Psalms: A Selection
by Peter and Vita Toon
Bible Study Starters
Servant Books, 1982
How to use the studies
Introduction to the Psalms
Study 1: Confessions of faith 33 & 136
Study 2: Hymns of praise 47 & 96
Study 3: Penitence 51
Study 4: The two ways 1 & 37
Study 5: Divine revelation 19
Study 6: God and man 90
Study 7: An agonized cry 88
Study 8: Blessings and curses 69
Study 9: The Messiah 2 & 110
Study 10: My Shepherd and friend 23
HOW TO USE THE STUDIES
Studying the Bible should be exciting, and especially so in a group of believers. The Bible is God’s gift to the church, containing his self-revelation. It is the book of God’s message to people everywhere, in all sorts of conditions. Since it is a book for God’s people (and via them to the world), it follows that the treasures and blessings it contains become available when a group of God’s people read and study it together. With sincere hearts and listening ears and in the spirit of fellowship, a group of believers becomes a microcosm of the whole church as it hears what God has to say from his word.
This study is intended to get a group of Christians started on the task of studying the Bible profitably together, though it can be used for individual study as well. It is intended to facilitate the process wherein God’s people hear God’s word today. It will have served its purpose when members of the group find the living God through the printed page of scripture. Then they will find that both attendance at the Eucharist and daily devotion is enriched.
To function well together, members of the group will want to do some preliminary reading of the book being studied. Further, the group will need a leader to get the early studies under way. He or she could be replaced at the half-way stage. Here are some suggestions for the leader(s) to help the studies run smoothly. Naturally this task will be easier if all members acquaint themselves with these suggestions.
1. Since the Bible yields its truth especially when set in the context of an atmosphere of worship, prayer, and trust, make sure that the group begins and ends its time of study and fellowship with prayer. We need to read the Bible joyfully as believers.
2. Since the Bible was written in languages which sometimes do not translate very well into modern English, always have available several translations/paraphrases (e.g., the Revised Standard Version, Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, New American Bible, Good News Bible, or Living Bible) in order to be aware of the possibilities of meaning and interpretation.
3. Always bear in mind that your first task is to understand what the text means, what God originally said through his servant who wrote the book. We are always faced with the temptation to read into the text what we want to see there. When we know what God originally said to people in a different world from our own, we can ask what he has to say today.
4. To assist in the demanding but exciting task of interpreting the Bible today, the questions at the end of each study will prove helpful. If seen in this light, they will help you understand the connection between the original meaning arrived at by exegesis and the application of that meaning today ( = hermeneutics).
5. Seek to ensure that every member contributes in one way or another. Each Christian has a spiritual gift from the Lord and when encouraged can use this for the good of others. If someone is doing too much talking, persuade that person to give others a chance.
6. Try the following method of approach, involving as many members as possible:
(i) Read the whole biblical passage
(ii) Read each section (as indicated in the notes) from a different translation
(iii) read the notes for that section
(iv) discuss the meaning of the section
(v) use the questions at the end of each section as a means of
making the whole passage relevant today
(iv) use the final time of prayer as a means of bringing to God the
concerns that have arisen.
INTRODUCTION TO THE PSALMS
The Hebrew name for this book is Tehillim, meaning “‘Songs of Praise”. It was widely used in the Temple of Jerusalem and it has been, and continues to be widely used in the Christian church. In these 150 psalms “are mirrored the ideals of religious piety and communion with God, of sorrow for sin and the search for perfection, of walking in darkness unafraid by the lamp of faith: of obedience to the law of God, delight in the worship of God, fellowship with the friends of God, reverence for the Word of God; of humility under the chastening rod, trust when evil triumphs and wickedness prospers, serenity in the midst of storm” (New Bible Dictionary, page 1053).
The Psalter is subdivided into five small books, each of which was originally a separate collection. The five are 1–41, 42–72, 73–89, 90–106 and 107–150. The major author was David, but other authors mentioned in the titles include Asaph (50, 73–83), the sons of Korah (42–49, 84, 85, 87), Solomon (72, 127) and Heman (88).
Much effort has been exerted by scholars in the last fifty years to try to classify exactly the different types of psalms. One suggestion, based on much of this research, is provided by J. H. Eaton in The Psalms (1967). He lists hymns (33, 145–150), laments of the community (44, 74, 79), royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45), laments of the individual Israelite (3, 5, 6, 7, 13), thanksgivings of the individual Israelite (30, 32, 138), pilgrimage songs (84, 122), thanksgivings of the community (67, 124), wisdom poems (1, 37, 73, 112) and liturgies (15, 24, 60, 75). It is probably to be recognized that, in the last analysis, each psalm defies attempts to be put into a particular bracket, for they all seem to burst out of the “type” in which they are cast.
