Sunday School on the Psalms Lesson #3 Sept. 17, 2017 Understanding How the Psalms are Arranged

The Psalms     Lesson # 3 

Pastor Louis Prontnicki  

Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church


Last Sunday we raised the question: How do we get a handle on the psalms? How do we know them better so that we can hide them in our hearts, and use them more effectively and lovingly?

We began answering that question be discussing ways to better experience a Psalm.

 This morning we will begin a long section dealing with a second point in getting a handle on the Psalms, namely:

  1. Appreciation for the Arrangements of the Book of Psalms.

150 psalms! Let’s think about the divine inspiration of the book of Psalms. Do we think that the individual psalms are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that their arrangement and order is haphazard, or at best, unimportant?  That is, what if the numbering system given to the psalms were removed, and they were tossed like a salad, so they were arranged differently. Other than throwing you off for a while, would it make much difference to your reading and understanding of the psalms?

Do you ever wonder how these 150 psalms got put in the order that they are in?    Did you ever ask if their arrangement is meaningful?

Most of the time we simply take the psalms as they are, without asking those questions.

But consider: The psalms are clearly a collection of smaller units that have been put together to form one book. What evidence do we have for this belief?

Look at Ps. 72:20 “This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.” Yet clearly there are psalms of David after Ps. 72 (See Ps. 101, 122, 124, 133, 138). Furthermore, this statement comes at the end of a psalm attributed to Solomon. Therefore the likely explanation is that there was an editor of the psalms who has left intact this statement that once concluded an early collection of David’s psalms, now assembled together, and known to us as Books I and II.

Just as the gospel writer Luke edited the eyewitness accounts concerning Jesus Christ and then arranged them into his gospel account (see Luke 1:1-4), so too there was an editor (or editors) who took the existing collections of various inspired psalms and arranged them into the existing set of 150 psalms, in the order we have them.

This probably happened sometime after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, and may have been as late as 200 BC.

Who did this editing? We don’t know. But it was likely someone similar to Ezra in the OT.  We read in Ezra 7:6 and11 that Ezra was a priest and a teacher, well versed in the Law of Moses… a man learned in matters concerning the commands and decrees of the LORD for Israel. Ezra 7:10 tells us that he had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

It was likely that such a person was called upon by the Lord to assemble and arrange all the collections of sacred psalms into one unified book. These individual psalms and these collections of psalms had sustained God’s people from the time of Moses and David, all the way through the destruction of the temple and the exile into Babylon, and now this editor was trying to make all of them more accessible and helpful to all of God’s people… so that when the New Testament opens up, the “Psalms” are seen as one of the three units of the OT: The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44)

[Think about the things you might arrange in a certain order; clothes in your closet; flowers in a vase; the elements of a wedding; your documents, bills, and papers at home. Now think about the different ways you might arrange things: alphabetically might be best for your filing cabinet, but not for your clothes in your closet or for a wedding. If you are organizing a family history you’ll probably arrange events chronologically… but you could do it topically.]

  Here’s the big question: has the editor of the psalms left us with meaningful clues as to how he has arranged the book of psalms? Can we discern patterns that help us understand not only how he arranged the psalms, but that will help us to understand each psalms and to apply it to our lives?

So I want us to imagine that we are that editor or that team of editors who have been tasked by God to arrange the psalms in some coherent and helpful order! Now the original editor who did this failed to tell us how he did it or what principles guided him. So we need to look at the clues he left in his arrangement.

And to do that, we need to know what blocks of psalms he had to work with, and see where he put them. We need to be familiar with the types of psalms there are, and ask if he arranged them in any special order.  And equally important, we want to know what the significance of this arrangement was. That is, does knowing the arrangement help us understand each psalm? Does it help us apply the psalm to our lives today?

If the arrangement of the psalms is meaningful, how do we go about finding this arrangement?  [I am indebted here to Dr. O Palmer Robertson, my former seminary professor, for his insights in his book, The Flow Of the Psalms, 2015]. We can start with the clues that we find in the book itself:

Start with the five-fold division of the book:

Look up the following verses: Ps. 41:13; 72:19-20; 89:52; 106:48; and 150:6 Notice the similarities? These are clues that mark off each Book of the Psalms.

   Book One = Psalms 1-41 David’s rise to the throne, through many afflictions. A time of God’s anointed one being confronted by his enemies.

Note: Ps. 1 and 2 are the intro/ gateway to the whole book. They are the port of entry into the land of the Psalms. (Ps. 1 is the choice we all must make; Ps. 2 is the cosmic confrontation which that choice reflects. More than that, Ps. 1 is a Torah Psalm while Ps. 2 is a Messianic Focus Psalm, and that is a one-two combination that we will see at least two more times in the psalms). Ps. 1, with its antithesis between the wicked and the godly, reflects the battle lines drawn up in Gen. 3:15, a confrontation that continues throughout the psalms, in the NT, and will continue till Christ returns in glory!

Most of these are attributed to David. The personal name of YHWH (The LORD) is dominant, compared to the general name for God (Elohim).Note the last line of Ps. 41 (v. 13 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.”). We will find this finishing doxology in other key places!

Book Two = Psalms 42-72  David’s reign continues, and now there is more emphasis on the Messiah’s interaction with the nations. The general name for God (Elohim) now becomes prominent, as King David interacts with the nations of the world.

The superscription before Ps. 42 reads “Book Two” in Hebrew. Then Ps. 72:20 tells us “This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse,” but just before that we have this doxology (72:19) “Praise be to His glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and amen.” (Similar to the ending on Book I)

Book Three = Psalms 73-89 (From Solomon to the Exile). Here the glorious kingdom of David has been shattered. It is a time of devastation for God’s people. It is no wonder that we find Ps. 88 here.

“Book III” is the heading, and we now have “a Psalm of Asaph” in Psalms 73-83, followed by “of the Sons of Korah” (84-85, 87-88), with one “by David” (86), and one by Ethan the Ezrahite (89). Ps. 89 raises the struggle of how it appears the covenant with David seems to be forgotten.

And what do we find at the end of this section? Ps. 89:52 “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and amen.” This doxology and double amen appear at the end of most books.

Book Four = Psalms 90-106 While perhaps reflecting Israel’s exile in Babylon, they sound a very positive trust in the Lord. Israel’s faith in the Lord is maturing here. For example, Pss. 90-92 speak of the Lord’s care and protection and living to an old and fruitful age, and they are followed by great and joyful psalms of praise to the Lord, the great King of nations!     They are reflections of the Lord’s past deliverances… and/or hopes for future triumphs, in the Messiah.

“Book IV” begins this section of the Psalms, and only two are “attributed” to David (101, 103). Here the ending is similar to the other section, yet different:

Ps. 106:48 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord.”

Book Five = Psalms 107-150. (Post-exilic. Looking forward to a Greater David)

“Book V” is the superscription here.  Did this “book” originally end at 144:15 “Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord”? Or should we go to the very end, at 150:6 “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”? [Ps. 145-150 may be an added-on praise section.]

While we may not be able to fully understand the structure or arrangement of the book of Psalms, any progress in seeing the book as a whole will be helpful in understanding the meaning of the psalms.   Michael Wilcock quotes Goulder: “The oldest commentary on the meaning of the psalms is the manner of their arrangement in the Psalter; that is, the collections in which they are grouped, the technical and historical notes they carry, and the order in which they stand.”

More next Sunday!