Reading the Psalms – Context is King

Our church are about to dip into the Psalms. It’s part of a series of little taster sessions throughout the first part of the year as we’ve dipped into the Old Testament.  Our aim is to encourage people to get reading the Old Testament.  In this article, I’m going to highlight a few tips for looking at the Psalms. 

The first thing to say about Psalms is that we read it in context.  This means we take account of its context and place in Scripture.  Psalms is part of the Wisdom Literature.  This means we have got to take into account its genre. Like Proverbs, it requires us to treat its teaching as wise advice, general truths that have to be applied to our context.  We need to know both contexts, the context of the Psalm and the context of the hearer/reader.  John Stott used to talk about us needing to have the Bible in one hand and our newspaper in the other (today it would be your I-Pad in order to read online news and blogs). 

Psalms is also part of the Old Testament and so we need to read it as pointing forward prophetically.  The Psalms are fulfilled in Jesus and so we need to think about what it would have meant for these words to be found on Jesus’ lips as he sung them. How do we apply the teaching to him and them through him to us?

Then we need to read each Psalm in context. Like all the other books of the Bible, the Psalms have been assembled and edited together in order to teach us, structured as five books making up the whole, perhaps an intentional echo of the 5 books of Torah. The five sections are as follows:

Book 1: Psalms 1-41

Book 2: Psalms 42-72

Book 3: Psalms 73-89

Book 4: Psalms 90-106

Book 5: Psalms 107- 150.

Each Psalm needs to be read in the context of the whole and in the context of its immediate section.  We find out what that context is by seeing what the Psalms bookending the whole and bookending each section are concerned with. So, Psalm 1 begins by talking about the happy and blessed person, their happiness is to do with righteousness, instead of getting involved with sinners and trouble makers, they give their time to meditating on God’s Law.  Psalm 150 concludes the book with praise and devotion to God.  The whole book points us to delight and trust in God, discovered through his word and expressed in praise. Each Psalm will be asking us to do this.

Now step a bit further into the detail of the sections.  If Book 1 begins with the description of the happy/blessed person, then that’s exactly how it ends in Psalm 41. Once again, we are told who the blessed person is, however, we are given additional detail. The happy person “considers the poor” and they cry out to God in trouble. They have faith and they put this into action with love and concern for others.  We can expect to see examples of faith in action as we read through the first part of the Psalms.  So, for example, Psalm 23 shows us that the happy/blessed person is like a sheep, obediently trusting and following their shepherd through life and death.

Book 2 focuses in on deliverance, protection, and provision.  We have the hunted and exhausted deer finding refreshment and renewal at the stream in Psalm 42 and then Solomon pens a Psalm at 72 which speaks of how the King and his heir both experience this and are supposed to act for God in ensuring that the people too experience these things.  Book 3 begins with a man called Asaph nearly falling into sin by focusing on the way that evil people seemed to do well. Asaph is tempted to go against Psalm 1 and throw his lot in with wicked people but then he realises that the wicked will perish and there is refuge in sticking close to God.  This section takes us through the challenges of living in a world where sin and suffering are rife but concludes (as each of the Psalms do) in hope and praise with Psalm 89.

Psalm 90 opens the fourth book telling us that not only does God dwell with us but we with ans in him “Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”  Wisdom is found in him and so we learn to “number our days” or to see God’s plans and purposes in all that we do.  The section closes with another reminder that God is the Lord of his people, even though they often failed him and forgot his covenant, still he was good and faithful to them. The fifth and final book starts with Psalm 107. Gods goodness and faithfulness is demonstrated in the different ways he has redeemed his people. And so, we then conclude with that great call to praise in Psalm 150.

You will notice that not only do the book end Psalms frame each section but they also show progress and development moving our reading and thinking on.  God’s people are happy and blessed as righteous people (book 1) but they are also people who need deliverance (Book 2), this is because, living in a fallen world, they are tempted to forget blessing and begin to walk, sit, stand with the wicked (Book 3).  Therefore, God makes his dwelling place with us, he deals patiently with our failings and forgetfulness and we find life and hope in him (Book 4). So, God proves to be the good and faithful one who redeems and so is worthy of praise (Book5).  Did you notice too that we have just walked through the Gospel!?

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