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.
As this site indicates, the psalms are grouped into five “books”. Whether there is a definite theme in each book is not entirely clear, but one can discern certain patterns. Book 1 has many psalms of David, some of which derive from his biography, while Book 2 has more psalms about the whole people—and more psalms deriving from specific situations of David’s life. Book 3 contains references to judgment and to Jerusalem’s destruction, while Books 4 and 5 are more corporate and liturgical. The Harper Bible Commentary (p. 453) notes that one could call Psalms 42-83 an "Elohist Psalter," because the general name for God, Elohim, predominates instead of the proper name of the Lord, YHWH.
This week I’m reading Book II of the Psalms, 42 through 72. This section begins with eight psalms attributed to the Sons of Korah. This site gives quite a bit of information about this group. You may remember that Korah and his sons appear in Numbers as Israelites who raised questions about Moses’ leadership. But the Korahites’ role in subsequent biblical history is extensive, if not necessarily in the forefront, and the Korahites are especially remembered for authorship of these Psalms. The Harper’s Bible Commentary (p. 453) notes that these psalms are more melancholy than those in Book 3 attributed to fellow musician Asaph.
Psalm 42 is “A Maskil”, Psalm 43 is essentially a continuation of 42, and 44 is another “maskil”; all have to with crises of life and faith, and hope for God’s deliverance. What lovely psalms!
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’ (42:1-3)
and the expression of hope:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God (42:5-6, 11, 43:11)
The psalmist is unable to praise God because of troubles and adversaries, but the psalmist has confidence that praise will again be possible.
44 is another expression of complaint and prayers for deliverance.
We have heard with our ears, O God,
our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old…
But 44 is a prayer of a whole people in crisis. Verses 9-16 brings before God a terrible national situation; twice (verses 11 and 22) they are described as sheep led to slaughter. What a contrast to the mighty acts of God remembered in tradition, and the seeming silence of God in the situation of the Psalmist.
But 45 is a love song of a king and his bride. Compare the despair of 44:22-26 with the confidence and blessings of 45:6-9!
My writing professor in college has “Ps. 45:1” on her tombstone.
My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
46 is a wonderful song praising God for the divine strength and victory.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 47, a song of battle, continues the praise of God as king of all the earth, while Psalm 48 focuses the praise upon Mount Zion.
Psalm 49, the last of the “Sons of Korah” psalms in this batch, is a wisdom psalm, pointing out the foolishness of putting one’s trust in riches.
Psalm 50 is a psalm of Asaph, set apart from the other songs by him (73-83), perhaps because 50 is paired so well with the famous psalm of David, 51. In both, sacrifice is acceptable when accompanied by right intent and attitude: a thanksgiving (50:14) and a broken spirit (51:16-17).
(Asaph is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:39, chapter 16, 2 Chr. 29:30, and “sons of Asaph” appear in 1 Chr. 25:1, 2 Chr. 20:14, and Ezra 2:41. They are a tradition of poets and musicians dating from David’s time and into the post exilic era.)
A friend has a problem with Psalm 51, and I think she has a good point: David regrets that "Against you, you alone, have I sinned," but what about Bathsheba and Uriah?
Psalms 52 and 53 are also paired well. Back to that word maskil: there are thirteen psalms designed by this word of uncertain meaning: 32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89, and 142. These two maskils both have to do with the folly and fate of the wicked. 53 is nearly identical to Psalm 14, although 14 does not have the choirmaster’s instruction “according to Mahalath” nor is it called a maskil.
Psalm 51 began a series of David psalms, several of which are attributed to incidents in David’s life. Most are prayers for deliverance from trouble, for mercy from God, and for divine help. 51 of course deals with his sins with Bathsheba, and 52 concerns the time when Saul was informed of David’s stop at the house of Ahimelech (1 Sam. 22). 54 is a short psalm of a distressed person, and the circumstance was “when the Ziphites went and told Saul, ‘David is in hiding among us.’”
55 has no specific circumstance, but David is distressed at being in trouble and being betrayed by a friend. He is also in trouble in 56 and 57, “when the Philistines seized [David] in Gath,” and “when he fled from Saul, in the cave”. 56 has a wonderful tune name, “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths.” In 59, David prays for deliverance from Saul’s men who had orders to kill him.” Within this group of psalms is Ps. 58, without a circumstance, but which upholds God’s judgment against the wicked. Altogether, these psalms are full of distress at real physical threats but also confidence in God’s help and the psalmist’s eventual triumph over foes.
After these psalms of David’s prayers for individual deliverance, we have Ps. 60 which is David’s prayer for national deliverance.
Psalms 61-70 are all psalms of David. 61 and 62 are prayers for God’s refuge and expressions of faith in God’s provision. Ps. 63, “when [David] was in the Wilderness of Judah,” expresses thirst for God. Concluding with the assurance that his enemies will be destroyed, 63 is followed by 64, a prayer for deliverance against secret enemies.
Psalm 65 is an expression of praise in God’s goodness, bounty, and power. Psalm 66, in turn, is a psalm of thanksgiving, both for national deliverance and for personal assistance.
Psalm 67, which begins with an echo of the Priestly Benediction (Num. 6:25), is a prayer of Israel but also all nations (Gentiles) who will praise the Lord as well. It is nicely paired with the much longer Psalm 68, a psalm that evokes the Exodus, the wilderness, the Conquest, Mount Zion and the Sanctuary, and God’s sovereignty over the whole earth.
The last four psalms of Book II are also psalms for deliverance. The well known Messianic psalm, 69, has many connections to Jesus’ passion and death, and ends with a song of praise for God’s salvation. Psalm 70 is a prayer of salvation from persecutors. Psalm 71 is a prayer of an older person (vs. 18) for help and vindication. Finally, Psalm 72 is a prayer for the wellbeing and prosperity of the king. The psalm (as well as Ps. 127) is attributed to Solomon.
Ending Book II with words of Solomon is apt, because some of the psalms in Book III face the tragedies of God's people during the post-Solomonic years of Jerusalem's fall.