God’s Songbook

Posted: May 7, 2015 in Psalms, Route 66

Route 66: Psalms, “God’s Songbook”

So how do you survey a hymnal?  It’s one thing to give a summary of a biography or some other history.  It’s easy to give an overview of a letter.  But how does someone pick up a songbook and summarize the contents?  That’s our challenge tonight! 

The book of Psalms is indeed a songbook or hymnal – one that has been used by the people of God for thousands of years.  Benedictine Monks of the middle ages would routinely recite the psalms at least per week, many times at different hours throughout the night.  Many songs today are still composed based upon the psalms, and there is hardly any better lyric to use than that of Holy Scripture!

But because it is a songbook (God’s own songbook), it can be difficult to find a true unifying theme.  After all, some of the psalms are on opposite ends of the spectrum of faith.  One moment we could be reading a text filled with praise and wonder towards God; the next we could be reading of someone’s doubt, questioning if God hadn’t totally forgotten him.  But therein is the unity.  Whatever the emotion, whatever the experience, the singer took it to God.  The psalmists directed their thoughts and faith towards the Lord, expressing their trust in Him, even when the circumstances seemed to declare that God couldn’t be trusted.  Yes, God could be trusted and praised even in the worst of times, and the psalmists sing that chorus loudly to all the world.

In that sense, the psalms teach us how to pray.  There is no emotion too raw, no subject off-limits when it comes to prayer.  We tend to put up false categories of what is/not acceptable in prayer.  We think we have to have “holy” hearts & “holy” expressions in our words when we pray to God.  No doubt, there’s much devotional language in the psalms, but a lot of it is simply honest expression.  Just as Job had his moments of extreme honesty, so do the psalmists.  Even David demonstrates himself to be rather raw at times.  Some of this even finds ultimate expression in Jesus from the cross.  After all, what is the statement “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” if not extreme honesty?  Jesus experienced all of the rawness and rejection of the world, teetering on the brink of despair until He also expressed His faith in God (“It is finished!  Into Your hands I commit My spirit”).  The psalms capture all of that and more.

So how do we pray?  How do we praise?  How do we express our doubts and joys simultaneously?  We turn to the book of Psalms.

The first question is likely the most obvious: what exactly is a psalm?  The word actually comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (LXX), and was related to the stringed instrument used for many of the songs of praise.  That fits the traditional Hebrew title, translated “Praises,” though many of the songs don’t necessarily fit the joyous sort of idea implied with that.  That said, most of the sadder psalms still end on a note of trust and praise, so “Praise” is not an inappropriate title for the book.

In the end, a psalm is simply a song. Granted, they don’t look like lyrics to our Western eyes – they don’t even look like poetry at all.  But we need to remember that different times and different cultures had different ideas when it came to poetry.  In modern Western culture, we think of poetry as rhyming sounds; to the ancient Hebrews poetry was rhyming thoughts. (Which itself is evidence of God’s marvelous design and inspiration!  Sounds do not often translate well as poetry, but similar thoughts can be translated into any language.)  In Hebrew poetry, the technique is called “parallelism,” and it’s why most Bible editions show the lines grouped together by multiples of two or three.  The lines of lyrics were “parallel” with one another.  Sometimes the 2nd line complemented or amplified what was said earlier – sometimes it was a contrast – sometimes it was a gradual build – there are a variety of usages, but it’s all a feature of Hebrew poetry.

Remembering the genre is important, in that it helps the reader in interpretation.  When we know we’re reading poetry, it helps us to expect symbolic language.  Although several of the psalms do recount actual history, many times it recounts it in a figurative way.  For example, Ps 105 describes God’s provision for Israel during its descent and exodus from Egypt & describes the affliction of Joseph: Psalm 105:16–22, "(16) Moreover He called for a famine in the land; He destroyed all the provision of bread. (17) He sent a man before them— Joseph—who was sold as a slave. (18) They hurt his feet with fetters, He was laid in irons. (19) Until the time that his word came to pass, The word of the Lord tested him. (20) The king sent and released him, The ruler of the people let him go free. (21) He made him lord of his house, And ruler of all his possessions, (22) To bind his princes at his pleasure, And teach his elders wisdom."  Every bit of that is historically true, but it definitely reads differently than Genesis.  Why?  Because it’s poetry.  There are times in the psalms that God is described hiding His face from the psalmists (Ps 27, 132).  Since God is spirit, does He have a face to turn?  No – but it’s a poetic description of how the psalmist actually felt. 

