The Theology of the Psalms
Reading the book of Psalms is always beneficial because there is always a passage that the reader can relate to at that time. If he is going through difficult times and is looking for comfort, they are there. If he is full of joy and is looking for the words to describe
his feeling, they are there. The Psalms show several different forms of worship compiled together in one book. When reading The Book of Psalms, one will notice that God accepts praises in different ways, from different kinds of people. There are different ways of reading the Psalms to get the most from each passage. Also, reading the Psalms with the proper knowledge from the beginning, may keep the reader from getting false meanings or interpretations. Worship does not have to be performed in large groups of people or contain “magic words”. Worship is about dialogging with God, and there are many ways one can do that. These ways can be seen in different recurring “themes” all throughout The Book of Psalms.
First, lets look at how the Psalms should be read. According to the book The Psalms for the Common Reader, by Mary Ellen Chase, there are three primary things to look at when reading The Book of Psalms. The first is the Poetic Structure of the psalms. The psalms in the Bible are old poems. They were not written the same way that modern poems are written today. They do not use rhymes or meters as we know it in forms of English poetry. However, they did use “a clearly recognizable rhythm which was really metrical since it was based on accented words, that is, on a measured beat of long and short syllables.” The author goes on to describe how Hebrew poetry was written. “there are often, if not usually three stresses to a line, that is, three words which receive the beat, or accent; but so many differing mixtures occur that no safe and sure pattern is conclusive. Repetition is the literary feature that is present in the Psalms, as in all other Hebrew poetry. She writes, “To them, once is not enough.” To show emphasis on what they were saying, Hebrew poets would repeat things as many as four times in a succession of often tumultuous lines. Repetition has been known since the mid-eighteenth century as parallelism. It also appears in Egyptian, Assyrian, Canaanite, and Babylonian poetry and was also common in the literature of the Middle Eastern peoples. There are three types of parallelism, developed by the English scholar Robert Lowth. Synonymous parallelism is the most frequently used type in the Psalms. This is where the second line repeats the first line. Here is an example of Synonymous Parallelism:
Hear this, all ye people!
Give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world!
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder;
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree;
he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
Another parallelism is Antithetic. In this, the second line represents an antithesis to the first. Here is an example of Antithetic Parallelism:
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy cometh in the morning.
Synthetic parallelism is the second most common parallelism used in the Psalms. It is used when the second line supplements or completes the first by giving some result or consequence of the first line. Usually, the cause or consequence follows the act or the thought:
I cried unto the Lord with my voice,
And he heard me out of His holy hill.
However, sometimes, the consequence or cause is inverted:
I was glad when they said unto me,
Let us go into the house of the Lord.
Over time, more types of parallelism have been developed, but most are only minor variations of the three kinds originally developed.
Not only should the Poetic Structure be focused on, but the Thoughts and Ideas as well. The author writes that “The Hebrew mind…”, the author writes, “…was not, in general, philosophical, at least in a speculative, theoretical sense…”. She does not mean to say that the Hebrew prophets and poets were not sensitive and reflective. What she does mean, is that they were not given to speculation or to theory about religious and philosophical questions in that objective, abstract manner which was characteristic of the philosophical mind. In general, the Hebrew poets provide certainty in place of doubt. The author believes that the Psalms portray this character of the Hebrew mind more than any other Old Testament writings. In several Psalms, God assesses anthropomorphic traits, at least in metaphor. Some passages give God a mouth, arms, ears, nostrils and feet. He laughs, smites, slays, shouts, whets a sword, shoots arrows, etc.. However, the psalms also show that there are so many other conceptions of god in His spiritual attributes, giving him anthropomorphic traits only in the form of metaphor. It is very important to see how the writers of the Psalms viewed the world of human affairs. To them, sins were transgressions against God in the performing of wrong or unjust acts or even in the thought of such a performance. Many of the writers of the Psalms recognize such a transgression and beg God’s forgiveness and redemption. The author states that in Psalm 19, God is seemingly remote and close, tangible and yet intangible. According to the author, the Psalmists believe that man knows who God is, not just by observing His wonders or obeying His statutes, but by searching the heart in order to see whether he himself is acceptable in his own life or whether his sins of presumption and indifference can blind his vision of God.
Finally, it is also important to pay attention to the Literary Devices when reading The Book of Psalms. The author used the word devices instead of traits because traits “is too large and inclusive a word for my desired aims, which are to show the ways and means employed by the best of the psalmists to endow their songs an poems with enduring life, even with a liveliness and an excitement still read and vibrant after more than two thousand years.” These devices include the use of similes and metaphors, repetition, imagery, swift changes in sentence structure, the employment of the question, comparison and contrast, and variety in stress and in length of line. To the people of Israel, the sea was a huge mystery. Even though they lived along the Mediterranean Sea, they knew little about it. In the Psalms, there are very few references to the sea in relation to God, and those references are expressions of awe, wonder and even fear. Instead, they compared God to the mountains, which they knew much more about and loved. Because trees were scarce in the land of Israel, rocks were meant for shade and rest from the extreme heat of the desert. God also knows the beasts of the earth and birds of the air, and He cares for them. The psalmists acknowledges this and used it in their writings. The use of questions is also quite common in the Psalms. Here is an example of the use of questions:
Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
And why art thou disquieted within me?
God is also compared to a father frequently throughout the Psalms.
Like as a father to pitieth his children,
So the Lord pitieth them that fear Him.
