August 23, 2017

Psalms Week: May Your Kingdom Come

Franz Josef, Photo by Chris Gin

The Book of Psalms is a wilderness book. It is also perfect for the messy, muddy, unpredictable season of Lent. It is filled with laments, the most common type in the book, but the Hebrew name for the book is Tehillim, which means “praises.” There is constant movement throughout the book from lament to praise, from despair to hope and confidence in the Creator-Redeemer God.

Here’s an updated edition of a post I wrote a few years ago for the Lenten season. It gives an overview of the overall message of the Book of Psalms.

• • •

The final composition of Israel’s “hymnal” took place during and after the Babylonian Exile. In its final form, it stands as a book with a unified, coherent message; it is not simply a collection of songs and poems.

The first two psalms introduce the book.

  • Psalm 1 tells us what kind of book this is and instructs us how to read it. It is Torah — God’s fatherly instruction that sets forth “the way of the righteous”. A wise person will meditate on it day and night.
  • Psalm 2 tells us the main message of the book. Though God’s enemies plot and fight against him, he will establish his kingdom through his Son, the Messiah. A wise person will take refuge in him.

The Book of Psalms is the Torah of God’s Messiah. It tells us how God’s kingdom will come, how his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Coming out of the Exile, the most devastating experience of Israel’s history, God’s people were hungry for this message. Having seen their kingdom disintegrate and fall apart, having watched God’s enemies sack their royal city and demolish God’s own palace, the Temple, having lived in foreign lands under the “counsel” of ungodly rulers, they were eager for God to reestablish his rule.

Those who dwelt in the wilderness of Exile longed for a new Exodus and “rest” in the Promised Land. Like their prototypical king, David, they tired of being pursued by their enemies, of mourning “by the rivers of Babylon,” far from their true home in desolate places. They hungered and thirsted to see Zion exalted and God’s Temple rebuilt and filled with glory.

And so the Book of Psalms was put together. In this five-part book (akin to the Torah of Moses), through songs that describe the sufferings and triumphs of David and which celebrate how the God of creation will so oversee history that his new creation will emerge, the message of God’s coming Kingdom is proclaimed.

The Book of Psalms, like the Torah, is a “pentateuch” — a five-part book. You can see this in your Bible: “Book I” is the title over Psalm 1, “Book II” over Psalm 42, and so on.

  • It begins with an introduction (Psalms 1-2).
  • It ends with a conclusion (Psalms 146-150).
  • Each part ends with a benediction (41:13/72:18-19/89:52/106:48/150:6).
  • Books I and II are mostly individual psalms of David (1-41/42-72).
  • Book III has mostly community psalms (73-89).
  • Book IV starts with a psalm of Moses and contains mostly royal and story-telling psalms (90-106).
  • Book V brings back David psalms and is dominated by psalms of wisdom, praise, and ascent to Jerusalem (107-150).

In general, we might say that Books I-III set forth the problems faced by God’s people in Exile: despite God’s election of Israel, the enemies of God are winning and God’s people are in the wilderness.

Books IV-V set forth divine answers to God’s people, giving both hope and instruction. Despite appearances, the Lord reigns and will be vindicated. We must take refuge in him.

Why is it important to have this perspective on a book like Psalms? Can’t we just read it and appreciate it for its beautiful, heartfelt poetry that depicts the human condition and our relationship with God?

Psalms, of course, has a long history of use as a devotional and liturgical resource, and this is a legitimate use of its materials. However, as good readers we must also note that it has been carefully put together as a book —  a book that teaches, a book upon which we should meditate, a book with a Kingdom message.

Furthermore, if we recognize the background of the book and the purpose for which it was put together in its present form, we will see that it is really a book that anticipates Christ, the son of David who has been “set on Zion,” God’s holy hill (Ps. 2:6). The prayers of David, the anointed one who ascends his throne through suffering, reveal the depths of the heart of God’s King.

For the most part, the psalms were not written from the perspective of the ordinary believer in Israel. The headings and contents show us that most were composed to reflect David’s experiences or the perspectives of those who served and supported the kings in the temple worship at Jerusalem.

Therefore, knowing the stories of David and the kingdom is a key to meditating on the psalms.

In the historical books, we see the outward circumstances of David’s life, but in the Book of Psalms we gain insight into the king’s mind and spirit. By laying bare David’s heart, Psalms gives the returned exiles a picture of the kind of leadership God desired for them.

The books of Samuel and Kings teach that the Exile happened because of leadership failure. The kings failed to walk in the ways of David, and therefore the people broke the covenant. They did not have his heart for God. As the exiles look for the restoration of God’s kingdom in their midst, the Book of Psalms shows them what kind of king they should follow — an ideal king with David’s heart.

However, even after they returned from the Exile, Israel did not have a king. They remained under foreign domination and had only God’s promise that he would establish the kingdom in David’s house (2Sam 7, Isa 9:6-7, Jer 23:5-6, Ezek 34:22-24, Hosea 3:4-5, Amos 9:11, Zechariah 12:7-9). The ruler portrayed in the Book of Psalms is the ideal King, someone for whom they were waiting, looking, and hoping: the son of David, the ultimate king.

