In 1940, as the Nazi Party was in control of Germany, well on its way to seemingly rule all of Europe, one man published a small book that surely must have seen as open rebellion. It was a book that exalted the Jewish Scriptures by calling for Christians to recover the Psalms as the Prayerbook of the Bible. The man who wrote this little book (which is still in print today) was named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As you might imagine, he didn’t have many political friends. In fact, Bonhoeffer was later imprisoned. Just for one book? No, but that book on the Psalms was the fruit of a life lived in defiance of the godlessness of the Nazis. As a pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler and established what was known as the Confessing Church—one that did not compromise its beliefs or practices to the Nazi Party.
In his book, Bonhoeffer writes that “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.”[i] It was, in fact, the Psalms that helped sustain Bonhoeffer’s faith while in prison and even as he stared at the gallows upon which he would soon die, the Psalms became his comfort. Why? Because they kept pointing him to God in ways that deepened his faith and solidified his confidence in him. Is that our understanding of the Psalms? Is that the kind of reaction we have to reading them? Would our experience with the Psalms be so impactful that we would publicly extol them in the midst of a political regime that is marked by murderous antisemitism? What makes the Psalms that special and important?
Four Reasons for Reading the Psalms
Consider first that if you go to buy just a New Testament, you almost always find that bound together with is the Psalms. Think about all the books of the Old Testament that might be well-paired with the New Testament. Sometimes the book of Proverbs sneaks in, but Psalms is always there. This is probably because the Psalms is the most quoted book in the New Testament. James Johnston says that the “Jesus and the apostles consistently turned to the Psalms to preach the kingdom of God and establish key doctrines.”[ii] It’s not surprising then that at certain times in church history, pastors were required to memorize all 150 Psalms before entering minister; or, that the first book printed in the United States was a collection of Psalms. The Book of Psalms holds an essential place in the Bible.
But for many today, the Psalms are often taken for granted. They’re there, we’ve read some of them, and will probably have at least one of them read at our funeral. But beyond that, we’re not exactly sure what to do with them. So, why should devote ourselves to studying them? Beyond the fact that they’re in the Bible, why have they had such an impact on the people of God in both the Old and New Covenants, in Israel and the Church?
First, in the Psalms we see an unparalleled Emotional Intensity. John Calvin called the Psalms “The Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.”[iii] By that, he meant that it appears that there is no emotion experienced by humanity that is not explored in the psalms. In this book, we see biblical expressions of those experiencing loneliness, love, sorrow, shame, regret, repentance, awe, anger, exultation, fear, delight, depression, grief, joy, broken-heartedness, contrition, pain, hope, and more. Why is this helpful to us? Because so very often, when we experience those things, we do not know how to express ourselves. We do not know how to worship God or call out to him in prayer. We lack the vocabulary to come before God in the full range of emotional language. But the Psalms provide such vocabulary to us. This is especially powerful when we realize that though these are the genuine expressions of believers, they are also the Word of God. So the Psalms are not only rooted in real historical praise and thanksgiving, confession and repentance, joy and sorrow, they are also the perfect words of God for the building up of our faith and the living out of righteousness. Thus, what we have is not just example, but instruction on how to think and feel about God and life. The Psalms show us how to call out to God in both the pain and pleasure of life.
How can the psalmists—those writing the psalms—navigate such highs and lows in life? Because know who God is. The Psalms don’t merely show us the prayers and praises of God’s people, but the God they worship. This is why were also see in the Psalms a Doctrinal Complexity. In the Psalms, God is shown to be a Shield, a Rock, a Shepherd, a Judge, a Refuge, a Fortress, an Avenger, the Creator, Deliverer, Healer, Protector, Provider, Redeemer, and above all the King who reigns over all things. In all of this God is to be worshiped, trusted, and obeyed because he is shown to be good, upright, righteous, just, gracious, faithful, loving, compassionate, and forgiving. In other words, the character and care of the Almighty Sovereign God is brought to bear in the lives of his people. Geoffrey Grogan shows how this played out in nine broad themes throughout the Psalms. There we see that the God who creates his people is also the God who rules, speaks to, meets with, protects, judges, blesses, and refines his people. God is the one who distinguishes his people from the nations and fulfills his purposes for them.[iv] It’s not surprising then, that people like Martin Luther have called the Psalms a “small Bible” where all of the themes and theology found in the rest of the Bible can be seen in the crucible of life. Amazingly, the Hebrews title of this book is Praises. As we’ve seen, we shouldn’t take that to mean that we only see praises to God in the book. Rather, much more profoundly, that God is to be praised in all circumstances.
