The Psalter has long fascinated me in my study and teaching, just as it has so many believers who have gone before all of us. Not a few believers have found comfort, encouragement, and conviction on the pages of the book. However, I would like to raise some questions in this post and those that follow about how we read and preach Psalms. For the most part, during my Christian life I have approached the book as if it were (in essence) 150 separate devotions for my enjoyment. Therefore, studying the Psalter meant flipping to a psalm and diving in, reading it as if I were the psalmist. His needs became emblematic of my needs; his praises became catalysts for my praises; his enemies became pictures of my enemies. All in all, those are not bad things, and let me say from the very beginning that the psalms can be read devotionally (to a point). Whatever I say here or later does not negate the fact that I still find those things in the book.
Yet, I would like to raise the bar a little. Does the book (i.e., the text before us as it has been handed down) give us some clues about how it should be read? Should the book be read as a whole? Is there a method to its composition? These questions are not original to me, but I dare say that our preaching (and for that matter our biblical theology) is greatly affected by how we view this issue. So to get started, let me make a few observations that many others have made about Psalms 1 and 2.
Consider the following, which shows connections between the two psalms on a semantic level via the repetition of key words and on a structural level through the use of an inclusio.
|1:1||How blessed (‘ashre) is the man…|
|1:2||And in His law he meditates (fr. hagah) day and night.||2:1||Why are the nations in an uproar And the peoples devising (fr. hagah) a vain thing?|
|1:6||For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, But the way (derek) of the wicked will perish (fr. ‘bd).||2:12a||Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish (fr. ‘bd) in the way (derek), For His wrath may soon be kindled.|
|2:12b||How blessed (‘ashre) are all who take refuge in Him!|
In addition to these connections, which again others have recognized, there are some other interesting connections:
- Ps 1 contrasts the sinner with the righteous person, whereas Ps 2 contrasts a sinful world with the righteous Son (obviously taking the psalm messianically).
- In both psalms, the wicked are done away with (like chaff in Ps 1; like broken pottery in Ps 2).
- In both psalms, the righteous person is firmly established, either by streams of water or upon holy Mt Zion.
- Both psalm are concerned with expressing piety. In Ps 1, it is shown by meditating upon Torah; in Ps 2, by doing homage to the Son.
- In contrast to the psalms that follow, neither of these psalms bears a title.
In and of themselves, these are very compelling reasons to believe that these two psalms were intentionally placed at the beginning of the Psalter. If you buy this argument, then the question becomes, Why?
The conclusion that I make about the presence of these two psalms directly impacts my hermeneutical and homiletical approach to the book. I believe that these two psalms, as the gateway to the Psalter, provide the two primary topics with which the book is concerned and by which its jewels should be mined. That is to say, the Psalter should be read with these psalms in mind. If Psalm 2 expresses the messianic hope of the Psalter (and I believe it does), then we should not be surprised to find that the book has much to say about the Messiah. Moreover, we should not be surprised when David (for the most part) is taken as the prime example of the righteous king. I will have more to say about this later, but suffice it to say, I believe the the Psalter is messianically composed. At the same time, Psalm 1 shows how meditation upon Torah, God’s Word, produces righteousness and fruitful. This psalm, which has long been recognized as a wisdom psalm, expresses the path to true wisdom. Thus, the conclusion I am making is that the Psalter has also been sapientially composed.
Ultimately, with these two psalms as its introduction, the Psalter invites the reader to press on with the recognition that by meditation upon its words one will become wise, for he or she has found the messianic hope inherent to its verse. The proper response for the reader, then, is to praise God in light of this and to continue to meditate upon Torah.
Therefore, hermeneutically, these two psalms provide the proper lens by which to understand the rest of the book. Homiletically, we should never stray too far away from these principles of interpretation, consistently reminding our hearers of the purpose of the Psalter as we have it. I believe that reading and preaching the psalms in context is the key to faithfully understanding and imparting their theological message.
If my arguments were dependent completely upon these two psalms, I might question their validity. However, what I would like to show in my next post is how the book on a global level reflects this sapiential, messianic composition.