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What are the Penitential Psalms? If you said, “I don’t know,” then you’ve just explained why we have difficulty understanding them today. Most people have never heard of them, unless they attend an Orthodox liturgical church. So if you’re protestant, evangelical, or Catholic, why bother?
Little is known about the very early history and origin of the grouping of what later became the seven penitential psalms. Within the already Catholic tradition, the earliest information this author found is that fourth century Gregory of Nyssa classed Psalm 6, the first of the seven, as “confession and penitence” (1 Waltke, Laments, 43). Still later, St Augustine, before his death in 430 CE, repeatedly read and wept over four penitential psalms that had been written out and pinned to the wall in front of his bed. Which four they were has not been preserved (2). Cassiodorus, a sixth century Roman statesman, is apparently the first to have named the group of seven psalms as 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 (3). These seven psalms eventually worked their way into the public liturgy of the Catholic church, and just as eventually were deleted. They were removed in 1911 from public reading and sidelined to private devotions (Ibid., 160-61). John Ubel describes their status within the Catholic church in 2014, “The penitential psalms are not collected in any currently approved liturgical text emanating from the Holy See, despite the intentions of the council and those entrusted with carrying out the liturgical reform” (Ibid., 165). Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, although the nomenclature “penitential psalms” is known, these seven appear singly in varying portions of the liturgy. Each has its own distinct use and purpose. For example, Psalm 6 is used in Great Compline, Psalm 32 immediately after baptism, Psalm 38 in Orthros, and so forth (4). Evangelical churches tend not to focus on deep study of the Psalter, and most likely “Penitential Psalms” is not a topic often considered.
If you managed to wade through the previous paragraph and are still with me, you may be yawning profusely, scratching your head, and saying to yourself, “I can’t take much more of this. This is not why I read the Psalms.” And in my opinion, you would be correct.
I love John the Apostle’s statement in 1John 2:27:
But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie– just as it has taught you, abide in him (ESV).
The “anointing” John proclaims is the Holy Spirit of Christ, which every believer receives from the Father. He is the Spirit of God who lives within believers and is the source of their new birth (see John chapters 3 and 4, 6:63, 14, 15, and 16).
What John is saying is that each believer is connected to Christ the Son and through him to God the Father by means of the indwelling Spirit of God. Christ is the Living Word, and as such, he is quite able to communicate to every believer the messages from the Psalter which he wants to impart. He does this with all of Scripture. Therefore, the true value of studying Psalms is not to be had by reading about them in the words of someone else, such as the ancient church fathers and my words to you right now, but their true value is in hearing the Spirit speak into your own heart the Lord’s message to you in particular.
My purpose here is to hold up a road sign to you that says, “Have you tried this pathway through Psalms?” The pathway we will consider is Christ and his cross. Even in the so-called grouping of seven Penitential Psalms, we find Christ ever present and revealed. These psalms are not primarily about experiencing emotions of penitence designed to lead us to repentance. Rather, they are primarily about the life of Jesus Christ during his incarnation.
My premise is that Psalms reveal Christ. He is their primary focus. As we see Christ revealed, we also learn about God’s love for us, and that is what makes them important.
In future posts, we will consider each psalm individually and from a variety of angles.
1 Waltke, Bruce K. and James M. Houston with Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
2 DiPippo, Gregory. “The Penitential Psalms in the Liturgy of Lent.” New Liturgical Novus Motus: Movement Liturgicus (March 10, 2017). Accessed February 2, 2019. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/eleu/ vol2/iss1/5/.
3 Ubel, John L. “Septem Psalmi Poenitentiales History, Demise, and Rebirth of an Ascetical Tradition.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 17, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 155–68. Accessed February 19, 2019. doi:10.1353/log.2014.0036.
4 Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008. (See the notes for each individual psalm).
Why would God seemingly hide his prophetic intentions in Psalms in such a way that even today biblical pundits do not agree on their overall meaning? Why not speak clearly, directly, and openly about the coming of Christ? No doubt each commentator would answer this question differently, but here’s what I think.
