For the Love of God: Read the Psalms (Part 2)

What the Psalter teaches us about God’s revelation

While part 1 of our look at the Psalter addressed a little of its poetic nature and the effect it can have on sincere readers, part 2 will think about the Psalms (and poetry more generally) as part of God’s revelation of himself to humanity. We’re asking: what do these songs teach us about revelation? What does that revelation point to? And perhaps most importantly, what is it even for? Let’s jump in.

God’s Unfolding Revelation is Everlasting

If the Psalms contain a condensed theology of the entire Old Testament, and the Old Testament points to Christ,[1] it should come as no surprise that the Psalter is the single most influential and referenced biblical book in the New Testament writings.[2]

Wenham observes that the Psalter actually supplies many of the ethical concepts, language and poetic forms which influence the New Testament writers.[3] Luke’s account of Jesus serves as a prime example, opening with three songs that establish the ethical paradigm of the Gospel.[4] Mary’s Magnificat in particular is heavily psalmic in its language, using phraseology like “My soul magnifies the Lord” & “Holy is his name” closely mirroring Psalm 34:1-3. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” echoes the common psalmic refrain: “His steadfast love endures forever”.[5] Not limited to borrowing poetic idioms, the Magnificat’s subject matter follows suit, addressing themes of feeding the hungry, bringing down the proud,[6] and the land promised to Abraham.[7] It also establishes the theme of God’s judgement and justice, which is more fully explored later in Jesus’ parables.[8] By doing so, Mary’s song affirms that God’s messiah has come to humble the proud and bring justice to the poor.[9] That which the Psalmists had long yearned for has now set the stage for Luke’s Gospel ethic.

So how does this demonstrate that God’s revelation is everlasting? Put simply, the continual, ongoing ethical influence of the Psalter demonstrates that while God’s revelation may have progressively unfolded over time, none of it ever becomes defunct. That is, he does not replace ‘outdated’ information with what is ‘current’, but rather builds an unfolding narrative which works towards its conclusion, all beautifully woven in a tapestry of real events and genuine human experiences. For instance, it is in light of Jesus’ coming to ‘fulfil’, not ‘abolish’ the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17) that we comprehend Paul’s declaration that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). All of this echoes the declaration of Psalm 33:11: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”

When we consider how often we view progress in terms of ‘update’ and yesterday’s developments as ‘outdated’, we must resist the urge to think of the New Testament as the replacement model of the Old. Instead, we recognise that the New Testament is the fulfilment of that new revelation to which the Old Testament pointed. Therefore, the New cannot be fully understood apart from the Old. If this were not the case, Jesus and the New Testament writers would hardly turn to Old testament books like the Psalms to authoritatively and objectively demonstrate the need for God’s ‘new’ revelation to his people.

God’s Ultimate Revelation is Christ

Secondly, because the Psalter points to the reign of Christ as the coming messiah, it teaches us that God’s new and ultimate revelation is not merely law or prophesy, but a person.[10] As the written word pointed to the living Word (Heb 1:1-3), so we now see in Jesus the fulfilment of all the Psalter’s riches. The special father-son relationship between God and David in Psalm 2 establishes the framework for Christ, for whom the world will be made a footstool (Psalm 110:1). The delight in and perfect keeping of the law which is idealised in Psalm 119 is actualised In Christ. In Christ, the suffering of Israel’s righteous king and his vindication heavily foreshadowed in Psalm 22 is fulfilled in the Messiah’s impassioned cry on the cross, resurrection from the dead and placement on the throne so that all nations may be forgiven and worship before him as king.[11] In short, there is no law, prophesy or promise found in the Psalter which is not brought to fullness in Christ. God’s revelation through the written word- what we now call the Bible, always pointed towards the Living Word, Jesus, who is the source and embodiment of its truth. This is why the psalms help us understand what this revelation is ultimately for…

God’s Revelation is for Relationship

Finally, the Psalter reveals the purpose of God’s revelation by displaying the immanence of a transcendent God. One who is not distant and esoteric, but intimately present and knowable.[12] To meditate upon and sing the Psalms as God’s gathered people is therefore to deepen our relationship with one another as we deepen our relationship with Christ. The reciprocal movement of receiving, internalising and praising with their words provides a precious and unique opportunity for humanity and God, created and creator, to enjoy one another. The Psalms provide us with countless blessings from the Lord: comfort, wisdom, joy, and hope, all of which turn to praise in our hearts and get declared back to him by our mouths as we say, sing or pray them.

As Christians, we are able to pursue God’s first and greatest commandment with freedom and thankfulness, knowing that what is lacking in our faltering efforts has been made perfect in Jesus. Being renewed in him, the dispositions of our hearts have been turned back to our creator for whom we were made to worship with the full range of our minds and emotions. By the poetic language of the psalms, this is uniquely made possible; whether we are given permission to grieve without restraint because in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus was sorrowful to the point of death (Psalm 6:6; Matt 26:38), or our hearts spill over with the fullness of joy in knowing the Father (Psalm 16:8-9,11; Acts 2:25).

Though this article barely scratches the surface of God’s special song book and his gift of poetry, I hope some these thoughts will stir your own in time as you read the Psalms. To close, I think a paraphrased excerpt from Andrew Shead’s excellent book Stirred by a Noble Theme summarises the unique influence of the Psalter fittingly. Remember it well:

Where the prophets spoke in oracles, the Psalms teach from daily life; what the Apostles reveal of Christ in sermon and letter, the psalms convey in poetry; as the Gospels show Jesus teaching, healing, dying and rising, so the Psalms invite us to join him on this journey of suffering, trust and vindication.[13]

It is on this journey through the Psalter that we discover and learn to embody the purpose of God’s revelation more deeply: what it means to know and love the Lord our God, with all our hearts, souls and minds.

[1] Luke 22:44; John 5:39

[2] Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 27.

[3] Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 182–85.

[4] The Magnificat, Benedictus & Nunc Dimittis; Luke 1:46-55, 68-79, 2:29-32.

[5] Psalm 100:5; Psalm 136; Psalm 118:1-2, 29. 

[6] Cf. Luke 1:51-53; Pss. 146:7; 107:9

[7] Cf. Luke 1:55; Ps. 105:8-9

[8] Luke 16:23; 19:27

[9] Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 183.

[10] Atwood, Joel, Poetry and Emotion in Psalm 22 (Part 1), 40.

[11] Cf. Psalm 22:1, 17; Matt 27:46.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 267.

[13] Andrew G Shead, Stirred by a Noble Theme: The Book of Psalms in the Life of the Church, Apollos (2013), 1.

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