The image above illustrates Walter Bruegemann’s basic structure for the Psalms.
View Rolf Jacobson’s commentaries here.
Introduction to Psalms
Music plays an incredibly important part in all of our lives. Have you ever noticed how the sound of a certain type of music can illicit an emotional response inside of you? When circus music plays you can start to feel light on your feet. When intense organ music starts you may conjure up images of the Phantom of the Opera. When the Rocky theme song, or the Star Wars theme song starts you may be suddenly filled with a sense of victory and power. Take a moment to think about what your music is? What pumps you up? What mellows you out? What makes you feel romantic, nostalgic, or courageous?
Why is this? Music reaches deep into our soul. It moves past the logic center of our mind – that part that keeps our emotions in check and desires to rationally explain the universe – into the place of deep emotion. In this place words cannot describe the experience of life. I believe God designed us to be effected by music in this way because He knew that it is absolutely impossible for us to fully understand God with our rational mind. We can’t fit the infinite into the finite space between our ears. Yet, we can reach beyond ourselves into the realm of the infinite through the vehicle of music, poetry, and the arts.
That is why the book of Psalms is in the Bible. The Psalms takes all the Law and history that we have been reading for the past several months and says, “so what?” Where do I go with this information?
Where we go is directly into the heart of God. What makes the songs in this book so powerful is that they are written in direct address to God, much like a love song is written from one lover to another.
The Psalms are wonderful because they plunge the depths of human emotion and they are not afraid to be completely honest with God. If the writer is elated, he waxes eloquently about the glory and majesty and beauty of God. If the writer is angry with God, he tells Him so. If the writer is in deep depression, he wallows in his self-pity for God and the world to see.
Here is the key for you and the Psalms. Let your hair down with them. Read the Psalms out loud until you find one that matches your emotional state that day. When you find one you can relate to, read it again and read it as if it were coming from your own heart. Then, start writing your own. Pour your heart out to God. Let Him know how you feel and don’t be afraid of what He or anyone else will think. You’ll be surprised how cathartic an honest “Psalm encounter” with God can be to your soul. Don’t feel limited to words when expressing yourself to God. You may feel like writing music, drawing a picture, making a collage, cooking a dinner, whatever is an authentic expression of how you feel towards God, do that thing. Remember, God invites you to enter His presence and love Him with your whole self, pain and all. He has promised that He will meet you where you are and help you carry your burdens.
Five Books in One
There are actually five books of Psalms within the book itself. Each book comes from a different place historically in the nation of Israel as well as from a different place theologically.
Book 1: 1-41 mostly written by David. Songs of Worship. These Psalms are very personal, from the heart of David. They come from earlier in his life when he was young and passionate. They can be used well for personal reflection and time with God.
Book 2: 42-72 mostly written by David and Korah. Hymns of National Interest. These hymns come from David’s heart as he focuses more on the nation as a whole and God’s relationship with the collective group. These can be used well when leading others into a place of worship.
Book 3: 73-89 mostly written by Asaph. Hymns of National Interest. These Psalms are much like those of book two, but they come primarily from Asaph, the chief musician and worship leader of the nation.
Book 4: 90-106 Author unknown. Anthems of Praise. Books 1-3 can tend to focus in on personal pain, misery, sin, and a call to God for mercy or justice. Books 4-5 are more focused on direct praise to God. They are designed to be used in collective worship to encourage the people and to offer sacrifices of praise to God.
Book 5: 107-150 mostly written by David or unknown. Anthems of Praise. Among these praise Psalms there are a collection of short songs called “Songs of Ascent.” These are like marching tunes that the people would sing as the climbed the hill to where the temple stood. They are songs of gathering and focusing. They can be a good way to start off a worship service as the people gather to focus their attention on God.
If you pay attention to the fine print in the Psalms, especially the author, you will notice two things. First of all, most of the Psalms were written by David. He must have been a passionate and dynamic leader. He could fight with best of them, but he could also wax eloquently and authentically about the deep emotions he continually wrestled. As you read, though, you will discover a second thing. In book three of the Psalms a new author comes on the scene: Asaph. Who is this guy and why did he have so many hit singles on the Israel charts?
Read these two passages to refresh your memory.
1Chronicles 16:5-6 Asaph was the chief, Zechariah second, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-Edom and Jeiel. They were to play the lyres and harps, Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow the trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God.
1 Chronicles 25:1 David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals. Here is the list of the men who performed this service:
Asaph was the musician that David appointed to lead the “ministry of prophesying” through song. As a worship leader his job was extremely important. He kept the people focused on the nature of God while engaging their senses and emotion with music. We can learn a lot from Asaph.
I have one observation about his Psalms in contrast to David’s Psalms. When David writes it is almost always from the first person. They are an intimate cry to God from one man, for himself. Asaph’s Psalms are different. Most of his Psalms are an appeal to God on behalf of the whole nation. He rarely speaks of his own heart. This is a lesson for leaders. We must first begin with our own heart and be authentic before God, but there comes a time when it is a necessity for the spiritual leaders of the community to call the entire community into a place of worship and focus on God. We must seek his face together and collectively repent and open ourselves fully to His Kingdom.
The following note flows from Psalm 84. vv. 5-7,
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools. b
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
let’s look at each verse separately.
v.5. Blessed are those who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a discipline that people have followed for centuries where they take a literal from where they live and travel to the temple in Jerusalem. As they travel they examine their life and seek to be purified in the presence of God.
Life is a pilgrimage. Every day we journey, the question is whether or not we have set the trajectory of our lives in the right direction. Journeys are long and can take many twists and turns.
v. 6 speaks to one unique quality of the pilgrimage towards the heart of God. The Psalmist says that the Valley of Baca becomes a place of springs. Another way to say this would be, “When we journey towards God he can turn dry places into life-giving springs of water.” (cf Isaiah 43:19) The beautiful thing about God is that He always, when we are willing to accept it, can show us that even in difficult, “dry” times in our lives, He can turn those experiences into life-giving lessons. Many times the difficult journey itself turns out to be the time that God was fully present. The desert becomes the temple!
v.7 is the ultimate goal of the journey. First, the pilgrim moves from “strength to strength.” This signifies that there is an upward progression in the journey towards God. He gives us victories that build confidence. From this confidence come new victories.
As we grow and develop we become stronger until we reach our final destination. Each one of us will appear before the Lord. Here is the beauty of the pilgrimage. We are in the presence of God throughout the journey as His Spirit indwells us, but one day, at that glorious wedding, we will be in His full presence, standing without shame in His glory.
May we journey well together. May we see the desert valleys burst forth with water. May we grow strong and be filled with the confidence of knowing God.