Holding the Psalms with Two Hands: Interpreting the Psalms via their Tensions

I am not a psalms scholar but I am a fan. A few minutes of mid-day reading the psalms has helped clear the gloom of life and better grasp the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. I confess, however, that the psalms are sometimes difficult to understand. The author is full of joy for a few lines and then laments; he talks about himself, then Israel—and gives no literary transition to help the reader connect the dots.

I wish to suggest here that these tensions in the psalms provide windows for interpreting and applying their messages. However inconvenient these tensions might be for getting quick, spiritual-life application, they represent the fabric of the psalmist’s worldview and must not be overlooked. Holding the psalms with two hands, we can maintain these points of tension and enjoy valid application today. Some of the tensions we have explored in our men’s summer Bible study are teased out in what follows.

1. Individual (David, the psalmist) vs. Corporate reference. Psalms 51 and 139 exemplify this phenomenon in the psalms (though it can be observed in Pss 7:3-8; 9;13-14; 18:1-42, 43-50; 25:1-21, 22; 28:1-7, 8-9; 31:1-22, 23-24; et al.). Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of confession for adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah (cf. 2 Samuel 11-12). Often overlooked in the analysis of Psalm 51 are the concluding phrases:

“In Your good pleasure, cause Zion to prosper; build the walls of Jerusalem.

Then you will delight in righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings;

then bulls will be offered on Your alter.”

David’s special position as king of Israel heightened both the level of his sin and the focus of his restoration. Made right with God, (1) David could better understand the inside-out orientation of worship in Israel’s religious sacrifices, and (2) Israel would be strengthened to seek their gracious God.

2. Vertical (Praise, Confession, Lament) vs. Horizontal (Intercession, Curse). In other words, one psalm can move in two directions (Psalms 22, 35, 40, 44, et al.). Psalm 139 is perhaps most known, and rightly so, for its presentation of God’s omniscience. There is no path or domain in all of the metaphysical world that is unknown to the psalmist’s God. But, again, the conclusion of the psalm deserves attention. For eighteen verses the psalmist confesses God’s omniscience, then without warning curses the wicked and asks God to destroy them—because they are the psalmist’s enemies as well. The final two verses of the psalm read:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;

test me and know my concerns;

See if there is any offensive way in me;

lead me in the everlasting way.”

The appropriate question to ask at the conclusion of the Psalm 139 is: wouldn’t God know the psalmist’s heart, since He knows everything (vv. 1-21)? Interpreted holistically, Psalm 139 becomes not just a statement of the doctrine of God’s omniscience, but a confession of the psalmist’s commitment to God: God’s enemies are also his enemies; “please remember that, God!” he says, in effect, “and enable me to maintain my commitment to You.”

3. The book of Psalms vs. the Historical Setting(s) of their composition as recorded in the Law and the Historical Books (Psalm 3 and 2 Sam 15:13-17; Psalm 34 and 1 Sam 21:10-15; Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 11; Psalm 52 and 1 Sam 22:9; Psalm 54 and 1 Sam 23:19 and 26:1; Psalm 56 and 1 Sam 21:10-22:2; Psalm 57 and 1 Samuel 24; Psalm 59 and 1 Samuel 19; Psalm 60 and 2 Samuel 8/1 Chronicles 18; Psalm 63 and ?). As noted already in the discussion of Psalm 51, the psalms often have in view specific referents and historical events, and these must be taken into consideration when interpreting those psalms. What would we think of Psalm 51 if we did not know the story of David’s sin and the account of Nathan confronting him for it? Many of the psalms listed in parentheses above were composed in response to events recorded in the latter chapters of 1 Samuel. To best understand David’s pleas for deliverance in Psalms 34, 52, 54, 56 and 57, we must look at the scenes recorded in 1 Samuel; this is what I mean by holding the psalms with two hands.

4. Immediate vs. Age of the Messiah temporal orientation. Though, as noted above, it is necessary to understand the psalms within (at least) the historical framework of Israel, and at best in light of specific scenes in Israel’s history, some psalms beg for more. As Israel’s poetry, the psalms deal with issues of life—but the answers they provide are yet in the age of shadows. If it were not for the coming of Christ, the hope they offer would be cut short by the Exile. So the psalms are a window to God’s revelation in Christ, but not the building itself. The description of the conquering king, called God’s son (v. 7) in Psalm 2 seems to go beyond just David (cf. Matt 3:17; Luke 3:22; Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5). David’s confidence that he would enjoy eternal life with God (Ps 16:9-11) is called into question by his demise and death in 1 Kings 1-2, perhaps leading Peter (Acts 2:25-28) and Paul (Acts13:34-36) to cite Ps 16:9-11 as prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection. Some of the ideas expressed in Psalms 40, 110, and 118 were likewise taken up by NT authors as expressions valid beyond the day of the psalmist, having specific reference to Jesus Christ.

So the psalms refer to great individuals like David but within the broader corporate context of Israel and the monarchy; they record jubilation at God’s intervention and beg for Him to do more; they are compiled as one type of literature in the OT yet must be interpreted within the broader flow of the events of the OT; despite this immediate contextual framework, the psalms cast a shadow so large only God incarnate could fulfill their hopes. Two hands are needed for interpreting the psalms.

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