If the Psalms have been source of spiritual instruction and consolation for many seekers, they also have filled others with discomfort and bewilderment. There is an untidiness, a turbulence, an undertow of mystery in these ancient prayers. – John S. Mogabgab
The difficulty: Back to back Psalms seem to contradict each other. It’s an unending pattern of 150 passionate arguments…an emotional roller coaster plummeting to the depths of despair and soaring to the heights of praise. The Psalms sweeping promises of safety seem patently untrue. Satan himself quoted from the Psalms in an attempt to get Jesus to jump from a high place. Other moments of despair seem like the ultimate betrayal from God.
The solution: a better perspective: a spiritual journal to God.
This is a book addressed directly to God. They are raw, uncut journal entries and prayers. The psalms are not there to give us theology—key principles as to how God works in the world. Used for that purpose, they would give us a very skewed view of God indeed because they express emotions and arguments that often contradict theology and express human tendency to ignore or slowly adopt God’s perspective. There are useful to us when we use them as our prayers and journal entries to God—finding the words we need to express our emotions in these passages and knowing that we are not the first to experience these things as we follow God.
One of the most comforting things about the Bible as a whole is its tendency to realistically record the stories of people who were discouraged and lost perspective in their journey with God. And the big thing to remember is that though they were angry, hurt, and mad at God, they didn’t stop talking to Him. Neither should we. We tend to stay on the surface in conversation with people throughout the day, discussing facts, events and sports scores. Rarely to reveal our feelings and questions that exist below the surface. Real relationships are those that share those deeper thoughts and feelings—and in our relationship with God it is paramount that we learn to share at this level. The Psalms serve as a model of authentic conversation.
Poetry is meant to be experienced, not analyzed.
We miss the beauty of biblical poetry when we read it through a microscope, scrutinizing every noun and preposition to extract detailed doctrines. As works of art, like da Vinci’s paintings or Mozart’s symphonies, poetical books are meant to stir our souls and lift our hearts. The authors didn’t craft them to be technical instruction manuals. They intended them to touch us on a more intimate level.
One writer says, “Ever gone to an art gallery with an engineer? That is an example of what I am talking about. Usually the engineer will say things like, “Now what’s that supposed to mean? I don’t see it.” The other person responds, “Don’t talk so loud. It is beauty. Enjoy it.” It is color. It is beauty. It’s poetry.”
O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
See Your Life’s Struggles in the Psalm, not the Answer to a Question
“Poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives.”
“It contains the anguished journals of people who want to believe in a loving, gracious, faithful God while the world keeps falling apart around them…the seesaw cycle of intimacy and abandonment is, in fact, what most people experience in their relationship with God.”– Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read
Poetry builds tension we can identify with…it is not intended to give us answers to the tension, or even bring us to an emotionally-satisfying conclusion. Much like the conclusion of certain movies: Titanic, Million Dollar Baby, Message in a Bottle.
Poetry appears in many places in the Old Testament…the prophetic books are also often written Poetically. Remember to switch the way you are analyzing the message whenever you find yourself reading poetry, and don’t be upset when it’s hard to understand. #PoetryisHard
Learn to Worship through the Psalms: We need to interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and think about the awesomeness of God. Too often our circumstances capture all our attention. We need to get it back on God. That will help us endure.
Watch and learn to leave justice in the hands of God. The Psalms express the writers’ prayer for God to bring swift, decisive judgment upon people they who have hurt them. We read these with shock and awe at their anger, remembering Jesus tendency and willingness to forgive even the worst offenses. We can authentically do both. We can call out to God to bring justice and express our anger and desire for justice to Him. God promises justice and will bring it completely one day. The psalms help us do this…we must simply remember to leave justice in His hands. Jesus knew God was bringing complete justice—in fact—Jesus comes back to give it one day. He could let it go on His first visit, knowing that it would come when He returned.
The Structure of the book of Psalms:
The Psalms are the hymnbook of the nation of Israel. David wrote about half of the Psalms (73), Asaph wrote 12 (Ps. 50, 73-83), the sons of Korah wrote 9, and Moses (Ps. 90), Solomon (Ps. 72, 127), Heman, and Ethan wrote a hymn as well. Fifty one Psalms are anonymous.
There are actually five subsections (chapters) to the book of Psalms. Each ends with a benediction (blessing) to mark the end of the section.
- · Book 1 (Psalms 1–41)
- · Book 2 (Psalms 42–72)
- · Book 3 (Psalms 73–89)
- · Book 4 (Psalms 90–106)
- · Book 5 (Psalms 107–150)
Gunkel divided the psalms into five primary types:
- Hymns, songs of praise for God’s work in creation or in history. They typically open with a call to praise, describe the motivation for praise, and conclude with a repetition of the call. Two sub-categories are “enthronement psalms,” celebrating the enthronement of Yahweh as king, and Zion psalms, glorifying Mount Zion, God’s dwelling-place in Jerusalem. Gunkel also described a special subset of “eschatological hymns” which includes themes of future restoration (Psalm 126) or of judgment (Psalm 82).
- Communal laments, in which the nation laments some communal disaster. Both communal and individual laments typically but not always include the following elements: 1) address to God, 2) description of suffering, 3) cursing of the party responsible for suffering, 4) protestation of innocence or admission of guilt, 5) petition for divine assistance, 6) faith in God’s receipt of prayer, 7) anticipation of divine response, and 8) a song of thanksgiving. In general, the difference between the individual and communal subtypes can be distinguished by the use of the singular “I” or the plural “we”. However, the “I” could also be characterizing an individual’s personal experience that was reflective of the entire community.
- Royal Psalms, dealing with such matters as the king’s coronation, marriage and battles. None of them mentions any specific king by name, and their origin and use remain obscure; several psalms, especially ps.93–99, concern the kingship of God, and might relate to an annual ceremony in which Yahweh would be ritually reinstated as king. 
- Individual laments lamenting the fate of the particular individual who utters them. They are by far the most common type of psalm. They typically open with an invocation of Yahweh, followed by the lament itself and pleas for help, and often ending with an expression of confidence. A subset is the psalm of confidence, in which the psalmist expresses confidence that God will deliver him from evils and enemies.
- Individual thanksgiving psalms, the obverse of individual laments, in which the psalmist thanks God for deliverance from personal distress.
Ask yourself: what kind of occasion might have used this psalm?
Psalm 2 is a song written for the day when a king was put on the throne at his coronation. Psalms 120–134 are called the festival songs or “Songs of Ascent” and were sung by Jews as they attended the festivals in Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples are likely singing these Psalms at the Passover meal as they go out to the Mount of Olives. Many others would have been written for specific occasions too.
Suggested applications for this week and beyond:
Read Psalms alongside David’s Story:
- · Psalm 56 & 1 Samuel 21
- · Psalm 59 & 1 Samuel 19
- · Psalm 57 & 1 Samuel 24
- · Psalm 51 & 2 Samuel 11-12
- · Psalm 18 (summarizes David’s life story)
Write your own Psalm in a few lines about the life you presently experience. Feel free to be somber or angry, rather than happy and praiseful if that is where life finds you. Ask for justice against someone. Thank God for a great intervention. And if you’re really talented, try to make it music-worthy.
Consider memorizing all or part of a Psalm that you can use to express feelings you have. Also look to the Psalms for words to pray when you are struggling to express yourself. When you are reading this book and stumble upon words that describe your feelings, stop and pray them out loud to God yourself.
Worship to the Psalms: