|Structure in the Psalms
For we are his workmanship [Greek: poiema, poem], created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.—Ephesians 2:10
The works of God reveal to the spirit-enlightened mind a concept of beauty and delight surpassing human experience. The word poem, derived from the Greek poiema, has found this charisma. It suggests in its highest form an eloquence in a creation that breathes its sweet influence into the heart, enlarging concept, and awakening emotion. All the works of God in creation contain an index of the great mind that brought them forth. Every material thing represents what was once a thought in that mind. Wonders of divine skill and wisdom lie entrenched in even the minutest material creation. While day unto day uttereth speech in the language of the magnificent celestial spheres of the heavens, the oceans below conceal beauties of coral and marine life that lie deep beneath the surface and the natural limits of human vision. Yet with depth of satisfaction does the Great Creator turn to a work of even greater wonder and delight: the New Creation is God’s special poem. Herein will yet be seen a magnitude of vision, a concept of excellence far surpassing everything of beauty on this earth.
The spirit that brooded over the misty waters of earth’s embryonic forming brought forth life—life that was destined to make this little planet unique. The creation of man in the divine image, and the commencement of the whole plan of redeeming grace, were to witness further brooding of that spirit of God. Gradually the mind of the Creator and his great purpose were revealed through words God breathed through faithful men of old. Thus formed the record we treasure as "God’s word."
Language has meaning only according to human experience. This experience is limited to things of time and human sense. How then could God commune his thoughts to such a creature? From first to last the language used is poetry. His thoughts are higher far than ours, as heaven is higher than earth. Yet by this means could he awaken in our minds concepts beyond the power of human speech to define. Thus does the Lord speak to the heart, grant tantalizing glimpses of things unseen, and prompt emotions of no human source.
From Genesis to Revelation are revealed to us thoughts divine as compressed in words that grant a sense of greater realms. With the words come wings of flight for heart alone. Where human intellect fails a heavenly music fills our lives with melody, thus witnessing to that meeting of his spirit with ours.
The psalms form but a part of this grand song. The added Hebrew title [tehillim] means praises, and well describes the prompting of many of the psalms. Another title [tephilloth] means prayer, again descriptive of particular psalms. But prophecy is also here, with glimpses of each epoch of redemptive work, crowned by sweet vision of that final state that saints in heaven will know, as well as humanity on earth. "They speak of me," the Master said. Indeed it is here that we find the inmost thoughts of Jesus on the cross.
Modern poetry depends on rhyme and symmetry, with measured syllable and form. These are almost completely absent from this poetry. The appeal of some psalms lies in their expression of deep personal emotion, while that of others lies in the preciousness of truth exposed. The Song of Moses at the overthrow of Pharaoh and his hosts in the Red Sea provides an early specimen of the outburst of joy of deliverance. No artificial restraint of rhyme or meter gilds that outburst of sheer delight in the experience of divine overruling. True, some psalms reveal a somewhat human contriving. The acrostic psalms are such, for here each verse commences with the succeeding Hebrew letter undoubtedly as a memory aid.
Most lines of the psalms contain but two or three Hebrew words, though often many more are needed to translate them into English. In such few words we find compressed a realm of thought, a vista opened like a view from a mountain top: "Jehovah Roi," "The Lord [is] my Shepherd." At such thoughts we can rewrite our lives.
If we have spent the hours of night repeating from an anguished mind Psalm 51, only then can we find the blessedness of Psalm 32. The psalms are real, so real, so true, so full of meaning when the heart is in tune. These songs were written to be sung. Before we try to repeat the words we must sense the tune, perceive the feelings thus expressed, find the note, be it high or low, in major or minor key, and harmonize the heart. Otherwise we will not gain its melody in our life.
Pattern in the Psalms
The psalms were collected over a period of more than half a millennium. The earliest would include that of Moses (Psalm 90). The last additions were after the captivity in Babylon. Eventually the collection was edited, and subsequently the Book of Psalms was seen to consist of five parts. Each portion closes with a benediction (see Psalm 41:13; 72:18,19; 89:52; 106:48; 150:6). This fivefold division has been compared from ancient Hebrew times with the five books of Moses. Many have traced a corresponding pattern of subject in the contents (see Bullinger’s Companion Bible, and others.) We do not know with certainty who was responsible for this final editing, though it seems to have occurred in the time of Ezra the scribe. It is of interest to consider the pattern thus suggested that it might stand or fall on its own merit.
The Genesis section (Psalms 1-41) is thought to show the counsels of God concerning man. As Genesis contains the whole Bible in a nutshell so with this portion of the psalms.
The Exodus section (Psalms 42-72) particularly relates to Israel’s sufferings and deliverance.
The Leviticus section (Psalms 73-89) concerns the holiness of God and the sanctuary.
The Numbers section (Psalms 90-106) relates to the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel. It begins with the prayer of Moses (Psalm 90). Even here the eventual rest to which the Lord would bring them is set before them. Psalm 106 closes with a prayer for deliverance before the added benediction of verses 47 and 48.
The Deuteronomy section (Psalms 107-150) opens with the words: "O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy; And gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south." (Psalm 107:1-3) The great lessons of Deuteronomy are to be learned by Israel and all the nations. Here is the new writing of the Law of God, here the delight in human hearts for the precepts of God which alone are able to make wise unto salvation.
By way of example we will now elaborate on the Exodus section. It is the path for Israel from slavery to deliverance that will first astound then mark the way for all mankind.
The "Exodus" Section
Psalms 42 and 43 offer a cry that reminds us of the deep emotions of David as he was rejected by his people. Leaving the city, he laments; as he passes over the Kidron he cries aloud: "Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me" (Psalm 42:7). Thus does he mark the path his Son and Lord must trace. We are here at the opening of the Gospel age.
Psalm 44 reveals they too must walk rejection’s path which once had cast him off. Sorrow would swallow up the only people God had known. Their treading down would occupy an age, until the times of the Gentiles were fulfilled (Luke 21:22-24). The cry of God’s lamb now echoes from the ghetto of the Jew: "Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter. Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? Arise, cast us not off for ever. Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust: our belly cleaveth unto the earth. Arise for our help, and redeem us for thy mercies sake." (Psalm 44:22-26)
Paul applies some of these words to the saints (see Romans 8:36). Spiritual Israel must walk the same path as their Lord, though they, in contrast to the Jew, do so through faithfulness. Both seeds must pass through the Refiner’s fire.
At last the cry of martyr must give place to sounds of greatest joy in realms above (Psalm 45). The once rejected King has come again. In majesty victoriously he rides, his bride made glorious at his side, whose holy beauty he desires.
In perfect sequence comes the great upheaval of this present world in which God’s natural people are preserved as depicted in Psalm 46 which ends the age of trial for saint and Jew. The "God of Jacob" once again will be the refuge of those long called to show forth his praise.
Yet not without that final mighty storm will they their "Refuge" find, and hear at last the voice so long refused. "Be still and know that I am God." The angry sea, lashed by satanic powers, in vain must dash against this mighty Rock, while empires crumble and collapse into the deep.
Though nations gather against the little State of Israel and her end seems inevitable to all human eyes, an unseen power will work on her behalf to confound all powers of Satan and of earth. Astonished humanity will also hear those words, "Be still and know..."
The next psalm continues the sequence as all human creation comes to recognize at last a Creator so long denied: "O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth." (Psalm 47:1,2) It is triumphant Israel who speaks. "He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet. He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom he loved." (verses 3,4)
This psalm and the next take us beyond the trouble to reflect, as Jew and Gentile then will do, with deeper wisdom on events that brought an end to sin’s dark world. The time to favor Zion has come, Zion, the joy of the whole earth.
Thus in harmonious sequence these seven psalms tell in song the story of two advents and the age between. From the depths of our Savior’s travail to the time of full release that brings such satisfaction to his heart. Here minor chords give way to high notes of joy as praise fills all the earth. In view of such a hope the further psalms now cause reflection on the present life.
Psalm 49 brings home the need to shun the ways of fallen creation, its greed, its shallow thought, for naught of this secures the price of sweet release from death’s dark shades. Psalm 50 calls the earth and swiftly cuts away false notions of security in religion’s vain ritual. The cry of deep repentance, this alone as Psalm 51 reveals, must yet prepare the heart, for only when the need is seen will saving power achieve that "truth in inward parts" the Lord desires.
One by one the following psalms apply truths of the drama that those first seven psalms describe. Deep lessons are here for all to learn until they put their trust in God and him alone (Psalm 71). An age of reflection is set apart for this great task. Then comes joyous song of kingdom blessing (Psalm 72). Like "rain upon mown grass," all heaven’s windows open and to mankind life’s waters flow and glory floods the earth.
God’s workmanship we are—God’s poem. The human creation will confess this too, for every aspect of his work reflects the glory of the Lord. But the saints are first to know the joyful sound and find the melody of heart in heaven’s new song.