The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs praising and exhorting God. While Psalms of praise and Psalms of exhortation arise out ot very different circumstances and project very different tones, the fundamental content is the same. As we shall see, some Psalms praise God for being God while others exhort God to be God. In either case, the focus of the Psalm is on God’s nature and, of course, we know that God is God and cannot be otherwise.
Almost half of the Psalms are attributed to King David but in fact the Book probably consists of smaller anthologies (e.g. Ps. 120 – 134) and individual entries collected and integrated into the master text over a period of several hundred years.
The Book of Psalms is organized into 5 books, each ending with a doxology. For example, the 4th book ends with the closing verse of Psalm 106: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Let all the peoples say, Amen! Hallelujah!”
While there are many similarities and even overlaps among the Psalms, there is also great thematic and stylistic diversity. Plus, the Psalms span a wide range of theological and philosophical sophistication.
Notes prefacing the Book of Psalms in the New American Bible divide the Psalms into 3 major categories:
(1) Psalms of Praise
(2) Psalms of Thanksgiving
(3) Psalms of Lament
And several minor categories:
(4) Royal Psalms (Ps. 20, 21, 72)
(5) Wisdom Psalms (Ps. 37, 49)
(6) Torah Psalms (Ps. 1, 19, 119)
(7) Historical Psalms (Ps. 78, 105, 106)
(8) Liturgical Psalms (Ps. 15, 24) (All Psalms are ‘liturgical’ but these Psalms may be self-contained liturgies in themselves.)
Rather than separate Psalms according to their stated purpose or style of composition, I would prefer to identify the major currents that run throughout the entire text. Instead of slicing the Book of Psalms vertically into categories and I would prefer to slice the text horizontally into its primary themes.
For example, the very first Psalm begins, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked…the law of the Lord is his joy and on his law he meditates day and night.” This theme, delight in the law of the Lord, recurs many times throughout the Psalms:
- The law of the Lord is perfect…the decree of the Lord is trustworthy…the precepts of the Lord are right…the command of the Lord is clear…the fear of the Lord is pure…the statutes of the law are true, all of them just. (Ps. 19)
- I delight to do you will, my God; your law is in my inner being (Ps. 40)
- In your statues I take delight…my soul is stirred with longing for your judgments…lead me in the path of your commandments for that is my delight…my heart is set on fulfilling your statues, they are my reward forever…your law I love. (Ps. 119)
Delight in the law of the Lord leads naturally to a desire to understand better God’s will:
- Lord, guide me in your justice…make straight your way before me (Ps. 4)
- Make known to me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths (Ps. 25)
- Teach me, Lord, your way that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name (Ps. 86)
- I am a sojourner in the land; do not hide your commandments from me. At all times my soul is stirred with longing for your judgments. (Ps. 119)
Why does the Psalmist delight in the law of the Lord and seek a better understanding of his will? Psalm 9 sums it up: “The Lord is revealed in making judgments”, and it is precisely that revelation we seek when we pray the Psalms.
Surprisingly, the Psalms offer few details about the content of God’s law and will. Perhaps the Psalmist assumes his hearers know these details by heart; but there is one remarkable exception to this generalization. The Book of Psalms is infused throughout with a concern for and a dedication to the poor. God’s law and will are all about the welfare of the disadvantaged:
- The Lord is a stronghold of the oppressed (Ps. 9)
- You win justice for the orphaned and the oppressed (Ps. 10)
- They would crush the hopes of the poor, but the poor have the Lord as their refuge (Ps. 14)
- O God, give your judgment to the King; your justice to the King’s son, that he may govern your people with justice, your oppressed with right judgment…that he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor… (Ps. 72)
- He raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor form the ash heap (Ps. 113)
- I know the Lord will take up the cause of the needy, justice for the poor (Ps. 140)
Indeed, the Book of Psalms cites justice for the poor as one of the three marks that Yahweh is the one true God. In all, the Psalms offer three testimonies to the universal sovereignty of Yahweh. First, he is the creator of the heavens and the earth:
- When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place… (Ps. 7)
- The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. (Ps. 19)
- The heavens praise your marvels, Lord…Who in the skies ranks with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the sons of the gods?…Yours are the heavens, yours the earth; you founded the world and everything in it (Ps. 89)
Second, he intervenes in history, preeminently to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, but also to rescue each of us from life’s every day perils:
- God, when you went forth before your people, when you marched through the desert, the earth quaked, the heavens poured… (Ps. 68)
- Graciously rescue me, God! Come quickly to help me, Lord! (Ps. 70)
Third, and most radically, he is consistently concerned for the poor and the oppressed; it is this more than anything else that sets Yahweh apart from other gods and from mortal rulers:
