From Learning to Love the Psalms
The realism of the Psalter in facing the great difficulties of the Christian life is one of its most appealing and refreshing features. The psalms don’t sugarcoat the life of faith. They state problems and struggles openly and clearly. The serious emotions evoked by the disappointments, pains, and frustrations of life are expressed strongly and honestly. At the same time, the psalms present powerful responses of faith. Over and over in Book One, God’s king puts our problems in the context of God’s presence. His love, and his deliverance. In the midst of trouble, the king and the people grow in trusting God. Here is the great theme of Book One of the Psalter: The King’s Confidence in God’s Care.
Books One and Two have many similarities. Both refer to personal struggles of faith as well as to the corporate importance of God’s king, his kingdom, and his great capital city. But in the first book, the sense of the king’s personal confidence in distress slightly outweighs the focus on the kingdom. In the second book, the focus on the kingdom slightly outweighs the sense of personal distress. The first book, therefore, is somewhat more individual, while the second book focuses a little more on the communal existence of God’s people. We must not overemphasize the differences, but I think that we can legitimately see these distinctions between the two books.
Of the forty-one psalms in Book One, the titles of thirty-four ascribe authorship to David. Five of these titles add a historical reference to David’s life (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 30, 34). No other author is identified in the remaining seven psalms. There is reference to the Davidic kingship in the body of four psalms (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21). In four other psalms, God is referred to as King (Psalms 5, 10, 24, 29). David’s presence and significance are very powerful in this book. He is the author of most of the psalms. The struggles of faith are his first of all. He writes as the king and the anointed son of God, the great King.
A pervasive concern of Book One is the various kinds of distress that can be experienced by the king and the people of God. Only seven psalms seem to have little or no distress expressed by God’s people (Psalms 1, 2, 8, 15, 24, 29, 33). While these psalms are not devoid of a sense that God’s people have difficulties in this world, they are not psalms in which the cry of the wounded heart is heard. The dominant cause of distress in Book One is the oppression of God’s people by their enemies. In thirty-one of the forty-one psalms in this book, some reference to enemies is present. The world is a dangerous place, and the enemies of God are a powerful presence in the lives of God’s people. The exact nature of the enemies is not always clear. Sometimes, they appear to be foreign foes of Israel. The armies of other nations threaten the peace and security of God’s people. More often, the enemies are the wicked in Israel who despise God and his covenant, his king, and his faithful people.
The emphasis on enemies may at times seem strange or irrelevant to Christian experience in our time. But if we reflect carefully, we know that opposition is not foreign to us. We need to remember that Christ had many enemies during his life, including religious and political leaders. The New Testament tells all Christians, “Indeed, all who desire to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12). That persecution takes many forms. In some parts of the world, it can still mean violence and death. In other places, it can mean mockery or condescension toward our beliefs or harassment. Jesus taught clearly that we would face difficulties in living for him: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” (John 15:18-20b). As Christians, we will have human enemies in this world. The New Testament informs us, however, that human opponents are not the only ones we face.
Behind the Earthly enemies of Christ and his people stand the spiritual foes of our souls. Paul reminds us, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the Heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12). Every day, Christians are engaged in warfare against the demons. In his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Martin Luther wrote of “this world, with devils filled” that “threatens to undo us.” The psalms, with their recurring references to our enemies, remind us of the ultimate antithesis in this world between those who follow God and those who oppose him. They arm us with a clear vision of the battle that surrounds us.
In Psalms 3–18, the distress of the psalmist is particularly caused by his enemies or the wicked. In later psalms, other forms of distress enter the picture. In Psalms 19–29, the enemies continue to be the most prominent source of distress, but added to them is distress caused by sin and death. Enemies continue to feature in Psalms 30–41, but there is more focus on sin, death, sickness, and fear as the sources of distress. In Book One, eight psalms refer to the problem of sin, six to sickness, three to death, and one to fear.