To understand the psalms one should first seek to ask what they meant for the people of Israel who used them in the Temple; and then, secondly, what they mean for Christians as seen in the light of the revelation which came in Jesus Christ.
Useful commentaries are those of H. C. Leupold (Baker Book House) and Derek Kidner (IVP). The older commentary by Alexander MacLaren (Expositor’s Bible) is still useful. See also the Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon).
Study 1: Confessions Of Faith
Psalms 33 & 136
Worship is based on knowledge of God, and knowledge comes from God’s revelation of himself to Israel and then through Christ.
1. Verses 1–3 A call to worship
In the Temple the assembled people are called to worship, led by the musicians. They are to shout for joy because they are righteous – people of the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 19ff.). Their worship is to have freshness, vitality, skill and fervour.
2. Verses 4–9 Reasons for gladness
God’s word and work go together. He created the world and sustains it by his powerful word. In Genesis 1, the story of creation, there is the frequent “and God said . . .”. In the New Testament this creative word is seen as the Son of God – see John 1:1ff., Hebrews 1:1ff.
The universe made by God reflects both his glory (Isaiah 6:3) and his love (Psalm 33:5b).
3. Verses 10–12 The divine purpose
At the centre of God’s purpose for the history of the world is his concern for his people (Deuteronomy 32:8–9). Jesus was born in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4).
4. Verses 13–19 The eye of the LORD
God’s rule in heaven does not mean he is remote from human affairs. Such a view is called deism. The repetition of the word “all” and “great” in these verses affirms that God is both all-seeing and all-prevailing.
To those who obey and reverence God he gives his sure salvation and promises his constant care – his eye will be upon them constantly.
5. Verses 20–22 A prayer
The worshippers affirm that their patience, trust and gladness is in their covenant Lord alone; they ask that his love will ever preserve them (cf. Romans 5:5).
To use this psalm is to express what human reason can never discover. In the LORD of the covenant is total power and goodness and this we only know because he has chosen to reveal it to us.
This is a litany with versicles and responses. It is the fitting conclusion to the great Hallel, Psalms 130–36. This was used as a chain of prayer and praise at festivals in the Temple.
1. Verses 1–3 God of gods and Lord of lords
“To give thanks” means more in the original Hebrew than the English suggests. It is thanksgiving based on knowledge and thus has the idea of “to confess” and “to acknowledge”. “Steadfast love” is the love of God expressed in the choice of and care for Israel. This God is unique – see Deuteronomy 10:17ff; Psalm 82:1.
2. Verses 4–9 This God is Creator
Here two Old Testament themes are combined. There is the idea of the wisdom of God in creation (Proverbs 8:1; 22–31) and the story of creation (Genesis 1). For similar treatments see Psalms 8, 19, 33, 104, 147 and 148.
3. Verses 10–16 This God is Redeemer
The deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 1–19) is presented as a source of praise and joy.
4. Verses 17–22 This God is victorious
The entry into the land of Canaan is a further source of praise and joy (Joshua and Judges). For Sihon and Og see Numbers 21:21ff., 33ff.
5. Verses 23–25 This God is our Friend
Here the continuing help of God both to his people and the world is celebrated.
6. Verse 26 This God is still in heaven
Here the thought returns to verses 1–3.
Questions for discussion
1. How can we ensure that our worship has vitality, freshness, quality and fervour?
2. How helpful is the “eye of the LORD” as a way of showing God’s care today?
3. If our knowledge of God increases, does the depth of our praise increase with it?
4. What would be an appropriate litany for Christians to recite or sing, in which God’s historical acts are celebrated? (You may care to compose one.)
Study 2: Hymns Of Praise
Psalms 47 & 96
There are many hymns of praise in the book of psalms, but these two invite us to praise God as the universal King.
Here is poetry and prophecy. God is certainly King now, but one day he will be universally acknowledged as King.
1. Verses 1–4 God is King
Israelites in the Temple summon people everywhere to join them in praise (notice the expressions “peoples”, “nations” and “all the earth”). God is tremendous in his majesty (“terrible”) for he is universal King. In placing his covenant people “Jacob” in the promised land, with their centre of worship on Mount Zion (“pride of Jacob”), he revealed his kingship in the removal of other nations.
2. Verses 5–7 A call to praise the King
Here 2 Samuel 6:12ff. is taken for granted (especially verse 15), for it describes the bringing of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. This great event is recalled in verse 5, probably in the context of a symbolic procession. The involvement of the worshippers is conveyed by the repetitive use of the phrase “sing praises”. The Hebrew word translated “with a psalm” (verse 7) by the RSV is better rendered “with all your art” or “skill” as in the NEB.
