with individual psalms.
Another helpful idea in interpreting the psalms is this: they reflect and direct our experiences of living in faith. Through the psalms we can engage with all of life: with suffering, with hope, with joy, with anger, with disappointment – virtually every human emotion can be found in this book. But it is not merely emotion on display. It is emotion, and life experience, combined with faith. There is despair in some of the psalms. But it shows what despair looks like in someone who still has faith. It invites us, when we despair, into fellowship with others who walked through similar experiences while maintaining their faith.
In fact, the psalms invite us into fellowship with Jesus in every conceivable frame of mind, state of heart, and situation in life.
If you are using these sermons in a house-church setting, here is your assignment for this week. In addition to reading this sermon, please pick one psalm (any psalm, although psalm 119 might be challenging) and read it. Come to church prepared to talk about your experience reading the psalm.