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It would be difficult to overstate the impact and influence of the Book of Psalms on the history of Israel, and on the subsequent history of the Christian church. As Luther once said, the Psalms are a “Bible in miniature,” and the way the Psalms are given to us, they are asconstructive as they are retrospective. But more on that shortly.
“Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: The sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: Therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee With the oil of gladness above thy fellows” (Ps. 45:6–7).
Summary of the Text
Psalm 45 is a triumphal wedding day psalm, celebrating the marriage of the king. The author of Hebrews picks up on a phrase from the psalm, telling us that it represents God speaking to His Son, the Messiah. “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom” (Heb. 1:8). Note that the Son is the bridegroom in the psalm, and that God the Father addresses Him as God. We will come back to the importance of this kind of thing shortly.
The Structure of the Book
The Book of Psalms is actually a collection of five psalters, each one ending with a doxology. Some of the psalms in the collection are ancient, going back to the time of Moses (Ps. 90), for example, but the majority are from the time of David and shortly after. The principal poet and musician represented is David (73 psalms are attributed to him), while other composers include Asaph, the sons of Korah, Solomon, Ethan, and Heman.
The five books are set up as follows: Book One (Ps. 1-41), Book Two (Ps. 42-72), Book Three (Ps. 73-89), Book Four (Ps. 90-106), and Book Five (Ps. 107-150). The doxologies that conclude each book are: Ps. 41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48, 150:6. The first book is overwhelmingly from David. The second contains psalms from three sources—David, sons of Korah, and Asaph. The third is largely from Asaph and the sons of Korah. It is good to remember that the last book contains a section known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). Because of the murky history of how these books were assembled, we are not really in a position to use these divisions practically, although it is good to know that they are there.
A Translating Faith
A commonplace notion is that poetry cannot be translated. If a great poet wrote in a language not your own, then you are simply out of luck. Now certain things cannot be brought across with the same effect—that is true enough. We commonly signal the presence of poetry in hymns by means of rhyme, which the Hebrews didn’t do at all. We use meter, and other languages don’t. We use meter differently than do other languages that use meter, although Hebrew poetry didn’t at all, and so on.
Some aspects of Hebrew poetry can be transferred across the language barrier. One of the use of thought rhymes in the common use of parallelism. In English, this technique is used in the blues, but rarely elsewhere. The parallelism can have variations— synonymous, contrasting, constructive, and so on.
Another technique that carries across, and is actually common to all high poetic expression, is the use of metaphorical imagery. Some of this imagery is quite striking and indelicate. Consider the psalm where God is compared to a warrior who is awakened while sleeping off a drinking binge (Ps. 78:65-66). Now was that quite necessary? Three very common images for God in the psalms would be God as king, God as warrior, and God as fortress.
God is a king on a throne (Ps. 93:2), and He rules over much territory (Ps. 47:6-7). He is a maker of laws (Ps. 93:5), and one who makes covenants with conquered peoples (Ps. 25). And we clearly see the kingship of God in the psalm of our text. At the end of the day, all Christians are necessarily monarchists. Jesus is Lord, Jesus is King. God is a great warrior. His artillery is fearsome (Ps. 18:12, 14). He parts the heavens and comes down to fight (Ps. 18:9). He trains us how to fight (Ps. 144:1). We do not worship a pacifist God. God is a fortress, a shield, a great protection. He defends His people from harm (Ps. 18:1-2). This also is a military image, albeit a defensive one.
But we find more than just images of God. Here are some images for the wicked, those against whom we must stand. They are snakes (Ps. 58:4), bulls (Ps. 22:12), bees (Ps. 118:12), dogs (Ps. 22:16), and those are just a few of the images. What is being done in the use of imagery and metaphor? You are learning more about what you do not know from what you do know. This means carries over.
What It Means to Sing Psalms
One of the most obvious things about the psalms is how they were born in acutely personal circumstances. Their origin is individual. David wrote Ps. 52 in response to Doeg the Edomite. But when God used His servants to place these psalms in the corporate worship of Israel (and afterwards the Church), the result necessarily was two- fold: one was identification with the plight of the original author—he is our father, and we are with him. The second was application of these words to our own circumstances. Who is your Doeg? The meaning of the psalms, the import of the psalms, was therefore meant to expand. This hymnbook was intended to grow in meaning. What David used to refer to battles a thousand years before Christ (Ps. 68) was rightly appropriated by French Huguenots who made it into their battle hymn. “God shall arise and by His might, put all His enemies to flight.”
Another way of saying this is that the Psalter is alive. It is living and active. Take care not to fall into a destructive liberal/conservative dichotomy. The liberals love living documents—that’s how they kill them. Too often conservatives love preserving dead documents–Scripture is not under glass in a museum behind the velvet rope, with a brass plaque saying it is “alive.” Now we are not denying inerrancy here—that is the baseline minimum—but we are saying something much, much more than that. The Word of God is seed. What does that image mean?
The apostle Paul tells us that Christian churches are called to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Some Christians overstate the case when they say we may sing nothing but psalms, but that is not our most widespread error. The most widespread error is that of singing songs of our own invention, without reference to God’s model for hymnody. Singing should be one of our central vocations as disciples.