Know Your Bible
A Guide to the Psalms
A Comprehensive Analysis of the Psalms
Dr. W. Graham Scroggie
Four Volumes in One
These studies are not written for the scholar, nor to promote scholarship, but for the general reader, and to quicken devotion, though, it is hoped, the scholar will find the studies stimulating.
Attention is called to the following features:
An attempt is made by the arrangement of the text, to indicate to some extent the principle of parallelism so characteristic of Hebrew poetry. The paragraphing is intended to show the main divisions of each Psalm; and speeches within a Psalm, by one or more voices, are shown in italic print.
Superscriptions and subscriptions are preserved, with here and there a word of interpretation. The theory of Dr. J. W. Thirtle has been followed throughout, namely, that many superscriptions should be the subscriptions to the preceding Psalms, and these have been so arranged.
Further details will be found in the Introduction.
Each Psalm has a Title, and at the end a Thought which is designed to fix in the mind the main lesson of the Psalm. To each is added a note which relates the Psalm to some incident in Christian story. The Exposition aims, as far as is practicable within its limits, at giving interpretative, homiletical, and devotional help.
The acrostic Psalms are shown by the Hebrew alphabet in the left-hand margin.
The verse numbers are arranged in a straight line on the left, and are not allowed to interfere with the poetic form of the Psalm.
All references to Deity, both by name and pronoun, have the initial letters in capital type and this, in several places, has an interpretative value.
It is hoped that these several features combined may help to make the reading and study of the Psalms more interesting and profitable.
In approaching the study of these Sacred Songs, “The Praises of Israel,” there are several matters of literary and historical importance which it is well we should consider. The purpose of this book renders it unnecessary that we do more than merely introduce the most important of these matters, and suggest to those who would pursue the study of them some books that will prove helpful.
Let it also be said, in order to prevent misunderstanding, that here we make no attempt to deal with the many important critical questions which arise relative to all the Books of the Bible. As the purpose throughout is expository and practical, results of careful study are given largely without argument, and it is hoped that those who cannot accept all the assumptions and conclusions herein set forth, may at least derive some help from that spiritual element in our studies which is independent of critical opinion.
I HEBREW POETRY
Think for a little of Hebrew Poetry in general. The Psalter by no means contains all the Hebrew Poetry to be found in the Bible, for not only are there psalms in several of the Books of the Old Testament, for example, Exodus 15, Deut. 32, Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22, Habakkuk 3, but many of the Books are themselves poetical in thought and form, for example, Job, the Canticle, Isaiah 40-66, and this thought and form flows over into the New Testament and supplies the basis for the earliest Christian Hymns.
It should be observed that, for the most part, Hebrew Poetry is lyrical, a name given to it because it was originally accompanied by music on the lyre.
It has been well said that “lyric poetry concerns itself with the thoughts and emotions of the composer’s own mind, and outward things are regarded chiefly as they affect him in any way. Hence it is characterized as subjective, in contradistinction to epic poetry, which is objective.” When lyric poetry is religious it expresses the poet’s emotions as they are stirred by the thought of God and are directed towards God, and the poetry of the Bible is mainly religious, as we would expect, seeing that the Old Testament is the religious history of Israel.[i]
The Psalter has been called the Hymn Book of the Hebrews, but there is a difference between hymns and these Psalms. The word psalm (mizmor) means a composition set to music, and, in the first instance, speaks of the music rather than of the psalm. “But for the lyre we might never have had Lyrics—and but for the art of sweeping the strings, which we call Psalmein (psalming) we might never have had in our hands the poetic products which we call Psalmoi (psalms).” In other words, the difference between the psalm and the hymn, as to origin, is this, that in the case of the former the words were stirred by the music, and in the case of the latter the music is stirred by the words.
We must now observe that these Songs, which are lyrical in character, are parallelistic in form. Hebrew poetry follows the device not of rhyme but of rhythm. To understand this is of the greatest importance for a true appreciation and interpretation of the Psalms.
If the significance of a Psalm must be gathered from its scope, and if its scope is largely determined by its structure, obviously the first thing to do in our study of a Psalm is to discover its structure, which is its literary form. Unfortunately the arrangement of verses in our Bibles does not preserve the parallelisms of thought, and so not a little of the significance is lost. An able attempt to show in English the parallelism of the Hebrew is found in Rotherham’s Studies in the Psalms. A slight acquaintance with the text arranged in this way will convince one of its exegetical value. The first serious attempt to expound the subject of Parallelism was made in the eighteenth century by Bishop Lowth in his epoch-making work on Hebrew poetry, De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum.
In this work he distinguishes three forms of parallelism, and to these others have been added by Jebb, Driver, Briggs, McCurdy, Terry, Gray, and others.
Among these forms are the following:
1 Synonymous Parallelism, in which the same thing is repeated in different words; in which the second member enforces the thought of the first.
The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:
The world, and they that dwell therein.
For He hath founded it upon the seas.
And established it upon the floods.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in His holy place? Psa. 24:1-3.
2 Antithetic Parallelism, in which the thought of the first line is emphasized by a contrasting thought in the second.
For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous,
But the way of the ungodly shall perish. Psa. 1:6.
For evil doers shall be cut off;
But those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. Psa. 37:9.
3 Synthetic Parallelism, in which the second member explains or adds something to the first.
The law of the Lord is perfect.
Converting the soul:
The testimony of the Lord is sure.
Making wise the simple:
The statutes of the Lord are right,
Rejoicing the heart:
The commandments of the Lord are pure,
Enlightening the eyes:
The fear of the Lord is clean.
Enduring for ever:
The judgments of the Lord are true.
And righteous altogether. Psa. 19:7-9.
4 Introverted Parallelism, in which the members are placed in inverse order.
- As for me, I will come into Thy house
- In the multitude of Thy mercy:
- And in Thy fear
- Will I worship toward Thy holy temple. Psa. 5:7.
5 Iterative Parallelism, in which the thought is simply repeated.
The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
The floods have lifted up their voice:
The floods lift up their waves. Psa. 93:3.
6 Responsory Parallelism, in which the members are antiphonal, appeal and answer alternately.
O Israel, trust thou in the Lord:
He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord:
He is their help and their shield.
Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord:
He is their help and their shield. Ps. 115:9-11.
7 Climacteric Parallelism, in which the second line completes the first.
Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty,
Give unto the Lord glory and strength. Ps. 29:1.
8 Alternate Parallelism, in which the members follow one another by turns, the first line being parallel to the third, and the second to the fourth.
- As the heaven is high above the earth,
- So great is His mercy toward them that fear Him.
- As far as the east is from the west,
- So far hath He removed our transgressions from us. Ps. 103:11, 12.
This method is employed not only in verses, but also in the structure of whole Psalms. Of this, Psalm 5 is a good example, in which the parallelism is introverted.
Arrangements of this kind characterize the whole Psalter, and indeed, many parts of the Old Testament. This is fully displayed, as it relates to the Psalter, in A Key to the Psalms, by the Rev. Thomas Boys, M.A,
Another device employed by the Hebrew poet is the alphabetic acrostic. There are examples of this outside of the Psalter, the whole of the “Lamentations” conforming to this arrangement. Within the Psalter there are nine alphabetical poems, viz. 9-10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145. In these, verses or groups of verses begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The most elaborate of these is Psalm 119, which has twenty-two sections of eight verses each, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet occurring eight times in succession as the initial letter of the verses in its section. The words inserted in the Authorised and Revised Versions of our Bibles and placed at the top of these sections are the names of the Hebrew letters.
