Understanding the Arrangement of the Psalms
Book One of the Psalms: 1 -41
Sept. 24, 2107
Pastor Louis Prontnicki
Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church
Last Sunday we begin a long section dealing with getting a handle on the Psalms.
We want to develop an appreciation for the way in which God arranged 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? How do we get a handle on all 150 psalms, and what do we make of the way in which they have been arranged?
The big question is this: has the editor(s) of the psalms left us with meaningful clues as to how he has (or they have) arranged the book of psalms? Since the person or persons who put the psalms in the form we now have them did not tell us HOW he/they did it, then we must discern patterns and look for the clues he may have left in his 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].
Last Sunday we saw that the Psalms are composed of five separate books (I – V), and at the end of each book there is a similar note of praise and blessing and often a double “Amen.” If you look at Ps. 41:13; 72:19-20; 89:52; 106:48; and 145:21, you will notice the similarities. These are the first clues that mark off each Book of the Psalms.
Then we noticed that Psalms 1-2 are the gateway to the rest of the psalms. They are the “visitor’s center” in a museum or public building, such as the National Constitution Center or the Museum of the American Revolution, where you will first see a film or a multimedia display which gives you an overview of everything that will follow as you go from room to room.
In addition, we saw that Psalms 1 and 2 both follow the cosmic battle lines between God and Satan as first seen in Gen. 3:15 (the seed of the woman – the promised Messiah – crushing the head of the seed of the serpent, though the serpent will strike the Messiah’s heel.)
Ps. 1 can be seen on an individual or personal level: the righteous vs. the wicked; it is those who delight in the Law of the Lord [Torah] vs. those who mock and scorn the Lord and His Word. Ultimately the only one who fully and completely delights in the Law of the Lord and is fully righteous is the Messiah… and we are “blessed” only in Him.
In Ps. 2, we have this cosmic battle played out on a national level, with the kings of the earth rebelling against the King of Kings…but once again the focal point is on the Messiah, seen 2:7-9 as the Lord’s Son. The Sovereign Lord establishes His Son as the ruler and judge of the nations and the kings, and warns the rebellious kings of the earth to “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way” (2:12)…. But also gives an invitation at the end of the psalm: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
[Note 1:1 “Blessed is the man who…” and 2:12 “Blessed are all who….”] The idea of Blessed forms the brackets around these two gateway psalms.
Think about how the prophets, the gospel writers and other New Testament writers understood these two psalms. Well, we know how they thought about them because they wrote about them:
“Like a tree planted by streams of water” = See Jeremiah 17:5-8 “Cursed is the one who trusts in man… he will be like a tree in the wasteland…. But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord… He will be like a tree planted by the water… that never fails to bear fruit.” Notice that there are two ways and only two ways: blessing or curse, depending on who you put your trust in.
“Not so the wicked…” (vv. 1, 4, 5, and 6) = Ps. 3:7 “Break the teeth of the wicked”
We find the word “wicked” 39 times in Psalms 3-41. Note esp. Psalm 37, where we find the word 14 times! By contrast the word wicked only appears 7 times in Book II (Ps. 42-72). Then it shows up again prominently in Ps. 73, the first psalm of Book III (Ps. 73:2 “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
In the gospels we find the “two ways” in Matthew 7:13-14, as Jesus speaks of the two ways of responding to the gospel.
“But the way of the wicked shall perish” see John 3:16 “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life”
This psalm is frequently quoted in the New Testament, to be sure. But before we get to that, let’s consider how Psalm 2 is a doorway and preview for the rest of the Psalms.
What is the conflict described in this psalm? (v. 2 “The kings of earth against the Lord and against his Anointed One [Messiah].”)
We can infer that the kings of the earth are all those national leaders who refuse to submit to the Lord God’s authority: In Moses day: Pharaoh, and the kings of Og and Bashan; in David’s time, the kings of the Amalekites, the Philistines, the Ammonites, the Arameans and many more.
So when we read of David doing battle against his enemies, we are building on the framework of Ps. 2. This has implications for Christ, as he battles Satan and as His Kingdom prevails over the nations of the globe.
