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PSALMS BIBLE STUDY
The Book of Psalms
Understanding the Book of Psalms is central to understanding the Bible. In fact, it is so central to the concept that if you take your Bible and open it to the middle, you will most likely wind up somewhere in the Book of Psalms. That’s an old Sunday School trick that I was taught back in the dark ages, but it is still valid on many levels.
Whenever I have somebody ask me how to read the Bible, I tell them 2 things. #1, Don’t start on page 1 and read through to the end. It just doesn’t work well that way because the Bible is not organized like a modern book. # 2. Start with the Book of Luke, then Acts, then read the book of Psalms. Doing it in that way will give you the clearest picture of what Christians believe and how they can utilize their faith.
I tell them to read Psalms because in Psalms you will find a wealth of emotion and expressions of writers who are trying to use their faith to understand their daily lives and at the same time enhance their relationship with God.
Note here that I said “writers”. Some people have the mistaken impression that Psalms was entirely written by King David. They get that impression from various sources. Some of the Psalms -like Psalms 35 and 37-are, in some Bibles, in fact directly attributed to David. It is possible that David did in fact write some of these Psalms, but almost all Biblical scholars will maintain that it is virtually impossible for him to have written all 150. They can tell this by studying the linguistic phraseology in the Hebrew which is inaccessible to most of us. But in the same way that English has evolved over the centuries, Hebrew did also.
My favorite example of this is in The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. In one part of the book as the Union soldiers are preparing to march off, he says “all of the gay young men marched off to war”. I can guarantee you that he was talking about “happy” young men, not our current interpretation of the word “gay”. Hebrew has the same traits and scholars who are much more learned than I am assure me that they can tell that some parts of the Bible were written down in different historical eras than others. For our purposes, this is a minor point, and let’s just agree that various authors at various times wrote the 150 Psalms that we have in our Bibles today.
For our purposes, we are going to look at only a few of the Psalms, maybe 6-8 of them. But they will be representative of 3 different categories of Psalms that can summarize the themes that we find in the whole book. Those categories are Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation and Psalms of New Orientation.
The Psalms of Orientation describe the efforts of the author/s who is/are trying to build a trusting relationship with God. Their lives are not particularly troubled or threatened, but are fairly well ordered in the way that they believe that God intended them to be. They live in a “no surprise” world, and have no great fears to deal with. Thee Psalms in various ways are expressions of a “creation faith”, meaning that the writer is saying that he (probably all the writers are men because they were the only ones who were taught to read and write) believes firmly that God created the world and everything since then has simply been an unfolding of that act of creation.
The Psalms of Disorientation describe an entirely different faith relationship with God. These Psalms describe a writer who is troubled. Not simply troubled, but a person whose life is filled with savagery, incoherence and trauma. We all know those times, and these are the Psalms that describe writers who are trying to deal with the seemingly incomprehensible experience of the fact that a loving God doesn’t provide smooth sailing through life for his faithful people. Some people look at these Psalms as “Psalms of Darkness”, in that these are people who have been swallowed up by the pain in their lives. I rather think that these are Psalms that have the deepest expression of faith. It’s kind of easy to believe in God when things are going well. When the roof caves in……. not so much. But these Psalms describe people who at those times of great trauma are hanging on by their spiritual fingernails to the hope that God will alleviate their suffering and bring order and happiness back to them as only he can do.
Psalms of New Orientation for me are Psalms that describe the person who has held on through the time of trial and is rebuilding a relationship with God. Their faith has been tested and not unlike the person who survives a shipwreck and lies on the beach breathing as the sun warms them after the storm. In many cases they are barely clinging to life, both physically and spiritually, but they are celebrating this new life and seeing it as an improvement over what they had before the
times of trial.
Psalms of Orientation
As I stated before, these are Psalms that express a profound trust in God, and a thankfulness for creating the world. Creation here is not some expression that at some time way long ago God created the world. Rather they are expressions that God’s creation is an ongoing experience. God’s faithfulness and goodness are affirmations that this creation is an ongoing experience. This is shown by a sense of orderliness in the world. It may also be an expression that those who do not experience that “orderliness” are living outside a faithful relationship with God. The message is simple and clear. If your life is a mess, it’s up to you to fix it. Get right with God and things will straighten out. God offers you order, and the reason that there is chaos in your life is that you are rejecting that gift of order. Get back to worshiping God and order in your life will resume.
