Teachings from the Psalms
A. Speaks powerfully to all people, throughout time - in prayer, mediation, literature.
B. Comes from a tradition dating back to Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE) of common hymns and celebrations, reflecting, among other things, Canaanite features, including councils of gods, warrior god image, residue of polytheism.
C. Framed for Israelite purposes, with uncertain dating, traditionally beginning with King David.
D. Features, though, from Solomon’s times, even pre-nomadic, as well as First Commonwealth, Prophets, post-exilic, and even into the Second Temple, up to perhaps 400 BCE, when finally edited, perhaps later. Mostly over 500 years from around 1000 BCE to 500 BCE.
E. Purposes: cultic practice, liturgical, celebrations (including national victories), thanksgiving, supplication, in moments of peril, lamentation, praise of God, praise of Zion.
F. Authors - perhaps also poets within the Temple.
G. Structure - 5 books (1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150.
H. Mizmor is a psalm, perhaps sung with musical instruments. Book is not called mizmorim, but rather tehilim, meaning praises. This suggests that our ultimate calling, whether in moments of celebration or lamentation (or all in between) is to celebrate God’s greatness and to express gratitude and praise. Book ends explicitly with 6 psalms of praise, a sort of “orchestral climax” in the final psalm.
I. Method of poetry - rarely seeks startling effects, familiar images, and fresh and moving poetry. Similes are often born of common ideas and well known ideas or acts. Simple directness in use of traditional figurative language. Expressive power in succinctness, parallelism, sequencing.
J. Use of psalms by Temple cult, yet with power of intense spiritual inwardness.
K. Poems retain eloquence after 2 1/2 millennia for believers, relating to a wide range of experiences from joy to sorrow, pleading to gratitude.
L. Taken together, they make up a touchstone for our relationship with God - we cry, we plea, we praise, we thank, all and more.
M. We explore and experience God’s presence and nearness,
ourselves, our relationship, who and how we are to be, not so much in the mode
of Proverbs in its wisdom, but rather through the beauty and mystery and truth
of the language of poetry and the images and experiences it conveys.
truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice,
doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
2 Instead of doing those things, these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
3 They are like a tree replanted by streams of water, which bears fruit at just the right time and whose leaves don’t fade. Whatever they do succeeds.
not true for the wicked! They are like dust that the wind blows away.
5 And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice - neither will sinner in the assembly of the righteous.
6 The Lord is intimately acquainted with the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is destroyed.
Psalm 1 Discussion
1. What does it mean to take delight in Torah and meditate on Torah each day and night?
2. The psalm promises that if we do that we will be like “a tree planted by rivers of water that brings forth fruit in its season.” Further, it’s a tree with leaf “does not wither.” And, “he prospers in all that he does.”
What does each of those statements mean? What do they not mean? What do they tell us about nearness to God?
3. The psalm says that a person who follows this wisdom is “ashrei.” Some say this means happy. Others say blessed. Others say praised. Do we mean conventional happiness? What exactly does ashrei mean?
This is a sort of wisdom psalm that flows from what we’ve studied, close in nature to the Proverbs. It’s understandable that it is placed first. It’s central to Jewish core thinking and recognizable to all who follow Judeo-Christian ideas.
A. Note all the verbs to start, walk in counsel or on path, stand, sit, desire, meditate, be. We live and are active - how we do it explains who we are. We know God by attributes of action; so are we known.
B. Torah - what is it? Some translations say law. That is wrong. Rather, it is some combination of instruction, teaching, words, ways, expectations, and guidance. It’s what God “throws” our way as to what it means to live as God expects, calling upon all our faculties of mind, heart, soul, and mind.
The one who is blessed (happy) is the one who lives “Torah” and makes meditation upon it perpetual, day and night.
Note that it is “his Torah” upon which we mediate. Whose? Rashi says it is God’s - to begin. But, the more we make of it, the more it becomes ours, too.
Terrien: how we live should be a day and night mediation on Torah, with pleasure, because it intimates in the presence of God; the urgency of rectitude in social relations.
C. Why a tree? For one thing, Torah is a “tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” It’s something that grows, flourishes, is fruitful, sustained.
Here, the tree is nourished by water. Why water? It’s necessary for sustenance, especially in semi-arid places.
