Sunday, July 3, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Psalms

Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, and it's one of the most-read and most-quoted books, as well. That's because Psalms is full of praises to God and encouragement for people--it has a reputation as a book you can open up and instantly find something powerful that speaks to you. But while Psalms is known for its comfort, the book isn't focused solely on encouragement. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of dark, depressing moments in Psalms, but they're all there for a reason. It's difficult to say anything cohesive about such a lengthy multi-author, multi-subject book, but I'll highlight a couple of things about Psalms that have come to my mind lately.

Note: Most of the psalms are attributed to King David of Israel, but there are several other authors of psalms.

Psalm 1: The first verse of the first chapter goes like this-- "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the council of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful." I like to pay attention to the opening lines of books, and this is a particularly important opening line. It warns us not to listen to the advice of ungodly people, or to become partners and friends with sinful, scornful people. "Scornful" is one of those slightly old words that we don't hear much anymore, but I always like to read this verse to remind myself that it's not wise or godly to be one of those people who is known for their scornfulness and disdain for others. Psalm 1 uses a lot of parallelism and keeps contrasting godly people with the ungodly, and the comparisons are very stark: "For the Lord knows the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish." I notice that this verse doesn't necessarily say that the wicked will perish, but that their way will perish, their whole lifestyle and mode of operation is something worthless and not built to last.

Oppression and Enemies:  King David had a lot of enemies, so naturally the psalms written by him would deal some with the heartache of being oppressed and the longing for God to save him. But I was surprised at how much these psalms that mention "enemies" might still apply to readers today. When we're in trouble, we often realize that we're not going through any uncommon suffering. It hurts us, but we know it's not personal--more people than just us have lost jobs and more people than just us have been victims of diseases or disasters. But where do we turn when we have an outright enemy, when somebody is actively out to hurt us? When you're the victim of a very personal enemy, you need a very personal friend to counteract the damage, and God is just that, both for David and for anyone else who calls out to him. It's that kind of reassurance that allows David to say in Ps. 3:6 "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about."

Psalm 23: This is the single most well-known psalm. Even people who are not familiar with the Bible at all have seen bits of this psalm used in movies or heard it read at funerals.

1-The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2-He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3-He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4-Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5-Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6-Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

This psalm is pure comfort. It's also very relationship-focused, emphasizing the love between God and the speaker. The speaker also changes the way he refers to God--it's all "he" does this and "he" does that until verse 4, where God is addressed directly as "thou". That's kind of sweet, having the speaker talk about God in the third-person, followed by a direct address. The theme here is so beautiful: the people who love God are guided by him and ultimately get to be with him forever. The Psalms are full of these assurances, and they make for excellent reading at any time.

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