II DIVISIONS OF THE PSALTER
This Collection of Sacred Songs is divided into five Books, each of which, except the last, ends with a doxology of a liturgical character: Bk. 1, Psalms 1-41; Bk. 2, Psalms 42-72; Bk. 3, Psalms 73-89; Bk. 4, Psalms 90-111; Bk. 5, Psalms 107-150. This Pentateuch of Song has been compared to the Mosaic Pentateuch at the beginning of the Old Testament, and to the Christian Pentateuch at the beginning of the New Testament. It is at least interesting to find these five books of Song placed between the five on the Law, and the five on the Gospel.
That this arrangement of the Psalter is ancient is commonly granted, though there are differences of opinion as to the limits of time within which these Collections were given their present form. A reasonable view, based on substantial evidence, is that the work of gathering together these prayers and praises of Israelitish saints may well have begun in the time of Solomon, and that it was completed not later than the second century before Christ, though, in all likelihood, much earlier, seeing that the first four Books were in existence when 1 Chron. was written (cf. 1 Chron. 16:36 with Psalm 106:48), so that the process of compilation may have occupied seven hundred years, though some critics allow only three hundred years, from the fifth to the second century b.c. Probably Book I belongs to the early period of the Jewish Monarchy, Books II and III to the middle period, and Books IV and V to the Post-Exilic period. In all likelihood the first Book was compiled by Solomon, the second and third books after many years by “the men of Hezekiah” (Prov. 25:1; 2 Chron. 29:30), and the fourth and fifth books later still in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Though we cannot follow out in detail the growth of the Psalter, yet we may discern therein the spiritual history of the people whose Songs they are. In a general way these five Collections may be regarded as chronological, though this arrangement is greatly modified by the conditions which necessarily attached to the circumstances under which they were collected.
III AUTHORSHIP AND AGE
These two matters quite obviously are closely related to one another, for if we could be sure who was the author of any given Psalm the date would not present any serious difficulty. It has been fashionable in certain quarters to assume a late date for the greater number of the Psalms, in fact, to find its origin in the later Persian and Greek periods, and in the Maccabæan age. But such a view is not consistent with sound criticism.
Religious Poetry is very ancient, and we are not without examples of it long before David’s time. It can confidently be asserted that we have no irrefragable proof that there is in the Psalter a single Psalm of the Maccabæan period, but, on the other hand, there is a heavy weight of evidence that the major part of the Collection, say Books I-III, originated in the period 1000 b.c. to 700 b.c., from David to Hezekiah; and the rest, in the main, belong, probably, to the Exilic and Post-Exilic periods. This does not mean that we can pronounce with any certainty on the date and authorship of many of the Psalms, or even in the case of those attributed to David, that we can say with confidence to which period of his life some of them refer, but it does mean that we are warranted in believing that the great Song period in Israel’s history was the 300 years from David’s time.
Of the 150 Psalms, 101 are by their titles related to authors. Of these, 73 are assigned to David, 10 to the School of Korah, 12 to the School of Asaph, 2 to Solomon, 1 to Ethan, 1 to Heman, 1 to Moses, and 50 are anonymous. This supplies a basis for investigation, which is likely to result in a reduction of the number of the anonymous Psalms. For instance, if the ninth Psalm is David’s the alphabetic arrangement and the Selah at its close, show that the tenth must be his also. The New Testament says that the second Psalm is David’s (Acts 4:25); and if Hezekiah’s “my songs” (Isaiah 38:20) were ever incorporated in the Psalter, they surely will be the ten anonymous Songs of Degrees, one for each of the retraced degrees on the sundial of Ahaz (Isaiah 38:8) and five by two other authors, added to make up the number of years of life which were granted to Hezekiah after his sickness. For a full discussion of this fascinating subject, consult two works of great importance by Dr. J. W. Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, and Old Testament Problems.
Unquestionably the foundation of the Psalter is Davidic. With the son of Jesse “a new era of religious poetry commenced. He also was the originator of the Temple liturgy (1 Chron. 25). His skill as poet and musician, and his interest in the development of religious music are attested by the earliest records. The leaders of the return from the Exile believed themselves to be restoring his Institutions” (Kirkpatrick).
Here is a summary of the Psalm-titles as they relate to authorship:
Taking them as they stand it is noteworthy that each Book is, at its beginning, given distinctiveness as a Collection, and what follows supplements preceding Collections. So Book I is Davidic; Book II is Korahite; Book III is Asaphic, and Books IV and V are Anonymous.
Solomon would gather together certain of his father’s Psalms. The compiler of Book II, who had Korah in mind, added a substantial supplement of Davidic Psalms. The compilers of Book III had Asaph in mind. In Books IV and V anonymous Psalms are collected, with a supplement of fifteen more of David’s in Book V. We may never be able to say with certainty on what principle these collections were made. The following shows at a glance the details relating to authorship:
IV TITLES AND TERMS
The editorial notes attached to most of the Psalms (only 34 are without such) are of extreme antiquity, for the Septuagint translators (about the middle of the second century b.c.) found them there and did not understand them.
Kirkpatrick makes a five-fold classification of these descriptive notes.
I Titles Descriptive of the Character of the Poem
Psalm Mizmōr: A Song with instrumental accompaniment. Prefixed to 57 Psalms.
Song Shīr: 31 times in the titles.
Maschil A skilful or cunning Psalm: 13 times; Psalms 32, 43, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, 142.
Michtam Possibly “a golden poem,” or a personal and private prayer, a meditation, but the meaning is uncertain. Occurs six times: Psalms 116, 56-60. All these are ascribed to David.
Shiggaion The meaning is very uncertain, but it has been thought to denote “a dithyrambic poem in wild, ecstatic wandering rhythms, with corresponding music.” More probably it means simply “A loud cry.” Occurs once, Psalm 7; and in Hab. 3:1.
A Prayer Occurs five times: Psalms 117, 86, 90, 102, 142.
A Praise Occurs once: Psalm 145.
II Titles Connected with the Musical Setting, or Performance
To the Chief Musician, or, For the Chief Musician; or, Of the Precentor. Occurs 55 times. The expression probably indicates that the Psalms to which it is attached belonged to a collection called The Precentor’s Collection.
On (or with) Neginoth. The word is derived from a verb meaning to play on stringed instruments. It occurs 7 times: Psalms 4, 6, 54, 55, 61, 67, 76. According to Dr. Thirtle’s hypothesis, the title was originally a subscript to Psalms 3, 5, 53, 54, 60, 66, 75.
Upon (or with) Nehiloth. This means with wind instruments, with reference possibly to flutes, and is attached to Psalm 5 only, and is, possibly, a subscript to Psalm 4.
Upon (or set to) Alamoth. The word means “maidens,” and it is thought that the only Psalm to which it is attached, 46, was to be sung by soprano voices. According to Dr. Thirtle the title is a subscript to Psalm 45, which describes the marriage of a princess, “a function at which it would be quite appropriate to have a female choir.”
Upon (or set to the) Sheminith. The word means “the eighth,” and Dr. Sampey says, “it probably denotes the male choir, as distinguished from Alamoth, the maidens’ choir.” It occurs with Psalms 6 and 12 only (5 and 11 sub).
Upon (or set to the) Gittith. While the word may refer to some Gittite instrument, or melody, it more probably means winepresses. It is attached to Psalms 8, 81, 84; but perhaps it is a subscript to Psalms 7, 80, 83, which, it is supposed, were sung at the Feast of Tabernacles.
To (or after the manner of) Jeduthun. This is attached to Psalms 39, 62, 77; or possibly as subscript to Psalms 38, 61, 76; and signifies, perhaps, that Jeduthun, one of David’s choir leaders (1 Chron. 16:41; 25:3) “introduced a method of conducting the Service of Song which ever afterwards was associated with his name.”
Set to Muth-Labben. This is supposed to mean “Death of the Son.” It is attached to Psalm 9, but Dr. Thirtle places it as a subscript to Psalm 8, and translates it “The Death of the Champion,” making this Psalm refer to David’s victory over Goliath. If this be correct, a new meaning will attach to verse 2.
Set to Aijeleth Hash-Shahar. This means “the hind of the morning” (Psalm 22). Dr. Thirtle attaches it to Psalm 21, which he regards as a National Anthem, and thinks “the title may express in terms of affection and honour the fact that the king was the pride and delight of his people.”
Set to Shoshannim (Psalms 45, 69); Set to Shushan Eduth (Psalm 60); Set to Shoshannim Eduth (Psalm 80). Lilies is the idea common to these expressions, which probably denote the melody to which these Psalms were to be sung. Dr. Thirtle makes them subscripts to Psalms 44, 68, 69, 79, which he supposes, as to the first two, were sung at the Passover Festival to commemorate God’s goodness to Israel as Redeemer, and as to the others, at Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the Law to Israel.
Set to Jonath-elem-rehokim. This means, “The silent dove of them that are afar off“; or, “The dove of the distant terebinths.” Attached to Psalm 56, this expression appears to be meaningless but if it be a subscript to Psalm 55, we see at once a connection with verses 5-8.
Al-tashcheth. This means, “Destroy not.” By removing the term from the beginning of Psalms 57-59, 75, to the end of 56-58, 77, it will signify a prayer for deliverance from danger and adversity.
Set to Mahalath: Set to Mahalath Leannoth. Ancient interpreters rendered these expressions For, or In the Dance, but saw no connection between them and the Psalms to which they are attached, 53, 88; but if in reality they are subscripts to Psalms 52 and 87, we see how suitable are Dancings in relation to a Psalm which celebrates a victory over the Philistines, and Dancings with Shoutings, in relation to a Psalm which celebrates the bringing of the Ark to Zion.
Selah. This word occurs 71 times in the Psalter. It is of great antiquity and probably “gives notice of the beginning of a new section or stanza in a hymn or poem designed for singing.”
Higgaion. This word occurs as a musical direction only in Psalm 9:16, and means meditation. It occurs also in the text of Psalm 19:14, and of Psalm 92:3, “with higgaion upon the harp.”
3 Titles which Refer to the Liturgical Use of the Psalms
A Psalm, or Song for the Sabbath day. Psalm 92. In the time of the second Temple, each day of the week had its special Psalm which was sung at the offering of the morning sacrifice. From information derived from the Septuagint the Old Latin Version, and the Mishna, the order was:
Saturday Psalm 92, Sunday Psalm 29, Monday Psalm 48, Tuesday Psalm 82, Wednesday Psalm 94, Thursday Psalm 81, Friday Psalm 93
The titles, To Bring to Remembrance (Psalms 38, 70), A Psalm of Thanksgiving (Psalm 100), and A Song at the Dedication of the House (Psalm 30) need no comment.
To Teach, which is attached only to Psalm 60, may mean that it was to be learnt by heart and recited on public occasions (cf. Deut. 31:19, and 2 Sam. 1:18).
A Song of Degrees. Many interpretations have been given of this expression which occurs at the head of fifteen Psalms, 120-134; but the view of Dr. Thirtle, which makes Hezekiah the author of the ten which are anonymous, and relates all fifteen to the occasion of his sickness and recovery is, perhaps, the most satisfactory, and is supported by much internal evidence. Read Isaiah 38.
4 Titles Relating to Authorship. See the diagrams on pages 14, 15.
5 Titles Describing the Occasion of the Psalm
Of such there are fourteen, all of which bear the name of David. Psalms 7, 59, 56, 34, 52, 57, 142, 54, are referred to the period of his persecution by Saul; 118, to the climax of his reign; 60, to the Syro-Ammonite war; 51, to his fall; 3 and 63, to his flight from Absalom; and 30, probably to the dedication of the site of the Temple after the great Plague (1 Chron. 21:28; 22:1).
There is much more of interest in these ancient titles and terms than is generally supposed, especially when they give a clue to their historical setting. For a most readable volume on the fifth class of titles, see Maclaren’s The Life of David as Reflected in his Psalms,
The thirty-four Psalms which have no titles are: 1, 2-10, 33, 43, 71, 91, 93-97, 99, 104-107, 111-119, 135-137, 146-150.
But even these do not leave us altogether without some indication of the occasion and circumstances which gave rise to them. Happily for us the value of the Psalter does not depend on our being able to fix the historical setting of these Poems with precision, but upon their spiritual quality and power.
V CHARACTER OF THE PSALTER
Such a collection of Songs as we have in the Psalter must necessarily be composite in character, for they are the reflection of many historical situations, the expression of every variety of experience, and the utterance of the hopes of many generations. It is because of this that people of all nations, and in all ages, have turned with interest and expectation to the Psalter, and have found therein the answer of God to their manifold need.
Volumes have been written, and might be written, on this great theme, but all that we can do here is to illustrate this quality of variety in the Psalter.
What, then, are the elements which make this Anthology of Hebrew Songs so rich a treasure? There are many, but the following six will serve to introduce the subject.
1 The Imaginative Element.
We should distinguish between imagination and fancy. Though it is not easy to define this distinction it nevertheless exists. As a rule, fancy is occupied with trivial things, but imagination with great things; the objects of the one are unreal, but of the other are real; “the fancy is busy in dreams, or when the mind is in a disordered state; but the imagination is supposed to act when the intellectual powers are in full play.” Imagination is essentially poetic, and poetry is essentially imaginative.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shape. Shakespeare
In poetry imagination is the power, it has been said, “by which the feelings and emotions of the poet’s mind express themselves in writing, and this constitutes the medium between the subjective forces within and the formal elements in which they seek to embody themselves.” Of the many instruments of poetic imagination, figurative language is one of the commonest and most powerful. By means of figures of speech the poet gives vivification and impression to the appeal which he makes to human feelings.
The importance of regarding the figurative language of the psalmists will be felt most in the matter of interpretation. To interpret literally the language of imagination, wherever found in Scripture, is to make it appear grotesque or ridiculous, but to make due allowance for poetic license is to reach the truth by one of the greatest faculties God has entrusted to us.
Things and truths are none the less real and true when they are spoken of in the language of imagination, but we must be careful to distinguish between truth poetically and dogmatically expressed.
In his monumental work on Figures of Speech, Dr. E. W. Bullinger explains and illustrates over two hundred varieties which are employed in the Scriptures. This is sufficient to show that the subject is of immense importance, and that without some understanding of it, sober interpretation must often be given up as hopeless.
That the language of the Psalms is largely figurative, will be seen from the following illustrations. Here are:
Allegory.—A description of one thing under the image or another. A good example of this is Psalm 80:8-16; where Israel is spoken of as a Vine.
Metaphor.—Comparison by representation. A figure of speech founded on resemblance, by which a word is transformed from one subject, to which it properly belongs, to another in such a manner that a comparison is implied, though not formally expressed (Psalm 84:11).
The Lord God is a Sun and Shield.
