We are currently going over steps to form a better understanding of the Bible, the central text of the Christian faith. Last week I wanted us to learn some tips for reading the Gospel accounts and this week we’ll focus on some tips for reading the Psalms well.
C.S. Lewis the eminent author once described the nature of the Bible’s Psalms in this way “The psalms arose from a nation of farmers The delight that the psalmist express in nature is “a delight which is both utilitarian and poetic. Unlike pagan nature poetry, which populates every local stream and hill with a deity, the psalmists’ doctrine of creation in one sense empties Nature of divinity. Because of their doctrine of creation the psalmists’ gusto extends to forces of nature that are either indifferent or actively hostile to people” C.S. Lewis brings about the theological importance of the Psalms while pastor R.C. Sproul brings out the experiential nature of the Psalms when he says “Whenever I read the psalms, I feel like I am eavesdropping on a saint having a personal conversation with God.”
So lets take a look at four important things to remember while reading the Psalms.
First: Psalms are songs of prayer and praise. The community of God has always made songs to express themselves to God. When you read the Psalms you are reading the lyrics to songs sang by professional singers to help aid the community in their worship. When you read through the Bible’s book of psalms you are reading The Hymn Book of the Bible.
Second: Psalms are poetry. A third of the Bible is Poetry. When you read poetry it’s important to think in images. When you read the Psalms you will find dramatic imagery.
Psalm 19 for examples says
The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
Psalm 78:65 paints some shocking imagery in the mind of the reader.
Then the Lord rose up as though waking from sleep,
like a warrior aroused from a drunken stupor.
When you read a Psalm you will find repetition. This is commonly called parallelism. There are several different kinds of parallelism in the Psalms but perhaps the most common can be found in Psalm 61:1
‘Hear my crying, O God: Give ear unto my prayer’
In this type the psalmist will say the same thing in different ways for effect.
While reading the Psalms you are entering a world where figurative language thrives. Psalm 23:2 “He leads me beside still waters”; Psalm 23:1 “The Lord is my shepherd”; Psalm 103:13 “the Lord is like a Father to His children”; Psalm 91:13 “You will trample upon lions”. Within the Psalms as I have shown in the afore mentioned examples images, metaphor, simile and over exaggeration for the sake of a point are very common ways to communicate through writing to the people of God. When you are interpreting the psalms its important to figure out how for example the figurative language in Psalm 1:3 is inviting you to explorer the ways in which God followers are “like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do. “ If you have ever sang Luther’s song “A mighty Fortress is our God” hopefully you do not imagine that God is literally some kind of living castle.
Third: There are different kinds of Psalms. Though there are other categories or classifications of Psalms the major ones are as follows.
1. Lament or complaint Psalms (examples 10, 35, 38, 51, 64, 74 and 77); 2 Praise Psalms (examples 23, 46, 91); 3. Worship or praise Psalms (examples 84, 27, 48, 139); 4. Nature Poem Psalms (example 8, 19, 29, 104, 148) 5.Messianic or Jesus psalms (example 2, 8, 16, 22, 23, 24, 40, 49, 72, 87, 102, 110, 118) Each of these categories have different structures, styles, purposes and occasions. See if you can spot the differences in structure etc.
Fourth: Psalms have a formal structure. Many Psalms have very deliberate structures to them. Lets take a look at psalm 46 for example. Take a moment to read Psalm 46 in your Bible. It’s a short Psalm. Now take a look at the Psalms structural pattern below in order to find the meaning.
A. God is our refuge (verse 1)
B. Don’t Fear (verse 2)
C. God is ruler over nature its destructive power (verse 3-4)
D. God is present (verse 5)
E. Nations Rage (verse 6a)
E. God Speaks and is in control (verse 6b)
D. God is here (verse 7)
C. God rules over politically destructive powers (8-9)
B. Be still (verse 10)
A. God is our refuge (verse 11)
Notice how the climax, meaning or main point of the Psalm is not at the end? It is in the middle “bookended” by verse one and verse eleven. The type of organizational structure observed above is called a Chiasm or crossing. Think “x marks the spot” or “the meaning is in the middle”. When searching for the point of the passages look for where the Psalm or saying intersects. John F. Kenedy used one of these structures when he said “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country“.
A. Your country
B. can do for You
B. You can do for
A. Your country
When Interpreting the point of Psalm 46 and John F Kennedy we can easily find that the main point is not at the end but the center of the saying. Some Psalms have several of these in them. Some Psalms like 46 the whole Psalm is a Chiasm. See how verse 1 and verse 11 “bookend” the Psalm? This is a clue that you should look for the intersection. Or find the center of the x. Remember x marks the spot. So the meaning of Psalm 46 is found in verse 6. The Psalmist is saying that though the nations rage and everything is in Chaos, God is still on His throne and still in control!
I love the Psalms. I hope you will read through some of your favorite Psalms anew with some of these tips. I hope you will find and learn from the very personal conversations between man and God in the Psalms.
Here are two great articles on Chiasms.