When you sing or read the Psalms, have you ever wondered, “Wait… who’s talking here?” Maybe it seems that your pastor is sending mixed messages. One Sunday he references Psalm 51 and says that this is David’s personal prayer after he had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband. But then the next Sunday he chooses to sing Psalm 51 as a prayer of confession, saying that the psalm is our words of penitence. So which is it?
This has been a bit of a quandary for me throughout my reading of the psalms, especially since I began studying them in in earnest last summer. How do we read and sing the biblical psalms? What’s the best way to understand them? In whose voice should we read and meditate on them to get the most out of our study?
I suggest five possible solutions which present themselves to my mind:
1. The original author
We know that David wrote at least 75 psalms (73 are directly attributed to him in the Hebrew text, and the New Testament attributes Psalms 2 and 95 to him). Many of these psalms are directly linked with specific events in the life of David. For instance, Psalm 3 was written when David fled from Absalom, Psalm 18 when he was delivered from the hand of Saul, Psalm 51 when Nathan confronted him about his affair with Bathsheba, etc.
Psalm 90 was written by Moses as a reflection on God’s faithfulness to Israel. Psalm 72 was written either by or about Solomon on the occasion of his ascension to the throne.
Understanding the context and authorship of these psalms helps us see how God worked in these saints’ lives, how they understood the actions of God, and how they saw themselves in light of God’s overarching story of redemption. These psalms can add personal color to the historical narratives recorded elsewhere. For instance, Psalm 54 shows us the desperation and fear of David in light of the Ziphites’ betrayal, but also his confidence brought about by faith in God’s preserving help. This colors our reading of I Samuel 23, adding a personal element to the “bare facts” historical account.
2. The Old Testament people of God
The book of Psalms was used in the liturgy of the Old Testament church. Psalm 30 was written for the dedication of the Temple, Psalm 38 to accompany the memorial offering. Many of the psalms bear the inscription, “To the choirmaster,” implying use at corporate worship. The “Sons of Korah,” to whom many of the psalms are attributed (at least 25 psalms), were a family of Levites who were in charge of the service music (I Chronicles 6:31-33). Asaph, another psalmist (12 psalms), was appointed by David to lead the people in songs of worship (I Chronicles 16:7).
I Chronicles 16 explicitly quotes Psalms 105, 96, and 106 as being used in corporate worship. Solomon’s Temple dedication service seems to have several psalms in mind (see II Chronicles 5:12-13, 7:3). Ezra also uses the Psalms of David for the dedication of the rebuilt Temple (Ezra 3:10-11).
Reading and singing the psalms in this light gives us a glimpse into Israel’s corporate understanding of who they were as the people of God. Many of the Psalms specifically reflect on Israel’s history: the plagues against Egypt (Psalm 78), the Exodus (Psalm 80), the giving of the Law (Psalm 81), the wilderness wanderings (Psalm 78), the crossing of the Jordan (Psalm 114), etc. Psalm 137 is a poignant cry from an exiled people. The Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) were yearly sung by the people as they climbed up to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.
Reading the psalms as the collected prayers of the Old Testament people of God gives us insight into their history and worship, how they interacted with God’s redemption as a corporate body of chosen people. Singing the psalms in this way helps us celebrate God’s work in Old Testament redemptive history.
3. Jesus Christ
As a young Jew growing up in Israel, Jesus would have been intimately familiar with the psalms. As the divine Son of God, He who is the Word of God was instrumental in the inspiration of those psalms. On the road to Emmaus, Christ explicitly stated that the Psalms were about Him (Luke 24:44). The New Testament constantly quotes Psalms 2, 110, and 118 as being prophetic of Christ’s work. As one pastor once said to me, “As Christians, we should only sing the psalms that are explicitly about Christ, which I believe would be Psalms 1 through 150.”
It would be no stretch of the imagination to say that the biblical psalms greatly shaped Jesus’ understanding of His ministry. He quoted them constantly in regards to Himself. Then it would also be appropriate to say that our understanding of His ministry should also be shaped by the psalms. Psalm 22 is His cry from the cross. Psalms 2 and 47 are His triumph at the Ascension and ultimately at His Second Coming. Psalm 24 speaks of His glory and triumphant return. Psalm 110 speaks of His priestly work.
Christ is the Righteous Man (the only one) of Psalm 1. He is the only one who can dwell in God’s tent and ascend to God’s holy hill (Psalm 15). He is the King of Psalms 20-21 and 72. He is the Betrayed One of Psalms 54 and 109. He is the Living Water of Psalms 42 and 63.
Reading the psalms with Christ as their ultimate Singer help us to see and savor Him more. The psalms flesh out our understanding of His work and give us words with which to celebrate and praise Him.
In part 2, we’ll look at the remaining two possibilities of “Who sings the Psalms?”
4. The Christian communion of saints
5. The individual believer
And we’ll seek to come to a conclusion of how to synthesize the different categories as we read, meditate on, and sing the biblical psalms.