Many years ago – when I was preaching regularly in a church, but not yet ordained as a minister – an elder came to me and said, “You don’t include many Psalms in the services you lead.” I was taken aback by the comment, because I thought I had a balanced set of songs, overall. I replied, “Well, maybe I don’t have many in one service, but in another I might have more Psalms than hymns. I’m sure it evens out overall.” I then went back and looked over my past service-details. The elder was right. I was neglecting the Psalms.
Is it really necessary, though, to give so much emphasis to the Psalms? They are “Old Testament.” We find out so much more about the work of the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. Shouldn’t our emphasis be far more upon the hymns that have been written by those familiar with the whole counsel of God?
To answer that question, I want to explore the theology of the Psalms, so we can see something of what matters they cover, their nature and purpose. It is my hope that as we consider these things, our interest in using the Psalms may be revived.
The purpose of the Psalms
The general purpose for which God gave the Psalms was singing, especially in worship services. The Psalms themselves actually command the singing of Psalms (Pss. 47:7, 95:2). Moreover, it is clear from the New Testament, that this command was not just for the Old Testament church. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 exhort the members of the New Testament church to address one another with psalms, as well as with hymns and spiritual songs. In the Book of Revelation, the songs of the redeemed in heaven appear to be either compilations of OT Psalms (e.g., Rev. 15:3-4, 19:1-6) or at least Psalm-like in their style (Rev. 5:9-14). The role played by the Psalms in the OT, the NT and in heaven, argues for a strong reliance on them in our worship today.
Ultimately, the purpose of the Psalms is to hold forth the Lord Jesus Christ – like the rest of Scripture. The language used in Luke 24:27 implies that the Lord worked His way systematically through the whole Old Testament to explain how every Book pointed to Him – including the Psalms. In Luke 24:44, the Lord refers to all the things written about Him in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. Moreover, the Book of Psalms is the OT Book most frequently quoted in the NT and the one from which the Lord Jesus Himself most frequently quoted. Indeed, the last words Jesus spoke on the cross were from Psalms 22:1 and then finally from 31:5. It is true that the Psalms speak of Christ in an “Old Testament” way. But when we learn language, we don’t dispense with the “ABC’s” just because we have learned to speak polysyllabic words. We use the fundamentals in our understanding and use of the more developed language. The Psalms are not to be replaced by “New Testament” theology or songs; they are to be given their place in them.
In addition to the purpose of revealing Christ, the Psalms are designed as what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “Prayer Book of the Bible.” Now I know that Bonhoeffer had a pretty hairy doctrine of Scripture, and that is no minor matter! I don’t encourage anyone to take that on board. But his booklet, “The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible” makes some important observations. Bonhoeffer cites Ps. 72:20, where Solomon ends Book 2 of the Psalms by referring to them as “the prayers of David the son of Jesse.” We may regard the Psalms as a collection of prayers. But then, are not the church’s songs a combination of her confession and her prayers, set to music?
Bonhoeffer argues that the believer needs to be taught how to pray. He agrees that the Lord Jesus taught us how to pray with the Lord’s Prayer. However, he maintains that every line of the Lord’s Prayer is a summary of the prayers of the Book of Psalms. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches His people that those prayers they learned from the Psalms have to be prayed not only in Him, but also by Him. As He renders all obedience for His people, the Lord Jesus looks to His Father in perfect prayer. He looks to His Father in all the areas where man must look, all the areas taught in the Psalms. The Psalms, says Bonhoeffer, are the “words He [God] wants to hear from us, because they are the words of His beloved Son.” David writes as a “prototype” of Jesus, who is speaking through him.
The Psalms are designed, then, to help us to bring all of life before God in sung prayer – as the Lord’s prayer covers all of life, in principle. Sometimes the Psalms will express God’s instruction on life, which we reflect back to Him, as an “Amen” to what the Lord has taught us – the “didactic (teaching) Psalms, the “confessing” aspect. At other times, the believer’s response to the various situations of life is expressed, in Christ – in the way God teaches us to respond, not just in the way we might want to respond. This is why it has been said that the Psalms cover the entire range of the believer’s religious experience. This aspect of the Psalms also argues for retaining their prominent place in our worship. God has given us His “prayer-manual.” Can we write a better one?
The themes of the Psalms
I mentioned that the Psalms cover all of life, in principle. I now want to demonstrate that this is so by summarising the main themes of the Book. Some of these are “Didactic Psalms,” relaying God’s teaching on these subjects; others are more about the godly response of the believer in all manner of situations.
A systematic Theology: The following list demonstrates how well the Psalms cover the main areas of systematic theology:
1 God’s Word and Law: Consider Psalm 119, the longest in the Book. Every section deals with some aspect of God’s Word. Several parallel words for “law” are used – testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgements and ordinances. Sometimes “law” is used in the narrow sense, to refer to God’s commandments and the principles behind them. At other times, we can see “law” as another term for God’s Word in general. Psalm 19:7-14 provides another good example of this theme.
