On God, His Word, His Church, and His World
On God, His Word, His Church, and His World
Is the book of Psalms merely a collection of individual psalms? Or is it a
book with a unified theme?
August 4, 2016
Updated: June 25, 2022
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We often read the Psalms as 150 individual songs of lament, thanksgiving, praise, and penitence. We see each psalm as different from the next. The truth is that although each individual psalm is distinct, the 150 psalms tell one cohesive story, and each psalm contributes to that one narrative.
Consider the ancient division of the Psalms into five books. The ends of Books 1-4 (Ps 41:13, 72:19, 89:52, 106:48) all end with a doxology and a double Amen. Book 5 does not have a doxology or a double Amen. Instead, it ends with a resounding series of five psalms (146-150) that are called “The Great Hallel” because each begins with Hallelujah, or “Praise the Lord” (hallel means “praise” in Hebrew). These “seams” between the books punctuate the centrality of YHWH’s praise.
Moreover, many of the seams of the Psalm’s five books contain references to kingship. Psalms 38-41 reflect upon the great uncertainty of David’s kingship, even the sins of God’s chosen king. Psalm 72, written by Solomon, is a bright and hopeful declaration of God’s favor upon the king. The communal lament of Psalm 89 arises because the promises of God for His king and royal house seem to have been ignored by God. The search for the true Israelite king goes unabated in the psalms.
Another clue in understanding the Psalms’ unified message is found by locating David’s psalms. If we go by the superscriptions in the Psalms, most of David’s 69 psalms are found in Book 1 (37 psalms) and in Book 2 (18 psalms). Book 3 contains one Davidic psalm, Book 4 has two Davidic psalms, and Book 5 has 11. Most of David’s psalms are laments. In fact, most psalms in the book of Psalms are “sad psalms” (psalms of laments, imprecations [or curses], and repentance) not “happy psalms” (psalms of joyous praise and thanksgiving), whether or not they were written by David.
Taken together, the punctuating praise at the seams of each of the psalms’ five books, the reflection upon true Israelite kingship, and the placement of David’s psalms within the Psalter form a running commentary on David and his human kingship. In the first two books (psalms 1-72), David is the main character. He is the chosen king of YHWH. Yet, the royal house of this mere man is full of uncertainty, provisionality, doubt, and sin. What kind of kingdom can outlast all kingdoms if it can totter and be overthrown by enemies within and without? The certainty at the end of Book 2 (Ps 72) gives way to the utter darkness that engulfs Israel by the end of Book 3 (Psalms 88 and 89) because God seems to have turned His back on Israel’s king and kingdom. A merely human king and kingdom will not do.
The progression of the Psalms, then, is towards this unified message: God leads us through King David to a better King, who is Jesus Christ Himself, truly God but truly man, from the seed of David (Rm 1:1-4; Mt 1:1), in fulfillment of all the ancient promises (e.g. Ps 110). The eternal kingship of YHWH is powerfully asserted in Books 4 and 5 as the movement of the Psalms strips us of our trust in all things and people so that we would trust God alone. Friendships, wealth, power, men, horses and chariots, even the mountains and hills— all prove to be a futile and shakeable foundation for an everlasting kingdom. Only YHWH, the God over all gods, can provide a sure foundation for life. Thus, only YHWH is worthy of praise. The exclusive kingship of YHWH, in the background at the Psalter’s beginning, is unambiguously asserted at its end (145:1, 11-13; 149:2).
This progression of the Psalter is found not only in the broad sweep of the book but also on a smaller scale in individual psalms. Psalm 23 is a classic example: there is an initial confidence in God, a disorienting brush with death, and then a deeper, renewed trust in the Lord’s comprehensive provision that ends in dwelling with the Lord forever, a state much better than the first. The smaller scale of individual psalms shows the broader progress of the book of Psalms.
The progression of the Psalms (from human kingship to divine kingship) also makes sense of the Hebrew name for the Psalms, Tehillim, or “Praises.” If most of the book is sad, why the title of “Praises”? It is because God leads us through our suffering, from enemies within and without (suffering that is often unfathomable to us), to share in the great destiny of man: to praise the one, true, living God who is faithful to His promise and His people, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who is the true King of Israel and of the world. That is why God’s people are called to direct all their prayers and praises to Him, especially in times of suffering. The worship of God is the great goal of all nations, and this is how the Psalter resoundingly concludes.
Some of the works of Gerald Wilson, Geoffrey Grogan, Walter Brueggemann, and Doug Green have been helpful in articulating many of the themes explained above.