Six Studies in the Psalms by Peter J. Blackburn
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From time immemorial, people have expressed their deepest feelings, their joys and sorrows, their longings and disappointments in song. It is natural that, as people have received the gracious revelation of God, they should sing about it.
The book of Psalms is a collection of songs written in Old Testament times by God’s people and used by them in their worship of God. They were sung by the early Christians too and continue to provide a basis for Christian worship and growth.
One writer has described the Psalms in this way:
The Psalter is the outflow of the hearts of men of piety who heard the voice of God, and, in the quagmire of sin and despair, responded to him, crying out for salvation. It is the bursting forth of the irrepressible joy and praise of people who experienced the creative touch of God and entered into spiritual victory. It is the meditations of earnest men who faced life honestly and probed its depths that they might know the role of evil, but above all the ways of God. What they give us, by their own testimony, did not come by unaided reason, but by the revelation of God (G. Herbert Livingston in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 2 page 179).
Our hymn-books today are generally arranged thematically - i.e. all the hymns on one particular subject will be grouped together.
The arrangement of the Psalms seems not quite as clear-cut as this, although, as many of our English translations indicate, they were divided into five "books". Book I consists of Psalms 1-41; Book II, Psalms 42-72; Book III, Psalms 73-89; Book IV, Psalms 90-106; and Book V, Psalms 107-150.
Each of these "books" concludes with a special doxology. Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen (31.13). Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvellous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen (72.18-19). Praise be to the LORD forever! Amen and Amen (89.52). Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the LORD (106.48). And, of course, the whole of Psalm 150.
Protestant Bible translations have followed the numbering in the Hebrew Bible. The Greek translation called the Septuagint (LXX) - from a couple of hundred years BC - combines Psalms 9 and 10 which read as if they could have originally belonged together. The Latin Vulgate (around 400AD) - and hence Catholic translations - follow this numbering and have 149 Psalms.
Not all of the Psalms come from the same historical period. Seventy-three of them are ascribed to David in their titles. However, the phrase "to (or of) David" may not refer to direct authorship in every instance. The Scriptures are quite definite in holding that David was a gifted musician, poet and singer (see, for example, 2 Samuel 1.19-27; 3.33ff; 23.1-7).
As a whole there is not a great deal of historical reference in the Psalms. This makes it difficult to date most of the non-Davidic Psalms. It seems best to conclude that the Psalter was arranged much as we have it by Ezra’s time and was completed no later than 400BC.
The outstanding feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Usually two sentences are linked together, less often three sentences and rarely four.
Sometimes the two sentences say the same thing in a slightly different way - as in
Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers (1.2)
He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses (Ps. 34.7).
Sometimes the parallel sentences set out a contrast -
For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish (1.6).
At other times the second sentence changes or adds to the thoughts of the first -
You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil;
with you the wicked cannot dwell.
The arrogant cannot stand in your presence;
you hate all who do wrong.
You destroy those who tell lies;
bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.
But I, by your great mercy,
will come into your house;
in reverence will I bow down
toward your holy temple.
Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness
because of my enemies -
make straight your way before me (5.4-8).
Quite a number of Psalms follow a kind of acrostic pattern, beginning each line with another one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (there are 22). The most obvious of these - and the longest of the Psalms (119) - is an acrostic meditation with twenty-two sections of eight verses each. In each section, the first Hebrew word of each verse begins with the alphabetic letter for that section (vv. 1-8 all begin with the Hebrew letter Aleph, vv. 9-16 with the letter Beth, and so on). In this Psalm there are six Hebrew words which all refer to God’s revealed purposes - law, statutes, ways, precepts, decrees and commands in the NIV. In each section all of these words are used - one per verse, with two repeated.
The six Psalms in these studies all come from Book I of the Psalms. Because they are well-known Psalms, they are deliberately presented here in a fairly basic translation. Consult whatever other translations you have in your group.
The overall theme of the studies is our relationship with God expressed in praise. Be prepared to engage the Word together in vigorous sharing and discussion - sharing, not just ideas, but your life in the light of the Word.
But be sure to bring it all together in praise at the end of your group time.
(In this introduction, the Scripture quoted is from The New International Version © International Bible Society, 1978, 1983)
Praise! Studies in the Psalms © Peter J. Blackburn 1977, 2000. Permission is given for this study to be copied in its entirety for group use. Courtesy advice of the use of these studies would be appreciated. Any other proposed use must have the written permission of the author.
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