December 12, 2017

Midweek Psalms: Introduction

By Chaplain Mike

Today I will begin a series of studies, posted each Wednesday evening, on Psalms 120-134. These are known, from their inscriptions, as the “Songs of Ascent.” Today’s post explores what that title means, and then gives a brief summary of my interpretive approach to the Book of Psalms.

SONGS OF ASCENT
The following quote from James Limburg in his Westminster Bible Companion commentary on the Psalms, gives a good overview of Psalms 120-134:

Psalm 120 is the first of a series of psalms running from 120 to 134, each of which is identified as “A Song of Ascents,” literally, “A Song for the Going Up.” This expression appears to refer to “going up” to Jerusalem; the same Hebrew word appears in the reference to the tribes who “go up” to Jerusalem in Psalm 122.4. This group of fifteen psalms seems to have been used for going up to Jerusalem for one of the festivals held there (see Deut 16.16), and thus these have been called pilgrimage psalms. These psalms were likely gathered together as a special collection to be used on such pilgrimages.

The Songs of Ascents are what we might call “folk psalms” — songs that reflect everyday matters like family, work, the seasons and rural life. They paint a picture of spiritual life from the perspective of the common person who experiences God’s blessings in life’s daily routines among his neighbors in his own community. However, he also looks forward to special seasons of festive worship within the larger community of faith in Jerusalem.

A PERSPECTIVE ON THE BOOK OF PSALMS
Without offering a full explanation of how I came to these conclusions, here are the principles by which I approach reading and studying the Book of Psalms.

  • Psalms contains many individual psalms and collections of psalms that were composed by David and other Israelite worshipers. The headings sometimes clue us in on a historical setting that should guide us in reading the psalm.
  • These psalms were also used in worship settings. There are various types of psalms, and understanding the characteristics of these types can help us in our interpretations.
  • Psalms is a unified work that has a coherent message as a book. The Book of Psalms is not a haphazard collection. It has been organized into five main divisions, and each individual psalm and collection should be read in the context of the whole book and the division in which it is found.
  • Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the book and make clear that, in its final form, its primary purpose is to serve as Torah for God’s people (Ps 1) and to portray the Messiah as the Son of God who will come to rule the nations of the earth (Ps 2).
  • 2Samuel 23.1-7 teaches that David understood himself to be writing about “the man who was raised on high, the Messiah of the God of Jacob” (23.1).
  • The Book of Psalms, therefore, is a book that sets forth the prayers of the Messiah in order that God’s people might receive instruction (Torah) in living under God’s rule as they await the day when all nations will come together under his reign.

READING THE PSALMS
Based on these principles, when reading a psalm, here is the approach I take:

  • Read and understand the psalm first according to its original historical setting and psalm-type.
  • Read and understand the psalm in the context of the entire Book of Psalms and see how it contributes to that message.
  • Read and understand the psalm as a prayer of the Messiah. What does it tell me about him, his character, and the nature of his rule?
  • As a follower of the Messiah, one called to walk with him in his ways and under his rule, what instruction does the psalm give me for my faith journey?

And so we will begin! As always, I’d love to have your comments. Next time, we will do an overview of Psalms 120-134. I encourage you to read them this week and meditate upon them prayerfully.

Comments

  1. I like the psalms of ascent. But, a quick question, would you consider Psalm 84 as one of the psalms of ascent, even though it was placed significantly earlier in the collection of psalms?

    5 Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
    Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
    6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
    They make it a spring;
    The rain also covers it with pools.
    7 They go from strength to strength;
    Each one appears before God in Zion.

    • It certainly expresses the theme of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I would have to look at its placement in the Book of Psalms to analyze why it has been placed where it now stands. One thing I have learned in studying the Psalms is that the positioning of these songs in the book is not without purpose.

      By the way, good to hear from you, Fr. Ernesto.

  2. Mike – I’d also like to read more about the reasoning behind your principles of interpretation. I’m with you on the Psalms as the prayers of the messiah. That came to me through Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and I wrote about that here: Jesus Prays the Psalms. I’d be curious if there were other paths to a similar conclusion.

    • I will talk more about this in future posts, but the primary reason for seeing the psalms as the prayers of the Messiah is the use of Psalm 2 as an intro to the Book. Psalms is The Torah of the King, just as the Pentateuch is the Torah of Moses. As Moses instructed God’s people from the standpoint of patriarchal faith, so Psalms instructs us from the perspective of God’s chosen King.

  3. I took a class on the book of Psalms one time, and it was definitely a favorite. I’m looking forward to this!