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Psalms - Understanding Them #1

A strange mixture of emotions is contained in this book. Here's why

                    Written and Compiled

                         Keith Hunt

     Have you had trouble sometimes reading the book of Psalms?
Well if you have, you may take comfort in knowing that you have
not been alone.

     One person who had trouble reading and understanding the
book of Psalms was a Christian book writer by the name of Philip
Yancey.  In his book "the Bible Jesus Read" he has a whole
section devoted to this trouble with Psalms and how for years he
avoided the book, then tried to understand it from the
perspective of some modern "theology" and when that did not work,
avoiding it again. Finally, he did come to see how we should
basically understand and read the book of Psalms.

     So enlightening, and so as to what I believe is the truth of
the matter, has Yancey written on this subject, I must present
much of what he expounds on this often troublesome book, to all
who may be studying the Bible with the help of this Website. 

     Philip Yancey starts by saying,  quote, " I have a
confession to make. For years I avoided the book of
Psalms.....hard as I tried, I could never get excited about
actually reading Psalms. People around me used the book as a
spiritual medicine cabinet - ' If you feel depressed, read Psalms
37; if your health fails, try Psalms 121' - an approach that
never worked for me. With uncanny consistency I would land on a
psalm that aggravated, rather than cured, my problem.....reading
the book frustrated, rather than inspired me. More than anything,
I felt confused while reading Psalms, especially because
I had committed to ten in a row. Individual Psalms seemed to
CONTRADICT each other violently: psalms of bleak despair abutted
psalms of soaring joy, as if the scribes had arranged them with a
mockingly Hegelian sense of humor. 
     The first day, for example, my spirits soared as I read
Psalm 8......The next psalm continued in the same spirit,
praising God for his eternal reign, his fairness in judging the
world, his mercy to the oppressed, his trustworthiness. The
suddenly with Psalm 10 the mood abruptly shifted. Just before
ending my meditations I encountered these jarring words:

     Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
     Why do you hide yourself in times of troubles?

     .............Every day I faced this same pattern of glaring
contradictions.  Instead of beginning the day with devotional
peace, I felt swept along on an emotional roller-coaster,
plummeting to the depths of despair and soaring to heights of
praise all in the same one-hour period.......
     After a week of this practice, I ran into yet another
problem. The psalms started to sound boring and repetitious. Why,
I wondered, did the Bible need 150 psalms? Wouldn't fifteen
suffice to cover the basic content? I struggled through my ten
psalms every day but left Breckenridge with an even worse
attitude towards Psalms. My experiment had failed. In guiltridden
evangelical fashion, I blamed myself, not the Bible, for the
     As a result, for years I simply avoided the book. You can
find a psalm that says anything, I reasoned. Matter of fact, you
can find a dozen psalms that say the very same thing. Why bother
with them? "

     End of quote. All emphasis in capitals is mine throughout.

     Now, you may have felt exactly the same way. but if not, you
have got to admit Philip Yancey is being bold and up-front with
us, opening up his heart to us, in telling his readers that that
was the way he felt about the book of Psalms. It just did not add
up or make much sense to him, and was very repetitive, hence to
him very boring.

     Not to leave his readers shocked beyond belief by his
thoughts on the book of Psalms, Yancey immediately goes on to
say, quote, " I now realize how impoverished was that view.....I
had MISSED the MAIN point, which is that the book of Psalms
comprises a sampling of spiritual journals, much like personal
letters to God.....I must read them as an 'OVER-THE-SHOULDER'
reader, since the intended audience was NOT OTHER people, but
GOD. Even the Psalms as public use were designed as corporate

     These, however, are not pronouncements from on high,
delivered with full apostolic authority, on matters of faith and
practice. They are VERY PERSONAL PRAYERS in the form of poetry,
written by a VARIETY of people - peasants, kings, professional
musicians, rank amateurs - in WILDLY FLUCTUATING MOODS....." 
End of quote.

     I want you to re-read all that again. Do you see the basic
key that Yancey is trying to get across here?
     Psalms are not so much divine "doctrine" theology from God
(although many truths and divine theology is contained in them)
to us mortals, BUT, mortals praying to God in private personal
prayers, put to poetry, that often just pour out much mortal
emotions, under a specific situation in that point and time of
that mortals life. 
     We are as Philip Yancey came to see, looking over the
shoulder of mortal people, talking to God, with many mortal
emotions being shown, depending on the circumstance that that
mortal person was in at the time when they needed to utter those
poetic prayers to God.
     Hence, some of human frustrations, groanings,
disappointments, bewilderments, doubts, fears, and even anger (as
well as the emotions of joy, peace, thankfulness, praise
etc.), were sounded out towards God. Kind of using God as a
sounding board at times, to just "get it off our chest" as the
saying goes.

     Philip Yancey puts it this way, quote, " Psalms gives
examples of 'ordinary' people STRUGGLING mightily to align what
they believed about God with what they ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE.
Sometimes the authors are vindictive, sometimes self-righteous,
sometimes paranoid, sometimes petty." End quote.