Knowing that it’s honest poetry helps our interpretation in another way as well.  We use the psalms as a model of how we can honestly pray to the Lord, but not everything in the Psalms is necessarily recommended to us to follow.  When the psalmist of 137 calls upon God to smash Babylonian babies upon the rocks, those are raw honest emotions, but not a recommendation for church practice.  (We’re to pray for those who persecute us!)

Because the psalms are all individual, the authors and dates vary wildly.  At least one work is specifically attributed to Moses (Ps 90), a large percentage were authored by David (at least 48%), and some seem to date from the time of the Babylonian captivity (Ps 137 as an example).  That’s a range of nearly 850 years…a long time for a book to be in pre-publication!  Actually, there’s some evidence that the psalms were being used well prior to the time that the book that we know of was compiled.  Some of the groupings (such as the hallel psalms & many of David’s psalms) seem to predate the final edition of the book – which makes sense as surely the psalms were being used by the Hebrew people all through their history & not just after the 3rd century BC when they were finally compiled.

Other facts/trivia of interest:  The lengths vary wildly.  The psalms contain both the longest and shortest chapters in the Bible.  Ps 119 = 176 verses (22 sections of 8 verses each, following the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet).  Ps 117 = 2 verses.  It is also one of the most quoted books in the New Testament (head to head with Isaiah, depending on how you count), and specifically the most quoted by Jesus.

The superscriptions are interesting – all but 34 of the psalms have superscriptions.  For some of the psalms, we have the exact circumstances of their writing (such as Ps 34, which is based on the events of 1 Sam 21:10-15, when David pretended to be rabid & insane in front of the Philistine king in order to escape).  For others, we’re told the instrumentation to be used (such as Ps 55, to be played with stringed instruments).  For some, they had a express intent for use in worship (Ps 39, to the chief musician), and some were left without description whatsoever (Ps 104).  As we study, it’s probably best not to consider the superscriptions as part of the inspired text, in that they not always included with the ancient manuscripts, though they are found in the Masoretic text.

Believe it or not, the book of Psalms actually comes with its own built-in outline, as the Psalter divides itself into 5 books.

  • Book 1 (1-41)
  • Book 2 (42-72)
  • Book 3 (73-89)
  • Book 4 (90-106)
  • Book 5 (107-150)

According to Hebrew tradition, the Psalms are divided this way to match up with the Pentateuch (the 5 books of Moses).  That being said, there’s not really too much rhyme or reason for the “books” dividing the way that they do.  There seems to be a division between Books 1-2 based on the name used for God (1: Yahweh, 2: Elohim).  Book 1 has the highest concentration of the psalms of David, though David also has psalms scattered throughout the other books as well.  Likewise, Book 2 has most of the psalms from the sons of Korah, Book 3 has most of the psalms from Asaph, Books 4-5 have much of the praise and hallel psalms, etc.  However, these are just loose descriptions; there’s nothing hard and fast about the books themselves.

Obviously there is no way to even attempt an overview of every one of the 150 psalms in a single night.  It might serve better to take a look at some representative samples of the psalms, as they cover the whole gamut of our walk of faith.  We think of psalms as songs of praises (and many are!), but there are also laments as the authors mourn, petitions as the authors cry out for help, imprecatory prayers as they ask for God’s vengeance, declarations of trust, Messianic prophecy, and more.  We’ll survey 8 psalms tonight, taking at least one from each of the books, and looking at a sampling of the various authors and themes.

Psalm 1: Introduction to the Psalms

  • Description of the saint (1-3):
    • What the saint does not do: walk in the way of sinners.
    • What the saint does: delights in God’s word.
    • The results that come from that: firmly rooted, fruitful, blessed by God.
  • Description of the sinner (4-5):
    • The contrast: not firmly grounded, but blown away.
    • The results: judgment.
  • Conclusion (6).  The Lord knows the difference & will judge appropriately.

