The Psalms and the Christian
From Truth & Testimony 2012
It has been said that the book of Psalms is the only inspired hymnbook. True as this may be (not considering, for the moment, the Song of Songs), does it imply that Christians should use it as their hymn book? Some ask, ‘Can there be anything better than inspired hymns?' and imply that a positive answer is the obvious choice. However, not everything that is inspired is the expression of Christian sentiment in prayer or worship. So whose feelings or sentiments, then, do the Psalms express?
On the one hand, many Bible readers are familiar with the Psalms and able to recite fairly significant portions of the book. On the other hand, it is no doubt one of the most misunderstood books. As J N Darby writes in the article earlier in this issue: ‘a maturer spiritual judgment is required to judge rightly of the true bearing and application of the Psalms than for other parts of scripture'.
Most Bible readers have a tendency to apply the text of the Psalms directly to themselves — perhaps because the Psalms give expression to a whole range of feelings Christians experience as well: there is loneliness and sorrow as well as confidence and trust, there is confession and there is deliverance from seemingly impossible situations, and hence there is joy and rejoicing in God who brings about such deliverance.
In some respects, this is positive; ‘as many things as have been written before have been written for our instruction' (Rom. 15:4). However, in order to receive the full blessing of the text we first need an understanding its doctrinal bearing. In particular, we need to know whose feelings are expressed in the Psalms.
The historical meaning
At first sight it seems obvious: the sentiments expressed in the Psalms must be the feelings of the writers such as David, Moses, Solomon, the sons of Korah, Asaph, Heman and Ethan, or the Jews in exile (e.g. Ps. 137). This literal historical application is no doubt a valid one. God used circumstances such as the persecutions David suffered to give rise to sentiments He wanted to be expressed. However, we should ask the question, Is this all? Is this the fullest and deepest meaning of the Psalms?
A prophetic book
The answer, clearly, is negative. The reason is as simple as it is important: the Book of Psalms is a prophetic book, for a number of reasons:
The Psalms speak about Christ: ‘all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me' (Luke 24:44).
David, for instance, in writing Psalm 16, wrote as a prophet: ‘the patriarch David … being … a prophet … spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ' (Acts 2:29–31).
The Psalms speak about future events such as Jerusalem being conquered by the nations (Ps. 79:1), the destruction of the sanctuary (Ps. 74:3), and the millennial reign of Christ (e.g. Ps. 97:1: ‘Jehovah reigneth: let the earth be glad, let the many isles rejoice' , and Ps. 99:1–3 ' ). Surely, this is still future. The conflict which started at the cross (Ps. 2; Acts 4:25) is not over yet.
Whose feelings are expressed in the Psalms?
Having established that the Psalms are a prophetic book we can ask whose feelings in particular they record. In reading them we will discover four main characters or groups of characters:
Christ (Ps. 1:1–3; Ps. 2:6–9; etc.)
The godly (Ps. 1:6; 5:11; etc.)
The ungodly one, i.e. the antichrist (e.g. Ps. 10, esp. vs. 2–11, 13–15).
The ungodly ones/enemies (e.g. Ps. 1:4–5; Ps. 2:1–3)
The uninitiated Bible reader will naturally identify with group 2: these are people who trust in God, who go through difficulties, who take refuge in God and who experience God's help. On one level, this is valid because these godly believers (‘group 2') go through experiences that we, as Christians, share and identify with. On the other hand, we need to ask the question whether these godly ones are Christians. If they are, we can apply their experiences and utterances more directly to ourselves. Otherwise, we need to take into account who they are and what time period they lived in, and the implications of both.
Going through the Psalms we find that, despite all the parallels and common ground, there are a number of features of these godly people that are in stark contrast to the Christian position. The remainder of this article seeks to bring out some of these differences in order to help us understand the true bearing of the Psalms and appreciate our true Christian position.
Under the law or under grace?
The believers in the Psalms are ‘under the law'. In Romans 3 the apostle quotes from Psalm 36:1, ‘There is no fear of God before his eyes' , and goes on to say, ‘Now we know that whatever the things the law says, it speaks to those under the law' (vs. 18–19). This is in line with the allusion to the sabbath in Psalm 92 (heading): ‘A Psalm, a Song, for the Sabbath day' . The Christian position, on the other hand, is stated unambiguously by the same apostle in the same epistle: ‘ye are not under law but under grace' (Rom. 6:14).