This is a powerful message, and in many cases has merit. If we look at our lives, it’s easy to see that many times we have brought troubles upon ourselves. If we would have just listened to our parents, to our Pastor or to God then things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did. The down side of that message is that it can lay an awfully heavy burden on those who are suffering, and totally negates things that happen to a person that are totally beyond their control. But it is a good place to start, and does clean up much of the mess, even if it doesn’t clean up all of it.
Psalm 33 was probably a hymn, quite possibly from the time of Joshua. It is a celebration song that delights in the triumph of Israel over their enemies. It was probably sung in the temples that they had at the time, and later on was sung in the great temple of Jerusalem that was later destroyed. But this Psalm is a reflection of joy in the fact that everything turns out all right because God has created such order in the world.
Here we have an announcement of the main theme pf the psalm. It provides the 5 examples of the imperatives of Israel when it is summoned to praise: rejoice, praise, make melody, sing and play. Secondly it recounts the reasons for all of this because it all comes from God. The response of joy and gladness is only appropriate because of the source of the gift and the staggering beauty of God’s love. It goes on to describe the way that people can be thankful, by keeping the Torah on their lips and living a righteous and upright life in God’s well-ordered world.
It uses 3 different adjectives to describe God, faithfulness, justice and steadfast love. It reminds the people both of the source of their gladness and how to respond to that gladness in an appropriate way.
Here we have a reflection of the power of God’s word. Creation by that word is the most awesome and majestic experience that they could have. The relationship is freely offered them and the decisive move for them is always towards the word of God, never away from it. Continuing into verse 7 we see that the very word of God gathers all of the substance of life and brings it into order.
As a people who live in a place where there is plenty of water, just turn on the tap, we can often fail to see the power of the metaphor that water can bring to a people who live in a desert. The availability and control of water is the substance of life for them. Without it, no crops, no herds, no nothing. The compatibility and incongruity of this substance of life and the love of God is indistinguishable for the Psalmist. He sees that the whole world stands in awe of God and his majesty.
Here we have a demonstration of God’s amazing power. There are other statements throughout the Bible about this but here we have one of the most concise and dramatic representations of it. What is most striking here is the unquestioning stance of the psalmist. He knows what is happening and he has absolutely no question as to why it is happening. He is stating that Israel is living under the care of God, hence they have nothing to be concerned about. God is tzedakah, steadfast and unfailing. They don’t live from problem to problem but from hope to hope, a big difference.
The psalmist concludes with an unending expression of the power of God’s love. We wait because we know he is our shield; we trust because we know he in unfailing. We continue because we know that hope that is placed in the Lord will never be wasted and never fail.
You can almost hear the trumpet blasting; the drums beating and see the dancers dancing while the choir draws the whole thing to a crescendo that shakes the rood beams and people fall on the floor in exhaustion at the experience of the overwhelming love of God.
The Psalm begins with God being praised for his reliability. I a person puts their faith in the Lord, they have nothing to fear. God will come through as he always has in the past. The argument is that the one who fears God, and keeps the Torah will be happy.
A bit of a note about this concept of “fearing God”. That is often a difficult concept for us to get ahold of. We want to come to God for comfort and protection. Fear is not something that we normally associate with those things. But to the psalmist having “fear of God” is not saying that we are frightened of him. Instead it is stating that we know the awesome power that is contained by God, and we are aware of what that would be if it were ever to be turned loose on us. But we know it won’t because God does not rule by fear but by love, and steadfastness. We know it exists, and would be frightened by that because it is so massive. But we are comforted by it, because we know that God is on our side and will use it to protect us, not to crush us.
The key to understanding this psalm is in understanding the concept of righteousness. A righteous person is not above others, they are simply at peace because of their relationship with God. It is that inner sense of calm and confidence that creates an attitude that will allow them to face any circumstance secure in the knowledge that God will be there with them. And if God is with them, what’s there to worry about?