Recall also the many ways in the Bible that water is suggestive of spiritual sustenance. Miriam. Moses, striking the rock. The dew. The rain. God’s presence, spirituality, streams under and out of Eden.
D. “Yields its fruit in season and its leaf never withers.” “He’s prosperous in all he does?” Meaning?
Productive in service of life, God, and others. And in timely ways, when needed, etc.
A leaf that never withers suggests something that lasts a long time, endures, and may be eternal.
Does prosperous mean wealthy in mostly material ways? Go back to ashrei. Is this conventionally or easily happy?
Robert Burns wrote: “Happy is the man, in life, wherever placed…” There’s a sense of peace, gratitude, satisfaction, contentment. The plentitude - the prosperity - seems to suggest a fullness of those things, with a recognition of the limits and discipline as well as an awareness that there may be sadness, cause for lamentation, etc. that comes “in the package.”
Ashrei also means being blessed, a sense of going forward, walking on, with some success, with, as Terrien taught, a felicitation involved in blazing a trail, certainly of walking a path that God has set for us.
E. Contrast with the wicked, who like chaff, are driven by the wind,
subject to uncertain direction, if any at all. God attends to the way of the
righteous, to those who live by Torah. The blessed person walks ahead, faithful
to traditions given by God and willing to take risks in life, while the wicked,
ungodly, follow the horde, easily swayed, like straw in the wind, unmindful of
duty or responsibility to God or others.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff - they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Psalm 23 Discussion:
1. What do we learn from the first 3 verses about being near to God?
We see “waters” again. Meaning?
Where are we when we’re closest to God?
2. Verse 4 is often misinterpreted. Let’s discuss its broader possibilities. It teaches many things about our relationship with God. Possibilities?
3. Verse 5 brings to mind many thoughts from Bible study. Can you see some?
4. Verse 6 has some crucial insights into God’s nearness. Thoughts?
We’ve heard this psalm so many times, often at funerals, that we think we know it well. Actually, we’ve put it on a pedestal, thinking we know what it means, and don’t. it’s sort of like Beethoven’s 5th. We need to know it a lot better than we think we do. Let’s give it a fresh look.
A. Focus on the metaphor in the first verses. The Lord is the shepherd; we are sheep. How?
(Human nature is such that we need constant tending from the Divine. Think of the terrain. Rocky. Craggy. We are always in need of direction, but the shepherd is present and providing and caring. This is descriptive of the Divine Presence in so many ways.
B. “I shall not want.” What does that mean?
C. Green pastures. Still waters. We’ve seen an image of water in the first psalm. We have a new sense here of what it’s like to be tended by God. Discuss.
D. “Restores the soul.” Meaning?
Brings back to life. Renews life-giving deeper being, living alertness, emotional drive, will to go on, zest for life, etc., as seen in the metaphor of bedraggled and exhausted sheep who, like us, can be worn down by the burdens of life.
E. Paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” We’ve studied righteousness, but what does it mean, “for His name’s sake?”
Recall how careful the Jewish tradition is with the name of God. It’s so careful that the name is simply, HaShem, the Name. It recognizes the living and guiding Presence of the Divine to be worshipped, and seen as Sovereign. So, a keeper of the covenant - a faithful one - would be on the path for God’s sake, in God’s name.
As we pray, Praised be His Name, with honor and glory to our Ruler forever and ever. On that day, God will be One, and His name shall be one.
F. “Walk through the valley of deepest darkness, I fear no evil, for thou art with me Thy rod and thy staff - they comfort me.” How is this valley normally described in translation? How could this correct translation help us see deeper and additional meanings?
It could be death. But it could also be times of great trial and trouble. Perils of life. The terrors we face. The sheep on a rocky ravine face such perils, but, unlike us, may not know of it. It may be when others do us wrong, and we’re fearful. Or we’ve hurt others and feel guilty and troubled. It may be the pain or exile or tormenting by others. Abandonment. Feeling deeply lost and lonely. Purposelessness. Being left out. Near death. Or near death in life. The shepherd is there to tend us in all these ways.
The rod and staff comfort us. God’s love, guidance, discipline (even punishment), prodding, support, signaling keep us on the path and/or return us to the path.
G. Table. Anointing head with oil. Cup running over. Blessings of God’s presence. Goodness and loving-kindness - God’s for us and ours for others - follow us all the days of our lives. Meaning?
Growth and good and spiritual enrichment for me from God, and from me to others. God’s concern for me. My recognition of God. And my concern for others. In sync with the two great commandments.
All this leads us to a high point in the discussion of the Psalms teaching of nearness to God - “I will dwell in the house of God for the length of my days.” Later thinking amplifies this and leads us to think of “forever.” This is the greatest gift - God’s presence.
22 My God! My God, why have you left me all alone?
Why are you so far from saving me - so far from my anguished groans?
2 My God, I cry out during the day, but you don’t answer; even at nighttime I don’t stop.
3 You are the holy one, enthroned. You are Israel’s praise.
4 Our ancestors trusted you - they trusted you and you rescued them;
5 they cried out to you and they were saved; they trusted you and they weren’t ashamed.
6 But I’m just a worm, less than human; insulted by one person, despised by another.
7 All who see me make fun of me - they gape, shaking their heads:
8 “He committed himself to the Lord, so let God rescue him; let God deliver him because God likes him so much.”
9 But you are the one who pulled me from the womb, placing me safely at my mother’s breasts.
10 I was thrown on you from birth; you’ve been my God since I was in my mother’s womb.
11 Please don’t be far from me, because trouble is near and there’s no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me; mighty bulls from Bashan encircle me.
13 They open their mouths at me like a lion ripping and roaring!
14 I’m poured out like water. All my bones have fallen apart. My heart is like wax; it melts inside me.
15 My strength is dried up like a piece of broken pottery. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you’ve set me down in the dirt of death.
16 Dogs surround me; a pack of evil people circle me like a lion - oh, my poor hands and feet!
17 I can count all my bones! Meanwhile, they just stare at me, watching me.
18 They divvy up my garments among themselves; they cast lots for my clothes.
19 But you, Lord! Don’t be far away! You are my strength! Come quick and help me!
20 Deliver me from the sword. Deliver my life from the power of the dog.
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion. From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me!
22 I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; I will praise you in the very center of the congregation!
23 All of you who revere the Lord - praise him! All of you who are Jacob’s descendants - honor him! All of you who are all Israel’s offspring - stand in awe of him!
24 Because he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered - he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.
25 I offer praise in the great congregation because of you; I will fulfill my promises in the presence of those who honor God.
26 Let all those who are suffering eat and be full! Let all who seek the Lord praise him! I pray your hearts live forever!
27 Every part of the earth will remember and come back to the Lord; every family among all the nations will worship you.
28 Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord, he rules all nations.
29 Indeed, all the earth’s powerful will worship him; all who are descending to the dust will kneel before him; my being also lives for him.
30 Future descendants will serve him; generations to come will be told about my Lord.
31 They will proclaim God’s righteousness to those not yet born, telling them what God has done.
Psalm 22 Discussion
When we studied this psalm in the Dearman class several years ago, we talked about its possible resonance to Jesus, for obvious reasons. We’ll consider it a bit differently in this study.
1. What do we learn about the idea of God’s nearness in the first 21 verses? There are several, seemingly conflicting, ideas, right?
2. The psalmist responds to the degradation he is experiencing in many ways. How?
3. What do we learn about our relationship to God as the psalm comes to its end?
We looked at this psalm 5 years ago with this question in mind: was this psalm on Jesus’ mind during the crucifixion? Was Jesus teaching something from it? If so, what? How does this give us a new reason for why Jesus asked the question (according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ only words from the cross) that comes from the first verse of this psalm.
A. Today, we’ll look at several specific additional questions: in the midst of the pain, suffering, and degradation, what does the psalmist remember about God, and what gives the psalmist hope toward the end of the psalm.
B. Further, what do we learn about God’s presence from the experience of pain in this psalm?
We see the psalmist recalling the promise and presence of God to his ancestors in the past. Also, we see the psalmist’s recollection of God’s goodness earlier in his life. All of this is in the painful first 19 verses.
At the end, there is a present call to God, a hope in God’s rescue, a celebration of God’s NAME, and an acknowledgement that God is with those in misery, answering their cry for help, thus warranting our praise.
The psalm ends with a sense of ultimate and eternal victory, an acknowledgement of the ever-present God from all time and for all time. There will be the ultimate victory of God, and our salvation.
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