The pages of the New Testament begin with this: “The book of the family tree of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…”

And so begins the story — anticipated in the Book of Psalms — that N.T. Wright calls, “How God Became King.”

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Photo by Chris Gin at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. Read a lot of tedious writing on the Psalms and have Psalters I’ve just never been able to get into. This posting today is a welcome presentation of the forest rather than 150 or 151 trees. As always, I do better translating “Torah” into “teaching” inside my head.

    • –> “Read a lot of tedious writing on the Psalms and have Psalters I’ve just never been able to get into.”

      Not sure if you’re referring to David, but I’ve always felt he comes across as melodramatic and even a bit bipolar in his psalms. When I’m feeling kind I tell myself, “He’s just being brutally honest with God about his feelings.”

      In general, I like Asaph’s psalms more than any of the others.

      • Rick, I meant most books ABOUT the Psalms and about reading them as a discipline. The Psalms themselves don’t do a lot for me, with individual exceptions. but CM’s presentation at least has them making sense as a whole, and with application to us today, especially if you have the eyes to see today’s world system as Bablylon in modern garb. Still can’t imagine myself as a monk getting up at 3:00 in the morning to recite them, and some of them say things I don’t want coming out of my mouth. Yes, bipolar is as good as any. Different strokes, but check out Heather below..

        • Rick Ro. says:

          –> “Rick, I meant most books ABOUT the Psalms and about reading them…”

          Well, hit me over the head with a brick…LOL! 😉

  2. My life has been very hard the last two years.
    I walk everyday. I have taken up the habit of memorizing the psalms as I meander my way through nature. I pick a psalm and then add one new verse most everyday until I know the whole thing. When I first started I found the back and forth “bi polar ness” of emotions confusing and somewhat frustrating. Sometimes the flow of the psalm is extremely interrupted. When I realized for myself that “my enemies” were sickness, disease, depression, anxiety etc.
    they started making so much more sense.
    Now, I find much comfort and solace in these psalms and they make a lot more sense to me.
    As a matter of fact, they are where I live right now.

    • Thanks for that perspective on the bi-polar-ness of some of the psalms. I’m often bothered by how David can be praising, praising, praising God, then abruptly ask for God to obliterate his enemies, then go back to praising, praising, praising.

      • Pastor David Hansen, in his book Long Wandering Prayer suggests that one thing we can learn from the Psalms is that prayer involves a sometimes extended process of working through our thoughts, feelings, doubts, and commitments with God, and that we must not think it strange or inappropriate if we wander back and forth and up and down. We must not short circuit the process by disallowing complete honesty and vulnerability before God.

        • CM
          I love the broader perspective you painted in today’s post and based on your recommendation I read the Long Wandering Prayer. It was truly delightful! And your description of the psalm prayer practice is right on the money. I appreciate your ability to be so concise about things!

  3. Three words that are saturated with forgiveness, hope, richness of life and, frankly, the mystery of suffering and resurrection are out of one of the most famous Psalms of all; “He restores my sole.” Psalm 23. I think Psalm 23 is simply an extension of Psalm 22. In 22 he is abandoned and 23 he is restored.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Psalm 22 has a nice “turn” at verse 19, then even more so at verse 22. It’s as if the writer (David), right in the middle of his anguished lament, remembers that God is not a God who forgets. (This runs counter to many of David’s psalms in which he begins with how wonderful God is, then goes all melodramatic on how everyone is against him, then goes back to praising God.)

      I have a theory that this is why Jesus referred to Psalm 22:1 while on the cross. Though he felt forsaken just as David felt forsaken, he knew that the last half of David’s psalm was a reminder to praise God in the midst of the pain, and a reminder that he hadn’t been forsaken.

    • Kinda funny. That’s four words and that would be ‘soul’. Haste.

  4. Burro [Mule] says:

    Kind of what I think the Psalms were written for:
    Unaccompanied Responsive Psalmody in Gaelic sung by the Congregation of Back Free Church, Isle of Lewiis.

    One thing the Reformed got right.

    • That’s right interesting, Mulo. In that the video was from 2003 I would guess that half those old people might be dead by now with no one to replace them, which would be a loss, but a picture of much of the western church at large. I ended up yesterday on Youtube learning about kulning, Swedish cattle calling, perhaps something like yodeling in slow motion for the same reason, to be heard over long distance. Eerily beautiful, haunting, primitive, they showed one woman kulning on a dock and called in a wild swan with its young, swam right up to her.

      • Christiane says:

        maybe you came upon Jonna calling ‘kulning’ the cows 🙂
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvtT3UyhibQ

        • >> maybe you came upon Jonna calling ‘kulning’ the cows

          I did, thanks to you, Christiane, but it wasn’t her that kulned the swan. I’m guessing this is much the same as you might have heard thousands of years ago and it speaks to something ancient inside me, perhaps some Viking genes. I live with predominantly Swedish neighbors and I’ll be asking them if they know about this.

  5. Christiane says:

    ” My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.”
    (Dorothy Day)