Psalm 17: David’s petitions.  Typical structure for Davidic psalms.  He was known for turning to God in his trials, and though he has his struggles he always affirms his trust in God at the end.

  • Plea for an audience (1-2): Hear me, see me.  David knew he needed God & didn’t turn anywhere else.
    • We know that God hears us & sees us through Christ.  We are guaranteed an audience with the King of the universe who is our heavenly Father!
  • Declaration of innocence (3-5): God knew David’s innocence.  No matter what he was accused of, God Himself had tested David & found him pure.
    • Was David claiming to be utterly sinless & perfect?  Of course not – he just wasn’t guilty in whatever it was that he was accused of.  When confronted by his own sin, David freely admitted and confessed his wrongdoings, but he didn’t need to confess something he hadn’t done.
    • Another way to look at many of the psalms of David is through a prophetic perspective of Jesus Christ.  As the Son of David, much of what David wrote ultimately finds its fulfillment in Christ.  Even if David wasn’t perfect (and he wasn’t), Jesus certainly was.  He had never transgressed the law of God, no matter what the Pharisees and others accused Him of doing.
  • Plea for deliverance (6-8): David was assured of an audience with God, and also deliverance through God.  He knew that God would always act according to His word.  God had made a covenant with David, and had a relationship with David, and it was to that that David appealed for help.
    • Likewise, we also have a covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are His children, the apple of His eye. There is nothing that we cannot take to God, asking for His help.  That’s not to say that God will always respond as we might initially want Him to, but we know that He WILL respond.
    • Beyond that, we have the assurance that God will ultimately deliver us from every trial because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We are delivered from the penalty of our sins – from the present power that sin has over us – and will be delivered from the very presence of sin in eternity.
  • Declaration of the problem (9-12): David held nothing back in what he faced. He felt surrounded, and waited for an ambush.  This was a very real trial, and David was just waiting for the shoe to drop.
    • Interestingly, the description of David’s enemy matches that of our own.  We also have an adversary walking around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour: the devil! (1 Pt 5:8) And like David, we also appeal to God for help.
  • Plea for action (13-14): David calls upon God to go to battle, and to save him from his greedy enemies.
    • God does act on behalf of His people…of that we can be sure!
    • Again, ultimately every enemy HAS been defeated in Christ.  Death has no more sting, sin has no victory, Satan has no hope.  We may struggle today, but we need to keep an eternal perspective on what God has already accomplished in Christ.
  • Declaration of faith (15): Even while David was still stuck in his trial, calling out to God for deliverance, he could still speak with absolute assurance of God’s promise.  He knew that God would not turn away from him, and that David would continue to know and be known by the God of Israel.
    • We look forward to the future.  Jesus is not done with us yet!  The work He has begun in us, He will be faithful to complete. (Phil 1:6)

Psalm 22: David’s prophecy.  This is one of David’s most prophetic psalms about Christ – if not one of the most direct prophecies of Jesus in all of the Old Testament.  Many of David’s psalms could look forward to Jesus in some way; this looks forward to Jesus in every way.  It’s possible David could have said some of these things from his own perspective, but in light of the cross and resurrection there can be no doubt that it was not David who is primarily in view, but Jesus.