Of course what is meant is that the Lord is His people’s illumination and protection.
Simile.—Comparison by resemblance. The likening together of two things which, however different in other respects, have some strong point or points of resemblance (Psalm 1:3, 4).
He shall be like a tree.
The ungodly … are like the chaff.
Metonymy.—A figure by which one word is put for another on account of some actual relation between the things signified. Psalm 128:2.
Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands.
i.e., that which the labour of thy hands has produced.
Synecdoche.—A figure of speech by which the whole of a thing is put for a part, or a part for the whole. Psalm 52:4.
Thou lovest all devouring words,
O thou deceitful tongue.
Where “tongue” stands for the man who wickedly uses it.
Hyperbole.—Utterance is so called when more is said than is literally meant. Psalm 6:6.
All the night make I my bed to swim.
Personification.—A figure by which intelligence is attributed, by words or actions, to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. Psalm 35:10.
All my bones shall say.
Lord, who is like unto Thee?
Here are two figures, first “bones” is put for the whole person (Synecdoche), and then the “bones” are represented as speaking.
Apostrophe.—So called when inanimate things are addressed. Psalm 114:5.
What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest?
Thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back?
The Psalter abounds in such figures as these, expressive of the poet’s thought and feeling. They form not the fringe but the very web of this texture of wrought gold.
But in addition to these there is what may be called the local colouring of the Psalms. Psalm 58:4-10 is a good illustration of this. Within the compass of these few verses we have presented to us in rapid succession the images of the serpent in its natural and artificial state, a lion fight, running water, the arrow missing fire, the snail with its track of slime, the abortion, the desert camp with its preparation of the evening meal, the fire, the sudden storm, the joy of victory, the advance of the army over the corpses of the slain (Sharpe).
Sometimes, as we have seen in Psalm 80:8-16, a metaphor is worked out at length. Here the past and present of the Vine Israel are contrasted; its past productiveness and its present plight.
Imagery and similes are drawn from all quarters in the Psalter. Here are the everlasting hills, the rushing torrents, the roar of thunder, the desolating hail, the storm-tossed ocean, the sheltering rock, the fruitful fields, the fearsome valley, the hunter’s trap, the passing ship, the dazzling snow, the refreshing cup, the glowing stars, the midday sun, the passing shadow, the roaring lion, the subtle unicorn, the fleeing dove, the timid sheep, the horned unicorn, the worrying dog, the hind and the stag, the buffalo and the bull, the horse and the mule, the worm and the moth, the locust and the bee, the crocodile and the dragon, the sparrow and the eagle, the bottle in the smoke, the purified silver, the holy oil, the burning sacrifice, the sacred House, the forbidding desert, the narrow cliff, the slipping foot, the concealed pit, the shepherd’s club, the bow and arrow, the sword and spear, the tower and fortress, the shield and buckler, the wealthy mines, the withered grass, the scattered seed, the driven chaff, the olive and the vine, the prince, the slave, the razor, the crown; and scores of other facts and figures are laid under contribution by these Hebrew poets. For poetic beauty Psalm 104 is a masterpiece. Its author has been called “The Wordsworth of the ancients,” and Gray in his Elegy follows him afar off.
Only the wholly unimaginative can fail to appreciate the wealth and purpose of such imagery as this.
2 The Historical Element
The connection between history and literature is very close. Indeed, it may be said that history is the soil in which literature grows. Certain it is that without the Psalter our knowledge of the religious history of Israel, as that may be derived from the Historical Books, would be not only imperfect but misleading.
Without the Psalms much of that history would look like a black and forbidding rock, but by them it is bathed in the sunlight of religious devotion and spiritual fervour. All hymns come up out of experience, and by their spirit embody the circumstances which give rise to them. This is no less true of the Hebrew Psalms than of the hymns which are the children of the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century.
The titles attached to some of the Psalms place them historically and may safely be trusted, while others at least illustrate the religious history of Israel at different periods, and the course of God’s dealings with His people. Psalms 78, 105, 106, are outstanding for the didactic use which they make of past history, but the historical strand is woven into the texture of the whole Psalter.
The writers speak of Jerusalem and Zion, of Moab and Philistia, of Judah and Benjamin, of Zebulun and Naphtali, of Bashan and Baca, of Mizar and Hermon, of Salmon and Sinai, of Edom, and the Ishmaelites, of Gebal, of Ammon and Amalek, of Assur and Tyre, of Abraham and Lot, of Jacob and Joseph, of Moses and Aaron and David. Indeed, references to places, people, and events are sufficiently numerous in the Psalter to allow of our following in outline the history from the creation to the time of David, but significantly enough, there is “no direct mention of any event in the subsequent history until Psalm 137 refers to the captivity in Babylon.” It is also worthy of notice that the historical details which are given are found in the later Psalms and, with but few exceptions, in David’s. This is due to the literary development which took place in the age of Solomon. Without any attempt at completeness the following references will show that a historical outline, up to the time of David, can be constructed from the Psalms.
The Creation of Man 8; The Fall as a Fact51:5; 58:3; The Depraved Conditions of the Antediluvians 14:1-3; The Flood 29:10; Abraham 47:9; The Abrahamic Covenant 105:9-12, 42; Melchizedek 110:4; Isaac 105:9; Jacob 46:7; Jacob the Nation 105:10 (plural); Joseph 77:15; His Descent into Egypt 105:17; His Imprisonment 105:18; His Deliverance and Exaltation 105:20-22; The Famine in Egypt 105:16; The Descent of Jacob and his Family into Egypt 105:23, 24; Israel’s Egyptian Bondage 105:25; Their Burdensome Task 81:6; Moses and Aaron 105:26; The Plagues 78:12, 43-51; 105:28-36; The Deliverance from Egypt 81:6; The Red Sea divided 136:13 (et al.); The Passage through the Sea 78:13; 106:9; The Overthrow of Pharaoh and his Hosts 106:11; 74:13, 14; 136:15;
The Song of Moses
“As a heap” (Exod. 15:8) 78:13;
“Covered them” (Exod. 15:10) 78:53
The Wilderness Journey 68:7; The Cloudy and Fiery Pillar 78:14; Water from the Smitten Rock 78:15, 16; The Manna and Quails 78:24-29; Meribah 81:7; 95:8, 9; The Murmurings of the Israelites78:40; The Fire of Taberah 78:21; The Judgment on Korah, Dathan, and Abiram 106:16, 17, 18;The Worship of the Calf in Horeb 106:19, 20; The Intercession of Moses 106:23; The Sin of Baal-peor 106:28; The Zeal of Phinehas 106:30; The Victory over Sihon and Og 136:19, 20; The Canaan Inheritance 105:44; 136:21, 22; Israel’s Disloyalty in the Land 78:55-58; The Overthrow of Sisera and his Host 83:9; Gideon’s Victory over Midian 83:9; The Incidents relating to Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah, and Zalmunna 83:11; The Death of Eli’s sons 78:64; Samuel, the Man of Prayer 99:6; David the Shepherd chosen to be King 78:70-72
For David’s manifold experiences see the titles to Psalms 7, 118, 34, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 142, for the Sauline persecution period; Psalms 3, 51, 63, for the period of his sin and the following troubles; and for other occasions, Psalms 30, 39. To these must be added the Davidic Psalms which are not attached by their titles to events in his life.
There are other topographical and historical references in the Psalms, one of the latest being to the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, 137; these, however, may suffice to show the importance and interest of the subject.