The righteousness of God is reflected in the way that they person lives their life. The give generously, practice justice and cares for the poor. This is the way a righteous person lives in God’s love. The more they do all those things, the deeper the relationship and the more they are able to do.
All of the aforementioned is contrasted with vs. 10. The wicked will look upon this kind of life and be frustrated by the rewards that the righteous person is achieving. For all his scheming, the wicked person will be frustrated in his efforts, and will be shown up by the happy abundance of the person of faith. Faith, and the practice of it in the world, will lead to happiness. Selfishness and wickedness will only lead to calamity.
Psalms of Disorientation
Not everything in life is roses and puppies. Sometimes there are severe conflicts that we have to address both personally and theologically. We all know that these times exist, but we often don’t want to talk about them. We try to just grunt our way through them, but we certainly don’t want to bring them to God, especially if we are angry with him for allowing these catastrophes to happen in the first place.
But here the Psalmist demurs, and actually takes these situations on, seemingly embracing the situation in the process. In theological terms these are what are known as the “imprecatory Psalms”. That’s just a fancy theological term that means “Hey God, I’m honked off at you!”
It often seems inappropriate to bring anything buy positive things to God, after all he is God and we don’t want to be disrespectful. But you know what? Life sometimes gets in the way of all that niceness, and part of the beauty of the book of Psalms is that it provides us with not only a format to bring our anger to God, but gives us permission to do so at the same time. Many times, faithful people, and the Church itself, avoid using (or even acknowledging these Psalms) because they are so “not nice”.
But I believe that they are some of the deepest statements of faith that are found anywhere. For here the psalmist dares to bring out the not so pretty parts of his life and lays them directly before God. Not an easy thig to do. Many times, we pretend that the only parts of us that are acceptable to present to God are the nice parts. But guess what, God knows that we have those other parts too. And the psalmist, by daring to bring out those not so lovely parts of his life gives us license to do the same.
In most cases there is a regular form that these psalms take.
1. The Plea: A complaint that God should correct a messed-up situation.
a. God is addressed directly on and intimate and personal basis.
b. The complaint is outlined, often with dramatic imagery.
c. God is petitioned to enter the situation and straighten it out
d. The motivation of the psalmist is laid out. The speaker may be innocent or guilty, but they are still valued by God.
e. The imprecation, often in very coarse language imploring God to fix this mess.
2. The Praise: The psalmist shifts direction to praising God for his intervention.
a. The psalmist states that he is assured that God is listening.
b. The payment offered; the psalmist says that he will do something that God desires.
c. A doxology of praise where the psalmist is already praising God for what the Psalmist is confident that he will do.
We will look at a few of these Psalms and you will see for the most part this format holds true. There is, however one notable exception that we will concentrate on that I find most telling.
Psalm 13 is classified as a “personal lament”. The psalmist is talking about a very personal situation, and wants God to help him with it. Something is terribly wrong in the psalmist’s life and this is reflected in the what’s wrong with the relationship the psalmist has with God. This is powerfully important, because in expressing these thoughts the psalmist is stating two things. 1. He knows that God cares about him. 2. God can and-more importantly- WILL fix this situation.
The psalmist begins with 4-5 questions to God. These are rhetorical questions that he does not expect to be directly answered or fixed by God. In a curious way the psalmist is blaming God for the troubles in his life. God has forgotten him; God has ignored his pain and hence his relationship with God is threatened by God’s lack of attention. The tone of the speech is very terse, down right rude. It takes an awful lot of confidence in one’s relationship with God to be that direct!
Now we come to the petition and motivation part of the psalm. The petition become more intimate, as though the anger has been purged and now the psalmist wants to get down to business. He spends some time letting God know what will be the consequences, for God, if his petitions are not answered. People will know that the only reason that his enemies have triumphed is that God didn’t care enough to get involved. The psalmist states that he has been waiting and will wait even longer, perhaps even to the doors of death.
Finally, we come to the praise part of the psalm. The psalmist has switched gears and is now assuring God that he trusts in him and knows that God won’t desert him in his time of need. The psalmist in concluding the psalm is basically stating that he is already confident that God will answer his petitions, and he has nothing more to worry about.
So, to briefly summarize the psalm, it’s anger up in front of everybody, anger stated, anger purged and anger resolved.
