The flow of the Psalms

In ‘The Flow of the Psalms’.

We shouldn’t treat the Psalms like Hershey’s Kisses –

As beautifully, individually wrapped treats that have no

relationship to one another.

There is a flow to the Psalter,

a very deliberate, sophisticated arrangement

and a logical progression over the course of

the 150 ancient songs that were collected together

over several centuries.

We confess our ignorance as to the origin of

the 5 book division,

Yet there is an overarching theme to each one,

Book 1 (1-41):

Confrontation.

In book 1 there are enemies all around as David

struggles to establish the kingdom.

Almost every psalm makes a reference to enemies.

This is the ‘already & the not yet’ of kingdom life –

the seed of the serpent warring against

the seed of the woman.

Book 2 (42-72):

Communication.

Confrontation is still present in book 2,

but there is a new element now –

a commitment by the psalmist to communicate

with his enemies.

They are invited to praise the Lord in book 2

in a way that they are not in book 1.

The way God is referred to in book 2

supports this idea.

In book 1 the covenant name of God (Yahweh)

is used 278 times,

whereas the generic word for God (Elohim)

is used only 48 times.

In book 2 the proportions are almost exactly the opposite:

Elohim comes 197 times, compared to Yahweh 32 times.

This is most clear perhaps in Psalm 67,

where the Aaronic blessing,

in which the name of God (Yahweh)

was set upon the people of God is adapted

and applied to the nations of the earth.

Book 3 (73-89): Devastation.

There are some bright moments,

but this book is full of the devastation of the kingdom,

particularly in four psalms: 74, 79

of the devastation of Judah 80

of the devastation of Israel in the north 89.

Book 4 (90-106): Maturation.

In book 4, after the exile, there is no King, no throne,

no temple, no priests, no land, no sacrifices.

Everything is in ruins.

How significant then that this book begins with the words,

‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place’.

That was one of the truths the exile had taught the Jews –

they could still be the people of God

even without the Promised Land.

Significantly there is a collection of ‘Yahweh Malak’

psalms in this book (92-100), which include this

Hebrew phrase meaning ‘the Lord is King’ –

in spite of all appearances to the contrary,

the Lord still reigns over all.

He hasn’t been defeated by the gods of the nations.

The phrase ‘over all gods’ is only found 4 times

in the psalter,

and it’s found in this fourth book and these

‘Yahweh malak’ psalms.

Book 5: Consummation.

How does Psalm 106, the last song of book 4, conclude?

With a prayer that God would gather His people

from the nations.

How does the first psalm of book 5 begin?

With thanksgiving that God has gathered his people!

All the key themes of the psalter find their climax

and consummation in book 5.

There are several climactic elements in book 5:

  1. The pairing of Torah & Messianic psalms

climaxes with psalms 118-119,

a major dividing point of book 5.

  1. The ‘Messianic focal’ psalms climax

with psalms 110 and 118.

  1. Psalms 146-150 form a Hallelujah finale of praise

to the psalter, where each psalm begins & ends

with the Hebrew word Hallelujah,

anticipating the final hallelujah chorus

at the end of history in Rev 19

when Babylon & all the enemies of the kingdom

are destroyed & the King returns

to take his bride to Himself.

As well as tracing out this thematic development

in the psalter,

We discern many sophisticated literary patterns

which help to orientate us in the psalter.

There are too many of these to describe here,

so we have a taster to whet our appetite.

• Each book is introduced by two psalms

that belong together

(except for book 5 which is introduced by 1).

Psalms 1 & 2 introduce the whole psalter –

psalm 1 begins with a blessing on those

who love the Lord’s teaching

psalm 2 closes with a blessing

on those who trust the Messiah.

• There are 8 acrostic psalms in the psalter:

9/10,25,34,37,111,112,119,145.

There are four in book 1 and four in book 5.

These are the two longest books

and the acrostics are positioned

in such a way as to divide the books

into roughly equal portions.

• There are 3 creation psalms (8.24,33),

and each one comes before an acrostic psalm.

• There are repeated pairs of Torah & Messianic psalms

(law & gospel) throughout the psalter:

1-2, 18-19, 118-119.

• Psalms 20-24 are kingship psalms,

following on from the Messianic psalm 18.

Psalms 20-21 are about the Messiah’s kingship,

23-24 are about Yahweh’s kingship,

and the central psalm 22 is about

both the Messiah & Yahweh’s kingship.

• Psalms 34-37 are 4 psalms of the innocent sufferer,

followed by 4 psalms of the guilty sufferer.

• Book 2 contains four ‘quads’ of psalms:

45-48 are kingship psalms;

49-52 are psalms of judicial summons & their respondents;

61-64 comprise ‘the cry of the king’

and 65-68 are the response of God.

• Psalms 54-60 deal with seven specified enemies –

although as we’ve seen in book 1

enemies are very common in the psalter,

nowhere else are enemies specified in this way.

• Psalms 77-83 describe the devastation & deliverance

of the southern & northern kingdoms,

with Psalm 80 as the central psalm, a

psalm that speaks about the Son of Man

who would be humbled & exalted.

• Psalms 104-106 form the first Hallelujah triad

in the Psalter.

Psalm 104 ends with it,

105 ends with it & 106 begins & ends with it.

The Psalter is moving towards its final climax in book 5.

• Psalms 111-117 form 2 more hallelujah triads,

with psalm 114 in the centre.

• You know that the songs of ascents form a major
collection of the psalter (120-134),

but did you realise that the central psalm of the series,

psalm 127, is all about building a house,

which for the author of psalm 127,

Solomon, especially meant building a house for God?

And that God had promised David that he would build

a house for him comprising his sons?

Did you know that there are two Davidic psalms

on either side of psalm 127 & five unattributed psalms?

That there are 24 occurrences of ‘Yahweh’

on either side of psalm 127!

Isn’t that interesting, given that these songs

were sung by pilgrims going up to the house of God

where the priests would bless them

by setting the name of God, Yahweh, upon them?

Convoluted?

Forced?

Possibly in places,

but the overwhelming cumulative force of observations –

especially when you see them set out

Are highlight with patterns all the more clearly –

there is indeed a flow to the psalms,

a beautiful, sophisticated structure

to this inspired praise book of the people of God.

And it’s not just a pretty picture,

or ornament for ornament’s sake –

it’s meant to help us to see how the psalms

fit together & relate to one another,

to help us memorise them more readily,

and to enable us to choose the best psalm

for every circumstance of life.

So when we study a psalm,

We consider the whole Psalter

O. Palmer Robertson

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