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Probably more commentaries, study guides, and helps have been published on the book of Psalms than on any other book of the Bible. It is not my purpose here to supplant those other works. Rather, I want to offer some suggestions to the Christian on how to use the Psalms so that he can then more profitably use these other works on the Psalms.
The Psalms themselves were written throughout the entire period of Old Testament revelation, from the time of Moses (Psalm 90) to the period after the exile (Psalm 126). The titles of seventy-two psalms ascribe them to David, while others are by Solomon, Asaph, Heman, and the sons of Korah. Some of the psalms may have been used in temple worship (hence the phrase “to the choirmaster” in more than fifty psalm titles). The psalms are of different types. Some are laments, both individual (Psalm 42) and corporate (Psalm 44). Some are psalms of thanksgiving (Psalm 100), while others are hymns, or songs of praise (Psalm 96). Some of the psalms are commonly referred to today as “wisdom” psalms, such as Psalms 1 and 119. These psalms tend to be reflections on the Word of God. Some psalms, such as Psalms 69 and 109 are referred to as “imprecatory” psalms, in which the substance of the psalm is a prayer against the enemies of God (an imprecation).
The New Testament writers refer to the book of Psalms more often than any other book of the Old Testament. This tells the reader that one major focus of the psalms is the work of the Messiah and His kingdom. Since Christ had not yet appeared, He is spoken of generally in types and shadows in the character of the Davidic king. In some psalms, however, traditionally called “messianic psalms,” Christ is spoken of directly and clearly. These messianic psalms include Psalms 2, 22, 45, 72 and 110. Hence one use of the book of Psalms for the modern reader is to search there for Christ. (A very useful guide in this endeavor is William Binnie’s The Psalms: Their History, Teachings and Use, recently reprinted as A Pathway into the Psalter, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2005).
However, the book of Psalms has another use as well. It is, as Calvin says, “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” It is a guide to piety for the believer. In particular the book of Psalms provides guidance for the Christian in four areas: meditation, expostulation, prayer, and song. The art of Christian meditation is in our age largely a lost art, though our Puritan and Reformed forefathers wrote dozens of treatises on the subject. The term meditation has been appropriated by the practitioners of Eastern and New Age religions. Insofar as meditation has come in to the evangelical church it has often come in under a baptizing of these New Age ideas. Meditation, as understood and practiced by New Age religions, is an emptying of the mind. It is an attempt to achieve a sort of mindless spiritual condition in which the one meditating becomes open to “spiritual forces,” having been emptied, as it were, of himself and thus ostensibly open to the presence of God. The book of Psalms, on the other hand, teaches the reader what true biblical meditation is. Consider Psalm 1:2: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” In understanding the point this verse makes, it first must be understood that law here is not limited to the legal sections of the Old Testament. The word translated law is torah, and it means not just legal statements but “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Thus, the practice of Christian meditation is an intellectual, spiritual exercise in which the believer reflects on and considers the Word of God, seeking first to understand it and second to apply it to himself. The word translated meditate has the idea of “mutter,” hence the idea of repeating, chewing over what has been read. Psalm 119 is an example for the believer of a meditation on the law of God. Virtually every verse in the psalm refers to torah, or some synonym as verse by verse the psalmist seeks to understand the meaning of God’s Word for his own life. A number of the psalms are particularly useful as guides to meditation, among them Psalms 1, 34, 37, 49, 111, 112, and 119.
Expostulation is another word that has virtually disappeared from the modern Christian’s vocabulary. The verb expostulate is defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as “to reason earnestly with a person for purposes of dissuasion or remonstrance.” In the context of the use of the Psalms, this has the idea of an earnest reasoning with oneself for the correcting of one’s views or behavior. Talking to oneself, in this sense, is not a bad thing. It is a step beyond meditation in that it takes what the person has learned from the Word of God, holds it up as a mirror to his beliefs and practices, and strives to correct those beliefs and practices. Thus, a man tempted to sin would expostulate with himself regarding the awfulness of sin, the dishonor it does to God, the damage it does to the man himself, and the greater damage it does to the church at large. This is one significant way in which the Christian actively develops a biblical worldview. A number of the psalms are excellent guides to the practice of expostulation. In Psalm 11, for example, David has been brought to despair, or discouragement, by the question, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (v. 3). In other words, things are falling apart, so you might as well give up. David responds by reminding himself that “the Lord is in his holy temple,” “the Lord tests the righteous” and hates the wicked, and “the upright shall behold” the face of God (vv. 4–7). In other words, David reminds himself, based on the things he has learned from God’s Word, that regardless of how things seem God is still in control and He is the judge of all the earth. Other psalms that provide useful models for expostulation are Psalms 34, 37, 42, 43, and 62.
It is often a sad thing to hear the people of God pray. At least in public prayers (the only prayers that others can evaluate) God’s people often seem to lack vocabulary for prayer. If someone uses the ACTS approach to prayer (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication) there is usually some brief mention of God’s greatness and goodness, some generic reference perhaps to our sinful condition, a few words of thankfulness for specific prayers that God has answered, and a laundry list of supplications for those suffering from some illness or other. The Christian who meditates on the Psalms, however, can develop a powerful vocabulary for prayer. Not only are many of the Psalms examples of prayer, but even those that are not give us wonderful resources for opening our own hearts to God. Look, for example, at the opening verses of Psalm 18. David calls God his strength, his rock, his fortress, his deliverer, his refuge, his shield, the horn (that is, the power) of his salvation, and his stronghold. What great statements of adoration and thanksgiving! In addition, a little meditation here will remind the Christian that David knew himself to be in the midst of spiritual warfare in which God was the sole basis for his comfort, strength, and deliverance. The modern Christian is also in the midst of spiritual warfare, though he often seems to forget it, and carries on his life as if the real enemies with which he must do battle are those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Other psalms that give examples of prayers of different kinds are too numerous to list here, but the attentive reader can find them easily.
Finally, the Psalms can be used to teach the Christian to sing. The Reformed churches developed a virile piety through the singing of Psalms. Some have the view that Christians are required to sing only the Psalms in public worship. While I have some sympathies for that view, I do not agree. However, the utter lack of singing of Psalms that is characteristic of our age has contributed to the spiritual weakness of the church. Not all psalms were intended to be songs, but many are. They can be set to old tunes, or to new tunes, but the church (and the individual Christian) that seeks to add the singing of the Psalms to their practice of praise will greatly enrich themselves. Psalms 95–100 are particularly potent examples of songs of praise that have a deep and rich understanding of who God is, and His ways and purposes among the sons of men.
In brief, the man who would grow as a Christian will benefit by reading and meditating on any portion of the Word of God. But if a man would grow in the vibrant piety that is the lifeblood of the virile Christian life, he could not do better than to immerse himself in the book of Psalms. From them, he will learn what it is to meditate on the Word of God. From them he will learn how to expostulate with himself in applying the Word of God to his own discouragements and distresses of soul. From the Psalms he will learn to pray with power and understanding. Finally, from the Psalms the Christian will learn what it is to sing praise to our gracious Savior God.