The first reason, at what may appear to the modern eye to be the cold end of the continuum, is that God is sovereign. He owes nothing to anyone. He is not a politician trying to win an election. He bows to the whims of no one. He is not looking to go viral, nor does he care to win a popularity contest. When God caused the Bible to be written, he did it his own way for his own reasons. God chose the vehicle of human faith as the means through which he would manifest himself. “Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NET) Solving the puzzle of Psalms God’s way requires faith.
When we think about it, faith is fair. It requires neither intellect nor non-intellect, no particular personality type, no particular race, neither wealth nor poverty, neither male nor female, nor any particular nationality. No particular skill is necessary for faith, nor does faith favor a lack of skill. Faith does not require virtue, nor does it need an over abundance of sin. The only requirement of faith is a humble heart. A proud heart is likely to reject faith. God in his sovereignty chooses to hide himself to all but those who look through the eyes of faith. Solving a puzzle requires faith in its maker, who presents us its key. Faith in Christ is able to solve the puzzle of Psalms. [Disclaimer: the reverse is not necessarily true. I am by no means saying that people who do not view Psalms as I do lack faith in Christ.]
The second reason is humankind’s hardness of heart toward God. Throughout the entirety of Scripture, front cover to back, God has always favored the humble heart. In the New Testament Jesus spoke a saying, “Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6 NET) And in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17 ESV) What better way to publicly sow seed than by means of puzzles? Everyone sees the puzzle. The hard of heart will not understand, while the broken of heart will receive the key and solve the puzzle.
Why does God hide his word from the hard of heart? First is the matter of judgment. God judges the hard of heart by withholding understanding from them. Apart from this, I also believe he does so to provide time for the broken of heart to hear and understand. When God came to visit humanity in physical person in the form of a man, Jesus the Son of God, he often spoke in parables, or story puzzles. Jesus’s disciples once asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10 ESV) He replied, “…this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” He was quoting Isaiah from the Old Testament. Jesus continued, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:” (Matthew 13:15-18 NIB)
In other words, Jesus didn’t want those who hated him to understand his words. This was God’s judgment upon them. On the other hand, he wanted those who would become his friends to understand. For this to happen, he needed to give them time. When Jesus’s enemies finally, clearly, understood Jesus’s stance as God’s Son, they crucified him. But not before he had three years to present his entire case. During this time, his disciples and others had opportunity to hear and see all that he gave them. Although they didn’t fully understand at the time, after his resurrection they did.
Clear and direct statements can easily be rejected outright without a pause for deliberation. Puzzles coax. They give people time to ponder and reconsider. They give opportunity for puzzle solvers to ask for help. They give time for some hardened hearts to be softened. Jesus’s disciples were the puzzle solvers, and by giving them parables, he protected them from immediate retaliation of outright enemies. His parables gave his disciples and friends the time they needed to fully understand his words and actions.
What about today? Here we have a second aspect of the explanation. God loves us. He is our Father and Jesus is our Brother. Parents and grandparents who love their children know they can’t get enough time with them. They love and savor every moment of pleasure in watching them grow. They love helping the child grow. Growing takes time, and God has all the time in the world to enjoy his children.
Jigsaw puzzles take time. It’s pretty difficult to go racing through jigsaw puzzles. They are not like driving down a scenic highway at eighty miles an hour, missing all the sights along the way. The best way to see scenery is at a slow pace. Likewise, by their very nature, jigsaw puzzles must be slowly solved. The time necessary to solve these puzzles allows them to work well as a group activity. The puzzle solvers can remain quiet, or they can talk. Great visiting and fellowship can take place when friends do jigsaw puzzles together. They produce a relaxed atmosphere where eventually hearts are often shared. The Psalter as jigsaw puzzle takes time. When a pliable, humble, seeking heart reads Psalms, God is reading with her. Sometimes God talks, and often he watches. Solving this puzzle together results in fellowship with God. As a parent, God often enjoys watching his child place the pieces. At other times, he guides his child’s hand.
