From Learning to Love the Psalms
After the two relatively short books (seventeen psalms each in Books Three and Four), we come to the last and longest book of the Psalter. The forty-four psalms of the fifth book offer praise to God in gradually increasing intensity. The praise of God comes from a variety of times and authors. It grows in various ways until it culminates in the perfection of praise.
Some parts of the structure of this book of the Psalter are more obvious than in other books. For example, each of the psalms from 120 to 134 bears the title, “A song of ascents.” Presumably, pilgrims sang these psalms on their way to Jerusalem to worship God in some of the great festivals of Israel. Psalms 138–118 have historically been used by the Jews for Passover and have become known as the Egyptian Hallel (hellel means “praise” in Hebrew and “Egyptian” refers to the memory of the exodus from Egypt).
These groupings of psalms encourage us to look even more closely at Book Five to see what other groupings we may discover. Six psalms (107–112) begin Book Five before the psalms of the Egyptian Hallel. They revolve around the theme of God’s blessing on his people and king. The last five psalms of the book (146–150) form a group that completes the praise of the Psalter. Each of these psalms begins and ends with the Hebrew word, “Hallelujah,” or, “Praise the Lord.” These psalms of praise are truly the culmination of praise.
These groupings do not, of course, account for all the psalms in this book. Psalm 119 and Psalms 135–137 are not included. Psalm 119 is by far the longest psalm in the Psalter. It is an elaborate acrostic divided into twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet; each verse of a stanza then begins with the same letter. So, each of the eight verses in the first stanza begins with the Hebrew letter aleph, each of the eight verses in the second stanza begins with the Hebrew letter beth, and so on. In a sense, Psalm 119 is a group unto itself.
Do Psalms 135–137 form a group of any kind? They are quite different in tone. The first two are psalms of praise and thanksgiving while the third is the only profound lamentation to be found in Book Five. Still, these three psalms do form a group, one united by the theme of the problem posed for Israel by the enemies of God who seek to destroy his people.
As we look carefully at all these groupings in Book Five and at their connections with one another, we see an interesting movement through this book. These groupings appear to be a review of Israel’s history.
The first group is Psalms 107–112. The first two psalms praise God as the Savior of his people and the restorer of the Davidic kingship. The repeated refrain of Psalm 107 is, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of men,” (vv. 8, 15, 21, 31), because God has gathered his people anew. Psalm 108, a psalm of David, assumes the presence of a king in Israel who leads his people in holiness. Psalms 109–112 speak of the suffering and glory of God’s king. This theme of praise has a particular focus on the continuing importance of the king in God’s redemptive plan for his people. If Book Three centers on a crisis of faith regarding the failure of the line of the king, Book Five reasserts the importance of the king and God’s blessing on him. This group of psalms praises God for his salvation to his people, his kingdom, and his king.
The second group (Psalms 113–118) focuses on the theme of deliverance from Egypt. This group in particular starts a review of the history of Israel beginning with the exodus. While only Psalm 114 mentions the exodus specifically, all six psalms breathe the spirit of that rescue. This group praises God for saving his people from their bondage in Egypt.
The third “group” of this book is Psalm 119. This long psalm praises God as the revealer of his truth. The psalm celebrates the written Word of God as the utterly reliable revelation of God’s holy law. This celebration of the law draws us to Mount Sinai, where God gave the law to Moses.
The fourth group (Psalms 120–134) contains the songs of ascents, which praise God for the privilege of pilgrimage and worship in Jerusalem. They address both the difficulties and the blessings of such a journey. The pilgrims, by the grace of God, reach the holy city, where they fellowship with their God. Here is Israel in the heart of the Promised Land, worshiping God in the holy city and the holy temple.
The short fifth group (Psalms 135–137) faces the continuing reality of the enemies of God and his people. These psalms consider the enemies at the beginning of Israel’s history as well as Babylon, the enemy of the exile. They praise God for deliverance but also face seriously the sufferings God’s people undergo. They speak of victory and of the exile.
The sixth group (Psalms 138–145) is formed entirely of psalms by David, representing the restoration of David’s line. The praise and prayers of David answer the lament of Psalm 137. David prays for rescue from the enemies of God and praises God his faithfulness. The kingship of David’s line is glorious, even though these psalms show that suffering and difficulty continue even with this renewed kingship.
The seventh group of five psalms (Psalms 146–150) concludes the praise of God. Praise resonates through these psalms, completing the celebration of Book Five. Here, surely, is the perfection of praise.
These seven groups present praise that celebrates the institutions and recapitulates the history of Israel. Psalms 107–112 remember the God who gathered a people and gave them his king. Psalms 113–118 remember the exodus from Egypt. Psalm 119 celebrates the Word of God’s covenant, especially that covenant given at Sinai. Psalms 120–134 rejoice in the privilege of pilgrimage and worship in Jerusalem. Psalms 135–137 remember God’s blessings of deliverance and victory and his punishment with exile. Psalms 138–145 reflect on the kingship and kingdom restored, yet still suffering. Psalms 146–150 summarize and fulfill the entire Psalter in perfect praise. Here is praise for God’s great salvation to which all the history of Israel pointed, a history culminating in King Jesus.
Christ is the recapitulation of the history of Israel and the fulfillment of its meaning. He is the true Israelite and the true king. He is the son whom God called out of Egypt. He is the true keeper of the law of the covenant. He is the true pilgrim and the true temple. He is the true victor and the one forsaken in the exile of the cross. He is the great son of David in whose kingdom suffering continues for a time. He is the perfection of praise. The Psalter is indeed about Jesus, and it prophetically gives us the words that Jesus speaks for his people.
Outline of Book Five
Psalms 107–112: Celebrating God’s people and king
Psalms 113–118: Celebrating the deliverance from Egypt (Egyptian Hallel)
Psalm 119: Celebrating God’s covenant.
Psalms 120–134: Celebrating Jerusalem
Psalms 135–137: Celebrating in the face of God’s enemies
Psalms 138–145: Celebrating the renewed kingship
Psalms 146–150: Celebration of praise
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why do Psalms 120–134 bear the title, “A song of ascents”? What are the seven groupings in Book Five? How do these groupings review Israel’s history?
- What are some significant features of Psalm 119? How does this psalm function as a group unto itself?
- The last several psalms in Book Five give praise for God’s great salvation, to which the history of Israel pointed, a history culminating in King Jesus. What does it mean that Christ is the recapitulation of the history of Israel and the fulfillment of its meaning?