Introduction To The Psalms
(Introduction compiled by Web Ed. from Dr. Cooper's BRM Articles
Israel's Hymnal and Poets of Israel )
The Book of Psalms is one of the favorite books of the Bible. From childhood, most of us have learned at our mother's knee such selections as Psalm 23, even though we did not understand their significance. The psalms have brought comfort and consolation to the children of God in various circumstances throughout the centuries. Certain psalms have been used by Christian workers in various groups. Too much cannot be said concerning this portion of the Word.
The Book of Psalms was the songbook of Israel, which she used in connection with her worship at the Temple. Whether or not there was such a service in connection with the Tabernacle, we cannot say, but we know that they sang and danced before the Lord in primitive times, for there are indications in the historical portion of the Word to that effect. We do know that, when the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, they sang the psalm which is found in Exodus 15:1-18. Just before his death, Moses spoke in the ears of the assembly of Israel the words of the song found in Deuteronomy 32:1-43. This hymn may be called "Israel's National Anthem." It outlines, in prophetic prospect, the entire career of the nation through the centuries. It is found to be one of the most graphic predictions in the entire Word of God, when it is properly studied and understood. Moses is the author of Psalm 90.
David wished to build a house to the Lord, but was not permitted to do so because he was a man of blood. Nevertheless, he made all necessary preparation for the erection of the Temple and gave Solomon specific instructions as to how the work should be done. He arranged for the musical services at the Temple. Of Hezekiah it is said that "he set the Levites in the house of Jehovah with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king's seer, and Nathan the prophet; for the commandment was of Jehovah by his prophets" (II Chron. 29:25). From this statement it is very clear that David introduced the instruments which he invented into the worship of the Lord at the Temple by order of Gad and Nathan, true prophets of God, "for the commandment was of Jehovah by his prophets." Hezekiah realized that it was by divine appointment that the ministry of music was introduced into the services. He therefore laid great stress upon it.
The place of the song service in the ritual of the Temple was even more important from the human standpoint than our song service today, the reason being that the Scriptures were not available to the masses as now. The people did not have Bibles in their homes as we do. They had to depend largely upon what they heard in the form of song and the reading of the Word when they appeared before the Lord thrice annually. God knew these conditions. Thus He gave Israel her matchless songbook, containing 150 hymns.
Let us bear in mind that Psalms form one of the books of the Old Testament and that the book of Psalms is Israel's songbook which was given to aid her in her liturgical worship. Many of the Psalms are the poetical version of the messages of Moses and the prophets. It is therefore purely Jewish. It served for Israel the same purpose that Christian hymnals do for us. Without doubt our songbooks are a great aid to us in our worship of God Almighty and in our exhorting one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, which we should sing to the praise of God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the fundamentals of the poetry of Israel is known as "Hebrew parallelism." The simplest form of this type was the placing together of two statements dealing with the same subject. In the first, certain words were selected; in the second other terms were chosen which give the same message--but expressed differently. The second statement is parallel to the first. Out of this grew contrast, where opposites were expressed. This is seen constantly in the Book of Proverbs. When we have simple parallelism, the second thought becomes a comment upon the first. Sometimes there are three parallel statements made in order that there may be no misunderstanding.
As time passed, this simple structure of parallelism was enlarged until certain psalms and portions of the Word were included in and involved in this scheme. This structure was, of course, familiar to the ancient Hebrews and understood by them. It is difficult, however, for us in the English to see and appreciate the beauty as it appears in the original text. There was a thought rhyme instead of the jingling of words.
Since the Book of Psalms is purely an Israelitish book, given to her by men of God, it is most important that we understand this fact. Every theme discussed pertains to the Jewish people in particular. Some, however, as a close examination of them will reveal, have a world outlook and deal with international problems. No Christian church can take over the Book of Psalms and use it in an understanding manner in worshipping the Lord as directed in the New Testament. Only by adopting certain of the selections can we use them in Christian worship.
