Monday, August 08, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Psalms

[This week, as we together read the Bible in a year here at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, we're moving into the Psalms. Below is the text of what will be both a handout for the discussion groups on Wednesday and an insert in this coming Sunday's bulletin.]

The Psalms are sometimes referred to as “liturgical poetry.” Leitourgia, the word that is transliterated into English as liturgy, literally means “work of the people.” To worship God for all His goodness, grace, and power is the work of God’s people and it’s something we’re to do 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But there are special times when God’s people come together to worship God. The Psalms, compiled over many centuries, are words that the Jews of ancient times and of today, have used for their public worship for centuries. As people who have, through Jesus Christ and our faith in Him, been made part of God’s family, the Psalms are for us, too.

Traditionally, the largest share of the Psalms has been attributed to David, Israel’s second king. Others are said to be written by people like Moses and Asaph. Some are ascribed to nobody in particular.

Who wrote the 150 psalms in this book isn’t as important as what each of them does. Basically, they function to help us have an honest conversation with God, no matter what our circumstances, feelings, or needs.

According to one prominent scholar, Claus Westermann, there are ten types of psalms:
•    The Community Psalm of Lament
•    The Community Psalm of Narrative Praise
•    The Individual Psalm of Lament
•    The Individual Psalm of Narrative Praise
•    The Psalm of Descriptive Praise or Hymn
•    Creation Psalms
•    Liturgical Psalms
•    Royal Psalms
•    Enthronement Psalms
•    Wisdom Psalms

In general terms, lament psalms give voice to feelings we have in times of trouble. They could arise from personal suffering and grief or national calamities. Examples of community lament include Psalms 44, 74, and 79. Examples of individual lament are Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and many others.

Psalms of narrative praise speak of God’s greatness through the narration of specific events. Examples of community praise include Psalms 106, 124, and 129. Examples of individual praise are Psalms 9, 18, 30, and many others.

Psalms of descriptive praise give honor to God while describing His blessings. They had a special place in ancient Jewish worship. Some in this category include Psalms 29, 33, 65, and 145-150, among many others.

Creation psalms speak of God as the Sovereign Who created and rules over His creation. They praise God as Creator. Psalms 8, 104, and 139 fall into this category.

As to liturgical psalms, Westermann says that those psalms referred to as “liturgies…are clearly shaped by…a combination of liturgical speech with liturgical actions.” Most commonly, this involves what we call antiphonies, when a worship leader or one group issues a call and all in the congregation or portions of the congregation respond. Good examples are Psalms 66 and 107. There are subcategories in this grouping like Pilgrimage Songs, sung by people as they processed or traveled to the temple in Jerusalem; Songs of Zion, which were probably Pilgrimage Songs specifically asking God to protect Jerusalem from attack; Psalms of Blessing, special benedictions for those who had worshiped in Jerusalem during a festival and were returning to their homes; and Entrance Instructions, dealing with entering the sanctuary during a festival.

Royal psalms have to do with the rulers of the nation, while enthronement psalms hail God as the one and only true King!

Wisdom psalms are liturgical poetry that present wisdom from God, akin to the book of Proverbs. Examples include Psalms 37, 49, and 112.

The word psalm refers to a sacred song or hymn. There are psalms in other books of the Old Testament and the categories into which scholars sometimes divide the book of Psalms can overlap.

But hopefully, this overview is helpful.

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