  • The Messiah’s lament (1-18).  Written 400 years prior to the invention of crucifixion, David describes the agony perfectly.  Yet the physical suffering is not the primary point of anguish for the Messiah; the first thing mentioned is His spiritual suffering as He feels abandoned by God.  These were the words that Jesus cried out from the cross.  Keep in mind, it wasn’t some sort of terrible Bible study that Jesus was leading; this was the way He actually felt.  The One who knew no sin became sin for us, and God somehow “forsook” His beloved only begotten Son as He poured out His righteous wrath upon Him.
    • How terrible is the price for our sin!  This is what our Savior endured.  He felt forsaken by God, despised by men, surrounded by enemies, and physically tortured.  We wouldn’t wish the cross on our worst enemies, and yet it was our Wondrous God who endured it for us.  How great is the love of Christ for us!
  • The Messiah’s prayer (19-21).  There is a distinct break here, as the Messiah turns again to the God from whom He felt estranged, and continued to cry out for deliverance and help.  Jesus only quoted a few of these words from the cross, but no doubt all of what was written went through His mind as He hung there and suffered.
    • And God DID answer!  When?  Three days later when Jesus rose from the grave!  His soul was not left in the grave, but rose in victory.  His body did not see decay, and is still glorified to this very day as He sits at God’s right hand.
  • The Messiah’s praise (22-31). The words of Messiah go beyond the cross, even beyond the resurrection, all the way to the future fulfilled kingdom.  Jesus did praise God among His brethren (the disciples), and through His church Jesus is still proclaiming God to all the world today.  But there will come a day that all the earth will see the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, and we will all rejoice!  All the world will worship as every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord!

Psalm 47: the sons of Korah’s praise.  The authors are interesting in themselves.  11 psalms are attributed to them, and they seem to have been included among the Levites who ministered at the tabernacle and temple during the days of the monarchy.  Their namesake, however, is famous for a different reason.  It was Korah that rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, trying to claim the priestly role for himself.  Ultimately, it wasn’t Moses & Aaron with which he battled, but God.  His arrogance cost him his life, as he and those who stood with him were swallowed up by the earth as they maintained their rebellion. (Num 16)  Yet it seems his family wasn’t totally destroyed.  Some lived on, and they were quite content in the role that God HAD given them.  They had the privilege of leading people in worship of God, and even had their own prayers and songs recorded as Holy Scripture.  That in itself is a demonstration of grace!

  • The reign of God #1 (1-4).  Many of the psalms of the sons of Korah are filled with praise, and this is no different.  They wrote during the days of the earthly kingdom, but they look forward to the days of the millennial kingdom.  They look forward to a time in which it is not only Israel that praises the Lord, but all the peoples all over the earth. 
    • King Jesus is not just king of Israel, but king over all the world.  All power and authority has been given to Him, and one day we will see it exercised as He returns in glory (with us behind Him, as His holy army of witnesses).
  • The call to praise (5-7).  Because this God has gone up, He is worthy of praise.  He is worthy of song, and the people were to praise Him with all their might.  They were assembled together, and now was the time for them to sing unto God.
    • It is good to sing to the Lord!  He is worth singing about!
  • The reign of God #2 (8-9).  The sons of Korah look at again at the scope of the reign of God all over the world, as they picture Him seated upon His throne.  Knowing that God the Father is spirit, who then is it that sits on a throne?  Jesus!  Jesus will literally rule over all the nations in the Millennial Kingdom, and even those who now shake their fist in rebellion against God will freely acknowledge Him as God in that day.  As the psalmists declare, “He is greatly exlated!
    • Of course we do not have to wait until that day to exalt and praise our King Jesus.  Our whole lives can be lived in dedication to Him, seeking to lift Him up in everything that we do.

Psalm 74: Asaph’s pleas for help.  We don’t know much about Asaph, though we do know he was a musician personally appointed by David.  Among his other skills, he was a percussionist & was assigned to sounding the cymbals when the ark was brought into the tabernacle (1 Chr 15).  He’s the author of at least 11 psalms recorded for us, and his sons seemingly formed a guild of musicians to follow in his footsteps.  Several of Asaph’s psalms deal with trouble, and we see the same thing in Ps 74.

