This month we’ve been reading and preaching on the Psalms, and we will be dipping into some Psalms in our Gospel Teams in term 1. So it’s worth stopping and thinking for a moment about what the Psalms actually are, and how we should read them.
It almost goes without saying that the Psalms are really important. Why are the Psalms important? Because…
• they take up a big chunk of the Old Testament – it’s the biggest book in the whole Bible – there’s 150 of them!
• the New Testament quotes from the Psalms more than any other book.
• it’s such a unique book of the Bible – it’s the only one of its kind in the Bible – a diverse collection of songs and poems.
• Jesus says that the Psalms are fulfilled in him! (Luke 24:44)
• Christians have got so much out of them over the centuries.
Because of all this it’s worthwhile stopping and asking what we are reading, and how we should read and apply the Psalms. Let’s ask a few questions to help us think about this.
1. What are the Psalms?
In the Hebrew Bible the name of the book is actually “Praises”, which is fitting – that is predominately what they are – praises to and about God. But in our English Bibles they’re called the Psalms which means “song/poem sung to music”, which is also a fitting title, given so many of them appear to be set to music (sadly we don’t know what that music would have sounded like). So what we appear to have is a big collection of songs and poems that were written over a long period, and used in the life of Israel.
2. What are the Psalms about?
If you have a quick scan over a few Psalms you will no doubt start to see some of the big themes that keep coming up in the Psalms:
• God – that he alone is God and to be worshipped.
• God’s character and actions – his sovereignty, grace, kindness, love, compassi- on, justice, holiness, his acts of creation and salvation.
• God’s law.
• People’s responses to God: Praise to God, complaining to God.
• King David and his experiences.
• Justice and vindication for God’s people.
There are lots of big themes throughout the Psalms, but the 2 big foci are:
1. God, his character and actions – who he is and what he’s done, and
2. The whole range of responses that people have to him, particularly his people’s responses.
3. What are the different kinds of Psalms?
There’s different ways we can look at the Psalms and categorise them. We could group them based on their author, topic, purpose, tone/emotion, etc. But probably the easiest way to group them is by the kind of prayer that they contain: Prayers of trust, thanks, praise, questioning and doubting, protest, lament, plea, vows to God, etc.
The Psalms contain every kind of prayer and emotion. Calvin called them “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul”. Why? Because “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”
And that is one of the unique gifts of the Psalms - they give us a richer prayer life. They expand and stretch our prayer life, and grow our prayer horizons to see that there is more to pray for and about, and more ways to express ourselves in prayer to God. Let’s read them for that purpose! Which leads us to the next question…
4. How do we read/pray the Psalms?
This is probably too big a question to answer in this short article, but below is a well-worn way to read the Psalms.
The difficulty we can find as Christians when we read the Psalms (or anything in the Old Testament) is figuring out how they apply to us. The Old Testament is mainly about and written to the nation of Israel, and so sometimes it’s hard to see how they relate to us as Christians. To help with this, Christians have come up with this way to read and pray the Psalms.
The method involves reading the Psalm three or more times.
1. The first (and perhaps second) time you read the Psalm, try to read it in its original context. Ask: what did it mean for the Israelites? And read it as if you were an Israelite – what events in Israel’s history might the Psalm be talking about? How would you feel as an Israelite reading this?
2. Next read it and try to see how it relates to Jesus – he is the fulfillment of the psalms and the Davidic King after all! Read it and try to think of ways that Jesus has fulfilled this Psalm – perhaps it’s quoted somewhere in the New Testament, or perhaps it speaks of the kinds of experiences Jesus had e.g. suffering.
3. Next read it as a Christian, as yourself. That is, read it as someone who is saved by King Jesus and connected to him. Ask yourself how this Psalm applies to you, as someone who lives after Jesus’ death and resurrection. You might even choose to pray it!
At the end of the day, more than anything, the Psalms are meant to instill God’s praises in us. The very end of the book finishes with:
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah! (Psalm 150:6)