Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Reading and Understanding the Psalms (part 1)

Noticing patterns is one important aspect to understand the psalms. As poetry, words and phrases intertwine to communicate in ways that prose cannot. While a general overview of the psalter may seem a dry excercise, if we keep "patterns" in mind, we may discover how this favored book of the Bible draws the reader study and is very much alive! Interestingly, some of the same patterns we find in the Psalter also surface in other places in scripture, such as the Prophets and in other poetic passages, so studying the Psalms can inform our study of other passages as well.

The name "Psalms" comes from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture), as "psalmoi" and suggests the idea of "songs." The Hebrew name for the book, tehillim, connotes the idea of "praises" or "songs of praises."

The Psalter as a whole is a collection of 5 books and the editor of your Bible may have already noted these collections:

  • Book 1: Psalm 1-41
  • Book 2: Psalm 42-72
  • Book 3: Psalm 73-89
  • Book 4: Psalm 90-106
  • Book 5: Psalm 107-150

In future studies (Lord willing), we will define and understand more about the genre (types, or kinds) of psalms; however, let us already observe there is a pattern developing in the kinds of Psalms that begin each book:

  • Book 1 begins with a Wisdom Psalm (Psalm 1);
  • Book 2 begins with a Lament (Psalm 42);
  • Book 3 begins with a Wisdom Psalm (Psalm 73);
  • Book 4 begins with a Lament (Psalm 90); and,
  • Book 5 begins with a Psalm of Thanksgiving (107).

Do you see it? Wisdom; lament; wisdom; lament; followed by a rapture of thanksgiving!

Each book, regardless of how it begins, ends with a doxology,or outburst of praise:

  • Book 1, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen." (41:13);
  • Book 2, "Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone works wonders. And blessed be His glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen." (72:18-19);
  • Book 3, "Blessed be the LORD forever! Amen and Amen." (89:52);
  • Book 4, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting. And let all the people say, 'Amen.' Praise the LORD!" (106:48);
  • Book 5, well, just read Psalm 150.

    One more thing: have you noticed that despite the popularity of the book throughout time, with the exception of Psalm 23 and a handful of others, most people spend more time in last half of the book? Think about it: when you are feeling down spiritually and you find yourself thumbing through the Psalter, where do you find the most encouragement? In the last portion of the book? Right away the reader should note there is another kind of pattern developing: increasing praise governs the content of the entire book.

Laments occupy the first of the Psalter, then decrease as one moves toward the midpoint. Contrary-wise, there are few praises at the beginning and increase past the mid-point to the end of the book. The book moves the reader toward higher and higher praise!

(go to Part 2)

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