Psalm 4

Psalm 4:1-8, ASV translation, as prose:
For the Chief Musician; on stringed instruments. A Psalm of David. Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness; Thou hast set me at large when I was in distress: have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer. O ye sons of men, how long shall my glory be turned into dishonor? How long will ye love vanity, and seek after falsehood? Selah.
But know that YHWH hath set apart for himself him that is godly: YHWH will hear when I call unto him. Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in YHWH.
Many there are that say, "Who will show us any good?"
YHWH, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than they have when their grain and their new wine are increased. In peace will I both lay me down and sleep; for thou, YHWH, alone makest me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:1-8 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):
A Psalm of David.
Answer me when I call / O God of my righteousness
Thou hast set me at large when I was in distress / have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.
O ye sons of men, how long shall my glory be turned into dishonor? / How long will ye love vanity, and seek after falsehood? Selah.
But know that YHWH hath set apart for himself him that is godly / YHWH will hear when I call unto him.
Stand in awe / and sin not / commune with your own heart / upon your bed and be still. Selah.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness / and put your trust in YHWH.
Many there are that say, "Who will show us any good?" / YHWH, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.
Thou hast put gladness in my heart / more than they have when their grain and their new wine are increased.
In peace will I both lay me down and sleep / for thou, YHWH, alone makest me dwell in safety.
For the Chief Musician; with the Nehiloth [or "flutes"].

Psalm 4 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:
1 Give ear unto me when I call,
God of my righteousness:
Have mercy, hear my pray'r; thou hast
enlarged me in distress.

2 O ye the sons of men! how long
will ye love vanities?
How long my glory turn to shame,
and will ye follow lies?

3 But know, that for himself the Lord
the godly man doth choose:
The Lord, when I on him do call,
to hear will not refuse.

4 Fear, and sin not; talk with your heart
on bed, and silent be.
5 Off 'rings present of righteousness,
and in the Lord trust ye.

6 O who will show us any good?
is that which many say:
But of thy countenance the light,
Lord, lift on us alway.

7 Upon my heart, bestowed by thee,
more gladness I have found
Than they, ev'n then, when corn and wine
did most with them abound.

8 I will both lay me down in peace,
and quiet sleep will take;
Because thou only me to dwell
in safety, Lord, dost make.

Psalm 4 as Poetry

Psalm 4, like Psalm 3, has a few parallel lines featuring amplification or restatement but primarily denotes progression in the petition. The psalm is for flutes (the Nehiloth) and features an A B A format: Address to God (Psalm 4:1), address to men (Psalm 4:2-5), and address again to YHWH God (Psalm 4:6-8); it could instead be read as a "dialogue" of "complainer moving to one trusting" (Psalm 4:1, 6-8) and "instructor" (Psalm 4:2-5). Each word of the appeal of Psalm 4:1 ends in the first person singular suffix and thus with the similar "i" sound. The "light of your face" in Psalm 4:6 is the closest thing in Psalm 4 to a metaphor and it is a way of requesting the return of favor and benefit from God (cf. Numbers 6:25). Nevertheless much in the Psalm is spoken of in elision or in generalities ("vanity," "falsehood," "good"), allowing for varied applications.

Psalm 4 in Context and Canon

The superscription of Psalm 4 identifies it as a psalm of David. Psalm 4 has the hallmarks of a psalm of lament.

There are many textual issues with Psalm 4, many of which may have some bearing on interpretation. The verbs of Psalm 4:1-2 in MT are imperatives but are perfective in the LXX and Vulgate ("answer me" vs. "you answered me," etc.). "Tremble" or "be agitated" (MT rigzu) is translated "be angry" in the LXX (orgizesthe), and in Ephesians 4:26 as well; the MT makes better contextual sense. "Lift up" in Psalm 4:6 is rendered "make manifest" in LXX (likely in error). LXX, Syriac, and DSS read "their new wine and oil" in Psalm 4:7; "oil" may have dropped out of MT.

David begins by pleading with God to answer him when he prays and to give relief in distress (Psalm 4:1; "God of my righteousness" is either referring to God as righteous or God as the one granting righteousness, thus, success). An appeal is then made either to humanity or the nobility in particular to cease turning honor to shame, loving vain words and seeking after lies (Psalm 4:2). YHWH, on the other hand, sets apart His godly ones, including David, whose invocations YHWH hears (Psalm 4:3). Psalm 4:1-3 thus sets up an antagonistic situation which leads to the exhortation of Psalm 4:4-5: tremble (in fear) yet sin not, meditate in bed but be silent; offer appropriate sacrifices; trust in YHWH. Some people still want to see some blessing and favor from YHWH; David wants to be filled or has been filled with more joy in his heart from YHWH than the people have when they have grain and wine (and oil; Psalm 4:6-7). David ends the psalm with a declaration of confidence in YHWH: he can lie down and sleep in peace since YHWH is his safety, in contrast with the impious who tremble and must give thought in their beds (Psalm 4:8; cf. Psalm 4:4).

Psalm 4:7b seems to identify the context: a drought, or a period of less than optimal harvests. In that light Psalm 4:2 is most likely a comment from God to Israel chastising them for pursuing after Canaanite fertility gods in their distress and not giving Him the glory; Psalm 4:6 would thus be a petition to YHWH to provide rain and thus an end to the drought and famine. Some have associated the context of Psalm 4 with the famine of 2 Samuel 21:1 but there is no way to be sure of this.

Thus David makes a petition to God and also rebukes the people for their lack of faith in both God and himself in Psalm 4 on account of a drought or famine. God promised to provide rain, dew, and fertility; the king was to pray to YHWH for this to be made sure (Genesis 27:28, Deuteronomy 11:11-14, 28:12, 1 Kings 8:35-36), and David has taken that responsibility seriously. Nevertheless the famine persists. Many have turned to the Canaanite gods for relief, and of course none is forthcoming. So it is that David's petition implores YHWH to bring the rain while he chastises Israel for its unbelief, and in the end he expresses his confidence and joy in YHWH. Those who persist in pursuing useless false gods and undermine the king's authority will experience the fear and humiliation due them on account of their error; they should take thought in private to how they have transgressed and make things right. In the end all ought to trust YHWH and His favor to His people.

In Psalm 1 the righteous were compared to a tree beside the waters, always prospering because they were rooted in YHWH. In Psalm 2 YHWH blesses the Davidic king and establishes his rule. Yet in Psalm 4 the prosperity is not there and doubt overshadows the Davidic ruler. Psalm 4, like Psalm 3, provides a realistic foil to the introductory Psalms: yes, YHWH has promised good to Israel and its Davidic ruler, and that promise ought to be trusted even when things are not going as well.

Psalm 4 Throughout History

While it makes sense to read the contest of Psalm 4 in the context of famine and drought, and thus whether to trust in the Canaanite deities or in YHWH, the way Psalm 4 is written is vague enough to allow for other uses even during the monarchy. Psalm 4 could give voice to any distressed Israelite who found himself opposed by people in general, and especially people in high places, who did not trust in YHWH but in other gods.

Whether in generic terms or in terms of fertility Psalm 4 would have continued to give voice to Israelites in later generations to affirm their faith in YHWH and to censure their own or the Gentiles who put their trust in idols.

One can read Psalm 4 in Christological terms: Jesus embodying the situation envisioned by David in Psalm 4, ultimately "laying down" His life in death in the confidence that God would raise Him from the dead in victory (cf. John 10:18, 1 John 3:16).

In the New Testament Paul quotes the LXX of Psalm 4:5 in Ephesians 4:26, exhorting Christians to truth and faithfulness in relationship with one another and not giving place to the Devil (Ephesians 4:24-26); thus Paul uses the text to warn against undisciplined venting of or meditation upon anger which can destroy relationships.

Much early Christian exegesis of Psalm 4 is based on a mistranslation of what is most likely the postscript for Psalm 3 that was formatted as part of the superscript of Psalm 4; Hebrew lamenatzeah, "to the choirmaster," was rendered as eis tos telos in the Septuagint, meaning "unto the end" (and so in finem in the Latin Vulgate as well). This became the basis of all sorts of Christological speculation since they saw "the end" of the Law and all sorts of other things as embodied in Christ (Romans 10:4). With a few exceptions this line of interpretation continued until the Reformation.

Augustine notably used Psalm 4 as a cipher for his own existence; in the Confessions he writes of how he saw the progression of his own life in the Psalm, from loving the emptiness and falsehood of paganism and Manicheeism to faith and confidence in God in Christ. Many expositors made the same type of contrast between those of the world in paganism versus those who have found rest and safety in God in Christ.

As Psalm 3 was used in the monasteries in the morning prayer office on account of its emphasis on rising, Psalm 4 was used in the evening prayer office on account of the emphasis on meditating in bed in Psalm 4:4 and sleeping in Psalm 4:8.

Psalm 4 Today

For better or worse people tend to trust meteorologists and other scientists today when it comes to rain and finding ways to make sure we all have food. Nevertheless the essential contrast of Psalm 4 remains to this day.

As with Psalm 3, we all recognize God's promises of sufficiency now and glory to come in Christ (Matthew 6:33, Romans 8:17-25). Yet all of us, at some time or another, have gone after what is truly "vanity and falsehood" (Psalm 4:3). In past days those were forces of nature divinized as idols; these days we often pursue "-isms" and various lusts, pleasures, and desires, from self to scientism to sex. In a real sense all of us have needed to move from service of vain things to service and trust in YHWH in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-18)!

Yet we can see even in our culture today the essential disconnect fueling Psalm 4. What happens when the story told by YHWH in Scripture no longer seems to conform to reality? It is tempting to try out other alternatives; as many wondered what the harm was to give a sacrifice or two to Baal, so people today wonder what the harm is in accepting a generically secular worldview, allow the scientific perspective to dominate how one envisions their environment, or to honor other ways of considering the world. Yet all such perspectives are vain and false; the day will come when all such persons will be given reason to tremble, and so they should right now consider themselves and what they are doing (cf. Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, etc.).

Believers are often afflicted with the same discomfort and "dis-ease" as seen so prevalently in our culture that has been abandoning the Christian worldview over the past two hundred years. Yet when those moments of distress and difficulty come we should turn to Psalm 4. YHWH is the Creator God of Israel; He has worked to save all who would come to Him through Jesus Christ. If we put our trust in Him we can rest peacefully, both at night and in the sleep of death before the resurrection. Even in the midst of trial we can have joy and peace in our hearts in Christ, but only if we turn aside from the vain falsehoods of this life and put our confidence in the power of God in Christ. True security can only be found in God in Christ; let us seek Him no matter what!

Ethan R. Longhenry


Psalm 3

Psalm 3:1-8, ASV translation, as prose:
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
YHWH, how are mine adversaries increased! Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there are that say of my soul, "There is no help for him in God." Selah.
But thou, O YHWH, art a shield about me; my glory and the lifter up of my head. I cry unto YHWH with my voice, and he answereth me out of his holy hill. Selah.
I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for YHWH sustaineth me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people that have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O YHWH; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongeth unto YHWH: Thy blessing be upon thy people. Selah.

