An Introduction To The Psalms

Several weeks ago, as the four of us Pastors were discussing what to do for a sermon series over the summer. . . . one of our Pastors, who shall remain nameless. . . because he’s in Guatemala and not here to defend himself. . . . proposed a series on the Psalms.  Immediately I confessed that I had never preached a “Psalm”.  In other words. . . . I’ve never used a Psalm as the primary text that I preached from.  And then one at a time, Pastor Mike said he had never preached a Psalm, Pastor Craig said he had never preached a Psalm, and Pastor David as well said he had never preached a Psalm.

So. . . . of course, we decided to do a series on the Psalms.

Now. . . . just in case this series doesn’t go well due to our collective inexperience. . . . I want to go on record as saying Thank You to all of you for being our guinea pig test subjects. . . . and as our guinea pigs – if you endure to the end, there will be a piece of cheese or something for each of you waiting at the finish line.

I’m just kidding.  I’m sure it’ll be a great series.

But for me, this completely true story I’m telling you is even funnier. . . because when I went home and told Kim that we were going to be preaching a series from the Psalms. . . her first reaction was to get this mortified look on her face and say – but you don’t even read the Psalms.

And she was right!   Mostly.  After 35 years together, she knows my tendencies pretty good.

But before we go on, let me clarify:   it’s not that I don’t ever read the Psalms. . . . it’s just that the Psalms is a book that would be characterized as songs, or poetry.  And poetry is not something I’m drawn to.

I still vividly remember taking American Lit in High School and having to read “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and having to dissect that poem. . . to determine its’ meaning.

You guys remember that poem?

It ends with these words: 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Remember that?

Well, we had an assignment in American Lit to determine the meaning of this poem.  And we had just had a lecture about how the beauty of poetry was that it could speak to different people in different ways. . . . because no two people are living the exact same circumstances.

So I wrote a paper on what this poem meant in my life circumstances at the time.  And I really thought it was a good paper.

My teacher, however, did not think it was a good paper.    

And that trend – of me not doing well interpreting poetry,    continued throughout that semester.

So that pretty much killed any interest I had in poetry going forward.

If, as my teacher had said in her lecture, poetry can speak to different people in different ways – but my interpretation was pretty much always totally off-base. . . . obviously poetry wasn’t my thing.  I guess I just figured something must be missing in me that would enable me to be a poetry consumer.

So just being completely transparent with all of you this morning. . . . that experience also kind of muted my enthusiasm for the Psalms.   And to my shame, I admit that that has persisted throughout my adult life.

Over the years, I’ve gone to the Psalms to study some – usually because as I’m studying something in a different book of scripture, there will be a reference to something in the Psalms.  So I’ll go read it to shed light on the subject I’m studying.

And I do have a love for a couple of particular Psalms.

I love Psalm 104 – because I believe it speaks powerfully of both creation and the flood – two topics that I love to study.

And even after reading it hundreds of times, Psalm 139 blows my mind every time.  I want it read at my funeral. 

But by and large, reading the Psalms has been something I’ve avoided in my life. . . because it’s been stuck in my head for over 30 years that I just don’t do well comprehending poetry.

And yet. . . . . . Here I stand today introducing to this congregation. . . . . an 8 week SERIES on the Psalms.

God has a sense of humor. . . . don’t you think?

After all of these years, He is placing me in a position to face my fears and failures.   And as I’ve been studying, I truly have been learning a lot.  So today, I will simply be seeking        to relay to all of you      those things that I have been learning.

Not that I ever stand up here and speak as an expert, but today especially, I am just a fellow student – relaying to you what God has been teaching me.

So let’s begin with this:  What exactly are the Psalms?

The book of Psalms is the longest book of the Bible, with 150 “chapters”

Right now, you should find Psalms in your Bibles, or pull it up on your devices, because we’re going to be looking at a number of different Psalms this morning, and you’ll want to follow along.