But notice also “The kings of earth against the Lord and against his Anointed One.” We know who the LORD is, but who is His Anointed One?
First, it is David, who was anointed by the Lord, through Samuel, to be king. This has implications for all the “conflict psalms” (esp. Book I.)
Note the parallel with 2 Samuel 7:11a-14 The Lord speaking to David through the prophet Nathan promises David that when his days are over, “I will raise your offspring to succeed you… and I will establish his kingdom. He will be the one who will build a house for my name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (14) I will be his father, and he will be my son…”
2 Sam. 7 is an “Ideological summit” for the whole of OT history.
As Psalm One focuses on the Torah, and Word of God, as a primary theme for the psalms, so Psalm 2 focuses on God’s Messiah, His perpetual dynasty and his permanent dwelling place (Robertson, p. 14)
“From a redemptive-historical perspective, the Lord’s covenant with David provides the essential theological framework for understanding the Psalms.” (Ibid, p. 14):
The Lord establishes His Messianic King in Zion;
The Messianic King is none other than the Lord’s own Son;
All the nations will be His possession; and
All kings and rulers will bow down to Him… or face His wrath!
“This all-embracing decree regarding the reign of God and His Anointed One from their united thrones in Zion sets the stage for the full development of the Psalter.” (ibid, p. 15)
“So these two opening psalms present in condensed poetic fashion the overarching message of the Psalter. (1) God’s Law, the contrary responses of the two groups to that Law, and (2) the outworking of the consequences of their responses, are interrelated themes that permeate the Psalter. At the same time, the two kings and the two kingdoms merge into each other through the repeating message of the Psalter. David and his descendants will be established in a perpetual kingship at a particular locale. Yahweh rules over heaven and earth from eternity and through all time. Eventually, Messiah’s kingship must merge with Yahweh’s kingship so that the kingdoms of earth and heaven, of time and eternity, are one. This perspective alone can explain how the concept of kingship in Israel continues long after kings no longer exist in the nation (in captivity). It also explains how the kingship of Jesus as Messiah could merge so perfectly with God’s kingship over the world.” (ibid, p. 15)
The climax of the Lord’s covenant in the psalms focuses on the Davidic covenant with the Lord’s two promises regarding dynasty and dwelling place. Both these promises are encapsulated in the key word house. (Hebrew Beth) See 2 Samuel 7:11 “The Lord will establish a house for you” and v. 13 “He is the one who will build a house for my name.”
So perpetual dynasty and permanent dwelling place summarize the essential core of the Lord’s covenant with David. The son of David who will rule forever for God on David’s throne will also be God’s Son. (ibid, p. 47) These two all-embracing themes of the Davidic covenant play a major role throughout the whole of the book of Psalms. David, as the Lord’s anointed, the messianic king, is constantly assaulted by the wicked and the enemies of his righteous kingdom. But David’s dynasty will be preserved… though the threat remains perpetually present.
The Lord’s throne will be merged with David’s messianic throne in the single place of God’s choice, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem.
So God dwells both on Mt. Zion (Ps. 9:11; 132:13-14) and at the same time, His throne is in heaven. (Ps. 11:4; 103:19; 123:1). Yet these two dwelling places are not mutually exclusive. See Ps. 11:4 “The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven.” By this double dwelling place, God breaks through the limits of space. God is enthroned in all His fullness both in the temple in Zion and in the heavens. (ibid, p. 48)
So psalm 2 intertwines these two themes of dynasty and dwelling place in a manner that anticipates much that follows in the psalter.
But second, it is Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah… and here is where we turn to the NT writers.
Mark 1:11 “You are my Son whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” (At Jesus’ baptism an illusion to Ps. 2:7 and to Isa. 42:1) “Son” is a title that transcends messiahship; it denotes a unique relation to God the Father. Jesus is God’s unique Son, and because of that relationship, the Father has chosen Him for this special task. The opening of the heaven, the descent of the Spirit, and the declaration of the Father… serve to indicate the cosmic significance of the Son’s submission to His calling as a Servant. (Wm. Lane)
Acts 4:23-28 Peter and John, after being jailed and then threatened by the Sanhedrin, quote Ps.
