I feel sorry for people who cannot appreciate poetry. They will find it so hard to become excited about the psalms. Although (as I have discovered) one of the mixed blessings of advancing years is the privilege of free prescriptions, for the believer, whatever his age, there is no medicine like the Word of God, especially that amazing anthology of 150 poems which forms the centre of our Bible. Its a tonic for the soul. For a start it is so wonderfully varied. Those raised in a New Testament assembly are well trained to recognise messianic psalms such as 22, 69 and 110, those astonishing foretastes of the person and work of Christ. But the book contains more than that. In a sense it sums up the whole of the Old Testament. It looks back over the course of Israels past, echoing the events of the law and the historical books. Under this heading try, for example, Psalms 105 and 106, the first of which is an overview of Israels unique position as Gods elect nation, the second a no-holds-barred account of Israels culpable sinfulness. It looks inside the psalmists own soul as he goes representatively through the ups and downs of spiritual experience in this world. Whatever we face, the psalmist has been there before us. Here you might consider, say, Psalms 55-57, bearing in mind that the interesting captions tie these poems into key moments of Davids life. And finally it looks forward to Israels glorious future in the kingdom age when Messiah rules in justice and peace. Psalm 72 may well be initially for or about Solomon, as its superscription indicates, but its glowing description of a perfect monarchy can only anticipate the day when "a king shall reign in righteousness" (Is 32.1). And that certainly has never yet been true in human history.
But not only do the psalms look backwards, inwards, and forwards, they can even talk to one another. So often we read them as independent, free-standing poems, and yet, although they certainly do not form a progressive narrative (like the gospels) or a coherent argument (like the letters), they often interconnect in fascinating ways. For example, the first two unite in presenting the Lord Jesus from different angles as the perfect man (Ps 1) and as the Davidic king (Ps 2). They also spell out the blessedness of the believer who is prepared both to be distinct from the world ("Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful") and wholly dependent upon the Lord ("Blessed are all they that put their trust in him"). Heres another example of psalmic pairing. Psalm 14 describes the character of the wicked, while 15 by contrast describes the righteous man. We can learn a good deal from the difference. Yet again, Psalm 47 anticipates the bliss of the coming theocratic kingdom, while its neighbour appropriately focuses on Zion (Jerusalem) as the capital of that kingdom. But as I have recently been enjoying 107 and 108, Id like to home in on these.
Now, it seems to me that Psalm 107 exhorts us to praise, while its successor fittingly exemplifies praise. Here is the crucial verse in 107: "Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!" (Ps 107.8). Its importance is underlined by its repetition (vv.15,21,31). And heres the beginning of 108: "O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing and give praise, even with my glory" (Ps 108.1). What the first preaches the second practises.
Lets look at a little detail. The writer of 107 lists a sequence of events designed to stimulate worship:
"They [Israel] wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses. And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation. Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness [same word as "mercy" in Ps 108.4], and for his wonderful works to the children of men! For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness" (vv.4-9).
In short, peril leads naturally to petition ("they cried unto the Lord in their trouble"), which in turn meets with Gods gracious provision: "he delivered them out of their distresses". And that deliverance, we might note, is remarkably appropriate. They lacked direction ("They wandered"), they lacked a dwelling place ("they found no city to dwell in"), and they lacked adequate diet ("Hungry and thirsty"). Gods answer? "He led them forth by the right way [direction], that they might go to a city of habitation [dwelling place] he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness [diet]". In other words, every need is met in His grace. Of course, all this relates specifically to the nation of Israel and looks mainly, I think, to the future, anticipating a yet-to-happen regathering of the people to their land. I have to confess that I used to read this section as simply echoing the exodus from Egypt, but the writer describes a prospective gathering not simply from the west but from all points of the compass (see vv.2-3 and Isaiah 11.11-12). Well, whatever the case, the principle is still wonderfully true for us. Being in Christ, we know where we are going, we know that each step is directed by His grace, and we know that during the journey the needs of our souls are fully supplied by the nourishment of the Word. All our spiritual longings find their satisfaction in the Scriptures of truth. What should inevitably follow, then, is heartfelt praise. But the language of the psalm ("Oh that men would praise the Lord") suggests that all too often we fail to give God His due. A New Testament parallel is perhaps Luke 17.17: ten were blessed, one responded with gratitude, but "where are the nine?".
Psalm 108 carries the thought further. Here is a man who determines, whatever others may do, to praise the Lord:
"O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing and give praise, even with my glory. Awake, psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early. I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: and I will sing praises unto thee among the nations. For thy mercy is great above the heavens: and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. Be thou exalted, O God, above the heavens: and thy glory above all the earth" (vv.1-5).
Notice the analysis of worship. Where does praise come from? It springs from the individual heart, requiring both effort (I must not let my heart wander but fix it on Christ), and the very best I have ("my glory"). When should we praise? Early! It is never too soon to worship the Lord, for we must prioritize adoration. So many competing claims clamour for attention, but the Lord comes first. Who is it we praise? In a world dominated by the folly of self-praise and man-worship, believers praise the Lord. Indeed, this is part of our testimony to those around us: they adulate their idols and their icons we worship God. Why? Because "thy mercy [loving-kindness] is great above the heavens: and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds". Worship is never irrational or capricious but is rather the intelligent response of the heart to Gods self-disclosure in Christ. Mercy, remember, is His goodness exercised towards the needy; truth is His steadfast faithfulness. Because in all His ways He is inexhaustibly tender and immutably trustworthy, sinners saved by sovereign grace have every reason joyfully to adore His name. Dont miss out on the practical lessons of the psalms!
To be continued.