Psalm 3:1-8 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
YHWH, how are mine adversaries increased! / Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there are that say of my soul / "There is no help for him in God." Selah.
But thou, O YHWH, art a shield about me / my glory and the lifter up of my head.
I cry unto YHWH with my voice / and he answereth me out of his holy hill. Selah.
I laid me down and slept / I awaked for YHWH sustaineth me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people / that have set themselves against me round about.
Arise, O YHWH / save me, O my God /
For thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone / Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongeth unto YHWH / Thy blessing be upon thy people. Selah.
For the Chief Musician on stringed instruments.

Psalm 3 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

1 O Lord, how are my foes increased?
against me many rise.
2 Many say of my soul, For him
in God no succor lies.

3 Yet thou my shield and glory art,
th' uplifter of mine head.
4 I cried, and, from his holy hill,
the Lord me answer made.

5 I laid me down and slept; I waked;
for God sustained me.
6 I will not fear though thousands ten
set round against me be.

7 Arise, O Lord; save me, my God;
for thou my foes hast stroke
All on the cheek-bone, and the teeth
of wicked men hast broke.

8 Salvation doth appertain
unto the Lord alone:
Thy blessing, Lord, for evermore
thy people is upon.

Psalm 3 as Poetry

Psalm 3 is fairly straightforward. Only the first set of versets features intensification; most versets in Psalm 3 simply denote progression. Psalm 3:1-6 prepare for the exhortative petition of Psalm 3:7, expressing the number of foes and the dire situation so as to justify the demand for action and deliverance; as is consistent with lament Psalm 3:8 concludes with affirmations of confidence and faith in YHWH. YHWH as shield in Psalm 3:4 is the only metaphor of note; the shield is the Hebrew magen, a small shield for light infantry to ward off attack (cf. Genesis 15:1, Deuteronomy 33:29, 2 Samuel 22:2-3). In context Psalm 3:4 "holy hill" is to be taken quite literally, since David is confident that YHWH maintains His presence on Zion in Jerusalem. "Save me" in Psalm 3:7 shares the same root as "no help" in Psalm 3:3 along with "salvation" in Psalm 3:8; David calls for YHWH to do the very thing his foes are convinced will not take place, and since we can read this Psalm and know that David's rule continued, we know that YHWH has answered and vindicated him.

In Psalm 3:2, 4, 8 we are introduced to selah. We do not know the precise meaning of selah; the Septuagint renders it as diapsalma, an interlude of strings; Jerome in the Vulgate rendered it as "always". Some wish to emend the term to a Hebrew word meaning "raising the voice to a higher pitch." Of all the possible variants the Septuagintal understanding would make the most sense but we cannot know for certain.

Psalm 3 in Context and Canon

Psalm 3 is a psalm of lament.

Psalm 3 is the first Psalm with a superscription and also a context: David wrote Psalm 3 and did so when fleeing from his son Absalom (ca. 1000-970 BCE; 2 Samuel 15:1-16:23). As David learns of all of his former associates who have turned to Absalom he speaks of how his enemies have multiplied; they taunt him with confidence that God will do nothing for him (Psalm 3:1-2; "soul" should not be understood in new covenant terms but as the whole person). Meanwhile David believes YHWH is a shield around him; he has the confidence that if he asks, God will answer, and will do so from His dwelling place in Jerusalem even if it is now in physical possession of Absalom (Psalm 3:3-4). David maintains trust in YHWH: he went to bed and arose again since YHWH sustained him, and he does not fear even ten thousand people who arrayed themselves against him (Psalm 3:5-6). David implores YHWH to arise and save Him, for He will overcome David's wicked foes [Psalm 3:7; the use of the perfective denotes confidence that it will be done and does not imply it has already been done (grammatically "precative perfective"); "break the teeth" involves "rendering harmless," if not literal in its expected execution (Job 29:17, Psalm 58:6-7)]. David closes with a benediction of faith in YHWH, for salvation belongs to Him, and he asks for YHWH's blessings on His people (Psalm 3:8). In context we must remember how physical and concrete the words and expectations remain: David is looking for political rescue, the defeat of Absalom and his forces, and restitution to his throne in Jerusalem.

Immediately after the confidence of the wisdom of trusting in YHWH and YHWH's affirmation of the Davidic king in Jerusalem in Psalms 1 and 2 the Psalter continues with five psalms of lament, as if juxtaposing the great power and confidence one can have in YHWH with moments of trial, distress, and pleading for His salvation. YHWH has made promises yet sometimes in life they seem remote and distant; the Psalter already expresses the vagaries and difficulties of life as truly experienced in reality. In Psalm 2 YHWH installs the king on the throne; in Psalm 3 the son of the king dethrones the anointed father. In Psalm 2 the Davidic king has power; in Psalm 3 he must be delivered from those over whom he used to rule. In Psalm 2 the king is installed in Jerusalem; in Psalm 3 the king has run away from Jerusalem, and yet trusts in YHWH to arise from His holy hill there in Jerusalem to rescue him. Yet throughout it all confidence in YHWH is maintained, for such faith in YHWH and His blessings for His people is the high concern for the Psalter.

Psalm 3 Throughout History

Psalm 3 originates with David in response to a dire threat to his crown and his life; he trusted in YHWH and YHWH delivered him. Psalm 3 would have been relevant at other times during the period of the monarchy and for the Davidic king: when the Assyrians invaded Judah the Rabshakeh taunted Hezekiah and Judah with a similar message to Psalm 3:1 (701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:35). Hezekiah and Judah responded by maintaining their trust in YHWH and were vindicated (2 Kings 19:35-37).

In terms of the Temple cult Psalm 3 would have given voice to any Israelite petitioner who felt ostracized and/or betrayed by his fellow man. Psalm 3 would serve to remind the petitioner that his sustenance and confidence comes from YHWH and YHWH would make sure righteousness was upheld and wickedness punished.

During the exile and in the Second Temple period Psalm 3 would serve as the necessary reality check after Psalms 1 and 2: YHWH has promised much, the Messiah will break those who rage against YHWH, but until then, Israel is surrounded by enemies who are confident of victory. Psalm 3 would give voice to those in such distress, especially those directly encountering persecution by the pagan powers of the time, and sustain the hope and faith of the Israelites in YHWH.

As David felt surrounded by enemies and trusted in God for his salvation and rescue, so Jesus likewise was surrounded by enemies when He was betrayed, tried, and crucified (Matthew 26:1-27:56). As David called for YHWH to "arise" and "save" him, YHWH vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead in triumph over death and His foes and thus He is able to save all who trust in Him (Romans 1:4, 5:6-11, 8:1-3). In turn the followers of Jesus would suffer at the hands of their enemies all around them and took comfort in Psalm 3, seeing in it the solidarity of Jesus with His followers and using it as a prayer for the people of God. They meditated on Psalm 3:5 and understood it Christologically, and by extension, of their own hope: they would "lay down" in death and would "arise" in the resurrection (cf. Romans 8:17-25)!

In the monastic era Psalm 3 would become part of the morning office of prayer. "Pseudo-Bede" marked the appropriateness that this is the third psalm, understood as speaking of resurrection as Jesus was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:4). Many commentators spoke of the parallelisms between David and Absalom and Jesus and Judas in light of Psalm 3.

Throughout the generations believers have taken strength and confidence from Psalm 3 when they felt as if beset and under siege by enemies all around them, be they political or spiritual or both.

Psalm 3 Today

We may live in different times in different environments and under a different covenant, yet Psalm 3 can maintain great power for the Christian. We have heard, as Israel did, that YHWH prospers the righteous and makes it go well with him while the wicked suffer and will experience torment. We trust that YHWH has established His Anointed on the throne and has given him power over the rebellious, just as Israel did. And yet, as with Israel, our earthly reality oftentimes can overcome our hope. The righteous should prosper and the wicked should suffer, and yet there are times when the people of God suffer persecution from the hand of those of the world. Those of the world may mock and deride the people of God, confident that they have no justifiable hope in their God. In such a time and place it may seem that God's rule is a joke, or cruel, or not really present; where did He go? Why is He not acting according to His promises?

If one observed the life of Jesus of Nazareth as He entered Jerusalem and then found Himself betrayed, tried, scourged, and crucified, one would easily wonder the same thing. This is how God allows the righteous to be treated? This is YHWH's "deliverance"?

Yet, as we know, at that particular juncture the story was incomplete. Yes, Jesus was betrayed, tried, scourged, and crucified, but God raised Him from the dead on the third day in triumph (Romans 6:1-11, 8:1-3). Through suffering Jesus gained the victory; through suffering and tribulation His followers will enter His Kingdom (Acts 14:22, Romans 8:17-18, 2 Timothy 3:12). John saw this in graphic detail in Revelation 12:1-19:21.

Whenever the people of God have suffered on account of their faith they have been reminded to trust in God on account of what He has done, past and present, and what He has promised in the future (e.g. 1 Peter 1:3-12). For Israel it was the Exodus; for Christians, Jesus' death and resurrection. God is faithful; God knows what He is doing.

Psalm 3 stands at the intersection of promise and trial and points the believer to faith. There are times when we feel that the world is full of foes standing against us, mocking and deriding our confidence in God. They exist. But YHWH God of Israel, the Creator God, is stronger than they; He will vindicate His righteous ones in His good time. We can go to sleep and awake again through God in Christ in confidence of His sustenance; if we are called upon to sleep in death, then we have confidence that we will rise again in the resurrection. Salvation continues to belong to YHWH, and He will bless His people. Let us stand firm in faith and confidence in God, always aware of His care and provision, especially when foes beset us, and obtain the resurrection in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry


Psalm 2

Psalm 2:1-12, ASV translation, as prose:
Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against YHWH, and against his anointed, saying, "Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us."
He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh: the Lord will have them in derision. Then will he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure: yet I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
I will tell of the decree: YHWH said unto me, "Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."
Now therefore be wise, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve YHWH with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry, and ye perish in the way, for his wrath will soon be kindled. Blessed are all they that take refuge in him.

Psalm 2:1-12 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):
Why do the nations rage / and the peoples meditate a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves / and the rulers take counsel together
Against YHWH / and against his anointed,
"Let us break their bonds asunder / and cast away their cords from us."
He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh / the Lord will have them in derision.
Then will he speak unto them in his wrath / and vex them in his sore displeasure
Yet I have set my king / upon my holy hill of Zion.
I will tell of the decree: YHWH
Said unto me, "Thou art my son / this day have I begotten thee.
Ask of me / and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance / and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron / thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."
Now therefore be wise, O ye kings / be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve YHWH with fear / and rejoice with trembling / Kiss the son,
Lest he be angry and ye perish in the way / for his wrath will soon be kindled.
Blessed are all they that take refuge in him.