3 The Ethical and Religious Elements
So long as God and man exist there can be no separation between religion and morality, for the one tells of man’s relation to God, and the other, of man’s relation to man, and it is these foundational relations which give to all our attitudes and actions their quality and value. The first Table of the Law treats of Religion (Exod. 20:3-11), and the Second treats of Morality (verses 12-17), and these two embrace the whole of God’s claim upon human life.
In the Psalms the highest religious and ethical consciousness of the time in which they were produced finds expression, and it is as evident in the Old Testament as in the New that morality has its roots in religion and that it is religion which occasions morality; in other words, that it is our common relation to God which determines the tightness or wrongness of our relation to one another. Scarcely less distinct in the Psalms than in the Johannine Writings is the clean-cut distinction between sin and righteousness, the wicked and the righteous. These conceptions are reflected in the fact that the words righteous and righteousness occur over 130 times in the Psalter; sin and iniquity at least 65 times; good and evil about 40 times each; while judgment and its cognates occur upwards of 100 times. These words embody great religious and ethical conceptions, and imply a standard of human conduct which is determined by a revelation of Divine character.
We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that morality is progressive, or we shall be applying New Testament standards to Old Testament conduct, with resultant confusion. Moral distinctions have not been marked with equal clearness in every age. Little by little the moral law was revealed until in Christ the perfect example was manifested. In like manner the revelation of God was progressive, so that things permitted in the Old Testament are forbidden in the New.
Confining ourselves to the Psalter, it has been said that the psalmists, especially David, exhibit a spirit of Pharisaic self-righteousness as, for example, in the words:
I was also upright before Him,
And I kept myself from mine iniquity.
Therefore hath the Lord recompensed me
According to my righteousness.
According to the cleanness of my hands in His eyesight
(Psalm 18:23, 24).
Other examples are, 7:3, 4, 8; 17:3, 15; 26:1, 11; 41:12; 59:3, 4; 64:4; 86:2; 101:2.
But such expressions as these are far removed from the sentiment expressed in Luke 18:9, for the man who makes these claims also pours out his heart to God in confession of sin, with all the self-loathing of the penitent tax-gatherer (Luke 18:13; cf. Psalms 32 and 51). A careful examination of these assertions of integrity will show that, so far from laying claim to moral perfection, the psalmist is but declaring either that the drift of his life is towards God, or that he is not guilty of specific charges which have been brought against him. A good example of this latter is Psalm 7. Cush had insinuated that David was intriguing against Saul’s life (1 Sam. 22:8), and this charge David indignantly denies (Psalm 7:3-5, 8-10). Not to have protested would have been to show a want of the sense of justice. Only in this light can the Book of Job be understood. There the friends connect immediately the patriarch’s sufferings with his sins. In his vigorous protest Job is not laying claim to holiness, but is protesting that the pains he is enduring are not the products of specific sins of his, and at the end God endorses that protest (Job 42:8). Of course, all human suffering is connected with sin, but it is not a matter of course that specific sufferings are due directly to sins of the sufferer.
In these Psalms is another illustration of the connection between religion and morality. Ceremonial observances are recognized to be a duty (66:13-15; 20:3; 43:4; 51:19), but it is also recognized that to be of any value, these sacrifices must be expressive of a penitent heart which casts itself upon the mercy of God. In some of the earliest of these Psalms the sentiment of some of the later prophets is expressed.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:
A broken and contrite heart, O God,
Thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51:17).
With this compare Isa. 1:11-17; Jer. 6:20; Micah 6:6-8; Mal. 1:10. Nothing in the teaching of the New Testament is plainer than this.
A word must be said about the so-called imprecatory Psalms, as these have proved to be a stumbling-block to many.
The first thing to do is to read carefully the passages, of which the principal are: 35:4-8; 40:14, 15; 59:11-15; 69:22-28; 109:6-19.
In considering these it will be well to recognize at once the fact that the previous dispensation was inferior to the present one, that while the Law is not contrary to the Gospel it is not equal to it, that while Christ came to fulfil the Law He came also to transcend it. We must be careful not to judge of expressions in the Psalter which savour of vindictiveness and vengeance, by the standards of the Pauline Epistles.
But regarding these imprecations on their merits, the following particulars should be borne in mind—that they are not dictated by personal thirst for revenge; that they exhibit a special abhorrence of certain forms of evil; that they are expressive of a worthy zeal for God’s cause; that they look to God as the Executor of justice; that they reveal faith in the moral government of the world; that they regard sin and punishment as being organically connected; that, in the absence of the revelation of a final judgment, they expect and call for the punishment of sin in this life and world; and that they disclose an earnest desire that the will of God should be done in the earth.
The language of the Hebrews is concrete and not abstract. Where we would speak of crime they would speak of criminals, and we, and all peoples have to be concrete in the law courts, where the sinner is identified with his sin. Allowing for the stage of revelation reached in David’s time, the essential principle and truth of the imprecatory Psalms is not wanting in the New Testament. The passion for justice is not contrary to the Gospel, and it is eternally true that “the wages of sin is death.” The form in which these ancients clothed their desire for the execution of justice “belonged to the limitations and modes of thought of their particular age,” but the desire itself is right.
The Psalms are essentially religious; they express the doubts, fears, joys, longings, gratitude, and hopes of generations of pious souls, and in so doing they reveal the heart of God’s people in all ages. They are, as Calvin said: “An anatomy of all the parts of the soul; for no one will find in himself a single feeling of which the image is not reflected in this mirror.” The religious quality of the Psalter is evident in the fact that most of the Psalms are prayers, and that also most of them were used in the Public Worship of Israel. “They are the many-toned voice of prayer in the widest sense, as the soul’s address to God in confession, petition, intercession, meditation, thanksgiving and praise, both in public and private.”
The Psalter was at once the Hebrews’ Prayer Book and Hymn Book, their Vade Mecum of devotion. The desire for God dominates these Songs, and circumstances of all kinds but give articulation to it.
I waited patiently for the Lord.
As the hart panteth after the water-brooks,
So panteth my soul after Thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for Thee:
My flesh longeth for Thee,
In a dry and thirsty land,
Where no water is.
My soul waiteth for the Lord
More than they that watch for the morning:
More than they that watch for the morning.
The sense of sin and yearning for forgiveness have never been more eloquently expressed than they are in the fifty-first Psalm; nor the soul’s deep rest and radiant hope, more eloquently than in the twenty-third.
The saints of old had no clear revelation of immortality though they believed in a future life (cf. Psalms 6:5; 30:9; 49:14; 88:4, 5, 10-12; 115:17), but now and again light breaks in upon the darkness, and doubt gives way to hope (cf. Psalms 16:10, 11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24, 25). The idea of a resurrection from the dead can be derived from these Psalms only by inference. The time had not yet come when life and immortality would be brought to light by the Gospel, but the germs of these great New Testament truths are found in the Psalms.
4 The Prophetical Element
That there is a prophetic element in the Psalter will not seriously be called into question for, indeed, as Westcott says: “A Divine counsel was wrought out in the course of the life of Israel. We are allowed to see in ‘the people of God’ signs of the purpose of God for humanity. The whole history is prophetic. It is not enough to recognize that the Old Testament contains prophecies; the Old Testament is one vast prophecy.”
We may say that the three strands which make the web of Hebrew prophecy relate to the Messiah, Israel, and the Gentiles. All three are found in the Psalter, and it must be evident that they are vitally related to one another. Messiah is the hope of the World, and Israel is the medium of the Divine revelation and mission, “the instrument for accomplishing the worldwide extension of His Kingdom.”