Puzzles frustrate certainty and foster humility. It’s easier for us to learn when we give God our uncertainties. Being stuck on a puzzle piece encourages us to ask God for help. This is good, because God loves to help his children and it gives us opportunity to hear from him directly. As Father, he loves to give good things to those who ask him (Matthew 7:11).
Finally, puzzles grow with a child. A very young child begins with a three piece puzzle. Preschool children can move up to twenty-five pieces. Some, like myself, never choose to go beyond five hundred pieces, no matter how old I am. And, I like my puzzle pieces large, so I can see and handle them easily. God’s Word is adaptable to the individual. The Psalter grows with us. The more time we spend in this book, as in all of God’s Word, the more of himself God shares with us. That is, as long as he has given us the key, and we choose to receive. Jesus Christ is the key to all God’s Word. Praise be to the Lord.
Setting: You’re working on a jigsaw puzzle. Most of the pieces look more or less the same, and you feel like it’s a puzzle depicting fog. Suddenly, you find a piece that makes your heart leap. You examine it closely and yes, it contains strong clues that tell you this piece is pivotal and unique. But where does it belong?
Sometimes reading Psalms is like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Many psalms sound more or less the same. Most people might tell you that there is no distinguishable “plot line” to Psalms. Once we find the key, however, the pieces of individual psalms fit together into a beautiful portrait of the face of Christ. But where do we begin?
A good place to start a jigsaw puzzle is the picture on the top cover of the box. But when we dump the pieces out and turn them over, do we recognize that these pieces will form that picture? Or is this something we accept by faith? Do we think that the publisher of the puzzle lied to us and purposefully put an incorrect picture on the top side of the box just to trick and confuse us? Of course not. Now if we receive something as mundane as a jigsaw puzzle by faith, why not the word of God? Who better than the author of the book would know what the book contains?
What does the author of the book say about Psalms? (What picture does the publisher of the jigsaw puzzle place on the cover of the box?)
Luke 24:25 And he [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (ESV)
Acts 2:30 [Peter speaking about David] Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. (ESV)
Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, (ESV)
In other words, God, who wrote the book, claims that Psalms are prophetic of Christ. The picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle is a picture of the life of Christ. This information proves to be invaluable when unlocking the solution of what so often appears to be an insoluble jigsaw puzzle.
Stay Tuned: We’ll be continuing this motif in later posts as we consider a group of psalms known collectively as the “Penitential Psalms.”
Have you ever attempted something and failed? For me, it’s controlling my appetite, losing weight, and getting enough exercise. I’ve been sick for a whole month, mostly sitting or lying around at home. I feel really bad. And I feel like a failure.
The current theme of this blog is how God through his Spirit speaks directly into our hearts as we read his Word. Today this principle was illustrated. As I was studying biblical word usage this morning in a technical way not related to the theme, these two verses popped up. I felt the Lord poking into my heart.
LXE Psalm 37:23 The steps of a man are rightly ordered by the Lord: and he will take pleasure in his way. 24 When he falls, he shall not be ruined: for the Lord supports his hand.
Rewritten for a female child of God, the same verses sound like this:
The steps of God’s child are rightly ordered by the Lord: and he will take pleasure in her way. When she falls, she shall not be ruined: for the Lord supports her hand.
When my little granddaughter was a toddler who had just learned to walk, I so enjoyed holding her hand as the family took our little trips down the sidewalks of town. I had to pay good attention and not let the sights distract me, because once in a while she would stumble and completely lose her balance, body beginning to fall. Because I held her hand securely, she was safe.
God is like this. He firmly grasps our hand as we walk through life. He takes great pleasure going along beside us. He’s delighted to be with us, holding our hand and guiding our walk. Sometimes we do trip and fall. We fail in our endeavors, or we make bad mistakes. But these two verses teach that our stumbling will not destroy us. God is firmly grasping our hand in protection, and he always helps us back to our feet.
God’s personal message to me this morning: Don’t berate yourself; I love you in spite of all your shortcomings and failures, and this is not the last page of the book of your life. I am still here beside you, and I will never let you go. I love you.
That’s enough for me. God’s love is sufficient.
The title and core ideas are from an article I wrote on a prior blog.
What profit is there in reading a devotional written by someone else?
