Reading the Psalms in Context? (Part 1)
At a recent conference, I sat and listened intently to a lecture in which the participants were challenged to read the Psalms, not after the manner of those who eat candy--picking out favourites randomly--but in context. The speaker was Dr O. Palmer Robertson, who was giving us a taste of the fruit of his forthcoming work The Christ of the Sages. The question raised was, "Is there a context or order to the Psalms, or does each Psalm stand-alone?" It will help us to briefly consider Psalms 34-41 as a case study in order to answer this question.
On a surface reading, it is easy to see common themes. These Psalms are devoted to the theme of suffering. They speak of David's experience at the hands of his enemies and under the chastening rod of his Heavenly Father. These psalms find David pouring out his heart to God in need and suffering. They reveal David seeking deliverance from his hardship. However, we must still ask the question, "Is there anything more we can say about them as a group of Psalms?" The following questions and general points might help us read these Psalms for all their worth.
1. Is there a common theme between the Psalm you are reading and its surrounding Psalms?
Psalms 34-37 are the Psalms of the Innocent Sufferer, while Psalms 38-41 are the Psalms of the guilty sufferer. In the first collection of Psalms, David is under persecution from his enemies and seeks deliverance at the hand of God. He finds himself in grave danger from those who would falsely accuse him and seek his destruction. David's calls for deliverance are based upon the goodness, faithfulness and might of God. Within these Psalms there is a juxtaposition of the righteous and the unrighteous.
Psalms 38-41 are of a different character. Once again David finds himself surrounded by the wicked but this time his own sin appears to be the central cause of his strife (38:1; 39:11; 40:12 and 41:4). What is remarkable is that in these four Psalms of the guilty sufferer (while God's rod of chastening is on David) the wicked are always at hand to add to his suffering (see the fourth point below).
As we read these Psalms as a group, we begin to formulate a picture of the exceedingly troubled life David experienced at certain times. It is this troubled life into which the Christian steps as he is united to Chirst by faith.
2. Is there a development of themes connecting these Psalms?
A connection between these Psalms becomes evident as we move through the Psalms of the Innocent Sufferer. While the essential subject remains the same (i.e. deliverance from his foes) different elements of that struggle are manfiested in the text. For example: Psalm 34 focuses upon the believer's experience of the goodness of God in times of trial: "O taste and see that the LORD is good" (Ps 34:8). Psalm 35 emphasises the warrior-God who defends his persecuted people: "Contend O LORD with those who contend with me, fight against those who fight with me" (Ps 35:1). Psalm 36 focuses upon the mindest of the wicked and the mind and character of God: "Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; Your righteousness is like the mountains Of God, your judgments are like the great deep" (Ps 36:1, 6). Psalm 37 focuses upon the righteous and unrighteous, contrasting their character, ways and ends: "Refrain from anger and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it only tends to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait on the Lord shall inherit the land" (Ps 37:8).
In each Psalm, we are given a different window through which we see the reasons and types of persecution, the various means by which God sustains and delivers, and the several responses of the Christian. In short, we have, if you will, a manual on how to suffer as an innocent sufferer.
3. Look for structural patterns within individual Psalms.
Psalm 35 is a helpful case in point. Are there structures within the Psalm which help us firther understand and prepare ourselves for suffering? Psalm 35 provides us with the threefold attack upon David: vs 1-11 outline for us David as the object of the plotters. In vs 12-18 he is the objects of the liars, and finally, in vs 19-28 he is the object of the mockers.
As we observe patterns of this nature, we become more familiar with the tactics of Satan and the world. Moreover, these patterns should lead us to see the Psalms speak of great David's greater Son. Remember the words of our Lord to his disciples recorded in John 15:18, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you."
4. Consider how the Psalms lead you to the Person and Work of Christ.
This is certainly one of the most inportant matters the Christian can consider when reading the Psalms in context. The Psalms speak of the experience of old covenant saints. Most Christians in the Reformed tradition beleive that they also speak to the experience of the New Covenant saint. What is the common denominator between these saints? It must necessarily be the person and work of Christ. To exclude Chirst from the experiences related in the Psalms is to deny that they have any relevance to us in the new covenant. The experience of the Chrsitian is the experience of Christ. Consider the examples below:
Ps 34:19 "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them. He keeps all his bones and not one of them is broken". Compare with John 19:31-37.
Ps 35 gives us the pattern of the plotter / liar / mocker that is precisely the pattern seen in our Lord Jesus' final hours, namely, in His betrayal, false accusation and derision.
Ps 36:1-4 is a description of the characterand activity of Judas.
Ps 37:29-32 "The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever. The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom and his tongue speaks justice. The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip. The wicked watches for the righteous and seeks to put him to death."
In short, not only are Old and New covenant Christians experience the experience of the innocent sufferer, but they pre-eminently portray the experience of the One in whom the Chistians' experience is rooted. The Lord Jesus is the innocent sufferer of Psalms 34-37.
In the next installment, we will observe how Christ first, and then the Christian, is spoken of in the Psalms of the guilt sufferer.
Derek Kidner, Psalms (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press), 1973
Nick Batzig "How Did Jesus Read The Old Testament?"
Charles H Spurgeon, Psalms (Nashville:Thomas Nelson Publishers), 1997
Matthew Holst, preached at Geneva OPC, Psalms of Suffering (scroll down to locate them).