Help For Reading The Psalms

“No man needs better company than the Psalms…Oh, to be shut up in a cave with David, with no other occupation but to hear him sing, and to sing with him! Well might a Christian monarch lay aside his crown for such enjoyment, and a believing pauper find a crown in such felicity.” – Charles H. Spurgeon, from The Treasury of David

One area of the Bible that I’ve been focused on of late is the Wisdom Books, particularly Ecclesiastes (which our church recently finished a series on) and the Psalms. I confess that outside of the Bible, I really haven’t read any poetry since college (and those were required courses 🙂 ). As much as I love reading them, the Psalms have always presented a challenge to me in getting the full benefit from them – what they say about God and ourselves, and how to apply them practically. So I started looking around at books that might help me to better understand this great book of the Bible, and recently came across Michael E. Travers’ Encountering God in the Psalms. This is quick review of it, which I just finished this week.

Dr. Travers states early on that, “The more we read the Psalms, the more we find that they contain every emotion we could ever experience. The psalms put our own deepest feelings into words, and when we read them we direct God’s words back to him” (p. 13). Travers then explains that if we’re to get the full meaning of the Psalms, we have to read them differently – as poetry and not as narrative (which I tend to forget at times). He then outlines the specific ways that poetry differs from other literature in the Bible:

1) Poetry communicates experience
2) The language of poetry is concentrated and heightened (less words but to great effect)
3) Poetry is consciously structured and patterned
4) Poetry uses figures of speech (similes, metaphors, personifications, etc.)

Dr. Travers then categorizes the Psalms into five different types or genres (Hymns, Laments, Royal Psalms, Thanksgiving Psalms, and Wisdom Psalms) and discusses what characteristics to look for in each. For example, Psalm 112 is a good example of a Wisdom Psalm, in that it contrasts the godly man (verses 2-9) with the ungodly man (verse 10), similar to what we often find in Proverbs.

Dr. Travers also encourages us to actively read the Psalms by asking questions of the Psalm. He gives these four as a basis when reading through a Psalm:

1) What is the overall effect of the Psalm ?
2) What is the structure of the Psalm ?
3) What are the figures of speech in the psalm, and what effects do they have ?
4) What are the themes and theology in the psalm ?

Dr. Travers then provides an application section (usually a few questions) after he analyzes the different psalms, which I found very helpful. He also has a chapter dealing with the often difficult Imprecatory Psalms, analyzing David’s Psalm 59. Dr. Travers also summarizes them in this way:

“The Imprecatory Psalms face us with the sobering reality that there are those who hate God and his grace in Jesus Christ. When we think of the price of our sin, the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God on the cross, we cannot impugn God’s justice in the Imprecatory Psalms. To find fault with God’s sovereignty tempts us to Satan’s sin and places us above God. The Imprecatory Psalms are an antidote to such presumption” (p. 238)

Dr. Travers’ book was a great eye-opener for me and has already helped in my reading of the Psalms. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to get a better understanding of how to read them. Next week in my Bible reading plan, we begin a three-week stay at the “Mount Everest” of the Psalms – Psalm 119. I feel a little better equipped for the climb now 🙂

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