Studies in the Psalms
As we are about to enter upon the study of this book, I want first to say a few things of an introductory character. I suppose there is no portion of Holy Scripture that has meant more to the people of God, particularly to tried and afflicted believers down through both the Jewish and Christian centuries, than the book of Psalms. Of course the worship expressed in this book does not rise to the full character of Christian worship as in this present dispensation of the grace of God.
As we read the Psalms we need to remember that when they were written our Lord Jesus had not yet become incarnate, consequently redemption had not been effected and so the veil was still unrent. God, as it were, was shut away from man and man was shut out from God and so the worshipper of Old Testament times gives expression to certain things that would not be suitable from the lips of an instructed worshipper in this present age of grace.
David prays, “Take not they Holy Spirit from me.” No well instructed Christian would pray that today for we know now that we have received the Holy Spirit to abide with us forever. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit until the redemption of the purchased possession. And then there are a great many of the prayers in the book of Psalms that imply a hidden God. But today God has come out into the light, since our Lord Jesus, by His sacrificial death upon the cross, has rent the veil and opened up the way into the immediate presence of God for poor sinners and enabled God to come out to man in all the perfection of His glorious person.
There are some churches, and I do not speak now in any critical sense, that use the book of Psalms as the expression of their prayers and praise. Because this book is inspired they think of it as far superior, as a vehicle of prayer and praise, to any compilation of hymns or sacred songs written by uninspired men. But I am sure they are mistaken as to that for since the coming of the Holy Spirit He has opened up truth to His people in this dispensation of grace that was utterly unknown to those in the days when the Psalms were written. But granting all that, we find a great deal that is precious and a great deal that is wonderfully helpful to feed the soul and uplift the spirit as we study these Old Testament Psalms.
It is a new thought to some people that we have not only a book of Psalms but in reality there are five books. Our Bible begins with the Pentateuch, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, and the entire Bible, it has been pointed out by others, seems to be built upon that Pentateuchal foundation.
The book of Genesis is the book of life and the book of election; the book of Exodus is the book of redemption; Leviticus is the book of sanctification; Numbers is the book of testing and experience; Deuteronomy is the book of divine government. It is a very interesting fact that the book of Psalms consists of five books also and that these five link perfectly with the five books of Moses. The first book of the Psalms is from Psalm 1 through 41, and you will notice how Psalm 41, verse 13, concludes the first book: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen.” The second book begins with Psalm 42 and goes on through Psalm 72. Notice how this book ends, Psalm 72:18-20: “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things. And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen. The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” Then the third book comprises Psalms 73 to 89, and ends, Psalm 89:52 with the words: “Blessed be the Lord for evermore. Amen, and Amen.” The fourth book includes Psalms 90 to 106. Look at the closing verse of this book, Psalm 106:48: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting: and let all the people say, Amen. Praise ye the Lord.” And the fifth book is from Psalm 107 to 150, and you know how that winds up, verse 6: “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”
These doxologies that close each of the books (and you do not find them anywhere else in the Psalms) enable us to distinguish them clearly. We have a progressive line of truth in accord with the subjects treated in the five books of the Pentateuch, and the remarkable thing is that in the first book of Psalms the great outstanding themes are, Divine Life and Electing Grace,—God’s wonderful provision of grace, just the same as in the book of Genesis. In the second book of Psalms the great outstanding theme is Redemption as in Exodus. And in the third book of Psalms we are occupied with Sanctification, communion with God, the way into the sanctuary as in the book of Leviticus. The fourth book is the darkest one for it is the book of testing, the book of trial as in Numbers. Many of these Psalms have to do with bitter, hard experiences that the people of God often have to go through in this world. And then the last book of Psalms is the book that brings God in as overruling in all the trials, the difficulties, and perplexities;—the divine government, as in the book of Deuteronomy;—God bringing everything out at last to His honor and glory and to His people’s eternal blessing.
