A Reflection on the Psalms

Read through Psalm 3
Have you ever felt alone? Have you ever felt sad, broken, and confused? Have you ever felt so heavy from the weight of life that the only gasp of air that you could muster is for a cry? You ever felt so vulnerable in the world that you did not want to step outside the confines of your house and deal with others? Well, then you would understand what it means to lament. The psalms can teach us this lost art of lamentation. To cry out and become undone by our pain and sorrow. To let out that which wants to burst forth. And God wants that. God wants to hear your lament because He cares so deeply for your heart. These words of lament are meant to empty out our hearts so that there is room for God to fill them with His peace and joy.
The first part of the Psalter is less a book of praises than a book of prayers for God’s help. Psalm 3 is this prayer of help. Psalm 3 has elements that make up the structure of a lament psalm: the complaint (vv.1-2), the confession of trust (vv.3-6), and a petition (v.7). This psalm also ends with a closing benediction or blessing (v.8).
The psalmist opens with the complaint (vv.1-2), which are words from his adversaries. There are “many” adversaries (v.1) and they declare negatively of the psalmist that “God will not deliver him” (v.2). This assumes that either God cannot or will not help the psalmist in the midst of trouble. Either God does not have the power to help or that God has no fidelity (relational covenantal faithfulness) to the psalmist. Either claim is an arrogant presumption against God (i.e., claiming to know what God does) and an attack against a fellow human. The adversaries are attacking the psalmist’s source of hope.
Verses 3-6 are a reassurance of the character of God and a confession of trust in his source of hope. The poem shifts at verse 3 with the words “But you” and the psalmist begins his counterargument of the negative assertion that “God will not deliver him” (v.2). Verse 3 gives three titles to God: “a shield around me”; “my glory”; and “the One who lifts my head high.” All these titles show that God protects His loved ones and shows them honor and respect. Verse 4 states that God will answer “from his holy mountain.” This is a reference to God’s faithfulness to His people in the past on Mt. Sinai. And then the psalmist moves from God’s past fidelity to what He is doing in the present and what he will continue to do in His faithfulness. He will “sustain” His people (v.5), therefore we ought not to fear “tens of thousands” (v.6). This is a reference back to verse 1 on the “many” who assail the psalmist.
The petition (v.7) and benediction (v.8) stems from the above confession of trust in who God is (vv.3-6). The petition, “Arise, LORD! Deliver me, my God!” is a reversal of the enemies original claim (v.2). After confessing who God is, the psalmist can trust that the enemies are wrong in what they say about God and that God will indeed deliver His people. The psalmist ends his lament with a confession of what he believes of the LORD (contra the enemies) and then invokes God’s blessing on the people (v.8). In the trouble of life and against the attack of enemies, the psalmist finds true faith and trust in the faithful God of Israel.
Prayer: Father, we pray that in the midst of our trouble we can find deeper, faithful expressions of your character. We pray that our cries of lament can be transformed into laughs of joy and praise you. I pray that we receive your strength in the turmoil of life. Show us more of yourself.

A Reflection on the Psalms

Read through Psalm 2
I have a friend who is from Britain. We often have conversations about each other’s experiences growing up in different countries. One time we talked about the political state of our countries and I was embarrassed to admit that I did not know the name of their Prime Minister – Theresa May. She was shocked and I realized that I only know the president of America because I live here and it affects me. I want to know who the leader of America is because, in a sense, he is my king. People need to know who is ruling them. People need to know who is in charge. That is where Psalm 2 comes in. Psalm 2 tells us who the king is, and who is really in charge.
This psalm can be considered part two of the introduction to the whole Psalter that goes with Psalm 1. This psalm introduces the rest of the Psalter because it introduces one of the biggest themes of the psalms: the Davidic king. With this psalm specifically, the king plays a large role. There is an important structure of this poem that follows A-B-B-A form:
A) The “kings of the earth” rebel against the LORD (vv.1-3)
B) The divine king is “enthroned in heaven” and rebukes the earth-kings (vv.4-5)
B) The Davidic king is enthroned on Zion and he is the “son” that inherits the nations (vv.6-9)
A) The “kings” (earth-kings) are warned of who really is in charge (vv.10-12
This structure shows that kingship is the talk of this psalm. And there are conflicting reigns in this world. The psalmist says that it is “the kings of the earth” and “the rulers” (officials) that band together against “the LORD” and “his anointed” (v.2). There are two conflicting entities in enmity for the ruling of the earth. One would think that such a power struggle between two superpowers require war and fighting. But the psalmist presents the battle so one-sided. He says in verse 4 that the LORD “in heaven laughs” and “scoffs at them.” This isn’t even a struggle for the LORD and His anointed (king). That is why this psalm is a warning to the other entity, the earth-kings. In verse 10, the psalmist declares “you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.” He calls them to the wisdom presented in Psalm 1 – the way of the righteous. Those not in step with the way of the LORD leads to destruction (Ps. 2.12; cf., Ps.1.6). In verse 8, the psalmist declares that the same “nations” and “kings” that rebelled in verse 1 will be the king’s inheritance. God’s response to the rebellion of the earthly powers is the installation of the Davidic monarch on Zion.
So the basic question of Psalm 2 is: Who rules the earth? The answer is: God from heaven (v.4) who extends heaven’s will downward to our sphere through the work of Israel and her king (v.6-9). The whole world needs to know her king; the One who is in charge. This affects us as the psalmist says, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (v.12). The LORD rules the world. He rules the universe. Therefore, we ought to “be wise” (v.10) with the earth-kings and recognize His rule over all of life. That is where true wisdom lies, in the kingship of the LORD.
Prayer: Father, remind us of your kingship. Give us the power to live in the reality of your kingdom. Even though we cannot see you, you reign. Let us be blessed in this truth and take refuge in your kingship when the powers of this world overcome us. Help us to be wise by acknowledging your reign in the world and by walking in step in the way of your kingdom.