- For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help. He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor. From extortion and violence he redeems them, for precious is their blood in his sight (Ps.72)
In fact, the Psalms exhort all temporal rulers to follow Yahweh’s example and to govern according to his will:
- And now kings, give heed; take warning judges on earth, serve the Lord with fear… (Ps. 2)
- Do you indeed pronounce justice, O gods; do you judge fairly you children of Adam? No, you freely engage in crime…O God, smash the teeth in their mouths; break the fangs of these lions, Lord!…Let them wither like grass. (Ps. 58)
- How long will you judge unjustly and favor the cause of the wicked?…Defend the lowly and the fatherless; render justice to the afflicted and needy. Rescue the lowly and the poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Ps. 82)
While there are three testimonies to Yahweh’s sovereignty, there is only one God. The God who made heaven and earth is the same God who intervenes in history and the God who intervenes repeatedly in history is the same God who loves justice and advocates for the poor. Somehow, these very different aspects of God’s nature are connected and the Book of Psalms does a good job of connecting the dots:
- The Lord is king, the peoples tremble, he is enthroned on the cherubim, the earth quakes…O mighty king, lover of justice, you have established fairness; you have created just rule in Jacob…Moses and Aaron were among his priests…from the pillar of cloud he spoke to them (Ps. 99)
- The Lord is on high, but cares for the lowly (Ps. 138)
- The maker of heaven and earth…secures justice for the oppressed…the Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind. The Lord raises up those who are bowed down…the Lord protects the resident alien, comes to the aid of the orphan and widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked. The Lord shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah! (Ps. 146)
- The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem and gathers the dispersed of Israel…He numbers the stars and gives to all of them their names…The Lord gives aid to the poor (Ps. 147)
What is it about God that makes these three seemingly disparate roles expressions of a single nature? Love. God is Love. Therefore God creates, therefore God intervenes, therefore God redeems. Out of love God made the world, out of love God diverts its course and out of love God ensures that all creatures will ultimately be citizens of a just Kingdom where the needs of the least are fully satisfied.
Although the Book of Psalms pre-dates the Christian doctrine of Trinity by at least 500 years, the ideas behind that doctrine are already nascent in this text. Yahweh as creator of heaven and earth suggests the Trinitarian Father. Yahweh’s intervention in history presages the Incarnation, the Trinitarian Son. Finally, God’s dedication to justice and his active concern for the poor reflect the Trinitarian Spirit, the eschatological Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, the realm of eternal justice.
When God creates the heavens and the earth, he sets the initial conditions necessary for the ultimate realization of his Kingdom. History, the spatiotemporal realm, is the evolution of the actual world, gradually but freely, toward that Kingdom.
We learn from the Nicene Creed that it is through the action of the Holy Spirit that God is Incarnate in the world. The Holy Spirit is the eschatological Christ projected back into history. Temporal justice is a foretaste of the Kingdom to come when “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing (Ps. 34).”
These ‘initial conditions’ are God’s values. The Psalms seek to discover those values and manifest them. By praying the Psalms we seek to make God’s values our own. God’s values are who God is and according to the Book of Psalms…
- He is refuge, security, comfort, shield, shelter and peace
- He is fair, just and righteous
- He is trustworthy and faithful
- He is compassionate and merciful
- He is a lover and defender of the humble, the needy, the poor, the oppressed.
God’s values are his guidebook for the evolution of history and they are his blueprints for the Kingdom of Heaven:
- The plan of the Lord stands forever, the designs of his heart through all generations (Ps 33)
In sum, we can say with the Psalmist, “The One who fashioned together their hearts is the One who knows all their works.” (Ps 33) The God of creation is also the God of redemption.
When we pray the Psalms we seek to synchronize our minds and hearts with God’s. We strive to make the world’s initial conditions our own ‘initial conditions’. We seek to set in motion our own spiritual evolution toward our own personal realization of God’s Kingdom; but at the same time we know that that realization must translate into just acts and charitable works which we project back into the world to encourage the universal evolution toward Kingdom.
The Law of the Lord is a projection of God’s heart and mind, values and will, into the historical world. It is in that sense that Jesus, God incarnate, can say, in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Therefore, the values of the Psalms and the statutes of the Torah are opposite sides of the same tapestry. When we pray the Psalms, we become like the ‘blessed man’ of the first Psalm: the law of the Lord is our joy; we meditate on it day and night.
