The Meaning of Psalms

It’s old hat to observe five divisions in the book of Psalms. A rather shabby assessment is that these five books in Psalms match the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Makes sense. Five books in Psalms and Five Books in Moses. But what does it mean? Does it simply mean that the Psalms look back to the Torah? They do. Psalm 1 extols the virtue of a believer mediating on it. But is this really what’s going on?

Another possibility exists. The five books of the Psalms (1–41, 42–72, 73–89, 90–106, 107–150) could make up the story of Israel’s kingdom, exile, and hope for a future messiah.  Books 1–3 highlight the rise (Ps 2) and fall of David’s empire and the captivity of Israel (Ps 89). Book 4 (90–106) looks back to this exile by reminding Israel “by pointing back to Moses, celebrating the fact that Yahweh reigns, remembering David’s path through affliction to exaltation, and recalling Yahweh’s past faithfulness to Israel” (Hamilton: 2010, 278).

Pulling down the new cap on your head means you might say that “The Psalms, then, recount the history of Israel from David to the exile, and then they look beyond the exile to the new David who will arise and lead the people back o the land” (Hamilton: 2010, 279).

You walk into your room and on the coat rack hangs two hats. The first well-worn, reliable but dark stains remind of shadows, while dust lines its edges. The other hat, new, clean and crisp, has the look of reality about it. The devil is in the choosing.

9 thoughts on “The Meaning of Psalms

  1. I’ve never looked into the issue, but I’m wondering; why take the order of the Psalms as inspired? How do we know that weren’t just organized into groups of similar works later on, like the canon?

  2. Hey Kyle,

    That’s a good question. And I’d have to think about it more. However, the way I picture it is this. While the books of the OT were organized thematically (Jewish Canon) or chronologically (Christian Canon), they still contain a coherent story. I mean, in whatever order you read, you can still trace a historical-redemptive story arc through Scripture.

    Now, the Psalms may have been individual songs for different times and occasions, yet they contain a coherent story. In this case, the story of David’s kingdom, kings, exile and hope. The editors would then just put it together according to its inherent story.

    • I totally agree. I’m mostly interested in how we should use the order of the Psalms in the study of both individual Psalms and determining the message of the book as a whole. If the order is inspired by God then grouping the Psalms into books, etc. may help us to recognize how each Psalm fits into the overall picture. If they were compiled by a fallible editor then we may be forcing certain Psalms into a mold that they were not meant to fit. It’s more a question of if we should study the Psalms as a flowing story from 1-150 or should we study them as individual Psalms and then try to determine how the whole fits together? I know this is a difficult question and I definitely don’t have the answer. I just thought I’d ask since it’s something that bugs me every once in a while and your post brought it up again 🙂

      • Hmm… good point.

        My response at this point is this: we believe that interpretors will over time understand the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit. In other words, while Melito of Sardis may have understand justification by grace through faith his formulation of it may not have been exacting. But a couple hundred years later Augustine re-worded the teaching of justification to be of grace through faith. So time + people + the Spirit often grows and deepens our understanding of God’s word. In the same way, over time with right people and God’s Spirit overseeing it, I think we can trust editors arranged the Psalter according to its own logic.

        If the Psalter originally contained 150 Psalms that were recognized to be inspired, in say, 500 B.C., then perhaps over the next 200 years interpretors organized and thought through the Psalter. I mean, you have people like Ezra who knew the Scriptures inside and out. He and others after might have organized the Psalter.

        Of course, by the time Jesus appears, the Old Testament Canon was basically set (except perhaps Daniel and Lamentations). When he says not a jot nor tittle will pass away from the Law and Prophets (synecdoche for Scripture), he seems indicate that form it is in THEN, is authoritative. Weak. I know. But the point remains, when Jesus explained himself from the Psalms (Luke 24), it was from the Psalms in the order they are presently in. Thus, he doesn’t seem to indicate their order is incorrect or unhelpful. Perhaps he explained himself from the Psalms through the internal history it portrays.

        And even if all of this is wrong, and reading the Psalter historically-redemptively is crazy, the Psalter still contains Psalms that cover the period of Davids’ monarchy to the Exile, with varying themes and hopes. The Davidic Psalms still point to hope in the continuing Monarchy, while the Exilic Psalms look forward to another king like David.

        My two cents.

  3. Great post Wyatt, I have been taking a Psalms class this semester and the question has constantly been on my mind! Any recommendations for further reading?

    • Jordan! Thanks for stopping by.

      Probably the best thing to read on this is John Walton’s article, “A Cantata about the Davidic Covenant” JETS 34 (1991). If you have some big bucks or a good library, I’d read Wilson on “The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter.” Both these will pay dividends in gaining insight into the Psalter.

      Tell me about your psalms class? Is it good?

      • Thanks for the resources. Thankfully, the Ambrose library is amazing awesome (and just down the street!) and they have it.

        Overall the class has been super helpful with Hebrew. The prof walked us through how to use BHS and really demystified the textual critical notes. We get worksheets with about 30 question and have to translate the psalms while answering the questions. The question are helpful determing the kind of question to be asking when exegeting a text. I even feel more confident using the grammars.
        I don’t feel I know a lot more about the psalms or gained a lot of amazing theological insights, but I feel my ability to read Hebrew (especially the psalter) has grown by leaps and bounds. So overall a very worthwhile class.

        Was this blog the result of a paper for class?

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