Saturday, November 1, 2008

pSunday Psalms: Bird's Eye View

"As Moses gave five books of laws to Israel, so David gave five books of psalms to Israel." (Midrash on the Psalms)
The Book of Psalms went through several stages of development.
  • First, psalms, songs and wisdom poems were composed by individuals and liturgical leaders for use in the worship of Israel.
  • Second, many of these were put together and preserved in collections, such as the Psalms of Asaph (73-83) and the Songs of Ascent (120-134).
  • Third, after the Exile the individual psalms and collections were gathered and shaped into five books that became The Book of Psalms.
This five-fold Book forms a poetic "cantata" about God's covenant with David. Psalms is about God's Kingdom. Here is a simple overview of the contents of the five books and the way they have been put together to tell this story.
  • INTRODUCTION (Pss 1-2). Psalm 1 tells us that this book is torah from God, designed to help his people live in the covenant blessings. Psalm 2 tells us more specifically what this torah teaches—that God rules and will rule the world, despite opposition, through his Messiah; therefore, the blessed are those who take refuge in him.
  • BOOKS ONE & TWO (Pss 3-41/42-72). These are the books of the king. Dominated by prayers of David, these books present him as God's ideal king, who suffers yet trusts in God and triumphs. By the end of Book II (Ps 72), prayers are raised on behalf of David's son and heir, Solomon. Thus these books focus, not just on David himself, but on the house of David, to which God made eternal promises.
  • BOOK THREE (Pss 72-89). This is the book of the failed kingdom. It begins with psalms that question God's ways and the triumph of his enemies (Pss 73-74), and ends with the bleakest psalm in the book (Ps 88) and a composite psalm that reviews the covenant with David (Ps 89.1-37) and then laments his kingdom's destruction (Ps 89.38-52). What has become of God's covenant with David? What will become of his people?
  • BOOK FOUR (Pss 90-106). Book IV is the book of hope. Opening with a psalm of Moses (Ps 90), the exiles who now have no king are encouraged to review the foundations of their faith and remember that the Lord himself is their true Ruler (Pss 93-99). This book provides the main theological answer to the exiles' laments. It assures them that God remains King and Judge of the world, their Rock and Refuge, and a loving Father who remembers their frailties. The book ends with a series of historical psalms, recalling God's mercies to their ancestors and appealing for an end to their exile.
  • BOOK FIVE (Pss 107-150). The final book is the book of instruction. Ps 107, which opens this section, shows the exiles at home again. But how will they proceed? How shall they live so that they will not repeat the sins of the past? This book is made up of three parallel panels that each include the following elements: (1) Each panel begins with psalms that call God's people to give thanks, (2) Each panel ends with psalms that call God's people to praise the Lord, (3) Each contains a collection of David psalms, reintroducing him as the model of faith, (4) Each contains a prominent torah psalm, (5) Each contains prominent royal psalms that point to the coming King.
As Moses gave the Torah to Israel, to instruct them about living in God's blessing under the Sinai Covenant, so David gave a Torah to Israel, instructing the returned exiles to hope in the Davidic Covenant and live as kingdom people under the reign of their true King.

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