The Psalms

The nation of Israel told its story in song through the psalms. Most of the psalms were probably composed to be sung during worship in the temple. The psalms contain all the themes of Israel's historical experience, and so they provide the reader with an overview of the faith of Israel as a nation. They retell the story of Israel from its earliest days to the time of the reign of David and Solomon. God is depicted within the psalms as the warrior God of the tribal peoples who escaped into the wilderness from the oppression of Egypt. God is the king of these same peoples, who were without a king in the wilderness, and the giver of the sacred law and leader of the people until they turned to their own king. God is also the king of kings and the anointer of the leaders of Israel. Throughout the psalms we hear of God's steadfast love and justice, while the call to God for help is followed by praise of God for being present to the people in their time of need.

Many of the psalms are individual laments to God for deliverance in a time of distress. Psalm 22 begin with the words, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" These words are especially familiar to Christians, because Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have uttered them on the cross just before his death. In Psalm 6 we read: "Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love." The trust of Israel in the LORD God, who cares for the people as a shepherd cares for his sheep, is expressed in the very well known Psalm 23; and in Psalm 32 the "righteous" and "upright in heart" are exhorted to "shout for joy." Psalm 100 calls on all the nations to praise the LORD: "For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations." And in Psalm 136 the refrain, "for his steadfast love endures for ever," is repeated after each of the twenty-six verses of the psalm.

Psalms 46, 47 and 48 celebrate God's victory over the kings of the earth and the rule of God from Zion, which is said to be "the city of God." God is described as "a great king over all the earth," who rules from "his holy throne" in Zion. In several of the psalms the history of Israel is recited in a way which emphasizes the disobedience of the people of Israel. In psalm 78 we find the following words: "they tested and rebelled against the Most High God, and did not observe his testimonies, but turned away and acted treacherously like their fathers." Often then "the anger of God rose against them," however God also remembered that the people "were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again." God, "being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them."

The psalms also speak of God's coming judgment, when the people of Israel will be gathered to be held accountable for their covenant with God. In Psalm 50 God indicates no interest in the animal sacrifices which are required by the law in Leviticus: "Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?" God desires only "a sacrifice of thanksgiving" and deeds of righteousness. In some of the psalms it is acknowledged that the wicked often seem to prosper and avoid punishment: "Behold, there are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches," we read in Psalm 73. Yet, the psalms also assert that the righteous have something the wicked, however prosperous, will never enjoy. In Psalm 73 we read: "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever."

The psalms affirm that God's presence in the life of Israel gives the people an identity among the nations. It is not, therefore, the city built by David that will survive the ravages of time, but the city of God. Nor can we expect David or his sons to rule for ever, but only the LORD of Hosts who is enthroned on the holy mountain of Zion. © Robert Traer 2016