The time is predicted when all nations shall acknowledge Christ’s sovereignty (22:27; 65:2, 5; 66:4; 68:29-33; 86:9; 102:15, 22; 138:4). Examine carefully these and kindred passages.
That this consummation is to be reached through Israel does not need to be argued. Whatever may be one’s view of the Messianic Kingdom of the future, whether it be regarded as visible or as only spiritual, no one can question that Israel, through whom Christ came, and from whom we have received the Bible, has been chosen of God for its realization, and there is abundant evidence in the Scriptures that this race has been preserved by God for the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant (68; 88; 102:13-16; 96-98). This implies, of course, Israel’s own restoration and felicity in the future, of which Psalm 126, beyond any past fulfilment, may be regarded as a prophecy.
But behind and beneath Israelitish and Gentile prophecy is Messianic prophecy, of which the Psalter is full. We have Christ’s own warrant for looking for Him in the Psalms, for He said: “All things must be fulfilled which were written in … the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44), and on several occasions He interpreted of Himself passages in the Psalter. Compare, e.g. Psalm 118:22 with Matt. 21:42; and Psalm 110:1 with Matt. 22:42-45 (et al.) Christ’s Apostles also make this use of the Psalms: cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7 with Psalm 118:22; John 2:17 with Psalm 69:9; and Matt. 13:35 with Psalm 78:2 (et al.).
The Messianic reference in some of the Psalms must be obvious to all who read, but far more numerous are references which are not so obvious, but which the New Testament warrants us in regarding as Messianic.
These references tell of His Manhood: 8:4, 5 (Heb. 2:6-8); His Sonship, 2:7 (Heb. 1:5); 110:1 (Matt. 22:42-45); His Deity, 45:6, 11 (Heb. 1:8); His Holiness, 45:7, 89:18, 19 (Heb. 1:9); His Priesthood, 110:4 (Heb. 5:6); His Kingship, 2:6, 89:18, 19, 27 (Acts 5:31; Rev. 19:16); His Conquests, 110:5, 6 (Rev. 6:17); His Eternity, 61:6, 7, 45:17, 72:17, 102:25-27 (Heb. 1:10); His Universal Sovereignty, 72:8, 103:19 (Rev. 19:16); His Obedience, 40:6-8 (Heb. 10:5-7); His Zeal, 69:9 (John 2:17); His Sufferings, 69:9 (Rom. 15:3); His Betrayal, 41:9 (Luke 22:48); His Death, 22:1-21 (Gospels); His Resurrection, 2:7, 16:10 (Acts 13:33-36); His Ascension, 68:18 (Eph. 4:8); and His Coming again to judge, 96-98 (2 Thess. 1:7-9). These and other such references may be classified in various ways but, in the main, the Messianic prophecies tell of His Person (God and Man); of His Character (Righteous and Holy); of His Work (Death and Resurrection), and of His Offices (Priest, Judge, and King). A mine of instruction on this whole subject will be found in Bishop Alexander’s Bampton Lectures (1876), The Witness of the Psalms to Christ and Christianity.
5 The Theological Element
It must not be supposed because these Scriptures are poetical that we cannot expect to find in them any theological instruction. Revelation of God may be made in ways other than by dogmatic statement. Will any one say that the hymns of the Reformation period, and of the Evangelical Revival have no theological value because they are hymns?
At least it will be conceded that in the names of God used in the Psalter we may see dogmatic truth, for these names represent Divine qualities, attributes and attitudes. Their value here is just what it is wherever they are found in the Old Testament.
The following Table shows what Divine names occur in the Psalter, and where:
This analysis, which is based on Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, is subject to variation according to whether the A.V., or R.V. is followed, or the revision of the British Committee only, or of the American Committee only. But in any case it is clear that Books I, IV, and V are prevailingly Jehovistic: Book II, Elohistic, and Book III, about equally balanced.
Adon and Adonai mean Sovereign Lord; the latter being an emphatic form of the former.
Jehovah and Jah mean He Who Is, the Covenant God of Israel; the latter being an abbreviation of the former.
Eloah and Elohim mean “Deity sublime and adorable,” God, as such; the latter being the plural of the former.
El means the Strong Mighty One.
Elyon means the Most High, the Lofty or Supreme One.
Shaddai, probably from Shad, which means the breast, and so tells of God as the Provider of His people’s need.
Of these Divine names there are various combinations in the Psalter, El Elohim Jehovah in 50:1; Jehovah Adonai in 141:8; Adonai Jehovah in 73:28; Jehovah Elohim in 72:18; Jehovah Sabaoth in 24:10; Adonai Jehovah Sabaoth in 69:6; Elohim Sabaoth in 80:7; Jehovah Elohim Sabaoth in 69:5; Jehovah Elyon in 7:1; Elohim Elyon in 57:2; El Elyon in 78:35.
From this we shall see what a range and wealth of revelation concerning God there is in the Psalms. His names stand for His nature and they always bear an appropriate relation to their context. Viewing them together it is not difficult to construct a Psalter Theology. The psalmists firmly believed in the Personality of God. To them He was no abstraction, and very rarely do they use abstract terms when speaking of Him. Their attitude was devotional and not speculative, and their devotion was rooted in the firm belief that Jehovah was a Person, living and acting.
And their faith was equally firm concerning the Unity of God. This is rarely stated but it is everywhere assumed. Psalm 71:16, should read:
I will go in the might of Adonai Jehovah:
I will make mention of Thy righteousness:
O Thou who alone art!
And in Psalm 18:31, David rings out the challenge:
Who is Eloah beside Jehovah?
To these a third and great truth is added, that of the Eternity of God, which is set forth in matchless words in Psalm 90:1, 2, 4.
These three truths, the Personality, Unity,, and Eternity of God, are the foundation on which the Bible revelation rests, and they were and are tenaciously held by all devout Hebrews and Christians. Israel’s God is incomparable and supreme.
For who in the skies can be compared unto Jehovah?
Who is like unto Jehovah among the sons of El?
(or, of the elim).
O Jehovah Elohim Sabaoth
Who is a strong Jah like unto Thee? (Ps. 89:6, 8).
And so it follows that the God of the psalmists is Omnipresent, Omniscient, and Omnipotent (Psalm 139), and He is also Holy and Righteous.
But let us not suppose that they thought of Him only as vastly great and terribly august. On the contrary He is their Friend and Guide, the Hearer and the Answerer of their prayers, their Protector and Deliverer. This nearness and dearness of God to them is never far from their thought. Circumstances at times obscure the light of His face, but soon again do they bask in its comforting rays. In the New Testament the Old Testament doctrine of God is developed, but it is never denied. What the psalmists did see they saw aright, and but for their faith we would never have heard of them.
6 The Devotional Element
It is probably this which appeals to the vast majority who read these Songs. Most readers are wanting in either the time or the inclination to study the literary, historical, ethical, prophetical, and theological aspects of the Psalter, and yet multitudes in all ages have resorted to these ancient Poems, and have derived therefrom cheer for their tasks, strength for their burdens, courage for their battles, comfort for their sorrows, light for their journey, and hope for their ventures.
This is accounted for by the fact that there are in the Psalter universal and permanent elements, elements which appeal, not to any one race or age, but to the heart of mankind. We are all tempted in some way or another; trouble overtakes us all some time or another; we are all sometimes shaken by doubt, and stricken by disappointment; and also, we all have our great days, our times of prosperity, our seasons of ecstasy. We are all creatures of moods on which circumstances play, now lifting us up to the mountain top, and now casting us down into the valley.
