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How to Read the Psalms

Blog by Rob Vandeman

We love to read the Psalms and rightly so. While Psalms may be the most popular book of the Bible, the Psalms are often the most misunderstood and misinterpreted. Many of us choose a few favorites and ignore others that strike us as bizarre or even cruel. Yet all the psalms were written for our benefit. To understand and appreciate the whole collection, we need solid principles of interpretation that will guide us to a proper reading and application of this riveting part of God’s Word.

There are several principles that we should keep in mind as we read the psalms. Not only will they help us understand God’s message in the psalms, but the principles will also allow us to see them in all their richness. As we meditate on the psalms we think, feel, imagine and choose in increasingly godly ways.

In order to illustrate each of these principles, we will apply them to Psalm 131:

    A song for the ascent to Jerusalem
    A psalm of David

    1. My heart is not proud, O Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.

    2. But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
    like a weaned child with its mother,
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

    3. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.   (NIV)

Read a psalm in its context

The first principle, of course, is the fundamental rule of context, a principle that is true for any passage of Scripture. However, we must take into account the special nature of the book of Psalms as we apply the principle there.

The psalms are unique in the Bible. Psalms contains an anthology of 150 separate poetic compositions, not a narrative like Genesis or Mark nor a collection of prophetic oracles like Isaiah. Through the ages, attempts have been made to give a rationale for why one psalm follows another. Occasionally, you can see small collections of similar poems grouped together, for instance the “songs of ascent” (120-134) where Psalm 131 is found. But context does not mean the same thing in Psalms as it does in other biblical books. A psalm may have no relationship to the ones that surround it. Clearly, it is important to read a portion of a psalm in light of the whole poem. However, if you are reading a poem like Psalm 131 in its entirety, a different type of context takes on a very important role. So important that we will assign it a separate principle as follows.

Determine the Genre of the Psalm you are Reading

Every psalm is unique. No two psalms are exactly alike. Nonetheless, the 150 psalms fall into some basic patterns, reflecting how they were used in their original setting. Psalm 131 is a psalm of confidence where the psalmist expresses his confidence in God with a striking central metaphor. As you reread Psalm 131 note that it evokes a feeling of calm trust in God through the use of a vivid metaphor – a quiet child in the arms of its mother – to communicate its message.

Meditate on the Parallelism of the Psalm

Open to any psalm, indeed any poem in the Bible, and you will discover an echoing effect between the lines. The words are rarely exactly the same, but they are often obviously related in meaning, as for instance in Psalm 2:2 –

    The kings of the earth take their stand
     and the rulers gather together

     Against the Lord
     and against his Anointed One.  (NIV)

“Kings” in the first line parallels “ruler” in the second. “Take their stand” in the first is echoed by “gather together” in the second line. The third and fourth lines are both prepositional phrases naming the objects of the human rulers’ attack. Many wrongly understand this phenomenon, called parallelism, to be merely ornamental. “The poet is saying the same thing twice, just using different words,” they say. On the contrary, the second line of a parallelism, while showing a strong similarity with the first, always carries forward the thought of the first line. It is not A equals B but A, and what’s more B.

How does this apply to the first verse of Psalm 131? The psalmist (in the A line) distances himself from pride by asserting that his heart is not proud. In the language of the Old Testament, the heart is the center of one’s personality. It is a metaphor for what makes a person tick. The psalmist is saying that at the core of his being he is without pride. The next two parallel lines flow from this one. In the B line (“my eyes are not haughty”), the psalmist claims that his demeanor is not proud. As people look at him, they see a humble person. Then in the third line (a three-part parallelism) the psalmist says that he does not reach beyond himself in how he acts. Indeed, he distances himself from pride in his actions by first saying that he does not “concern himself with matters too great” and then saying it more strongly by denying participation in acts “too wonderful for me.”

Unpack the Imagery of the Psalm

Parallelism and imagery are the two most notable characteristics of biblical poetry. In both cases, we see that we need to reflect more carefully and slowly on poetry than prose, because poetry is compressed language. It says a lot using only a few words. And not only do we need to ask about the relationship between the lines (parallelism). But we must be on the lookout for the metaphors and similes that give such imaginative power to the psalms.

Psalm 131:2 provides a striking instance of an image that needs to be unpacked. The psalmist tells us that he has calmed himself just as a small child is quiet with its mother. Reflecting on the significance of this image, we note that the psalmist is presenting us with a picture of God as our caring and compassionate mother. The psalmist’s soul rests as calmly in God’s loving arms as a small child rests in its mother’s arms, presenting the reader with a heartfelt picture of trust and confidence.

Read the Psalm in Light of its Title

The title of a psalm provides a wealth of information (authorship, worship setting, musical terms, historical situation, etc.,), but we often overlook it. English translations don’t even assign the title a verse number, making ambiguous its status as Scripture. However, the title is verse 1 and definitely a part of the cannon as passed down from Old Testament times.