2:1-2 “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their
stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One.”
Here we see the idea in Ps. 2 of a cosmic battle and the Lord’s triumph played out in the person and work of Jesus and in the early church. As action against the Lord and His Anointed One was futile in the time of David, so it is against Jesus the Messiah and His followers.
Acts 13:32-33 Paul speaking in Pisidian Antioch: “We tell you good news: what God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second psalm: ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’.”
Romans 1:1-4 “… the gospel He promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding His Son… and through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”
2 Cor. 6:16-18 “For we are the temple of the living God… (18) I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
“David’s experiences serve as a prototype for the experiences of every believer in Christ… we are the temple that David desired to build. God has built us into a house of his own where He forever dwells…. In Paul’s enlightening understanding of God’s covenant with David, the application of the Davidic covenant means that every believer is a son or daughter of the living God!
Therefore, using Paul’s perspective as a template, we can apply the various truths of the psalms to our lives. Yes, David went through more than we will likely go through; he was a unique individual raised up as a “man after God’s own heart” in order to display in all its fullness the glorious life of a Greater David, Jesus Christ. Jesus, in turn, experienced the realities described in the Psalms in a further unique and heightened manner.”
So the assumption underlying these psalms is that this one man’s experience of God is for all of us. David’s experience was Christ’s experience, and David and Christ’s experience is our experience. (ibid, pp. 120-121)
Rev. 2:26-27 Christ to the church in Thyatira: “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ – just as I have received authority from my Father.”
Rev. 12:5 “She will give birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter…”
Rev. 19:11-15 (v. 15) “Out of His mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”
Let’s look more closely at Book One: Psalms 1-41
Book One of the Psalms traces the path of David’s rise to the throne, through many afflictions, reflecting the conflict we saw in the opening two psalms. These psalms largely describe the period of David’s life when God’s anointed one was confronted by his enemies.
All but two (Ps. 10 and 33, but 10 is part of Ps. 9) of these psalms are attributed to David, and they reveal David’s personal struggle in this cosmic battle, as the messianic king.
Why did David have such a large role in the production of the Psalter? Why are so many of them written by him in the first person? Robertson: “David’s first-person addresses to God in the Psalter should be understood in terms of the climatic covenant of OT redemptive history which God made with David. As a single individual, David received God’s covenant promises regarding a perpetual dynasty. It is this distinctive role as God’s anointed messiah which explains David’s centrality in the Psalms.” (p. 63)
In other words, when David wrote down his experiences and reflections upon them, he wasn’t just writing as an individual; he was writing as God’s anointed king, as God’s representative on earth… and as one who would foreshadow the greater Messiah…. As well as all those who would be united to the Messiah… so that David’s experiences and emotions point us to Christ’s experiences and emotion… which we then can identify with, as we are in union with Christ.
For an example of a psalm in which this works out: Look at Psalm 3.
At one level, it is David describing the tragic situation when his own son Absalom rose up against him and took the throne, so that David had to flee (2 Samuel 15ff.). [Note that although this event happened much later than all the times when David was fleeing from Saul (e.g. Ps. 34), yet the editor of the psalms puts it first, perhaps because of the emotional intensity of having your own son usurping your throne.]
But this is not just the cry of an individual with family problems, for what happens to David, as king, also impacts the people of the kingdom: Look at vv. 7-8 “Deliver me, O my God… may Your blessing be on Your people.” [See the same pattern in 20:5 “We will shout for joy when you are victorious” and in 20:20, 22 “Guard my life and rescue me… Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles!”]
Continuing in Psalm 3, note David’s references to the Lord being a “shield” around him and bestowing glory upon him (3:3). That should remind us of God’s covenant promises to Abraham in Gen. 15:1: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, you very great reward.”
- 4 “He answers me from his holy hill” – the Lord’s dwelling place on earth, even though Absalom may occupy the throne in Zion temporarily, Zion is the Lord’s dwelling place.