These literary devices are important to know in order to make sure that the reader does not get any false meaning or create any interpretations that are not the truth
Now, lets look at the previously mentioned recurring “themes” throughout The Book of Psalms. According to the book A Christian Handbook to the Psalms, by R.E.O. White, there are six main recurrent themes of Psalms. These themes are made up of dominant questions, attitudes, assumptions reoccur, reflecting the background of history and faith that they share.
The first of these themes is Complaint. The Book of Psalms reveals a great deal of hardship, conflicts, sicknesses and many other major types of difficulties. These difficulties, as the author of this book states it, “lends a somber color to the religious life” in several Psalms. The following are some examples of these kinds of Psalms: “I cry with my voice to the Lord” (142:1), In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted” (77:2), “I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink” (102:9), “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint” (64:1). These psalms sometimes lead to self-pity and despair, asking “Lord, why?…” and “Lord, how long?…” They are the opposite of wishful thinking, rejecting the pretense that everything goes well for the religious.
The second of these themes is Deliverance and Vindication. Usually, the authors of the psalms plea for comfort or for sympathy rather than deliverance and vindication. An example of a Deliverance and Vindication psalm is “It is time for the Lord to act, for thy law has been broken…” (119:126) Other examples are (Psalms 10;35:24; 27:64; 140 and 149). They use terms like “Awake, Lord!” and “Arise, Lord!” very often.
The author states that the next theme is Worship. “One of the most illuminating lines of study has concerned the use of the psalms in the later liturgy of the temple and synagogue worship.”, says the author. He tells us that the heading of Psalm 92 reminds us that Jewish tradition was also associated with the first day of the Jewish week. Also, Psalm 48 with the second, Psalm 82 with the third, Psalm 94 with the fourth, Psalm 81 with the fifth and 93 with the sixth. The Book of Psalms also contains plainly stated liturgical instructions concerning use on ritual occasions. For example, “A Psalm… for the memorial offering” (Psalms 38 and 70) recall the “meal offering” from Leviticus 2:2-9, suggesting song during the burning of incense. The author suggests that Psalms 24:7-10; 100; and 118:19-27 have to do with ceremonial processions which figured in Jewish worship. He also mentions others that support his belief. Also, he mentions Psalm 51 as being “an intensely personal expression of penitence, rooted surely in an individual’s experience of sin ad remorse.” However, the destruction of Jerusalem (Referenced in Psalm 51:18-19) is referred to, contradicting the whole spirit of the psalm. He believes that this proves that an “originally individual confession has passed into wider use as a congregational act, fitting for some such occasion as the Day of Atonement or during national disaster.
The next theme of the psalms is Enthronement. These provide one example of the use of psalms in public worship. They make a great deal of references to the royalty and the kinship of God. He references Psalms 2; 18; 93 and 97 to support this statement. In the psalms, God is mentioned as the enthroned king of Israel eighteen times, as well as statements like “The Lord is King” (six times), and “The Lord reigns” (seven times).
Another reoccurring theme in the psalms is God and Nature. Aspects are mentioned all throughout the Book of Psalms and it gives glory to God, recognizing him as the one who made everything. “The changing moods of Nature, the moving seasons- seed-time rains, “thirst”, harvest, “renewal of the earth” – the miracle of day and night, and the coursing sun and stars are all faithfully described.”, the author writes. God also is described in ways relating to nature. For example, his voice is the thunder, his energy is behind the wind, his thought is in the beauty, his power is within the storm, his wrath sends the tempest, his generous gifts or judgments are seen at harvest time. The authors of these psalms helped to teach us that the world is about us in our Father’s world, given to us to be our home, delight and a constant reminder of Himself.
The last theme that the author mentions is Wisdom. A few psalms, according to the author, “betray the influence of a ‘fraternity’ or ‘school of thought’ in Judaism that tended to make less of tradition, law, ritual and worship than of ‘good living and high thinking’ as the essence of religion”. He supports this statement, saying that this outlook can be seen in the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. The author writes, “To speak of psalms having the style of the wisdom literature (e.g., Pss. 1 and 32) may mean little more than ‘this is expressed in the way that, later, wisdom writers would come to say things’” However, occasionally, the teaching itself seems nearer to the outlook of the “wisdom school” than to more traditional Judaism. (e.g., Psalms 37 and 111). Based on this book, one can conclude that God accepts all kinds of praises. The praises do not have to be in large congregational settings, nor do they have to be individual. They do not have to follow a specific guideline or contain special words, titles or phrases.
The Book of Psalms shows its readers that God is not closed off from His people; that he hears them when they speak to Him, and that he answers their prayers. Psalms: 4, 5, and 20 are good examples of His hearing and answering of prayer. His provision and His openness to His people shows that He is a God of tremendous love. A Psalm that specifically mentions the love of God is Psalm 118. It also makes it very clear that God is the Lord of everything. He has provided for His children, and He has also delivered them. Several Psalms show this attribute of God’s character: Psalms 3, 13, 18, 27, 30, 31, 43, 44, 71, and 118. God has done amazing things for His people that no one else could ever do. God also loves to hear His people worship Him. He takes delight in it. God is a God of justice. He is a God who is merciful, but He is not hesitant to punish sin and disobedience. Examples of God’s justice and righteousness can be found in Psalms 17, 71, 75, 76, 97 and 113. Psalms 7 and 9 reveal the Righteousness of God. The Psalms tell us that God is in control and that He is our strength in hard times. This is shown in Psalms 11, 13, 18, 27, 40 and 77. God is also faithful to His people (Psalms 117 and 118). In conclusion, The Book of Psalms is a great way to see who God is, relate to the writers through its diverse topics, and worship God for who He is.