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Psalms, Part 3

It may be of interest to some to review how the Psalms have been used in liturgical settings, for both corporate and individual worship by the Jewish community. (R. H. Piper, The Books of The Old Testament, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957, pg 195-196.)

Sunday – Psalm 24

Monday – Psalm 38

Tuesday – Psalm 82

Wednesday – Psalm 94

Thursday – Psalm 81

Friday – Psalm 93

Saturday (Sabbath) – Psalm 38 and 92

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I mention this tradition because it demonstrates the widespread use of the Psalms in the everyday lives of the people of God. The popularity of the Psalms rests in the fact that they reflect the common, every-day experiences of the human race. They express a wide variety of emotions including gratitude, frustration, and anger, as well as hope and praise. On my last post I introduced you to Psalms of Lament. Let’s survey a few others in order to get a feel for the practicality of these hymns of worship, with. D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There, as our guide.

Psalm 8 is a wonderful Psalm of praise. Based on Genesis 1-2, this Psalm reflects on the wonder of the created order and the role God has given us within it.

LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: (Psa 8:1-6 NIV)

Psalm 19 reflects not only on how God has revealed himself in creation, but also the depth of understanding we have through the Word of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.

The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. (Psa 19:1-4; 7-8 NIV)

Psalm 14 reminds us of the philosophical debate between believers and non-believers.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psa 14:1-3 NIV)

Psalm 40 expresses some of the emotion common to those who walk with God. It describes how a person feels in a moment of desperation, and how after crying out to God, he is rescued by the mighty hand of the LORD.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him (Psa 40:1-3 NIV)

But even worse than circumstantial hardship is the realization of one’s own sinfulness. Here Psalm 40 gives us a wonderful model of how to cry to God.

For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me. (Psa 40:12 NIV)

This prepares us for the unfathomable promise of God’s gracious forgiveness expressed in Psalm 51. Here is the prayer of David after he finally owns up to his own sinfulness in the Bathsheba affair. Enter into the breadth of the emotion in these phrases: the overwhelming awareness of sinfulness, the accountability before God, the desperate cry of penitence, and finally the relief of the assurance that God will forgive and restore us to a life of joy and renewal.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psa 51:1-12 NIV)

There are other Psalms that express thanksgiving for harvest (65), joy and adoration (95-100), and the hope of the coming Messiah and the assurance of God’s justice when he arrives (22 and 110). One discipline that I have used in my devotional life is to read the psalms according to the date on the calendar. On the first day of the month I read Psalm 1, 31, 61, 91, 121. Adding 30 for the days of the month, I ended up reading the entire collection each month. This is one way to catch a flavor for the worship life of the People of God. It is wonderful to experience these hymn writers’ words emerge from my thoughts throughout the day. Happy worship using the Psalms.

Psalms, Part 2

Blessed be your name
In the land that is plentiful
Where the streams of abundance flow
Blessed be your name

Blessed be your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be your name

Every blessing you pour out,
I turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say…
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be your glorious name

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be your name

The words of this popular Christian song, recorded by Matt Redman and sung by the community of believers, is the equivalent of a Psalm in the culture of Israel. It expresses faith in the LORD even when things are not going well. While it is not a direct parallel, references to the desert place, to darkness closing in, and feeling as though God has taken away that which is meaningful and precious, may give us a glimpse into the ethos of the authors of a major type of psalm, the Lament.

A general characteristic of the Lament is the outpouring of emotion to God during the experience of intense hardship, either spiritual or physical. We are reminded of the writing of Jeremiah as he expressed his sorrow over his suffering and the anticipated suffering of Israel in his book,

Lamentations. As a believer reads a lament, there is a ray of encouragement in the midst of pain because it affirms the value of worship even in the midst of human suffering. At one time or another, all of us can identify with the psalmist who expresses his raw emotion to God. Yet, as our contemporary song exemplifies, the faith of the author shines forth in the end.

A careful study of Psalms of Lament shows what appears as a deliberate structure. While there is occasionally an introductory section invoking the divine name (3, 4, 5, 80) and a plea for God to listen (5, 59, 83), the Lament usually begins by diving right into the source of pain and suffering. Psalm 13 is a classic example.

