Thursday, June 02, 2011

Studying the Psalms

I will be following in the pattern of posting my Sunday School lessons for the summer.  I chose not to use the LIFEWAY material this time around and wrote my own studies on Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes.  Below is this week's, mostly background.

In the future I plan to post lectures I have written for online classes I've taught.  I have done so much writing that it's a shame to put it to waste, and it might help someone.  Plus, I could get up to 700 posts if I did!


June 5:           Introduction to Interpreting Wisdom Literature and Poetry Literature
                        Read for this day:  Psalm 1, Proverbs 1
                        Questions to think about:
§  What is a poem you like?
§  How are the psalms like poems?
§  What is your favorite psalm? 
§  Why do you think people say they like the psalms? 
§  What place do the psalms have in understanding the whole Bible and living the Christian life?

Some background reading:  The psalms are often attributed to David, but he actually only wrote about half of them.  Asaph wrote 12 (Pss. 50, 73—83). Korah's descendants were responsible for 10 (Pss. 42, 44—49, 84, 87—88). Solomon wrote one or two (127 and perhaps 72). Heman the Ezrahite wrote one (Ps. 88), and Ethan the Ezrahite composed one (Ps. 89) as did Moses (ps. 90).   David wrote all the rest, from 1020 and 975 B.C.  (http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/psalms.pdf).    Therefore, the psalms span a long time.  Moses would have written his in 1405 B.C., while Ps. 126 and 137, which are about the Babylonian Exile, would have been written after 586 B.C., so this is a span of 900 years.

The Psalms were very important to Jewish culture and worship, and the collection we have today went through many years of collecting, copying, and protecting.  Scholars says they were collected into five books, perhaps to match the five books of the Pentateuch.  Most of the manuscripts found in the Dead Sea Scrolls were from the book of Psalms.  “The Psalms are the inspired  responses of human hearts to God's revelation of Himself in law, history,  and prophecy. Saints of all ages have appropriated this collection of prayers and praises in their public worship and private meditations." (Allen P. Ross, "Psalms," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 779.)

The Hebrew word for the psalms is tehillim, but the Greek word psalmoi was applied to them when the Old Testament was translated into Greek in 90 B.C.  Psalmoi meant “songs sung to musical accompaniment” or “songs sung to an instrument.”  Overtime the words came to mean worship and praise songs.


§  What is a poem you like?   Milton’s On His Blindness.  Yeats.  Emily Dickinson. 
·         Poetry is condensed, concentrated language.  English poetry is based on strong images—the words call up a concrete personal experience with sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch that will have a lot of emotion attached to it-- and rhyme and repetition of certain sounds.   
·         Hebrew poetry is different.  It is based on repetition called  parallelism, with the second line of the repetition sort of emphasizing or strengthening it, adding a little bit to it, giving an example, and sometimes contrasting it.  (3:1, 24:1, 1:6, 90:6, 1:1, 19:7, 42:1)That’s why so many verses in the psalms seem to have two parts and the second one just strengthens or adds or complements the first line.  Of course, it also brings up strong emotional reaction.  Hebrew poetry can be very earthy and realistic and honest, and sometimes we can be shocked by how honest it is.  I think Ps. 44 is the main one I think of here.  But God put that in the Bible.  Ps. 73 is one of my favorites.
·         Also, some of the psalms are acrostics:  the verses start with letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Psalm 119.
·         They also have superscriptions, which were in the original language and are important for understanding them.
§  How are the psalms like poems?  Intense emotion, stylistic, beautiful language.
§  What is your favorite psalm?   Most people say 23.  It is wonderful.
§  Why do you think people say they like the psalms?  Short.  Direct.  Easy.  Most talk about love and care and comfort of God.  But I also think people pick and choose and ignore most of the Psalter.
§  What place do the psalms have in understanding the whole Bible and living the Christian life?
·         God is not bothered by honest human emotions and questioning in faith, but He is bothered by rebellion and disobedience and disregard for His ways.  I look at it this way.  Emotions can make you do some odd things, and want to do even odder ones.  Grief—you can question why God “took” the person whom you needed and depended on and loved.  You can feel like you can’t face other people and withdraw for a while.  You might make bad decisions financially, such as buying something or selling the house too soon.  But when you start saying, directly, God, you are not good, you are not loving, you are not in control, you are making me suffer more than I should, I don’t deserve this, I’m walking out of the Christian life, then it starts to be trouble.  You can state how you feel, but you can’t start impugning who God is.  God respects your emotions and suffering.  He doesn’t respect bad theology.  The Christian faith has the only God who suffered.
·         I don’t think you should try to get too much theology and direction for the Christian life out of the psalms; a little maybe, but I find people take verses in the psalms out of context and misinterpret them.  The psalms make statements about God but they are statements often made  in the storm of human experience.  They are for worship and praise but all Bible is in context.  Look for ways the psalms connect to other portions of the Bible, especially Jewish history, the gospel, sovereignty and providence of God, and how we can praise God in church in an appropriate way.    
·         This is one area where it’s good to use newer translations, even though the KJV is beautiful and familiar to so many of us.  However, newer translations can give you a deeper sense of the human experience.  For example, Psalm 1:  planted by rivers of water.  I always took that to mean a wild tree that just happened to flourish by a river bank, like here.  But it really means, literally, planted by irrigation ditches.  It’s not random and an accident of nature, but something intentional that is done to flourish spiritually. 
·         So what I’m saying is study the psalms with the rest of the Bible as your guidebook, and also understanding the Jewish/Hebrew/Old Testament mindset. Examples:
o   At various times the Jews were being punished for their sins; that is often obvious in the psalms, like 44. 
o   Often the Jews were surrounded by peoples who hated them and were bent on their destruction (sounds familiar).  That comes through in some of the psalms that are called “imprecatory.” 
o   The Jews loved the physical world and saw that it was good, unlike the Greeks of the later period who saw the physical world as a necessary evil.  They loved and valued the land, what little they had.  They valued water because it is such an arid land, so water has a special place in the psalms.  They talk about wild animals, some of which we would be familiar with and some not. 
o   Heart does not mean emotion, but intellect, emotion, and will—the center of man.  I wish we could fully grasp this, because in the modern world we place too much emphasis on a separation that really doesn’t exist. 
o    Jews believed in sin that had to be atoned for.  This was the core of their temple worship.
o   Jews went three times a year to worship in the temple in Jerusalem.  The temple is very important in the psalms, especially those called “songs of ascent.”  The temple was the religious and cultural center.  It represented God’s presence and place of atonement and also historical events, such as Abraham/Isaac and David’s kingdom, the high point of Jewish history to that time.  In some of the psalms, which were written after the exile (586) there was no temple; it had been destroyed.  In a few of them, it hadn’t been built yet, but the tabernacle existed. 
o   The Jews did play these to music, but it was atonal and accompanied by one or two instruments, or acapella.  The closest thing would be Arabic music we might hear today.  We are used to music with beat, key, lots of orchestration, harmony.  Those things did not exist until the 1600s.
o   Above all, the Jews looked to the future.  History was going somewhere.  There was going to be a Messiah, a deliverer.  Ancient peoples believed history was a never-ending circle.  Jews believed, like we, that history was a more or less straight line with a destination of a perfect kingdom overseen by a perfec ruler.  The Messianic promise is the background for much of the psalms.

Conclusion:  Most people think they know the psalms, but they don’t.  I am guilty of that, too.  There are about ten I like, I even memorized 1 or 2, but that leaves 130+ I don’t know.  Let’s get out of the box and read them all.

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