Timeless Treasures from the Psalms
It’s just a little pocket Bible, small enough so my father could carry it with him as he served in the U.S. Navy during World War 2. My father was killed when I was only fifteen months old, and while I don’t have memories of him, I do have mementos that have been given to me. I have some faded photographs, his old cigarette lighter, the flag that draped his casket when he was buried, some copies of the newspaper describing the tragedy of his death—and I have that little New Testament Bible, which also includes the Old Testament book of Psalms.
I don’t know how much he read that little pocket Bible, but when I hold it I somehow feel closer to him. In fact, I feel closer to him when I read the book of Psalms in any format, written or electronic. Many remember this remarkable collection of songs and prayers in concert with some emotional peak or valley of their life. That’s really what the Psalms are—an emotional book with a soul connection. The book of Psalms is written using intense language that hits us deep down, in the bowels of our emotions—in our guts.
My father was not the only warrior to ever be supplied with the book of Psalms for comfort. Much has been written of the battlefield comfort that Psalm 23 in particular has provided. The Eagles have been my favorite band for several decades—the title track of their Long Road Out of Eden (2007) speaks of the horrible suffering and carnage from the war in Iraq. Here’s the introductory lyrics to that ten minute-long ballad:
Moon shining down through the palms
Shadows moving on the sand
Somebody whispering the twenty-third psalm
Dusty rifle in his trembling hands
Somebody trying just to stay alive.
© Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmidt, Lost Highway Records
It might seem that a Bible publisher putting the book of Psalms together with the New Testament is a simple marketing ploy, but there’s more to this combination than might immediately be considered. The book of Psalms actually explains and reveals God as both transcendent and apart from the world (a typical Old Testament perspective) but it also reveals God as present within his creation. English scholar N.T. Wright says that God as described and depicted in the book of Psalms is “radically present—dangerously present” within the world. Of course, God as radically and dangerously present is God who came down to us in the person of Jesus, in the incarnation of God, as revealed in the New Testament. It is not surprising nor is it difficult to read the book of Psalms from a Christ-centered perspective.
Some Basic Principles
The book of Psalms is a guide—a model—for our worship of God and relationship with God. It’s a book dedicated to our relationship with God, a relationship based on his love for us, a love which motivates us to worship him. It’s not a book of laws that describe “how to” make God love you or “how to” fix a relationship that’s gone wrong.
Psalms is a book about relationships; it’s about worry, fear, shame, pain, heartache and misery—it’s about revenge, forgiveness, anger and hatred, comfort and healing. Psalms is a collection of love songs and poetry—it’s about the agony and the ecstasy, of love lost and love found. Psalms is about broken hearts, and the healing of those hearts.
Critics of country and western songs say they are always about losing love, a job, a truck and possibly a hunting dog!
Of course, the book of Psalms was written long before a pick-up truck and cowboy boot culture, but as one considers the lyrics of many of the psalms one may easily conclude that many of these lyrics, put to country and western sounds, would fit the general genre of singing the blues, as many North Americans know it today.
This book of the Psalms is poetic in nature. Our English word “psalms” comes from a Greek word that defined a song or poem that was sung with instrumental accompaniment. But these poetic psalms are more than songs, they are also prayers. Psalms is poetry, it is worship, it is musical praise and it is prayer.
Each chapter in the book of Psalms is a self-contained unit. This longest book in the Bible does not progress from chapter to chapter in a strictly chronological or thematic way—each chapter is an independent statement. It is somewhat like a hymnal—each hymn has its own theme and its own features, which are not usually directly linked from the hymns printed immediately before it or after it.
Having said that, it’s important to note that there are five major divisions of the book.
It seems that the first two chapters of Psalms might have been intended to serve as an introduction to the following 148 chapters, which are then presented in the five major sections or divisions. Assuming this perspective to be true, the five divisions begin with the third chapter.
Some believe that these five divisions or sections were written and chosen to roughly correspond with the first five books of the Bible—also called the Jewish Torah.
1) If the five divisions of the book of Psalms correspond to the first five books of the Bible, then the first book of Psalms, ending with Psalm 41, echoes the themes of the book of Genesis—which is basically an introduction to human life and an introduction to human relationship with God.
The major themes of each of these five books of Psalms are not limited to the chapters contained within each section—all of these topics spill over into all five books and virtually every one of the 150 chapters.
2) The second book of Psalms covers chapters 42-72, roughly corresponding to the book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible and of the Pentateuch. This section speaks of God’s redemption of his people.
3) The third book of Psalms covers chapter 73-89. This book is somewhat like the book of Leviticus, in that it discusses how to worship God in the old covenant context, through the laws and tabernacle of the Hebrews. Of course Christ-followers know that God now lives with and in human beings, not temples, churches or buildings made with human hands—so from a Christ-centered perspective this third book of Psalms is all about our relationship with God, as Christians, in and through Jesus Christ.
4) The fourth book of Psalms covers chapters 90-106, and is somewhat like Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible (and of the Pentateuch). This section discusses the 40 years the nation of Israel wandered (and wondered) in the wilderness as times of testing and trial. Once again, these topics are not limited to these chapters, the themes of testing and trial are very much a part of many psalms.
5) And finally, the fifth book of Psalms covers chapters 107-150, and some believe its topics and themes roughly correspond to the book of Deuteronomy. This section discusses, not surprisingly, the law of the old covenant from an old covenant perspective. However, from our Christian, rear-view mirror, we understand this fifth book, chapters 107-150, as teaching and expounding the law of Christ—the commands of Jesus.
As you consider the heart and soul teaching and inspiration within the book of Psalms, three perspectives will help you more deeply love, know, appreciate and connect with God:
1) As the book of Psalms is lyrical and poetic in nature, consider its poetic images and word pictures.
2) Given the poetic and musical nature of the Psalms, consider both mood and meaning. The Psalms don’t simply convey cold, hard facts—but they stir deeply rooted human emotion and passion.
3) Given the poetic and musical nature of the Psalms, we will be careful about trying to assess specific historical background, for it normally isn’t given. We won’t discuss or speculate about the human authorship of individual psalms.
4) Study the book of Psalms from a Christ-centered perspective. Psalms in not simply an ancient book of Hebrew sacred poetry and songs—in contains and conveys a message that is alive, a message that is relevant and jumps off the pages of ink and paper.
Here are poems and songs that resonate with all of us—they reach down into the deepest part of our souls, the deepest part of our emotions. We all have pains and problems— no one of us is immune from the challenges of life—and these psalms continually address those issues—OUR issues.
Reading the Psalms can help us draw near to God, as Christ lives his life in us. Reading, studying and praying through the Psalms can help us to know who we are in Christ.
After all, Jesus is not simply our educator, our example or our therapist. Jesus is our life! Jesus lived for us and continues to live for us—he suffered, was crucified and rose again for you and me. He serves, forgives, redeems, and reconciles us—and he pours out the love of God, by his grace, in our lives.