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Introduction to Psalms

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CM328 Preaching the Psalms The Purpose of Psalms

The Purpose of Psalms

We’re taking a look at Psa 1, a psalm that really gives us an overview of the purpose of the book of Psalms. I could summarize the purpose of the book of Psalms fairly—I think—with one word, and that word is “instruction.” Where do we get that from Psa 1? We get that from the Hebrew word torah. Now, Hebrew tends to accent its words on the last syllable, so in Hebrew we say to-RAH. In English we tend not to do that, so the English form is TOR-ah.

CM328 Preaching the Psalms Studying the Book of Psalms as a Whole

I think of when I first started to date my wife years and years ago. When I went to her house for the first time, on the breakfast table there was a small plastic loaf that looked like a loaf of bread, and it was called “daily bread.” In that loaf, there were small cards, and you would take one of the cards out; and you’d read it. It had a Scripture verse on it, and that Scripture verse was your “daily bread.” Then you would shuffle them when you were done, and you would go through them again. And you’d bring some in from elsewhere. These verses just came up in a random order, and this is somewhat like the way we use the book of Psalms.

CM328 Preaching the Psalms Torah Means Instruction

Torah Means Instruction

The meaning of torah is basically “instruction.” It’s often going to be translated “law,” and that’s because of a longstanding tradition. But many places, the Hebrew word torah is better translated with the word “instruction” or with the word “teaching” than it is with the word “law.” Law is one kind of instruction; it’s one kind of teaching. Instruction (teaching) is broader than law, and torah is broader than law as we often think about it.

For example, Psalm 78:1: “My people, hear my torah; listen to the words of my mouth.” You’ll notice that the NIV translates torah as “teaching.” It’s not law in a narrow sense; it is teaching more broadly. Similarly, in Proverbs 1:8, “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s torah.”

In terms of how Hebrew poetry works, notice that we have “listen” that corresponds to “do not forsake.” We see that listening is not just a matter of hearing, listening is a matter of putting into practice. “Listen, my son, to your father’s.… Listen, my son … do not forsake your mother’s.…” “Father” and “mother” correspond. Then we have the word “instruction,” and what corresponds with the word instruction? It’s the Hebrew word torah, which, again, the NIV translates as “teaching.” “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction. Do not forsake your mother’s torah.” Torah is teaching.

There are many places in the Hebrew Bible where torah would better be translated with “instruction” or “teaching”—broad as opposed to the narrow law. Hebrew has verbs that are often related to nouns, and the Hebrew verb horah—which is related to the noun torah—horah means “to teach” or “to instruct.” It doesn’t narrowly mean to legislate or to give a law.

Conclusion

So, for a variety of reasons, we would be better off if our translations in Psa 1 said that “His delight is in the teaching of the Lord (in the instruction of the Lord), and on that instruction he meditates day and night”—torah (instruction, teaching) broad, not narrow. This is giving us insight into the overall purpose of the book of Psalms, and that is, that it is an instruction manual for us to meditate on, for us to delight in, that we might experience the blessedness and the success of which this psalm speaks.

CM328 Preaching the Psalms Studying the Book of Psalms as a Whole

I think of when I first started to date my wife years and years ago. When I went to her house for the first time, on the breakfast table there was a small plastic loaf that looked like a loaf of bread, and it was called “daily bread.” In that loaf, there were small cards, and you would take one of the cards out; and you’d read it. It had a Scripture verse on it, and that Scripture verse was your “daily bread.” Then you would shuffle them when you were done, and you would go through them again. And you’d bring some in from elsewhere. These verses just came up in a random order, and this is somewhat like the way we use the book of Psalms.

CM328 Preaching the Psalms Studying the Book of Psalms as a Whole

We tend to use it as if the psalms are in a random order, as if the Holy Spirit inspired a 150 people to write the psalms, put them on index cards, and shuffled them and said, “Okay, that’s the order that I want them in.” When we’re happy, we kind of dig in and pull out a happy psalm. When we’re sad, we dip in and we pull out a sad psalm. We don’t really think about studying Psa 25 in the context of 24 and 26, like we would study Rom 8 in the context of Rom 7 and Rom 9. We practically think that the psalms are random.

Introduction to the Book of Psalms

Well, recent scholarship has shown, in my estimation, that that is not the case. I think the majority of the scholars of the book of Psalms today would say the same thing. So, in terms of preaching the psalms, let’s look at viewing the psalms as a whole. Now, just by way of introduction, let’s look at Pss 1 and 2. Psalms 1 and 2 have intentionally been placed at the front of the book of Psalms as an introduction. They are separated—for example, from 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11—and one of the ways we know they’re separated is because these other psalms all have of David, of David, of David, of David, of David in the title and Psa 1 and Psa 2 have no titles. They are what we call “orphan psalms.” Like orphans have no parents, these psalms have no titles.

Psalms 1 and 2

So, they are set apart from the psalms that follow because they have no titles. On the other hand, they’re joined together, and they are joined together so tightly that some scholars have argued that Psa 1 and Psa 2 are actually one psalm. I think that’s an overstatement. They each have their own integrated integrity, and yet they clearly have been joined to each other. How so?

Inclusion

Well, for example, you’ll notice that in Psa 1:1, we start with “blessed”: “Blessed is the man who,” and how does Psa 2:12 [end]? “Blessed are all who.” So, “blessed is the man who” begins it. “Blessed are all who” ends it. This is what we call an “inclusion.” Hebrew poets would start and stop with repeated vocabulary in order to mark out the beginning and ending boundaries. So, blessed/blessed shows that these two psalms are tied together.

Tail Linkage

Similarly, how does Psa 1 end? It ends by talking about the “way perishing,” and how does Psa 2 end? It says you will “perish in the way.” And so, we get this repetition of way/way and perish/perish. This we call “tail linkage.” Poets will repeat material at the tail end of two units to tie those two units together. So, inclusion: blessed/blessed; tail linkage: the way perish/perish the way—just various ways in which Psa 1 and Psa 2 had been joined together. So, 1 and 2 are separated from what follows, and they’re joined together. They serve as a twofold introduction to give us a view of the whole. Psalm 1 is teaching us the purpose of the book of Psalms.

Purpose of the Book of Psalms

And I would articulate it this way: The purpose of the book of Psalms is to serve as an instruction manual for living an abundant life. And Psalm 2 is giving us an overview of the message of the book of Psalms, and we can summarize the message of the book of Psalms with those short words: The Lord reigns.

Conclusion

So, first of all, what we want to do is look at Psa 1 as an introduction to the overall purpose of the book of Psalms—a manual and instruction for the abundant life.

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