Psalm 2 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:
1 Why rage the heathen? and vain things
why do the people mind?
2 Kings of the earth do set themselves,
and princes are combined,

To plot against the Lord, and his
Anointed, saying thus,
3 Let us asunder break their bands,
and cast their cords from us.

4 He that in heaven sits shall laugh;
the Lord shall scorn them all.
5 Then shall he speak to them in wrath,
in rage he vex them shall.

6 Yet, notwithstanding, I have him
to be my King appointed;
And over Zion, my holy hill,
I have him King anointed.

7 The sure decree I will declare:
The Lord hath said to me,
Thou art mine only Son; this day
I have begotten thee.

8 Ask of me, and for heritage
the heathen I'll make thine;
And, for possession, I to thee
will give earth's utmost line.

9 Thou shalt, as with a weighty rod
of iron, break them all;
And, as a potter's sherd, thou shalt
them dash in pieces small.

10 Now therefore, kings, be wise; be taught,
ye judges of the earth:
11 Serve God in fear, and see that ye
join trembling with your mirth.

12 Kiss ye the Son, lest in his ire
ye perish from the way,
If once his wrath begin to burn:
blessed all that on him stay.

Psalm 2 as Poetry

Psalm 2 features a chiastic structure of A B B' A' perhaps as a "four act play" or ritual of sorts (Psalm 2:1-3 A, Psalm 2:4-6 B, Psalm 2:7-9 B', Psalm 2:10-12 A'). The versets display classic Hebrew parallel features, often emphasizing and intensifying the message.

Other aspects of the poetry reinforce associations and connections between Psalm 1 and Psalm 2. Psalm 1:1 begins with a beatitude; Psalm 2:12 ends with one, an inclusio for Psalms 1-2 as an introductory unit. The Hebrew root hagah is found in both Psalm 1:2 ("meditate") and Psalm 2:1 (sometimes translated "meditate," also translated "plot"). Many similar lexical associations can be found between the two psalms.

Psalm 2 in Context and Canon

Psalm 2 has no superscription just like Psalm 1; many in antiquity reckoned Psalms 1 and 2 to be a composite unity (cf. certain manuscripts of Acts 13:33 which read "first" for "second"), and even those who recognized them as distinct psalms understood that they served as a dual introduction to the whole Psalter.

The "wicked" of Psalm 1 morph into the nations and peoples who rage and plot against YHWH in Psalm 2; the "righteous" of Psalm 1 is embodied in YHWH's Anointed One in Psalm 2, the King who will receive power and authority.

If one looks at Books 1 through 3 of the Psalter as "the king in prayer," Psalm 2 proves a most fitting introduction to this collection. Psalm 2 is certainly a royal psalm, a coronation, part of either an enthronement ceremony or perhaps a covenant renewal ceremony (cf. 2 Kings 11:12).

The history of Israel is full of examples of the danger of instability that marked regnal transitions. When Ahab king of Israel died and Ahaziah took his throne Moab revolted (2 Kings 1:1); in the days of Joram king of Judah Edom and Libnah rebelled (2 Kings 8:22). Kings would frequently need to make military excursions soon after they ascended to the throne so as to continue to project strength and keep vassal kingdoms under submission.

Psalm 2 is composed to this end. The Psalter is aware of the plots and machinations of the nations to rebel against the authority of the Davidic king; in so doing they plot against YHWH as well (Psalm 2:1-3). YHWH sees this from above; He laughs at them and holds them in derision, and in His (burning) anger He will speak and vex them (Psalm 2:4-5). What frustrates the nations? YHWH has set His king on the hill of Zion in Jerusalem (Psalm 2:6). The Davidic king is an authority legitimated by YHWH and is to accomplish YHWH's purposes (associated with the "righteous" of Psalm 1).

"The decree" is then given; in the ancient Near Eastern world almost every culture had some sort of recognition of adoption of the king as the son of the relevant deity. The Psalter speaks in similar terms: "Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee" (Psalm 2:7). As a result the Davidic king is invited to ask of YHWH to receive power and dominion over the nations and He will provide (Psalm 2:8-9). Perhaps the Davidic king would use a royal scepter or mace to break a pot as a symbolic gesture to declare his power over the vassal nations in the midst of the declaration of Psalm 2:9.

A taunt or exhortation to the nations follow: they ought to be wise, serve YHWH, and indicate their submission to the rightful Davidic king lest he get angry with them (Psalm 2:10-11). There may be some textual confusion surrounding "kiss" in Psalm 2:10 yet the idea is clear enough: the delegate of the nation(s) ought to provide the proper gesture of subjugation and humiliation before the Davidic king. We should not be surprised to see an expectation for other nations to serve YHWH; we must remember that the standard practice of the ancient Near Eastern world was to respect the gods of other nations and especially give them their due when their people were ascendant. That standard practice proved to be exactly the problem for Israel: the Israelites respected the gods of the other nations and did not serve YHWH exclusively (cf. 2 Kings 17, etc.)!

The point of Psalm 2 is found at the very end: blessings come to those who serve YHWH and His anointed, the Davidic king, and take refuge in him (Psalm 2:12). Problems come to those who would dare to revolt and rebel, thinking the death of one king and the accession of the next to be an indicator of weakness.

The strong association between YHWH and the anointed Davidic king in the face of the nations who would seek to break away from Judahite vassalage provides strong evidence that Psalm 2 belongs originally to the First Temple period. It certainly sounds like a psalm that would be used in an enthronement ceremony declaring the strength of the Davidic monarchy; whether it was used only at the accession of a new king or annually or at certain "jubilee" points, or whether the ceremony would take place at the Temple precinct or in front of the palace cannot be definitively ascertained.

Psalm 1 expressed the two ways, that of the righteous and that of the wicked; Psalm 2 places that in the context of the monarchy. The nations often plot wickedly; YHWH has established the Davidic king and his kingdom based in Jerusalem as the bastion for the righteous and will prosper His people. Psalm 1 provides a framework for the individual to find liturgical value in the Psalms while seeking to practice Torah as an ethic in life; Psalm 2 provides the framework for the nation of Israel to understand how YHWH will triumph over the nations hostile to Israel through His anointed Davidic king. Psalms give voice to the individual to make his complaint before YHWH, but Psalms also give voice to the nation of God's people to give voice to their frustrations about their plight in light of current events. Psalms 1 and 2 set the tone for the rest of the Psalter: follow YHWH's torah, remain righteous; the enemies and the wicked will plot, but YHWH will gain triumph through His Anointed.

Psalm 2 Throughout History

During and after the exile in the Second Temple period Psalm 2 was understood as a Messianic Psalm. The Israelites continually lived under the yoke of foreign oppression and increased hostility by those nations. Israel looked forward to the Messiah who would come as the descendant of David and who would crush their foes and vindicate them in the sight of their enemies.

It is worth noting that the Seputagint reads poimaneis ("rule") for Hebrew tero'em ("break") in Psalm 2:9; while the Hebrew MT reading is preferable since it maintains continuity in parallelism (break / dash in pieces), the Septuagint LXX reading highlights the rule of the Messiah over the nations and is seen in Revelation 2:27.

Psalm 2 features prominently in the New Testament. The decree of Psalm 2:7, understood as the adoption of the Davidic king as the son of God, is understood in its fullness and actuality in terms of Jesus of Nazareth when God the Father declares Him to be His Son at His baptism and Transfiguration in Matthew 3:17, 17:5. All references to Jesus as the "Son of God" are rooted in the decree of Psalm 2:7. The Hebrew author uses Psalm 2:7 to prove that Jesus is higher than the angels since God never called an angel His Son (Hebrews 1:5, 3:6) and emphasizes that Jesus does not assume the honor for Himself but is granted it by the Father's spoken decree (Hebrews 5:5, 8). Paul understands the decree of Psalm 2:7 in light of the promises of Psalm 2:8-11 and interprets them in view of Daniel 7:13-14 and the resurrection: this leads to his citation of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:33 and Romans 1:4 to assert that Jesus was declared the Son of God, that is, the Messiah of David who would rule over all the nations, in power in His resurrection. John evokes Psalm 2:7 when speaking of Jesus as the monogenes, the "only begotten" or "unique" Son of the Father in John 1:14, 18, 3:16. The Apostles appropriated the entire message of Psalm 2 around Jesus, for after they experienced persecution from the same Sanhedrin authority that had condemned Jesus to death, they pray before God, explicitly quoting Psalm 2:1-2 and interpret it in light of the plotting of Herod, Pilate, the Jews, and the Gentiles first against Jesus and by extension now against them as well (Acts 4:23-31). In Revelation 12:5 the Child of the woman is identifiable as Jesus precisely because John describes Him as the One who would rule the nations with a rod of iron. In Revelation 2:26-27, however, Jesus invites all those who conquer/overcome to share in that rule over the nations, indicating some level of participation of the people of God in the Kingdom of Jesus.

Christians continued to understand the powerful Christology inherent in Psalm 2. Many considered Psalm 2 to highlight Jesus' humanity yet also how Psalm 2 provides a coherent view of how Jesus could be both fully God and fully man.

Christians also continued to use the "life situation" of Psalm 2 as a way of understanding the struggles of their own day, especially in the early modern period (1500 - 1800). They understood their situation in terms of the "nations raging" and "peoples plotting" and put their trust in God in Christ that He would overcome and gain the victory.

Psalm 2 Today

Many Christians look at Psalm 2 entirely according to its apologetic/Christological purpose and see the foreshadowing of Jesus the Anointed One gaining God's victory over the forces which conspire against Him. This approach does have its value and we ought to gain encouragement from the clear reference to Jesus and what He would do.

Yet we do well to also consider the whole message of Psalm 2. In context Psalm 2 is really a bold declaration: be afraid of this geographically small kingdom based on this hill in the Judean highlands! One can imagine the snark or contemptuousness which would be sounded from the thrones of Pharaoh in Egypt or the kings of Assyria, Babylon, etc., to such a claim. Yet Israel held firm to the belief that YHWH their God, the Creator, intended to be vindicated through His people in the face of enemies generally stronger than they.

Psalm 2 is not just about Jesus being begotten of God and the Son of God even though that is there. Psalm 2 is about God's rule over the nations and the wisdom of submitting to YHWH and His Anointed. Jesus has now been ruling for almost 2,000 years; in the meantime the Jewish people who rejected Him saw the loss of their Temple and their city, the Romans terribly persecuted His people but ultimately were won over to a form of Christianity, falling as a power; in turn all sorts of kingdoms, rulers, and authorities have come and go. Christianity itself has experienced its ups and downs in terms of faithfulness and standing. Yet through it all the nations have raged and the peoples have plotted against YHWH and His Anointed, and they have all failed.

We live in a time when we can see the nations raging and the peoples plotting against YHWH and His Anointed. Psalm 2 thus can speak to us and for us today, just as it did for the early Christians to whom John wrote his Revelation. The nations rage; we should not be afraid, for YHWH has obtained the victory through His Anointed, and He laughs and holds them in derision. The peoples plot; yet YHWH invites us to participate with His Anointed in His Kingdom and we will see Him crush all who are opposed to Him. If the authorities, nations, and peoples were really wise they would serve YHWH and revere His Son!