3. Verses 8–9 All will acknowledge the King
Here is the fulfillment of Genesis 12:3 and 17:4. The Gentiles are to become the people of Abraham (see Romans 4:11 and Galatians 3:7–9). This will come about through the exaltation of Jesus (John 12:32 and Philippians 2:5–11).
In the New Testament one great theme in the gospels is the “kingdom of God” – the rule of God now in human hearts and his universal rule at the end of the age.
Most of this psalm is quoted in 1 Chronicles 16 where the entry of the ark into Jerusalem is described.
1. Verses 1–6 The unique Lord
With rhythm and repetition inhabitants of the whole earth are called upon to sing to the LORD. This is to be a new song, new in that it is composed to be a fitting, fresh and fervent response to constantly new mercies of God.
How can the peoples praise a God whom they do not know? The saving activity and words of the LORD have to be proclaimed to them – see also Isaiah 52:7; 61:1.
Israel’s God, the LORD, is totally unique and supreme. The gods and idols of the nations are unreal and as nothing compared with the Creator of heaven and earth.
The sanctuary in verse 6 is both the earthly Temple and the heavenly sphere. The ark symbolized the presence of God in the earthly Temple, but in the heavenly one he is eternally present – see Hebrews 8:5–6.
2. Verses 7–9 Worship the LORD
The threefold “ascribe” repeats the threefold call of verses 1–2.
To worship in “holy array” or in “the splendour of holiness” is to bring to God not merely the right sacrifices, but also an obedient, trusting heart.
3. Verses 10–13 The LORD is Judge
The LORD is portrayed as King, Creator and Judge (verse 10). In near ecstatic terms the whole universe is summoned to rejoice as its Creator and King comes as Judge. By his coming the universe is to be changed from a sinful world into a righteous one. This is a prophecy of the end of this world and of the hope of a new one – see 2 Peter 3:8–10 and Revelation 21.
For further reading see Psalms 93; 97–99.
Questions for discussion
1. How does this teaching on the reign of God help the Christian today?
2. What part should physical expression of emotion and conviction be given in worship?
3. How can we “sing to the LORD a new song”?
4. Why do so many people think that righteousness and justice are the enemies of joy and happiness (96:10–13)?
Study 3: Penitence
Together with Psalm 23 this has been used by Christians more than any other psalm. Not only is it used in personal devotion but it is used in corporate prayer, especially on such days as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Verses from it are also used as “arrow prayers” directed to God at any time – e.g. verse 10.
In the books of psalms it is the fourth of the seven penitential psalms – 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. Originally, as the introductory words indicate, it was composed by King David at a moment in his life when he saw himself as an ugly sinner. See 2 Samuel 11 and 12, especially 12:13.
1. Verses 1–2 A plea for mercy
This is a fervent prayer for cleansing and renewal based on God’s covenant love. It begins with the plea of one who had no claim on God and thus asks for mercy. It proceeds on the basis that the covenant Lord does love his unworthy people.
The action of God is seen as “blotting out” (as you would blot out writing from a tablet), “washing thoroughly” (as you would wash clothing with water) and of cleansing (as of a leper who is healed). This threefold action is needed because of David’s “transgression” (breaking God’s rules), “iniquity” (being crooked like a bent knife) and “sin” (missing God’s target).
2. Verses 3–5 A confession of sin
David’s particular sins were those of murder and adultery. Not only were these against fellow Israelites but they were against the law of the covenant God (Exodus 20:13–14). David recognizes that God’s judgement against him must be right, and he sees deeper into his own self. Verse 5 represents a profound view of himself. He is not saying that he was born out of wedlock but that the whole human race is involved in sin. Cf. Paul’s comments in Romans 3:9ff. and 23.
3. Verses 6–9 Hope in God’s grace
Reference is here made to the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 14:6ff.): hyssop was used, on which there was sacrificial blood; and there was a ceremonial washing of body and clothing. Like a leper David needs cleansing.
The reference to broken bones is probably a way of stating the pain of a guilty conscience.
Verse 9 repeats the thought of verse 1 and closes the themes of guilt and cleansing.
4. Verses 10–12 Renewal and salvation
From knowledge of his sinful self David looks to God for internal renewal. To create is an activity of God alone (cf. Ezekiel 36:25–27).
The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14) and David does not want this to be his lot. He wishes instead to be a person who always positively delights in doing God’s will with a willing spirit.
5. Verses 13–14 Concern for others
The renewed man becomes the concerned man, wanting others to repent (cf. Luke 22:32). In his concern to teach others David wants to be wholly free of that guilt of sin proceeding from his murder of Uriah.