But what exactly are the Psalms? Just by a quick scan, we see that visually, they are different from much of the rest of Scripture. In the Psalms we see Poetic Artistry. The Psalms are by definition poems. Some are songs meant to be sung by individuals or the gathered people of God. Most are prayers prayed by individuals or the gathered people of God. As poetic works of the Hebrews language, there is a lot of skill and artistry that went into their composition. But the Hebrews did not write poetry the way we usually do, involving rhyme—“Roses are red and violets are blue / Sugar is sweet and so are you.” Can you imagine trying to translate that into a foreign language? The Psalms have a timeless appeal, in part, because in the providence of God, such is not the way their mind worked. They used rhythm and repetition. As you read you’ll also see extensive use of metaphor and vivid imagery. The poet’s favorite device, though, was parallelism. This is the repeating of ideas in similar wording to emphasize something. They might do this with a simple repeat, or with language that intensifies the point. Still yet, they will repeat the idea, but by way of contrast.
The individual Psalms are unique, being written by various authors. As such, there many different types of Psalms, basically being categorized by the big idea of the work. Scholars disagree somewhat on the various categories, but basically, we can see hymns of praise, psalms of lament, trust, thanksgiving, and wisdom. We also see royal or messianic psalms. But the entire Psalter shows intentional design as well.[v] When you talk about the entire collection of the Psalms, you will sometimes hear the word Psalter. This is a just a shorthand way of saying ‘all of the Psalms in this book of the Bible.’ When I was in college, there was a sense in which the Psalter was thought to have been put together in something of a random order. You still see books advancing that idea, but many disagree with that now. When you hold the Psalms, what you have in your hand is a carefully put together collection. Though these Psalms were penned throughout Israel’s history, the final product was put together sometime after the exile. We know that, in part, because we have some psalms that refer to God’s people sitting “by the waters of Babylon” (Ps 137:1)—something that only happened during the exile! The Psalter is made up of five smaller Books. Each of these books has a specific feel to it, in terms of content and themes. Taken together they broader tell the story of Israel from the rise of David as king and the Lord himself who stand as the ultimate King above all things. We see the struggle of conflict between David and his enemies, and ultimately the pain of the exile. These things move the godly to long for the fulfillment of God’s promises to David through the coming of the Christ.[vi]
This leads us to the final reason why the Psalms are so helpful and important. We see in this book a clear Gospel Centrality. Do you remember what Jesus told the disciples shortly after his resurrection? Jesus said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. . . . Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44-47). So, it would be wrong to read the Psalms and not understand them in a way that helps us see the work of Christ as our Savior. This doesn’t mean that all of them will have a specific prophetic sign-post toward his coming. But it does mean that every Psalm plays a part in the ongoing history of redemption that helped prepare for the coming of Christ. The Psalms will help us understand how God redeems and restores sinners, not just under the old covenant but ultimately and finally in Christ.
But on a more fundamental level, we see Christ fulfilling the Psalms because these are the cries of God’s people in praise, petition, repentance, lament, and confidence. Because Christ was our perfect substitute, he experienced and fulfilled for us the entire range of worship and struggle of our lives. So, when they feel forsaken, Jesus was forsaken more completely than any other. When the people praised God, Jesus praised for deeply than any other. Every expression by God’s people finds a more profound reality in Christ because he was the perfect man who endured every temptation yet was without sin. And he was the eternal Son of God who knows and trusts the Father more intimately than any other. Thus, on a very fundamental level, every Psalm is declaring praise or asking a question that Christ provides the ultimate answer to.[vii]
Three More Reasons
Hopefully, the case has been made for why you should devote your attention to the Psalms. But if you’re still not yet convinced, here’s three simple reasons. First, this is the Word of God and therefore helpful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). Second, Christians are commanded to speak the Psalms to one another in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5. Finally, consider that when Jesus hung on the cross under the wrath of God for his people, the book that he drew strength from and used the language of to call out to God in prayer was the book of Psalms. If it was the prayerbook of Jesus, surely is should be the prayerbook of his people as well.[viii]
This post was adapted from “Two Ways to Live,” a sermon on Psalm 1 which is available here.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 162.
[ii] James Johnston, Psalms (Vol 1): Rejoice, the Lord Is King (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), Kindle location 191.
[iii] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, reprint (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).
[iv] Geoffrey Grogan, Prayer, Praise, and Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2001), 173-260.
[v] Observations on structure from James Hely-Hutchinson, The Book of Psalms: Meditating on God’s Circumstance-Defying Covenant Faithfulness in Christ, lecture notes (Nov 1-2, 2013), accessed online at http://storage.cloversites.com/gracechristianfellowshipchurch/documents/PssSpokaneNov13.pdf
[vi] James Hely-Hutchinson, “The Psalms” in Lee Gatiss, ed., The NIV Proclamation Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).
[vii] ESV Gospel Transformation Bible, “Introduction to Psalms” (online edition).
[viii] This last argument is originally made by Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, 162.