Psalms 1 and 2 open our eyes and ears so we can truly see and hear and thus speak the Psalter. We are invited to choose righteousness through the Torah of YHWH and to know that despite the ravings and plots of the wicked YHWH will gain victory over them through His Anointed Jesus; therefore, we should submit to the Father, obey the Son, and give praise and thanks through the voice of the Spirit as He has provided in the Psalter. Let us be wise, serve YHWH in Christ, and live to glorify and praise Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry


Psalm 1

Psalm 1:1-6, ASV translation, as prose:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers: but his delight is in the law of YHWH; and on his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also doth not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1:1-6 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):
Blessed is the man / that walketh not / in the counsel of the wicked
Nor standeth in the way of sinners / nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers.
But his delight is in the law of YHWH / and on his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree / planted by the streams of water
That bringeth forth its fruit in its season / whose leaf also doth not wither
And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The wicked are not so
But are like the chaff / which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous / but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Psalm 1 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:
1 That man hath perfect blessedness,
who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
nor stands in sinners' way,

2 Nor sitteth in the scorner's chair:
But placeth his delight
Upon God's law, and meditates
on his law day and night.

3 He shall be like a tree that grows
near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
and his leaf fadeth never:

4 And all he doth shall prosper well
The wicked are not so;
But like they are unto the chaff,
which wind drives to and fro.

5 In judgment therefore shall not stand
such as ungodly are;
Nor in th' assembly of the just
shall wicked men appear.

6 For why? The way of godly men
unto the Lord is known:
Whereas the way of wicked men
shall quite be overthrown.

As we begin our study of the Psalms, let us consider these different ways of looking at the same text. When we see the Psalm as unbroken prose we may see the substance and the theme but cannot as clearly see many of the poetic features. When we break up the Psalm into appropriate parallel versets we can see the poetic features in a bit better relief but they remain foreign to our ears. I include the Scottish Metrical Psalter recognizing the limitations of a 365 year old project but in order to show the poetry in a way more familiar to us English speaking types. If the Psalms will be effectively put to song it will look quite like the Scottish Metrical Psalter with updated language.

Psalm 1 as Poetry

Psalm 1 features all the hallmarks of a wisdom psalm and an elaborate poetic composition. The first word of the Psalm begins with aleph and the last word with tav, from "A to Z" in English terms. Psalm 1 is organized according to A B A' B' order (Psalm 1:1-3 A, Psalm 1:4-5 B, Psalm 1:6a A', Psalm 1:6b B'). Psalm 1 features the inclusio of the "wicked", beginning with the righteous avoiding the way of the wicked and ending with the overthrowing of the way of the wicked. Psalm 1:1-2 also maintains an anaphora of triple negative and then triple positive declarations.

The imagery of Psalm 1 is quite striking. The predominant image is that of the way or journey: a sharp, clear choice between the "way" of righteousness and the "way" of the wicked. We can perceive the warning in movement in Psalm 1:1: not to walk with wicked, not to stand with sinners, not to sit with scoffers, with each level denoting ever greater comfort and association with ever more depraved and terrible persons. In addition the Psalter uses agricultural imagery: the righteous as the healthy, prosperous tree and the wicked as the chaff, the refuse blown away when grain is thrown in the air, thus, the unhealthy, unprofitable plant.

Psalm 1 in Context and Canon

Psalm 1 is generally and rightly seen as a wisdom psalm.

Psalm 1, and in fact the whole book of Psalms, begins without any sort of superscription; since antiquity Psalms 1 and 2 have been understood as part of the "bookends" of the Psalms, providing an introduction to the entire corpus.

Psalm 1 contrasts the fortunes of the "righteous" and the "wicked." The righteous man is blessed and made prosperous by YHWH because he delights in and meditates upon the torah of YHWH; he does not maintain association or connection with the wicked. The righteous are commended highly in Psalm 1:1-4; the Psalter then makes a sharp and emphatic contrast in Psalm 1:5, declaring that while the righteous prosper, it is "not so" with the wicked. The righteous are an ever fruitful tree planted by water; the wicked are as the chaff that blows away and will not endure. The wicked will not stand in judgment or be able to participate in the community of God's people in Psalm 1:5. The conclusion of the matter is seen in Psalm 1:6, the point to which the whole Psalm points: YHWH knows the way of the righteous, for it is the way He has prepared for them; the way of the wicked will perish.

The focus on the two "ways" emphasizes the choice put before the people of God as individuals and as a collective: the "way of the righteous," based in YHWH's torah, and the "way of the wicked," which is opposed to God's torah.

There are no strong contextual markers upon which to declare that Psalm 1 is pre-exilic, exilic, or based in the Second Temple period. Some have tried to reconstruct a first Temple context for Psalm 1 but it does not seem to have any special cult-functional purpose. The focus on torah and the "community of the righteous" may denote a Second Temple period setting in the synagogue as exhortation toward faithful torah living, especially if there is movement from Temple to Torah from the First to Second Temple period.

The canonical purpose of Psalm 1 is more clear: it opens the Psalter. The presence of a robust wisdom psalm to begin the Psalter may seem surprising in light of the Psalms' purpose as praise and giving a voice to the people of God to make petitions and declarations to YHWH. Yet perhaps that is the point: Psalm 1 begins the Psalter to warn the reader, hearer, or petitioner to remain firmly grounded in YHWH's torah. Psalms and Torah are not in competition with one another; the Psalter in fact goes out of his way to make the Psalms parallel to Torah, compiling a fivefold collection of Psalms just as there are five books of Torah. The wicked will find no solace in the Psalms; there will be no avoiding or getting away from the demands of Torah. The people of YHWH should sing the Psalms but continue to serve YHWH according to Torah. Likewise, Psalm 1 can be seen as the door or gate for the rest of the Psalms, in terms of protecting the Psalter's collection from the taint of heresy and as a continued warning, in light of Israel's history, of trying to substitute liturgy for obedience.

We may not be able to ascertain the specific time of the writing of Psalm 1 but its placement dates to the Second Temple period as the Psalter finally compiled the Psalms as we now know them. Psalm 1 is deliberately placed to exhort the synagogue community to righteousness through delight in and meditation upon torah as found in the Pentateuch and likely in the Psalms and Prophets as well.

Psalm 1 Throughout History

It did not take long for early Christians to see Jesus as the embodiment and illustration of the "righteous" in Psalm 1. Jesus came to fulfill the Torah according to Matthew 5:17-18, and thus exemplifies the Righteous One who lived by YHWH's instruction. Likewise, to delight in YHWH's torah is to delight in His Word, the Logos, that is, in Jesus as the embodiment of God's instruction to humanity.

Exegetes like Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine saw connections between Psalm 1 and Exodus 3 in terms of the revelation of YHWH: as YHWH is Being and the Source of Life, to be known by YHWH is life, and to be unknown to Him is death.

Many focused on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked and used it as a paradigm for other similar contrasts, especially in the days of the Reformation and beyond. In light of James 1:22-25 it could be contrasted with the one who does versus the one who just hears, or one who actually loves God while another just loves to learn, or the godly person seeking to serve YHWH versus the humanist scholar who pursues learning for learning's sake. Among the Puritans Matthew Poole declared that the life of the faithful must start with trust in the Creator which is to lead to obedience to the Savior and then praise in the Holy Spirit; thus, Psalm 1 invites the reader toward trust in the Creator and imitation of the Righteous One so as to be able to proclaim the praises inspired by the Spirit throughout the Psalms.

In hymnody the chorus of "I Shall Not Be Moved" is drawn from the tree image of Psalm 1:3 (and has been coordinated with many different types of verses, even for secular purposes):

I shall not be moved
Like a tree planted by the water
I shall not be moved

Psalm 1 Today

The substance and exhortation of Psalm 1 is timeless: everyone is confronted with the two ways. We can either follow the way of God's instruction, participate with the people of God, and share in the prosperity which God will give all of His people, or we can follow the way of the wicked, sit in their counsel, and perish along with them. The choice seems obvious, and it should be. Yet the people of God need constant reminder and exhortation to delight in God's instruction and meditate upon it; thus Psalm 1 remains ever relevant.

We must not be moved from YHWH's instruction in Christ, but we must first make sure that we are firmly rooted in YHWH, delighting in His instruction, meditating on His precepts, and actually doing that which YHWH has commanded. Let us be firmly anchored in God in Christ and continue to devote ourselves to His instruction!

Ethan R. Longhenry


The Theology of the Song Book

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

"Theology" is a loaded word; for some, the subject is all but unapproachable, while others would do better if they maintained some mystery and awe and felt it to be more unapproachable. When "theology" is mentioned many envision esoteric conversations going on in the ivory tower of academia or by men in robes in medieval church structures. In general theology is not seen as significant for the masses; people certainly do not expect to learn theology from a song book.

Yet in truth "theology" is the study of God, and whether they are aware of it or not, everyone has a theology. Everyone has some way they look at the divine or transcendent (even if they seek to deny it). Theology cannot be envisioned as some arcane, esoteric subject left unapproachable by the many; good, solid, and strong theology must be as easily found and as thoroughly spread as copies of the Bible or television shows about God or Jesus. How can this be accomplished?

We do well to consider how theology has been disseminated throughout time. Large theological tomes or treatises have their place but remain inaccessible to most; the same is true for deep theological discussion, meditation, and instruction in a seminary or post-secondary setting. Such persons and books have proven highly influential for those who study such things, and some of their thoughts get filtered down to the average believer. Some preachers are able to effectively communicate many of these truths. Many have gained it through deep study of the Bible and prayer. Yet so much of the transmission of theological truths took place in recitation of creeds and in song, and even of those means, the most impressionable is song. Do you want to understand the theology of a group of believers? Consider not only their song book but the particular songs they frequently sing!

In a previous study of the history of doctrine in Christendom I was struck by Jaroslav Pelikan's argument that the liturgy of the church in the late Roman period set the parameters of orthodoxy firmly despite all of the theological and Christological arguments of the day. "Liturgy" is another word loaded with all sorts of baggage but is the most effective term to describe the things said, prayed, and sung constantly in Christian assemblies. Their continual repetition, incantation, and singing over time becomes a part of the participant, deeply pressed within their minds and souls. In moments of meditation or distress they bubble up to the surface. And if anything is said or taught contrary to the doctrinal substance of that liturgy there will be automatic resistance, even if subconscious, because one can perceive the disconnect between what has been constantly repeated in the liturgy and what has now been heard.

Within the church liturgy songs are especially important in this regard. We remember songs more effectively than spoken or memorized messages. Songs speak not just to the mind but especially to the heart; it is far easier to find people with stronger and more visceral emotional attachment to various songs than to various passages of text. It is reported that no less a theologian than Karl Barth, when asked to summarize his view of theology, responded with "Jesus loves me / this I know / for the Bible tells me so."