Short answer: not much. Long answer: when used correctly, lots. Let me explain.
The whole Bible is about people becoming established in right relationship with God. Genesis opens with God’s account of creation, followed immediately by his account of how humanity lost its intimate relationship with Him. Christ’s life on earth, His atonement for our sin, His resurrection, and His future second coming will finally reestablish and secure what was lost. However, no person will ever be brought back to close communion with God solely because they are a member of the human race. Each person must come to God’s saving grace individually and personally.
God is Spirit. Because Christ has been revealed and the Holy Spirit has come, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must all be born from above.” (NET John 3:7)
Being “born from above” means that something happens between the Spirit of God and a person’s heart. A life giving transaction occurs.
Romans 8:9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him (NET).
It follows that reading a devotional written by someone else, assuming that it has its basis in truth, will do a person no good, unless the person has a like interaction with God. A devotional is useful as a sign pointing to a meeting place with God. A devotional provides a location from which the view of God is good. The goal of all devotionals should be to lead the reader to his or her own private audience with God.
I think of driving a car through a mountainous landscape. On mountainous roads, travelers often come across a sign announcing an area set aside for vehicles to pull off and park, so they may enjoy a spectacular viewpoint. This is why, for example, I write my thoughts on Psalms. Because the viewpoint I present is not well known, I want to stand with a sign pointing others to vistas of great opportunity, namely, reading the psalms with an ear toward hearing the invitation by Father and Son for the reader to join them in a dialogue of life giving fellowship.
A devotional is like a crib sheet that helps someone get started in a certain direction. For example, many years ago when I was just beginning my Christian walk, I read C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I read it without guidance. A short while later, I told a Christian friend that I had just finished the book. He asked me if I had seen the allegory of the life of Jesus Christ in it. Astounded, I told him that I hadn’t. I rushed back to the book and urgently read it again from this new vantage. What an entirely different reading experience I had as the book came to life for me under the guidance of that bit of information my friend had given!
Reading a devotional can have a similar effect to what I described above. Imagine that you are a hiker walking through forests, meadows, and brush. I or someone else crosses your path as you hike. We stop to talk. “Did you know,” I say, “that God is sitting in that clearing just over there? If you go to him now, right down this little path,” and I point to where I mean, “you’ll be able to meet with him yourself. As soon as you leave me, go down this path here, and see if you don’t find God waiting for you just over there.”
This is why I write about Psalms.
Have you ever or are you now being pursued by an enemy who is too strong for you? Perhaps an employer who has it out for you, maybe a violently irrational spouse who blames you for everything, could it be a sibling who wants your share, or even, God forbid, a pastor who views you as a personal threat and is bent upon shaming and eradicating you? These people hotly track you down like a predator its prey. They lay traps before you, that you will fall into them, become ensnared, and succumb to their violence. Hyperbole? Not really. This and so much more happens countless times every day to people all over the world. And it happened to Jesus. Crafty lawyers and religious politicians monitored his every step, lurking nearby whenever he publicly spoke, secretly meeting and plotting in advance, asking difficult questions calculated only to trap in order to later destroy.
The most amazing thing about Psalm 142 is that the Bible contains it. Imagine yourself overpowered by your enemies, at your wits’ end, looking to your right and finding no one to help you–no colleagues, no friends, no family, no neighbors, no one in your congregation of fellow believers. Where are they? Vanished like a mist on a scorching, dry day. You are alone, vulnerable, like a mouse already in the cat’s claw. So you turn to the only friend you have–he is someone you have just met, are about to meet, or whom you have known for a long time. You turn to God.
Who else can hear you? Who else can you trust? To whom else can you bare the secret insides of every crevice of fear and anguish in your heart? You open your Bible and you read the words of this psalm.
Psalm 142:1 A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer. With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
2 I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.
3 When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
4 Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul.
5 I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
6 Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!
