THE PSALMS: Israel’s Hymnbook . . . and Ours (Part 1)

Volume 10, No. 9 (September 2015)


“Psalms are the language we use when we need a voice other than our own.”
(Cornelius Plantinga & Sue A. Rozeboom, Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today, 160)

The Psalms hold a unique place in both Jewish and Christian piety. As has often been pointed out, the full range of human emotions can be found in these 150 songs, such that John Calvin called the Psalms “the anatomy of the soul.” “The Psalms convey the whole range of human emotion, from despondent sorrow (Psalm 88) to ecstatic joy (Psalm 47 or 48), from ravaging guilt (Psalm 51) to profound gratitude (Psalm 136).” (Roger E. Van Harn, Brent A. Strawn, Walter Brueggeman, quoted in John Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, 30). In the fourth century A.D. the great theologian Athanasius wrote:

Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Savior’s coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. (Quoted in Witvliet, 7)

The Psalms are unique, Athanasius claimed, out of all the books of the Bible, “because most of Scripture speaks to us, while the Psalms speak for us.” Derek Kidner adds: “The Psalms have among other roles in Scripture one which is peculiarly their own: to touch and kindle us rather than simply to address us.” (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 [Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries], 28)

The book as a whole teaches us that with the God of the covenant, no human emotion is out of place in prayer; the Psalms “enable us to bring into our conversation with God feelings and thoughts that most of us think we need to get rid of before God will be interested in hearing from us.” (Ellen Davis, quoted in Witvliet, 30)

The Psalmists are profoundly honest before God. Sometimes they are praising God for His profound blessings; often they are crying out in confusion, frustration and even anger at God for His seeming indifference or absence (though, with the sole exception of Psalm 88, every Psalm like this turns back to hope in God by the end). We find company and comfort here in the midst of the realities of our human experience, seeing that others have gone, and felt, that way before; and yet they learned, and invite us, to taste and see that the Lord is good. “Every man on every occasion can find in it Psalms which fit his needs, which he feels to be as appropriate as if they had been set there just for his sake. In no other book can he find words to equal them, nor better words.” (Witvliet, 40)

With their profound honesty the Psalmists not only give us words to express our most weighty feelings, but also thereby form our own language of praise and prayer. So in the fourth century, Ambrose called the Psalms also a “gymnasium for the soul.” Practice forms habits, and the Psalmists guide us in the way of trust in the Lord. “They teach us that with the God of the covenant, no human emotion is out of place in prayer.” (Witvliet, 30)

C. S Lewis commented on the profound spirituality of the Psalmists:

I want to stress what I think that we (or at least I) need more [than instruction about sacrifice]; the joy and delight in God which meet us in the Psalms. . . . These poets knew far less reason than we for loving God. They did not know that He offered them eternal joy; still less that He would die to win it for them. Yet they express a longing for Him, for His mere presence, which comes only to the best Christians or to Christians in their best moments. They long to live all their days in the Temple so that they may constantly see ‘the fair beauty of the Lord’ (Psalm 27:4). Their longing to go up to Jerusalem and ‘appear before the presence of God’ is like a physical thirst (42:1-2). From Jerusalem His presence flashes out ‘in perfect beauty’ (50:2). Lacking that encounter with Him, their souls are parched like a waterless countryside (63:1). They crave to be ‘satisfied with the pleasures’ of His house (65:4). Only there can they be at ease, like a bird in the nest (84:3; 84:1-2). One day of those ‘pleasures’ is better than a lifetime spent elsewhere 84:10, 11, 12).

I have rather—though the expression may seem harsh to some—call this the ‘appetite for God’ than the ‘love of God. . . .’ It has all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a physical, desire. (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 50-51)


David wrote 73 of the Psalms; the “Sons of Korah” wrote 11; Solomon, David’s son, wrote 2; Asaph wrote 2 (“Asaph was the chief” of the Levites King David appointed to be “ministers before the ark of the LORD, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel”; 1 Chronicles 16:4-5); men named Heman and Ethan wrote 1 each; and the authors of 49 of the Psalms are not identified.

There are a wide variety of types of the Psalms, used in quite different ways: from private, personal prayers to God (whether of praise or despair) to formal, public ones of praise. Some of the identified types include: Salvation History Psalms, Laments (Community and Individual), Songs of Thanksgiving, Hymns of Praise, Festival Songs and Liturgies, Songs of Trust and Meditation.

Some of David’s struggles take on the form of predictive Messianic prophecy, such as Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and also provides a beloved expression of faith and trust in Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”). He created a profound and lasting vehicle for personal confession in Psalm 51 (after his sin with Bathsheba was exposed: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions”), as well as a moving expression of received forgiveness in Psalm 32 (“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered”).

David walked with God, and lived out the ups and downs of that walk in conversation with his Lord; we can read of that interaction, and find expression for our own pilgrimage, in the words of David and the other Psalmists.

From an essay written for the first volume of Songs from the Psalter (Psalms 135-150), published by Cardiphonia. Used by permission.

Also on the Psalms: see Worship Notes for October 2012, February 2013, October 2014, December 2014, January 2015, February 2015, April 2015

Next month: Part 2: How God Is Represented in the Psalms; The Poetry of the Psalms

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Posted by on September 29, 2015 in David, Old Testament, Psalms


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