Making Sense of the Psalms

For someone who has never seen a hymnal the Trinity Hymnal may at first appear to be a random collection of songs for Christian worship and instruction.  Upon closer inspection, however, one begins to discern that these songs are not just thrown together, but are carefully arranged around certain themes.  For example, a glance at the Table of Contents demonstrates that the hymns are grouped under the following major headings: God, The Holy Trinity, God’s Work, God’s Word, Jesus Christ, The Holy Spirit, The Church, The Way of Salvation, The Christian Life, Special Topics, and Service Music.  There are, of course, subheadings which group the songs even more closely by theme, such as, God – His Perfections (hymns 1-23).  Turning to the indexes, one can also find the hymns organized by tune, meter, author, numerous topics, and Scripture references.  Looking up Isaac Watts (1647-1748) with his thirty-six hymns in the Trinity Hymnal reveals both his prolific hymn-writing and the Church’s appreciation of his work.  For many of our hymns we owe our thanks to The Psalter, John Newton, and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles.  On the other hand, some of our most loved songs are the only ones by a given author in our hymnal, such as “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!” by Edward Perronet (1726-1792).  Of course, while authorship and tune are important, the thematic arrangement of the hymnal shows the greater importance that we attach to the content of our hymns.  Having said that, anyone who has ever tried to arrange songs by theme, will testify that it is not as easy as it may at first seem, since most songs contain a few key themes that could legitimately place them in several locations.  Where would you place “Jesus, Keep Me near the Cross”?  The Trinity Hymnal places it under Jesus Christ—His Death.  This makes sense.  But since the song is really about the application of the death of Christ to the Christian’s daily life it might just as well be placed under the heading of The Christian Life—God’s Refreshing Grace.  In addition to all of this, consider that the Trinity Hymnal, published in 1990, includes songs from as early as the Old Testament Book of Psalms right on up to the twentieth century.

Now, I’ve said all of this, not as a lesson on the Trinity Hymnal, but as an analogy for the Book of Psalms.  All of the Psalms are theological in the most proper sense, that is, they are about God—His glorious attributes and His mighty works.  Yet they speak not in abstractions about the being and works of God; the Psalms expound theology (i.e., worship) through the concrete realities—struggles and joys—of life.  There are many psalms about the king(s): coronation, troubles with enemies, victories in battle, covenant with David, and the hope of a restored dynasty.  There are psalms for pilgrims who are traveling to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  There are psalms of lamentation, bemoaning the ruin of a sinful people, as well as penitential psalms in which the psalmists/people confess their sins and seek God’s forgiveness and favor.  There are psalms of praise as well as prayer.  Some of the prayers shock our modern sensibilities, such as the imprecatory psalms that call for God’s wrath to fall on the wicked oppressors of God’s people.

These psalms were written over a millennium, from the time of Moses (15th century B.C.) to post-exilic times (5th century B.C.).  There seem to have been shorter collections of these psalms prior to the final collection in the 5th century B.C., such as “The Prayers of David, the Son of Jesse”.  They were all brought together in the canonical book of Psalms sometime in the post-exilic era.

The order of the psalms is thoughtful and purposeful, not random.  Of course, it does not rise steadily to a climax of praise, progressing through a neat series of experiences with God.  It does end with a crescendo of praise, but the journey is much more like the Judean countryside with many ups and downs, rocky crags, narrow passes, and sights that are breathtaking both for their beauty and their peril.  If the book of Psalms were not “inscripturated” but incarnated, what would it look like?  I think it would look like a wise king who gains sovereign authority over all nations from God through the travail of suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection.  I think it would look like a man of sorrows who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  It would look like a man who embodies all the hope, joy and peace of his people, and who bears their sin so that they might enjoy life in the presence of God.  It would look like a beloved Son, a royal Son, an only Son, who seeks the glory of His Father, by bringing many sons to glory, redeeming all of creation in the process, that God may be all in all.  The Psalms, in the flesh, would look like Jesus.  The Psalms are part of our glorious inheritance in Christ.  Through our union with Him, these songs become ours.  Let us hear them, sing them, and own them as gifts from Christ for our pilgrimage to the celestial city.

Two helpful resources:

Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise, and Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001).

Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007).