Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Should We Read the Psalms as Christians?

There are two principal ways we can and ought to read the Psalms as Christians. 

Firstly, we read the Psalms as the prayers and praises of the people of God, addressed to God. They can both speak to us and for us. We can identify with so many of the Psalms as the psalmists speak to God out of a wide range of human experiences. The Psalms both instruct us in our relationship with God and can be used to express that relationship as we pray and sing them.

This approach is the most basic and familiar way we read the psalms as Christians. It is valid and essential, but it is helpful to clarify a couple of points. Firstly, we must not read the Psalms too individualistically. Yes, I can read the Psalms as shaping and expressing my personal relationship with God – but we must be careful not to overemphasise that aspect, because more basic is the communal nature of the Psalter. The very fact that they are grouped together in a collection for use by the people of God attests to that. Secondly, the Psalms should not be read as some kind of general spirituality, as if expressing people’s general religious experience or searching for God. On the one hand, the Psalms are human words addressed to God that are simultaneously God’s Word addressed to humanity. On the other, we need to read the Psalms Christianly, which means christologically, which is our next point.

Secondly, then, we read the Psalms as speaking about the Christ and being fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. It cannot be escaped that many times in the New Testament, the Psalms are interpreted as being about Jesus Christ. There are many specific texts within the Psalms that are fulfilled in Jesus. But reading the Psalms christologically actually works at a deeper level than just considering the specific verses that the NT authors cite.

To start with, there is the overwhelming stamp of David on the Psalms. He is named in the inscriptions 73 times. 13 of those refer to specific events in David’s life. There is a Davidic flavour to the Psalter, which necessarily means that there is a Christological flavour to the psalms, since David is the Christ, he is the anointed king who – in contrast to Saul, and also the later kings – is the paradigmatic king, the king par excellence that God has appointed for his people. However, we need to immediately qualify that last sentence because it is only half-true, for David is flawed (cf. Psalm 51, for instance), he is the starting paradigm for the kind of saviour-king God’s people needs, but a partial, flawed fulfilment of that. What this means is that the Davidic flavour to the Psalms creates a paradigm that needs one greater than David to fulfil. Thus, for example, we find descriptions of ‘the Christ’ which go far beyond anything that we see in David, Solomon or any of the later kings. (e.g. Psalm 2)

A second consideration is in part the result of scholarly studies since Geoffrey Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (1985) which have paid close attention to the shape of the Psalms as a whole book: the structure of the book in 5 books, the general movement that can be detected from lament to praise, the role of the “psalms at the seams” – those at the beginning and ending of the 5 books, etc. John Woodhouse suggests that the theme of David & kingship develops in the 5 books in the following way:

Book 1 (Psalms 1-41)      focus on David, often in trouble from enemies, sometimes rescued from enemies

Book 2 (Psalms 42-72)    David more in background, although lots of Psalms related to David’s life. Ends with David’s prayer for Solomon (72)

Book 3 (Psalms 73-89)    troubles of Israel, psalm 89 promise to David elaborated but not fulfilled . the exact opposite of Psalm 2

Book 4 (Psalms 90-106)  kingship of God celebrated; ends with remembering history of Israel (105, 106)

Book 5 (Psalms 107-150) a return to Davidic psalms; psalm 144 David is king, psalm 145, the Lord is king, conclusion of praise (146-150)

What this suggests is that a key question within the book of Psalms as a whole is precisely the problem of the Christ – the need that God’s people has for God’s King to rule them. This means that the book of Psalms is eschatological, it looks forward to the person who will fulfil that Christ-role.

Since David is so prominent in the Psalms and since he is more than a particularly pious Israelite – he is the Lord’s anointed – we are invited to read the Psalms not firstly from the vantage point of a pious Israelite (or Christian) but from the vantage point of the Lord’s anointed.

This means, for example, that we should be attentive to how the whole book of Psalms is focussed on Christ, not just the obvious psalms that are quoted in the NT. We should read laments such as Psalm 3-7 and ask what paradigm do these psalms set for the life and work of the Christ? Before jumping too quickly to how it relates to my own experience.

The key Christian question, then, in relation to reading the Psalms is to ask, before we ask “what does this say about my/our experience ?”, “what does this say about the Christ’s experience – fulfilled in Jesus?” In fact, asking the Christological question first will enable us to ask the other question (my/our experience) in a better, more fruitful way. When we use the Psalms to shape and express our own faith, prayers and praise, we will be doing so in a profoundly Christ-shaped way; I will be able to relate my struggles to Asaph or David’s struggles through Christ.

Note. Resources which I have found helpful in reflecting on the Psalms: (* = particularly so)
 Ernest Lucas Exploring the Old Testament Volume Three: The Psalms and Wisdom Literature (IVP, 2003)
*Philip S. Johnston and David G. Firth Interpreting the Psalms (Apollos, 2005)
*John Woodhouse The Psalms, David and the Christ (mp3s from The Proclamation Trust)
Gordon Wenham Reading the Psalms (mp3s from Southern Baptist Seminary)

(this post was originally an assignment for the northern training institute)

1 comment:

Cynthia Mathai said...

Came across your blog after a struggle with insomnia this evening. What a pleasant surprise! I was trying to siphon sleep by reading some research done on reading the Psalms eschatologically (my current Seminary class discussion) and your post is a hearty "Amen" to the conversation we were having and my own discoveries as I scour the pages of Scripture.
I think that recognizing the christology of the Psalms gives this collection of poetry meaning that I had previously never rendered to the book. It's deepening my awe of Messiah and the way He breathed out Scripture. I am astounded by how much He desires to make Himself known to us.