Traditionally, the Psalms have been know as Israel’s Hymn Book, because originally, they would have been set to music and sung by the Israelites.    

And we know this because in many cases we have notations like this one, at the beginning of Psalm 4:

Psalm 4

Evening Prayer of Trust in God

For the choir director; on stringed instruments.  A Psalm of David.

Or this one at the beginning of Psalm 5:

Psalm 5

Prayer for Protection from the Wicked

For the Choir Director, for flute accompaniment.  A Psalm of David

It might just be me. . . . but typically when I see bold headings like those at the beginning of a passage of scripture – my eyes just kind of skip right over the headings, and I go directly to the first verse of the chapter to begin reading.

I don’t know why I do that.  I guess it’s because those bold headings at the beginning of chapters are usually just “titles” that at some point were added to make the Bible easier for us to navigate. . . . and I haven’t ever thought of them as “Scripture”.   But these bold headings in Psalms are different from the bold headings we might see other places in scripture.  

And as I’ve been studying to teach today, I have found these headings to be inspiring pieces of information.  Those headings have caused me to think about David not only writing the words of Psalm 4 and Psalm 5 – but also caring so much about the message it contained that he specified which instruments should be used to play the accompanying music.

And I think the reason this stood out to me so much is because there is a human tendency, when we read “about” people in scripture over and over, to begin to lose touch with their humanity.  It’s not intentional, and it’s not that we don’t revere the people we’re reading about. . . . but over time, we can sort of turn them into characters in our mind. . . characters who did stuff.

Like David – who was he?  Well. . . .he’s the guy who killed Goliath.  He became a great king, and later he committed adultery with Bathsheba.  

If we’re not careful, our minds can turn these real people into “characters” who’s sum total is their actions that we know about.

And for me, as I was studying this past week. . . . these headings, attributing authorship of the Psalms to specific people, who gave titles to their Psalms, and included instructions as to how they were to be accompanied. . . . it sort of jolted me back to the reality that the people we read about in this book were just as real as you and me.  

They had doubts.  They had frustrations.  They got angry.  They experienced Joy.  They experienced awe.  They loved.  They feared.  They lived real lives.  And through it all, they called out to God – just like we do.  And they created art  -poetry and music    –     from their thoughts and feelings and prayers.

So in the Psalms, we’re not reading “about” people.  We’re not reading about what they did in third person.  Instead, we’re reading their inner most thoughts and feelings and prayers.  We’re feeling their deepest emotions, as they share them with us first-hand.   

So hopefully I’m not the only one that this speaks to, and reading that bold type at the beginning helps someone else here today to better relate to the Psalms.

Now, as we’ve already said:         Today, the Psalms are organized in our Bibles as one single book of 150 chapters.  The longest book in our Bible. 

But that hasn’t always been the case.  Originally, they would have been organized into 5 separate books. 

Book 1: Psalms 1—41
Book 2: Psalms 42—72
Book 3: Psalms 73—89
Book 4: Psalms 90—106
Book 5: Psalms 107—150

And each one of these books ends in a doxology. . . which is a fancy way of saying that each book ends in a short hymn of praise.

So, for example, at the end of book 1 of the Psalter, we read this doxology:

Psalm 41:13

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.  Amen and Amen.

And at the end of book 2 of the Psalter, we read this doxology:

Psalm 72:18-19

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, Who alone works wonders.  And blessed be His glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with His glory.  Amen and Amen

And we would read something similar at the end of the other 3 books.  So it’s pretty clear where each of the 5 books begins and ends. 

What’s not exactly clear is how the Psalms are organized. . . or how particular Psalms ended up in book one, or book two etc. 

What I can tell you is that the division of the Psalms into these 5 books is not based on who wrote them.  They’re not divided by authors.

And they’re also not in chronological order.  

So, for example – in book 4, Moses is the author of Psalm 90, and David is the Author of Psalm 103 – despite the fact that they were born about 500 years apart.