This should not be surprising since Paul expected us to do this very thing:

Speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19).
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God (Colossians 3:16).

What Paul expects to take place unfortunately often gets lost in the midst of all the discussions of singing among Christians. Many well-meaning people, wanting to glorify God, have spoken and acted as if praising God is the main purpose of singing together, yet that's not what Paul says. Paul envisions singing as an opportunity to speak to each other, to each and admonish each other, through the substance of those psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. If that takes place, is God glorified? Yes. Are there times and places for communal songs primarily praising God? Yes. But we must never lose sight of the instructive and exhortative nature and purpose of many songs and that God knows what He is doing. Some of the best sermons have never been preached but they are sung somewhere every week; some of the most powerful and effective messages came not from the hands of theologians but from hymn authors. Martin Luther wrote many books of theology; his "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is far wider known. Many have heard of John Wesley; some have even explored his theology in depth through his writings. Yet his brother Charles' messages have spread far wider and more effectively in the many songs he wrote (e.g. "Soldiers of Christ Arise").

For Christians of all types, from blue-collar workers to the wealthy, from homemakers to theologians, much of their theological concepts have been formed through the songs they have sung and learned. The song book, therefore, proves as vital for theological development as the pulpit, the Lord's Table, and even the message of Scripture. If the song book has this importance, we do well to consider: what is the theology one would gain from the average song book and the songs sung from within it? How deep and enduring will that theology prove when things do not go as planned?

For first 1650 years or so of the church the question was mostly irrelevant: most of what was sung came from the Psalms, and since the Psalms are inspired Scripture, their theology was more soundly rooted and had greater depth (even if their ecclesiology needed work, some covenant boundaries were better established, and the Psalms were not de-contextualized and proof-texted for specious doctrinal purposes). Over the past two hundred years hymnody has proven more popular and has by now almost entirely replaced psalmody as the primary expression of Christian devotion in song outside of denominations espousing a strongly formal liturgical bent. This period of time has also happened to coincide with the Enlightenment and the modernist project which has also strongly influenced theological endeavors.

Some hymns maintain a robust theology with appropriate emphases on God's divinity, His role as the Creator, and on Jesus' death, resurrection, lordship, and return. Many hymns have incorporated Biblical images and phrases into their lyrics; not a few hymns are simply a verse or two of Scripture set to a tune. Yet many hymns prove to be quite contextual creatures, like "Mansions Over the Hilltop," which made sense in the 1930s but seems disingenuous to the experience of most American Christians in the 21st century. In fact, many hymns of the last two centuries, and especially the hymns of the last two centuries that are sung most frequently, at least in my experience among churches of Christ, focus on praising God, Jesus' death, exhortation (occasionally toward holiness but mostly unto conversion), a few psalms, and a lot of emphasis on "going to Heaven" and a generally escapist eschatology (e.g. "This World is Not My Home").

I am personally convinced that many believers have come to believe in an afterlife quite different from the picture presented in the Scriptures because of this escapist eschatology of "going to Heaven" as expressed in the hymnody of the past two hundred years. Such an eschatology cannot make much of the resurrection, its imperative and the grounding of its hope, and does not offer a lot of strength to the believer to make sense of his or her present condition. The Psalms, on the other hand, always keep in mind that YHWH is the Creator and the creation is good even if presently subject to corruption; the hope of the Psalms is vindication, victory, and firm confidence in YHWH despite the trials and travails of life, themes prominently displayed in passages like Romans 8:1-39, Revelation 12:1-22:6, etc. We do well to remember that the Psalms were the songbook of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the rest of the Apostles; their theology was informed by the things they sung/chanted from the Psalms in the name of YHWH. How did they make sense of what YHWH was doing through Jesus? By means of the Psalms, which prove essential for Peter's proclamation of the resurrection (Acts 2:14-36), Paul's theology of the resurrection (Romans 1:4, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58), the Hebrew author's whole theology of Jesus as the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek and its implications (Hebrews 7:1-9:28, let alone his understanding of Jesus, Moses, and the sabbath in Hebrews 1:1-4:11). Early Christians were going to suffer; when they suffered, they took solace in the Psalms (e.g. Acts 4:24-30). The Psalms are real; they deal with things that actually happen to people in life, like betrayal, disappointment, suffering when righteous, suffering because of sin, moments of doubt, moments of jubilation, and hope. Modern hymnody, especially the hymnody that actually gets sung, is far more restricted, praising God the Creator and Savior, exhorting people toward faith in Him, looking toward an escapist future, and precious little about what it is like to live before God in faith in the here and now.

When the theology of the song book does not seem to have room to make solid theological sense of the moments of joy and pain, triumph and defeat, hope and betrayal, and other experiences of life, should we be surprised to find out that many believers live in constant doubt, fear, and anguish, believing their faith is too disconnected from their life, since they see pain, fear, anxiety, distress, etc., but the song book is always happy? If the theology of the song book is a gussied up veneer attempting to whitewash the real problems of life, does it really reflect God's understanding of the human condition?

Meanwhile the Bible has the very resources necessary for modern humans to give voice to their trials and distress; they are in the Psalms. They are laments. Modern people do not quite like lament; they would rather deny or ignore the travails of life, since they are distressing, depressing, and lead to consideration of death and mortality, and that is all just a bummer. A. Sibley Towner recognized that modern hymnody prefers to celebrate God as the Creator and to thank God as liberator rather than to lament before the God who listens: "we prefer to sin and repent, lament and die in privacy."

That's a powerful indictment. When modern man wants to confront his problems he turns to psychology and psychotherapy; he gets the impression that he just needs to get a better outlook on life, and then there are those infectiously positive praise songs he can focus on and try to drown out the sorrows of life in that praise. Unfortunately modern man cannot just paper over his existential angst and the travails of life with self-help and positive thinking mantras! For generations Christians knew where to go when things got rough: before God through the Psalms. The Psalms give voice to the pain and suffering. The Psalms provide an opportunity to lament but do not allow the believer to wallow in despair. Lament psalms always provide movement toward submission to God in faith and relinquishing the troubles of life to Him and His strength. Thus the Psalms honor and dignify man's condition even in distress; some have spoken of the Psalms as "psalmno-therapy," and that is not inappropriate, for through lament we are given voice to speak our pain before the God who created us and who, according to Christian theology, is the only One who can truly heal us. In the end the Psalms give us the power to get back up and move forward in faith, movement almost entirely lost in a time and place which has sought to push away evil as opposed to overcoming it in Christ and who finds every excuse for a lack of faith in circumstances which precisely demand the most faith.

There are many Psalms which many Christians would have major difficulties singing or praying before God and among one another. Some of that discomfort is rightly placed; commending people who would bash babies' brains out against the rock does not seem appropriate under the reign of Christ (Psalm 137:9). Yet many of the difficulties come from feeling as if it would be impious to speak to God in the ways that the Psalms do. Such squeamishness says much more about us than the Psalms; they indicate our lack of faith. The Psalter cries out before God as he does not because he does not have faith but precisely because he does; he expects and demands for God to prove faithful to His covenant. He cannot make sense of why things are happening as they are. If we are honest with ourselves, we have those moments sometimes as well. If we are honest with ourselves, we know we have moments of anger, feelings of betrayal, impatience, and a host of other raw emotions for which the Psalms can give voice, and just as importantly, a productive and faithful way forward. Such resources are lacking in much of modern hymnody which does not venture deeply into what it means to praise God and put one's trust in Him.

Thus, from where do the concerns, misapprehensions, distortions, and discomfort regarding the value of this creation, the hope of the resurrection, the grappling with the difficulties of this life, the inability to give voice to and vent the frustrations and pains of this life, and the feeling that we all have to put on the happy face and sing happy songs and act like everything is okay when it is not and we're just plodding along until we get transported into the sky? Certainly not from the New Testament! Such is the power of the theology of the song book. The song book can anchor and root theology in a meaningful way; it can also distort and confuse when it reflects prevailing cultural assumptions more than the "whole counsel of God." There is a place for hymns and hymnody, but there also ought to remain a place of prominence, as Paul and James gave, to psalmody, and not just the Psalms we like or find comfortable, but the whole Psalter (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, James 5:13).

What are we effectively communicating about God? You will find it in the songs we sing. May we align our songs to the plan, purpose, and emphases of God and find ways to incorporate the Psalter in our song and prayer lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry


Psalms as Songs

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God (Colossians 3:16).

In a previous post I attempted to introduce a study of the Psalms; I am teaching a class on the Psalms for the Venice church of Christ in the third quarter of 2014 and hope to spend time on this blog posting on the Psalms so as to encourage Christians to reclaim their lost Biblical heritage found in those songs. But before we begin such an endeavor it may be profitable to explore why we have reached the present point: what has led to the neglect of the Psalms?

One answer likely involves doctrinal concerns. The Psalms, after all, are in the Old Testament. They continue to be used in the services of Roman Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, and the Anglican church, featuring prominently in the daily office of prayer and the lectionary readings. The Psalms can help form a proper understanding of God and man; unfortunately, certain verses in Psalms were frequently used to justify and promote doctrines in conflict with Scripture like original sin (e.g. Psalm 51:5). Among churches of Christ there is also all the exhortations to praise God with instruments, no longer a feature of Christian praise and song (e.g. Psalm 150).

The Psalms are indeed Old Testament texts; if we were to use them to commend behaviors and practices rooted in the Old Testament but not authorized in the New we would be violating Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17, Hebrews 7:1-9:27, and other passages. Instruments are prominently featured in some Psalms; nevertheless, early Christians sung psalms without instruments, explicitly eschewing and disavowing instruments:

The one instrument of peace, the Word alone, by whom we honor God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, trumpet, timbrel, and flute. For those expert in war and scorners of the fear of God were inclined to make use of these instruments in the choruses at their festive assemblies (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 2.4).

It would be tedious, dearly beloved, were I to recount every episode from the history of the Psalms, especially since it is necessary now to offer something from the New Testament in confirmation of the Old, lest one think the ministry of psalmody to be forbidden, inasmuch as many of the usages of the Old Law have been abolished. For those things that are carnal have been rejected, circumcision for example, and the observance of the Sabbath, sacrifices, discrimination among foods, as well as trumpets, citharas, cymbals, and tympana (all of which are now understood to reside in the bodily members of man, and there better to sound). Daily ablutions, observance of new moons, the meticulous examination of leprosy, or whatever of this sort was necessary at the time for children, have clearly ceased and gone their way. But the remaining practices that are spiritual, such as faith, piety, prayer, fasting, patience, chastity, and praise in song; these have been increased rather than diminished (Nicetas of Remesiana, On the Benefit of Psalmody 9).

Yet even as early Christians recognized the distinction in covenant and no longer used instruments they still powerfully affirmed the importance and value of the Psalms in their singing and praying. While Paul's exhortations regarding song in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 may authorize songs glorifying God in Christ above and beyond the Psalms, they certainly do not authorize less than the Psalter in its current form in our Bibles!

