15. The poetry of the Psalms – poems that appeal to the whole person.

I confess that I never did appreciate poetry in school. I often found it difficult to understand what the poet was really getting at. A random example could be the poem, “Tae a Moose” by Robert Burns (1759 – 1796). The first verse went:

Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie,     O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!   Thou need na start awa sae hasty,                      Wi’ bickering  brattle!   I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,   Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

Something about a mouse, I’m told!

An interesting definition of poetry, as compared to prose, is given by an “ancient Chinese poetry critic” as follows:

“When you write in prose, you cook the rice. When you write poetry, you turn rice into rice wine. Cooked rice doesn’t change its shape, but rice wine changes both in quality and shape. Cooked rice makes one full so one can live out one’s life span . . . rice wine, on the other hand, makes one drunk, makes the sad happy, and the happy sad. Its effect is sublimely beyond explanation.” – Wu Qiao

The point being, I think, (other than don’t overdo the rice wine) is that poetry appeals much more than prose to the inner person of the emotions and heart, or as James G Murphy says, “Poetry is the measured language of emotion.” He adds that, “Emotion is the soul’s coming out…into a state of excitement…commonly of a pleasing, but sometimes of a painful character.” (James G Murphy Psalms James Family Publishing  1876, 1977). I think he probably understood Burn’s poetry!

But, having now studied the Psalms more deeply, I have a deeper appreciation for poetry and particularly of OT poetry which of course includes the Psalms, and why the psalmists wrote in the way they did. Tremper Longman has some useful thoughts on the subject. Here are a few quotes from his book:

“The psalms are clearly poetic, and indeed poetry makes up much of the OT…The whole of the psalms, the book of Job, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Proverbs, most of Ecclesiastes, most of the prophets…and even sections of the historical books (see Gen 49, Ex 15, Judges 5, 2 Sam 22) are poetry…[but why poetry?] On one level, this question…cannot be answered. God stands behind the form and content of the Bible, and we cannot read God’s mind on such matters. [But, some possible reasons are:] Poem‘s appeal to the whole person in a way that prose does not… [compare Ex 14:26-31 to Ex 15:1-5…Even though] we gain more historical information from the prose account…we can’t help but be caught up in the excitement of the Israelites themselves [in the poem].…poetry appeals more directly to the whole person than prose does. It stimulates our imaginations, arouses our emotions, feeds our intellects and addresses our wills…poetry is pleasurable [Wu Qiao’s point]. It is attractive to read and even more so to read aloud (or sing)…”

I think another possible reason is that poems are easier to remember, just as catchy songs are (which are of course poetry put into music). And considering that in the days when the Psalms were written, the possibility is that most people were dependant on hearing truth rather than reading it.

Nevertheless, as I found as a young man, poetry can be difficult to interpret. We therefore need to learn ‘how poetry works’ in the OT. In this way we can better understand the psalms. Very, very, briefly there are two main considerations, according to Longman, who says,

“The single most common characteristic of Hebrew poetry is repetition, usually called parallelism…e.g. “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.” (Psalm 20:1-5) [See also Psalm 2, which is, with minor exceptions, constructed out of synonymous parallelism].

The second major characteristic of Hebrew poetry is imagery…e.g. Psalm 23 speaks of God as our shepherd and Psalm 29 pictures God as the force in the storm and as the one enthroned over the sea.”

Longman concludes that “Hebrew poetry uses a concise, rich language. It is meant to be read slowly and carefully in order to receive the full impact of the message.” (Tremper Longman 111 How to Read the Psalms  Intervarsity Press 1988)

There is so much more, but that will suffice for this Blog (see Longman’s book if you are interested in further detail). Let me finish off with a comment by CS Lewis concerning the poetry of the Psalms. He mentions “parallelism”, calling it the “chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of pattern…one that survives in translation…[in fact, he concludes that] It is (according to one’s point of view) either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry, which was to be turned into all languages, should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.”  (C.S. Lewis Reflections on the Psalms Fontana Books 1958).

Amazing!

14. Psalms of Praise /Hymns continued. (“The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God.” J. Piper)

As I have studied the Psalms of Praise and others in the context of training people for cross-cultural ministry I have noticed how often the “nations” are mentioned by the psalmists.

For example:

Sing the praises of the Lord, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done. (Psalm 9:11)

Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing the praises of your name. (Psalm 18:49)

All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:27-28)

“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)

And then there is Psalm 96. Note the use of the words “all the earth”, “the nations”, “all peoples”, “families of nation”, “the world” and “all creation”:

Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.

For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. 10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.

11 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;  let the sea resound, and all that is in it. 12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. 13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.