As a person reads the poetical books, he will see that there is a shifting of the point of view very frequently. Unless he recognizes this fact, he will have great difficulty in interpreting the psalms. For instance, in that best known hymn, Psalm 23, David speaks of the Lord in the third person (vs. 1-3); suddenly, in verse 4, he addresses the Lord directly--"Thou art with me." This was good style--in Hebrew poetry. It is not in accordance with the standards of English poetry at the present time. Another illustration may be found in Psalm 81:5. Here we are told that, "He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, When he went out over the land of Egypt, Where I heard a language that I knew not." It is clear from the preceding verse that the pronoun, He, has as its antecedent the God of Jacob. Suddenly, however, in the last line the first personal pronoun, I, occurs. It is clear from the following verse that the "I" refers to Jehovah himself, and, as stated, "He" likewise indicates Jehovah. This is a very plain case, therefore, of the shifting from one person to another. But this should not seem strange to any mother or father who often, in speaking to a little child, says, "Come to me; I have something for you." Then suddenly he says, "Come to Daddy; Daddy will give you this." Here is a shifting from the first person to the third. This fact must be recognized as one studies the psalms and the other poetical books.
Every chord in the human heart is struck somewhere in the psalms. The theme ranges from the deepest dejection and despair to that of the highest expression of joy and rejoicing in the Lord. Moreover, the entire gamut of human experiences is run in the psalms, from the problems of the individual--even the humblest--to the triumph of the race when Messiah returns in glory and makes Israel the head of the nations.
Unfortunately, many of us have the idea that the psalms are purely devotional, with an occasional prophetic utterance. If we reverse this judgment, we shall be more nearly correct. It is true that there is much devotional material in them. Everyone who has made a special study of this book is aware that it is largely prophetic. In fact, many of the psalms are pure prophecy; but all have a spiritual lesson and an application to those who are placed in a like situation.
The psalms constitute the poetical version, in most instances, of the utterances of the prophets. Unless a person is fairly well acquainted with their messages and teachings and unless he has a clear-cut idea of the unfolding of the plan of the ages, he gets little out of many of the psalms. The one, on the other hand, who has studied carefully the prophets of Israel and sees the definite program as outlined by these spokesmen of the Almighty, can turn to these psalms and see that they are the messages of the prophets, put in the form of verse for liturgical use.
Many of the psalms are predictions concerning Messiah's first coming. More of them, however, deal with His second appearing. A few of them give the entire redemptive career of King Messiah, consisting of His first coming, His rejection, His death, burial and resurrection, ascension to the right hand of God, and His eventual return to reign in the very place where He was rejected. A number of the psalms are devoted to exultant praise concerning the glorious conditions that will be ushered in when Messiah returns. A number of them speak about the conditions that will exist when the curse shall have been lifted from the earth and the glory of the Lord covers this earth as the waters cover the sea. There are some psalms that speak of the Antichrist and of the evil hosts about him in the time of the end. Others deal with personal problems. One's life is enriched by a close study of this marvelous book.
Let us bear in mind that Israel's songbook was absolutely and infallibly inspired by the Spirit of God. Every thought therefore is of divine authority. Every word should be studied in the light of its context to ascertain what the Spirit had in mind by His selection of it. Unlike Israel's Psalter are our hymnbooks, which we Christians enjoy. Some editor selects various hymns written by different authors and compiles a songbook. These hymn writers are not inspired. They have, as a rule, poetical ability. They are impressed with some great truth or truths and they wish to pass on to their fellow-Christians the blessing which has come to their lives. They therefore write these poems and set them to music or else have someone with musical ability to write the tunes and harmonies for them. Very frequently the sentiments expressed in such hymns are non biblical; in fact, often they are contrary to the plain teaching of the Word of God. The difference, therefore, between Israel's songbook and those which we have is simply this: Her psalter was absolutely inspired; our hymnbooks are not.
The popular idea is that David wrote the Psalms. An examination of the various compositions in that book will show that he did not write all of them. It is true that he wrote many of them. According to the superscription of Psalm 90, Moses was the human author of that composition. Ethan, the Ezrahite, was the human author of 89. Psalm 88 was composed by the sons of Korah. Psalm 73-83 were written by Asaph, but Psalm 72 was written by Solomon. By the casual glance at the book of Psalms we see that God honored various servants of His by permitting them to give Israel this most wonderful songbook.
While we like to know who the human author of a Psalm or a passage of scripture was, it is not essential for us to have that information. All that is necessary for us to know is that such scriptures were given by the Spirit of God and that they are His infallible messages to man. Sometimes, however, when we know who the human author was and can understand the situation out of which it grew or rather the occasion upon which God made a special revelation, we can understand the message more clearly. For this consideration alone, we become interested in the human author.
Some of us think that the book of Psalms is purely a devotional. Whenever a person is appointed to bring a devotional message at some special meeting, we naturally expect the speaker to turn to one of the Psalms, in all probability. While there is much devotional in the Psalms, let us bear in mind that it is not purely a devotional book. Inspirational messages are essential to the growth and development of our spiritual lives; but it takes something more than sentiment and feeling to produce growth. We must have the meat of the Word as well as the milk.