Psalm 15 translates God’s values translate into law; it exhorts us to walk without blame by…
- Doing what is right
- Speaking truth
- Avoiding slander
- Doing no harm to a friend
- Never defaming a neighbor
- Disdaining the wicked and honoring those who fear the Lord
- Keeping oaths no matter what the cost
- Lending no money at interest
- Accepting no bribe
We learn the will of God by praying the Psalms; we conform our lives to that will by following his commandments; and by our deeds of justice and charity we project his will back into the evolving history of the world. Psalm 15 (above) ends, “Whoever acts like this shall never be shaken.”
In this, we ourselves are imitators and agents of God. We conform ourselves to God’s heart and mind by adopting his values, the initial conditions through which the world was made. We make God’s will incarnate in the world by obeying his law. We project the eschatological Kingdom of God back into the world when we act out of a real concern for the poor and the oppressed.
And what do we know of this ‘eschatological Kingdom’?
- …The poor will inherit the earth…the righteous will inherit the earth and dwell in it forever (Ps. 37)
- I know the Lord will take up the cause of the needy, justice for the poor. Then the righteous will give thanks to your name; the upright will dwell in your presence (Ps. 140)
When we pray the Psalms, we praise God by celebrating his values and delighting in his law; but as we noted initially, that is only one aspect of praying the Psalms. In addition to praising God we also exhort God. Out of our darkest moments, our times of physical danger, emotional despair and existential angst, the Psalms call out to God for salvation and, ultimately, for redemption:
- Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shuddering…I am wearied with sighing; all night long I drench my bed with tears…the Lord will receive my prayer (Ps. 6)
- Like water my life drains away; all my bones are disjointed. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me. (Ps.22)
- My life is worn out by sorrow…my bones are wearing down…terrors are all around me…Let your face shine on your servant, save me in your mercy (Ps. 31)
- Rescue me from my enemies, my God; lift me out of the reach of my foes. Deliver me from evildoers; from the bloodthirsty save me (Ps.59)
- Lord of hosts, restore us; light up your face and we shall be saved (Ps. 80)
- In your great mercy rescue me. For I am poor and needy; my heart is pierced within me. Like a lengthening shadow I am gone, I am shaken off like a locust (Ps. 109)
- Out of the depths I call to you, Lord; Lord hear my cry!” (Ps. 130)
Of course, the root of all our fear and anguish is the dreadful knowledge of our own mortality. The Psalmist is often concerned with mortality at a very concrete level:
- What gain is there from my lifeblood, from my going down to the grave? Does dust give you thanks… (Ps. 30)
- Oppose, O Lord, those who oppose me; war upon those who make war upon me (Ps. 35)
But at other times, the Psalms rise to an existential appreciation of the human condition:
- Every man is but a breath (Ps. 39)
- Mortals are mere breath, the sons of man but an illusion; on a balance they rise, together they weigh nothing. (Ps. 62)
- As for man, his days are like the grass; he blossoms like a flower in the field. A wind sweeps over it and it is gone; its place knows it no more (Ps. 103)
- Man is but breath, his days are like a passing shadow (Ps. 144)
But the God of the Psalms promises salvation from the numbing futility of mortality:
- He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days forever (Ps. 21)
- I will dwell in the house of the Lord for endless days (Ps. 23)
- I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living (Ps. 27)
- Into your hands I commend my spirit; you will redeem me, Lord, God of truth (Ps. 31)
- Our God is a God who saves; escape from death is the Lord God’s (Ps. 68)
- I will establish his dynasty forever, his throne as the days of the heavens (Ps. 89)
- What is man that he should live and not see death (Ps. 89)
- The Lord has decreed a blessing, life for evermore (Ps. 133)
To understand God’s promise of eternal life, it is helpful to understand the contrary. What becomes of evil acts and evildoers? First, understand that evil is its own punishment:
- He digs a hole and bores it deep, but he falls into the pit he has made. His malice turns back upon his head; the violence falls on his own skull (Ps. 7)
- By the deeds they do the wicked are trapped (Ps. 9)
- Let the snares they have set catch them; let them fall into the pit they have dug (Ps. 35)
- Their idols are silver and gold…they have mouths but do not speak…ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell…hands but do not feel, feet but do not walk…Their makers will be like them, and anyone who trusts in them. (Ps. 115)
God does not need to punish evil; he can afford to remain consistently compassionate and merciful. Evil is not consistent with the ‘initial conditions’ God established for the world. Evil is not compatible with God’s values. Therefore,
- The wicked will not arise at the judgment (Ps. 1)
- The future of the wicked will be cut off (Ps. 37)
- The desire of the wicked comes to nothing (Ps. 112)
By contrast, obeying the law of the Lord is its own reward:
- He is like a tree…that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers (Ps. 1)
- There is a future for a man of peace. (Ps. 37)
- My heart is set on fulfilling your statutes; they are my reward forever…your law I love. You are my refuge and shield; in your word I hope. (Ps. 119)
Compassion and mercy may rescue the sinner…but never the sin. If a person consisted of nothing but sin, then his self, though rescued, would be empty. Justice, charity and peace, foretastes of the Kingdom of God, are what fills us.