Therefore, trusting in the Lord’s covenant promises, David have God’s perfect peace (“I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.” v. 5)
Therefore David, in the midst of awful turmoil and conflict, can rest securely, God’s people can know God’s rich blessings (v. 8)
We should learn to pray as David did here, when we are in trouble.
Note that at least 30 of the first 41 psalms make reference to the enemies of the psalmist. (And of the remaining 11 psalms, 3 imply the presence of enemies – 15, 16, and 20, while 5 refer to death – 16, 23, 30, 33, 39). Therefore the theme that unites Book One of the Psalms is David’s constant struggle [See Gen. 3:15] with his enemies, as he seek to establish God’s messianic kingdom of righteousness and peace (p. 65).
Let’s look at psalms 3-7. How might they be connected? They are all psalms of David crying out to the Lord for help in his time of trouble and conflict. Might they be related to the situation with Absalom as well? Compare 3:5 “I lay down and sleep; I wake again…”
4:4 “When you are on your beds..” 4:8 “I will lie down and sleep in peace” 5:3 “In the morning. O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you” 6:6 “All night long I flood my bed with weeping…”
It is very possible that Psalms 3-7 are all connected by this idea of sleeping and waking and the morning to the time when Absalom usurped David’s throne. They seem to belong together, both by the concern expressed (the hostility against David) and by the pattern of night and day.
But let’s notice something else. Of the 55 verses in these 5 psalms, 15 verses are devoted to the enemies and their threat, but about 30 verses are devoted to truths about the Lord and descriptions of prayer and praise. So what does that proportion tell us about how to respond to times of trouble? Not to run from it. Not to pretend we don’t struggle. Not to have a pity party. Rather, like David, we need to face our problems and describe them… and yet at the same time, allow the great truths about God to outweigh our circumstances (See Alex Motyer, Psalms by the Day. p. 24)
Next we have a very different psalm – Ps. 8, a praise song about God as Creator, but also about God’s care for us as mere creatures. It gives us a glorious view of God and a properly humble view of ourselves. How different than Psalms 3-7 – a well-needed break and refreshment, after 5 psalms of hostility and turmoil! Here we have echoes of Gen. 1-2, with God giving mankind dominion over the earth (vv. 6-7)
Yet there is more here, for the NT applies this psalm to Christ! See Hebrews 2:5-9
Then we move to Psalms 8-10. Pss. 9 and 10 were originally one psalms (note that there’s no heading for psalm 10; also, the Greek and Latin versions of the psalms combined them as one.)
Together, 9 and 10 form a very broken acrostic, which omits some of the Hebrew letters. This may be a deliberate literary form, perhaps to express the brokenness, unevenness and unexpectedness of life itself (Motyer, pp. 26-27). Together they express aspect of faith:
(1) Confident faith (9:1-12); (2) Buffeted faith (9:13-10:6); and (3) Praying faith (10:7-18). If we divide the two psalms into these three section, each section covers six Hebrew letters, for a total of 18 out of the 22 Hebrew letters of the alphabet.
Next we have 7 more psalms of David, Psalms 11-17. It is very possible to take the first three, 11-13, as one unit, and the last three, 15-17, as a second unit, with Psalm 14 in the middle as the central psalm in this section. Note: Psalm 14 will be repeated, almost verbatim, later, as Psalm 53.
Psalm 14 is a good divider between Pss. 11-3 and 15-17, as the focus in each group is somewhat different.
Psalms 11-13 are crying out to God “How long O Lord?” (13:1-2), while psalms 15-17 deal with who shall take up residence in the Lord’s holy hill (15), the security that comes from the Lord (16), and in 17, a pray to the Lord, which, prayed by David, could also be echoed by Christ and then by Christians.