Many of the Psalms are individualistic in their content and outlook. For instance, such psalms as 23, 25, 26, 27, 100, and 139, strike the individualistic note and give comfort and cheer to the people of God. Of course, one must be absolutely certain that he is one of the Lords own in order for him to claim any of the blessing which He promises to His people.
There are other Psalms that are individualistic but that deal with the problems of life. For instance, when David was driven from his kingdom by the revolt of his son Absolom, he was in exile in Transjordan. During this period he was thrown entirely upon the mercy of God. He therefore by the Spirit prayed and wrote the morning petition constituting Psalm 3 and the evening prayer know as Psalm 4. Psalm 30 deals with the crisis which came up in the life of king David. Psalm 51 gives the prayer that he uttered when he was brought under conviction of sin. It must be studied in the light of such passages II Samuel chapter 12. Psalm 55 can be understood in connection with historical account concerning the plot and revolt against David. Psalm 73 deals with the case and experience of Asaph who allowed jealousy and envy to rankle in his heart. These are typical Psalms of the true servants of God among the Israelites. Of course, the interpretation must be sought first and, if there is a principle that is universal in its application, it may be applied to people of God today under similar circumstances.
Other psalms are purely nationalistic in their outlook and deal with past and future problems. For instance, in Psalm 78, 105, 106, and 114, together with Psalm 137, we see historical events in the national life of Israel discussed. These are indeed instructive and informative.
On the other hand, there are predictions relating to the future of Israel. For instance, in Psalm 44 we see such a forecast. Psalm 79 give a vivid picture of Israel in the Tribulation. Psalm 95, on the other hand, is a prediction concerning the appearance of God in the person of Messiah in Israel when He came nineteen hundred years ago-and is a passionate appeal for the Jews of the first century to accept Christ. No one can understand the Book of Hebrews who does not approach it from the standpoint of Psalm 95, which in its message was prophetic. Psalms 72, 132, and 147 deal with the future of Israel and her land. Psalm 149 foretells God's special assistance that He will give to the faithful remnant when they return to Him in the latter part of the great Tribulation.
But in Psalms 24, 80, and 90 we see predictions concerning the penitential prayers that Israel will utter when she, having been evangelized, is convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel message and will be pleading for God to have mercy upon her and to deliver her.
There are numbers of psalms that are purely messianic in their import. For instance, Psalm 2 foretells the forthcoming international, atheistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, politico-religious convention, which will in its deliberations and decisions rule God out of His universe. Notwithstanding its actions God will carry out His decree and promise to King Messiah that He shall rule the earth with a rod of iron. Psalm 16 is a prediction of the resurrection of Messiah. Psalm 22 foretold the manner of His execution (vss. 1-21); whereas, its second portion foretells His glorious reign upon the earth. Psalm 110 likewise deals with forecasts regarding King Messiah. In fact, it gives His whole redemptive career. There are other psalms that are devotional in their character and that feed the soul upon that which is necessary for it to thrive.
In concluding this study of Israel's psalter, I wish to call attention to a few of the outstanding psalms. The first one gives the recipe for a joyful, fruitful life in the service of God. This one is a fitting introduction. Psalm 2 is a prediction of "the forthcoming, international, atheistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, politico-religious convention" and God's establishing the reign of Christ upon the earth. Psalms 22, 23, and 24 constitute a series about the Shepherd of Israel. Psalm 22 speaks of the Good Shepherd; Psalm 23 tells of the Gentle Shepherd; and Psalm 24 the Great Shepherd. Psalm 45 gives us "the fourfold portrait of King Messiah." Psalms 46, 47, and 48 present pictures of the millennial Jerusalem. Psalm 51 is a penitential hymn and is a companion to Psalm 32. Psalm 58 takes us quietly into the secret council chamber of the Antichrist and lets us know something about the plans of that diabolical character to exterminate Israel from the face of the globe; but it shows that, when she cries to God for deliverance, the Lord answers and redeems. Psalm 72 is a great prophecy concerning the kingdom. Psalm 80 speaks about convicted Israel's being ready for Messiah's return and her pleading for Him to come to her rescue. Psalm 110 is, from a dispensational standpoint, one of the greatest in the book. Psalm 147 foretells the creation of the millennial Jerusalem and the amazing transformation that will take place when the Lord Jesus returns.
In this series I shall pick out various types of psalms according to contents and discuss them.