The book of Psalms contains 150 Psalms but they are not all different; if you don’t believe me check Psalm 14 with Psalm 53 and check Psalm 70 with Psalm 4O – beginning at verse 13.
To me they are the same Psalm but set to different music and that’s the key to the book of the Psalms It is the greatest hymn book ever compiled and the greatest prayer book. It is a book about worship and for centuries has spoken to and for the deepest needs of the human race.
There are five collections, or five volumes in what we call the Psalter or the book of Psalms and many of the titles over the top of the songs are the musical directions to the choir and orchestra and the congre¬gation. For example, some superscriptions in Hebrew, tell you which instrument is to accompany the song, some the type of arrangement for chorus and accompaniment; some to be accompanied on strings, some to be played beautifully softly, one or two have written on them “Do not destroy” – that’s not the name of the tune it’s just telling them to keep the arrangement.
Some have instructions to the choirmaster and some actually tell where the congregation should join in. The Psalms written for Korah mean for the guild of singers, the (Temple) choir and the Psalms of David beginning with the poems and music of the great king go on to include the royal school of church music.
The inscriptions on the top of the Psalms make a fascinating study and so do some of the words of instruction within the Psalms – for example the word Selah, which I think means intermezzo: that’s where the congregation and all the choir stop singing and listen to the music or wait in prayer: Some words to me Indicate the key in which the music was set.
The Psalms can be classified under five main types.

First there are ceremonial Psalms – like Psalm 24 where you have the picture of a procession moving into the city demanding that the gates are opened up, which they were when the right response was given. Psalm 118 and many others like the procession in Psalm 68 and the great orchestral Psalm 15>0 are ceremonial Psalms of the great occasions of worship.
Holiday originally meant Holy day and the Jews certainly knew how to celebrate and worship.

The second classification is that of communal lament. It’s a tragedy that the human race should ever feel itself too sophisticated to mourn together and cry together and express its grief and penitence. You’ll find that communal lament in Psalms like 44, 79 and 80.

The third classification is that of private lament. These were Psalms not only to learn and sing on one’s own, but they were also solo Psalms in which perhaps the king, the representative man, led the nation in lamenting what had happened to them. The most famous of these is Psalm 22; it begins with the words, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” now where have you heard that before? Psalm 6 and Psalm 109 are in this group too.

The fourth classification is that of private praise. This was meant to be a kind of prayer book, of Psalms like 18, 30 and 66, which people, learning them by heart, would be able to use as they recovered from illness or as they praised God for acts of deliverance.
The fifth and most exciting group is the group called the royal cultic psalms. It’s necessary to understand the place of the king in ancient Israel. His title was ‘Messiah’, so literally he was the anointed of Jehovah to be the representative man embodying God to the people and the people before God. He led the people in worship, in justice and in war and his coronation was ceremonially re-enacted each year.
Look at Psalm 72 for example or Psalm 21. These royal cultic psalms embodied the renewal of the covenant service such as we have in Psalm 89. There is the coronation service in Psalm 2 (that’s what that text means, “you are my son today have I begotten you”.) There’s the great royal wedding song – Psalm 45 which even tells what they were wearing. Another group consists of battle hymns, and yet another group that of ceremonial enthronement of the king as in Psalm [4.7. Most of the praise psalms are ‘hallelujah’ psalms such as 95 – 100; remember the word hallelujah is the Hebrew word for ‘praise Jehovah’ or ‘praise the Lord’.
The longest Psalm is an acrostic with all the lines in a stanza starting with the same letter and all the stanzas going right through the Hebrew alphabet. And, of course, has anyone in all the world ever found a better picture of God than that simple picture which has brought comfort to people on their wedding day and their dying day and all stations in between – the 23rd Psalm.

In the book of Psalms you’ll find four great paradoxes. (A paradox is two apparently contradictory things that together make up something true.) You find, for one thing the way they rely on ritual sacrifice and yet at the same time they reject it.
Next you find the statement that rewards and punishments are given here on earth and then, with the next breath, they tell us that God’s punishment is much bigger than the extent of human life.

The third great antithesis is the demand for vengeance stifled by the sense of their vocation to accept suffering and get alongside God. The fourth paradox is the recoil from death with its horror and finality and yet the feeling after the resurrection “Even though I make my bed in the halls of death
thou art there also…….”

As the years have gone by the Psalms have come to mean more and more to me. Whatever your condition, whatever your need you’ll find the deepest level of your exper¬ience has already been expressed in the book of Psalms. Learn some of them by heart: they’ll enrich you beyond measure.

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August 2012
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