We do well to remember that psalms are songs. As poetry set to music they can speak more powerfully and more efficiently than the best orators and communicate the majesty of God and His work through Israel and in Christ in so many ways which go beyond mere words. Songs are very easily reappropriated for purposes beyond their original intent; we frequently will "make a song our own" by giving it a sort of understanding as we sing it that may not have been intended by its original author or be the same meaning used by others as they sing it.

Nevertheless, the Psalms are not presented in our Bibles as songs. It has only been within the past few decades that they have been portrayed as poetry; for some time the Psalms were printed as if no different from prose. In light of this, perhaps the Psalms have become a illustrative victim of a trend plaguing how people approach Scripture in general, as an object of study to examine, dissect, and weigh in a dispassionate and detached manner as opposed to respecting the power of Scripture as God's two-edged sword, designed to pierce our very souls (Hebrews 4:12).

It may not be entirely coincidental that the relative decline of the importance of the Psalter corresponds to the growing influence of the Enlightenment and modernism in Western culture and thus the church. Reason and rationality are the highest principles of the Enlightenment; the goal is to verify and validate all beliefs and practices through a robust investigation while seeking to remain an objective, dispassionate investigator/observer. Such a perspective is highly empirical and thoroughly left-brained and has rarely left any room for anything resembling an aesthetic of beauty and the numinous. Little wonder that the immediate reaction to the Enlightenment was Romanticism, powerfully affirming right-brained endeavors of poetry, song, and other matters that resist "objective analysis."

Does this mean that any investigation or analysis is a bad thing? By no means! The issue involved is not investigation or even necessarily the tools of investigation but the disposition of the investigator, the recognition of the limitation of the investigation, and the ultimate purpose of the endeavor.

When we approach the Scriptures we decide whether we will act as if we are an explorer or a coroner. An explorer is attempting to make sense of his environment; he cannot master it but can easily be mastered by it. He wants to learn about what he sees and can appreciate the wonder and majesty of it all. He may able to understand some aspects of what he is seeing, but much may be hidden from him, and he would not presume to understand fully everything he is trying to absorb. A coroner, on the other hand, is attempting to sort out the facts of what happened in the past. He views that which he is investigating as devoid of any real life; throughout the endeavor the goal is to not be personally swayed by whatever he might see but to be able to report just the facts about how the person died. From beginning to end the coroner is in control of the situation and leaves little room for mystery. Perhaps he is not able to ascertain some of the facts; it is generally not a lack of his ability but a lack of evidence or ability to make a decision on the evidence.

Thus, the "coroner" does not expect to find any life in the Bible. He reads it to try to make sense of the facts on the ground: what is it saying, why is it saying that, where such thinking derives, perhaps even attempting to make some connections to later ideas. Maybe the "coroner" would claim some level of faith, but only in terms of what he can master and understand; he is in charge of the interpretive process throughout and never allows himself to be transformed by what he is reading. We can see the futility of this endeavor; as long as the "coroner" attempts to remain "objective" he will never understand Scripture, for Scripture was written to pierce the soul (Hebrews 4:12); there is never such a thing as a truly "objective" observer, and "objectivity," at any rate, is over-rated. Yes, we must seek to first understand Scripture in its own context, and that will require us to step outside of ourselves for just a moment.

But to what end? To master theology? To master Scripture? Such is sheer presumption! Yet such is ultimately the goal of knowledge in the Enlightenment paradigm: to become the master of whatever subject we seek to master. Yet Scripture warns us against such an attempt in terms of God and His purposes, and that warning is found in the Psalms and in Job.

Does this mean that we ought not attempt to learn about God? Again, by no means! When we open the pages of Scripture we are to reckon ourselves as the explorer, appreciating the majesty and glory of what we see, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the experience of God's Word, recognizing that whatever we learn is miniscule compared to what God is and what He knows. "God can only be known by devotion; only in receiving can we know," noted Hiliary of Poitiers; another Christian of the time, when asked why he explored theology if God cannot be fully known, declared that he explored theology not in an attempt to know so as to master but in order to praise and glorify God. They are right, and in no little part because they are rooted in the Psalms. The Psalms do warn us against the idea of mastering all knowledge of God; they also provide some of the most profound theological declarations in all of Scripture.

Such is why our purpose in interpretation of Scripture becomes so important. Scripture, especially in the Psalms, can very quickly be investigated in such ways as to bleed the life out of them, like a live dissection in front of an audience. You might be able to identify all the appropriate parts, point out the connection between them, and even wax philosophically about the whole, but by the time you have finished, the patient is dead!

Few people intend to interpret Scripture this way. Yet it comes from an excessive fealty to all the objective and rational declarations and conclusions that can be made from the text. We can compare it to a more modern example.

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

You will probably recognize this as the first and most famous verse of the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America. For the purposes of this examination let us seek to approach this as a text; for a time please try to forget about how it sounds in song.

If we attempted to approach this as often is done with a psalm, perhaps someone might read it aloud. The reading will rarely include any sort of inflection, emphasis, or anything involving the tonal quality. That reading will make the song seem rather dead.

A good investigation will attempt to set the context. The Star-Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as a poem in part of his Defence of Fort M'Henry; it was later put to John Stafford Smith's tune "To Anacreon in Heaven," a tune and song of a British society but popular in the United States. Key wrote the poem based on his experiences while a captive in a British ship during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Maryland after the British had already laid waste to Washington, D.C. He had been inspired by the American flag waving over the fort in the midst of the bombardment even while the outcome of the battle was in doubt.

The context well explains the substance of the song: Key is asking if the flag is still waving the morning after the bombardment. He saw the flag and continued to hear the explosion of munitions, inferring that the fort had yet to fall since the British were still shooting. He finishes the thought by asking whether the flag still flies over America.

All of the above is accurate interpretation of the song. If we were to make our conclusion about this song only based on the information above, we would most likely conclude that The Star-Spangled Banner is the most depressing and inappropriate national anthems in the world. Everything was going wrong for America; their former overlords had destroyed their capital and were making inroads north; Key's questions, in context, are far from idle. He has good reason to wonder whether the American experiment would succeed!

Americans especially would immediately protest such conclusions, and honestly for good reason. Is there power in the words and context of the Star-Spangled Banner? Yes. But there is greater power in the collective singing of it as an anthem and how it is sung. The final question is never sung in doubt but as triumphant affirmation: yes, the star-spangled banner still waves over the land of the free and home of the brave. If anything, the context affirms the very heart of what it means to be American: when you think we or our flag are down, that is precisely when we rise to the occasion and get the victory. The Americans ended up standing their ground at Fort McHenry and repulsed the British naval invasion; the War of 1812 would end in a draw. Whenever The Star-Spangled Banner is sung Americans are affirming that America still stands despite all that may be thrown at her; The Star-Spangled Banner is a declaration of triumph despite distress.

But how much of the information about The Star-Spangled Banner is encoded in the music, in its production, and in its context? Such is the nature of all poetry, and that is why humility is always called for when interpreting poetry. We can do what we can to make the best sense of what is before us but then need to use our imagination about the function it may serve. There are some Psalms that may function in ways akin to The Star-Spangled Banner in America, particularly the "historical" psalms like Psalm 136. Who knows how raucous the congregation would declare "for His lovingkindness endures forever" as their response? They certainly would not sing it as a dirge!

Therefore, if we approach the Psalms with a view to just try to make sense of the context of the psalm and its basic meaning and then walk away we will miserably fail at appreciating them. If we are going to restore and recover the Psalms for Christian faith and service in the twenty-first century, we need to start with such basic contextual consideration, expand our view to the Second Temple Period, Christological, and ecclesiological interpretations, and then find ways of making the songs sing again. It is not enough for a tune to fit the words of a psalm; the tune must fit the meaning and purpose of the psalm. We should strive to attempt to capture, as best we can, the same wonder, majesty, and glory of the Psalter in ways perceptible to the ear and heart of a twenty-first century Christian.

Such is quite the endeavor, and one for which I personally am entirely unsuited. But for the moment let us appreciate that the Psalms are songs. Songs do not just communicate by their words and context; they communicate in their tune, in the venues in which they are sung, and how the singer is willing to own the song as their own word and how they mean what they sing. We do well to make more room for the Psalms in our songbook; after all, no matter how good a modern hymn may be, it's not inspired!

Ethan R. Longhenry


The Psalms

And be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:18-19).

In the middle of our Bibles we have the song book given by God to His people: the Psalms. The Psalms have encouraged and transformed Israelites and Christians for generations, giving voice to the deepest feelings and yearnings of God's people, allowing them to convey their praise, their laments, and their thanksgivings before God.

Until the eighteenth century the songbook of Christianity was heavily dependent on the Psalms across confessional lines. It has only been in the past three hundred years, and particularly among Evangelical groups and even in churches of Christ, that hymnody has almost entirely replaced psalmody. Some psalms have been put to effective tunes and remain relevant in churches (Psalms 23 and 148 in particular); many hymns feature themes, illustrations, and even some verses from the psalms. Nevertheless, in general, the Psalms have been lost as a fundamental source of song, prayer, and meditation by the people of God as they had been for generations in the past.

This loss is tragic; if the matter involved the nature or identification of the church, a hot button moral issue, etc., preachers, teachers, elders, and "brotherhood publications" would be all over it with a cry for a need to "restore the ancient order." In every other part of our "liturgy" we have been careful to root all we do in the Word of God, using Biblical commands, examples, and inferences, and in every way attempt to stay closely aligned with the text; after all, that is why we do not use instruments along with the singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Yet the Psalms remain sidelined, no longer the primary fount of inspiration for song, left as an ancient relic with the apparent smell of denominationalism (God forbid that the denominations feature part of God's Word prominently in their song and prayer!).

There are many great hymns that have been written over the past two millennia; this is not a call to abandon hymnody. But we cannot seriously claim to seek to restore the ancient order, to seek to restore the Bible to its proper place in our lives, and yet not allow the Psalms to saturate, dictate, and give expression to our song and prayer lives as they did for generations of Israelites, for Jesus, the Apostles, early Christians, and Christians for 1700 years. The time is long past to restore the Psalms in Christian song, prayer, meditation, and service.

Name and Authorship

"Psalms" derives from the Greek word psalmos, originally meaning the twanging of an instrument but taking on the meaning of "a song." Such is the name given to the Psalms in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament; it translates Hebrew mizmor, "song," a term frequently used to introduce psalms (e.g. Psalm 3:1). Yet the Hebrew name for the Psalms is tehillim, "praise," exemplifying the ultimate purpose of the psalms, to give praise to God for who He is, what He has done, how He sustains His creation, and what He has promised to do.

Psalms are most frequently associated with David, king of Israel, to whom 73 psalms are attributed (cf. 1 Samuel 16:16-23, 2 Samuel 23:1). Other authors of psalms include the Sons of Korah, who wrote 11 psalms (cf. Numbers 16), Asaph, who wrote 12 psalms (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:17; 12 psalms), and Solomon, Moses, Heman the Ezrahite, and Ethan the Ezrahite, who each wrote one psalm. Many are not specifically attributed to any particular author; some have speculated that many of these "anonymous" psalms, while often independent works, maintain a continuity of theme with the previous psalm with an attributed author.

