Sunday, August 24, 2008

pSunday Psalms

Today I will begin a series of studies, posted each Sunday, on Psalms 120-134. These are known, from their inscriptions, as the "Songs of Ascent." This post explores what that title means, and then gives a brief summary of my interpretive approach to the Book of Psalms.

The following quote from James Limburg in his Westminster Bible Companion commentary on the Psalms, gives a good overview of Psalms 120-134:
Psalm 120 is the first of a series of psalms running from 120 to 134, each of which is identified as "A Song of Ascents," literally, "A Song for the Going Up." This expression appears to refer to "going up" to Jerusalem; the same Hebrew word appears in the reference to the tribes who "go up" to Jerusalem in Psalm 122.4. This group of fifteen psalms seems to have been used for going up to Jerusalem for one of the festivals held there (see Deut 16.16), and thus these have been called pilgrimage psalms. These psalms were likely gathered together as a special collection to be used on such pilgrimages.
The Songs of Ascents are what we might call "folk psalms"—songs that reflect everyday matters like family, work, the seasons and rural life. They paint a picture of spiritual life from the perspective of the common person who experiences God's blessings in his daily routines among his neighbors in his own community. However, he also looks forward to special seasons of festive worship within the larger community of faith in Jerusalem.

Without offering a full explanation of how I came to these conclusions, here are the principles by which I approach reading and studying the Book of Psalms.
  • Psalms contains many individual psalms and collections of psalms that were composed by David and other Israelite worshipers. The headings sometimes clue us in on a historical setting that should guide us in reading the psalm.
  • These psalms were also used in worship settings. There are various types of psalms, and understanding the characteristics of these types can help us in our interpretations.
  • Psalms is a unified book that has a coherent message as a book. The Book of Psalms has five main divisions, and each individual psalm and collection should be read in the context of the whole book and the division in which it is found.
  • Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the book and make clear that, in its final form, its primary purpose is to serve as Torah for God's people (Ps 1) and to portray the Messiah as the Son of God who will come to rule the nations of the earth (Ps 2).
  • 2Samuel 23.1-7, correctly understood, teaches that David understood himself to be writing about "the man who was raised on high, the Messiah of the God of Jacob" (23.1).
  • The Book of Psalms, therefore, is a book that sets forth the prayers of the Messiah in order that God's people might receive instruction (Torah) in living under God's rule as they await the day when all nations will come together under his reign.
So, based on these principles, when reading a psalm, here is the approach I take:
  • Read and understand it first according to its original historical setting and psalm-type.
  • Read and understand it in the context of the entire Book of Psalms and see how it contributes to that message.
  • Read and understand it as a prayer of the Messiah. What does it tell me about him?
  • As a follower of the Messiah, one called to walk with him in his ways and under his rule, what instruction does it give me for my faith journey?
And so we will begin! As always, I'd love to have your comments.

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