7 Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me. (ESV)
The Holy Spirit reaches into your conscious awareness as you say these words, perhaps even out loud because no one else is with you, “I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!'” (verses 5-6 ESV)
As you gradually recognize your very own personal heart staring at you from the page in front of you, it dawns on you that God is the one who oversaw the printing and publishing of this book you are holding in your hands. And he is the one who caused you to read these exact words at this exact moment of your despair. And if you are very blessed, the Holy Spirit will show you Jesus, God the Father’s own Son, crying out to his Father in the days of his ministry and passion on earth. As the physical presence of Psalm 142 sinks into you, You sense God speaking inside you, “I have been there and done this. I am with you now.” And you are no longer alone. God the Word, the great communicator, speaks loudly and clearly to your heart, “Peace, my child. I see you; I hear you; I know exactly where you are. I love you so much, and I will help you. See! I seal my love with the cross of my Son.”
When the story ends and the crisis has passed, you will share your testimony in the great congregation and the righteous will cheer their God on your behalf, just as verse 7 predicts, “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” You might even add to your story the words of Psalm 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” “Statutes” is a tough word. Which statute is it that God wants me to learn? In his Son’s own words, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV) Our troubles teach us love–first, that God loves us, second, that he loves others and wants us to love them too. As we see God helping us through all our difficulties, we come to realize that God loves us, and he wants us to love others the same way he loved us. And this is why I am writing about Psalm 142. I want to share God’s love.
Psalm 82 raises puzzling questions: 1) Who are the “gods” of verses 1 and 6, the mighty ones among whom God stands? 2) Who is the first person speaker in verse 6? 3) What is the meaning of the final verse, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!”
1) In view of John 10:31-39, a passage in which Jesus quotes verse 1 of this psalm, the “gods” are the judges and rulers who stand in the place of God as arbiters over the affairs of people. Because of their power and their need to represent justice fairly, it is as though they are “gods” in relation to other people. But they are botching the job. They are judging unfairly and favoring the “wicked.” We can read into the psalm that the judges are favoring the rich, the powerful, those with influence, those who offer favors in return, and so on.
God favors the poor and needy. This psalm is very clear. God’s indictment is against the rulers who are so unlike himself. God says, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” God continues, They [the gods/judges] have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” (Psalm 82:3-5 ESV) When human rulers go against God’s goodness and his kindness toward the poor, the very “foundations of the earth are shaken.”
2) Is the “I” who speaks in verse 6 the same as God who speaks in verses 2-5? Patrick Reardon (Christ in the Psalms, 161-162) points out that the Orthodox Church recites Psalm 82 in their Easter liturgy just before the announcement of the Resurrection of Christ in Matthew. He relates that the Orthodox Church applies verse 8, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! (ESV),” as a cry by God’s people for the resurrection of Christ. If Christ is addressed as “O God” in verse 8, perhaps then he is also the speaker of verses 6-7?
3) The New Testament supports a reading that Christ is referenced as the one who shall inherit all the nations in verse 8. (Matthew 28:18; Romans 8:17; Ephesians 5:5; Philippians 2:9-11) If Christ is indeed referenced in verses 6-8, then this psalm supports the presence of two persons of the Trinity within the Old Testament.
The Point: However we may choose to answer the questions Psalm 82 raises, the psalm leaves no question about God’s view of the poor and needy. Neglect and mistreatment of the poor and needy by those with power to help provokes the judgment of God against those who hold the power. God does not view the poor and needy as a threat, a danger, as scum, as those to be locked out and avoided. His instructions are clear, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82 promises a day of judgment in which God will judge the judges. This psalm warns them that he is not pleased with their judgments. O that we would be a godly nation who obeyed his Word.
Have you ever been stabbed in the back? Betrayed? Ratted on? The psalmist in 52 just has. This is his response.
Typical to Psalms, there are two groups of people in this one: the good and the evil. Within the framework of Psalms, who is good and who is evil? In Psalms God judges according to the intent of the heart. God is good; someone who follows God and wants to please him is good. A good person wants good for other people; he or she does not initiate harm. A wicked person, by contrast, hates God and opposes him in all he speaks, thinks, and does. A wicked person in Psalms plots and carries out harm toward others, especially toward the followers of God. (Just as the bad guys do in your favorite adventure movie, right?)
