By Jaime Sherman
As we transition to reading the Book of Psalms this summer, it is helpful to have a little background as we get started. Reading poetry, like the psalms, is not something many of us do on a regular basis, so it bears taking a moment to look at the structure and language of what we will find in this amazing book.
Bible scholars have referred to the Book of Psalms as the Little Bible that summarizes God’s rescue of mankind. This collection combines the accounts of creation and the giving of the law with key points in Israel’s history and a promise of future messianic redemption. Through more than 850 years from the time of Moses to the captivity of God’s people in Babylon, God directed David, Asaph, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Ethan, Moses, and anonymous others to pen 150 poems and prayers for musical worship. Within these poems called the Psalms, five divisions mirror the themes of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
• Psalm 1-41/Genesis: Life and grace from God
• Psalm 42-72/Exodus: Redemption by God
• Psalm 73-89/Leviticus: Sanctification and communion with God
• Psalm 90-106/Numbers: Testing, trials, and hard experiences
• Psalm 107-150/Deuteronomy: God’s power over all trials, difficulties, and question marks in life to declare His glory and guarantee our eternal blessing
This summer UFC Women will focus on Books 4 and 5, beginning at Psalm 90, but if you’d like to read all 150 psalms during the months of June, July and August, we have provided additional reading plans, which you will find in the sidebar.
From Psalm 1 through 150, the psalmists use a variety of literary devices in their writing. You might note how they employ various forms of parallelism,the echo of a statement to convey greater intensity and detail. An example of repeating the same phrase with different words is found in Psalm 18:4: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me.” Here the psalmist expresses one intangible feeling of the author using two tangible examples.
Watch for other complex patterns in the psalms. Psalm 107 uses the phrase Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love as a refrain, a repetitive form we use in modern worship music. Psalm 119, the longest of all the psalms with 176 verses, is broken into sections that begin with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet from aleph to tav. This beautiful psalm could feel daunting because of its length and style, so we’re giving a full week at the end of the summer to study it. When it comes to length, you’ll find that Psalm 117 speaks to dramatic simplicity with just two verses:
Praise the LORD, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
And the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.
Praise the LORD!
As you read, especially the first 89 psalms, you will encounter unknown words. Although scholars and linguists can’t define these words precisely, they most likely provide direction to musicians and leaders of worship. These words include alamoth, gittith, higgaion, mahalath, maskil, muth-labben, sheminith and shiggaion. The word selah is found 71 times at the end of verses in the psalms. The meaning of this Hebrew word also remains unclear, but scholars believe it gives direction to musicians to pause, to crescendo, or to provide a musical interlude. Because of the way in which the word is used in the book of Habakkuk three times, selah could also be a command to “pause and praise.”
The word mikhtam has been defined and refers to a poem of great worth, or a treasure. As our eyes glide over these ancient Hebrew words, we should remember that God places a high value on praising Him for all He is and does in our lives. The Book of Psalms encourages us to worship Him through music — and moments of pause.
The psalmists approach God with eloquent words of rapture and awe but also with raw and sometimes gruesome language of confession, anger, fear, and doubt that we can relate to so many generations later. Through the songs and petitions of the psalmists, we observe how we too are given permission to lament. We can go before God with unguarded prayer, for He is all-powerful and can be trusted with our grief as well as our joy.
The various psalms provide a guide to help us process our circumstances in light of the character of God and to see our brokenness. We learn how to relate to a holy God and how to live whole-heartedly devoted to Him. The very act of drawing close to our Redeemer, holding nothing back, stills our anxious hearts.
As you may note as you read through this book of poetry, the psalmists almost always conclude the difficult passages with praise. This reminds us that even in the valley of the shadow of death, God is good and worthy of our respect and gratitude. As we meditate on these ancient songs and God’s character, we better understand our own joys and heartaches.
Dear Father in Heaven, Thank You for these beautiful women whom You have created for Your glory, whom You have redeemed, and whom You have called by name to do amazing things for You. You call them precious, honored, and loved. May they delight in You and Your Word throughout these coming summer months. We ask that You will open their eyes to Your truths and enlarge their hearts to see Your goodness in the dark valleys as well as in the green pastures. Keep their eyes fixed on good things and turned away from worthless pursuits. Thank You for giving us Your Word to guide us each day. May our lives bring glory to Your Name. Amen.