6. Verses 15–17 Worship
Having been shamed into silence by his sin, David prays for his lips to be opened once more. Verses 16–17 do not teach that the sacrifices of the Temple were a waste of time. Rather that, on their own, without penitent and thankful hearts, they were unacceptable to God.
7. Verses 18–19 An addition from after the exile in Babylon
These words were added in the period between the exile and the rebuilding of the walls and Temple of Jerusalem by Nehemiah and Ezra.
Questions for discussion
1. Why have Christians been right to use this psalm so extensively?
2. Is sin always directed primarily against God (verse 4)?
3. Why is it that we often need special events to make us aware of our sinfulness?
4. What do we mean when we speak of “a clean heart”?
Study 4: The Two Ways
Psalms 1 & 37
For the psalmists there were only two types of life, righteous and evil. We study Psalm 1 in detail and 37 briefly.
This was probably specially composed to be an introduction to the whole book. Its theme and style recall the book of Proverbs – see Proverbs 2:9ff. Similarities also exist with Jeremiah 17:5–8.
1. Verses 1–3 The way of the righteous
The person who is truly happy avoids activities which are based on rejection of God’s law. He does not allow himself to be influenced by the principles of those who reject God’s authority and he does not assist or share in the gatherings of those who mock what is holy. Notice the three degrees of departure from God – accepting the world’s advice, accepting its ways, and joining the scoffers (Proverbs 3:34).
Not grudgingly but with delight he gives himself to the revelation of God recorded in the Torah (i.e. Genesis to Deuteronomy); he memorizes and recites God’s words so that his mind is saturated in them. Through this activity he becomes as the evergreen palm transplanted as a small plant to a well watered garden, where it flourishes. He is always nourished by the grace of God and grows like a fine tree.
2. Verses 4–5 The way of the wicked
From the picture of beauty and fruitfulness we are taken to a picture of brevity and waste. At the corn harvest the whole threshed mixture was hurled into the air so that the breeze could carry away the light straw and husks and the heavy grain fall to the ground. The wicked who reject God’s will are like the chaff. Before God, the Judge, they have nothing to plead in their defence — cf. Isaiah 2:10–21.
3. Verse 6 The contrast
For the LORD to “know” people is for him to have a special concern for them which means that they will endure. For the teaching of Jesus on the two ways see Matthew 7:13–14.
Two general comments may be made. First, from the perspective of the New Testament, the righteous person is the one who, “clothed in the righteousness of Christ”, does the will of God in the power of the Spirit. Secondly, it is clear from other psalms that the internal happiness of the righteous has to be maintained through times of adversity and in the face of the prosperity of the wicked. With this in mind we study Psalm 37. However, it needs to be borne in mind that there was no clear doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come at this stage, and so the problem of God’s favour in the here and now was keenly felt.
Here a venerable teacher is addressing a group of disciples. It is an acrostic psalm – successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet are used to introduce double verses – 1–2, 3–4 etc. This was done to aid memorization, but is lost in an English translation. The whole psalm may be treated by us as an exposition of the third beatitude (Matthew 5:5).
1. Verses 1–11 Looking only to God
Servants of God, affected by adverse circumstances, are liable to become bitter and indignant when they see the apparent success of evil people. Instead they are to look to God as the source of hope and life, remembering that the meek will inherit the new earth.
2. Verses 12–20 Trusting only in God
Further encouragement is given to trust in God in the face of suffering. Contrary to appearances God remains ruler of the world, and in the end his justice will be seen to be effective.
3. Verses 21–31 Encouragement to the afflicted
From God’s perspective there is a great difference between the righteous and the wicked. This knowledge, shared by the righteous, is a comfort to them as they seek to trust God and obey his will.
4. Verses 32–40 Personal testimony of the teacher
In verse 37 posterity as a sign of God’s favour was particularly important when there was no clear knowledge of life after death and in the age to come. The advice of the teacher reaches its climax in verses 39–40.
Questions for discussion
1. Is there a marked difference today, as there appeared to be in ancient times, between the righteous and the wicked?
2. To what extent is material prosperity a sign of God’s favour?
3. To what extent is the gift of children a sign of God’s favour?
4. Does the hope of life in the age to come meet the problems raised in Psalm 37?
Study 5: Divine Revelation
Here David rejoices in the provision of revelation from God in two ways — from nature and from the Torah.
1. Verses 1–4b The speaking universe
The whole universe is viewed as a society of living beings whose purpose is to adore and praise their Creator. Psalm 148 has a similar theme. The heavens and the firmament (cf. Genesis 1:6–8) are what the eye sees as we look up from earth towards the sun or moon. And what we see differs from day to night. To the believer all this seems to speak clearly and forcibly of its Creator. See further Romans 1:20.