This time, the psalmist takes a different approach. The psalmist is not angry with God, but is desperate for God’s help in a personal situation. Note the difference in tone with this psalm. The psalmist is a humble supplicant looking for the help that only God can bring.
The psalmist begins by reminding God that he has been a loyal and faithful person, never straying far from the faith even though his life has become a disaster. In many ways it is like the book of Job, after Job finally gets off the pity pot and resumes his prayerful relationship with God. The psalmist is begging God for help, almost saying that God owes it to him because he’s been so faithful. He knows that only God can fill his heart with joy, and expresses confidence that when he really needs his, God will be there.
We enter a rather curious part of the psalm, for the psalmist starts to talk about “other gods”, a hideous offence in Israel. He seems to be giving credence to the concept of there being more than one God. But in the world that he lived in there were many polytheistic people. What he is stating here is that those other “gods” are mere fictions, and the only true help that one can look for is the one true God, the God of Israel.
Now we enter the petition and praise section of the psalm.
psalmist states that hi knows that the only way he’s going to get out of this mess is through the direct intervention of God. He expresses the confidence that God can deal with this “little situation” because God can and will save him even from the depths of hell (Sheol). He continues to request the divine intervention that only God can bring and finishes by stating that the only true comfort that he has ever known has come from God.
Just when we get a nice pattern going, up comes a problem. Psalm 137 is a MAJOR problem for the church as you will see in a moment. It is NEVER used in worship. Not once in the 3-year cyclical Lectionary is Psalm 137 used, it’s not even hinted at in any of the other readings.
When I was a boy growing up in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Waukegan, Illinois, it was once used during Vacation Bible School. Our Pastor had the whole school memorize the psalm, verse by verse-but not the whole psalm. This was a fact that I didn’t discover until one day when I was in seminary. One of our professors had each of us start out the class by reading a psalm, when it came to be my turn, I picked 137, because of its lack of use anywhere. The problem arose because I thought I knew the psalm from my old VBS days. So, I started reading it and then I got to the last two verses-which I had never read before- and the whole thing came to a grinding halt. Reading the words “Happy is he who shall seize your children and dash them against the rock” was kind of a downer.
But since that day, it has become one of my favorite psalms. Not for that sentiment, but for the reality of the situation that the psalmist was in and his comfort with his relationship with God that he would even bring such a horrible thought to the conversation. Then too there is a surprise that I discovered several years later that we’ll get into after we look at the psalm.
Here we enter the scene of the experience of the psalmist. Round about the year 587 BC Israel lost a war with the Babylonians (today’s Iraqis), and lost it big. The entire nation was taken over by the Babylonians, and the population was forcibly deported to work as slaves for the victors. These slaves were often tormented by their new masters who put the conquest into theological terms. “If your god is so great then how come you are slaves for us?” Vs. 1-3 reflect that torment.
The grief at their loss is exacerbated by their guards tormenting them and making them sing the songs of Zion. The Nazis did the same thing to the Jews in the death camps. The humiliation of having to do that is something we have a hard time understanding. I don’t know how to put it into a context that we can understand except to say imagine the worst situation like that and multiply it by about 10,000.
Enter the concept of Jerusalem. Note I said “concept”, not the city or the place of, the concept of. The closest I can come to an example of that is when 19 years ago the planes flew into the towers in New York. Everybody here can tell you exactly where they were when that happened, what they were doing and what they did next. I thought my wife had been killed, because she was in Pittsburgh on business and the 3rd plane was reported to have crashed “near Pittsburgh”. But still even with all of that, with the tragedy of the 3,000+ dead and the trauma that set off in our country few of us had the visceral attachment to New York City that the writer of this psalm had to Jerusalem.
For him, Jerusalem was more than a place, it was a promise. It was a manifestation of the unending love of God that was promised to the Hebrews when they came into this land and took it for their own. It is a spiritual attachment that is still the source of the conflict that we see today in that area of the world. To have that promise trashed before his eyes and the to have the memory of it ridiculed by his captors was a pain that was simply overwhelming. He brings that to light with the phrases of his right hand withering and his tongue being forever silenced. The pain that he feels permeates every fiber of his being every day of his life.
