Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha


In our first volume we dealt with a number of things about the Psalms that help us in our understanding of them. More briefly we mention some of those things here.

While most of the Bible speaks to us about God and about God's ways, the Psalms help us to speak to God. They are not given to be used as magic formulae or as sacred words that have special power. Because of what they teach us of God's greatness and truth and power and love, they help us to praise God and to pray to him.

Different kinds of Psalms

The psalms reflect many of the different circumstances that we face in the course of our lives: joy and sorrow, difficulty and danger, failure and sin, but also deliverance and victory, sickness and fear of death, as well as wonder at God's goodness, love and saving power. Some Psalms are deeply personal prayers, others are personal thanksgivings. Some are intercessions of the whole people of Israel, while in others the people give praise to God for his blessings on them, often recalling what God has done in past years and generations. Some are prayers with confession of sin and request for God's mercy and forgiveness, while others show the place that God's law should have in his people's lives.

Hebrew worship

From reading the Psalms we can understand a good many things about the way that Hebrew people in Old Testament days worshipped God. A person might meditate alone on God's word and so pray and offer praise, but people united in worship, praising God in song, with musical instruments, with clapping and dancing. There were processions in the temple, and sometimes there were dramas that were enacted as people came to the temple to worship. Some Psalms show us the importance for the people's worship of the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem where sacrifices were offered and there was the paying of vows that people had made to God.

The Psalms as poetry

The Psalms are poetic in form, like the songs and hymns we sing in Christian worship. That makes them easy to remember, but we should be careful not to use psalms or hymns or songs just for the tune or for the poetry. They should not be allowed to become "vain repetitions". The most important feature of Hebrew poetry it is helpful to understand as we study the Psalms is what we call parallelism . This is the way in which two or three lines one after the other, express the same thought in slightly different words, adding emphasis by doing so. For example:

"He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel" (103:7).
"He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities" (103:10).
"The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring" (93:3).

The parallelism may also express contrasting things, as of the righteous and the wicked:

"the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish" (1:6).
"Better is a little that the righteous person has
than the abundance of many wicked" (37:16).

There are other kinds of parallelism that fuller commentaries on the Psalms explain and illustrate.

The headings of the Psalms

In most of our translations of the Bible we find headings at the top of many of the Psalms. We should think of these as rather like the headings that some Bibles today give to different sections of a book or of a chapter, describing the content of the passage that follows. Because these were not part of the Psalms as they were written originally, some Versions, like the Good News Bible and the New English Bible, leave them out. Some of the headings in the Hebrew Bible or in the early Greek translation told on what occasions a Psalm was to be used or the original collection (like a hymn book) from which it came. Because the name of David was in the heading of 72 of the Psalms, the whole Book came to be called 'The Psalms of David'.

The Bible tells us of the reputation of David as a musician (see 1 Samuel 16:14-23, 2 Samuel 6:5, 23:1 and Amos 6:5). We can be confident that David wrote many Psalms. Yet the name of David in the heading of a Psalm need not mean that he wrote it. The Hebrew in fact could be translated "to David" or "for David", and may refer to a 'David collection' just as there was a collection "to" or "for" the "Chief Musician" or "Choirmaster" (in our translation "the leader").

Some of the headings in the Psalms thus refer to a collection in which they were found before they came into the final collection of our Book of Psalms. We have 12 headings referring to "the sons of Korah" (including 42-49) and 12 with the name of Asaph (see 73-83). From these headings we can see also that some psalms belonged to more than one collection (see the headings of 18-22). Other headings try to picture the circumstances in which the psalm was written, and in such a case as Psalm 51 it may well be that the actual situation of the writing of the psalm was the time when the prophet Nathan came to David after his sin with Bathsheba.

Other headings speak of the kind of "psalm" or "song" or "prayer". Others give musical directions such as "for the flutes", "with stringed instruments", or give the tune to which the psalm is to be sung. Writers and dates

In very many cases we do not know who wrote the Psalms or just when they were written. Some clearly show the situation of the time, as when Psalm 74 speaks of the destruction of the temple, or when Psalm 137 speaks of the people in exile "by the rivers of Babylon". In many other cases we can only imagine what the psalmist's situation may have been, and then we can apply it to our own situation as people have done all down the ages. We can learn much from what the Psalms teach us about God, about God's holiness and lovingkindness, justice and mercy. Above all we can make the psalmists' words in praise and prayer our words as we come to God. Whoever were the writers and whatever their times and circumstances, we thank God for letting us have their words that help us to pray and that inspire our praise.

We should not assume that all the writers of the Psalms were men. There were prophetesses in Israel as well as prophets (see Judges 4:4 and 2 Kings 22:14), and wise women as well as wise men (2 Samuel 14:2 and 20:16). So there may have been women psalmists as well as men. Since, however, in Israel in Old Testament times (in contrast to many places and cultures today) most leadership and public speaking was in the hands of men, we usually refer to writers of Psalms as 'he' rather than regularly using 'he or she'.

The Christian use of the Psalms

From earlier collections being drawn together there came to be the book of 150 Psalms that were accepted by the Jewish people, and so they have come to be the Psalter of our Bible. The book of Psalms obviously meant a great deal to Jesus (see Mark 1:11, 15:34 and Luke 24:44). So we as Christians use the Psalms along with the rest of the Scriptures in our worship, and we can speak about the way that they are "fulfilled" in Jesus. What the Psalms said about God coming to his people in righteousness and peace was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. What is said about the "king" in Israel is often true in the deepest sense of Jesus as King and Messiah. Much that is said in the Psalms about the mercy and goodness of God is shown to us supremely in the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some things in the Psalms, however, we have to read remembering that in Christ a higher and fuller revelation has come to us. When we read what many of the Psalms say about death and the grave (or Sheol), we need to realise that now we know what the psalmists did not know, what "has been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10) It is also true that we cannot pray some of the prayers of the Psalms just as they are written. The prayers for judgment to fall on the psalmists' enemies we must exchange for prayers for the conversion of those who have opposed God and tried to work against his purposes, because that is the way of Jesus. He taught us to love and pray for our enemies, not to retaliate and return evil for evil (Matthew 5:38-44). Justice and vengeance must always be left in God's hands (Romans 12:17-21). We do not reject what those prayers of the Psalms stand for: the strong and earnest desire that God's will may be done in the world, justice given to the oppressed, and all evil overcome. But we use the Psalms in our personal devotions, in our family prayers and in our Christian congregations, thankful for their riches and their inspiration, and yet guided by God's revelation in Jesus Christ that we have in the New Testament. We remember also, as we have said, that the Psalms are not magical incantations. They are to be used as we use any other part of the Bible, to guide our thoughts and our actions, to bring us to live the kind of life God intends us to live in faith and prayer and good deeds.