2. Verses 4c–6 The obedient sun
The sun, the mighty subject of God’s kingdom, rises daily with the joy of a newlywed rising from the marriage bed of the bedouin tent. Serving God it crosses the expanse of the heavens as a runner in a race, and in doing so nothing escapes its penetrating rays.
3. Verses 7–11 The written words of God
The words of God, describing his creating and saving action as well as listing his commandments, are found in the five books of Moses. He who gives these words is the living God (Deuteronomy 5:26) whose name is the LORD (= Yahweh or Jehovah).
This section states in brief what is stated at length in Psalm 119 (which should be read in private after this study). The word of God, by which fellowship between God and man is created, is described by various nouns: law or torah (the commandment[s] of God), testimony (the dependable, attested word of God), precepts (the detailed instructions of God), commandments (words carrying God’s authority) and ordinances (the decisions of God the all-wise Judge). In Psalm 119 three further words are used – word (God’s truth in any form – e.g. promise or command), promise (that which God will give) and statutes (words with binding force and permanence).
Through the power of the Spirit, the words of God recorded in Scripture revive, make wise, give joy and enlighten their readers and hearers. They are as gold (the most precious metal) and honey (the sweetest food).
4. Verses 12–13 A prayer for grace
The praise of God’s words is followed by a prayer for grace to overcome sin. The words of God are like a sharp sword which with its two sharp edges both enlightens as to God’s will and reveals human sin. The bright light of God’s truth shows up human errors and hidden faults previously not recognized. Presumptuous sins, committed in defiance of the LORD, may be the result of rash action or arrogance, but they too are uncovered by the word of God. From all these sins David prays to be set free.
5. Verse 14 Acceptable to God
David offers his own thoughts and words as a sacrifice to God, praying that they will be acceptable to him. In doing so he looks to the LORD as his Rock (refuge and source of strength) and Redeemer (rescuer and champion).
6. Questions for discussion
1. Has the advance of modern science hindered or expanded our appreciation of the universe as reflecting its Creator?
2. How can we ensure that our experience of studying the Bible is similar to that of David in verses 7–11?
3. What is meant by presumptuous sins?
4. How helpful or suitable is it today to refer to God as “Rock” and “Redeemer”? Are there any better modern terms?
Study 6: God And Man
This psalm begins the fourth book of the Psalter. It is a prayer of the whole community of Israel. Coming from the pen of Moses it was in use first in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and then in the Temple of Jerusalem. Some of its themes are similar to Genesis 1–3, which Moses also wrote.
1. Verses 1–2 The everlasting God
God is addressed as the everlasting Lord who, because of his eternity, is able to be for all generations of Israelites a refuge and a dwelling. The same idea comes in the blessing of Moses – Deuteronomy 33:27.
2. Verses 3–6 Frail men
The returning to dust recalls the curse on Adam in Genesis 3:19. Man’s life on earth is brief, but with the everlasting Lord a thousand years are as the recalling of yesterday and as a watch in the night (four hours).
The removal through death of people from the world is like the river carrying away material in its floods; or the brevity of life is like that of a dream which is remembered for only a short time; or, again, life is like grass which grows quickly in the sunshine after the rain and then is cut and withers.
3. Verses 7–12 God’s anger
Man’s sin and God’s wrath both go to explain the transitory nature of life. Moses has learned the lesson he himself wrote in Genesis 3. He sees the connection between sin and death in the light of a righteous and holy God. Cf. Paul in Romans 1:18ff. The life of man appears to have become increasingly shorter until it stopped at an average age of about 70 years. Men before Noah (Genesis 5) and even in the period of Abraham appear to have lived much longer than most people do today.
Although Moses knows all this as fact he still needs to learn the lesson that human life is truly brief (verse 12). Cf. Ecclesiastes 12:1–8.
4. Verses 13–17 A petition
In verse 3 came the thought of human beings returning to dust. Here in verse 13 the prayer is for God to return, to come to his people’s aid (see also Deuteronomy 32:36). By God’s returning in blessing to his people, living under the divine anger (verse 9) can be turned into days of rejoicing (verse 14). From the perspective of the New Testament this is possible because Christ died as a propitiation – a means of taking away the wrath of God – for our sins (Romans 3:25). This propitiation extended both backwards and forwards in time (see further Hebrews 11).
With the return of the everlasting God to his people, they pray that they will be able to see what he is doing in and around them. They ask for spiritual sight. What God does lasts for ever, and as such is to be contrasted with the frailty of man (verses 5–6). Also they pray that what they do in God’s name will endure as well (verse 17).