These are the verses that my Pastor left out of what we were memorizing. The vitriol and the unending hatred that the captive felt for the Babylonians was so unrelenting that he was even asking God to bring happiness to those who would murder the children of their captors. It’s hard to understand that depth of anger and sorrow unless you have personally been affected by such a loss. I’ve come close to it, but still I can’t get all the way there.
But think of the power of this statement as a conclusion for the psalm, or is it the conclusion for the psalm? We’ll see next time.
Psalms of New Orientation
Psalms of New Orientation are probably the most useful part of the book of Psalms. For here we have a record of people who have been through the time of trauma and have come out loving God even more than they did before. People who are untested, as might often be the case with our first group of Psalms, have a very different view of their relationship with God than people who have been tried. They are no longer mired in the depts of the testing, as are the people of the second group, but through prayer and meditation have come to form a new relationship that is often stronger than anything they had before.
These psalms show people who have had their problems resolved, even when at the time it seemed like the situation was insoluble. They demonstrate people who have come to believe that God hears their prayers and helps them to resolve their experiences. It acknowledges that life is never static, that things are always on the move. But now they are celebrating the intervention of God in their lives with these new kinds of Psalms.
There is no better example of this than to look back at where we left off last time with Psalm 137, and then look at the very next Psalm 138. Psalm 137 is the “Debbie Downer” of the book of Psalms. How much more morose can you get than asking blessings on people who will dash the heads of children against a rock? But then come Psalm 138, one of the most joyous and uplifting Psalms in the whole book.
I will tell you that this is my own theory, I have yet to find a biblical scholar to support me in what I’m about to say, but I don’t think it makes it any less valid. I don’t believe that the placement of Psalm 138 right after 137 is an accident. There is no historical reason for it, they were probably written at different times. But I think that the placement of 138 right after 137 is intentional to show how even the depths of anguish can be salvaged by God, and return to faithful to a joyous state of life.
Verses 1-3 summarize the main action of thanksgiving. This Psalm begins by demonstrating the process by which one comes to praise God. 1. I thank, 2. I sing 3. I bow down 4. I thank
The location of this joyous even almost seems to be at the throne of God, for where else could such glory be sung? But the beauty of that song is that it is NOT celestial in nature, but DEFINITELY terrestrial. The psalmist makes definite reference to the covenant of God and bears witness to the fact that any strength he has comes from that covenant.
These verses are a reiteration of the previous verses but are definitely terrestrial in their origin. The writer is stating that he has seen with his own eyes how God has responded to his entreaties. This is what they are singing about and this is what they are celebrating.
Here the Psalmist talks about being constantly surrounded by the love of God, even in the midst of troubles. This love overcomes the rage of his enemies and will protect him forever.
My point is that I don’t think this Psalm has the power alone as it does in conjunction with the previous Psalm. Here we see the travel through the time of trial into a time of rejoicing. Let’s take a moment and read them together…..
Do you see what I mean? There is a completion of the experience of prayer. The prayers were first offered in the depths of anguish and depression. The prayers were heard as testified to by the history of the liberation of the people from captivity. Once they were released, instead of dwelling on the anger and hatred that would be the normal response to their captors, the people respond with praise and glory to God. This response allows the healing process to begin. Instead of allowing the prior experience to dominate their lives in the future, they are freed from the burden of that anger and allowed to experience happiness again.
A friend of mine was a poet. He had been through a very contentious divorce, one which caused great anger and anguish. Finally, after quite a bit of time, a lot of prayer and the blessings of God he wrote this Haiku
I will not hate you
Anymore. It destroys me more,
Than it does you.
That I believe sums up the experience of the Psalms of New Orientation. They help us all to see that God offers us help in times of trial, will bring us that help and will keep on helping us to not be overwhelmed by bitterness as we recover from the experience.
There is no more intimidating prospect in Bible study than analyzing a piece that everybody knows. Such is the case with Psalm 23. It is reputed to be written by David, though there is no way to know that for sure. Be that as it may, it still contains some of the most beautiful lines that are in the Bible. I use it every time I do a funeral, both for its familiarity but also for the comfort that the words offer.