This principle is so important I want to repeat it. In Psalms, people are not judged good or wicked according to whether or not they commit certain sins, but according to their allegiance. Everyone who pledges allegiance to God is called good, and everyone who pledges allegiance against God is called wicked. Enemies of God, those who willfully oppose him and oppose his principles, are wicked. Friends of God are good. Psalms paints people black or white. Unfortunately for us, there are no gray zones with God. His vision is sharp and clear–not fuzzy like ours. God knows who his friends are and who his enemies are, just as a shepherd knows which sheep are his and which are not.
Psalms are real life. Just as in our own experience, some people in Psalms pretend to be on God’s side by pretending to be on the side of God’s friends. But they lie. In their hearts, they are false friends who speak falsely and lead others down a wrong path. Often the deceit of these people is found out; they are discovered, and their duplicity becomes apparent by their actions that seek to harm someone who is good. Psalm 55:12-14 gives an example of this kind of person. A good person in Psalms always tells the truth, even when that truth means confessing his own sin. Psalm 51:1-17 is an example of a good person confessing his sin to God. Remember, a good person is someone who wants to please God. Good people do not become wicked people by sinning, but by betraying God. To betray God is to fully and finally join the enemy’s team. God is always kind and gracious to forgive everyone who asks him with a true heart. By the standard of Psalms, a good person may sin perpetually, but he or she also always wants to do better and to please God. Wicked people never truly want to please God; they hate him.
So with that as background, what about Psalm 52?
Though not necessary, a bit of history may help to understand this psalm. The superscription of verse 1 reads, “To the choirmaster. A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
David, the servant of Saul the King, was running for his life from Saul, who had gone mad and wanted to kill him. Doeg was Saul’s chief shepherd (1 Samuel 21:7). David most likely knew Doeg, since David was also a shepherd. Ahimelech was an innocent priest who was unaware of the full situation between David and Saul. When David in his flight from Saul asked for food and a weapon, Ahimelech provided these, because he believed David’s lie that he was on a secret mission for the king. Doeg happened to see David at the priest’s tabernacle that day, and reported to Saul. Saul, not in his right mind, ordered his servants to kill Ahimelech and his whole household. When they refused, out of respect for the priesthood and knowing that Ahimelech had done no wrong, Saul ordered Doeg to do so. Doeg gladly slaughtered 85 innocent, unarmed priests, plus women, children, nursing infants, oxen, donkey, and sheep–all that lived in the nearby town of Nob, a city of priests. Patrick Reardon writes at length concerning Psalm 52 that Doeg was worse than Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ. (Reardon, 101-102)
If Psalms were a play and I was the director, I would have the sole character in this scene pacing back and forth in barely contained fury and anxiety in order to reflect the back and forth movement between the poles of good and evil in the psalm. The psalmist is clearly angry when he speaks these words,
Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day. 2 Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. 3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah 4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. (Psalm 52:1-5 ESV)
Notice in verse 1 the contrast between the evil man and the good God, whose “steadfast love…endures all the day.” Then again, after the diatribe against the wicked, the psalmist switches back to consider the fate of the good people in verse 6 which continues, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying … ” Verse 7 takes us back to the fate of the wicked, as spoken by the righteous of verse 6, “See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!” Then the psalmist considers his own situation in verse 8, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
Finally, the psalmist quits his pacing back and forth and settles his vision fully on God, where it fixedly remains as he speaks the final verse directly to God, “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.” (Psalm 52:9 ESV)
Prayer is like Psalm 52. In the spiritual battle of prayer, the human heart is torn between consideration of the painfully dangerous situation at hand and faith in the steadfast love of God that endures forever and works its goodness forever in perfect reflection of the eternal goodness of God. In prayer, our hearts and minds pace back and forth between the poles of the power of what is bad and the greater power of God, who is good. May we always, as the psalmist does, align our hearts fully and fixedly on the goodness of God, whose power and judgment win out in the end.
Psalm 52 is a highly passionate psalm, yet we don’t want to leave it without considering the technical aspect of how speech functions within its nine verses.
