From Learning to Love the Psalms
Within the Psalter, certain groups of psalms have long been identified. Psalms 146–150 are concluding psalms of praise, each beginning and ending with the same Hebrew word: Hallelujah. Psalms 113–118 have been known as the Egyptian Hallel, the psalms used to celebrate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt at the feast of the Passover. As we study the Psalter, we may see other groups of psalms emerging. For example, in Book One, Psalms 19–26 seem to form a special group prophetic of the redemptive work of Christ.
Still other groups of psalms are united by certain words or ideas that are repeated from one psalm to another. These links are complex, and we will only scratch the surface of them in this study. But, careful attention to them does help us see something of the development of thought in the Psalter. For example, we can see links between Psalms 37–40 in the words tongue and mouth:
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. (Psalm 37:30)
I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes. (Psalm 38:14)
I said, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence.” (Psalm 39:1)
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; behold, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord. (Psalm 40:9)
Links such as these suggest that to understand an individual psalm, we ought to look for similarities in the psalms that surround it. We always ought to read several psalms that come before and after the psalm in question for key words or ideas that bind several psalms together.
The Psalter as a Whole
Is the Book of Psalms as a whole largely random in its order? Is it just an anthology of poems that would mean just the same if the poems were in an entirely different arrangement? It is tempting to think so. Even after many years of living with the psalms, I did not sense any particular flow to the Psalter. In recent years, however, I have begun to see structure to the psalms. From conversations with faculty members, from reading books on the subject, and from my own study, I have begun to understand something of the development and movement of the Book of Psalms. I do not feel that I have reached any comprehensive conclusions about the position of every psalm in the Psalter. But I hope that by conveying what I have discovered, I can help others appreciate the Psalter and perhaps even advance on what is done here.
The first point that we should remember about the structure of the whole Book of Psalms is that there is a clear structure given to us in the book itself. This structure is often overlooked because it has not seemed to most students of the psalms to aid our understanding very much. Still, that structure at the very least reminds us that whoever put the final touches on the Book of Psalms believed that there was an order and structure to the Psalter.
That clear structure is the division of the whole Psalter into five books. These books are specifically delineated in the text of the Bible. Book One (Psalms 1–41) is the second longest of the books with forty-one psalms. Book Two (Psalms 42–72) is the third longest with thirty-one psalms. Book Three (Psalms 73–89) and Book Four (Psalms 90–106) are the shortest with seventeen psalms each. Book Five (Psalms 107–150) is the longest book with forty-four psalms.
Second, we can see that each of these books of the Psalter is concerned with both the individual follower of God and with the whole people of God. The religion of the Psalter is neither the religion of distinct individuals alone nor of a community alone. It is both. Psalm 1 begins with the words, “Blessed is the man.” Psalm 2 ends with the words, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
Indeed, each book of the Psalter reinforces this concern for both the person and the community. Each book begins with an individual psalm and a corporate psalm, although with the artful variations that we should expect with Hebrew poetry. Books One and Three simply begin with an individual psalm and then a corporate psalm. Book Two presents a slight variation: the first two psalms (42 and 43) are individual and the third is corporate (this is a slight variation because Psalm 43 appears actually to be the third stanza of Psalm 42). Books Four and Five present a greater variation, as they begin with a corporate psalm and then an individual psalm. All five books in this way make the point that true religion is both individual and corporate. Neither aspect is complete without the other.
Third, we remember that in Hebrew the name of the Psalter is The Book of Praises. Each book of the Psalter ends with praise:
Book One: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen.” (Psalm 41:13)
Book Two: “Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole Earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen!” (Psalm 72:19)
Book Three: “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.” (Psalm 89:52)
Book Four: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, ‘Amen! Praise the Lord!'” (Psalm 106:48)
Book Five: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 105:6)
While all the books contain psalms of praise, Book Five in particular abounds, showing that the Psalter culminates in praise. Indeed the last five psalms of Book Five are psalms that begin and end with the call to praise, showing us the fullness and perfection of praise.
Our fourth point is the most important. The development of the Psalter is not simply a growing emphasis on psalms of praise. Many types of psalms appear in each of the books. Still, in broad terms, we can see a movement in the Psalter. Book One has many psalms that speak of distress on the part of the king and his people yet manifest confidence and praise even in the face of distress. Book Two links that confidence particularly to God’s king, who upholds God’s ways and God’s people in God’s city. Book Three, however, is dominated by a crisis in the kingship of Israel, a kingship that seems to have failed. Book Four presents comfort for king and people in the God who created the world and who made a covenant with Israel at Sinai. Book Five then lifts the praise of king and people to new heights. So we can see the general theme of each of the books in these general titles:
Book One: The King’s Confidence in God’s Care
Book Two: The King’s Commitment to God’s Kingdom
Book Three: The King’s Crisis over God’s Promises
Book Four: The King’s Comfort in God’s Faithfulness
Book Five: The King’s Celebration of God’s Salvation
While these titles by no means exhaust the content of their books, they will help us see the key emphasis of each book and the development of the Psalter as a whole. We will explore each of these themes more fully in the first chapter of each of the sections that follow.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What is the importance of recognizing links and surrounding similarities with the psalms? Do you have a tendency to read the psalms randomly or in order? What are some pros and cons to your approach?
- Why is the structure of the whole Book of Psalms often overlooked? What are some suggestions you might have to keep the broader structures of the Psalter in mind ?
- Is the individual follower of God or the whole people of God emphasized in the Psalter? Why is this significant?
- In relation to the king, what is the general theme of each of the five books of the Psalter? How does each book of the Psalter end? Are such praises evident in your Christian life? If so, how?