Nonetheless, we must apply this principle with care. The titles sometimes give us information about such things as the historical setting that inspired the writing of the psalm in the first place (see Psalm 3 and 51 as examples), but the psalm itself purposefully distances itself from that historical setting. It never mentions specific names and events and for a very important reason. The psalms were written for use in the regular worship of the people of God. We will explore this further under another principle, but for now know that the psalms are intentionally non-specific in terms of their original background.

The title of Psalm 131 provides us with two interesting bits of information. The psalm is a “song of ascents.” That is, it was a psalm sung by faithful pilgrims as they left their towns and villages and made the trip “up” to the temple in Jerusalem (the point of highest elevation) to celebrate one of the major annual festivals such as the Passover. We can picture the families making the long walk and perhaps the psalmist was inspired in his image of confidence by seeing mothers carrying their calm, sleeping children. We are also told that David authored the psalm. While an interesting bit of information, it is not clear that this actually helps us understand the psalm.

Glean the Theological Teaching of the Psalm

The Psalms teach us about God and our relationship with Him and that is the heart of theology. The Psalter may be thought of as a portrait gallery of God, presenting us with multiple images of whom God is. These images are most often pictures of relationship: God is our shepherd (23); our warrior (18); our king (47); and in the case of Psalm 131, a mother who cares for us, protects and calms our anxious souls.

The Psalms use imagery to communicate God because imagery reveals Him to us by comparing Him to things and people in our experience. But images reveal Him in a way that does not compromise His mystery. We are not presented with a carefully precise prose description of the nature of God, but rather with metaphors, through which we learn truly but not comprehensively. God is high above our thoughts, but He kindly gives us glimpses of His essential nature through these images.

Ask how the Psalm Anticipates Christ

Jesus gave the disciples a principle that should govern our reading of the whole Old Testament. He told them that His suffering and glorification were anticipated in “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

While the New Testament shows us that a handful of psalms are especially relevant to the coming of the Messiah (2, 16, 22, 69, 110 for example), we should read every single psalm with Christ in mind.

As we pray the Psalms, for instance, we can pray them as prayers to Jesus. Psalm 131 is a prayer of confidence in God. How much more should we be able to pray this prayer with a view to Christ? We should also think of the psalms as prayers of Jesus. After all, He sang them (Heb. 2:12). During His earthly ministry, He often quoted them. Indeed, we can say that only Jesus could sing Psalm 131 as an expression of absolute trust and humility at all times in his life. Not even David could do that. I think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane struggling with the will of God for His life, but stilling and quieting His soul before His journey to the cross.

The entire Old Testament, the psalms included, anticipates Christ. Ask yourself how the psalm you are reading leads you to Christ. Early in my pastoral ministry I read a quote that went something like this: “Don’t you know, young man,” said the old preacher to the young preacher he was helping to ordain, “that from every village and hamlet in England there runs a road that leads to the great metropolis of London. In the same way, every text has a road that leads you to the great metropolis of Scripture, which is Christ. Whenever your take a text, ask yourself this question: What is the road that will take me and my hearers to Christ?” That quote was fundamental in shaping my approach to reading and preaching the Bible.

Consider the Psalm a Mirror of Your Soul

The Psalms are a mirror of our souls. When we get up in the morning we drag ourselves to the mirror and we force our eyes open, and then we gasp. Then we quickly shower, dry and comb our hair. The mirror gives us a close look at our physical appearance. The Psalms also give us a good look at ourselves, but they peer even deeper than a glass mirror as they reveal our inner selves. The Psalms express every emotion that human beings experience. The laments articulate our fear, despair, shame, and anger. The hymns express our joy, love and confidence. As we read the words of the psalmist, they become our own. They help us understand what is going on inside of us. But even more, they minister to us as they direct us toward God.

Before a job interview, I suggested my friend read Psalm 131. He read the psalm, and noted especially verse 2, “I have stilled and quieted my soul.” He felt his own anxiety with a new level of awareness. “I am far from calm,” he thought to himself. As he read on, the psalmist pointed him (v. 3) in the only direction where he could find some relief from the churning in the pit of his stomach: “Put you hope in the Lord, both now and forevermore.”

Let the Psalm Guide Your Life

My friend’s comfort came from the concluding verse of Psalm 131. It is an imperative, a command to God’s people based upon the psalmist’s example of humility and confidence in God.

The Psalms do more than teach us about God by stimulating our imagination. They do more than guide our emotional lives. They lead us to godly actions and attitudes. Preeminently, the Psalms, as the hymnbook of ancient Israel, tell us how to worship. They encourage us to sing, praise, clap our hands, pray, and fall on our knees. They invite us to an enthusiastic adoration of our God in good times and in difficult times.

These simple principles can help us as we seek to understand and apply the psalms to our lives. They are not a magical formula, however. We must approach the psalms with awe and anticipation and open hearts. If we do, we can be assured that God will meet us in these songs.

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