My motivation for beginning the writing of this series is simple. I have preached on a handful of psalms over the years, as any preacher ends up doing, and I am often challenged by the history of the church and the testimony of believers as to how encouraging and comforting the book of Psalms was. I have also been lively engaged by the tradition of the Free Church and its practice and theology of singing the Psalms, and only the Psalms, during worship. Although I ultimately disagree with a Psalms-only approach to church worship practice, I have benefited greatly by such dialogue. And yet, I have never found the Psalms ‘easy’, or that they spoke very quickly or directly to me.
That so, I set myself to not only read the Psalms regularly and devotionally, but to spend a full 3 years, taking a psalm a week, to really spend time with. To do some exegetical work, some hermeneutical reflection, and to make some notes.
To begin, I want to help you understand the framework I’m coming from. Psalms are a peculiar book, and a number of factors shape my reading.
Psalms are both God’s inspired Word to us, and they are our words to God. Indeed, they are God’s Word given to us to speak back to God. They are the expression of faith and worship in the Old Covenant, but they remain so for New Covenant believers. They are fundamentally the Psalms of the King, and the King is the leader of God’s People. In the structure of the Canon, Psalms point us to Christ, both prophetically, themetically, and typologically. Only as we understand Psalms as the Psalms of Jesus can we begin to understand what the Psalms might mean for us as New Covenant believers.
That is a highly condensed summary of my theological basis for reading Psalms. To expand:
Psalms are the inspired Word of God. Like the rest of the Scriptures, they communicate God’s revelation of himself to us. They are written through human authors and agency, but God is their ultimate author. As such, when we read a Psalm, we are hearing God reveal to us himself, ourselves, and his divine plan of salvation.
Psalms are God’s Word given to us to speak back to Him. Unlike other books of the Bible, the Psalms are primarily addressed to God. And so they are human words directed to God. This dual direction of God’s revelation to us but also our relation to him give the Psalms a rather unique aspect of revelation. As we understand the Psalms, we understand how God wants us to speak and relate to him. This is not exhaustive, nor is it unconditioned by the historical context of the Psalms, but it is real and relevant and we ought to take heed.
Psalms function within the Old Testament canon as both prayer and song book for believers. This means that if we are to understand the life and worship of those under the Mosaic covenant, we ought to apply ourselves to understanding Psalms. It also means some of what Psalms expresses is not directly convertible to our situation. We will need to think first about how the Mosaic Law finds its fulfilment in Christ, in order to see how parts of the Psalms apply to us as those under the new covenant in Christ.
I have been convinced, primarily by Michael Lefebvre, that the whole of the book of Psalms belongs in a sense to the King of Israel. That he exists as the author, direct or delegated, of the psalms, and that as such the psalms are the book of the King, and that King is the Worship Leader of Israel.
The Psalms are the Psalms of Jesus. As the ultimate King of Israel, and the center of the Bible’s story of redemption, all Scripture is about Jesus, and the Psalms are no exception. The Psalms speak of Christ prophetically, thematically, and typologically. If we have not understood how a Psalm leads us to Jesus, I don’t think we’ve understood the Psalm as Christian readers.
Finally, we are believers in Christ, and so it is that Christocentric reading that allows us, makes possible for us, an application that is genuinely applicable, not a wrenching out of context, not a moral lesson, not a platitude of poetry, and not an Old Testament application, but a genuine meaning for the Christian believer in the here and now.