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psa 13:1-2 NIV)

Then there is the presentation of the reason why God should answer the plea, often being the writer’s opinion that it will protect his reputation as a follower of God.

Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. (Psa 13:3-4 NIV)

But the most distinct feature of the Lament is the closing expression of faith and trust in God.

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me. (Psa 13:5-6 NIV)

When a believer is in the midst of difficulty, psalms of lament give us permission to cry to God: husbands who lose their bride of 60 years, parents who are surprised by the questionable decision of an adult child, those who experience a sudden phasing out of employment, or those who suffer from an illness or accident. When life is at its darkest, cry out to God. God knows what we are thinking anyway; why not enter into the closest fellowship possible with him and unload your deepest emotion? Yes, God gives and takes away, but blessed be his name.

Psalms, Part 1

Tradition has recorded a saying that serves as an introduction to the book of Psalms. “Let me write the songs of a nation , and I care not how it makes its laws,” (cited in Carson, The God Who Is There, pg 85). This saying is the hope of countless musicians who believe they can change the world with their song. There is some truth in this thought. That which occupies our thoughts sets the course for our behavior. What better occupation of the mind is there than worship and praise of the LORD. Over the next few posts, I will seek to outline the songbook of Israel. The editors who compiled this collection understood that praise and worship would knit the people of God together and anchor their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It is generally accepted that the Book of Psalms is divided into five books: Book One 1-41, Book Two 42-72, Book Three 73-89, Book Four 90-106 and Book Five 107-150. But this information alone seems useful only to those who are interested in organizational detail, which leads too often to missing the point. The title of the book, translated into English, is Praises, which is the point. Now the observation about the fivefold organization comes to life. Psalm 1 opens with a call to obedience, a familiar theme of the entire Old Testament. Psalm 150, is the pinnacle of the concluding psalms which are five expressions of praise or five halleluiahs, introduced and concluded by “Praise the LORD.” David Dumbrell (The Faith of Israel), suggests that “…the movement of the book of Psalms is thus from obedience to praise, indicating that the obedience, exemplified by Psalm 1, leads finally to undivided praise (Psalm 150), although much human experience lies between the beginning and the end. The Psalter is thus a book of praise, proclaiming that God, as Creator and Redeemer, has given to Israel through the Torah, through the revelation of God in history, the possibly of new life and a complete indication of how it is to be lived,” pg 250. Today I will unpack this thesis with a short survey of Psalm 1 and Psalms 146-150.

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither–whatever they do prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Psa 1:1-6 NIV)

It is not difficult to discover that this psalm contrasts the lives of those who follow the LORD and those who don’t. Those who follow the Lord are promised a life of prosperity (a word that is misunderstood by a block of contemporary, so-called Bible teachers) which is the experience of being “blessed” of God. The true meaning of this blessing is found in the simile of the righteous person, who meditates on the Law of the LORD, being like a tree that produces fruit in season and whose leaf does not whither. Think of the desert lands of Israel, where vegetation is completely dependent on the intermittent rains that suddenly bring the dusty ground to life, only to be thrust back into dormancy by the subsequent dry heat of the sun. But where there are spring-fed streams, trees grow. Their roots are established deep below the surface. This guarantees the production of fruit, right on time, and leaves that never whither. This stability in the midst of a harsh environment is the life of prosperity that comes to those who discipline their lives according to the Law of God, and who are careful not to fall into the traps of conforming to a godless culture. In contrast, those who neglect, or even ignore, the Law of God can look forward to eventual destruction, even though for a while on earth they might live lives of ease and luxury (see Psalm 73). The ebbs and flows of life, described from the perspective of the righteous who struggle with sin, discouragement, and loss, but who at the same time find deep joy, satisfaction and hope in God, occupies the text of the Psalms. The eventual conclusion is that God is worthy of our praise.

Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD, my soul. I will praise the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. (Psa 146:1-2 NIV)

Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God. (Psa 146:5 NIV)

The LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. (Psa 147:11 NIV)

For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory. (Psa 149:4 NIV)

Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD. (Psa 150:1-6 NIV)

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