Now read Isaiah 40:12ff. in which are the same great themes of the eternity of God and the frailty of man.
5. Questions for discussion
1. Can the idea of eternity mean much to us today when we are so conscious of the clock?
2. Do the structures and customs of modern society protect people too much from the stark reality of death and the recognition of the brevity of life?
3. To what extent is God’s anger merely the outworking of his moral laws built into his universe?
4. What is a true revival (verses 13–17)?
Study 7: An Agonized Cry
It is generally agreed that this is the gloomiest and saddest psalm found in the Bible. There appears to be no relief to the deep sense of hopelessness expressed by the writer. At the close of the prayer he seems to be in as much trouble as at the beginning; he has received no new hope.
Over the centuries churches have used it on Good Friday as a means of understanding what Jesus felt when, burdened with the guilt of sin, he cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Christians also remember that this cry of dereliction was followed by the triumph of the resurrection.
Perhaps there is one ray of hope in the psalm and that is in the title. The author, who felt so hopeless, appears to have been one of the pioneers of the singing groups set up by King David. From these guilds came the Korahite Psalms, 42–49, etc. For Heman, see 1 Kings 4:31 and 1 Chronicles 6:33, 37.
“Mahalath Leannoth” can mean either “a tune for a song of affliction” or “a musical instrument for a song of affliction”. Sorrowful flute playing is probably intended. “Maskil” is a skilful composition of words and music.
1. Verses 1–2 A ceaseless appeal to God
The best translation of verse 1 is: “O LORD, God of my salvation, in the day I cry out and in the night I cry out before thee.” In these words is the only obvious positive part of the psalm. To the writer, God is the God of his salvation, the One to whom prayer is addressed and the One who answers, or at least listens to, prayer.
2. Verses 3–9a A condition to be pitied
He is in a state of complete exhaustion and feels virtually dead (verses 3–4). Will he be free of all his troubles when he dies? He knows nothing of such freedom but describes himself as one of those who, slain on the battlefield, is tossed into a grave to be forgotten or removed from the sphere where God can do anything to help (cf. Psalm 6:5). Making use of the imagery of the dungeon and deep waters, he sees himself as a special object of God’s wrath. And lacking God’s presence he also lacks human companions (verse 8) – does he have a contagious disease?
3. Verses 9b–12 A renewed appeal to God
If God does not help soon it will be too late. Death (“the last enemy” – 1 Corinthians 15:26) does not glorify God! Miracles, the singing of praise and the recital of God’s mighty acts are done for, and in, the congregation of the living. In connection with the dead they appear meaningless. Obviously Heman has no hope of life after death, for he expects God’s grace to be operative only in the here-and-now. Only the full doctrine of the resurrection of the dead taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 can truly satisfy him. At this stage there was a hazy belief in life after death in Sheol, which was pictured as a great, dark cave (Ezekiel 32:18–21) or a dark wasteland (Job 10:22). A full hope of everlasting life only appears in the New Testament.
4. Verses 13–18 A further appeal
Here the question “Why?” is introduced. In looking back over his life the psalmist can only remember troubles and more troubles. There is no answer to the “Why?” Yet he does actually finish his prayer. It ends with darkness.
5. Questions for discussion
1. Have churches been right to use this psalm on Good Friday?
2. Is it possible for a true Christian to find himself in a similar mood to this psalm?
3. May it be claimed that the mood of the psalm reflects the “groaning in travail” of the children of God (Romans 8:22–23)?
4. Why is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body so important to Christianity?
Study 8: Blessings And Curses
Here is a prayer of David or of a descendant of David. He is in great distress because, having boldly championed and defended the cause of the LORD and his sanctuary in Jerusalem, he has incurred hatred and opposition from those who were against this cause. But, while Christ prayed for his enemies from the cross (Luke 23:34), David calls for divine judgement to fall upon them (verses 22–28). This imprecatory note, which constitutes a real problem for the modern reader, is also found in other psalms – e.g. 35 and 109.
The heading “according to Lilies” probably means “those whose situation changes for the worse”.
1. Verses 1–4 His situation described
The King, the representative of God’s people, is in great distress. He is like someone in flood waters sinking into the mud. His grief has worn him out and affected his eyesight. Exactly who are the enemies we are not told, but they have no just reason for their hatred. (Note the use of verse 4a in John 15:25.)
2. Verses 5–6 A prayer for deliverance
Conscious of his own sins, he prays that these will in no way affect those who faithfully trust in the LORD.