Accordingly, the Psalms do not so much call for the punishment of wrongdoing and as they celebrate its inevitable annihilation. Ultimately, all evil, no matter how terrible, comes to nothing:
- The Lord’s face is against evildoers to wipe out their memory from the earth (Ps. 34)
- Like grass they wither away quickly; like green plants they wilt away…Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more; look for them and they will not be there (Ps. 37)
- They are like a dream after waking, Lord, dismissed like shadows when you arise (Ps. 73)
- My God, make them like tumbleweed, into chaff flying before the wind (Ps.83)
- May his posterity be destroyed, their name rooted out in the next generation…May their guilt be always before the Lord, till their memory is banished from the earth (Ps. 109)
Notice how much this language sounds like the language used to describe mortality itself (above). We are tempted to compare the passive mortality of the human condition (‘original sin’?) with the active mortality of evil. They have much in common.
It is as true to say that mortality is evil as it is to say that evil is mortal. A world without God is a hopeless, futile, vacuous place. According to the Psalmist, those who claim to find value in a world without God are sorely deceived:
- The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Ps. 14)
Now compare this with the fate of the just:
- The Lord is just and loves just deeds; the upright will see his face (Ps. 11)
- I am just – let me see your face; when I awake, let me be filled with your presence (Ps. 17)
- For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light (Ps. 36)
- May God be gracious to us and bless us; may his face shine upon us. (Ps. 67)
- Your years last through all generations. Of old you laid the earth’s foundations, the heavens are the work of your hands. They perish but you remain, they wear out like a garment; like clothing you change them and they are changed, but you are the same, your years have no end. May the children of your servants live on; may their descendants live in your presence. (Ps. 102)
- The dead do not praise the Lord…it is we who bless the Lord, both now and forever. Hallelujah! (Ps. 115)
The Psalms consistently describe eternal life in terms of Presence. We are filled with God’s presence, we live in God’s presence, in his light we see light, we bless the Lord, and most importantly, we see his face and his face shines upon us.
These are all simply different ways of describing our reciprocal relationship with God. When we gaze on God’s face and he on ours, we are co-present to one another; we are no longer ‘ships passing in the night’. Our relationship transcends time and space; and when we enter into a reciprocal relationship with an eternal being, we ourselves necessarily participate in eternity.
- You are my son; today I have begotten you (Ps. 2)
- You are my Lord, you are my only good (Ps. 16)
- Your face, Lord, do I seek! Do not hide your face from me (Ps. 27)
To do evil is to reject such a reciprocal relationship and thereby to condemn oneself to ‘terminal mortality’. At the time we don’t realize what we’ve done. Life seems long and time stretches out ahead of us. But eventually, we see with the Psalmist that our lives are but breath, a wind, without weight and having no place in the world. To the extent that we have lived evil lives, we have simply chosen not to live at all.
Of course, we are not by ourselves capable of entering into a reciprocal relationship with God. We need his grace to do so and that grace is founded on mercy:
- Remember me according to your mercy, because of your goodness, Lord (Ps.25)
- Let your face shine on your servant: save me in your mercy (Ps. 31)
- We are overcome by our sins; only you can pardon them (Ps. 65)
Psalm 150, the final Psalm, closes with what might be considered a complete summation of the Book of Psalms…and of this essay:
- Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord! Hallelujah!
Breath is the Psalms’ primary metaphor for mortality. Everything that has breath is mortal. But if a mortal turns that breath to praising God, conforming to his values, obeying his law, witnessing to his Kingdom, then God enters into a reciprocal relationship with that mortal, bringing him into his Presence and ensuring him eternal life. This is the great hope of the Psalms!