A Reflection on the Psalms

Excursus 2: Hebrew Poetry
The Psalms are poetry with a purpose. Like songs today, they are the discourse of the heart. The soul’s means of communication. Robert Alter says, “We cannot all be poets, but what some are privileged to grasp through an act of imaginative penetration others may accomplish more prosaically, step by step through patient analysis.” Essentially, we are all able to appreciate and examine the art of biblical poetry in our own study of the Psalms. But we must first understand the characteristics of Hebrew poetry.
Hebrew poetry may not sound like “normal” poetry because it does not follow English poetry in predictable end rhyme or meter. These English poetic features can be found in Hebrew poetry, but they are extremely infrequent and do not function for structuring the poem. “The basic characteristic of Hebrew poetry is known as parallelism, the juxtaposition of two or more balanced grammatical elements.” An example of this parallelism can be seen in Psalm 96:
“Sing to the LORD a new song;
Sing to the LORD, all the earth.” (96.1)
These two phrases are parallel to each other because of the relationship between them – the imperative to “sing to the LORD.” But there is also a slight difference between the phrases that actually help qualify each other. The first phrase describes what the song should be (i.e., “a new song”), while the second phrase prescribes who should sing (i.e., “all the earth”). It is through this parallelism that the poet can pair literary ideas together because “the delight for the poet is in expressing something eloquently” and “the delight for the audience is in discovering the eloquence of the expression.” This eloquence of expression does not make something truer, rather it is a technique that allows the truth to ring with more quality in the ear of the listener – painting truth rather than saying it.
Another defining characteristic of Hebrew poetry is evocative language – powerfully descriptive language. Evocative language employs metaphor, simile, hyperbole, imagery, drama, intensity, repetition, and so on. The psalmist’s deployment of the above techniques enables the personal language of pathos to be felt and appreciated by readers of every generation. The theological truth found in this language has more of a purpose than to relay information – it aims to deeply move the reader.
As you continue on through this devotional of the Psalms pay close attention to the poetic techniques mentioned above. It is through the means of poetry that the Psalms touch our very souls. Keep in mind that “the psalms are poetry of faith,” therefore “faithful interpretation must attend both to their theological nature and also to their poetic nature.” The power of the language is inseparable from the meaning. The meaning of the Psalms exists in, with, and under the poetic language.

