I wrote a longer post in 2010 that gave some thoughts on the book of Psalms and how we read them.
Today, I've been working on some notes to equip our small group leaders to lead a Bible study in Psalm 31. This comes as part of a series of Bible studies that look at passages that speak on the theme of prayer.
To introduce the material for this study, I've written a briefer introduction that seeks to orientate us within the book of Psalms.
I reproduce it here in the hope it helps others too.
The whole Bible is the word of God – it contains things God wishes to say to us. The book of Psalms is different – it contains prayers and songs for the people of God – things we may wish to say to God. But it remains Scripture. So these are words from God, which happen to be words for us to say to God.
So could we say that the Psalms are God teaching us how to pray? Partly, but we need to set them in their place within “God’s Big Picture” to get there correctly.
However, once we’ve arrived there correctly, God has given us the Psalms to teach his people how to pray. So any Bible study series looking at Bible passages that address the theme of prayer needs to include at least one study of a Psalm.
This Bible study will therefore serve two purposes. We’ll study Psalm 31, to see what it has to say on the theme of prayer. But we’ll also use this as a case study to discover how the book of Psalms can teach us to pray.
Psalms 1-2, and 3-150
The first two Psalms introduce the whole book. They tell you how to orientate yourself in the world if this book of prayers is to be yours.
Psalm 1 pronounces “Blessed are …”, which may remind you of Matthew 5:1-12. It tells you how to find God’s blessing in life. Psalm 2 speaks of the installation of God’s King, his Messiah, and how the wise path to life is to relate rightly to him. This reminds us of Matthew 4:17.
By the end of Psalm 2, we’ve met the main characters we’ll meet in the book of Psalms: God, his anointed king in Jerusalem, his people who live by his word, the wicked who mock God’s ways, and the nations who will inherit the blessings of God’s kingdom.
We are in a similar position to where we are at the end of Matthew 5. We know that God’s chosen king is installed and that the path to blessing is to humble ourselves before him. Matthew 6 then follows by saying “this, then, is how you should pray”. The book of Psalms then follows with 148 Psalms that are model hymns or prayers.
5 Books of Psalms
The Psalms divide into 5 books (1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150). Each of the 5 books has certain features that run through it, and there is progression through the book of Psalms as you move from book to book.
Psalm 31 is in book 1. Apart from Psalm 33, every Psalm from 3-41 starts with the heading “A psalm of David”. (The italicised headings in the NIV text of the book of Psalms are original, and are not added by the NIV editors.)
That heading may mean “written by David” (some definitely were, as they are found in Chronicles), or “written in the style of King David”, or “about king David”. Either way, these are royal Psalms, and many of them are seated in the period of his life in 1 Samuel 16-31 where David is on the run from King Saul. David is anointed king, but does not rule, so is a threat to Saul.
From David to Jesus
Indeed, it is instructive with any Psalm to ask the question: How might Jesus have prayed this particular Psalm?
Starting there does not mean that these are not prayers for us to pray. The people of God are “in Christ”. That means they will experience the same rejection he did, and can know God close to them as he did. Indeed, the people of Israel used these Psalms in their own worship, because they identify with the experiences of the anointed king, so Psalms written for his lips become ones the people can pray too.
So we pray these Psalms too, but we do so as those who are in Christ, not because they were first written as prayers for our own circumstances.
Take Psalm 23 as an example. Many Christians have found it helpful in their own prayers, and it is. But in order to hear it correctly, we first need to hear Jesus pray it. His Father is his shepherd, so he lacks nothing. He guides him along right paths, and even when that path takes him through the darkest valley (for 3 hours on the cross), he is comforted. Psalm 23:5-6 come true at his resurrection, and even more at his final return, when he will feast in full view of those who opposed him. He will dwell in God’s house forever (John 14:2).
Far from removing this Psalm from our own prayer library, this reading then gives it back to us. How wonderful to be those who identify with the king who fits Psalm 23 better than David did, and to know that God is surely with us in the darkness as he was with Jesus, and that we too will dwell in his Father’s house forever. But the full richness of this comes in saying an amen to Jesus’ prayer, rather than imagining that it is our private piece of poetry.
Multiple Voices in the Psalms
One more introductory comment before we dig into Psalm 31.
Sometimes, in the book of Psalms, you find multiple voices speaking. Psalm 2:10 addresses the kings of the nations. Psalm 32:6-10 counsels the people of God to confess their sins and seek God. We’ll meet this too in Psalm 31:23-24.
If we think that everything in the Psalms are words of prayer addressed to God, this confuses. But once we see the king or the sage who originally prayed a particular Psalm as the “worship leader”, leading the people of God in prayer, it fits much more naturally. The person praying turns to the people of God to address them and lead them in their praying. The person praying turns to the surrounding nations to speak lessons for them to overhear.
A lot of Psalms unlock their treasure, and teach us to pray, when we hear them first on the lips of Jesus, and then hear him inviting us to pray too.