3. Verses 7–12 The reason for his distress
The more he has championed the LORD’S cause, the more his opponents have made his life a misery; and opposition from family is hard to bear (cf. Psalms 31:11 and 27:10). His zeal for God’s cause is primarily shown in his passionate concern for the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. (Note that both halves of verse 9 are fulfilled perfectly in Christ – John 2:17 and Romans 15:3.) Verses 10–12 provide specific examples of how he was reviled in the city. He was “the talk of the town” (Living Bible).
4. Verses 13–18 An earnest plea
Here he repeats the images of mud and flood waters (verses 14–15). However, he is very conscious of the “steadfast” covenant love of God which is always faithful. “At an acceptable time” may be a reference to a special day in the Temple – e.g. the Day of Atonement.
5. Verses 19–21 His suffering
In the close society of Old Testament towns public shame was much more powerful than in western society today. (Note that what David was offered metaphorically – verse 21 – Jesus was offered in reality – Matthew 27:34, 48.)
6. Verses 22–28 Curses
This section comes as a surprise to the reader who is influenced by the New Testament teaching (Matthew 5:43–48). The psalmist’s anger proceeds from his passionate zeal for the justice of God. He lived under the law of Moses which taught the doctrine of retribution (Leviticus 24:19ff.). He had no hope for the conversion of these enemies. Thus taking these points together his prayer for the overthrow of God’s enemies makes sense. It is the only way he knows to vindicate God.
The curses involve all which makes normal life worthwhile – food and fellowship (verse 22), bodily functions (verse 23), a place to live (verse 25) and acceptability with God (verse 28). (Note that verse 25 is quoted in Acts 1:20 with reference to Judas.)
7. Verse 29 A sigh
Having called down the judgement of God, he recognizes his own need for God’s mercy.
8. Verses 30–33 Assurance of answered prayer
Animal sacrifices without a humble, praising heart are of no use (verse 31). God’s concern for the humble poor is a powerful theme in the prophets and also in the Psalms (e.g. 72:2).
9. Verses 34–36 Hope for the future
This is possibly a later addition in order to give the whole congregation in the Temple a chance to join in the prayer.
10. Questions for discussion
1. Is it legitimate for persecuted Christians to pray in a similar manner to the psalmist in verses 1–6?
2. What should be the consuming zeal of a Christian?
3. Should verses 22–28 be omitted when this psalm is used in Christian worship?
4. Is imprecatory prayer ever justifiable?
Study 9: The Messiah
Psalms 2 & 110
The hope of the Messiah, “the Anointed of God”, the Saviour and mighty deliverer, surfaces regularly in the Psalms. It is possible, however, to over-emphasize this theme, as does St Augustine of Hippo in his Expositions on the Psalms. For him every psalm was messianic! In deciding which psalms do predict the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom we have to be guided by the way in which New Testament writers actually quote from the psalms. Here we study two oft-quoted ones; others which can be studied are 22, 45 and 72.
According to Acts 4:25 this is a psalm of David; its theme is ultimate victory for the LORD’S Anointed.
1. Verses 1–3 Rebellious nations
Possibly the wars described in 2 Samuel 8 and 10 were the means used by God to cause David to think of his descendant, the greater Son of David and the LORD’S Anointed. As he speaks he expresses astonishment at the senseless rejection of God’s chosen Ruler.
In Acts 4:25–28 Herod and Pilate are seen as fulfilling representatively the roles of “kings and rulers”.
2. Verses 4–6 The serene dignity of the LORD
The LORD in heaven laughs at the arrogance of mankind. They make plans to overthrow his Anointed One, but all he has to say is, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” In David’s day Mount Zion was the appointed place on which the Temple was to be built (cf. 2 Samuel 5:7; 1 Kings 8:1).
The LORD was not alarmed by what his enemies did to King David, for he held appointment by the divine will; so in a deeper sense the LORD would vindicate his Messiah, threaten his opponents with judgement and support him completely.
3. Verses 7–9 The LORD’S decree
Here the LORD’S Anointed speaks; behind these words is 2 Samuel 7, the prophecy of Nathan to David. Verse 7 here restates 2 Samuel 7:14, and verses 8 and 9 reflect 2 Samuel 7:10, 11, 15 and 16.
In Acts 13:33 the announcement is related to the resurrection of Christ. At the baptism and transfiguration of Christ these words are also quoted by the Father (Matthew 3:17 and 17:5).
The promise of verse 8 should be read in the light of Matthew 28:18 and the contents of verse 9 in the light of Revelation 2:27; 12:5 and 19:15.
4. Verses 10–12 A call to submission
The only hope for the rebellious nations is to submit to God and give the kiss of homage to the Messiah. (The Hebrew of verses 11–12 is difficult to translate and so the versions differ in their attempts.)
