This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
This week I’m reading Book 1 of the Psalms, numbers 1 through 41. As this site indicates, it is clear that the psalms are grouped into five “books”, but whether there is a theme in each book is not entirely clear. Book 1 has many psalms of David, some of which derive from his biography, while Book 2 has more psalms about the whole people, Book 3 contains references to Jerusalem’s destruction, while Books 4 and 5 are more corporate and liturgical.
But the ordering varies. Psalm 51 is a major psalm from David's life, but it's not part of Book 1. Later, Asaph's psalms are grouped in 73-83, but 50 stands off by itself. As you go through these psalms, however, you see nice pairings of psalms that provide mutual verification, interesting contrasts, and always beautiful language.
All these psalms in Book 1 are psalms of David, except 1, 2, 10, and 33 which are unattributed.
Using beautiful images from the natural world, 1 is a lovely psalm that contrasts the blessedness and happiness of the godly compared to the misery of the wicked. We should keep #1 in mind as we read other psalms, since it begins the whole collection.
2 is a messianic psalm the celebrates the eventual triumph of the Lord’s anointed, and God’s derision at the pride of the rulers of the earth. Handel set some of these verses to memorably dramatic music in Messiah.
3 is the first psalm of David, “when he fled from Absalom his son”. The psalm tells of God’s wonderful deliverance and security. This is a psalm that I yellow-highlighted in divinity school, to remember to try to memorize it.
4 expresses confidence in God, and concluding with the peaceful sleep that is possible because of God’s safety.
Following that bedtime prayer, 5 is a morning prayer that affirms God’s hatred of wickedness, God’s blessing of the righteous, and the refuge of God. As the Harper's Bible Commentary indicates (p. 436), this could accompany Temple sacrifice (similarly to 3 and 4) or accompany rituals at the Temple gate (like 15 and 24)
Psalm 6 praises God’s mercy in time of trouble and offers assurance of God’s answer. The Harper book (p. 437) points out that 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 are the seven penitential psalms.
7 is a prayer of someone who has been wronged, a plea for justice, and an expression of confidence that the wicked suffer because of their own plans and mischief. (I’ve heard people say, “Karma’s a bitch,” and this psalm expresses some of that feeling!
8, another psalm of David, is a beloved affirmation of the glories of creation, the surprising dignity of humankind, and God’s majesty.
9 affirms thankfulness for God’s help, for God’s righteousness, and offers pleas and assurance for justice.
The unattributed 10 is a great psalm concerning justice that has been delayed.
11 resumes the psalms of David and affirms the Lord as our refuge and strength
In 12, David prays for help amid ungodly people and is sure of God’s help.
13 is a prayer of the deserted person who painfully feels God’s absence. "A personal lament, Psalm 13 describes a desperately sick person (v. 3), abandoned by friends who gloat over this miserable end of virtuous living" (Harper Bible Commentary, 439). Some friends! But one does think of Job, whose friends didn't gloat exactly but couldn't fathom his sickness.
14 contrasts the practices and principles of wicked people. “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (vs. 1).
15 is a short prayer about the happiness of holy people.
16 is “A Miktam of David,” but the word, found also in psalms 56-60, is of uncertain meaning, perhaps referring to wind instruments. It is a messianic prayer in which one can read some of Jesus’ experience.
In Psalm 17, David pleads his integrity and prays for God’s deliverance.
18 has fifty verses; only psalms 78, 89, and 119 are longer. The psalm also has the second longest title (behind #60): “To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said:” The psalm is mostly repeated in 2 Samuel 22. True to the title, #18 testifies to God’s deliverance. One might see Psalms 18 and 19, as well as 8 and 104, as counterparts to Job 38-41, where the wonders of creation give assurance about God's protection, rather than scold the believer with creation's infinity.
19 is a favorite of mine (among several others) and praises the revelation of God found in creation. Verses 14 is frequently heard in churches as a short pre-sermon prayer.
In Psalm 20, David prays for victory and assuring that God will help.
In Psalm 21, David thanks the Lord for past victories and is assured that God will continue to grant victory.
22 is the famous psalm of David, singing of the suffering and glorification of the messianic king. Of course, Jesus prayed the first line while he suffered on the cross.
23 is surely the most famous and beloved of the psalms—although I also love 121. I remember having to memorize 23 as a little kid for a Sunday school assignment.
24 is another psalm hat we find in Handel’s Messiah. The poem extols the Lord of creation, praises the character of God’s people, and further affirms God as the King of glory.
Psalm 25 is a lovely prayer for guidance and protection.
Psalm 26 is a plea for vindication from God.
Psalm 27 is a song of confidence and a prayer for help.
Psalm 28 is another prayer for help, offering assurance of God’s answer.
In 29, David praises the Lord of the thunderstorms. The HBC (p. 446) connects this psalm to the Song of Moses (Ex. 15) and God's theophany in Ex. 19, as well as psalms 46-48, 93, and 96-99.
30 is a song of David but also a song at the dedication of the Temple. It is a prayer for deliverance; I once knew of a cancer patient who was particularly drawn to the psalm, notably verses 8-10.
In psalm 31, David trusts God’s deliverance and affirms “My times are in thy hand” (vs. 15a). The HBC (p. 447) notes that the psalm borrows from other psalms like 10, 71, 38, and others, as well as Jeremiah 17:18, 20:10, and 22:8.
Psalm 32 is one of David’s penitential psalms that affirms God’s pardon and urges others to repent.
The unattributed 33 rejoices in God’s providence and deliverance. The HBC (p. 448) comments that Psalms 1-2 introduce all the psalms, and 10 is probably connected with 9, and so among the unattributed psalms in Book 1, 33 is an "orphan." But it has an interesting theology of God's omniscient love and care.
34 comes out of David’s pretense of madness when he appeared before Abimelech. The psalm praises God’s goodness, extorts others to trust God and avoid sin. “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (v. 8a).
35 is a prayer of help from perfection, from slanderers, and from haters. Don’t we all know haters!
Psalm 36, where David is identified as the Lord’s servant, urges us to avoid sin, and it affirms God’s grace and goodness.
#37 is the psalm of an aged man. The righteous can count on God’s help and reward while the wicked will be cut off.
David pleads for mercy in Psalm 38, a psalm “for the memorial offering.”
He prays in psalm 39 for enlightenment, deliverance, and the power to hold his peace. The designation "to Jeduthun" refers to the Levite who served as one of David's musicians (1 Chr. 16:41, 42; 25:1-6). The name also appears with Psalms 63 and 77. The HBC (p. 451) notes that the psalm looks at life's brevity and seeks an answer in a relationship with God.
In Psalm 40, David prays for God’s delivering goodness and for God’s mercy and grace. He is grateful for having been obedient to God!
The last psalm of Book 1, #41, is a song of the compassionate and those who act with integrity. It makes a good “bookend” with Psalm 1, and it is also very characteristic of Wisdom literature, with its focus on rewards and punishments for uprightness and wickedness. The last verse is a doxology for Book 1, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.”
Next time, Lord willing, I'll read through Books 2 and 3, which are psalms 42-89.