How To Study The Psalms


Why was it written?

It would be simple to say that the book of Psalms is a collection of hymns-songs used in the worship services of ancient Israel.

And by and large, this simple answer would be correct. Most of the Psalms were originally written to be sung by a body of people – most likely a trained, professional choir – while sacrifices were made and festivals held at the temple in Jerusalem.

But that simple answer leaves out what happened to the Psalms after they were written. It leaves out the way God’s people took the Psalms and made them their own.

Songs meant to be performed in public became personal prayers. Hymns meant to be sung as a part of ritual became statements of individual guilt and remorse. And lyrics describing the glory of the reigning king came to symbolize something more – the promise of the Messiah who would come.

Perhaps the closest modern example of the way the Psalms were used is the way we use television today. Like the original setting of the Psalms, what we see on television is a performance by trained professionals. We are watching what other people do.

Yet most of us take what we see on television and we “personalize” it. We adapt it. We take it out of its original context and make it our own.

Think of the number of times you’ve repeated a catch-phrase, for instance, that you first heard on television. (You may even have heard entire conversations that were little more than this!) Think of the number of times you’ve compared something that was going on in your life with something you saw on television. And think of the number of times you’ve behaved in a certain way because that’s the way a character on TV acted.

For many of us today, television provides the mold into which we pour reality. For better or for worse, it provides us with examples of how to act and when to react, how to speak and what to say. Television today
shapes our language, our thoughts, and our lives.

And as television is today, so the Psalms were to ancient Israel. What began as scripts to be sung became the thoughts of a people. God’s people took the Psalms and made them their very own. And in doing so, the Psalms took God’s people and made them more like Him.

And this process, of course, can continue today, if you take the Psalms and make them a part of your own life.

What will I learn from this book?

No one can read the Psalms without amazement – sheer amazement at the number of troubles that can befall a human being. The Psalms describe people who are threatened by war, troubled by doubt, afflicted with illness, plagued by guilt, distressed by poverty, and angered by the success of their enemies.

Even the beloved 23rd Psalm – the “Shepherd’s Psalm” – talks about walking through “the valley of the shadow of death”!

In each case, however, the psalm’s author concluded that God is good, God is in control, and God is able to deal with the problem whatever the problem may be.

Not that every ending is a happy one – many of the Psalms end with the author still waiting for God’s deliverance.

And not that every hoped – for deliverance is a pleasant one. Some of the Psalms conclude that the swift death of one’s enemies is something to be sung about!

But the central message of the Psalms is clear: God can deal with any human problem. Nothing is beyond Him. And anything – anything! – that troubles us can be brought to Him.

Words you’ll want to know:

A number of Psalms are prefaced with what appear to be instructions on how they are to be sung or what tune they are to be sung to (viz. Alamoth, Al-Taschith [“Do Not Destroy”], Gittith, Jonath-Elem-Rechokim, [“Dove on Far-off Terebinths”], Lilies, Maskil, Sheminith, Shiggaion, Testimony). Exactly what is meant by some of these terms, however, is unknown.

Hosts, Host of Heaven: refers either to the stars or a personification of the stars as an army of spiritual beings.

Lord: If this word has only the first letter capitalized, it means exactly what you think it does. If all letters are capitalized, however, you need to read the next entry.

LORD: literally YHWH (pronounced “Yahweh”) – the name God uses when He wants to remind Israel of His special relationship with them. YHWH would probably be better translated as “I am,” but the Israelites regarded God’s name as something too sacred to be pronounced – so they substituted the word adonai (or “Lord”) for it whenever they read the Bible aloud. Most English Bibles preserve this custom, though some may use “Jehovah” (which is a combination of the words YHWH and adonai).

Nehiloth: to be sung with flute music.

Selah: Though the word appears over 70 times in the Psalms, nobody knows what it means. Scholarly guesses have ranged from “amen” to “stop for a moment and let the orchestra play.” Some even think it may mean “turn up the volume”!

Zion: the hill on which the temple was built; used as a synecdoche for all of Israel.

Helpful books:

The first book you’ll want to check is a church hymnal. Many have a scripture index – check it to see which Psalms have been set to music. Many people are surprised to learn, for instance, that Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” is based upon Psalm 46.

Need a good study guide? Check out Irving Jensen’s Psalms in the Moody Bible Institute’s Bible Self-Study Guides series or Eugene Peterson’s Psalms: Prayers of the Heart in InterVarsity Press’s LifeGuide Bible
Studies series. Both cost around $4.

If you like what Barclay does in the Daily Study Bible series, check out George A. Knight’s two-volume commentary from Westminster Press – both for $9. And Derek Kidner’s commentary on the Psalms in the Tyndale series from InterVarsity Press is also good – two volumes, at $10 each.

And if you’re looking for something to put all of the Psalms in context, take a look at C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms – a good, thematic approach to the whole book. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich puts it out in paperback for $4.

Finally, Mitchell Dahood’s three-volume commentary for the Anchor Bible series has been widely recognized as a path-breaking work. (For $58, it had better be!) Since 1929, you see, a number of poems similar to the Psalms have been dug up in a place called Ras Shamra. Dahood makes heavy use of these poems – written in a language called Ugaritic – as he translates and interprets the Psalms. While admitting that it “contains many brilliant insights,” however, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia cautions that “Dahood’s commentary should be employed with caution by those who are not specialists in Ugaritic”!

You’ll find it in the Psalms:

* When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God (8:3-5, RSV).
* The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God (14:1).
* The heavens declare the glory of God (l9:1).
* The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want (23:1).
* O taste and see that the Lord is good (34:8).
* God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (46:1).
* Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me  (51:10).
* Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed  each other (85:10).
* We spend our years as a tale that is told (90:9).
* As the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him (103:11).
* Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path (119:105).
* By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1).
* I am fearfully and wonderfully made (139:14).
* Put not your trust in princes (146:3).

How to read the Psalms:

To be honest, the book of Psalms is a tough one to read straight through. Its hymns have not been arranged by subject matter. There is no continuity. And (as someone once complained about the dictionary), there is not much of a plot.

One way around this is simply to read a psalm a day – at that rate, you can finish the book in five months.

To best appreciate the Psalms, however, you should memorize them and make them your own. Begin with the Shepherd’s Psalm – Psalm 23.

Once you’ve memorized that one, you might try:
* Psalm 1 – the rewards of godliness.
* Psalm 19 – God’s revelation of Himself.
* Psalm 46 – a reminder of God’s protection.
* Psalm 51 – a prayer for forgiveness.
* Psalm 73 – a reminder not to envy the wicked.
* Psalm 91 – a reminder of God’s protection in time of war.
* Psalm 146 – God’s concern for justice.
* Psalm 148 – let all of creation praise the LORD!

(The above material appeared in an April 1992 issue of Signs of the Times.)

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