  • Recounting the destruction from the enemy (1-8).  He begins by asking the question of Job: “Why me?”  Why us?  Why do the people of God suffer in this way?  As the Son of David would feel forsaken by God, so did Asaph feel as if God had forsaken His people.  We don’t know the exact circumstances of Asaph’s writings.  On one hand, it would seem to refer to the Babylonian conquest, but that is far too late for Asaph to have written it (unless he was writing prophetically).  Certainly the enemies of God had not come and damaged the sanctuary of God during the days of David or Solomon.  Regardless of the historical circumstance, the destruction was known, and it felt awful.
    • Have you ever felt abandoned by the Lord?  You’re not the only one!  There are times that everyone wonders, “Where is God in all of this?”  The good news is that we can know that God has NOT abandoned us, even if we don’t exactly have all of the answers that we seek.  God has promised never to leave nor forsake us, and we can trust that He won’t.  He bought us with too high a price to abandon us now!
  • Affirming the power of God (9-17). Although Asaph (or his sons) felt abandoned, he knew the power of God from the past.  God had parted the Red Sea – God had broken the power of the Egyptians – God had provided for His people in the wilderness – God had brought the Hebrews into the Promised Land.  Over and over, Asaph could affirm what God had done in the past, and that gave him hope for the future.
    • Anytime we doubt our present circumstances, all we need to do is look at God’s past actions.  We know how God HAS delivered us, so we can be assured that God WILL deliver us.  That doesn’t mean our problems will disappear, but it does mean that we can be assured of God’s presence and power in the midst of our problems.  He might deliver us from our trials, or He might deliver us through our trials.  Either way, He will deliver us out of them.  He has the abundant power to do so.  How can we be sure?  Just look to the cross & resurrection!
  • Pleading the covenant of God (18-23).  Asaph knew that one of the best ways to appeal to God was based upon God’s own character and word.  God had made certain promises to Israel, and He would keep them.  (Of course, that worked both for Israel deliverance as well as for her discipline!)  But Asaph could ask God to act as a King on behalf of His people, and know that He would do it.  God is good to His word.
    • God is always good to His word!  We have been brought into the new covenant of Jesus Christ (something we remember every time we partake of communion).  We have been bought with His blood, and we have been made the people of God.  When we falter and struggle, we can also plead to God based upon His covenant promises.  Why should God forgive us when we confess?  Because He said He would.  Why should God give us wisdom when we ask?  Because He said He would.  Why would God sustain us and give us grace?  Because that’s what He promised in His covenant.  Let God be true & every man a liar!  He is faithful!

Psalm 100: Anonymous thankfulness.  This is a shorter psalm, but a blessed one!  Many psalms contain praise and thanksgiving to God, but this is the only psalm in the book specifically said to be a “psalm of thanksgiving.”  We are not told who wrote it, but whoever did surely had a wonderful prayer life with the Lord!  (FYI – the tune to which Ps 100 was traditionally sung among the Western churches is the same tune to which we sing the Doxology.)

  • Call to worship (1-3).  All the lands, all the peoples everywhere are to come to God with everything.  They are to shout, serve, sing, and know the LORD God as God.  It’s not unlike the Great Commandment set to song.  Deuteronomy 6:4–5, "(4) “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! (5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength."  What was commanded to Israel is commanded over all the earth.  People are to praise God with everything they are – with their whole being.  Be it with our hearts, our hands, or our minds, everything is to be given over to the Lord in praise.
    • Is this how we love Him?  Is this how we serve our Jesus?  Do we remember that the God we serve is the God who made us, and who specifically made us His people?  What a privilege it is to be called as the people of God!  We were once enemies against God, and now we are the sheep of His pasture.  We are His children.  We are the co-heirs of Christ.  How can we not praise Him with all that we have & all that we are?  Surely He is worthy of it all!
  • Praising God (4-5).  Once the people were called to worship, they were instructed on how to do it: with thankfulness!  There is no end to the thanks that we can give to our Heavenly Father – to our Lord Jesus – to our Counselor the Spirit.  We can bless Him and speak of His wonderful works (which is the Hebrew idea of praise).  We can speak of His person, His character, and His word…all of which are perfect.  Praise the Lord!

Psalm 137: Praying in anger.  We go from a psalm of thanksgiving to a psalm of anger and plea for vengeance.  Why?  Because it’s important to know that these are also the words of Scripture.  It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that God only hears certain kinds of prayers, and only certain attitudes are acceptable.  Obviously, we always approach God in reverence and respect, but through Christ we are invited to approach Him with whatever emotion we might be feeling.  Sometimes we might indeed be gracious, but other times we are downright mad.  Who better to help us deal with our anger than the Lord God?  That’s what Ps 137 & the other imprecatory psalms remind us of.  The psalmists took even their requests for vengeance to the Lord, because they understood that He was big enough to handle it & still know what best to do in response.

