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Understanding the Psalms: Their Not-So-Hidden Structure

            Off and on for over two years I had my morning devotions in the Psalms.  I would read a psalm or a portion of one out loud, study it, and write notes on it.  I want to share with you some of what God taught me, and the first lesson is this:  There is a general overall structure to the entire Book of the Psalms and that structure says something crucial to us about our walk with God.

            In this post I shall introduce the structural features of the Psalms and indicate some of the implications for our walk with God.  Later posts will develop these implications.

            The Psalms were written over a thousand-year period from the time of Moses (Psalm 90) to after Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C. (Psalm 126).  Naturally, the entire Psalter reached its final form only after the exile.

            The careful Bible reader has probably already noticed that the Psalter is divided into five books (Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150).  What he may have missed is the special role that Psalms 1 and 2 and 146-150 play.  It would appear that these anonymous psalms were meant to be the introduction and conclusion of the Book of Psalms.

            Psalms 1 and 2 present most of the main themes of the Psalter, but they also outline two very distinct views of godliness or spirituality.  Psalm 1 contrasts the godly individual, who loves the law of the Lord and prospers, with the wicked, who lives apart from and in opposition to God.  Psalm 2 describes the folly of the world’s rulers who oppose the Lord, the ruler of heaven and earth, and warns them to serve him with fear.

            It is important that both psalms are included.  They complement one another and both are necessary for a healthy spiritual life.  Without Psalm 2, a spirituality based solely on Psalm 1 could end up being self-centered and individualistic.  Without Psalm 1, a spirituality based solely on Psalm 2 runs the risk of a cruel self-deifying mocking of mankind’s folly.  Furthermore, their very affirmations about the blessed life raise questions about God’s sovereignty and the truthfulness of those affirmations in the face of life’s manifest injustices.  The rest of the Psalter wrestles with these questions, as should we, and points to the same answers that Psalms 1 and 2 give.

            Significantly, each of the first four books of the Psalter end by blessing the Lord (41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48), and the whole Psalter is completed by the last five psalms, which open and close with the exhortation to praise the Lord.  Whatever trials, doubts, struggles or failures we face the fulfillment of the believer’s life and the answer to all his questions end with the praise and blessing of God.

            In my next post we’ll look more closely at Psalm 1.

28 thoughts on “Understanding the Psalms: Their Not-So-Hidden Structure

  1. Hi Bill,
    Lots of greetings. I am starting to prepare a Master level course for ESEPA Virtual on Exegesis de Salmos, so I will be interested in reading your blog.
    I just bought “The Psalms as Christian Worship” by Bruce Waltke and James Houston.

    Your insights on Psalms 1 and 2 are excellent.

    1. Thanks, Merv. I’m working on Psalm 1 in more detail and plan to post it soon. I’m glad to hear that you’re teaching on the Psalms for ESEPA. Any insight that you can provide would be appreciated. Thanks for the tip about the book too.

  2. I had no idea that the first two Psalms were so vital to the entire structure of the Psalms. I am grateful for finding this out because now I know that these first two Psalms are the key to living through the Psalms, so now that I know this I feel fulfilled and also that I can live a more spiritual life. I never would have figured this out on my own which contributes to my gratefulness.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post on the Psalms Dr.Isley. I personally really enjoy the Psalms and it has become one of my favorites books in the Bible. I look forward to reading more of your post.

  4. This analysis is very interesting and a different way to look at how the individual psalms join together to form a whole book. I am curious about how they came to be arranged that way. Does anyone know who first ordered the chapters like this?

    1. We’re not really sure about how the whole Book of the Psalms came to be compiled the way that it is. The second book, ending with Psalm 72:20 says that it is the ending of the psalms of David. If this was sometime in Solomon’s reign, the author of Psalm 72, it would be before his death around 931 B.C. So there could have been an initial compilation of the first two books, my guess is without Psalms 1 & 2 at that time. Since we have Psalms like 137 that are during the Babylonian Captivity, it’s clear that some Psalms were written in the 6th century B.C. or later. On the other hand, we have collections of the Psalms with this structure in the middle of the 2nd century B.C. which are clearly copies of earlier ones. I would guess that the final work might have been done sometime after Ezra when the temple and government were more stable in the middle of the 5th century B.C. That is a guess. We can’t say much more.