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A Reflection on the Psalms

Read through Psalm 1
One of my favorite books is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In this story, the protagonist, appropriately named Christian, is on a journey – after revelation is given to him by the Scroll – from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. This story is a proper analogy for explaining Psalm 1. Like Christian, we are all pilgrims. We hear, and we go. And along the way we are helped by those who are wise and we bring other pilgrims along with us. Life is a journey, but it matters which path we take along the way.
Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm that describes the two ways of journeying through life. This psalm reflects other wisdom literature in that it describes a dichotomy of life which are complete opposites: righteousness vs. wickedness. As is seen in this psalm, the verbs of participating in the way of the wicked progresses (or digresses) in stifling the journey of the pilgrim. It begins with “walking” (v.1b), then “standing” (v.1c), and finally culminates in “sitting” (v.1d). Each action progressively roots the pilgrim into the way of the wicked – which is not a path of “rootedness” at all because the wicked “are like chaff that the wind blows away” (v.4). It is the act of “sitting” with someone that you spend most your time with them. And the more time spent with a type of person the more possible it is for that person to influence you and conform you to their way.
The psalmist suggests in verse 1 that straying from the path of the righteous will lead to staying off that path and remaining on the path of the wicked. Now this does not mean that only the wicked and mockers like to sit and properly spend time together; so do the righteous. In fact this “stillness” is seen in verse 3 when the psalmist describes the righteous one (or the “blessed one” in verse 1) being “planted” like a tree. So both types of people are pictured planted in a sense, but the difference is where they are planted. The righteous are planted “by streams of water” which results in: (1) the yielding of fruit in season (v.3b); (2) no withering of leaves (v.3c); and (3) the ability to prosper (v.3d). The opposite is true for the wicked because their source of flourishing is not in God (v.6; cf., Psalm 14.1; Proverbs 1.7). The righteous are rooted in God, but they move on, being transformed by the Word of God (v.2).
We are all on a journey from when we enter this world through the cradle until we meet our way’s end at the grave. And part of this journey means progress. We move on and we change; it is simply the nature of life. The difference is by which path one so chooses to take this journey. Psalm 1 suggests that there are only two paths to take: the path of the righteous or the path of the wicked. This psalmist opens the Psalter with a choice between these paths. The rest of the Psalter is meant to encourage us to choose the path of righteousness, the path of life. It is the path of righteousness that we see the glory of God and properly praise His name. We have the ability to progress, or digress, on through life; it all depends by which path we so choose to take.
Prayer: Father, we pray for “the way of the righteous” to be ever before our feet as we trek through life and all that it offers – both joy and suffering. We pray to be planted firm near the streams of your life-giving, wisdom providing waters. Teach us to delight in your Word and meditate on it daily. Let this psalm guide us through meditation of the rest of the Psalter so that we may hide these wonderful, true words in our hearts for our life’s journey. Thank you for these words, Father. Amen.

A Reflection of the Psalms

Excursus 1: The Psalms as Wisdom
Like the Book of Proverbs, the Psalter contains psalms that are a part of Israel’s genre of wisdom literature. Wisdom is: (1) proper fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1.7); and (2) skillful living through proper comprehension of the created world order and a profound understanding of how society – which we are inherently a part of – works. In other words, knowing how things tend to work and how people tend to work. A wise person is one who finds the pattern to life and adjusts themselves accordingly in order to match that pattern or properly alter it. In a sense, a wise person appropriately lives out God’s command to humanity to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1.28). But it is only through the initial “fear of the LORD” that the wise person can live life with boldness in spite of inevitable difficulties. Wisdom helps navigate through these problems well.
Some of the Psalms in the whole collection of the Psalter can be determined to be a part of this wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. The reason why I place an excursus so soon in this study is because the very first psalm is wisdom literature. As we will explore further in Psalm 1 itself, it has a wisdom motif that is found throughout all of Proverbs: the path of the righteous ones vs the path of the wicked ones. This dichotomy is crucial to wisdom literature (e.g., Proverbs 10.32; 11.8-9; 14.14; 15.9). The way of the righteous is exceedingly different from the way of the wicked; and wisdom literature is there to prove that God is in favor of the way of the righteous and has enmity with the way of the wicked. This way of living in righteousness is seen in the writings of a prophet like Habakkuk who says, “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (Hab 2.4). The apostle Paul later picks up this theme of wisdom filling the person of faith as they live the way of righteousness in his masterful letter to the Romans as he quotes Habakkuk 2.4 as his thesis statement (Rom 1.17). Wisdom and righteousness are interdependent.
Wisdom is crucial for believers to pursue because Scripture never suggests that we will live life void of problems (2 Cor 1.5). Tremper Longman teaches, “Wisdom entails the ability to avoid problems, and the skill to handle them when they present themselves. Wisdom also includes the ability to interpret other people’s speech and writing in order to react correctly to what they are saying to us.” Biblical wisdom is not purely intellect (i.e., having a high I.Q.); it is closer to the idea of emotional intelligence (E.Q.). While high I.Q. means having superiority of logical thinking over others, high E.Q. can be described as having self-control, zeal, persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself. Longman explains, “Wisdom is a skill, a ‘knowing how’; it is not raw intellect, a ‘knowing that.’” Therefore, wisdom requires not only theoretical knowledge (i.e., “good doctrine”), but more importantly, experience (i.e., “good practice”).