I do not know how anybody could get any conception of the remarkable design of the Word of God, of which I have just given you a little intimation, and question for one moment its divine inspiration. Only God could have given this wonderful order. While the books of the Pentateuch were all written by one man, Moses, the books of the Psalms were written by many men. We call this book ordinarily, “the Psalms of David,” but David did not write them all. A great many of them were written by other people. They were the Psalms of David in the sense that we call the old gospel hymn book, “The Moody and Sankey Hymn Book.” Moody did not write any of the hymns and Sankey only a sprinkling of them but these men compiled the book. If you go over to Great Britain today you can go to the original publishers of it and say, “I would like to have a copy of the Moody and Sankey Hymn Book,” and they will hand you a book with twelve hundred hymns in it. In the old days this book had only about six hundred hymns. It was compiled by them originally but a great many others have been added from time to time and today there is this vast collection. We can think of the book of the Psalms of David in the same way. It was he in the first place who compiled this book and it was a kind of hymn book in the temple worship. Doubtless many of these were used before the temple was built, when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and built a special sanctuary for it. But after David passed away, Solomon added more Psalms to the book, perhaps largely through the directions of Ethan and Asaph and several others who were singers in the temple choir after that glorious sanctuary had been builded by King Solomon.
In all probability two Psalms in this wonderful little book claim Moses as the author. If you turn to the ninetieth Psalm you will see at the heading, “A Prayer of Moses the man of God” while the ninety-first Psalm has no heading at all. The reason is this, according to the Jewish authorities, originally Psalms 90 and 91 were all one but later on for convenience sake, just as we sometimes cut our long hymns into two, this long Psalm was cut into two and in Psalm 90 we have the first man and in 91 the second man. But in all probability it was all written by Moses.
Several of the Psalms seem to have been written by King Solomon. We are told that Solomon wrote a great many songs. We have in our Bible the Canticles, “the song of songs, which is Solomon’s” (Song of Solomon 1:1). But we also have one or two of the Psalms that bear his name. And then there are other Psalms by different writers which we will notice as we go on.
It would seem as though some of the Psalms could not have been written until after the people returned from Babylon. You will remember the Psalm that says, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:1-4). It is not likely that David wrote this, but it was evidently written after the people had been carried to Babylon, and when they returned to their land it was added to the book. We shall find as we go on that there are some very interesting lessons to be gleaned from the settings of these various Psalms.
The first Psalm is the inspired introduction to the entire book. We may say that we have here in contrast two men, the blessed man and the wicked man. The blessed man is the second Man, the Lord from Heaven; the wicked man is the first man.
Notice the opening verses. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
Who is this blessed man to whom our attention is directed as we open this lovely Old Testament book of praise and prayer? Observe in the first place that the tenses as we have them here do not exactly convey the thought of the original Hebrew. It may be rendered, “Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.” He is not here expressing the blessedness of a man who was once a sinner and has been turned to righteousness and now no longer walks in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But he is telling us of the blessedness of the man who has never done any of these things, the man who never took his own way, the man who never walked with the world as part of it, who never did a thing in opposition to the will of God. Who is that man?
I was very much impressed, a number of years ago, listening to Joseph Flacks tell of his visit to Palestine. When he was in the city of Jerusalem he was given the opportunity of addressing quite a gathering of Jews and Arabs. They were presumably unconverted. He took for his text this first Psalm. Of course he could repeat it to them in their own language, in the Hebrew. He dwelt upon the tenses as I have given them to you, “Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners nor sat in the seat of the scornful,” and he said to them, “Now my brethren, who is this blessed man of whom the Psalmist speaks? Notice this happy man is a man who never walked in the counsel of the ungodly, he never stood in the way of sinners, he never sat in the seat of the scornful. He was an absolutely sinless man. Who is this blessed man?” Nobody spoke and Joseph Flacks said, “Shall we say he is our great Father Abraham? Is it Father Abraham that the Psalmist is speaking of here?”
One old Jew said, “No, no, it cannot be Abraham for he denied his wife; he told a lie about her.”
