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This outline was also used as the basis for an introduction to the Psalms in our 18th June 2015 Thursday evening Bible Study

A comprehensive “introduction” to the Psalms would take a long time and a lot of space. All I want to do here is point out a few key facts that might help readers of these notes enjoy the psalms more fully.

Five Books in One

Firstly we need to remember that the hundred and fifty poems we now have in our Bibles as a single book were originally five separate books that have been merged together, and that they were written over many hundreds of years. The five books are as follows:

  1. Book 1: Psalms 1 to 41;
  2. Book 2: Psalms 42 to 72;
  3. Book 3: Psalms 73 to 89;
  4. Book 4: Psalms 90 to 106;
  5. Book 5: Psalms 107 to 150.

Who wrote them?

Many are described as “psalms of David”. Certainly some of these will have been written by King David himself, but others would be written in his style or on his behalf or about him by court poets and musicians. Whatever the case, they are worthy of the term, Davidic Psalms. Others are labelled with different names, including Asaph and Solomon. Very many are anonymous.

When were the psalms written?

In addition to the Davidic psalms dating from around 1,000 BC, some come from several centuries before the monarchy, possibly as far back as the time of Moses himself. Others were written much later but relate back to that foundational period in Israel’s national history, telling the story of God’s faithfulness. Others again come from the very end of the Old Testament period, rejoicing in the nation’s release from captivity in Babylon and their re-establishment in their own land.

What are they about?

There are songs of joy and praise; there are songs of suffering and despair, psalms of lament. There is gratitude to God for a blessed life, and there is agony of soul as the writers begin to feel that God has left them to struggle on alone. There are individual poems and there are formal hymns of national celebration. Joyful lips praise God for his greatness, power and glory, while pained hearts confess sin before a holy God and plead for forgiveness. The variety is enormous, encompassing the vast range of human emotions from dark days of depression to the sunlit uplands of life going well.

What kind of poetry is in the psalms?

The psalms are, of course, Hebrew poetry and this can at times feel unfamiliar to an English reader. Translators have worked hard to get the sense across to us in our language. The poems come in different forms. Some psalms are even acrostics on the Hebrew alphabet. The longest of these, indeed the longest of all the psalms, number 119 is made up of twenty-two sections each containing eight verses. Within a section each line commences with the same letter (that is, in Hebrew), and through it all the importance of living life in accordance with God’s Word is stressed in one way after another.

Designed for our development

What I’ve tried to get across briefly is the great variety to be found here. This is a major part of God’s inspired book and like other parts is designed, as the apostle Paul wrote to his younger colleague Timothy to teach, rebuke, correct, train, equip and encourage us (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2) as we serve God in this often difficult and confusing world.

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For almost three thousand years the Psalms have been precious to God’s people, first to the Jews and then, following the coming of Christ, to Christian believers. Indeed the Hebrew psalms for centuries became the church’s song book. They bring us close to the life experiences of people long ago who actually were very much like ourselves today.

Last week I was co-leading a Christian student conference in Brussels with young people from many European countries. It was held in the basment meeting rooms of the Anglican pro-Cathedral (Holy Trinity, Brussels) and as morning by morning our time of worship including many modern Christian songs one thing that struck me was the extent to which they were contemporary paraphrases of the Psalms.

For the past two years, as part of my regular Bible reading I’ve made a new habit of reading sequentially through the Psalms from beginning to end, then starting over again, round and around. For a while I read the longest psalm, 119, separately in parallel with the others and read eight verses a day until I’d been through it three or four times.

In addition to the beautiful classical translation in the Authorised (‘King James’) Version I’m reading them in modern English translations, ranging between the New International Version, the New Living Translation, the New Revised Standard Version, and the English Standard Version. In each of these the Biblical scholars and linguists responsible for them have sought as best they can to bring to us in clear English the sense of the original Hebrew. Translating poetry is never easy, and each of the translations adds its own insights. (If only I could read ancient Hebrew!)

I’m now finding that each time I read a passage I’m seeing some nuance that had previously escaped me. The struggles and the joys of these ancient poets are being revealed in fresh ways, and above all the great faithfulness of God in whom they trusted.

Oh yes, at times as they go through the dark valleys of life they almost despair of ever sensing the presence of God and His goodness again, but He always brings them back into the daylight. They find him to be their rock of stability, their fortress tower of safety, their shepherd who leads them along the best paths. And so today can we.

In this series of Bible Notes I’ll try to share some of the thoughts that have come to me whilst pondering over the Psalms in this way, but before doing that my next post here will be a short overview of the Psalms and its hundred and fifty songs.

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