Moses lived around 1450 BCE; the persons named as other psalm authors lived during the United Monarchy around 1000-900 BCE. Some psalms speak as being written in Babylonian exile (ca. 580 BCE; Psalm 137). While a large number of the Psalms were most likely written by 900 BCE, the collection of Psalms in the form we have it today was established between 500 and 200 BCE, most likely in the 5th or 4th centuries BCE (499-300 BCE).

The Text

The base text used to translate the Psalms in most English Bibles comes from Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), derived from the Masoretic Hebrew text (MT) preserved in the Leningrad Codex (1008 CE).

The MT of Psalms has accrued many errors in transmission, as is consistent with Hebrew poetry, and many variants have been found in translations in other languages. Therefore English translations will frequently appeal to other textual authorities to explain textual variants, believing that some translations are more faithfully preserving the original Hebrew (called the Vorlage, the original text upon which the translation is made) than the MT.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) more texts and fragments were found of the Psalms than any other book (30+ copies and fragments of 115 psalms). 4QPs preserves Books 1 and 2 of the Psalms in close to canonical order. 11QPs preserves another 39 psalms of Books 4 and 5 but in a very different order than the canonical order. Psalms beyond the canonical collection were found as well. Many newer translations take DSS variants into account.

The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The LXX of Psalms was most likely translated in the third or early second century BCE. The LXX includes the apocryphal Psalm 151. MT/English Psalms 9 and 10 were rightly seen by the Septuagint translators as one psalm; the translator divided MT/English Psalm 147 into two in order to reach 150 psalms. This is why many references for Psalms 10-147 will provide the reference to the numbering of the Psalm in MT/English and Greek/Latin [since Jerome in the Latin Vulgate kept the LXX numbering system; e.g. Psalm 51 (Psalm 50 LXX)]. The many variations between the LXX and the MT led later Jews to "re-translate" the Hebrew into Greek to provide a more harmonized text: Aquila (2nd century CE), Symmachus (late 2nd century CE), and Theodotion (ca. 150 CE).

The Peshitta is the Syriac translation of the Old Testament, most likely translated from the Hebrew in the second century CE.

In Latin the Vetus Latina ("Old Latin", or OL) is an important witness to the Psalms; translated from the LXX, it would become the foundation for Jerome's translation of the Vulgate into Latin from Hebrew in the late fourth century CE.

The Aramaic Targum of Psalms, while not completed until much later, most likely contains Second Temple period interpretations of psalms and is often cited as a witness to textual variants.

Inspiration of the Psalms

Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The authors of the New Testament never doubted the inspiration of the Psalms. Jesus affirmed that David said Psalm 110:1 in the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:35-37); Peter declares the same regarding Psalms 2:1, 69:25, 109:8 (Acts 1:16, 20, 4:25). On many other occasions the Apostles will quote David as the author of Psalms authoritatively (e.g. Acts 2:25, 34, Romans 4:6-8).

Nevertheless, the Psalms contain some difficult statements that cannot easily be reconciled with what we know as good theology in the rest of Scripture. The idea that YHWH would be asleep and would miss things taking place, as seen in Psalm 44:23, is at variance with Isaiah 40:28; Psalm 51:5 is at variance with Jesus' portrayal of children in Matthew 18:1-5.

We do well to keep in mind that the Psalms are poetry and they give voice to the people of God to express their deepest feelings, needs, and desires before God. There are many important consequences to this truth:

1. While the psalm's attribution may provide some understanding in meaning, we must resist the temptation to understand the psalm entirely in terms of its author. The author is giving voice to themes, ideas, and feelings beyond himself.

2. The psalm may involve statements that are in reality and fact inaccurate but true to a person's feeling at the time. The author is giving voice to emotion, feeling, and deep things; such defy rational thought and refuse the strictures of rational thinking. By inspiration the Psalter gives voice to feelings that are not factually true yet exist in response to given circumstances (as in Psalms 44 and 51 above).

3. Psalms frequently feature thematic shifts and upheavals, assisting the petitioner/singer to proceed from one place or emotional state to a very different place (e.g. from despair to confidence in God, Psalms 13, 73). Psalms must be understood first in their entirety, and occasionally even in sequence. We may find ourselves doing grave disservice to Scripture if we take out certain selections of a psalm or psalms and use them as proof-texts for some other purpose that may be antithetical to the psalm's purpose (contra 2 Timothy 2:15).

In truth these are not really "problems" with Psalms; in its design such poetry as the Psalms intend to give voice to things we cannot otherwise describe. Athanasius spoke of the psalms as comprehending and teaching the emotions of the soul, enabling us to possess the image that we can derive from their words. They are a form of "verbal iconography," describing God in ways that we can understand but not rationally explain in prose; in a sense they are a form of incarnation, a means by which God comes down to be understood at our level in poetry and metaphor. The Psalms are often brutal but they are always real; they speak to the real condition of mankind, the real cry of the soul, and above all, the reality of YHWH, God of Israel, the Creator God, His love and mercy for His people, who enables all things to be and for whose praise the Psalms all exist.

Thus the Psalms are inspired to give the people of God a voice to express feelings and longings which cannot be expressed in any other way than in poetry and metaphor. As poetry the Psalms can help us understand, in a figure, who God is, who we are, and what God is trying to do; yet, as poetry, we must never use the Psalms in contrast or contradiction to other Scripture that may speak in more literal or concrete ways about the truth of God or our condition.

Another matter of inspiration involves what to do regarding significant variants in the Septuagint (LXX) that have bearing on the Christological interpretation of a psalm (e.g. MT "they are at my hands and feet" vs. LXX "they pierced my hands and feet," Psalm 22:16). Perhaps it is a matter in which the LXX preserves the text more faithfully than the MT; even if it is a variant introduced in the LXX, it would pre-date Jesus, and may have been made a part of His purpose to fulfill all of what the Psalms said of Him (Luke 24:44). We continue to believe in the inspiration of the author and what was written on the original manuscript (in whatever later copies in whatever language such may be best preserved), yet also must give room for God's providential working among His people.


We do well to remember that the Psalms are a song and prayer book and their form fits that function. Psalms tend to have a logical progression within them; we will explore that progression as we investigate individual psalms.

Most psalms begin with a superscription, identifying the psalm's author, and perhaps some information about the situation in or purpose for which the psalm was written. In our Bibles the superscription will also include statements like "to the choirmaster," or "for the chief musician"'; in light of Habakkuk 3:19, it seems best to believe this particular direction actually belongs to the previous psalm.

The Psalms are filled with technical directives which we no longer fully understand. Within the text itself selah will be found frequently; it may be a direction for a musical interlude on strings. Most terms are found in the superscription: sheminith, shiggaion, muth-labben, miktam, maskil, Jeduthun, alamoth, malahath (or malahath leannoth), shuhan eduth, gittith; we do not know what they mean. Sometimes it seems that psalms are set to certain tunes named "the doe of the dawn," "lilies," "dove on far-off terebinths," and "do not destroy."

Hebrew poetry is marked by parallelism; in the Psalms the parallelism can be semantic, syntactic, or accentual. Some have found development of parallelism in Psalms over time from incremental repetition toward interlinear parallelism. The meaning of each parallel verse is focused most frequently in the second verset. The Psalms maintain their great power in no small part because their poetic form can be thus replicated in translation.

Some psalms (e.g. Psalms 9-10, 119, Lamentations 1-4) are acrostic, featuring lines or sections beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in turn. In some each verset or verse begins with a successive letter of the alphabet; in others, every other line; in Psalm 119, each eight-verse section begins every verse with the same letter of the alphabet, and continues successively with each set of eight (e.g. Psalm 119:1-8 all begin with aleph; vv. 9-16 with bet, etc.).


To the casual reader the Psalms seem to have little discernible order. Psalms is internally divided into five "books": Book 1 (Psalms 1-41), Book 2 (Psalms 42-72), Book 3 (Psalms 73-89), Book 4 (Psalms 90-106), and Book 5 (Psalms 107-150). The fivefold collection of books is most likely intentional: as Moses gave Israel the five books of Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), so there are five books of praise. Each book ends with a doxology, or praise, to God, even if inappropriate for the psalm (Psalms 41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48). Psalm 72:20 gives the impression that Book 2, or perhaps Books 1 and 2 together, were once an independent compilation of Psalms. Some have seen various forms of organization in the books: Books 1-3 as the king in prayer, Book 4 as Israel looking back to its heritage after the end of kingship (and perhaps with Book 5 as an answer to Psalm 89), and Book 5 as proclaiming the overcoming the exile, for example.

Many have noted how Psalms 1-2 and 146-150 frame the whole collection of psalms: Psalm 1 affirms the value of wisdom, warning the believer away from the idea that religious behavior can be separated from ethics; Psalm 2 affirms the king and his role; Psalms 146-150 conclude the book with shouts and declarations of praise to YHWH. Internally some organization is by author: Psalms 3-41, 51-72 are of David; Psalms 42-49 are of the sons of Korah; Psalms 72-83 are of Asaph; Psalms 120-134 are "psalms of ascent". At other times psalms are perhaps ordered for effect (e.g. Psalms 108 and 110, of God's victory, bracketing Psalm 109 of lament).

Most believe there is some sort of "theological intentionality" in the order of the Psalms however well we are able to discern it. Some of the arrangement may exist to give greater depth to individual psalms than would otherwise be ascertained.

Categorizing the Psalms

And [David] appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of YHWH, and to celebrate and to thank and praise YHWH, the God of Israel (1 Chronicles 16:4).

The Chronicler affirms the notion of considering the Psalms in terms of their ultimate function and thus in categories. All the psalms can be understood ultimately in terms of celebrating (that is, making known or invoking), thanking, or praising YHWH. Yet how those psalms get to the point of making YHWH known, thanking Him, and/or praising Him can differ widely. There are many ways we can categorize the Psalms; let us consider a few general themes.

Psalms of praise are designed to glorify God, magnify His character, and express faith in Him (Psalms 8, 9, 23, 29, 33, 45, 47, 62, 67, 84, 92, 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 111, 112, 113, 114, 117, 125, 134, 135, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150).

Thanksgiving psalms thank God for all the great things He has done (Psalm 18 (cf. 2 Samuel 22), Psalms 30, 34, 40, 52, 56, 65, 66, 75, 92, 107, 116, 118, 124, 136, 138).

Psalms of lament express great sorrow on account of sin, betrayal, adversity, and destruction, both of the petitioner and done to the petitioner, and request for God to assist (Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 28, 31, 36, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 74, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83, 85, 86, 88, 89, 90, 94, 102, 108, 109, 120, 121, 123, 126, 130, 137, 140, 141, 142, 143).