Psalm 9 similarly says: ‘I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of your wonders. I will be glad and rejoice in you. I will sing to your name…Sing praises to the Lord…proclaim among the nations what he has done.” (Psalm 9:1,11)

The NIV Study Bible notes comment on Psalm 9:1, ‘The praise of God in the psalter is rarely a private matter between the psalmist and the Lord. It is usually a public celebration of God’s holy virtues or of his saving acts or gracious bestowal of blessings. In his praise the psalmist proclaims to the assembly God’s glorious attributes or his righteous deeds. To this is usually added a call to praise, summoning all who hear to take up the praise – to acknowledge and joyfully celebrate God’s glory, his goodness and all his righteous acts.”

Then this interesting statement:

“The aspect of praise in the psalms has rightly been called the OT anticipation of NT evangelism.”

Encouraging the people of all nations to the praise of God is still our calling as the people of God today and John’s vision in Revelation 7:9 spurs us on. He wrote:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”                        (Revelation 7:9-10 NIV)

John Piper in his book “Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions”, suggests that, “The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. ‘The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coast lands be glad’ (Psalm 97:1). ‘Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy! (Psalm 67:3-4).

He continues, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exist because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever…Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish…Missions begins and ends in worship…When the flame of worship burns with the heat of God’s true worth, the light of missions will shine to the darkest [places] on earth.”  (John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions Baker Academic 1993, 2005)

Being someone who has been involved in various ways in God’s global mission most of my Christian life, no wonder the Psalms resonate with all that I am and do!

“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. (Psalm 67:2) Amen.

13. Back to Psalms of Praise/Hymns.

For the last 8 years my wife and I have lived in a very beautiful part of Australia. Although located on the edge of a small city the college campus is on 40 acres of farmland and we are on the edge of other farms. On one side of our property we see houses, but on the other side there are fields, cows, sheep and vegetable gardens. Then down below us is the river slowly moving towards the ocean while in the other direction there are mountains which, at times in the middle of winter, have peaks that are covered with snow.

Looking out on this scenery, or when I look up at the stars on a clear night, I often feel that I lack the right words to show my deep appreciation to God for the beauty and wonder of his creation all around me. I wonder, what do I say to adequately praise God for himself and his creation. The Psalms help.

“Claus Westermann has remarked that in ancient Israel when one was confronted with something beautiful, the typical reaction was not contemplation, nor passing judgement, but ‘praise expressing itself in speech.’ The Hebrew language offers a rich praise vocabulary…Although the Psalms are full of the special words for praise (e.g. ‘praise the Lord’), they are also replete with descriptions of who the Lord is and what He has done.”       (C. Hassell Bullock An Introduction to the Old Testament – Poetic Books  Moody Publishers 1979, 1988.)

A perfect example being Psalm 103:1-4

Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits — who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion.

Bullock continues, that in this Psalm, “the language of praise dominates the opening (vv. 1-2) and the closing (vv. 20-22), whereas the main body of the hymn describes the Lord in terms of what He has done and who he is.” The psalmist has endowed “the vocabulary of praise with content. We can praise God without using the special language of praise, but we cannot long maintain the genuineness of that language without relating His being and works. In fact the form is validated by the content.”

Another example is Psalm 104. But here the content of the praise of the initial verses are slightly different. Here the psalmist writes:

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty.

The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent  and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.

In this psalm “the created world evokes praise from the worshipper; however it is not praise of the creation but of the creator.” (Bullock)

So it seems that often in these psalms the praise is related to the character of God as revealed in creation and/or in his acts of redemption.

Bullock says an interesting thing concerning this. He says, “Although Israel’s ancient neighbours had their creation stories too, it has been observed that in no instance was creation a central doctrine in [these] religions…This observation sets the Hebrew faith in a category by itself. The doctrine of creation is basic in the Psalms…Even when the redeeming acts of God constitute the main theme, as in Psalm 74 (vv 12-15), and the creation theme follows (vv. 16-17), the basis for the psalmist’s faith in God’s past saving acts (vv 12-15) and his plea for the future acts of redemption (vv 18-23) is precisely his creative power and work. The inability of the gods of the nations to do anything in the world (if they existed at all) is explained by the fact that they did not create it.”

e.g.  Psalm 96:4-5

For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.

No wonder the doctrine of Creation is so hotly debated by people without faith in these days. I think, that for many, the wonder and intricate design of the universe is an uncomfortable truth pointing to a God in whom they are not sure they are willing to believe in. But, because this doctrine is central to the teaching of the Bible (including the Psalms) and is “the validating doctrine, the legitimizing idea. It forever secures God’s place in theology and fixes him at the centre of all things.” (Bullock)

I always remember the words of a friend, who was brought up in another religion, and who had become a follower of Jesus. He said to me one day, “I never really appreciated God’s creation until I met Jesus.”