These experiences are individual and universal, and it is because they are all reflected in the Psalms that “these have been, through all the centuries, and will ever continue to be the one unique and inexhaustible treasury of devotion for the individual and for the Church.”
These Psalms are intensely personal and religious in complexion. Nature scenes are described with wonderful power, as in 19, 29, 33, 65, 104; historical summaries are recorded with telling effect, as in 78, 105, 106, and national aspirations are sung with all that fervour of which the Hebrews were capable, as in 45, 47, 67, 81; but the note that dominates the Psalter is the personal; here are the sighs and the songs of the soul to God;, here ascend the prayers and praises of individuals who represent infinitely varied experiences.
In some instances Psalms which were used in the Temple worship were not originally written for it, but were later adapted for that purpose. “The object of the compilers of the Psalter would seem to have been by no means simply liturgical, but partly to unite and preserve existing collections of religious poetry, partly to provide a book of religious devotion, public and private.”
The soul’s feelings of trust and hope and love find classic embodiment in such Psalms as 23, 42, 43, 63, 84, which are the inspired response of the human heart to God’s revelation of Himself. Though these Songs were written for distant generations and in circumstances which can scarcely arise in our modern world, yet they appeal to the experiences of all ages, and fit into the circumstances of all mankind; and after thirty centuries are as living to-day as when they were first written.
Men of every school of thought have felt and spoken of the Psalms in this way. Not only were they sung by the Jews in pre-Christian times but, as the quotations from and allusions to them in the New Testament show, they were a cherished heritage, the “Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs” in which the first Christians spoke to themselves (Eph. 5:19). James commends this practice (5:13) and, no doubt, Paul and Silas acted upon it in the Philippian gaol. It would seem that antiphonal singing of the Psalms was practised in the second century of our era, and Jerome, writing to Marcella, tells her that these Psalms were universally sung. “Wherever you turn, the labourer at the plough sings Allelujah; the toiling reaper beguiles his work with Psalms; the vine-dresser, as he prunes the vine with his curved pruning-hook, sings something of David’s. These are the songs of this province (the Holy Land); these, to use the common phrase, are its love-ditties; these the shepherd whistles; these are the labourer’s implements.” Nor was it otherwise in the fourth century, as we learn from Augustine and Chrysostom. Later still we find the Psalms wrought into the liturgical schemes of the Western and Eastern Churches. Athanasius says: “They seem to me to be a kind of mirror for every one who sings them, in which he may observe the motions of the soul.” Basil says that the Psalter “is a common store-house of good doctrines, providing exactly what is expedient for every one.” Luther says that in the Psalms “the Scriptures are collected into a beautiful manual of wonderful and attractive brevity”; and here, says Calvin, “the Holy Spirit has represented to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, anxieties, in short, all the stormy emotions by which human minds are wont to be agitated.” Hooker says: “The choice and flower of all things profitable in other books the Psalms do more briefly contain, and more movingly also express by reason of that poetical form wherewith they are written. What is there necessary for man to know which the Psalms are not able to teach?” Church says: “They suit the needs, they express, as nothing else can express, the deepest religious ideas of ‘the foremost in the files of time'”; and Stanley, with his usual eloquence, says: “The Psalter alone by its manifold applications and uses in after times, is a vast palimpsest, written over and over again, illuminated by every conceivable incident and emotion of men and nations; battles, wanderings, dangers, escapes, deathbeds, obsequies, of many ages and countries, rise or may rise to our view as we read it.”
This is the Temple we now are to enter, and we should do so with obedient and worshipful hearts.
VI A READING SCHEME
There are many ways in which the Psalms may be read so often in a year—as indeed they should be—and the following Table may serve as a basic plan. The scale is one month.
You will observe that the plan provides for the reading of five Psalms a day. That there may be no confusion as to which Psalms fall on any given date, the first of the five corresponds to the date, and each of the other four is found by adding thirty (a month), which makes the unit the same throughout. Thus the unit of every Psalm on the 4th, 14th, and 24th of any month is four, and the other figure is obtained by adding thirty each day, thus: 4th day, Psalms 4, + 30, 34; 4 – 30, 64; + 30, 94; + 30, 124. If it be felt that Psalm 119 is too long for one day, with four other Psalms, it may be distributed over the last twenty-two days of the month, a section of eight verses each day, beginning on the ninth of the month.
In this way the reader in course of time will readily recall what each Psalm is about, and also will be able without difficulty to classify the Psalms.
VII A SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
The following Works are confidently recommended to the general reader for their practical usefulness.
“The Book of Psalms” A. F. Kirkpatrick
In one volume (1903). This has a fine Introduction to the Psalter, the Authorized Version Text, and over 850 pp. of Notes.
“The Book of Psalms” J. J. Stewart Perowne
Two volumes. Explanatory and Critical. Full of light and help.
“The Book of Psalms” Alexander Maclaren
The Expositor’s Bible. Three volumes. A new translation, and expositions characterized by the felicity and beauty of expression for which we look in all the works of this writer.
“The Student’s Handbook to the Psalms” J. Sharpe
A mine of information.
“The Treasury of David” C. H. Spurgeon
Seven volumes. A library in itself. Spurgeon is inimitable, and these volumes reveal him at his best. Specially valuable for quotations from old authors. Commended alike for soul and service.
“The Praises of Israel” W. T. Davison
An Introduction to the Psalter, scholarly and devout.
“Studies in the Psalms” J. B. Rotherham
The literary form of the Text is the outstanding feature of this volume. The expositions exhibit much spiritual and critical insight.
“Studies in the CL. Psalms” A. R. Fausset
Theological Library, Vol. V. Showing the undesigned coincidences of the Psalms with the independent Scripture histories, confirming and illustrating both. A valuable volume.
“The Psalms” W. Kay
Critical and Exegetical. Brief but pregnant.
“The Witness of the Psalms to Christ and Christianity” William Alexander
Eight Bampton Lectures (1876). A specialized study of immense importance and value.
“The Titles of the Psalms” J. W. Thirtle
An original work which no student of the Psalter can afford to neglect.
Title: Two Portraits
1 Blessed is the Man
That walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor standeth in the way of sinners,
Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord;
And in His law doth he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
That bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
His leaf also shall not wither;
And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
4 The Ungodly are not so:
But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
6 For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous:
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.
The first two Psalms, which are anonymous, provide an introduction to the whole Psalter, the Hymn Book of the Hebrews. The first treats of the Law, and the second, of Prophecy, and these are the foci around which the whole of the Old Testament moves as in an ellipse. That both Psalms are from the same hand seems to be indicated by the occurrence in each of certain words such as “blessed” (1:1; 2:12), and “meditate” (1:2; 2:1), and “perish” (1:6; 2:12).
The problem of the sufferings of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked belongs to every age. In the Psalter it occupies a prominent place, but the Hebrews firmly believed in Jehovah’s righteous government of the world, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary. The righteous are blessed and the wicked are cursed; that is the plain fact, and that is the subject of this Psalm. The Tree and the Chaff would be a good title. Think about that.
The Poem is in two parts: 1, The Godly Man (1-3). He is described first negatively (1), then positively (2), and then consequently (3). The whole is covered by the introductory word, “Oh the blessednesses of the man that—” This word “blessednesses” is not found in the singular in the Hebrew because there is no such thing as a single blessing; wherever there is one there is another. Observe then that there are three things the godly man will not do (1). Mark carefully the triple triplets:
They denote successive steps in a career of evil, and each category moves towards a climax. There is a negative side to goodness.