Closely related, the Psalms also deal with the result of listening to God’s Word – Wisdom. Psalm 111:10 states that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a thought repeated in Proverbs 1:7. Other Psalms simply speak of the blessings that come from walking in God’s ways, in contrast to the wicked (Psalm 1) – a familiar theme in the “Wisdom Literature.”
2 The Doctrine of God: From the Doctrine of Scripture, we move on to the Doctrine of God. The Psalms frequently focus on praising God for who He is. Many of His attributes (personal, defining characteristics) are mentioned: His justice (Psalms 10, 17 and 37) and holiness (Psalm 99); His sovereign might and majesty (Psalm 18, 77, 93, 97 and 99); His loving kindness (Psalms 107, 118, 119 and 136); and His unchanging faithfulness (Psalm 89). The Psalms also cover God’s Works: the doctrine of creation (8, 19:1-6, 33, 74, 89, 102, 104, 115, 136, 147, 148, to mention but a few); providence (Psalms 105 and 147); salvation and vindication (Psalms 27, 35, 49, 64, 73, 140 and 149 – again, to mention only a few); and judgement (Psalms 2, 96:10 and 98:9).
3 The Doctrines of Christ and Salvation: Most Christians are aware that there are a number of “Messianic Psalms” – Psalms that foretell the coming of the Messiah and His work. I have already indicated that the Lord Jesus explained to His disciples where He was revealed in the Psalms. He also applied the Psalms to His own work, by quoting them at critical points in His ministry. However, it may not be immediately obvious just how Christ-related the Psalms are. As Protestant Reformed theologian, Herman Hanko, explains, “In a sense, all the Psalms are Messianic.”
On the more obvious side, the Psalms sometimes foretell particular aspects of Christ’s work. Think of Psalm 2, which speaks of Christ’s authority, the giving of the nations as His inheritance and His judgement upon those who oppose Him. When David tells of his victories (Psalm 18), or the king is prayed for or praised (Psalms 20, 21, 45 and 72), this is looking ahead to the Great King. Psalm 8 similarly speaks of the glory and majesty given to the Son of Man. Psalm 16 looks to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Psalm 22 looks to His rejection, suffering and death. Psalm 40 refers to Jesus’ delight to do only His Father’s will. Psalm 41 foretells His betrayal. Psalm 45 speaks of His royal majesty. Psalm 68 tells of Jesus’ victory, ascension and giving of gifts. Psalm 69 describes Christ’s zeal for His Father’s house and His suffering on the cross. Psalm 78 points to Jesus’ use of parables (v. 2) and v. 24 is connected to His identity as the Bread from Heaven (Jn. 6:31). Psalm 97 shows His superiority to angels – implying His divinity. Psalm 102 declares the eternal, unchanging nature of the Lord Jesus and His role in creation. Psalm 110 teaches the eternal priesthood of the Lord Jesus, along with His heavenly session at God’s right hand, His divinity and His victory over all opposition. Psalm 118 points to Jesus’ triumphal entry, His vindication and His role as the Chief Cornerstone. All of these passages are applied to Christ in the New Testament. Of these Psalms 1, 22, 69, 110 and 118 receive the most attention in the New Testament.
These are just the more obvious references to the Christ. The more subtle ones come from the fact that the Lord Jesus came to do all righteousness for us and to intercede for us. When the Psalms speak of the “blessed man” who shuns evil, does what is right and seeks refuge in God (1, 15, 34:8, 40:4, 41:1, 84:12 etc.), they are speaking of the Lord Jesus first, then us in Him. That is one of the reasons why gender-inclusive Bible translations do so much harm – by masking the references to this Man. When the Psalms pray for justice upon God’s enemies, they are also praying for Christ as Judge – while at the same time reminding us that Christ’s work on the cross does not undermine God’s justice; it upholds God’s just anger at our sins, as well as expressing His great mercy. When the Psalmist speaks of his fellowship with God (Psalms 16 and 63), this is pointing to Christ’s fellowship with His Father and the truth that our fellowship with God is derived from the Lord Jesus.
4 The Application of Redemption: The Psalms speak of regeneration – the creation of a clean heart in the sinner, by God’s own doing (Psalm 51:10). The Psalms speak of conversion – sinners turning to God (51:13). Justification by faith is also pre-figured in the Psalms – in terms of the awareness that God can be called upon to refrain from imputing sin and to reckon the sinner as righteous, on the basis of His grace (32:1-5; 51 and 106:30-31). Sanctification is a strong theme in the Psalms (see the section below on that subject). Glorification is also spoken of, in terms of the future glory of Zion (48, 103:12f).