Which tells us that somewhere along the line, someone organized them into books for a purpose.  In fact, scholars believe that the Old Testament Priest Ezra was likely the one who took the time to gather all of the 150 Psalms collected over a 1000 year period and carefully organized them into five distinct Books. 

And he arranged them based on what they teach us about God.  There are definite themes to each of the 5 books.  I’m just not sure it’s the best use of our time here together this morning to dive into those themes.   If knowing what they are is something you’re interested in, I’d be happy to talk with you later. . . . or you can do all kinds of research by just using google.

But within the whole book. . . . all 150 chapters. . . . one thing that has definitely helped me to understand the Psalms better is knowing that there are three main types of Psalms. 

The vast majority of the Psalms will fit into one of these three categories.

The first type are Hymns of praise. 

These are Psalms that look big picture – they see God’s plan in redemptive history and praise him for it.  A good example would be Psalm 8.  Let’s read that one, just so we can see an example of a hymn of praise:

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have [a]displayed Your splendor above the heavens!
From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established [b]strength
Because of Your adversaries,
To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.

When I [c]consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have [d]ordained;
What is man that You [e]take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than [f]God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
And also the [g]beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

Clearly, the Psalmist here is taking a big picture look at God’s creation.  In verse 3, he goes out and looks at the stars in the sky. . . . recognizes how vast the universe is, and how small man is.  And yet God, in his sovereignty has asked man. . . . this tiny speck in the universe. . . . to rule over His creation.   And his heart is filled with praise!  So he ends, “O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is your name in all the earth!

Ever done that?  Ever gone outside at night and stared up at the stars. . . . and realized how small you really are?

Yet the God of the Universe. . . . who set it all in motion. . . . He knows all of our names.  And He has work for us to do, stewarding His creation!  He doesn’t need our help.  He could manage creation all on His own.  But he chooses to use us, as his representatives, created in His image.    We are SOOOOO blessed!

We can all relate to this right?  In these moments of clarity where we see ourselves as so tiny – yet so blessed – we can’t help but be full of awe and wonder and Praise for God.

So that’s the first main type of Psalm – the Hymn of praise.

The 2nd type are the Laments. 

These are Psalms that express grief, and mourning and regret. . . and they call out to God from a place of human distress.  But in addition, the Laments will also incorporate an affirmation of trust in God, often calling back to His previous acts of faithfulness.

Let’s look at a portion of Psalm 22 to see this first hand:

Psalm 22 – beginning with verse 1

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?

Does that sound familiar?  It should. . . . because Jesus quoted it when he was dying on the cross.

But let’s keep reading:

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?

[b]Far from my deliverance are the words of my [c]groaning.
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;
And by night, but [d]I have no rest.
Yet You are holy,
O You who [e]are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
In You our fathers trusted;
They trusted and You delivered them.
To You they cried out and were delivered;
In You they trusted and were not [f]disappointed.

Psalm 22 is a Psalm of David, and clearly here we see David expressing lament.  He feels cut off from God – and it’s causing him great distress.  But at the same time, he is taking a stand against what he is “feeling” and choosing instead. . . to stand upon what he knows is true – that God has been faithful throughout the ages.

Can anyone relate to that?  Ever been in a situation in life where it just felt like God was nowhere near?  And that feeling of God being distant. . . . it drug on for weeks, or months. . . . or even years.

And despite your prayers, it just seemed God wasn’t answering.

I’ve been there.  I’ve been in those spiritually dry places. and I bet most of us have.

Yet. . . . we’re still here.  Why?

Because like David, we’ve chosen to stand on what we know to be true about God rather than what we “feel”.

And there are lots of these “Laments” throughout the Psalms.

So those are the first two main types of Psalms – Hymns of Praise, and Psalms of Lament.

And the third main type are Psalms of Thanksgiving.

These are similar to the Hymns of praise. . . but they’re more personal. 

