Psalms: Ancient Songs that Shape the Heart
No book in the Bible is more beloved than Psalms, which is the largest book in God’s word with one hundred and fifty chapters. When read with both the head and heart, Psalms helps us connect with the passion of God and our own human emotions. For example, when you do not know how to pray or express yourself to God, reach for a fitting psalm and pray it back to the Lord. Psalms is truly a rest stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible and a place to fuel up your soul.
What is a psalm? A psalm is a prayer or poem put to music as a spiritual song or hymn. The sacred collection of psalms in the Old Testament is God’s playlist of greatest hits. The first hymnal or songbook the Early Church ever used was the book of Psalms. It took nearly one thousand years of Israel’s history to write and compile the psalms (1410-430 B.C.), penned by numerous human authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Those authors include King David (73 psalms), a worship leader in Jerusalem named Asaph (12 psalms), other worship leaders known as the sons of Korah (12 psalms), and one psalm written by Moses, Ethan, and Heman. We do not know who wrote the remaining fifty psalms.
King David is the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1) and the most prolific. For that reason, Charles Hadden Spurgeon referred to Psalms as the treasury of David. A renaissance man, David was a shepherd, monarch, warrior, musician, and poet. If you think David was a softy because he wrote poems and put them to music, think again. This is the same David who slew a giant named Goliath with a sling and stone. David reminds us that psalms are not for sissies!
David wrote his psalms when embattled by his enemies and with his back up against the proverbial wall. He found his strength in the Lord, who sustained him through many dangers, toils, and snares. The psalms are poems put to music, but they are not for chicken-hearted yellow bellies. They are for anyone who wants to connect on a deeper level with God Almighty and more authentically with their own emotions. Warren Wiersbe says, “When you study the Psalms, you move into the holy of holies where the heart communes with God.”[i
Five groups make up the entire collection of psalms. King David penned most of the psalms in group one (1-41). David and the sons of Korah wrote the psalms in group two (42-72). Asaph gets credit for writing most of the sacred lyrics in group three (73-89). Group four is a collection of psalms written by anonymous authors (90-106). Finally, David and the anonymous authors contribute to group five (107-150). Why is the book of Psalms compiled in this manner? Perhaps because they parallel the Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The first five books of the Bible penned by Moses and the five groups of psalms cover similar themes of creation, deliverance, worship, Israel’s wilderness wanderings, and covenant commitment.
Types of Psalms
Let’s immerse our hearts and minds in the psalms categorically, starting with praise psalms, which is a way of shouting, “Yay, God!” For example, Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Imagine David gazing into a starry sky at night and becoming so overwhelmed by what he saw that he breaks into spontaneous praise. At the other end of the psalter, David writes, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts!” (Psalm 148:1-2).
Moreover, Psalm 100:4 tells us to “enter … his courts with praise.” As a young boy, the church I attended took this to heart by singing the doxology at the start of each worship service: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
C.S. Lewis read Psalms and wondered why the God of the Bible required His people to praise Him. Does the Lord Almighty possess a big ego that requires constant affirmation? That did not seem plausible to the Cambridge intellectual. Lewis concluded that God receives unfiltered praise without it making His head swell in pride and that He is truly worthy of all praise. Besides, directing our praise to God keeps us from thinking more highly of ourselves than we should (Romans 12:3). Thus, it should not surprise us that even the angels of heaven sing repeatedly, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12). If only Lucifer had remained content in the angelic choir.
Another category of psalms invites us to give thanks. For example, Psalm 100 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!” (100:4). If our hearts are not full of praise and thanksgiving when we assemble to worship God, something is not right in us. Elsewhere, Psalm 75:1 says, “We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds.”
President George Washington made sure America was a nation grateful to the Providence who cares for us. On October 3, 1789, Washington designated November 26 as “A Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer.” For Christians, every day should be Thanksgiving Day. The psalms help us verbalize our gratitude to God.
Other psalms fill our hearts and minds with God’s wisdom. I call them “success in life” psalms. Generally speaking, Psalms is part of the Old Testament’s wisdom library, which also includes Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Examples of wisdom psalms include Psalm 1, which begins, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (1:1-2), and Psalm 128, which says, “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you” (128:1-2). According to Psalms, fearing the Lord, walking in His ways, and delighting in His word are three keys to the blessed or successful life.
