This is a guest post written by Matthew Knapp. Matthew writes for Seminaries and Bible Colleges, a website dedicated to helping people find the right Bible college or seminary.
With the recent growth of mp3s and programs like iTunes and Pandora, music lovers have unprecedented freedom to arrange playlists as they like. Individual songs can be pulled off their original albums and incorporated into a stream of unrelated ones. For the first time, people can listen to songs out of any context.
This transition in the music industry is not bad, but it has lessened people’s ability to appreciate a song within its original context. For the latest new release, this is not an issue. However, understanding the context of a song in the Bible can help Christians appreciate its meaning.
A Story in the Psalms
The poems and songs in the Book of Psalms were both carefully selected and carefully arranged. They were not haphazardly put together, but they were designed to tell a story. Each psalm adds something to the story of the Psalms. When examined on a macro-level, their story takes shape.
The Psalms’ story is about kings. Most scholars treat Psalm 1 and Psalm 150 as an introduction and conclusion to the collection, which leaves Pslam 2 and Psalm 149 as the beginning and end of the narrative. In between these two Psalms, there are five books that form the storyline. A summary of the narrative is easily seen as one looks at the last psalm in each of these books.
The Story’s Beginning
The Psalm’s narrative begins with the first four verses of Psalm 2:
Why do the nations conspire / and the peoples plot in vain? / The kings of the earth rise up / and the rulers band together / against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, / ‘Let us break their chains / and throw off their shackles.’ / The One enthroned in heaven laughs; / the Lord scoffs at them.
Psalm 2 actually goes on to tell the final outcome of this story, but we’ll save that for the ending. It begins the story with two groups of kings. The kings of the earth are gathering their forces to battle the King in heaven.
The Story’s Plot
In between the opening and conclusion of this story, the plot focuses on a specific group of people, the Jews. In the midst of this war between the kings of the earth and the King of heaven, Israel finds herself desiring a king.
For the first two acts, Israel is content with the monarch God has placed over her. In general, these psalms reflect the worship of God by Israel’s ruler, as is evidenced by each book’s end. Book 1 of the Psalms ends with David praising God (Ps. 41:13), and Book 2 ends with Solomon praising God (Ps. 72:18-19).
In the third book of the Psalms, the monarchy begins to crumble. Although the last verse of this book (Ps. 89: 52) ends with “Praise the Lord forever! / Amen and amen,” most of the psalm reflects a fallen government. Specifically, the later half speaks enemies who taunt the ruined king of Israel.
During the fourth book of the Psalms, Israel has been scattered throughout the world. Israel is no longer her own country, but her people are in many other nations. Book 4 is the story of Israel’s repentance and turning towards God. It ends with Ps. 106:47-48, “Save us, Lord our God, / and gather us from the nations … Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Finally, in Book 5 of the Psalms, Israel receives the king she has desired since Book 1. After her repentance, the Lord, himself, becomes her king. Unlike David and Solomon, the Lord cannot fail and his kingdom will stand forever.
This narrative ends with Ps. 149 concluding the war between the two kings. The chains that the kings of the earth wanted to throw off are permanently locked. “To bind their [the nation’s] kings with fetters / and their nobles with shackles of iron” (Ps. 149:8). Psalm 150 is an epilogue, with all that is left praising God.
Psalms can be studied individually, but by understanding their role in the story of Israel’s king, people will better appreciate their meaning. The story of Israel’s king is a grand, true tale. It is worth singing about throughout all ages.