Remember – the Hymns of praise were big picture. . . . expressing praise for God’s plan in redemptive history.  But the Psalms of Thanksgiving are more personal.  These have the sense of “I was in trouble, God rescued me, and now I want to express my thanks to him.”

Psalm 116 is a good example, so let’s look at a portion of that Psalm, just so that we can clearly see it:

I love the Lord, because He hears
My voice and my supplications.
Because He has inclined His ear to me,
Therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live.
The cords of death encompassed me
And the [a]terrors of [b]Sheol [c]came upon me;
I found distress and sorrow.
Then I called upon the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I beseech You, [d]save my life!”

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
Yes, our God is compassionate.
The Lord preserves the simple;
I was brought low, and He saved me.

And now I’m going to skip to the end of the chapter, beginning with verse 16

16 O Lord, [g]surely I am Your servant,
I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid,
You have loosed my bonds.
17 To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
And call upon the name of the Lord.
18 I shall pay my vows to the Lord,
Oh may it be in the presence of all His people,
19 In the courts of the Lord’s house,
In the midst of you, O Jerusalem.
[h]Praise [i]the Lord!

Here we see the Psalmist fearing for his life.  We don’t know exactly what was happening. . . . maybe he was sick, maybe he was injured. . . . but what we can clearly see is he was pleading with God to spare his life. God answered that request, and then the Psalmist is filled with Thanksgiving!

I love the ending, where he writes:  I shall pay my vows to the Lord,
Oh may it be in the presence of all His people,
19 In the courts of the Lord’s house,
In the midst of you, O Jerusalem.
[h]Praise [i]the Lord!

The Psalmist wants the opportunity to tell EVERYONE how God spared his life. . . how God came to his rescue.

And again – I can relate, and I bet most of you can too.  There are times when God moves in our lives in such mighty ways that we just want to tell EVERYONE exactly how He met us in our darkest hour.

So that’s the 3rd main type of Psalm

We have Hymns of Praise, Psalms of Lament, and Psalms of Thanksgiving.

There are actually several other types of Psalms – but the vast majority will fall into one of those three categories.

So hopefully, at this point, we all have a little better understanding of the structure of the book of Psalms. . . but there’s still this question lingering that we haven’t fully answered yet. . . which is:

What exactly are they?  What’s their purpose?

We know they were set to music.

We know they were divided into 5 original books

We know there are 3 main types. . . . but why do they exist?

Well. . . . Our task, for the remainder of our time together today is to examine Psalm 1, and as we do that, I believe we will find the answer to that question.

So. . . . turn with me, in your Bibles to the book of Psalms, Chapter 1, and we will read it together.

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the [a]path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by [b]streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its [c]leaf does not wither;
And [d]in whatever he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord [e]knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.

We’re going to begin our study of this passage by learning 2 Hebrew words.

In Hebrew, the first word in this Psalm is the word Ashrey.

 It’s translated in English as “Blessed”.  And “ashrey” does mean “blessed”. . . but it’s actually much more than that.

What it means is “Blessed in the perfect way”. . . . or, to put it in different words, it means “Well-being in all areas of life”.

Now. . . the 2nd Hebrew word we need to look at is the word “Law” in verse 2. 

The Hebrew word for “Law” used here is towrah. . . . and again, that’s not an incorrect translation.  towrah does mean law. . . . but it also has a broader meaning – which is “instruction, or direction”.

And that makes sense, because the first 5 books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – the books written by Moses. . . . collectively, those books are called the books of Torah. . . or books of the law.  But those books contain a lot more than laws – don’t they?

Yes, the law of God is included in those books, but there is also History in those books.  There are genealogies in those books.  There is poetry in those books.  There’s much more than Law in those 5 books of Scripture.

So when we translate “torah” into the word Law – we lose some of it’s meaning, and it affects the way we think about those books of scripture.