Earthly or heavenly?
The believers in the Psalms are earthly in their character as well as in their hopes and blessings. Psalm 16 speaks of ‘the saints that are on the earth' (v. 3). The blessing held out for the one who understands the poor is that ‘Jehovah will preserve him, and keep him alive; he shall be made happy in the land' (Ps. 41:2). In many cases, blessing has to do with the fruitfulness of the land: ‘The earth will yield her increase; God, our God, will bless us' (Ps. 67:6), ‘There shall be abundance of corn in the earth, upon the top of the mountains' (Ps. 72:16). The Christian, on the other hand, expects difficulties and sufferings on the earth but knows that he is blessed with ‘every spiritual blessing' , not ‘in the land' or ‘on the earth' but ‘in the heavenlies' (Eph. 1:3).
Death or rapture?
The believers in the Psalms expect to go through death. Their hope and prayer is to be preserved from death for a long time to come but eventually they will experience death: ‘What man liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah' (Ps. 89:48; see also Pss. 56:13; 66:9; 68:20; 116:8). The hope is to be preserved with a view to living on the earth: ‘I will walk before Jehovah in the land of the living' (Ps. 116:9; see also Pss. 37:19; 115:17). The hope of resurrection was there (Ps. 16:9) but the expectation was to experience death. As Christians we know that — alluding to the verse quoted above — there are many who ‘shall not see death' : all believers alive at the time of the rapture (1 Thess. 4:17).
Consciousness of guilt or full forgiveness?
The believers in the Psalms are characterised by a consciousness of guilt: ‘Consider mine affliction and my travail, and forgive all my sins' (Ps. 25:18; see also Pss. 38:4; 40:12; 65:3). They do not have an unhindered relationship with God. You find this especially in the second book, for example in Psalm 44:23–24: ‘Awake, why sleepest thou, Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever. Wherefore hidest thou thy face…?' How blessed we are as Christians, on the other hand, to have been ‘once purged' , so as to have ‘no more conscience of sins' . We have been taken into favour: ‘accepted in the beloved' (Eph. 1:6). ‘Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ' (1 John 1:3).
Jehovah or Father?
The believers in the Psalms know God as ‘Jehovah', as ‘Lord' (adon) (Ps. 8:9), as ‘God' (Elohim, Ps. 99:9) and as ‘Most High' (Ps. 83:18), but not as Father — except in the sense that He exercises fatherly care upon those who trust Him (Pss. 68:5; 103:13). This is in direct contrast to the Christian time in which we know God as our Father (John 20:17). He is the ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' (Eph. 1:3).
The Holy Spirit — taken away or indwelling?
The believers in the Psalms did not have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In Psalm 51 David prays, ‘Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not the spirit of thy holiness from me' (v. 11). Again this is in direct contrast with the Christian privilege of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). He is the seal, the earnest, and the unction for us (Eph. 1:13–14 and 2 Cor. 1:21–22).
Enemies and salvation
The believers in the Psalms hope and pray for salvation — which means to be saved from their enemies. This salvation will come about through the intervention of Messiah and the destruction of those enemies. Also note that many Psalms deal with Zion (the place of God's throne in Jerusalem) and its reconstruction (e.g. Pss. 51:18; 69:35; 99:2; 132:13–18).
The contrasts above demonstrate that the persons referred to (unless stated otherwise, e.g. ‘nations') and the persons whose feelings are expressed in the Psalms are Jews. As explained in some of the other articles in this issue, the five books of the Psalms describe the feelings of faithful Jews in the course of the (mainly future) history of Israel.
If you use the Psalms as a Christian hymnbook (even if you omit the imprecatory psalms) your songs will not give expression to the feelings of someone who knows God as Father, has a clear conscience, and enjoys the Christian hope and heavenly calling, and the knowledge of God as revealed in the Son. You may still find texts where the experience of Christians overlap with those of the Jewish remnant or Old Testament saints (e.g. Psalm 23) and these are precious to us; but you will not find material that is expressive of the truths and blessings above — which are characteristic of Christianity.
Having said this, the Psalms are of great interest and of great importance to believers. They speak of our Lord, they speak of His faithful ones in the future (Jewish remnant) and they speak of soul exercises similar to ours although produced in us in different circumstances. May the Lord help us to learn from the trust and confidence in God which so many psalms breathe.