     We as Christians know God is LOVE, we know He is JUST, FAIR,
KIND, and all that is proper and good, all that is wholesome and
righteous. But, often in this physical Christian walk, troubles,
pain, sorrow, disappointments, frustrations, sickness, hardships,
come our way. Even mental or emotional, and sometimes physical,
persecutions come upon us, from many different people, who desire
to become our enemies, and fight us in different way. Christians
do have accidents, do get injured, do loose jobs, have loved
ones face and get into all kinds of trials and troubles.  
     Then of course, Christians have many times of "everything
goin' just fine" and times of healing from sickness, job problems
being solved, protection from accidents,
deliverance from enemies, and blessing by the cart load.
     This is the physical life we are in, ups and downs, blessing
and troubles. Some have more of this and some more of that.
Sometimes it seems it is the way the cards are dealt out, and we
may have "Well, why this Lord?" and "Well, why that Lord?" and "I
just don't understand if you are love, why this is happening to
     Whatever the seeming blessings or curses that come our way,
whatever the miracles or lack of them, whatever the joys or the
frustrations, whatever the questions of the whys of anything, and
whatever the thankfulness and praise we feel at times, it can
all be manifest in our emotions of heart and mind. Then if we
want to openly talk to God about it all, just letting it all out,
bad, good, and inbetween, it will come out in prayers to God,
some we may write down in the form of poetry.

     Often, when letting it all hang out (if we are being
frustrated, disappointed, angry, bewildered) we are hoping that
in getting it all off our chest to God, that the answers will
come....sometimes they do indeed.

     David at one point in his life was frustrated, confused, and
even angry, when looking at some of the evil people in the world,
and seeing how PHYSICALLY WEALTHY they were, a bunch of filthy
rich evil sinners.  He cried out to God in a poetic prayer about
it all. For a while just let God known how he felt about this
fact of life, and you get a clear feeling he was disappointed
with God that the Lord should allow some evil people to be
physically blessed in this life.
     Then the answer came to him. It came to him it would seem
during his bewildered and frustrated out cry to God concerning
what he thought was "not proper justice" that evil people should
be physically so blessed.  The answer was given to him. The evil
ones in this lifetime that have been blessed physically, will one
day have no blessing. They and their material blessings will be
gone....forever, but the child of God who remains true and
faithful, and who may not have had such material blessing in this
lifetime, as some of the evil ones, will have eternal life in the
future, with blessings that cannot be compared to anything
physical on this earth.

     When we look over the shoulder so to speak, of those who
wrote and said the psalms to God, when we take into account the
context of the situation of why they were saying those words to
the Lord, when we take into account the human emotions just let
loose at times, in those prayers, then we can better begin to
start to understand the book of Psalms.

     So none would mis-understand, Philip Yancey went on to say,
quote, " Do not misunderstand me: I do not believe Psalms to be
any LESS valuable, or LESS inspired, than Paul's letters or the
Gospels. Never the less, the Psalms do use an inherently
DIFFERENT approach, not so much as representing God TO THE PEOPLE
as THE PEOPLE representing THEMSELVES to God. Yes, Psalms belongs
as part of God's Word, but in the same way Job or Ecclesiastes
belongs. We read the speeches of Job's friends - accurate records
of misguided thinking - in a different way than we read the
Sermon on the Mount........Understanding this DISTINCTION changed
the way I read Psalms......
     Now, as I read them, I begin by trying to project myself
back into the minds of those authors.....Could I pray these
prayers? I ask myself. Have I felt this parculiar anguish? This
outburst of praise?  Then I proceed to think through situations
in which I might pray the psalm in front of me. Facing
temptation, celebrating a success, harboring a grudge, suffering
an injustice - under what circumstances would this psalm best
apply in my life?...." End quote.

     Ah, yes, to understand the Psalms we must take them one by
one, putting them each in their own context of life as the writer
was or had experienced at the time of their writing of the
prayer.  This book of Psalms is a collection of prayers, prayed
under different situations, many situations that this physical
life can throw at us. Some good times, some bad times, some
frustrating times, some bewildered times, some times of
strength given, some times of deliverance found.....just whatever
times may come upon us. And that includes times when we study
God's word and proclaim the truth found in it. Some of the psalms
are utterances of some of the "theological" divine truths of the
Lord, such as the ones speaking about the first and second
comings of the Messiah to this earth, and what was to take place
on His first advent, and is to take place on His second advent.

     Some of the Psalms then have "prophetic" parts to them, some
are re-emphasis on the sure promises of God, that He will perform
on the righteous and the sinners. So there is some divine
theology within the Psalms, but for the most part, they are as
Yancey says, the prayers of individuals, in various moods of
emotions, towards God, and we are looking over their shoulder as
they let it all hang out with God.