  5. You said in the last paragraph that they end by blessing the Lord. By that do you mean that WE are blessing the Lord? If so, how is it possible for us to bless him when he is by far greater and is typically the one to bless us. This confused me a lot.

  6. I don’t know if I fully understand why one would be driven to portray these completely opposite personality traits, based on their reading of just the first or the second Psalm.

    1. I think that I understand your point, Nick, but I’m not sure. You may need to explain it more, but I do see the two types of spirituality (which I prefer to “personality traits”) as in tension. It is a tension that we need to maintain and not eliminate, however.

      1. I agree about the imperative to keep the tension between two seemingly disparate ideas when approaching spiritual thought. I appreciate your insight that such an approach might be built in to the Psalms! As if psalm 1 and psalm 2 together a a kind of Rosetta Stone for how to proceed. Such an elegant idea. Thank you.

        1. I’m glad that you found the post helpful. A book that I have found helpful for balancing various spiritual traditions is Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Waters in which he reflects upon the strengths and limitations of the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational traditions. It is a bit humbling, which is a good thing, of course, to realize that one’s own approach is not the totum bonum. I recommend it for a good, slow meditative read.

  7. Your talk about Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 and how they both complement each other was very interesting. As you said, they sort of set the guidelines for what the questions that the rest of the Psalms discuss and answer will be. I assume we will be reading both Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 and then tying them into other Psalms that are related to them.

  8. Well, you said that the structure of the book of Psalms “says something crucial to us about our walk with God.” What exactly do you mean by that? Are you pointing to the fact that it ends with praises to the Lord, and that should be the goal of the believer’s life, or is there something more?

    1. Yes, it certainly means that the end of our life is to praise the Lord. What is interesting is that Psalm 1 calls us to a life of obedience to the law with promised blessing and much of the rest of the Book of Psalms deals with struggles. Our life is one of obedience and blessing, but there are difficulties and challenges. Whatever the case may be we are to praise God and the great hope that we have is that we shall do that forever.

  9. I never have really thought about the psalms in that way before. I always just thought of them as their own individual passage not relating to one another. I think a difficult but important subject that you addressed from Psalms 2 is the fear of God and that we should serve Him with fear. I think that it is sometimes difficult to understand what it means by fear because obviously fear should only be expressed to a certain extent and should be applied more to the authority of God and not what He could do to you if one does not follow Him. Another point that stood out to me was that many of the Psalms start and end with the praising or exalting of God. I often forget to do that whenever I am praying to God and the prayer focuses on me and my issues instead of God and what He has done for me. I am excited to read into the Psalms more extensively and see how they relate to one another as we progess through the class.

    1. Thank you, Gabby. Your second point is an important reminder that I need too. Yes, the fear of the Lord is an important point. In some ways it does seem to mean something like what we mean by the fear we feel, but it also has an objective sense of serving and obeying God.

  10. I think it’s interesting how Psalms 1 and 2 as individual psalms are beautiful, but are meant to be read together. I don’t think I ever would have picked up on that. Now that it’s been called to my attention, however, I can’t imagine ever reading Psalms 1 and 2 separately. I’ve always rushed through the Psalms, but I now see that after taking the time to read each psalm thoroughly,I can see the patterns you have pointed out. The Bible really is vast; I have never and I will never be able to read the same passage in the same way, especially with the Psalms.
    How were the Psalms compiled? I’m assuming there were a fair amount of authors, and I’m also assuming each chapter wasn’t written one right after the other. So how did the compiler know how to order each passage? (I realize this question doesn’t relate specifically to the structure of the Psalms, but I’m just curious.)

  11. Dr. Isely, lovely post, awesome job explaining the 5 fascinating sub-books of the Psalms and their organization. Why isn’t the elegant structure of the Psalms more frequently discussed. I would think that this would be am interesting topic of conversation.

  12. I like this online stuff Doctor. I suppose I am not a “careful Bible reader” because I did not know that the Psalms were divided like that. I like how Psalms begins with two essential yet differing ideas and how the book both opens and closes with anonymous psalms.I am excited to see a further in depth look at Psalm 1.

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