The central message to the Psalms is God is sovereign over all of creation and He is worthy of our worship and as Brevard Childs illustrates, “they are a living voice speaking to the present human suffering.”
What do the Psalms contribute to the Christian’s understanding of the nature of worship?
The Psalms teach Christians how to praise God and how worship is not just a vertical act expressing our thanks to God; worship is also a horizontal activity where we share with others about the great things God has done in our lives. Psalms require wisdom and obedience because, if we fail to obey God, our worship is just empty words and a hollow ritual.
The Israelites would have sung many of these Psalms during festivals and special occasions to demonstrate their love and adoration to the Lord. As Wenham illustrates, when psalms are sung, “that makes them public addresses to God. By using them as prayers or singing them, worshipers declare their faith and their commitment to God’s ways.”
God deserves and requires our praise as Romans 10:9-10 illustrates, “For with the heart one believes and is justified and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” The Psalms proclaim the Lord is God over all things and Wenham explains “in singing the Psalms, one is actively committing oneself to following a God-approved life.” Worship is one of the most intimate ways Christians communicate with their creator.
Wenham equates singing a Psalm to taking an oath, by stating, “We are committing ourselves in a binding way to a particular set of beliefs and embracing a lifestyle.” Psalms 105:1-15, 96:1-13, and 106:47 all relate to when the Israelites arrived in Jerusalem and David appointed the Levites to sing praise to God. Throughout scripture we are presented with instances where praise went before the armies, so there is power in praise and as Martin Luther said, “Music is to be praised as second only to the word of God…” When we worship God, God’s character is revealed. Psalms of lament where the Psalter was crying out to God are generally followed by a Psalm of thanksgiving and praise because of God’s goodness, protection, and mercy in a situation.
What do the Psalms contribute to the Christian’s understanding of the Messiah?
Any Psalm that either predicts or discusses the life of the future Messiah are considered to be Messianic. The Psalms are full of references related to King David, the future Davidic King, and some which specifically prophesy the coming Messiah. Canonical criticism has played a major role in denying the Messianic nature of many Psalms, but as Wenham points out in Psalms 72:8 and Zechariah 9:10, “this quotation clearly shows that the Messianic interpretation of some Psalms occurred long before the Christian era, because Zechariah is clearly prophesying a future ruler, not commenting on a past one.” The very fact that that Psalms were interpreted into Greek and Aramaic is compelling evidence that even the Jews believed the Psalms were pointing to a future king and not a past one. Wenham elaborates further, “The original author of the Psalms may have been describing his own experience, but the editors believed he was describing one yet to be revealed.” This writer holds the same belief that the original writer under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote of his own experience, which was also prophetic and would be fulfilled by the future Messiah.
Another tool, which helps Christian’s, understand the future Messiah is utilized through a technique called sensus plenoir or a fuller sense to similar texts. One of the best examples is found in Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:14-15. Wenham highlights, “In the prophecy of Hosea, this is just a historical comment on the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, but Matthew, seeing Jesus as the true Israel, applies Hosea’s historical comment to the life of Jesus.” Psalms 22 is another great example because historically it is about the tension David suffered knowing God was omnipotent to help him, but he was experiencing what appeared to be the absence of God’s presence. To further understand the meaning and similarities between the suffering of Christ and the individual, John Wesley states, “It is confessed that David was a type of Christ, and that many passages of the Psalms, though literally understood of David, yet had a further and mystical reference to Christ.”
There are several passages, which were directly, and immediately intended for, and are properly to be understood as the Messiah. Examples of these include Psalms 72:8-11 where there is a reference to a King having dominion from sea to sea. Perhaps the best example is found in Psalms 110 where we see the future King is at the right hand of God.
Wenham also points out, “the book of Psalms looks forward to the Messiah suffering before He enters into glory.” It is interesting in reading Isaiah 53 and the Psalms and seeing the similarity of the suffering servant and the struggles presented to David. Wenham argues, “The juxtaposition of the triumphant king in Psalms 2 with the persecuted David in Psalms 3 onward could also lead to the conclusion that the future David would suffer before He triumphed.” Wenham suggests Christians can understand the life and mission of Jesus, “[and how He] came to understand that His role would be that of the suffering servant,” by reading the Psalms.