There is one actor throughout the psalm. Nevertheless, he speaks in more than one voice and variously addresses more than one audience.
- In verses 1-3, the sole actor speaks his words directly to the “mighty man.” He describes this evil man’s words, his tongue, and his heart. There is a pause at the end of this block, written as “Selah.”
- In verses 4-5 the same actor addresses the wicked man’s tongue, “4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.” In verse 5, although the psalmist still appears to be addressing the tongue, it seems apparent that the tongue is a metaphor for the man as a whole. The technical words for this figure of speech are synechdoche (part for the whole) and personification (assigning personality to an object). A second Selah pause ends the address to the tongue.
- In verses 6-7, the addressee is not specified. The psalmist appears to be talking to the air, to himself, or perhaps to an invisible audience placed somewhere beyond the bounds of history and viewing its final outcomes, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying…”
- In verse 7, the same actor quotes the words of the righteous, but again, the addressee to whom the righteous speak are not specified. The righteous do seem to be in a position of being able to know and see final outcomes.
- In verse 8, the psalmist appears to be speaking to himself, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
- Finally, in verse 9, the psalmist addresses God directly, using the second person, “you,” “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (ESV)
Why is this important?
Today’s readers can appreciate the content and passion of Psalm 52 without thinking much about the dialogue within it. Noticing the changes in speech and addressees, however, prepares the reader to encounter other psalms in which such changes clarify meanings of content that may be more obscure. Examples of such psalms are Psalm 110 and Psalm 118.
Romans 8:16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (ESV)
Everyone who’s attended Christian church for any length of time has been taught, “What is true of Christ is true of us in him.” The Holy Spirit unites the church and Christ through believer’s baptism. We can pray the psalms with Christ, because, as believers, He is in us and we are in Him.
Romans 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (ESV)
Nowhere is the victory of Christ more pronounced than in Psalm 21. Andrew Bonar rightly divides this psalm into three sections: 1) Verses 1-7: “Messiah’s exaltation after his suffering,” 2) Verses 8-12: “His future acts when He rises up to sweep away his foes,” and 3) Verse 13: “The cry of his own for that day, as their day of realized bliss.” (Andrew Bonar, 72)
What is true of Christ is true of us. In Christ we have our resurrection from difficult situations that threaten to drown and annihilate us. In Christ we have our victory over our enemies. These include death itself, fatigue, despair, persecutors, fear, uncertainties, hopelessness, and many others. Finally, our end will be glorious, as we share an eternity of praise and thanksgiving for the Father of the One who set us free.
Dialogue functions as a prophetic tool for the Spirit’s announcement centuries ahead of time that the divine Christ would be incarnated as a human being who would suffer greatly.
[Please feel free to jump down to the Summary and Conclusion at the end of this article.]
Speakers. Although it is true that Psalm 22 attributes David as its author, while Psalm 102 makes no attribution, I believe the in-character persona of the first person speaker is identical. The character is Christ, God’s Son, and the setting is his passion. I can say this because both psalms are quoted in the New Testament with the Son identified as the speaker.
Concerning this identification, Psalm 22 is the easier to ascertain. A portion of verse 1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (ESV), is placed by gospel writers Matthew and Mark as proceeding from the lips of Christ, as he hung upon the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Psalm 102:25-26 is cited in Hebrews 1:10-12. The author of the letter attributes this quotation to God and states that in the quotation God addresses the Son (Hebrews 1:8). Going back to Psalm 102, we discover that since God addresses the Son in verses 25-26, then it must be in reply to the Son’s addressing God in verses 23-24, “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘take me not away in the midst of my days…'” God then replies, as in Hebrews, “25 Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 26 They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, 27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.” (ESV)
Pattern. Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 102 follow a pattern of 1) statement of suffering by a first person singular speaker, which, as demonstrated above, is the in-character persona of Christ. 2) Following the statement of suffering is an objection in a different voice, which might be paraphrased, “But your greatness, Lord, extends far beyond this suffering.” 3) Following the objection, the first person singular voice of Christ provides further evidence of suffering contra the objection. 4) The psalm resolves the conflict in final statements of the glory of Christ in a voice not the sufferer’s own.
