In Read the Bible for Life, Donald Guthrie and David Howard hold a conversation that may be helpful for us when reading the Psalms. The following quote serves as an introduction to their discussion. “These are human words praising God, or lamenting some event or situation, or even questioning God in a reverent way. So the psalms draw us in because we recognize in them our own experiences and feelings, and they, in a sense, express for us those feelings about God or to God.”
We do not want to forget, as with other parts of the bible, that the Psalms were also “crafted in specific cultural contexts.” Most of the psalms were written “for a corporate context, to be quoted or sung in large group settings.” In fact, they refer to these psalms as hymns. The titles will sometimes include lines like “for the choirmaster, with stringed instruments.” These are psalms “that praise God for who He is and how He has revealed Himself in the world, and they are done in a corporate setting.” In contrast, some psalms are more individual, “where David or someone is speaking in the first person.” These they label as “thanksgiving psalms.”
The conversation turns from psalms of thanksgiving to psalms of lament. “Laments are the psalms where David or the other psalmists are pouring out their hearts to God, being honest about the fact that life, at times, stinks!” These psalms become important for us and are able to “open up new avenues of approaching God in times of great stress and sadness in our lives.” This may, in fact be the genius of the psalms. “They are balanced, encouraging us to be honest about how hard life can be but also encouraging us to hope in God.” The psalmist knows struggle. We know struggle. The psalms of lament give voice to our struggles.
The conversation then turns to the imprecatory psalms. It is important to put these in context with a core promise that God has made with His people. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” So in these psalms the psalmist is saying “God, I am your person. Your enemies are persecuting me, but I believe your promises. Do something!” So in some ways these psalms become “a confession that God will be faithful to His promises, faithful to His people, and faithful to His own agenda.” (For the record, these are sung at the top of one’s voice without need of a choirmaster. Instead of strings, a sword appears to be the instrument of choice).
The psalmists put feelings into words. This makes poetry an appropriate means of expression. And important for us to remember “if we are going to read the psalms well.” He describes similar situations as a kind of “newspaper account” in narrative but exaggerated metaphor in the psalms. It is not unusual for psalms to use graphic language or exaggeration to express feeling.
Other psalms are labeled as royal/messianic psalms. These do not primarily express emotion, instead they let us in on what God has planned for the world. A “big, cosmic-sized picture of God in control and bringing all things to His desired end is an important aspect of the worldview represented by the psalms.” These psalms emphasize “God’s appointed king as His coworker in ruling God’s people.” These become for us “songs of worship, celebrating what God has accomplished in Christ.” Let us sing.