What do the Psalms contribute to the Christian’s understanding of ethics? (Imprecatory)
It is apparent the Psalter’s goal in addressing ethics is rooted in the Decalogue by revealing the contrast between being righteous and wicked. If you ignore God’s word, you come under His judgment and if you are obedient you will experience blessings in this life. As Wenham states, “The significance of the Psalms for biblical ethics has been surprisingly overlooked. Their unique character as powerful shapers of individual virtues and social attributes is largely ignored in books on Old Testament ethics.” God reveals Himself to us through creation and His Word, so it is not surprising to find the nature and character of God revealed in the Psalms. As Wenham states, “The Psalms are first and foremost prayers, so they constantly bring God into the picture, not least in their ethical statements. God’s character is constantly appealed to … [and] He will ensure that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.” Although God’s character is rooted in steadfast love, there comes a point where the God of justice must act.
Our ethics and morality have been under attack since the fall in the Garden. Humanity has defined morality as what is and ethics by what ought to be. Wenham shows the reader not only that, “the Psalms teach us the fundamentals of faith, [but] they also instruct us in ethics.” There is a tension in the character of God, which is revealed in the imprecatory Psalms. Human justice will always be imperfect so our prayers and laments should call upon God to act justly and love mercifully. Erich Zenger put it best, “If we care about the suffering of our fellow Christians, we should pray these Psalms” because they have the power to stop the cycle of violence that is running rampant. These Psalms are rooted in a desire for hope, but as Wenham cautions his readers, “A church that fails to uphold a biblical ethic cannot expect to enjoy God’s covenant blessings.”
C.S. Lewis best clarifies how to handle them by saying, “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth… We must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes from the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good… We should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it.” John Calvin suggests, “We must be more careful than David in invoking God’s judgment on enemies, lest it be God’s purpose to bring them to repentance,” like in the story of Nineveh. Wenham then proposes a question no human is equipped to answer: “Is any living person beyond hope of return to God?”
Imprecatory Psalms are rooted out of a deep passion and commitment to God as A.F. Kirkpatrick alludes to in explaining, “It was less evil to pray for God to punish one’s enemies than to take the law into their own hands and wreak unbridled revenge on them.” The main difference between then and now is what Jesus did on Calvary as Derek Kidner states, “Between our day and theirs, our calling and theirs, stands the cross.”
Psalms bring to light all the pain and suffering in the world. Erick Zenger argues, “A belief in divine judgment is essential in a world where there is much suffering, oppression, and injustice. If we do not believe in this judgment, we have no gospel to offer to the suffering world.” When we are praying for the second coming of Christ we are essentially praying a toned down imprecatory Psalm. Zenger goes as far to say, “modern Christians have forgotten or suppressed the idea that the day of judgment is to bring justice to the victims of injustice – a day when God will restore the world to what it should be – and to confront the wicked with the reality of their sin and its consequences.” Essentially Zenger is saying if we as Christians stop praying for God to pour out His wrath on our enemies, we would be minimizing God as merely being an observer in the stands who does not care what happens.
The Psalms present us with a righteous and just God who will one day set all things right. The Psalms teach us the nature of worship by helping us understand who the Messiah is and what His role was and is to come. They provide us with a sense of what is right and wrong as well as the consequences of our choices. They also teach us how to care for people by bearing one another’s burdens.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Mentor, 1995.
Calvin, John. A Commentary on the Psalms of David. Oxford: Tegg, 1840.
Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. London: SCM, 1979.
Kinder, Derek. Psalms 1-72. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1973.
Kirkpatrick, A.F. The Book of Psalms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902, lxxxviii-lxxxix.
Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms. London: Collins, 1961.
Wenham, Dr. Gordon. The Psalter Reclaimed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
Wesley, John. Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament. London: Wesleyan-Methodist Book-Room, n.d., WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “Psalm 22”.
Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. Linda M. Maloney. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.