But there is also a positive (2). The secret of a life that is acceptable to God is (a) delight, (b) meditation, and (c) continuance in the “law of the Lord.” The true Christian is a Bible Christian. And such an one will be characterized by Vitality, “a tree”; Security, “planted”; Capacity, “by the runnels of water”; Fertility, “that bringeth forth its fruit”; Propriety, “in its season”; Perpetuity, “its leaf also shall not wither”; Prosperity, “and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” Is this a portrait of you? It is of your Master.
In part two the picture is reversed (4-6). It begins with, “Not so are the Ungodly”; and that is the worst that can be said about them. They are not trees, but chaff. The one defies the storm, but the other is driven before it. He who stands in the way of sinners (1) shall not stand in the judgment (5). There are only the Two Ways and the Two Ends (6). To which do you belong? Read Matthew 7:13-27.
By supplying the ellipsis in verse 6 it will read:
The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous,
Therefore it shall abide;
But the way of the ungodly shall perish,
For the Lord knoweth it not.
How terrible a thing it must be to perish!
Thought: The ultimates are black and white
What Jerome saith on St. Paul’s epistles, the same may I say of this Psalm; it is short as to its size, but full of length and strength as to its matter. This Psalm carries blessedness in the frontispiece; it begins where we all hope to end: it may well be called a Christian’s Guide, for it discovers the quicksands where the wicked sink down in perdition, and firm ground on which the saints tread to glory.
Title: God’s King
1 Why do the heathen rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord, and against His Anointed,
3 “Let us break their bands asunder,
And cast away their cords from us.”
4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh:
The Lord shall have them in derision.
5 Then shall He speak unto them in His wrath,
And vex them in His sore displeasure.
6 “Yet have I set My King
Upon My holy hill of Zion.”
7 I will declare the decree:
The Lord hath said unto Me,
“Thou art My Son;
This day have I begotten Thee.
8 Ask of Me,
And I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance,
And the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.
9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potters vessel.”
10 Be wise now therefore, O ye kings:
Be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
And rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son, lest He be angry,
And ye perish from the way,
When His wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.
Psalm 1 called attention to the Law (2); this one directs our thought to Prophecy, and these are the two ruling notes of the Old Testament (Luke 16:16). Psalm 1 began on the word “blessed” (1); this one ends on it (12). In Psalm 1 there is right “meditation” (2); but here, wrong “meditation” (1, margin). This marvellous poem is in four stanzas; and it is dramatic in form.
1 The World-wide Rebellion (1-3). Observe the wild commotion of the many (1) and of the mighty (2a); the outward tumult and the inward cause (1); the array of the kings, and the plot of the rulers (2a). Also, the object of their enmity, Jehovah and His Messiah (2b): and, their daring proposal (3), to snap the bands of divine restraint and to fling away the cords of the yoke. That is a picture of the world to-day; and it will bring down—
2 The Divine Indignation (4-6). Mark here God’s laughter of derision (4), His utterance of displeasure (5), and His act of disclosure (6). “Laugh—derision—wrath—displeasure!” What terrible ideas these words hold! Whatever you do, don’t have God against you; and if God be for us, what matters it who is against us? Now follows:
3 The Great Declaration (7-9). It is about God’s Messianic King. He is divinely attested (7). The “begetting” here does not refer to His birth, but to His resurrection (Acts 13:33): mark that. His dominion is to be universal (8). Compare “the uttermost parts of the earth” with Acts 1:8. The gift is in response to request—“ask.” Then there is Messiah’s victorious rule (9). He possesses by conquest. This, therefore, cannot refer to the evangelization of the heathen to-day. Subjugation to-day is not by breaking and dashing; but it will be some day. Now, finally—
4 The Solemn Exhortation (10-12). Be wise, be instructed, serve, rejoice, kiss, trust. Dread that “lest” (12). God’s King (6) is His Son (12). It is better that you should “kiss” Him than that God should “laugh” (4) at you. Yet kiss Him not as did Judas.
Thought: It is better to bend than to be broken
Verse 10 was the remonstrance addressed to Henry VIII by John Lambert who was burned at Smithfield in 1538. Lambert’s martyrdom was one of the most cruel of that time and the oft quoted words came from him as he lifted his fingers flaming with fire, “None but Christ, none but Christ.”
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
Title: God My Help
1 Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.
2 Many there be that say of my soul,
“There is no help for him in God.” Selah.
3 But Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me;
My glory, and the lifter up of mine head.
4 I cried unto the Lord with my voice,
And He heard me out of His holy hill. Selah.
5 I laid me down and slept;
I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
6 I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people,
That have set themselves against me round about.
7 Arise, O Lord;
Save me, O my God:
For Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone;
Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.
8 Salvation belongeth unto the Lord:
Thy blessing is upon Thy people. Selah.
For the chief musician
On stringed instruments.
A careful reading of Psalms 3 and 4 will show that they are closely related in structure, circumstances, and time. In each are four stanzas; each reflects a time of great danger, and that danger appears to be one and the same in both Psalms. The titles, which are very ancient, ascribe both to David; and there is no ground for doubting the historical note at the top of Psalm 3, which connects it with Absalom’s rebellion. Read 2 Samuel 15-18. Psalm 3 is a morning hymn (5), and Psalm 4 an evening hymn (8). Both tell of the faith of God’s Anointed when the Kingdom was opposed, not from without (Psa. 2), but from within.
In this Psalm each stanza, except the third, ends with Selah, which means—pause, think. The writer’s distress is set forth in verses 1,2. The wave which threatens to overwhelm him is growing in volume and momentum; his cause is pronounced hopeless. Have you ever felt like that? Yet, his trust in God remains unshaken (3,4). He seemed to be exposed to the darts of false friends, but the Lord was his “shield”; he appeared to be plunged in gloom, but the Lord was his “glory”; men had cast him down, but the Lord would “lift him up” (3).
The writer derives comfort from past experience. It had been his habit to pray, and the Lord had always answered him (4). Selah. But his present experience also, justified his confidence (5). He is speaking of the morning after a night of refreshing sleep—not in bed! but out in the open and beneath the stars, hunted by foes! It is not the sleep of exhaustion, but of trust in God, Who sustains him all the time (Heb.). Numbers are not everything (6). Absalom had the crowd, but David had God, and one with God is a majority.
David ends with prayer, first for himself (7), and then for the nation (8). Many had risen against him (1): so he asks the Lord to arise for him. He makes his expectation to rest on his experience (7b): what God had done, He could and would do. First he says, “Save me” (7), then, “save them” (8). Let us pray.
Thought: Restful among foes
Dean Alford wrote in his Journal for New Year’s Day. 1871:
“I preached on Psalm 3:5, and 4:8. Evening and morning thanksgiving. God only knows whether I shall survive this year. I sometimes think my health is giving way, but His will be done.”
Twelve days later the Dean passed away at the age of sixty-one: but after two generations his Greek New Testament is still a mine of wealth.
[i] For evidence of the existence of such songs see Isa. 5:1, 2; 16:10, 11; Jer. 48:33; Amos 6:5; Judges 9:8ff; 1 Kings 4:32; and probably in the books referred to in Num. 21:14, 15; Josh. 10:12, 13.
For fragments of secular poetry see Gen. 4:23, 24; Numbers 21:17, 18, 27-30] Judges 15:16; 1 Sam. 18:7; 2 Sam. 1:19-27; 3:33-34.