5 The Church and Her Worship: Israel is a “type” of the Church. Moreover, the tabernacle/temple, Mt. Zion on which the temple was located, and Jerusalem in which it was placed, all point to the intimate presence of God through the Lord Jesus Christ and the peace He brings. The joy of worship in the Old Testament setting points to the joy of worship by the church both now and in heaven. The “Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134) along with Psalm 84, 42 and 43 express this joy. They also warn of the things that can disrupt that joy.
The Psalms were designed, as mentioned, for the worship service. We may even have some idea of how they were sung, with Psalms like 136, which appear to be antiphonal – sung by two groups alternating. Other Psalms make reference to the singing at the Old Testament festivals – such as 81.
B In addition to the various aspects of systematic theology, the Psalms cover what we could call Biblical theology – as they rehearse the redemptive history that runs through the Books of the Old Testament (Psalms 78, 105 and 106).
C Finally, the Psalms express the godly response of the believer to the teaching of God’s Word. The Psalms cover all sorts of life-situations, reflecting the struggles and joys of the authors, so that we can know how to respond rightly to any situation in life.
1 Praise and Thanksgiving: One cannot go far into the Psalms without coming across praise or thanksgiving addressed to the Lord (Psalms 8, 9, 29, 33, 103, 104, 107, and 144-150, to mention but a few. Some Psalms also express thankfulness by means of vows (76 and 116).
2 Humility and Repentance: Psalms like 32, 51, 77, 81, 106 and 130 remind us of the loathing we should have for our individual and collective sins. They also declare that sinners may come humbly before the Lord, seek forgiveness and find it – ultimately through the Lord Jesus.
3 Struggling with God’s Providence: One of the most common themes in the responsive Psalms is the difficulty of coping with persecution and other types of affliction. The Psalms are honest about the way this can occasion complaint from the believer (44:9f; 64; 74; 79 and 142). But while these Psalms may begin with a “complaint,” they nevertheless draw the believer back to the Lord. They call upon us to trust in Him – even when we can’t see the reason for our afflictions (Psalms 22, 31, 80). They urge us to call upon His Name for deliverance and relief (Psalm 22). They point us to the Lord Jesus, who always looked to His Father, even in the greatest extremity. Many Psalms simply express the believer’s trust in the Lord, even in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalms 23, 11 and 16).
4 Petition: As mentioned in the previous category, some Psalms teach us that we may petition the Lord for assistance and relief, either for ourselves or for others.
5 The Cry for Justice: The “imprecatory Psalms” call upon the Lord to bring vengeance upon the enemies of His people (5, 7, 9, 10, 28, 31, 35, 40, 54, 58, 59, 68-71, 137, and others). God’s people today sometimes balk at singing such Psalms. We should remember, however, that while we are not to seek personal revenge, we are to praise God for His justice. That means calling upon Him to display His justice. In fact, when we sing these Psalms, we are crying out for the return of the Lord Jesus, who is coming to judge the earth. If we have trouble singing these Psalms, how will we cope with the final judgement?
6 Sanctification: Those who love God’s Word have a desire for obedience. Those who love His salvation also desire to show their gratitude by walking in His ways. The Psalms, which speak about God’s Word and His redeeming work, therefore call upon God’s people to pursue sanctification. This is seen in the Psalms that describe the “blessed man.” This Blessed Jesus imputes and imparts His righteousness to His people. His people are commanded to live out of that righteousness. The desire for sanctification is expressed (Psalms 141, 143), sanctification is described (Psalm 1), pleaded for (Ps. 51, 81:13) and promised (Psalm 32:8-9). It is also the subject of vows (26:11).
Putting all this together, I note that the Psalms are God-given: they are inspired by Him; we are commanded to sing them in worship. As we have seen, they cover all the main headings of systematic theology and much of the Biblical theology of the Old Testament. They outline the believer’s experience and what should be our godly response, in virtually any situation in life. No wonder this is the Old Testament Book most-quoted in the New Testament! This argues for the Psalms being given a prominent place in our worship today. Dietrich Bonhoeffer concludes, “The Psalter filled the life of early Christendom … . A Christian community without the Psalter has lost an incomparable treasure, and by taking it back into use will recover resources it never dreamed it had.”
This does not mean that we should act as if there were no New Testament – as if the Psalms say everything we find in the New Testament. We cannot expect the Psalms to speak of Christ with the fullness of the whole counsel of God.
That means that when we sing the Psalms today, we should do so with a New Testament understanding – as the New Testament itself does when quoting the Psalms, and as the Book of Revelation does when it brings them into its songs.
Let us take care, then, that we neither lose this “incomparable treasure,” nor lose sight of the fulfilment of it in Christ.
Mr Paul Archbald is the minister in the Reformed Church in Silverstream.
Credit for image:
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash