Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 NIV)
Life is a journey. Sometimes the sailing is smooth. Recently the road may have been rough. Along the way emotions flood our souls. We feel overwhelmed with sorrow or elated with joy. All sorts of thoughts fill our minds. We may understand exactly where we are, or we may be profoundly confused about which direction to take.
Music makes a difference. Songs can clarify our thinking or release emotions from the deep well of the soul.
I will never forget the Sunday morning that my wife and I were in church with our children, singing “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come” at the same time that we were miscarrying our fourth child. As I type the words, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day,” I cannot hold back the tears, as I relive the pain of that moment. I am writing in a Borders Book and Music in Winter Park, Florida, wondering what the man sitting at the next table thinks is going on inside me. The words of the song being played in the café reach my conscious mind: “Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you” (Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell). Sorrow gives way to delight as the music of Motown brings me back to the lighthearted and fun-filled days of junior high. How good God is to give us songs for the journey.
In this chapter we are going to learn about the different kinds of songs that God has given us in the Book of Psalms. God has given us different kinds of songs because we travel on different kinds of terrain in life. I enjoy off-roading in my Jeep Wrangler. Tires that perform well on the smooth highway don’t work nearly as well in deep mud. On the other hand, my 33-inch mud-terrain tires are not the most comfortable ride on pavement. So too, the songs written for the good times in life won’t work nearly as well in the mire of discouragement. And sad songs just don’t fit when we are happy. We naturally turn to happy songs or sad songs in different circumstances. This chapter will give you deeper insight into some of the different kinds of psalms found in the Book of Psalms.
Let’s ask a couple of questions that will lead us through a basic introduction to the kinds of songs found in the Book of Psalms.
A genre is a group of writings that have characteristics in common with each other. Without thinking much about it, we group similar writings together. We recognize all stories that begin with “Once upon a time” as fairy tales. We could collect writings that begin with “I am writing in response to last week’s article” into a group called letters to the editor. A fairly tale and a letter to the editor are quite different. We would be surprised to read about talking trees in a letter to the editor or about someone’s political opinion in a fairy tale. Why? Because each type of literature, each genre, follows its own rules or conventions. Knowing these rules helps us to read with greater understanding.
What is true of literature in general is true of the Bible: the Bible contains different genres. We can divide the Bible into two main genres: prose and poetry. We can then divide poetry into several different genres, for example, psalms, proverbs, and prophetic sermons. Each of these genres has its own “once upon a time,” its own rules or conventions. Knowing the conventions, understanding the basic genres of the Psalms, enriches our use of the Psalms.
All of the songs in the Book of Psalms fall into one genre: they are all psalms. But these songs can be subdivided into separate genres based on characteristic that they have in common. What are the basic kinds of psalms that we are going to encounter when we read the Book of Psalms? Let’s look at what I call “the big three.”
We could group many of the Psalms into happy psalms or sad psalms and speak of the big two. The happy psalms, however, fall into two distinct groups: those that have recent trouble clearly in view and those that do not. Happy songs without recent personal trouble in view we call songs of praise. Sad songs with trouble in view we call songs of lament. Songs that express joy because of deliverance from trouble in the recent past we call songs of thanksgiving.
While we commonly refer to the big three as songs of praise, songs of laments, and songs of thanksgiving, we can speak of them in another way. In place of songs of praise, lament, and thanksgiving, Walter Brueggemann refers to songs of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. By using these labels, Brueggemann shows us something fundamental about how the big three relate to each other and how they relate to the ebb and flow of our lives.
Songs of praise were composed when everything was going well. They are songs for those trouble-free times in life, times when our lives are well ordered, well oriented. The songs of praise typically celebrate God as Creator and God as Redeemer.
Creation songs of praise often praise God for the orderliness of his creation (Psalm 104). When our lives are well ordered, they are a microcosm of the well-ordered universe. By celebrating God’s good creation we celebrate the goodness of God we are experiencing in life.
When the songs of praise extol God as Redeemer, they are typically celebrating what God has done for us in the history of his redemptive work, rather than what God has done for us in our own personal history. In Old Testament terms, these psalms celebrate events in the distant past like the exodus from Egypt (Psalm 105) or the conquest of the promised land (Psalm 47). For Christians, songs of praise celebrate events like the death and resurrection of Christ or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. By celebrating God’s redemptive work in the distant past, we celebrate the faithfulness and reliability of God as the foundation of the good life we are experiencing.
We do not always experience life as well ordered. Our lives are not always well oriented. “Disorientation” better describes life at times. The laments or songs of disorientation were written for times such as these.
These are times when you may feel tremendously perplexed or utterly forsaken or paralyzed by fear or overwhelmed with anger or lost in despair. These are times when you cry out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant? Why do you ignore my cries for help?” (22:1); or, “O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?” (13:1–2); or, “You have taken away my companions and loved ones; only darkness remains” (88:18).
The laments are the psalms composed for what some have called the dark night of the soul, for times when “weeping may go on all night” (30:5), perhaps even night after night after night (6:6). The psalms of disorientation give us permission to and show us how to let the tears and feelings flow.
Though “weeping may go on all night,” says Psalm 30, “joy comes with morning” (30:5). The time eventually comes when you look back at the troublesome days and say to God, “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy” (30:11).
You experience God parting the heavens and coming down (144:5) to deliver you from the disorienting trouble that you were in. The songs of thanksgiving express joy and gratitude to God for that deliverance.
Like the songs of praise, the songs of thanksgiving celebrate God’s redemptive work. The songs of thanksgiving, however, celebrate God’s redemptive work in your own personal history. These psalms thank God for lifting you personally “out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire” and for setting your “feet on solid ground” once again (40:2), for eliminating the chaos and reestablishing good order in your life.
On the path of life there may be stretches when all is well. At other times the going may be pretty rough. The rough road eventually leads to a smooth path once again. God has given us songs for each of these stages of the journey: songs of praise, lament, and thanksgiving.
We intuitively turn to the psalms that match our current experience on the path. We don’t really need a theoretical understanding of genre to find a psalm that fits our circumstances. What is, therefore, the practical importance to this idea of genre?
Why do you need to know about the various genres in the Book of Psalms? Before we answer this question in a couple of ways, let’s keep in mind two related considerations. As mentioned earlier, you make genre identifications every time you read a newspaper article or a book. You make these identifications fluently, though unconsciously, just as first-grade children use English fluently, though they have no self-conscious understanding of grammar. In this chapter we are becoming aware of what we have always been doing without being aware of it.
Related to this is the gap between our culture and the ancient culture(s) of the Bible. While we intuitively identify the genre of a piece of literature we read in our own culture, the same intuitions do not work when reading literature from other cultures, like those of the Bible. This is true because literary conventions (rules for writing) change from culture to culture. For example, in our culture quoting what someone said must be done with great precision. If author A is quoting author B and if author B’s work contains a typographical error, our conventions require author A to pass on the misspelling, followed by (sic), so that we know precisely who is responsible for the error. The ancient world in general and the Bible in particular were not concerned with such precision in regard to quotations. Their quoting was much more like our “giving the gist” of what someone said.
This explains many differences between parallel texts in the Bible, like Matthew 6:25 and Mark 8:35, where the recorded words of Jesus are not precisely the same in both texts:
If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will find true life.
Mark includes the words and for the sake of the Good News, while Matthew leaves them out. Both authors truly give the gist of what Jesus said without giving us precisely what he said.
With these two considerations in mind, let’s answer our question as to why genre is important in a couple of ways.
First of all, genre guides our expectations. For example, when you open a book and read the words Once upon a time, you are not surprised if on page two you encounter a tree talking to a little girl. Why no surprise? Why no disbelief? Because the words Once upon a time have guided your expectations. Genre determines what you will and will not expect on the following pages. Once upon a time indicates that you are reading a fairy tale, and trees talking to little girls is perfectly permissible in this genre.
Conversely, if you read the words, “I’m writing in regard to the article that was in the paper last week,” and this piece goes on to describe a conversation between a tree and a little girl, you are quite surprised or perplexed or incredulous. Why? Because the opening words have guided your expectations. These words determine what you will and will not allow as believable in what you are reading. “I’m writing in regard to the article that was in the paper last week” indicates that you are reading a letter to the editor, and talking trees are not expected in this genre. Genre guides your expectations.
Let’s look at how genre affects our reading of two related stories in the Bible. The first is Judges 9:8–15:
Once upon a time the trees decided to elect a king. First they said to the olive tree, “Be our king!” But it refused, saying, “Should I quit producing the olive oil that blesses both God and people, just to wave back and forth over the trees?”
Then they said to the fig tree, “You be our king!” But the fig tree also refused, saying, “Should I quit producing my sweet fruit just to wave back and forth over the trees?”
Then they said to the grapevine, “You be our king!” But the grapevine replied, “Should I quit producing the wine that cheers both God and people, just to wave back and forth over the trees?”
Then all the trees finally turned to the thornbush and said, “Come, you be our king!” And the thornbush replied, “If you truly want to make me your king, come and take shelter in my shade. If not, let fire come out from me and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”
Though this story is recorded in the Bible, few if any readers would believe that this conversation actually took place in real time and space between real trees and other plants. Why the disbelief? Genre. The NLT correctly discerns the presence of a fable here and clues the English reader in with “Once upon a time.” The talking plants are not characters in the narrative itself but are characters in a story being told by a character in the historical narrative. Jotham is telling a fable to make a point—much like Jesus told a parable to make a point.
A second text is Numbers 22:28–30, where we read the following conversation between a donkey and a man:
“What have I done to you that deserves your beating me these three times?” it asked Balaam.
“Because you have made me look like a fool!” Balaam shouted. “If I had a sword with me, I would kill you!”
“But I am the same donkey you always ride on,” the donkey answered. “Have I ever done anything like this before?”
“No,” he admitted.
Unlike our take on the previous story, we evangelicals affirm that this donkey talked to Balaam in real time and real space. Why the affirmation? Genre. Rather than being a character in a fable being told by a character in the narrative, this donkey is actually one of the characters in the narrative itself. The story of the talking donkey is a historical narrative, not a fable.
Why we believe that the talking trees are not historical and the talking donkey is can be answered in one word: genre. Genre determines what can and cannot be found in a particular piece of literature. Genre is important because genre guides our expectations.
In the following chapters we will study each of the big three genres. We will discover that each genre has its own typical flow of thought. Understanding the typical structure and content of each genre will be a great aid to your understanding of the individual psalms from those genres.
Genre is also important because genre provides an additional level of context. Context is essential for interpretation. To put it simply, context determines meaning. The same words in different contexts can have completely different meanings.
For example, what does the following sentence mean? “That’s a bad board.” Well, it all depends on the context in which these words are spoken. Imagine that you are at the local lumberyard and you overhear a customer say to a sales representative, “That’s a bad board.” Here “board” means lumber and “bad” means not good, as in cracked or crooked. Now imagine that you are at the beach and you overhear one of my sons say to a friend, “That’s a bad board.” In this context “board” means surfboard (made out of Styrofoam and fiberglass not lumber) and “bad” means very good. Same words but different meanings. Why different meanings? Different contexts. Context determines meaning. Context is essential for interpretation. The better we understand the context, the better we understand the text. Genre is one kind of context and so helps us understand the text.
What does “interpreting in context” mean? It means many things because there are many levels of context. Let’s take Psalm 47 as an example. First is the literary context provided by the surrounding psalms. In Psalm 46 the nations are in an uproar as they rage against Israel (46:6). Psalm 47 celebrates the subduing of these nations (47:3). And Psalm 48 recounts how the nations were turned back when they attacked Israel (48:4–5).
Second is the historical context of the conquest of Canaan, referred to in 47:3–4. The reference to the enemies being put “beneath our feet” (47:3) must be read in the context of Joshua 10:24: “Joshua told the captains of his army, ‘Come and put your feet on the kings’ necks.’ And they did as they were told.”
Third is the cultural context of the ancient Near East. In the ancient Near East there were many kings. Kings related to each other in a variety of ways. Sometimes, kings were on the same level and related as equals. At other times, one king held a superior position in the relationship. The superior king was the suzerain, and the lesser king was the vassal. The suzerain was known in the ancient Near East as the “Great King.” So Psalm 47:3 is not saying that the God of Israel is “a great king.” Rather, the psalm affirms that the Lord is the supreme king, “the Great King” of all the earth.
Fourth is the theological context of the entire Bible. When Psalm 47 celebrates God’s reign as the Great King over the nations, it anticipates the reign of King Jesus. Jesus was born into the royal family of David (Matthew 1:1; Romans 1:3). He was crucified as “King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). As the risen Lord he is now the “King of kings” who comes to rule the nations (Revelation 19:11–16).
