Week 80: Psalms Part 2
Some psalms express deep grief. I am especially moved by Psalm 56, which says that God ‘puts our tears into his bottle’. When Jewish people wanted to express their sympathy at the death of someone they loved, they didn’t send flowers or wreaths to the funeral, but instead they had glass bottles, about four inches high, which they would hold under their eyes and weep into. They would then send the bottle of tears to the bereaved relatives as an expression of sympathy. The psalm tells us that God is able to do the same for us, even when our tears are about things not nearly as serious as death.
The Psalms cover the whole gamut of human emotions. They include what we might term the ‘negative’ emotions of anger, frustration, jealousy, despair, fear and envy. The psalmist expresses exactly how he thinks and feels, including cursing men and complaining about God. They also reflect the more ‘positive’ emotions of joy, excitement, hope and peace.
David wrote most of the personal psalms. They cover many of the things that people might want to say to God. Later we shall look at three particular kinds of psalms, which I call ‘please psalms’, ‘thank-you psalms’ and ‘sorry psalms’.
In spite of their strong worship focus, the Psalms were not intended to be used only by priests. There is an almost complete absence of altars, priests, vestments and incense. The Psalms are intended for common people to use in their worship of God.
The Psalms not only cover every human emotion; they are also comprehensive in their treatment of biblical themes. Luther said the Psalms are ‘the Bible within the Bible’ – the Bible in miniature. They cover the history of Israel, creation, the patriarchs, the Exodus, the monarchy, the Exile and the return to Jerusalem.
The Psalms are the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. The most quoted verse in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1: ‘The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’
Not all the psalms in the Old Testament are in the Book of Psalms. Moses and Miriam wrote one (see Exodus 15). Deborah and Hannah also composed psalms (see Judges 5 and 1 Samuel 2). Since the authors of most of the Bible were male, it is interesting that women too wrote psalms, perhaps reflecting the naturally intuitive side of the feminine nature. Job wrote three psalms, while Isaiah and King Hezekiah each wrote one.
Other Old Testament characters also used psalms. Jonah’s prayer while he was inside the whale is a classic example. He said he was praying from Sheol, the world of departed spirits, and quoted five different psalms in that prayer. Habakkuk quotes from the Psalms three times in his prophecy.
All the Psalms employ poetry as their sole means of expression. So do the Song of Solomon, Proverbs and Lamentations. Other Old Testament books (e.g. Ecclesiastes and the Prophets) are a mixture of poetry and prose. Parts of the historical books are also in poetic form (e.g. Genesis 49; Exodus 15; Judges 5; 2 Samuel 22).