The Book of Psalms in Hebrew was originally called Tehillim—“Praises.” That probably doesn’t surprise you; we often associate the psalms with praise. We expect to find expressions of praise like “Hallelujah”—Praise the Lord!
However, the book was called “Praises,” not actually because the book is just a collection of expressions of praise. In fact, while there are mentions of praise and commitments to praise the Lord throughout the Psalter, the key word “Hallelujah” does not appear in the entire collection until Psalm 104! The last 50 psalms or so are filled with expressions of Hallelujah, but not until Psalm 104; most of the Psalter is not praise.
So why, then, would the whole book be called “Praises” if most of the psalms are not praises, and you don’t even find an emphasis on praise until the very end?
Well, we have to remember what we have here in the Book of Psalms. Each Psalm is an individual song written by various different authors like David and Moses and Solomon and Asaph and others. But this is not just a loosely connected collection of songs. Someone didn’t just decide to collect as many songs as he could and group them together.
Someone did collect these and group them together—probably during or after the Babylonian exile, probably someone like Ezra or a group of scribes. You probably know that there are actually Five Books in the Psalter, and the psalms were arranged intentionally into those Five Books with a particular purpose in mind.
It’s really very similar to our hymnal. Our hymnal contains hymns that span different times and languages and written by different authors, but when we collected these hymns and put them in the hymnal, we didn’t just put them in their randomly. There is a thematic order to the arrangement of our hymnal—the hymns follow the liturgical order of our services.
The same is true with the Psalter. The editor or editors arranged these psalms in a particular order for a particular purpose. There are all sorts of clues that indicate this kind of deliberate ordering that I won’t get into this morning, but suffice it to say that while it’s not necessarily clear how every psalm fits into the order, it is clear that there is an order and the basic underlying purpose beneath that order is clear.
And actually the structural order of the Psalms is even more deliberate than even our hymnal, because the way it is ordered is actually intended to teach us something, even more than that, the order is supposed to form us in particular ways.
And one of the clearest evidences of this order and its purpose is what we have already noticed, and that is the fact that emphasis on praise does not appear until the very end of this Book of Praises. In fact, the book actually starts pretty dark, and that darkness continues, with occasional glimpses of light, through much of the first 100 psalms. For example, take a look at the opening words of Psalm 3. We’re going to see later that Psalms 1 and 2 form a sort of introduction to the whole book of Psalms; Psalm 3 is really the first Psalm that begins the organizational structure of the book, and how does it open?
O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
Here is a book called “Praises,” and after a couple introductory psalms, it begins with “O Lord, how many are my foes.”
Look at Psalm 4:
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
Look at Psalm 5:
Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning.
Look at Psalm 6:
O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.
Wow! Now it’s not even any more about foes around me, it’s about God’s anger against my own sin! Look at Psalm 7:
O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.
This doesn’t sound like “Praises”!
In fact, not only does the subject of praise not really come into focus until the end of the book, the presence of the wicked appears over and over and over again. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this. You actually probably have, but if you’re like most people, you tend to skip over the sections in the psalms that talk about the wicked, don’t you? You get to the parts that talk about the Edomites and the Amorite and the foes and the enemies, and we just sort of glide through those sections, looking for the stuff about shepherds and singing and praise.
What’s going on here? Well, it is exactly this organizational structure that makes the Book of Psalms so beneficial for God’s people, because the book is arranged to portray the goal of praising the Lord in the midst of enemies around us and sin within us. The Book helps us to understand how this is even possible, and it actually forms this within us through its arrangement and the poetic expressions throughout.
I don’t know about you, but when I look around at all of what’s going on around us right now, sometimes I’m just tempted to say, What hope is there? I mean, we have this virus that has just turned the world upside down, but that’s not really the worst of it; even worse, evil people are taking advantage of the chaos for their own wicked ends. And we’ve got death in the streets; and that would be bad in itself, but again, there are wicked people taking advantage of tragedy for their own wicked ends. And we have wicked agendas being enacted in the educational systems of our country, wicked messages being broadcast by the entertainment industry in ways we’ve never seen before, Supreme Court decisions coming down that just don’t make any rational sense and that will make it increasingly hard to live biblically in this culture, the very government that God designed to protect innocent life is defending the murder of the innocent… I could go on and on.
What are we to do? What are we who are attempting to live righteously to do? How can we praise the Lord in the midst of all of this wickedness?
That’s one of the fundamental purposes of the book of Psalms and what I would like to explore over the next several weeks.