Messianic psalms speak of the coming Messiah and reign (Psalms 2, 16, 22, 45, 69, 110). Royal psalms are related, praising the king and his lineage, but are not necessarily Messianic in function (Psalms 18, 20, 21, 72, 89, 101, 132).

Wisdom or Instructional psalms use song as a medium for instructing in God's torah or wisdom (Psalms 1, 4, 11, 15, 19, 24, 26, 27, 32, 34, 37, 49, 50, 53, 73, 91, 119, 127, 128, 131, 133, 139).

Some psalms mirror the messages of the prophets, known as prophetic psalms (Psalms 81, 82, 115).

Many psalms recount Israel's history for various reasons (Psalms 44, 68, 78, 105, 106).

Other psalms ask to bring down condemnation or difficulty upon enemies, often called imprecatory psalms (Psalms 35, 58, 83, 129).

Other psalms include celebrations of Zion (Psalms 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122), the hallel set of psalms (Psalms 113-118; likely what Jesus sang after the Last Supper in Matthew 26:30), and the "songs of ascents" sung by pilgrims heading to Jerusalem (Psalms 120-134).

We do well to remember that whatever scheme of categorization we use is for our benefit in understanding, is not the way God organized the Psalms, and is no substitute for deeper study and appreciation of the individuality of each psalm.

Exploring the Purposes of the Psalms

The Psalms are given "to make known, to thank, and to praise YHWH the God of Israel" (1 Chronicles 16:4). Yet how the psalms are used to do so varied tremendously, and to different ends, at different times and in different places; few parts of the Bible have proven as flexible for multiple purposes in different times, places, and contexts as the Psalms.

As in many other ancient Near Eastern cultures, the "original context" for a good number of the Psalms surrounds the Tabernacle and Temple service of offerings, referred to in scholarly literature as the "cultus" or "cult." In the Psalms this service centers in the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and its regular service. David, who is famous in Scripture for psalm writing and whose life events provide the backdrop for many psalms (1 Samuel 16:16-23, 2 Samuel 23:1, Psalm 51:1), established this service for Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and others among the Levites to do according to 1 Chronicles 16:4-41, 25:1-31, even before the Temple was built. Such is illustrated in 2 Chronicles 29:25-30 in Hezekiah's restoration of the Temple service: the Levites would sing the psalms of David and Asaph while appropriate instruments were played, all during the offering of sacrifices. Therefore we do well to first consider whether a psalm has reference to the Temple cult: how might the psalm be used in the Temple service? Would it give voice to an individual worshiper or does it give voice for the collective of Israel? What does the psalm have to say about YHWH, His relationship to the creation, specifically to Jerusalem/Zion, and to His people Israel? How would the use of the psalm in the Temple cult influence its understanding and impact the lives of the Levites who sang them and the worshipers on whose behalf they were sung?

Yet not all Psalms have the Temple in mind; some seem to offer a critique of it (e.g. Psalms 40, 50). Psalm 137 serves as an "anti-psalm," a song about how the Israelites cannot sing YHWH's song in a foreign land, their land taken, their Temple desolate. Some psalms were written in light of these circumstances; many others were re-interpreted and understood differently in light of them. Royal psalms were either democratized or seen as Messianic in hope. Psalms would be used to explain situations or contexts beyond their original purpose; consider 1 Maccabees 4:23-25 and its reappropriation of Psalm 136:1:

Then Judas returned to plunder the camp, and they seized a great amount of gold and silver, and cloth dyed blue and sea purple, and great riches. On their return they sang hymns and praises to Heaven--"For he is good, for his mercy endures forever." Thus Israel had a great deliverance that day (NRSVA).

Likewise, God's presence with/for Israel is seen as prominently in God's torah, instruction or law, as it had been seen in the First Temple. Emphasis on torah is not inherently antithetical to emphasis on the Temple, and even early psalms proclaimed both. Nevertheless, during the exilic and Second Temple periods great emphasis was placed on the importance and value of God's torah and how it sustains and empowers the Israelites in righteousness (as can be seen in Psalms 19, 119). The rise and centrality of the synagogue in local communities of Jews contributed to this emphasis; psalms were no doubt sung by the congregation in the synagogue, for there is evidence that by 150 BCE they were sung in Greek translation in Alexandrian synagogues. We must give consideration, therefore, to how the psalms were understood in reference to Second Temple Judaism. If the psalm has clear reference to the Temple cult, how would its understanding and purpose shift during the Second Temple period? What can be gained from psalms grappling with God's faithfulness and promises in light of the destruction of Jerusalem, exile, and the seeming fulfillment but not full realization of YHWH's promise of restoration?

In Luke 24:44 Jesus proclaimed that all things written of Him in the psalms were fulfilled, and ever since, Christians have diligently sought to understand how the psalms point to Jesus and His work. We would be remiss if we did not consider the Christological implications of the psalms: how does the psalm point to Jesus? Does the psalm's original context highlight or bring into stark relief its Christological fulfillment? How do the variations between the Masoretic Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint influence the Christological aspect of the psalm?

Not for nothing do the Apostles continually speak of God's new covenant people in Christ in terms of God's covenant people in physical Israel as the ultimate expression of God's purposes (Ephesians 3:10-11). Christians are the new Israel of God (Romans 2:25-29, 9:30-33, Galatians 6:16, Philippians 3:3); individually and collectively they are the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:18-20, Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Peter 2:3-8); they are God's priests and sacrifices, His elect people (Romans 12:1, 1 Peter 2:5, 9); their songs are as harps and their prayers as incense before God (Revelation 5:8). We should not be surprised, therefore, that Paul commands Christians to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Many have wondered why Paul uses this particular triad and what distinctions may exist among the three, yet in the Septuagint we see psalms described as all three [e.g. Psalm 3:1 (psalmos, "psalm"), Psalm 53:1 LXX (Psalm 54:1, humnos, "hymn"), Psalm 4:1 (ode, "song")]. The earliest Christians thus sang the psalms in light of how God was accomplishing His purposes in Christ and through them. Therefore we must consider the pneumatical/ecclesiological functions of each psalm and their place in Christianity: how could the psalm be reasonably sung and understood as Christians in the new covenant? How does the original context of the psalm connect and lead to its understanding in light of Christ and His Kingdom? How can this psalm help inform and strengthen our faith? How could we use this psalm in devotional contexts?

Forms of Interpretation

The Psalms have been subjected to all sorts of forms of interpretation, for good or ill.

As seen above the Second Temple Jews would often interpret the Psalms in terms of their own condition and situation. Such direct application can be fraught with dangers and difficulties if done without regard to original context and meaning; nevertheless, the Psalms often invite consideration and application to times and places quite remote from the original. God does not change; He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8). Who can say that consideration of certain psalms in certain life situations could not be a sign of God's continual providence and care for His people?

Jesus' declaration in Luke 24:44 and the New Testament inaugurated the Christological form of interpretation; Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus attempted to find all the ways in which the Psalms pointed to Jesus and rejected any understanding of the psalms that were not Christological. The New Testament rightly invites us to explore the Christological interpretation of psalms but not in violence against its original contextual purpose.

Most early and many medieval Christians advanced typological forms of interpretation, focusing on the "figural" interpretation; Augustine was its strong champion. Such allegorization has the appearance of beauty and wisdom but can too quickly lose its grounding in the original meaning and purpose of the psalm and should be avoided.

The past two hundred years have seen interpretive contests between historical Biblical criticism and criticism using the grammatico-historical method. Both approaches affirm the critical need to first understand the text in context; in so doing historical Biblical criticism is willing to vaunt history and modernist understanding of history to the detriment of the text as revealed while the grammatico-historical method attempts to make sense of the text in its context according to the language and what can be known of the context, always affirming the inspiration and integrity of the text. Historical Biblical criticism makes much of the literary-critical approach as well. A major flashpoint of argument involves the superscriptions of the Psalms, the legitimacy of which is denied by exegetes in the tradition of historical Biblical criticism but fully accepted by those using the grammatico-historical method. In order to get a foundation for understanding a psalm in context, the grammatico-historical method remains the most sound.

Modern exegetes have tended to focus on various forms of literary-critical/analytical criticisms. 1 Chronicles 16:4 seems to justify investigating the Psalms in terms of their forms, yet form criticism of the Psalms did not begin until Wilhelm de Wette in the early nineteenth century and was not pursued in earnest again until the twentieth. Form criticism of the Psalms has also led to exuberance for cult-functional interpretations, attempting to understand the Psalms purely in terms of their Temple function. The "re-discovery" of the form of Biblical poetry by Bishop Robert Lowth in the eighteenth century, and the more recent development of understanding of Hebrew poetry and parallelism instigated by James Kugel and clarified by Adele Berlin and Robert Alter, among others, has led to the popularity of rhetorical criticism of the Psalms. Any investigation of the Psalms now requires consideration of what sort of poetry is being used and to what end, the different images and illustrations, how they get their power, and to what they refer, and investigation into what sorts of literary devices are in play. Rhetorical criticism is a great tool but cannot be an end unto itself. Consideration of the possible original context and purpose of a psalm in light of its form and through literary analysis has its value; literary criticism of the Psalms as a whole, however, puts too much confidence in what the interpreter can see in the text, and often tells you more about the interpreter than the text itself. The evidence of cultic use of the Psalms in 1 and 2 Chronicles commends some sort of cult-functional understanding of psalms; nevertheless, not all psalms were designed for that use.

Canonical criticism of the Psalms has been re-affirmed among more "conservative" exegetes in light of the liberalized interpretations brought forth over the past 200 years, attempting to make sense of the Psalms in their current, canonized form, especially the present order of the Psalms, the fruit of which is seen above. There is benefit in canonical criticism, yet it too is not an end unto itself.

Our way forward will incorporate most of these approaches. To establish the psalm's basic meaning we will use the grammatico-historical approach primarily with insights from literary-analytical criticism (including form and rhetorical criticism and the cult-functional approach). We will then consider the psalm's meaning in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity in light of canonical criticism and the Christological approach, and then consider its standing and value today so as to get to possible direct applications.

The Goal

What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26, emphasis mine).

To this day the Psalms have a place in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church to build up each individual Christian and the collective Body of Christ. For good reason the Psalms have sustained the faith and strength of Christians for centuries. The Didascalia of the third century CE declares, "if you yearn for songs, you have the psalms." Alcuin of the sixth century declares, "no mortal man can fully declare the virtue of the psalms." To John Donne, the psalms are as the "manna of the church." If we approach the Psalms with scalpels and attempt to dissect them and think we can come to a full understanding of them in that way we will be sorely disappointed; the Psalms will be left as dead and we will be impoverished. Our investigation into the Psalms must lead to edification: we should bring to bear all forms of interpretation and understanding that helps us understand their meaning, but the goal cannot be to just understand the Psalms as fossils of the past but to give them full life in the here and now.

From the day of their writing until now and to the final day the Psalms are to be sources of meditation, song, and prayer. They continually give the people of God a voice to express their deepest yearnings, concerns, and ultimately praise to YHWH, God of Israel, their Creator God.

Ethan R. Longhenry


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