Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Reading and Understanding the Psalms (part 2)

Special Concerns of Psalms

Most Psalms are identified by what is called the "superscript," a fancy word for the “above writings” that help identify the psalm. For example, take a look at Psalm 3, just above verse 1 where it should read, "A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absolom his son." This is not the editor’s title, but is actually part of the psalm itself, giving information about the psalm. The superscript gives us certain information, such as who wrote the psalms, who the psalm belongs to or why the psalm was written (see Psalm 18, for example). We may also find what kind of psalm this is, such as Psalm 142. There may also be some sort of musical instruction found in the superscript, such as Psalm 54.

Some argue the superscript is not part of the inspired text. There is proof that some superscripts were placed during or after the exile (Ezra); nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the Hebrew Bible actually counts what we call the "superscript" as the first verse, no matter when the superscript was placed. This means that when a superscript is present, what we count as verse 1 in our Bible is really verse 2 in the Hebrew Bible! Psalm 23 does not begin, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" but "mizmor la David," or "A Psalm of David!"

Let my underscore here that without the superscript, we may interpret a passage wrongly. Consider Psalm 34: what information does the superscript give that helps you read, understand and apply the content of the psalm? We will visit this psalm later because there is much more here than one may realize (this is one of my favorites, by the way).

One thing that is true about the Psalms is they are to be sung and if they are to be sung, if they are to be sung, there must have been instruments! Scholars can only guess as to what many of the instruments were, but we know there were at least string, wind and percussion instruments as Psalm 150 calls to mind.

Generally we think of the Psalms as “Psalms of David,” but just because his name appears often up to Psalm 72 does not mean he was the principle writer or compiler. By the time of David, there were already a small collection of psalms and the collection certainly grew with help from David. Only about 2/3 of all psalms have a proper name in the superscript. Here is a list of authors or collectors and the number of psalms associated with their name:

  • David (73x)
  • Asaph, appointed by David to build the temple (12)
  • Sons of Korah (10)
  • Solomon (2)—wisdom psalms
  • Heman, appointed worship leader by David (1)
  • Ethan (1)
  • Moses (1)
    And there are 50 “orphan” psalms, with unknown authors.

Some would argue that the Psalms may be divided up depending on how one may want to study them. This may do more harm than good because there are different genre of Psalms (kinds, or types). Without a consideration of genre, there may be more harm done to intepretation than good. Understanding genre may also help with understanding the purpose of the psalms. C.S. Lewis said that “psalms are poems, intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons . . . [to be] read as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyerboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.” This is not wholly true, for while they may not have the “form” of doctrinal treatise or sermon, their content is highly theological, and the genre helps us understand how to "do" theology. A general survey of superscripts (including musical instruction), reveals the following:

  • 57 psalms are called mizmor, or “psalms”;
  • 27 psalms are called shir, or “songs”;
  • 5 psalms are labeled tepillah, “a prayer”;
  • 2 are called tehillah, “songs of praise”;
  • 6 are miktham, or “atonement” psalms;
  • 13 are maskil, which basically means they are contemplative in nature;
  • 1 is a shiggaion, or "irregular"
  • and 39 are unmarked.

Considering the content and/or purpose of the Psalms, we can divide the Psalms into the following seven categories. These are our genre (and few share more than one):

  1. Messianic/Royal Psalms emphasize kingship, especially the relationship between God and the Human king. These reflect the relationship necessary for a godly life orientation;
  2. Wisdom Psalms provide advice on how to live in the way that pleases God; or, guidelines for a godly life orientation;
  3. Lamentations, or Lament Psalms, are impassioned appeals to God for help out of great distress; or, disorientation.
  4. Trust, or Confidence Psalms, are assertions of trust in God though enemies or other threats are present. These reflect the orientation of submission, obedience with a love-motive;
  5. Thanksgiving Psalms, provide an instructive reminder that when God has done something, such as answering prayer, we should respond in praise and thanksgiving. These become testimony that encourage others to praise God as well! Reorientation.
  6. Hymns, are psalms whose primary purpose is Praise to God, reflecting a life of godly orientation.

Now, reflect for a moment back on what you know about the kinds of psalm that opens books 1-5. What lesson can be learned from they way these psalms are presented in this pattern?

I look forward to your thoughts and/or discussion.

(go to Part 1 or Part 3)

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