Psalms also invites us to express our sorrows and regret through lament. A lament is a desperate cry or petition for help that rises from the depth of one’s soul. Lament psalms give voice to the brokenness, loneliness, and grief within us. For example, David cries out in Psalm 13:1-2, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Likewise, the sons of Korah cry out, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” (42:5-6).
Most of us do not grieve well. For that reason, lament is glaringly absent in our worship experiences. There is nothing wrong with claiming our victory in Christ, which we often do in worship, but sometimes we need to grieve over sin and give expression to our sorrows. For this reason, nearly one-third of the psalms are laments, allowing us to cry out to God in anguish, knowing that He is our healer, forgiver, comforter, and justifier. Even Solomon said there is “a time to weep” (Ecclesiastes 3:4), and Jesus said, “blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).
Another category known as the imprecatory psalms raise more than a little concern. These are the sacred lyrics that invoke judgment and call down curses on God’s enemies. It is best to just let one of these fly off the page and speak for itself. For example, in Psalm 140:8-11, David vents, “Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted! Selah As for the head of those who surround me, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise! Let not the slanderer be established in the land; let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!”
Is David expressing his inappropriate desire for vengeance upon his enemies? Are such imprecations beneath the dignity of God’s people? Should they even be considered prayers? Before you cast judgment on these soulful maledictions, consider Psalm 35:1-6. Before your head explodes by reading this psalm, consider that David is calling upon God to fight his battles for him, knowing that this is the only way to cast aside petty vengeance that might otherwise arise in his heart.
Elsewhere, the imprecatory psalms give voice to a hatred for evil as much as God’s abhors it. In other words, the psalmist takes God’s side against evildoers and calls upon the only One who can vindicate His righteousness and administer justice (Romans 12:19). Though disturbing at first, these unique psalms model for us a right disposition toward wickedness and invite us to see the world as God sees it.
There is more to the beautiful psalms. I love a group of ancient songs that Jewish pilgrims sang while traveling to Jerusalem for their annual religious festivals. We know them as the Songs of Ascent (120-134). They get their name from the elevation one must climb to get to the Holy City, which stands at 2,540 feet above sea level. Today, these fifteen hymns encourage spiritual travelers to climb higher with God through worship, perseverance, joy, family devotion, community, hope, and more.
Christ in the Psalms
I have saved the best of the ancient songs for last. One out of every six are Messianic psalms that point us to Christ. Psalms contains nearly seventy specific references to Christ, the Anointed One, that find their fulfillment in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels and Acts.[ii] Because these Messianic prophecies were written centuries before the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, they strongly support divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16).
Specifically, Psalms predicts that God will declare Messiah to be His beloved Son (2:7, Matthew 3:17) and forsake Christ in His darkest hour (22:1, Matthew 27:46). Messiah’s enemies will pierce His hands and feet (22:16, John 20:25, 27), falsely accuse Him (35:11, Mark 14:57), scorn and mock Him (22:7-8, Luke 23:35), and gamble for His garments (22:18, Matthew 27:35). Christ will be hated without a cause (35:19, John 15:25) and betrayed by His close friend (41:9, Luke 22:47), whose office will be fulfilled by another (109:8, Acts 1:20).
Psalms also affirms that Messiah will rise from the dead (16:10). Before quoting Psalm 110 on the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes four verses from Psalm 16 and then affirms that the Scriptures speak “about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:31-32, 34-35, 13:35-36). From Psalms, Peter also affirms that “that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
The New Testament quotes and alludes to Psalm 110 more than any other, affirming the ascension and coronation of Jesus: “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”[iii] Even Jesus quoted Psalm 110 during a prickly moment with the Pharisees when He asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42-45). Of course, the Pharisees blundered the answer.
Psalms contains an endless supply of spiritual gold to mine, which is why you just have to read it for yourself. Read five psalms per day, and you can read through the entire book in one month. By doing so, you will learn to express your most heartfelt emotions to God, enjoy a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-19), find yourself in the psalms, and meet Jesus, who is the Christ. Add one chapter per day from the book of Proverbs (our next stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible), and God’s wisdom will shape your heart and mind to be like His.
This blog submission is from Route 66: The Ultimate Road Trip Through the Bible, an eBook written by Dr. Ron Jones. Download the complete eBook based on Road Trip 3, the Wisdom Books (Job through Song of Solomon) in our Store.
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