1. Suffering. In both Psalm 22 and Psalm 102, the first person singular in-character persona expresses great suffering.
Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (ESV) …
…11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.
12 Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet–
17 I can count all my bones– they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (ESV)
Psalm 102:1 A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD. Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!
2 Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress! Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh.
6 I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
8 All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. (ESV)
2. Objection. Both psalms record objections to the initial statements of the speaker’s suffering.
Psalm 22 Recap of Suffering: 1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
Objection: 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
[See Dialogue in Psalm 22 for an explanation of how these verses might be considered an objection by a chorus of speakers.]
Psalm 102 Recap of Suffering: 1 A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD… 3 For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. 4 My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread. 5 … my bones cling to my flesh. 6 I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places; 7 I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop. 8 All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse. 9 For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, 10 … for you have taken me up and thrown me down. 11 My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. (ESV)
Objection: 12 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. 13 You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. 14 For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. 15 Nations will fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory. 16 For the LORD builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; 17 he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. 18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD: 19 that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the LORD looked at the earth, 20 to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, 21 that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD, and in Jerusalem his praise, 22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the LORD. (ESV)
John Barclay attributes verses 12-22 to speech by the Father through the Holy Spirit to the Son. [Barclay, John, The Psalms of David, 332. While most commentators do not share his attribution, I share most of it, independently. I cite Barclay here as confirmation of this assignment of multiple speakers. The topic of dialogue in Psalm 102 will receive an article of its own.]
3. Protest contra the objection: The speaker protests against the objection with further evidence of his suffering. The objection points to the essential being of the sufferer as far and beyond greater than the quality of the suffering would seem to suggest might be possible. That is, the first person speaker, because of his suffering, appears to limit his identity, while the objectors expand and elevate his identity. The first person singular speaker then replies with further evidence that indeed, his suffering has been extreme.
Psalm 22 Objection: 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
Protestation Contra Objection: 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (ESV)
Psalm 102 Objection: 12 But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations. 13 You will arise and have pity on Zion… [through verse 22]
Protestation Contra Objection: 23 He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days.
24a “O my God,” I say, “take me not away in the midst of my days … (ESV)
4. Resolution by means of a final statement of the glory of Christ (the sufferer) in a voice not the sufferer’s own:
Psalm 22:27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. 28 For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. 30 Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; 31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
(ESV) [See Dialogue in Psalm 22 for an explanation of how this portion might be considered as speech by a persona different than the sufferer. The article also discusses how this portion might apply to both God and his Christ.]
Psalm 102:25 In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands. 26 They shall perish, but thou remainest: and they all shall wax old as a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them, and they shall be changed. 27 But thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. 28 The children of thy servants shall dwell securely, and their seed shall prosper for ever. (Septuagint English)
Summary and Conclusion. This article seeks to demonstrate how Psalm 22 and Psalm 102 follow a similar pattern of organization. The pattern has four steps: 1) Statement of suffering by a first person singular speaker, 2) Objection to the statement by a different speaker(s), 3) Contra the objection, response by the initial speaker with further evidence of suffering, and 4) Final statement of the glory of the sufferer above and beyond (outside the realm of) his suffering. The significance of observing this pattern is to realize that Psalms is a unified whole that speaks prophetically of the suffering of the Christ to come. The New Testament authors understood and utilized the prophetic role of Psalms, as witnessed by their quotations of them.
By means of dialogue, both psalms emphasize the human nature of Christ, while also emphasizing his divinity. It is as a human being that the Christ suffers, with the suffering expressed through the voice of a first person singular speaker. Part of the dramatic pathos of each psalm lies in the reader’s discovery that Christ the divine Son suffered so greatly as a human being that for encouragement he needed to be reminded of his divine identity. A chorus of God’s people remind him in Psalm 22, while in Psalm 102, God himself reminds his incarnated Son that he is divine. As mentioned, the dialogue functions as a prophetic tool for the Spirit’s announcement centuries ahead of time that the divine Christ would be incarnated as a human being who would suffer greatly.