As I study the Psalms, I didn’t realize or had forgotten that the Psalms progress in a loose and general chronology from the life of David, to Solomon (Ps. 72), and into the crisis era of the divided kingdom, the destruction of Jerusalem and, by the end, the corporate worship-life of the post exilic community. Most of us, myself included, pick out individual psalms and don’t necessary see the patterns within the whole psalter.
This week I’m studying Books III and IV of the Psalms (73-89, 90-106). (I’ve used the Oremus Bible Browser, bible.oremus.org, to quote from psalm texts.) Psalms 73-83 (and also 50) are psalms of Asaph, who 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 were a tradition of poets and musicians dating from David’s time and into the post exilic era.
Psalm 73 is a personal favorite, a song about righteousness and wickedness; the prosperous wicked will eventually fall to ruin but God does eventually deliver the righteous, though we may have periods of distress (vss. 12-14).
I love these verses:
21 When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will receive me with honour.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.
That “nevertheless” is a whole Gospel. We struggle and grow bitter at God and fall short—-but nevertheless, God blesses and keeps us and holds us by the hand.
The subject of wickedness continues to 74--where the poet laments the devastation of the land and of Jerusalem at the hands of the impious and the wicked--and to 75 and 76, which affirms the judgment of God against the wicked and the victorious power of the Lord.
Psalm 77 is another personal favorite, a song of a believer’s struggle for faith, for comfort in the memory of God’s past actions. Ralph Vaughan Williams set these lines in his opera “The Pilgrim’s Progress”:
4 You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
7 ‘Will the Lord spurn for ever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased for ever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?’
10 And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’
Psalm 78 continues the theme of God’s guidance in spite of Israel’s struggles of faith. Harkening back to the Torah and other eras of the people’s history, the psalmist recalls times of forgetfulness and idolatry contrasted with God’s faithfulness and care. This recollection of history fits well among these other Asaph psalms, like Ps. 79 that connects the destruction of Jerusalem with the people’s sins; Ps. 80, a prayer for deliverance from disaster and enemies, and 81, which depicts God’s own pain seeing his people’s troubles and sins.
In this context, Ps. 82—an odd little psalm that begins with God taking council with other divine beings—makes more sense, because God, in consultation with his heavenly entourage, reminds the people of their divine favor and calls them to respond to God’s will for justice:
2 "How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked."
The last of the Asaph psalms, #83, connects with the rest of these in calling for God’s judgment against Israel’s enemies.
Six more psalms finish Book III. Another psalm of the Sons of Korah, 84, is a longing for God’s presence in his house:
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
4 Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
10 For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness….
Psalm 85 is a lovely song that seeks mercy for Israel. Psalm 86, a song of David amidst these four Korahite psalms, has elements of prayer: request for help, praise for God, a petition for guidance and thanksgiving, and an assurance of God’s grace.
The short Psalm 87 praises God for Zion. Psalm 88 is a song about troubles and questions; it is one of the few psalms that contains little or no thanksgiving, for the psalms complaints and troubles and consciousness of God’s wrath consume him.
Finally for Book III, Psalm 89 is “a Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.” It provides a kind of conclusion for these other psalms of distress and judgment: God had established the kingdom of David but now there is no monarchy and the people are afflicted---yet God’s promises are everlasting, and so the psalmist beseeches God that God again show the steadfast love promised in the covenant with David. This is very much a song of post exilic disappointment, faith, and hope.
Again, if you begin to see patterns within the psalter, you read individual psalms with deeper meaning. For instance, Book IV begins with the only psalm attributed to Moses, #90. It is a melancholy psalm, reminiscent of the upcoming Ecclesiastes.
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
10 The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.
12 So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart. ….
17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
But this “Prayer of Moses, the man of God” provides a kind of turning point in the psalter, as God’s people emerge from exile (remembering the Temple and the Davidic monarchy in those Book III psalms) and gather together as a post exilic, worshiping congregation conscious of life’s transitoriness and of God’s favor. The Mosaic attribution helps the people return to the focus upon the Torah and God’s eternal promises to Israel. Now, a sad psalm can be read in a larger context.
Also, Psalm 90 provides one bookend for Book IV, the other being Psalms 105-106, which recall God’s faithfulness to Israel in spite of their sins and struggles. Between these psalms are a variety of individual and communal psalms, many of which are primarily praise and thanksgiving psalms, and only three of which have attribution.
Psalm 91 praises God for security and refuge. It begins with two of my favorite Bible verses:
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
Psalm 92 is a song for the Sabbath which gives thanks to God for rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. The short Psalm 93 affirms the majesty of God, while Psalm 94 also appeals to God to deal with the wicked and reward the righteous.
Psalms 95 through 100 are all praise psalms—calls to affirm God’s goodness, majesty, and faithfulness. Psalm 100 is quite famous:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
Psalms 101-103 are a trio of attributed Psalms. 101 is David’s plea for integrity, both for oneself and for others. Psalm 102, “A prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before God”, regrets the time of sickness and infirmity but praises God who is the refuge of Zion. The psalm of David 103, in turn, is a plea for God’s mercies. Some famous verses:
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
Book IV concludes with a trio of psalms that affirm God's Lordship of creation and of Israel. Psalm 104 (another personal favorite) affirms God’s goodness over all creation. Here is a good piece by J. Clinton McCann, author of the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on the Psalms. Psalm 104 is a lovely statement of ecology! https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2451
Psalm 105 offers praise to God the covenant-making God, faithful to the Patriarch and their descendants through Exodus, the wanderings, and the settlement of Canaan. Psalm 106, in turn, beseeches God for divine mercy as the psalmist recalls Israel's sins and idolatries. "Nevertheless [there's that word again!] he regarded their distress when he heard their cry.
For their sake he remembered his covenant,
and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
He caused them to be pitied
by all who held them captive.
Save us, O Lord our God,
and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise" (106:44-47).