Introduction to Psalms

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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The Book of Psalms is part hymnbook, part prayer book, part wisdom literature, and part anthology of poems concerning Israel and God. Its subject matter is astonishingly broad. On one hand it proclaims praise and prayer for God Most High (Psalms 50:14), and on the other, it embraces human experience as intimate as lamenting a lost mother (Ps. 35:14). Psalms is distinctive in the Old Testament in that most of it consists of people talking to God. Elsewhere, the Old Testament is mostly God talking to people (as in the Law and the Prophets), or it is narrative.

Although thousands of years old, virtually all the psalms, in one way or another, mirror our own struggles and our joys today. Whatever a particular psalm’s subject may be, each gives voice to the emotions we feel as we grapple with life’s issues. Some psalms capture our delight in God as we experience the divine presence with us through a tough situation that has had a good ending. Others express raw emotions of anger or grief in a struggle to understand why God has not acted as we thought he would when “the wicked triumph.” In some, God speaks. In others God is silent. Some find resolution, while others leave us with unanswered questions.

The psalms were not all written by one person at one time, as the variety of attributions in the superscripts indicates. In fact, the study of the Book of Psalms authorship—as well as its dates of composition, settings, purposes, uses, and transmission—is a major field in biblical studies. The tools of form criticism and comparative literary analysis (especially comparisons to Ugaritic literature) have figured highly in Psalms scholarship.[1] We will not attempt to delve into these studies in general, but will rely on such research as necessary to help us understand and apply the psalms to work.

Work in the Psalms

Throughout the 150 psalms, work appears regularly. Sometimes the psalms’ interest in work lies in individual ethics, including integrity and obedience to God in our work, dealing with opponents, and anxiety about the apparent success of unethical people. Other psalms take an interest in the ethics of organizations—whether as small as a household, or as large as a nation. Modern themes to which these psalms apply include business ethics, handling institutional pressure, globalization, and the consequences of workplace failings and national wrongdoings. Another major work-related theme in Psalms is God’s presence with us in our work. Here we find topics such as God’s guidance, human creativity grounded in God (who undergirds all productivity), the importance of doing truly valuable work, and God’s grace in our work. The psalms take a particular interest in the work of marriage, raising children and caring for parents. Lying underneath all the particular topics is Psalms’ proclamation of God’s glory in all of creation. The wide variety of work-related themes in Psalms is no surprise.

The Five Books of Psalms

The most obvious structural feature of the Psalter is its division into five books, Book 1 (Psalms 1–41), Book 2 (42–72), Book 3 (73–89), Book 4 (90–106), and Book 5 (107–150). The reasons for and history of this division are not fully known. Book 1 focuses heavily on the experiences of David, and Book 2 speaks of David and the Davidic kingdom. Book 3 is grimmer, having a good deal of lamentation and complaint. It ends at Psalm 89 with the Davidic Covenant in tatters and the nation in ruins. Book 4 speaks soberly of human mortality (Psalm 90), but it also speaks triumphantly of God as the great king who rules all (Psalms 93 and 95–99). Book 5 is a mixture, but it ends in celebration, as the nations and all creation worship the God of Israel (see Psalm 148).

Thus, we see a general movement going from the man David to the Davidic kingdom, and next to the end of the Davidic dynasty, and then to the praise of God himself as king of the earth, and finally to the triumph of the kingdom of God. This gives a narrative direction to the Psalter as a whole. But many psalms in the collection do not fit this arrangement. To a degree, the reason for the current order of the psalms remains a mystery. If there is a single, grand structure, either we don’t fully understand it or it is not rigidly followed.

Interpretive Strategies for the Psalms

The unique nature of the psalms can make it difficult to understand them in their original context, much less to apply them to life and work today. Psalms is a highly diverse collection, and this makes it hard to generalize. Should we study the psalms for instruction? Read them for history? Pray or sing them alone or with others? The Bible itself does not tell us the answer to these questions. Before we can delve into applying the psalms to work, we need to develop interpretive strategies to help us make the most of the psalms.

Our approach here will be to explore a selection of psalms chosen because they seemed to say something significant about work or something significant about life that applies significantly to work. In practice, this generally means that psalms have been selected because the Theology of Work Project’s contributors, steering committee or reviewers found them particularly meaningful in their own study or experience. This is an admittedly unsystematic selection method. The resulting commentary is not meant to be exhaustive, or even necessarily right. Instead, it is meant as a series of examples of how Christian groups or individuals can faithfully employ the psalms as they seek to integrate their faith and their work.