From Learning to Love the Psalms
A great aid to our study of the psalms is recognizing the major themes that occur over and over again in the psalms. Certain basic themes unite the psalms and underscore essential truths about God and his care for his people. In addition to these great truths about God, we will also see that the Psalter voices specific responses from God’s people to those truths. The combination of objective truths and subjective responses are the recurring rhythm of the Psalter.
One great theme dominates the Psalter. What is that theme? John Calvin in his five-volume commentary on the Book of Psalms suggested that the great theme of the Psalter is the providence of God, specifically God’s preservation of his own. Hesitant as I am to try to improve on Calvin, I would expand on his thought by saying that the great theme of the Psalter is God’s goodness and unfailing love for the righteous. God is always good in ways completely compatible with his holiness. And in his goodness, he never fails in his love and care for those who belong to him.
As this truth of God’s goodness and love is celebrated throughout the Psalter, the regular response of God’s people is clear: they praise him. When we really think about who God is for us and what he does for us, the only possible reaction is praise. Indeed, the Book of Psalms derives its Hebrew name, the Book of Praises, from this principal reaction – praise – to the principal theme – God’s goodness and unfailing love for the righteous.
In Psalm 25, for example, we can see this theme of God’s care for his people and their response of praise and trust clearly expressed in several verses. We see God’s care:
Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. (v. 8)
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. (v. 10)
We see the people’s response of praise:
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust. (v. 1)
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame. (v. 3)
Three other subordinate but significant themes intertwine with the great theme of God’s providential care in the Psalter. The first subordinate theme is the sinfulness of the righteous. The righteous in the Psalter are those who are bound to God by a true faith in terms of the covenant. The righteous are not perfect. They can fall into grievous sin. Yet, their sins are forgiven because of the substitute and sacrifice that God provides in Christ. They are bound in covenant to God by his action and are growing in grace. Still, the righteous do sin, and the Psalter reflects on the problem of ongoing sin in individuals and in communities.
The reaction of God’s people to this continuing sin in their lives is confession of sin and lamentation for sin. So in addition to praise, we do find confession and grief as reactions in the Psalter.
Again in Psalm 25, we can see this theme of the sinfulness of the righteous and their prayer for forgiveness intertwined in several verses:
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! (v. 7)
For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. (v. 11)
Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. (v. 18)
A second subordinate theme in the Psalter is the mystery of providence. While we know that God is always good and that he always cares for us, there are times and experiences that do not seem to conform to that truth. The mystery of providence comes in two basic forms. One mystery of providence is the success of the wicked. If God is holy and in charge of all, why do the wicked prosper? They seem at times to prosper in having health and wealth and influence in this world. The Psalter recognizes the reality of this experience and the confusion of the righteous that results. Indeed, the Psalter gives expression to the envy and prayers for relief that the righteous experience in reaction.
Psalm 25 offers an example of the mystery of providence in the apparent success of the wicked:
Consider how many are my foes, and with that violent hatred they hate me! (v. 19)
Another mystery of providence, closely related to the prosperity of the wicked, is the mystery of the suffering of the righteous. The righteous experience loss in this world. Sometimes that suffering is the loss of health or the loss of prosperity. Sometimes the righteous suffer great persecution and oppression at the hands of the wicked. Here again, the response is complaint and prayer. In the midst of such loss, an even deeper suffering is often felt: the apparent indifference of God. If God is good, loving, and all-powerful, how can he let us suffer so? Various psalms give expression to complaint, lamentation, and prayer for deliverance in the face of this mystery.
We have examples of this mystery of providence also in Psalm 25.
Turn to me, and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. (v. 16)
The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. (v. 17)
A third subordinate theme that echoes through much of the Psalter is confidence in God and in the future despite present suffering. Even in the midst of suffering, envy, complaint, and grief, the psalmist will – sometimes surprisingly – suddenly express his confidence that God will come to his aid. This confidence in the future is often buttressed by reflections on God’s great works and faithfulness in the past. So, history becomes an important part of a psalm, as the psalmist encourages himself and us that the God who saved in the past will save in the future. This confidence is the source of much prayer and of praise to God.
Again, Psalm 25 expresses this confidence in God in spite of present suffering:
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. (v. 3)
My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (v. 15)
Oh, guard my soul and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. (v. 20)
We can summarize these themes of the Psalter and the human response to those themes in this way:
The great theme:
God’s goodness and unfailing love for the righteous
human response: praise
the sinfulness of the righteous
human response: confession of sin and lamentation
the mysteries of providence in the success of the wicked
human response: expressions of envy and prayer for relief
confidence in God and the future despite difficulties
human response: prayer for relief and praise
Keeping these themes and responses in mind as we study the psalms will help us see the basic message of each of the psalms more clearly.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What is the great theme that dominates the Psalter? What are some examples of objective truths and subjective responses that recur regularly throughout the psalms?
- Throughout the Psalter, what is the regular response of God’s people toward his goodness and love? What does this look like in your Christian life?
- What are the three other subordinate themes in the Psalter? How does keeping these themes and responses in mind while studying the psalms help you see the basic message of each psalm more clearly?