  • Remembering Zion (1-3).  The very first verse dates the psalm to the Babylonian captivity.  No longer are the people in Jerusalem, but they are strangers in a foreign land struggling to know even how to worship.  Everything about the devotional life had been centered around the temple, and now they had none.  Just thinking about their home made them heartsick, and to be told to play their former songs of worship crushed them.
  • Vow to always remember (4-6).  Like many did after 9/11, the Jews vowed to “never forget!”  They didn’t want to become too comfortable in their Babylonian home – they didn’t want to forget the joy they had in Jerusalem.  They would rather lose their ability to speak than to forget to speak about the praises of their home.
    • The problem was that it took captivity for them to get to this point.  Instead of worshipping God in Jerusalem when they had the chance, they worshipped idols.  They turned away from the relationship that God offered them, so they experienced God’s discipline instead.  They missed out on what they could have had.
    • So many Christians do something similar!  They miss opportunities when they engage in sin.  It costs them everything & they lose families, jobs, relationships.  It’s only after that it’s gone that they look back with fondness.  How we need to be careful never to take our relationship with God for granted!  He won’t cast us away, but He will turn us over to the consequences of our sin if we are not careful.
  • Imprecatory prayer (7-9).  The Jews didn’t blame God for their trial, nor did they blame themselves.  They blamed Babylon.  They blamed their neighbors who cheered on the Babylonian armies.  And Babylon was to be blamed!  Granted, God brought them in as His instrument of judgment, but they committed unspeakable evils, for which God judged them.  As for the Jews, they just remembered their anguish, and they asked God to send anguish back upon them: to even dash the Babylonian babies upon the rocks.
    • Remember, this is extreme honesty; it’s not recommended practice.  What is recommended is not revenge, but in taking all of our problems to the Lord.  God would be faithful to judge Babylon in righteousness as He saw fit – of that the Jews could be sure.  Far better to pray for Babylonian conversion than for Babylonian judgment…but it would come, one way or the other.

Psalm 148: Calling creation to praise.  The final 5 psalms in the book might be termed the “Hallelujah Psalms,” in that each psalm ends the same way: “Praise the LORD!”… or “Hallelujah!”  It’s a fitting way to end out this book of praise, and if there is any one overarching theme through Psalms, this would be it.

  • Praise from the heavens (1-6).  Is there any limit as to who/what ought to praise the Lord?  No.  Be it the farthest reaches of heaven, the angels, the vast expanse of stars – all of creation is to praise its Creator.  God is the One who spoke it all into existence, and He is deserving of its praise.
    • It’s always amazing how someone can look into the wonder of the created universe and NOT praise God!  The heavens declare His handiwork.  Scientists theorize that the universe is ever expanding, which means there is more and more space every day that owes God its praise!
  • Praise from the earth (7-13).  It isn’t only the far reaches of space that ought to praise God, but every creature on God’s green earth.  Be it that which lives on the ground or in the sea, or the rocks and trees themselves.  Even the Gentiles are called to give God praise…and one day they will, when Jesus is seen in all of His glory.
  • Praise from God’s people (14).  Most of all, the people of God ought to praise His name.  We have more reason than anyone to exalt the Lord God of Heaven – and that is the very purpose He has given us.  1 Peter 2:9–10, "(9) But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; (10) who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy."  This is what God has called us to…are we doing it?

It is a marvelous book of praise!  Be encouraged to USE it.  Too many times we might read the psalms, but never put it into action.  It’s one thing to read about praise; it’s another to actually offer it to God.  If the psalms don’t move us to participate in praise, not much will.  So do it.  When you read the psalms, read them aloud.  Take them to yourself as personalized praise.  Use them as a launching pad for your own prayers.

It’s always interesting in Christian bookstores to walk through the “devotional” section.  Many of those books are excellent & I’ve personally used many devotional books in the past.  But have we stopped to consider that God has given us a devotional book?  He included it directly in the middle of our Bibles.  All we need do is pick it up, read it, and turn our hearts to the Lord in praise.

Our God IS worthy of praise.  May we be the ones to do it!


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