All the psalms in Book One remind us that the misery of the human condition can express itself in many forms. In the peace, freedom, and prosperity that so many of us enjoy today, we may be inclined to focus particularly on the problems of sin, sickness, and death that beset us. But the focus of the Psalter in Book One encourages us not to forget the enemies of God that besiege his kingdom.
In the psalms and in Christian experience, underneath all our distress is the haunting fear that God has forgotten and abandoned his own. If God is good and powerful, why does he not prevent trouble or quickly solve it? This question is implicit in many psalms and is explicit in some. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1) “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest,” (Psalm 22:1-2). The feeling of being abandoned by God is our ultimate distress. Our Lord Jesus knew that distress as he suffered the agonies of hell on the cross and quoted Psalm 22 to express his deepest pain. Our confidence in God will grow even in the midst of distress as we remember that Jesus bore our sorrows, (Isaiah 53:4).
In response to the reality of our distress, the psalms of Book One also show us how to express our confidence in God. Certain confessions of confidence occur over and over in these psalms. First is confidence in God’s truth. We delight in God’s Word, (Psalm 1:2), because it is absolutely true and reliable. “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times, (Psalm 12:6). “This God – his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true,” (Psalm 18:30). “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple,” (Psalm 19:7). This truthfulness of the Lord is why truth is so praised in the righteous and why the lies of the wicked so clearly mark their opposition to God.
Second, confidence is found in the promise that God hears and answers the prayers of his people. This theme recurs frequently in Book One. “Know that the Lord has set apart the Godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him,” (Psalm 4:3). “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer,” (Psalm 6:8-9). “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin,” (Psalm 32:5-6). “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry,” (Psalm 34:15). (See also Psalms 5:3, 9:10, 10:17, 18:6, 21:2, 22:5, 24, 30:2, 31:22, 34:4, 6, 17.) The promise and experience of answered prayer are vital to the confidence of the people of God.
Third, God’s people grow in confidence as they remember that he is now their refuge and protection. “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble,” (Psalm 9:9). “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,” (Psalm 18.2). “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock,” (Psalm 27:5). “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge I him!” (Psalm 34:8). In every difficulty, the Lord remains the protector and help of his people.
Finally, these psalms contain the repeated assurance that God will destroy the wicked and give the righteous perfect blessedness. “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you,” (Psalm 31:19). “The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God. For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever,” (Psalm 9:17-18). “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad,” (Psalm 14:7). The promise of the future victory of God for his people builds hope in the present.
In the center of this book, we find a remarkable collection of psalms that seem peculiarly related to the history of redemption in Christ. They remind us in a special way that the Psalter points beyond David to Christ, the great King. In this way, the Psalter is more for the church today than it ever was for the Israel of old. We can see in Psalms 19-26 a marvelous display of God’s redeeming work in Christ.
Outline of Book One
Psalms 1 and 2: Introduction – confidence personal and national
Psalms 3–18: Confidence even with questions
Psalms 19-26: Confidence in God’s redemption in Christ
Psalm 19: Creation and sin
Psalm 20: Advent of Christ
Psalm 21: Triumphal entry
Psalm 22: Crucifixion
Psalm 23: Resurrection
Psalm 24: Ascension
Psalm 25: Pentecost
Psalm 26: Final judgment
Psalms 27–32: Confidence while worshiping in the temple
Psalms 33–37: Confidence in the strength of the Lord
Psalms 38–41: Confidence in the mercy of the Lord
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What is the great theme of Book One of the Psalter? What are some similarities and differences between Book One and Book Two? What is the pervasive concern of Book One?
- Why is the emphasis on enemies strange to our current Christian experience? How do the ideas of distress and misery regarding the human condition get resolved in Book One? What role does Jesus have in the midst of our own distressing situations?
- What four types of confidences in God occur over and over in Book One? How are the redemption reminders in the center of this book even more for the church today than they were for Israel of old?