Sunday, October 12, 2008

pSunday Psalms: The Book of Psalms

For our Sunday studies and meditations on the Psalms, I will now step back and take a broader approach. Our first series on the Songs of Ascent (Pss 120-134) grew out of my own desire to review that collection, but before we move on to another portion of the Psalms, it would be beneficial to get a big picture of the entire book.

Few sections of Scripture have been as beloved over the centuries as the Book of Psalms. It is certainly a favorite part of the “Old Testament” for many Christians, for it speaks with a “New Testament” spirit of personal intimacy and relationship with God. Many New Testaments are published with Psalms attached, but I know of none that combines the NT with Leviticus or Nahum!

Eugene Peterson says that the primary Biblical material for teaching believers to pray is the Psalms. He also notes that, because prayer is elemental and not advanced knowledge, the prayers we find in the book are honest, true and personal. Indeed, if we read them correctly we will see that they are earthy, rough and painfully realistic. Psalms helps us face God frankly, in the unadorned reality of our humanness.

In addition to appreciating the devotional value of these texts, the careful Bible student will also note that the individual psalms have been put together into a BOOK that is highly organized and which communicates a message as a whole work. Though many have approached the Psalms as a collection of individual songs rather like a hymnal, in its final, edited form, this is not a haphazard collection of poems and songs.

  • The Book of Psalms is a collection of many different types of sacred songs and prayers, originally used in Israel’s worship.
  • King David wrote many psalms (2Sam 23:1-7) and led the way in organizing the use of the psalms in the temple worship (2Chron 15-16). Under God’s direction, he set up the pattern described in Chronicles and reflected in the various notations we find in the psalm headings.
  • The Book of Psalms was compiled during and after the Babylonian Exile. These prayers and songs that had previously been used in temple worship were now gathered into a new form that could be studied and meditated upon by God’s people.
  • Therefore we can distinguish between individual psalms and the Book of Psalms. Each psalm is an inspired text of Scripture that stands on its own and may be read, prayed or sung for God’s praise and our edification (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). However, we must also take the final form of the book seriously. Under God’s providential guidance, the individual psalms were organized into a Book with a coherent message.
  • In my experience, this is not how we ordinarily think of the Book of Psalms. We tend to see it like a hymnal or collection of poems made up of “pearls without a string.” But I believe that the Book of Psalms can be read as a whole book, and that there is an overall organization to the individual psalms that can be detected and studied for our edification. Just as the Book of Isaiah is a collection of the prophet’s messages that have been put together and arranged to teach a coherent message, so the Book of Psalms takes the prayers, praises and worship materials of Israel and links them together to form a book with an overall theme.

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