Thank God for the Psalms of praise to our Creator and Redeemer God. Psalms of praise for who he is and for what he has and is doing in the world around us. In moments when the scenery is beautiful but our words seem inadequate, we can turn to the Psalms. Or in times when we have known his work of grace in our lives and are thankful, in those times we can also turn to the Psalms and “Praise the Lord.”

12. Psalms of Praise (Psalm 8 – postscript re: verse 2)

If you were observant you may have noticed that in my talk on Psalm 8 (as shared over the last 5 posts) that I didn’t comment on verse 2 which says in the NIV, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise [or strength NIV margin] because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.”

My main reasons being ones of time and purpose (I do try to keep my talks short-ish and to the point) and somehow this verse appeared (on the surface) to be a slight variation from the main theme of the rest of the psalm, although this may not be true.

But then, I have to confess, that when I read some commentator’s explanation of this verse, it didn’t help that much. I read phrases like, “The Hebrew…is obscure” and “This verse is puzzling.”

I do recognize though that obviously Jesus hadn’t read these commentators, because he didn’t seem to have any problem applying this verse to his situation. He quoted it to “the chief priests and the teachers of the law” who had become “indignant” when “the children were shouting in the temple area [to Jesus], ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’” Those religious guys asked him, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” I presume they didn’t think he was deaf? And he obviously wasn’t and responded “yes”, and then reminded them of Psalm 8:2. No further explanation given, he just walked off and “left them” to work it out for themselves. Maybe they then went to the kids to find out the explanation! (see Matthew 21:15-17)

No wonder Jesus suggested that to really understand the things of God, in fact to actually “enter the kingdom of God” we need to “change and become like little children”. (Matthew 18:3) But that is another sermon in itself!

I did though find a commentator who seemed to understand how this verse fitted into Psalm 8. Michael Wilcock suggests that it has something to do with this psalm’s “shameless political incorrectness”. An interesting comment for a poem written thousands of years ago! He explains, “The Bible world, like ours, was pluralistic, awash with all sorts of different beliefs: in the view of any correctly thinking person, all of them valid, but none of them actually ‘right’ in such a way as to make the rest wrong [sounds familiar].

Not so the psalmist. The LORD, the God of Israel and the Bible, is not just our Lord, he says, but the name, the only name, to be honoured in all the earth and even above the heavens. Little Israel are right and the rest are wrong.

What is more, those with opposing ideas are not to be listened to for their helpful insights, as is urged by some, but rather put to silence; and that, not by equally powerful champions, but by the simple-hearted and dependent. Such infants hold the position of strength, which when Jesus quotes these words means that the children’s praise of him on Palm Sunday is right, and that those who would tone it down are wrong.” (Michael Wilcock The Message of the Psalms Intervarsity Press 2001)

So, to let Eugene Peterson have the last word on the subject; “Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs that drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble.” (Psalm 8.1 The Message)

11. Psalms of Praise (Psalm 8 & the Messiah)

A wonderful OT Psalm of praise! But is there more? As we turn to the NT we discover there is. When we read the Book of Hebrews we see the words of Psalm 8:4-6 quoted by the author and he applies them to Jesus. He says; “…we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (see Hebrews 2:5-9)

“The NT takes the royal vision of humanity and uses it to identify and characterize Jesus, who is the true king [‘crowned with glory and honour’]…and [in Jesus] glory, honour and dominion…is profoundly transformed. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, is [now] to be understood as the one who embodies all of this, who is indeed the one ‘in whom all things hold together.”(Col. 1:17)    (Walter Brueggemann The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary Ausberg Publishing House 1984)

The NT application of this Psalm “tells us that it is only when Christ crucified and risen stands at the centre that the pieces of the jigsaw – the picture of creation and man’s position in it – fall into place…Of all that God created, only man is able to ask the question of verse 4 [what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?] … and only the man who is also redeemed by God [through the blood of Jesus] can grasp the answer to it.”   (Michael Wilcock The Message of the Psalms Intervarsity Press 2001)

Who are we? We are children of the Living God, remembered and cared for because of Jesus. And with David, we can proclaim, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

So, in our lives, in the good times and the bad, to keep things in perspective, come back to Psalm 8. If it is night time, look up into the vast universe that God has created for his glory and stand in awe before the God of creation who loves you and cares for you. Let us live as good stewards of all the good things God has given us in his marvellous creation. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)

A fitting doxology:

“Praise the Lord, O my soul…forget not all his benefits…as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us…As a Father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him…from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him…Praise the Lord, O my soul. (Psalm 103).

10. Psalms of praise (Psalm 8:5-8)

“But David is not finished yet! He continues:

“You have made them [human beings] a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.”

In Genesis 1:26 the Creator speaks and says, “Let us make mankind in our image…[to] rule over the fish…and the birds…over the livestock and all the wild animals, …[in fact] over all the creatures.”

