In 2011, I wrote a short series on selected Psalms for Disciple Magazine. A few of these are now showing back up here with slight updates.
My goal in writing and teaching on Scripture is usually explore it expositionally with an eye toward application. That is, opening the Bible, and seeing what the text in its context has to say about our belief and practice as Christians. This is in contrast to what I’ll call exploring the Word prescriptively—approaching selected texts in answer to a question or problem. Both expositional and topical Bible studies can be valuable in shaping our understanding the Word, but I try to stick to exposition to keep myself grounded.
Expositing the Psalms is not as clear-cut as studying the more logically structured, largely straightforward style of a New Testament epistle or a book of history. This is a book of songs and poetry meant to stir the people of God to worship and contemplation of the Lord and His Law, not necessarily of narrative or instruction. It does not lend itself easily to a verse-by-verse study; in fact, to break it down that far often distracts from the important themes and imagery the Psalmists develop through poetic structure and musical cadence.
These difficulties, however, should not discourage us from studying the Psalms. Rather, they should draw us in and guide our approach to the book. Here are a few suggested “ground rules” for interpreting and applying these hymns of worship.
1) Psalms are lyrical, not always literal. This does not mean that the poetry here is somehow exempt from inerrancy, but that it is filled with word pictures and illustrations that should be read as such. Over-analyzing the wording in a metaphor (instead of its message) misses its power to move us to worship and repentance, and will almost certainly lead to an interpretation that ventures far afield from what the author intended.
2) Most Psalms focus primarily on God’s character and our response to Him. In short, they’re about worship. When we approach the Psalms for insights into God’s character, man’s sinfulness, and what a repentant and righteous heart looks like, we find a treasure-trove. Specific commands, specific behaviors, specific prophecies, and specific history, though present, make up far less of the content here. They are more often implied and alluded to than explicitly stated.
3) Psalms (like all Scripture) need to be studied in context. To read the Psalms without ever having read the history of Creation, the people of Israel, and their covenantal relationship with God (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament) will breed confusion and frustration. Sometimes, even specific Psalms cannot be fully understood without a background of their specific history (such as Ps. 51 in light of the narrative of 2 Sam. 11-12). Even though they are rooted in the old sacrificial system and a world before Christ, the Psalms teach us about the unchanging character of God. There is a reason He has preserved them for us today, and the truths He reveals through these songs are not for one time and one people only.
With any look at Psalms, it is a good idea to start with Psalm 1, not just because it comes first but because it lays a spiritual and thematic foundation for the rest of the book. It praises the Lord, gives His Word supremacy in dictating the ways of men, and differentiates between the righteous and the wicked along the lines of how one views and responds to God and His Word (rather than any other cultural—Jew vs. Gentile—distinctions). Additionally, it is one of only two with no heading describing its author, purpose, or circumstance of writing (the other is Psalm 2, which in Acts 4:25-26 is attributed to David), so it seems intended as a preface or introduction to the rest.
“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” (Ps. 1:1). Right from the start, this psalm ascribes blessing to the one who steers clear of the lifestyles of those who reject God. The threefold description of the ungodly here seems to be making some distinctions between their characteristics, and the pattern often resurfaces in other Psalms. The “wicked” are those who live apart from God and have nothing to do with him, living as they please. The “sinners” are those who choose to disobey God’s teaching—the implication is that they know something of God’s Law but still refuse to obey. The “scoffers” are those who (like the “fool” of Proverbs) reject learning and studying the Word of God and live in sinful ignorance. The blessed man rejects all manner of disobedience to God.
“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). In addition to the negative description of the blessed man (one who rejects disobedience), there is an important positive categorization. This man takes delight in God’s Word—he does not study and meditate from a sense of duty or fear of punishment but from the pleasure that seeking and obeying the Lord brings. It is through his love and enjoyment of the Word that he devours it, meditating constantly.
It seems that this attitude and behavior is not just a contrast with wickedness but the cause of righteousness. In verse 3, we see the blessings that flow from his love and delight in God: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.” Coming as I do from Appalachia, this metaphor always brings to mind our massive tulip poplars in lush cove forests. A tree with a stream to feed it grows like none other! Just so, our strength to grow,bear fruit, remain spiritually healthy, and to prosper in God’s sight flows from the Word. resist temptation flows from the Word, and a righteous man will be rooted there. That same Word is the source of our strength to know the difference between truth and error and resist temptation.
“The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away” (Ps. 1:4). In contrast to the blessings of the righteous are the curses upon the wicked. Whereas the righteous man is shored up by his love for God’s Law, the wicked are likened to the dried up byproduct of grain processing—they are flimsy, worthless, and discarded in the end. Whatever enjoyment they may derive from a life against God, their bill will always come due. God pronounces his judgments on both the righteous and the wicked. “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps. 1:5-6). Sinners will be laid low by the judgment of God, according to the very Law which they scorned. They will be separated from the righteous and cast away from God. As the last verse says, the Lord knows the hearts of the righteous and the wicked, and judges them accordingly—the path of the righteous is in the presence of God; the life of the unrepentant wicked ends in his demise.
The path marked by this psalm is clear. Righteousness is found only in God and His Word, and the consequences of spurning Him are dire. All the other psalms, at some level or another, flesh out the attitudes and actions that flow from those two points. The righteousness described in Psalm 1 is not a general spirituality or personal kindness, but is characterized only by a love of and devotion to God’s Law; wickedness is described not by the type of sins committed but by the rejection of the Lord. Indeed, His holiness dictates that as the baseline by which he must judge.
Ultimately, each of us falls short of the letter of the Law, but the man who “meditates day and night” on God’s Word will find that the God who is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9) has made a way for us to be declared righteous through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. He is the Word of the Lord made flesh, the stream of living water that enables us to be “firmly planted” and bear fruit. He is our salvation, and ought to be our purest delight as well. It is only when we are found in Him that the Lord knows our way as that of the righteous.
Photo: Tulip Poplar, Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia, April 2013.