PSALMS: The Character And Structure Of Book Four by W. Robert Godfrey

The Character And Structure Of Book Four by W. Robert Godfrey

From Learning to Love the Psalms

Book Three ends with a powerful statement of the crisis of faith: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49)  Where will the people of God look for hope and help when God’s promise to their king seems to have failed?  In the depths of their confusion, where will they find comfort?  The beginning of Book Four points the way.  The first verses of Psalm 90 take us back through the generations of Israel to the creation itself: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the Earth and the world, from everlasting and everlasting you are God.”  Book Four over and over again looks for comfort to God’s great work of creation and to his work in covenanting with his people at the time of Moses.  Psalm 90 is the only psalm in the Psalter attributed to Moses, the man who recorded God’s acts of creation and who led God’s people out of Egypt and into covenant with the Lord at Mount Sinai.

Book Four is by no means the only place in the Psalter where the psalmist seeks comfort by reflecting on creation and the covenant.  Even in the midst of the crisis of Book Three, this idea was present.  Psalm 77:10-12 records: “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonder of old.  I will ponder all your work and meditate on your mighty deeds.”  Comfort is sought in this way also outside the Psalter.  We find a similar theme in Isaiah when Israel “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he [God] turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them,” (Isaiah 63:10).  What could Israel do in such a plight?  The prophet tells us:

Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people.  Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock?  Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths?  Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble.  Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.  So you led your people to make for yourself a glorious name. (Isaiah 63:11-14)

Remembering God’s faithfulness in the past brings comfort in the present.

The themes of creation and the Mosaic covenant occur individually and in combination in sixteen of the seventeen psalms of Book Four.  Creation is a theme of greater or lesser importance in twelve psalms: 90, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 100, 102, 103, and 104.  The Mosaic covenant is a theme in eight psalms: 90, 91, 92, 95, 99, 103, 105, and 106.  Only Psalm 101 lacks any reference to these two themes.

The themes of creation and covenant are a great comfort to the people of God because they remind the people of the character of their God.  He is the God of great power both in bringing all creation into being and in redeeming his people from Egypt.  He is the great God of purpose in making man in his image and in renewing his law for his people at Sinai.  He is the great God of promise in establishing fellowship with his people in the Sabbath both as a creation ordinance and as a Mosaic institution, (Psalm 92).

Only three of the seventeen psalms of Book Four begin with the name of an author.  Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses.  Psalms 101 and 103 are attributed to David.  David, the sweet singer of Israel, had almost disappeared in the crisis of faith of Book Three (only one psalm listed David as author).  Here in Book Four, he makes a modest return with two psalms.  But in Book Five, David returns in an important way with fifteen psalms.  Interestingly, the one psalm of Book Four that does not refer to the creation or the Mosaic covenant is a psalm of David, Psalm 101.  This psalm is a psalm of David’s praise and confidence in the justice of God and of David’s commitment to integrity before God.  He trusts in the steadfast love of the Lord.  Still, the question remains for David, the kind of question so central in Book Three: “When will you come to me?” (v. 2)

Ultimately, the crisis of David’s kingship is solved only in the coming of Jesus, great David’s greater son.  But Jesus is not only God’s King.  He is also “the firstborn of all creation” and “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent,” (Colossians 1:15, 18).  Creation and redemption meet in Jesus.  And all the psalms of Book Four on these themes point to Jesus as their fulfillment.

Book Four unfolds in several sections.  The first section (Psalms 90-94) focuses on the greatness of God.  Psalm 90 is a great meditation on the eternal character and creative work of God.  This first psalm of this book reverses the pattern of the first three books.  Each of those books begins with a psalm of an individual.  Psalm 90 is an expression of the corporate life of God’s people.  Psalm 91 then is the psalm of the individual.  Psalms 91 and 92 celebrate God as the great protector of his people.  Psalm 93 reflects on God as the great ruler of his people and Psalm 94 thinks of God as the great coming judge of the wicked.  (Psalm 94:20 perhaps suggests part of the reason for the failure of the Davidic kingship: “Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute?”)

After remembering the greatness of God as Creator and covenant keeper, Book Four turns to the worship of God in the second section, (Psalms 95-100).  Echoes of worship are not absent from the first section of this book, (Psalms 90:11, 14; 91:15; 92:2, 13; 93:5).  But the second section provides some of the best-known liturgical calls to worship.  As these psalms progress, they point to different elements of worship.  Psalm 95 points to the proper attitude for worship.  Psalm 96 shows the proper place (the temple) and the proper means (offerings) for worship.  Psalm 97 warns about the impropriety of images in the worship of God.  Psalm 99 mentions the proper leaders of worship.  These psalms call God’s people to worship the great God, who has come and will come in judgment on the wicked.

Another thread that is woven through these first two sections is the thread of holiness, both the holiness of God and the holiness to which God calls his people.  Psalm 101 is the culmination of this theme as a psalm of praise for the holiness of God and of his people: “I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O Lord, I will make music.  I will ponder the way that is blameless,” (vv. 1-2a).  But holiness and comfort are not yet perfected in Book Four.  Psalm 102 is a plea for help that returns to the concerns of Psalm 90 and even Psalm 89.  There is a sense that the fulfillment of comfort will only come in the future: “You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come,” (Psalm 102:13).

The final section of Book Four (Psalms 103-106) contains psalms of praise.  Each psalm begins and ends with a call to praise or the giving of thanks.  Psalm 103 is one of the most precious in the Psalter; it praises God for his mercy and love.  Psalm 104 praises God for his great works of creation.  Psalm 105 praises God for his covenant faithfulness from Abraham through Jacob to Moses.   Psalm 106 concludes Book Four with praise for God’s persevering with his people form the exodus to the exile.

Book Four reminds us that even if the promise to David appeared to fail, everything we know about God testifies that God’s promises never fail.  God creates and preserves and governs his creation to his own glory.  He also kept all his promises to Abraham and Moses.  Surely, he will somehow fulfill the promises to David.  Still, the problem of David is not really resolved at the end of Book Four.  We read in Psalm 106:43-47:

Many times he delivered them,
but they were rebellious in their purposes
and were brought low through their iniquity,
Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress,
when he heard their cry.
For their sake he remembered his covenant,
and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
He caused them to be pitied
by all those who held them captive,
Save us, O Lord our God,
and gather us from among the nations,
That we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.

It remains for Book Five to address the crisis of the Davidic kingship directly

Outline of Book Four

Psalms 90–94: Comfort in the greatness of God, the Creator and Redeemer
Psalms 95–100: Comfort in the worship of God, the Creator and Redeemer
Psalms 101–102: Comfort in the promises of God, the Creator and Redeemer
Psalms 103–106: Comfort in the praise of God, the Creator and Redeemer

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • In what ways does Book Four point the way to comfort?  How does remembering themes of creation, covenant, and God’s faithfulness in the past bring comfort in the present?
  • How is the crisis of David’s kingship solved in the coming of Jesus?
  • In what specific ways does Book Four emphasize the worship of God?  What are some examples of holiness and praise found in Book Four?  How have you personally experienced God’s preservation of his creation to his own glory?

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