This is an important psalm for the New Testament writers. Jesus used it (Mark 12:36ff.) and so did Peter (Acts 2:33–35). The imagery of Christ seated at God’s right hand after his ascension is based on verses 1 and 5. See Hebrews 1:13, Romans 8:34, etc.
1. Verses 1–4 The Messiah is King and Priest
The LORD, Yahweh or Jehovah, addresses his Anointed and gives him authority and power over mankind. Then the rule of the Messiah is explained in verses 2–3. Yahweh wields the sceptre and his Anointed rules; further, a host of volunteers come to fight for him.
The LORD speaks again in verse 4 with an unchangeable oath. The Messiah is declared to be an everlasting priest of the order of Melchizedek. For the identity of this ancient person see Genesis 14:18–20, and for its interpretation in the New Testament see Hebrews 5:5–10; 6:19–7:22.
2. Verses 5–7 The Messiah’s successful warfare
The enthronement of the Priest-King (in the ascension) is the prelude for a lengthy battle until the kingdoms of the world become submitted to him. This is the theme of the book of Revelation. See also 1 Corinthians 15:25ff.
Questions for discussion
1. Why did the Jews and Gentiles not accept the Messiah? Why did they crucify him?
2. Are the contents of verses 10–12 of Psalm 2 the right message for world rulers today?
3. Is it helpful to think of Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King? If so, what do we mean?
4. How can we help people today to understand the significance of Melchizedek?
Study 10: My Shepherd And Friend
While the image of God as Shepherd of Israel is found in other psalms (e.g. 74:1; 77:20; 78:52; 79:13; 80:1) and prophecies (e.g. Jeremiah 31:10; Ezekiel 34:12–15 and Micah 5:4), here the personal aspect is particularly prominent.
1. Verses 1–4 Shepherd
In earlier psalms several images have been used to describe God – e.g. King, Rock and Shield – but here a more intimate picture is used. The oriental shepherd lived with his flock, functioning as their leader, protector and doctor. The LORD is my Shepherd, sings David, and adds in the logic of simple faith, “I look into the future with confidence.
The human shepherd, always considering the needs of his flock, leads them to grassy meadows when they need rest at noon. Thus, after rest they can resume their grazing. Also he ensures that such a resting place will have a supply of water which they may drink. Similarly the LORD knows the needs of each of his people and meets them out of his abundant mercy and sure guidance.
When a sheep strays the shepherd brings it back. In a similar way the LORD restores the straying or erring believer – cf. the story Jesus told of the lost sheep in Luke 15:4–7. Leading the sheep, the shepherd chooses for them the right path through dangerous terrain. The LORD leads the believer in “paths of righteousness”, fulfilling thereby his covenant promises to his people and guiding them according to his perfect will. In the Old Testament the name of God (Yahweh or Jehovah) reflects his character, and so he leads the people, and each individual, in a way appropriate to his righteous character. Cf. Ezekiel 36:22–32.
Verse 4 emphasizes the idea of protection. A sheep will hesitate to pass through a dark ravine for fear of any lurking wild animals. But if the shepherd, armed with his cudgel and staff, is present, then the sheep can proceed without fear. Notice the change here from “he” to “thou”. In the thought of David, the shepherd is no longer ahead of the flock but actually alongside to help. He will escort the believer through life and through death. The latter was very important for an Old Testament believer.
2. Verses 5–6 Friend
Some think that the image of shepherd is continued into verse 5, but it is probably better to see a change to the image of a friend, a friendly host. The picture is that of a sumptuous banquet, with full cups of wine, and anointing with perfumed oil, a courtesy provided for honoured guests. The enemies look on, unable to interfere. For the New Testament equivalent of the theme of God’s friendly provision and protection, read Romans 8:31–39.
To be God’s honoured guest is not merely a temporary matter for one meal; it is for ever. It is to be provided continually as a member of the covenant with his spiritual food. Also it is to live in the prospect of being in God’s holy presence for ever, a presence symbolized by the Temple. Cf. Psalms 42; 84; 27:4 and 65:4 for the thought of God’s house as the joy and delight of the believer.
This psalm is not specifically a messianic psalm (see Study 9) but the Christian reader cannot help but think of Christ, the Good Shepherd (John 10).
3. Questions for discussion
1. Why has the psalm been so popular amongst Christians?
2. If the image of a shepherd was eminently suitable for ancient times, is it suitable today for city dwellers? If not, can you think of another image?
3. What does it mean to live in the presence of God?
4. Should sacred buildings today (e.g. cathedrals) ever hold the place in the Christian’s thinking that the Temple did in the thinking of the true Israelite?
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