     We must not take any one of the psalms and lift it from its
whole context of the other psalms or the context of the whole
Bible. To do that will surely lead us into many false ideas,
thoughts, and false teaching of theology. To illustrate this
danger, of isolating psalms from the rest of the book or from the
Bible, Philip Yancey gives this example using Psalm 91.

     " Any one of the psalms, WRENCHED from the rest of the book,
MAY MISLEAD. In a thoughtful reflection on Psalm 91 published in
Christianity Today, author Neal Plantinga considers its beautiful
image of God's protection. 'He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge.....If you make the Most
High your dwelling - even the Lord, who is my refuge - then no
harm will befall you....'  Oh? Plantinga muses. What about
Christians arrested by the Nazis in World War 2, or by hostile
Muslim governments today? How must that psalm sound as they read
it on the eve of execution? The psalms' sweeping promises of
safety seem patently untrue.
     Plantinga recalls that Satan himself quoted from this psalm,
jerking it out of CONTEXT, in an attempt to get Jesus to jump
from a high place. Jesus rebuked him with ANOTHER passage of
Scripture. Says Plantinga:
     ' What Psalm 91 does is express ONE - one of the loveliest,
     one of the most treasured - but just ONE of the MOODS of
     faith. It's a mood of exuberant confidence in the sheltering
     providence of God. Probably the psalmist HAD BEEN
     On OTHER DAYS, and in OTHER MOODS - in other and darker
     seasons of his life - the same psalmist might have called to
     God out of DESPAIR and a sense of ABANDONMENT. (Here
     Plantinga cites Jesus' cry of Psalm 22 from the cross).
     Psalm 91 gives us ONLY PART of the picture and only ONE of
     the moods of faith.
     With a kind of quiet amazement, the psalmist bears witness
     that under the wings of God GOOD THINGS happen to BAD
     people. You need ANOTHER psalm or two to fill in the
     picture, to cry out that under those same wings BAD THINGS
     sometimes happen to GOOD people.' 

     .......The first and greatest commandment is to love the
Lord our God with all out hearts and all our souls and all our
minds......Psalms reveals what a heartfelt, soul-starved,
single-minded relationship with God looks like. "  End quote.

     Psalm 91 cannot and must not be taken out of the context of
the book of Psalms nor especially out of the context of the
entire Bible. The truth of the whole Bible bears witness to the
fact that God does not ALWAYS protect His children with some
miraculous intervention to save them from physical hurt or even
death. The famous "faith" chapter of the book of Hebrews (chapter
11) proves that point beyond any doubt.  Some of God's
people have suffered to the point of death. And the book of
Revelation says that before it is all over and Christ returns in
power and glory, many true Christians will yet suffer (even death
once more) at the hands of Satanic forces.
     God CAN and WILL protect, but He chooses WHEN and to WHOM
that protection will be given. Psalm 91 is not a teaching of a
promise of 100% protection by God towards ALL His children under
ALL situations throughout life. Of course it cannot be, for such
a protection from physical harm has never been an absolute
promise, fulfilled absolutely, on God's children, from the time
of Adam to this very day. The great apostle Paul was surely not
given divine physical protection all the time during his
ministry. He clearly states in his epistles some of the physical
things he suffered at the hands of men. He was finally killed by
the hands of men, history says his head was removed by the sword.
And that same traditional history says the apostle Peter was
crucified upside-down.

     As Neal Plantinga has pointed out above, the psalmist must
have indeed in his life situation, at least in one circumstance,
found himself being given divine miraculous life saving 
protection, even with a thousand falling at his right hand, and
so was so thankful and so amazed at what God COULD DO (if He
decided to do) that he praised the Lord with a prayer of thanks.
And in so doing reminded us that God can protect and save our
physical life, that such is possible for God.  But such is not
always what God does for His people, as the rest of the Psalms
and Bible show us.

     To try to use this Psalm 91 in any other way, and take vain,
careless, foolish, or blind faith (actually could be arrogant
unscriptural faith) actions with our lives, is indeed "tempting
the Lord."  Satan wanted Christ to use this blind faith (quoting
from this psalm 91), and Jesus soon quoted another verse of
Scripture that says, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God."

     It is wise to remember that some psalms or parts of them are
prayers of people in various states of emotional situations based
upon what is or has happened to them, in a particular
circumstance, at some particular point in their life, and they
are letting it all hang out with God, be it good emotions or
sometimes not so good emotions. They may be stating some
theological truths of the Lord, they may be praising the Lord for
some good that has come upon them, or they may be full of
anguish, disappointment, frustration, anger, bewilderment, and
they are looking for answer to it all from God.
     The Psalms are the people of God in the raw. It is wonderful
to know that we can be in the raw in our prayers with our Father
in heaven, who knows our frame, and knows we are flesh.
     To keep all this in mind, will greatly help us to correctly
read and understand the book of Psalms.


Written September 2001

To be continued

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