Fifth is the context provided by genre. Psalm 47 is a song of praise, so it is helpful to study Psalm 47 in the context of other songs of praise. Psalm 47 is, however, a particular kind of song of praise, one that celebrates the kingship of God. Psalms 93 and 95–99 are also songs of praise that celebrate the kingship of God and are, therefore, helpful in gaining a better understanding of Psalm 47.
Genre is important because it guides our expectations and provides another level of context to deepen our understanding of the text. Genre is important for an additional reason. Genre is a window through which you can look more deeply into the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s return for a moment to the text with which I began this chapter:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 NIV)
The Apostle Paul encourages us to let “the word of Christ” saturate our lives by singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” The Greek words that Paul uses for “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs” are all used in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that Paul would have used. These three words are used in the titles to various psalms. So while “the word of Christ” includes more than the Psalms, the Psalms are “the word of Christ.” “The word of Christ” here would mean “the word spoken about Christ” in the first place and “the word spoken by Christ” in the second place.
When reading a psalm, it is helpful to read that psalm as speaking about Christ and to read it as being spoken by Christ. Each of these perspectives will yield different insights into any given psalm. We can use these two perspectives for the simple reason that, as the second person of the trinity, Christ is the Lord of the covenant to whom the Psalms are addressed by us and, as the Messiah, Christ is the servant of the covenant by whom the Psalms are voiced for us.
Each of the genres we are studying—songs of praise, lament, and thanksgiving—are different windows through which we can look to gain perspective on who Jesus is and what he has done for us. While the “about Christ” and “by Christ” perspectives help with each of these genres, the songs of praise lend themselves to the “about Christ” perspective, and the songs of laments and the songs of thanksgiving lend themselves to the “by Christ” perspective.
The study of genre is, therefore, not a sterile exercise. By learning to read the various psalms in keeping with their genres, you are going to see more of the richness of Christ, so that this richness will fill your life more and more.
Two major themes in the songs of praise are the praise of God as our Creator and the praise of God as our Redeemer. For example, Psalm 104:1, 24 praises God as our Creator:
Praise the LORD, I tell myself;
O LORD my God, how great you are! . . .
O LORD, what a variety of things you have made!
In wisdom you have made them all.
The earth is full of your creatures.
And 107:1–2 praises God as our Redeemer:
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good!
His faithful love endures forever.
Has the LORD redeemed you? Then speak out!
Tell others he has saved you from your enemies.
The New Testament presents Christ as both our Creator and our Redeemer. The Apostle John says that Jesus
created everything there is. Nothing exists that he didn’t make. (John 1:3)
And the Apostle Paul says that
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13 NIV)
So when we sing or read the songs of praise we are singing and reading about Christ our Creator, our Redeemer, our Shepherd, our King, our God.
David once cried out in agony:
My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?
Why do you remain so distant?
Why do you ignore my cries for help? (22:1)
Many of us have shared David’s thoughts and feelings along the path of life. While we may have felt terribly alone, we were never truly alone in those time, because Jesus was there with us. Jesus no doubt prayed the laments throughout his journey on this earth, as the author of Hebrews says:
While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him out of death. (Hebrews 5:7)
And Jesus prayed the laments most intensely on the cross, as Matthew says:
At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
So, when we sing or read the laments, we are singing and reading about Christ, who has gone before us and sung the laments for us.
Hebrews 5:7 says:
While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him out of death. And God heard his prayers because of his reverence for God.
God heard Jesus’ agonizing cry on the cross and redeemed him from death and hell by raising him from the dead. Jesus no doubt celebrated this deliverance with songs of thanksgiving. The author of Hebrews leads us to this conclusion, when he quotes Jesus as saying to the Father:
I will declare the wonder of your name to my brothers and sisters.
I will praise you among all your people. (Hebrews 2:12)
Here Jesus is reciting the words of thanksgiving, first recorded in Psalm 22:22. From this text we not only learn that Jesus sang the songs of thanksgiving for us, but that he now leads us as we too thank God for all that he has done and continues to do for us in answer to our prayers.
Understanding the genres of the Psalms guides your expectations, provides you an additional level of context, and gives you multiple windows through which you can look more deeply into who Jesus is and what he has done and continues to do for you. And this emphasis on Christ is by no means an exclusion of the Father and the Spirit. Rather, our focus on the Son in the Psalms is to the glory of the Father through the power of the Spirit, as the New Testament says:
Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill and control you. Then you will sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, making music to the Lord in your hearts. And you will always give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18–20)