The Flow of the Psalms
Here’s a question for all my fellow Pastors. If you’re preparing to preach on Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ in Mark 8.29 and his subsequent misunderstanding of the nature of the Christ’s mission, is it necessary to think about the two-stage healing of the blind man in verses 22-26? Do you need to spend any time wondering about the central, pivotal place Peter’s confession has in the Gospel of Mark as a whole, or its relationship to the opening verse: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’? Hopefully your answer to these questions is something along the lines of ‘Duh! Of course.’
OK, very good. No prizes for getting that right! But how about this one: if you’re preparing to preach on Psalm 107, do you need to think about Psalm 106? Or Psalm 150? Do you think about the relationship of this psalm to the other psalms in book 5 of the Psalter? Did you remember that the Psalter is divided into 5 books? Do you spend any time thinking about how Psalm 107 fits into the structure of the rest of the Psalter? Or do you just take Psalm 107 out of its vacuum-sealed container and go to work on it?
At the beginning of this week I had the privilege of listening to O. Palmer Robertson speaking over the course of two days on the subject of his most recent book, ‘The Flow of the Psalms’. If you weren’t there (and I don’t think I saw you there!), and in case you haven’t yet got hold of his book, let me give you a few of the highlights of what we heard.
Robertson’s thesis is that we shouldn’t treat the Psalms like Hershey’s Kisses – beautifully, individually wrapped treats that have no relationship to one another. He argues that there is a flow to the Psalter, a very deliberate, sophisticated arrangement and a logical progression over the course of the 150 ancient songs that were collected together over several centuries. Although Robertson confesses ignorance as to the origin of the 5 book division, he argues that there is an overarching theme to each one, which he summarises with a single word:
Book 1 (1-41): Confrontation. In book 1 there are enemies all around as David struggles to establish the kingdom. Almost every psalm makes a reference to enemies. This is the ‘already and the not yet’ of kingdom life – the seed of the serpent warring against the seed of the woman.
Book 2 (42-72): Communication. Confrontation is still present in book 2, but there is a new element now – a commitment by the psalmist to communicate with his enemies. They are invited to praise the Lord in book 2 in a way that they are not in book 1. The way God is referred to in book 2 supports this idea. In book 1 the covenant name of God (Yahweh) is used 278 times, whereas the generic word for God (Elohim) is used only 48 times. In book 2 the proportions are almost exactly the opposite: Elohim comes 197 times, compared to Yahweh 32 times. This is most clear perhaps in Psalm 67, where the Aaronic blessing, in which the name of God (Yahweh) was set upon the people of God is adapted and applied to the nations of the earth.
Book 3 (73-89): Devastation. There are some bright moments, but this book is full of the devastation of the kingdom, particularly in four psalms: 74, 79 (of the devastation of Judah), 80 (of the devastation of Israel in the north), 89.
Book 4 (90-106): Maturation. In book 4, after the exile, there is no King, no throne, no temple, no priests, no land, no sacrifices. Everything is in ruins. How significant then that this book begins with the words, ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place’. That was one of the truths the exile had taught the Jews – they could still be the people of God even without the Promised Land. Significantly there is a collection of ‘Yahweh Malak’ psalms in this book (92-100), which include this Hebrew phrase meaning ‘the Lord is King’ – in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the Lord still reigns over all. He hasn’t been defeated by the gods of the nations. The phrase ‘over all gods’ is only found 4 times in the psalter, and it’s found in this fourth book and these ‘Yahweh malak’ psalms.
Book 5: Consummation. How does Psalm 106, the last song of book 4, conclude? With a prayer that God would gather his people from the nations. How does the first psalm of book 5 begin? With thanksgiving that God has gathered his people! All the key themes of the psalter find their climax and consummation in book 5. Robertson points out several climactic elements in book 5:
- The pairing of Torah and Messianic psalms climaxes with psalms 118-119, a major dividing point of book 5.
- The ‘Messianic focal’ psalms climax with psalms 110 and 118.
- Psalms 146-150 form a Hallelujah finale of praise to the psalter, where each psalm begins and ends with the Hebrew word Hallelujah, anticipating the final hallelujah chorus at the end of history in Rev 19 when Babylon and all the enemies of the kingdom are destroyed and the King returns to take his bride to himself.
As well as tracing out this thematic development in the psalter, Robertson also discerns many sophisticated literary patterns which help to orientate us in the psalter. There are too many of these to describe here, so let me just give you a taster to whet your appetite.
• Each book is introduced by two psalms that belong together (except for book 5 which is introduced by 1). Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the whole psalter – psalm 1 begins with a blessing on those who love the Lord’s teaching and psalm 2 closes with a blessing on those who trust the Messiah.
• There are 8 acrostic psalms in the psalter: 9/10,25,34,37,111,112,119,145. There are four in book 1 and four in book 5. These are the two longest books and the acrostics are positioned in such a way as to divide the books into roughly equal portions.
• There are 3 creation psalms (8.24,33), and each one comes before an acrostic psalm.
• There are repeated pairs of Torah and Messianic psalms (law and gospel) throughout the psalter: 1-2, 18-19, 118-119.
• Psalms 20-24 are kingship psalms, following on from the Messianic psalm 18. Psalms 20-21 are about the Messiah’s kingship, 23-24 are about Yahweh’s kingship, and the central psalm 22 is about both the Messiah and Yahweh’s kingship.
• Psalms 34-37 are 4 psalms of the innocent sufferer, followed by 4 psalms of the guilty sufferer.
• Book 2 contains four ‘quads’ of psalms: 45-48 are kingship psalms; 49-52 are psalms of judicial summons and their respondents; 61-64 comprise ‘the cry of the king’ and 65-68 are the response of God.
• Psalms 54-60 deal with seven specified enemies – although as we’ve seen in book 1 enemies are very common in the psalter, nowhere else are enemies specified in this way.
• Psalms 77-83 describe the devastation and deliverance of the southern and northern kingdoms, with Psalm 80 as the central psalm, a psalm that speaks about the Son of Man who would be humbled and exalted.
• Psalms 104-106 form the first Hallelujah triad in the Psalter. Psalm 104 ends with it, 105 ends with it and 106 begins and ends with it. The Psalter is moving towards its final climax in book 5.
• Psalms 111-117 form 2 more hallelujah triads, with psalm 114 in the centre.
• You know that the songs of ascents form a major collection of the psalter (120-134), but did you realise that the central psalm of the series, psalm 127, is all about building a house, which for the author of psalm 127, Solomon, especially meant building a house for God? And that God had promised David that he would build a house for him comprising his sons? Did you know that there are two Davidic psalms on either side of psalm 127 and five unattributed psalms? That there are 24 occurrences of ‘Yahweh’ on either side of psalm 127! Isn’t that interesting, given that these songs were sung by pilgrims going up to the house of God where the priests would bless them by setting the name of God, Yahweh, upon them?
Convoluted? Forced? Possibly in places, but the overwhelming cumulative force of Robertson’s observations – especially when you see them set out in his coloured charts that highlight the patterns all the more clearly – is that there is indeed a flow to the psalms, a beautiful, sophisticated structure to this inspired praise book of the people of God. And it’s not just a pretty picture, or ornament for ornament’s sake – it’s meant to help us to see how the psalms fit together and relate to one another, to help us memorise them more readily, and to enable us to choose the best psalm for every circumstance of life. So when you next preach or study a psalm, begin by at least considering this map of the whole Psalter that our brother has drawn for us.