It is important to note that in the first two verses, God is spoken of in the 3d person. It is only here and at the end that the name of God (Yahweh) is used, but here we have almost a respectful, reverential distance by the use of the 3d person. It sets God up as one who has oversight and power over the situation that the psalmist is living through. In acknowledging that, the psalmist is stating that a life lived with God is a life full of well-being and satisfaction.
The psalmist then addresses the reality of life. Not everything is going to be smooth. There will be times of trial. But just because things get tough, there is no reason to believe that God has deserted him. Much like the shepherd who accompanies his flock into the wilderness, his guidance and protection (symbolized by the rod and staff) will be there him. Tough times will come, but there is nothing to really fear.
In the middle east there is a tradition of hospitality, one that we might find hard to understand. In that area, once a person is taken into a home, that person receives more than just a place to sleep and a meal. They are also entitled to the protection of the home. If that person is on the run, he has received sanctuary by being taken in. Even if the enemies of that person are the friends of the person offering him shelter, the host is obligated to defend him even against his own friends. This is something that is done publicly, not hidden from view. The feast for the visitor is held in the open. Oil is offered as a sign of blessing, and there is no shortage of food or drink at the meal, all signs of unending hospitality.
These are assurances that the house of God will protect this psalmist all the days of his life. And even though he has had some tough times in the past, the future look bright, because now he dwells in the house of the Lord his whole life long.
There are well over 100 other psalms in this book of the Bible. We don’t have time to study them in depth here but now you have a format to continue the study on your own. If you are interested, I can recommend some readings that can help guide you in your study. Be that as it may, I believe that the book of Psalms can bring joy and guidance to your spiritual life. It shows you that all parts of you are acceptable in the sight of God, and gives you great hope for the future.
WHEN I LIVED IN OHIO
When I lived in Ohio, once a month I would go see a nun. Sr. Kathy and I met for over 3 years and at our monthly meetings we talk about the parish, the status of my spiritual life and how God has been working in both of those arenas. We come from very different backgrounds. She is Roman Catholic, I’m not. She is very liberal, I’m not. She’s crowding the envelope of the institutional church every day with her ministry to people with AIDS, I was running a fairly standard parish in a fairly standard way. On the surface one might think we have very little in common. One might think that, except for one thing we both have very much in common: we both have high standards.
I saw it in her work with those afflicted with a terrible disease. I would listen to her speak of how she struggles to get those with the disease to take responsibility for their own care and the health of those around them. I would hear it when she talks of caring for the children of those who are ill and the frustrations she struggles with in seeing the neglect they grow up with. I watched the almost palpable anger she feels at the resistance she constantly has to overcome as she attacks the barriers to treatment on a daily basis from both inside and outside the AIDS community. It was, I sometimes think, her high standards that keep beating her up.
I guess the problem is her sense of vision. She sees things in a very demanding but expansive way. She hears the call from her Lord to take the standards he has laid out for her and serve a neglected part of the world in his name. It is a hard job and the standards are high because they were set by one who died on the cross – one who expects nothing less from those who would follow in his footsteps.
One of the mistakes we often make is in thinking that people like Sr. Kathy live to higher standards than the rest of us. “Well”, we might think, “She’s a nun. Of course, she is going to have higher standards”. But the life of every Christian is a life of high standards, standards that are really the same for all of us.
Those who have taken vows of orders or ordination do not, in reality, have to live to higher standards than the rest of us. Oh sure, it may seem like they do, but the calling that was extended to each of us in our baptism is the same, and the standards are the same for all of us, laity, clergy and nuns. That is the standard of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus expects each and every one of us to live into our faith. His concept of a faithful Christian is no different for the ordained than it is for those who are not. We are expected to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. We are to bear witness to our faith in appropriate and helpful ways. We are to give of our time, talent and treasure to help spread Christ’s kingdom in the world. In short, we are to live our faith on a daily basis and follow the calling of our savior, wherever that calling may lead us.
The standard of being a Christian always has been and always will be high. But that is where our standards are supposed to be. They are meant to be a stretch for us; otherwise they would be worthless. They are meant to cause us to stretch and reach beyond what seems feasible. Standards such as those set by our Lord are meant to be hard to emulate. For that is what keeps us growing.
Pastor Bob Lindberg