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A Reflection on the Psalms

What are the Psalms?
The Psalms are unique in the Scriptures in that they are the only words that are from humans to God. All else in Scripture are God’s words to humans, but the Psalms are uniquely human in nature. That is why they are so real for us. That is why they are so moldable to each situation. I believe that it is because of this humanly nature of the Psalms that Jesus so often loved to quote them, especially in his most vulnerable time on earth – at the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27.46; cf., Psalm 22.1). It is in this vulnerability that God so chooses to interact with humanity (e.g., Hebrews 4.15).
Part of what makes the Psalms human is that it is poetry – the genre of the soul. It is because of this that the Psalms cannot be ordered neatly, nor be used as doctrinal treatises. They are not just literature, they are songs. C. S. Lewis once said, “Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.” The emotion cannot be removed from the Psalms for an “objective” analysis of them. They are intricately subjective and emotional because they are human – we are intricately subjective and emotional beings. That does not discredit the Psalms as useless, or relative. They ought to be thought of as relational because they relate so deeply to our human tendencies that they are very familiar, almost familial, to us. We are “at home” in the Psalms. They are not difficult words, but they are hard ones. They are hard because they say what is felt, and sometimes what is felt is deep anger towards God and/or others. But they are good for the church to not only study, but utilize.
The Psalms are like a type of shell that encompasses a person. The words remain ancient and holy but the meaning of them are given a whole new context in the mouth of contemporary believers. In other words, the Psalms are like garments that the believer can put on in certain circumstances of pain, joy, mourning, celebration, and most of all worship of the Lord. In the moment of interaction with a psalm, the words of the psalmist becomes the words of the believer. In a sense, the Holy Spirit works through the Psalms as Paul describes in Romans 8.26-27, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
We often find that “we do not know what we ought to pray for” and that is where the Psalms come in. They are God-given words for us to Him. God knows all our infirmities, which includes the lack of will to pray and the “know how” of what to pray. He cares for us by blessing His church with these words from saints of old. There are a plethora of words for life in the Psalms that help us both express what we experience in life and lead us in how to get through that experience. When we are deeply anguished, God gives us the words in the Psalms to anguish (e.g., Psalm 86). Martin Luther says that the fact that the saints use the Psalms to “speak these words to God and with God, this I repeat, is the best thing of all.”
This reflection of the Psalms is meant for both building up and storage. It is for building up both intellectually and spiritually as we explore some nuances of the ancient text that is helpful in our prayer and worship. And it is for storage with the hope that in reading the Psalms and exploring their meaning we can do what Psalm 119.11 encourages readers to do, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Hiding the Psalms in your heart will be extremely useful for carrying on through life as varying situations spring up and interrupt its flow. So I encourage you to read through the Psalms, meditate on them deeply, so that you can store these valuable words in your heart, so when you need them they will be in the storehouse of your heart for easy access. Trust that the Lord, by means of the Holy Spirit, will recall these words when you most need them (Luke 12.12).
My personal experience with the Psalms came during a difficult time in my life. I was in the end of my second year in seminary. I had it all: a deep theological understanding of the Scriptures, a career path laid out for me, a girlfriend that I loved and expected to marry, and I was deeply desiring to move to Denver after seminary to start my new life there. That all changed and was lost with one phone call. My girlfriend, through whom all my other dreams and aspirations were bound to, called to break up with me. This shattered my world because we had been going steady for over four years and I had fully convinced myself that she was the one I was going to marry and start a family with. She was from Denver so for four years I was Denver bound; it was there that my career path as a Bible teacher shined most brightly because her mother had been a teacher at a private Christian school for a long time, so she was my connection to that path. I lost all that. My life had drastically changed, my confidence in anything was lost, and my faith was shaken – I was in crisis.
It was the Psalms that got me through this dark period of my life. When I was sinking in despair and drowning my sorrows in alcohol, the Psalms were my raft. This was a dark time not only for my morals, but for my relationship with God. I was so angry at Him! I did not have the words to pray; I couldn’t. The only reason why I was in the Scriptures at all was because I was in a Psalms class for seminary. But that was my hidden blessing because I was exposed to these deeply human words that related all too well with me. I noticed that some of the words of the psalmists yelling at God and crying out to Him were exactly what I was feeling. I couldn’t believe how well these ancient men understood me. Their words were not antiquated and dead, but they were fresh and alive. I was able to form these words of lament and joy into my own circumstance. I was given a voice to properly speak to God. And by properly I do not mean organized or reverent, but whole-heartedly. With these words I was able to speak to God with my whole heart! I was given the blessing to know that I was not sinful in my crying out and yelling at God. He is our Father (Romans 8.14-17) and He wants to listen to us. God hears us fully and He knows what we are feeling fully because He is intimately in relationship with us. He Himself took on flesh in order to be this intimate. The words of the Psalms are this intimate. They will heal us through expression. They allow us to offer up our whole hearts to God. They empty us of our pain so that God’s Spirit can fill us with His joy (Psalm 16.11).
Therefore, I pray that as you explore the Psalms and reflect on these deeply human and emotional words you can let yourself feel the Presence of God and see His glory. Psalm 150 ends the Psalter (the whole collection of Psalms) by praising the Lord. I pray that you too can finish this study experiencing the Psalms praising the Lord with your whole, healed heart. Amen.