“Ah,” said Joseph Flacks, “it does not fit does it? Abraham, although he was the father of the faithful, yet was a sinner who had to be justified by faith. But, my brethren, this refers to somebody; who is this man? Could it be our great law giver, Moses?”
“No, no,” they said, “It cannot be Moses. He killed a man and hid him in the sand.” And another said, “And he lost his temper by the water of Meribah.”
“Well,” Joseph Flacks said, “my brethren, who is it? There is some man here that the Spirit of God is bringing before us. Could it be our great King David, the sweet Psalmist of Israel who perhaps wrote this Psalm?”
“No, no,” they cried, “it cannot be David. He committed adultery and had Uriah slain.”
“Well,” he said, “who is it; to whom do these words refer?”
They were quiet for some little time and then one Jew arose and said, “My brethren, I have a little book here; it is called the New Testament. I have been reading it. If I believe this book, if I could be sure that it is true, I would say the man of the first Psalm, was Jesus of Nazareth.”
An old Jew got right up and said, “My brethren, the man of the first Psalm is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the only one who ever went through this world who never walked in the counsel of the ungodly nor stood in the way of sinners.” And then this old man told how he had been brought to believe in Christ and he took that occasion to openly confess his faith. He had been searching for a long time and had found out some time before that Jesus was the One but he had not had the courage to tell others.
As yes, there is only one man who ever walked through this scene to whom these words apply. The One of whom David speaks here is the One who hung on Calvary’s cross and who in the words of the twenty-second Psalm cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).
How delightful it is to contemplate Him, to think of Him coming down into the world His hands had made, becoming man and going through this scene in all perfection, ministering to the needs of sinners but never joining with them in their rebellion against the Father.
“But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” You remember that verse in the book of the Prophet Isaiah where he is speaking of what is said of God the Father: “He wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned” (Isaiah 50:4). God was daily communing with His blessed Son and the Son was daily communing with the Father, and as He meditated on the Word of God He was drawing from the Word, as man, the strength and the knowledge that was to enable Him to fulfill His divine mission. When you think of God’s Holy Son feeding on the Word, delighting in the Word and then think how little you and I, who need it so much, delight in it, it is enough to humble us before Him. These words of the first Psalm were true of our blessed Lord and in measure will be of us as we meditate on His Word day and night.
“And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” Young people starting out in life are eager to make a success of life. They would like to prosper, they would like to do well. Here is the secret of successful living, the secret of prosperity, it is found in the first chapter of the book of Joshua, verse 8: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therin day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.” That is what made the way of the Lord Jesus prosperous and that will make your way prosperous, feeding upon the Word.
Now look at the contrast between Christ and every other man by nature. Verse 4, 5, and 6: “The ungodly are not so”—they may seem to prosper, they may seem to do better in this world than the righteous; they may get more, may lay up more money perhaps because they can use methods to make money that the righteous man cannot. “Men will praise thee,” we are told, “when thou doest well to thyself” (Psalm 49:18). But it is one thing to have the praise of men and another to have the praise of God. “But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” What does it mean to stand in the judgment? It means to be justified before God. We read in Romans of “this grace wherein we stand” (Romans 5:2). The believer in the Lord Jesus Christ stands before God in all the infinite value of the finished work of our blessed Saviour, and no charge can be brought against him. Yes, men may seem now to prosper, they may seem now to get on well but in that coming day when all things shall be opened up before the eyes of a Holy God they will shrink away from His presence in terror as they cry, “The great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Revelation 6:17). It is a great thing to be able to stand. It is a great thing to be able to say, “Thank God, my standing is in the risen Christ! I claim nothing on the ground of my own merit but stand before God in His perfection.”
And not the last verse, “For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.” And as you go on through the book of Psalms, as also in Proverbs, you will find these two ways contrasted throughout. In Psalm after Psalm the way of the righteous, the way that pleases God, the way that glorifies Him is contrasted with the way of the ungodly, the way of those who forget God, who turn away from Him, refuse subjection to His holy will.