Calling them the books of “Law” kind of makes them sound unappealing doesn’t it?  Like we’re going to read 5 books full of rules:  do this       and don’t do that.

Calling them the books of Law sort of short-changes them.

Those books are not exclusively books of law.  They’re books of  “Instruction – or direction” . . . . they’re “torah” for how to live.

and the same is true of the Psalms. 

So let’s go back and read verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 1 – using the more full definitions of the words ashrey and towrah, to see if that helps us understand what this book of Psalms is all about.

They might sound something like this:

1The man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the [a]path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers,
But rather – delights in the instruction (towrah) of the Lord,
And meditates day and night on His instruction (towrah). . .
that man will experience well-being in all areas of life (ashrey).

Doesn’t that make sense?

Now remember – this is chapter 1 of the Psalms. . . . It’s our introduction to the book. . . . and there in those first two verses of Chapter 1, I believe we find the reason why the Psalms exist.

They exist to teach us how to live. . . . . to instruct us. . . . and give us direction. . . . so that we can experience the abundant life that God has for us.

If we will delight in and meditate on the instructions of the Lord, (As Psalm 1 says)  we will be like trees, planted by life-giving streams of water. 

God’s word is that life-giving stream of water, and these Psalms are God’s word.

So if we delight in. . . . and meditate on it. . . . We will be firmly planted.  In other words – we’ll find answers to our questions that will strengthen and grow. . . . not deaden our faith.

And we will learn to deal with our emotions in a healthy way. . . .

and we will bear the fruit of good works,

and we will not grow weary in doing so. . . . our leaves will never wither, because we will have all we need to live abundantly, in all areas of life.

One last thing that’s important for us to remember before I close. . . . is that these Psalms were being written by and for Old Testament Israel.  Their Bible was the Torah – the 5 books Moses had written. . .      and Psalms was their accompanying song book to their faith.   And just like the Torah – this song book contained the inspired word of God.

Yes these songs and poems were written by men, but they were men inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Their words were more than just lyrics and thoughts and feelings – they were ALSO the inspired words of God.

And we know this because the Psalms contain prophecy.  And they point us to Jesus, and God’s work of redemption.  And the Psalms are quoted in the New Testament – even by Jesus Himself – more than any other books of scripture.

When these Psalms were being written, the New Testament didn’t exist yet, So the books of scripture that primarily guided the Nation of Israel were the 5 books of Moses, and these Psalms.

And just as Moses 5 books were instruction for living. . . . so also the 5 books of the Psalms were (towrah) instruction for living. . . so that the people of God could experience abundant life.

In the Psalms we find people struggling through real life situations.  Like the man who was on his death bed in Psalm 116.

We find people asking hard questions of God – Like Asaph in Psalm 72 asking, “Why do the wicked prosper?”

We find people in fear – In Psalm 31, David expressed this thought:

I hear the slander of many;

there is terror on every side.

They conspire against me

and plot to take my life.

We also find doubt, jealousy, betrayal, feelings of abandonment, anger, depression, Joy, love and pretty much any other emotion you could possibly feel or express. . . . . deeply embedded in the Psalms.

And underneath all of those questions and emotions expressed in the Psalms, we find an unwavering faith – exhibited by the authors.

Nowhere do we see this better than in Psalm 23 – where David writes:  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.

My brothers and sisters – God is not afraid of our questions. . . . and he’s not afraid of our emotions.  He WANTS us to ask our hard questions, and it’s God who gave us our emotions – when He created us in His image.

So he’s given us this book of Psalms to instruct us how to walk through those questions and emotions in abundance of life.

I know we didn’t spend a lot of time dissecting Psalm 1 this morning. . . . but I think we drew out of it what we needed to see as we begin this series on the Psalms.

I have definitely learned a new appreciation for the Psalms as I have prepared this week – and I hope it has been helpful to you as well.

-Pastor Jerry, 6-5-12