Hugh Ross comments on this verse:

“…we humans, like God, have the capacity and responsibility to govern…[and] humanity’s role in governance is utterly unique among all Earth’s creatures, past and present.” (Hugh Ross Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job)

Brueggemann says, “the human person is acknowledged to be God’s regent in the governance of creation. Not only is creation [good and] well ordered, but the human agent occupies a crucial role in the governance of that order…humankind is authorized to have dominion over all other creatures.” (Walter Brueggemann The Message of the Psalms)

The NIV Study Bible notes continue, “Man’s rule is real…it is our [identity], our destiny…but it is not absolute or independent. It is participation, as a subordinate, in God’s rule; it is a gift, not a right.”

Sadly, we as humans have taken things into our own hands far too often, forgetting that we are stewards of all the good things God has made, and the result has too often been disastrous.  As we read this psalm we realize that “at [its centre ] is an affirmation of human power and authority. At its boundaries are affirmations of praise to God. The centre and the boundaries must be read together…Human power is always bounded and surrounded by divine praise…to use human power without the context of praise to God is to profane human regency over creation and so usurp more than has been granted. Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.”  (Walter Brueggemann The Message of the Psalms)

But wait, there’s even more in this psalm. David says,

“You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour.” (8:5)

A little lower than the angels? Us, humans?  “Crowned with glory and honour?” What was David thinking? Aren’t these words, “glory and honour” only really applicable to God? Yet it is true. David here acknowledges that when God made humans, we were the very pinnacle of his creation and here David celebrates mankind as “royal personhood” in the eyes of God. Hard to take in, but “this psalm reminds us that our supremacy in the natural world did not result from our own efforts or from something inherent in nature, but from God’s deliberate choice.” (Craig C Broyles New International Biblical Commentary – Psalms)

We are not what we are due to an accident of evolution but by God’s design. Made to be like him, “crowned with glory and honour”.

”…God [has] granted to humans, and only to humans among Earth’s life, a unique capacity to think, gain understanding and discern what’s wise…[no other animal] can share the human aptitude for invention, communication, abstraction and assessment…Humans have the capacity to make judgements. We [can] discern what’s true, right and enduring. We can [also] choose to act unwisely…Humans can choose what has value and meaning and what does not. Humans can investigate the past and consider how it relates to the present and the future.” (Hugh Ross Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job)

And all these unique attributes come from God, his gifts to us to enable us to live well on the earth.  How different would the world be if we all acknowledged and returned to the truths of Psalm 8. If we saw the world and each other as God sees it and us. David could never have understood how relevant his simple yet profound psalm of praise would still be in the 21st Century.”

9. Psalms of praise (Psalm 8:4)

 

From the wonder of God’s creative activity, David moves on to the wonder that God remembers and cares for mankind.

He says:  what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

“One commentator says concerning this question asked by David, that the psalmist is surprised by God’s interest in mankind. He says, “in view of God’s glory that has been set on the heavens, why does God preoccupy himself with mere mortals? The question is rhetorical and cannot be answered. This psalm expands our perspective to the heavens to see that God has other alternatives for his attention and delight, namely the vast and well-ordered heavens…and yet it is humankind that he is mindful of and cares for. In the midst of innumerable possibilities – as many as the stars in the heavens – God’s interest [in us] remains undistracted.” (Craig C Broyles New International Biblical Commentary – Psalms Hendrickson Publishers 1999)

Think about it. We are loved by God, the Creator of all things. He cares for you!

The we read in Psalm 113:4-9,

“The Lord is exalted over all the nations, His glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth.” Suggesting again (as I mentioned previously from Solomon’s words in 1 Kings 8:23, 27-28) that our God is even bigger than the universe in all its vastness.

But then, in stark contrast to the awesomeness of God, the psalmist speaks of the ‘poverty’ of man and the incredible truth that God “stoops down to look… [followed by] He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap [such mercy!]; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people [such grace!]…”

This amazing truth is seen clearly in the life of Jesus. An example being the day that Jesus came down from the mountain having taught the people some incredible truths concerning the kingdom of God and in fact in Matthew 7:28-29 it says, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority…” But if they were amazed at his teaching, the next incident would have shocked them. A man with leprosy falls down before Jesus and in great desperation cries out to him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

The psalmist asked “what is man that you are mindful of them? Human beings that you care for them?” Well, the question is a good one when we consider that man, due to sin, is just like this leper – full of disease, unclean, untouchable! But what does Jesus do? To the surprise of all, he “reached out and touched” him. The first time anyone would have touched him in years. Then Jesus said to him, “I am willing…be clean!” and immediately he was cured.

Jesus life and love for people revealed the truth of the psalms, including psalm 103, which says,

“As a Father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him…from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13)

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to spend time today in thanksgiving for such an incredible truth concerning the Creator of the universe and you?