Psalm 14 exposes atheism “The fool says in his heart ‘there is no god’.” Was David thinking of Nabal, the foolish husband of Abigail? Paul will quote this psalm (v. 3) in Romans 3:10-12
“All have turned aside… there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Step back to get the bigger picture; Psalms 3-17 are part one of the Davidic collection of psalms in Book One, and then Psalms 20-41 comprise the second part of these psalms by David. What seems to separate them are another two psalms, Pss. 18 and 19, another messianic focused psalm (18) and another Torah psalm (19). [As we had in the intro to the psalms, in 1 and 2]
It is likely that these two psalms are deliberate structural markers in Book One. Reasons:
- The terminology of the messianic- kingship seems to change after Psalms 18-19, that is, while Ps. 2 talks of the messianic king and the Lord’s anointed, and YHWH’s son, this terminology does not appear again in Pss. 3-17, until we get to Ps. 18:50. Then we see it again in 20:6, 9; 21:1, 7; 28:8. It is AFTER it was reported that all of David’s enemies had been defeated (See the heading to Ps. 18) that we hear this language again. (Robertson, p. 68)
- There are five kingship psalms immediately after Pss. 18-19. Two psalms present the Messiah’s kingship (20-21) and two psalms celebrate YHWH’s kingship (23-24), with Ps. 22 depicting both these kingships. Note the use of the words “victory” in 20 & 21.
Note: Ps. 23 presents the Lord as the Shepherd-King. Psalm 22 occupies the central role in these five kingship psalms, joining the kingship of the Messiah and of the Lord. Though Ps. 22 starts with the cry of agony from the Lord’s anointed one, it ends with a glorious description of Yahweh’s kingship (22:27-28, 30-31)
- The terms for LAW before and after Ps. 19 are different. The multiple terms for the Torah, found in Ps. 1, are not found again in Pss. 3-17; but after Ps. 18, we see them often; statutes -18:22; testimonies – 25:10; fear of the Lord – 34:11; law of God – 37:11; law within my heart – 40:8
- There is many more references to the teaching of God’s law after Ps. 19 than before. See 25:4-5; 27:11; 32:8; 34:11. In fact Psalm 25, coming right after the five kingship psalms, has a tenfold reference to the Lord’s instructions.
- References to Confession of Sin. While there are no explicit confessions of sin before Pss. 18/19, afterwards there are many (perhaps related to the teaching of God’s Law): 25:7-8, 11, 18; Ps. 32, and Pss. 38-41.
Therefore we can conclude that Psalms 18-19 form a clear structural marker in Book One.
“The message of the book moves from David’s struggles to establish his messianic kingdom (3-17) to the founding of a permanent dwelling place in Jerusalem, with a perpetual kingship, according to God’s covenant with David.” (Robertson, p. 78)
There are also acrostic psalms in Book One that play a structural role in understanding how the Psalms were arranged. The psalms are 9-10, 25, 34, and 37. [Note: Book One contains 4 of the 8 acrostic psalms in the whole psalter; the other 4 are found in Book Five, but nowhere else!]
These acrostic psalms function in a number of ways:
First, they divide Book One and Book Five into smaller sections, providing a structural framework for the Books.
For example, acrostic psalms 34 and 37 bracket four psalms (34-37) of the innocent sufferer. Then these four psalms are followed by four psalms of the guilty sufferer. (Pss. 38-41).
Practical implication is using these psalms: knowing where to look when some has suffered, though innocent, and when someone has suffered, related to their guilt.
Furthermore, there are three psalms in Book One that mention Creation (8, 24, and 33). Each time these creation psalms are followed by an acrostic psalm! (9/10, 25, and 34). Is this a deliberate placement by the editor, to help us remember the psalms? Is it that the psalms which describe the creativity of the Lord in shaping the world finds a reflection in the creativity of the Lord is shaping the Word?
Finally, note that Book One ends with a personalized psalm of the Messiah in which he suffers the betrayal of a close friend – Ps. 41:9 (Matt. 26:33; Luke 22:21; John 13:18)
“even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.”
“The anticipation of betrayal of God’s messiah by a close friend who has turned into his archenemy is clearly a messianic motif harking back to the life and death struggle between the singular saving see of the woman and Satan himself, the ultimate enemy of God’s people (Gen. 3:15)” (Robertson, p, 83)