January 2, 2023

How to Read the Psalms for all Their Worth

Hello and welcome!

This year you're invited to join me on a journey through Psalms as I outlined in the previous post.  I am really looking forward to learning and growing together as we take in this book of poetic prayer during 2023.  As we begin, it behooves us to consider the book as a whole so we know how to approach the genre, which will protect us from misunderstanding or misinterpretation.  Also, did you know that Psalms has a specific structure?  The editor(s) of the book put all of the psalms together intentionally. Finally, the book was written for the people of God in a particular time and place, which guides how we approach it as twenty-first-century Christians.  I don't want to make this blost* too long or academic, but the following are vital things to keep in mind so we not only read, but read well.**

The psalms are poetry.  Maybe you remember your poetry units in middle or high school English class.  I remember.  As a  concrete thinker, sometimes I had no idea what a poet was trying to say!  Thankfully, the language and imagery of the Hebrew psalms are not difficult to understand.  The real challenge, I believe, is accepting the invitation to surrender to the God they address!

Nevertheless, here are some helpful things to know about Hebrew poetry:

  • Characterized by terseness, imagery, and parallelism  As you read you'll notice that much is communicated with few words, a lot of imagery is used, and ideas are reinforced or intensified by repetition and the use of synonyms or antonyms in successive lines.
  • Not the Bible's overly-emotional "fluff"  The psalms are emotional and relational and teach us a lot about God (theology) and how to relate to him (formation).  So, as Dr. Abernathy of Wheaton College said in his lecture on 'The Composition and Organization of the Psalter' in class this fall, "Read to learn."
  • Different types of psalms The psalms fall into three major categories: lament, hymn, and thanksgiving.  The reader must understand each on its own according to its genre.

Psalms is a structured book.  I grew up with the Bible, so I knew there were little subtitles in Psalms that said "Book I" and such, but I had never really cared to learn why.  Sidenote about me: I am not an investigator, because I'm impatient; thankfully, I married an investigator and he teaches me to take the time by being who he is.  It's also a good thing I'm back in school where they remind me not to overlook things!

Hebrew scholars organized Psalms into five of these "books" and they have a rough correlation with the history of Israel.  There's "increasing focus on God's kingship and wisdom post-exile, but not giving up on David's kingship" (Dr. Abernathy).  The book of Psalms as we know it was arranged after Israel returned from exile, but had been used in worship prior.  Books I (Ps 1-41) and II (Ps 42-72) focus on David's faithfulness, Book II (73-89) the experience of the exile, Book IV ( Ps 90-106) on wisdom and God's kingship, and, finally, Book V (Ps 107-150) David reappears and there's hope for the fulfillment of the kingdom.  The opening and closing psalms in the Psalter also communicate the message of the book; we'll hit more on that at another time.

The Psalms, Israel, God, and Us Perhaps the most important thing we must bear in mind as we read the Bible is that it was written to a specific people at a specific point in history.  Scripture also says it was inspired by God for us.  The psalms were "functional ... they served the crucial function of making a connection between the worshipper and God (Fee & Stuart 218)" individually and corporately.  While much more could be said, let us keep in mind that the primary purpose of the Psalms is liturgical.  That is a fancy word for worship.  May our hearts be open to what that means for each of us in our relationship with God and fellow believers.

As I sat with the Lord this morning and reread Psalms 1-3, I wrote,

The Psalms are nice but meaningless without the God of whom they speak.  Trust Him and you can tell Him anything. 
Don't be afraid to verbalize the questions Scripture brings.

Can't wait to see what God has in store for us as we read, study, and meditate on this poetic worship book He has given us!  The picture above is this month's image on a calendar of psalms that my neighbor gave me, unaware that I was starting this series.  How cool is that?


* If you're new here, I refer to blog posts as "blosts."  I have this ridiculous pet peeve about people calling a single post a blog but agree that it's nice to have a single word for a blog post.  Thus, "blost" was born!

**Pretty much all of what I share here I learned from lectures in BITH 533 from Wheaton College, fall 2022, and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Fee and Stuart - a book we've had on our shelves since college that I finally read when it was assigned!  Really wish I would have read it sooner, but better "late" than never.

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