Just before Thanksgiving in 2015, I was having lunch with a friend, and we were discussing how we teach our kids the gospel. He mentioned he was focusing on the Psalms since he realized the current generation of Christians might be the least “Psalms-literate” generation ever.
As I reflected later, his point hit home. For centuries faithful Israelites read, sung, and memorized the entire Psalter. Jesus likely knew all 150 Psalms by heart. For generations stretching back thousands of years, the Psalms have been the hymnbook of God’s people. Indeed, until recently, being part of the church for any length of time meant regular and systematic exposure to the Psalms.
So I decided to read through the Psalms once per month for a year. As I did, my eyes were opened to fresh depth and richness. Here are four reflections.
1. The Psalms are messianic.
From the blessed man who delights in God’s law (Ps. 1) to the Anointed One cast off and rejected (Ps. 89) now sitting at God’s right hand (Ps. 110), the Psalms tell the story of God’s people in the first person singular.
And this story finds its true meaning and ultimate fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. As we read the Psalms, Jesus’s sorrows, victories, and saving reign ring clear. If we are united to him, we share in all those experiences. The Psalms becomes our hymnbook and our prayers because they were first his hymnbook and his prayers.
2. The Psalms teach us God’s people have always suffered.
One of the central threads running through the Psalms is that Israel and her king must continue trusting their God in the face of suffering. Psalm 88 is the only one without a turn toward hope; it reminds us that some days will be bleak, and relief may not come quickly.
Psalm 2 teaches us that throughout history the earth’s kings will take their stand against the Lord and his anointed. He who sits in heaven laughs at everyone who opposes him, and his people will ultimately experience deliverance. This is why Jesus’s lament on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1), is an expression of hope that God has not hidden his face, but has heard his anointed’s cry and answered him (Ps. 22:24).
3. God’s promise of redemption is not far from the surface in the Psalms.
The Messiah suffered in hope because he knew his suffering was the way God would redeem his people from slavery to sin and death.
As you read through the Psalms you’ll see repeated pictures, symbols, and reminders of God’s salvation for his people and judgment on his enemies. For example, Psalm 78 tells the story of God’s unrelenting faithfulness to rescue the Israelites from Egypt and bring them into the land he promised. Although they continued to rebel, God chose David to shepherd his people—and through the greater David, the Lord would one day redeem them.
Again and again, the Psalms point Israel back to God’s mighty works in the exodus (Pss. 18:20; 80:8; 105:37; 136:11). And these reminders anticipate the second exodus, when God would deliver his people from slavery to sin and death through the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
4. The Psalms remind us of God’s sovereign glory and call us to praise him.
The Lord is the sovereign ruler over everything: “Our God is in the heavens, he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). Because of this, he is worthy of all praise and glory.
God will redeem his people through the Messiah, and this should drive us toward worship. I think this is why the Psalms close with a crescendo that is an increasingly loud call to praise (Pss. 146–50). We encounter an almost deafening cry to praise the Lord with trumpets, tambourines, dancing, shouting, and crashing cymbals. The book ends with the summons for everything that has breath to praise the Lord (Ps. 150:6). When we see God’s sovereign glory and salvation through the suffering of his Messiah, there is no other fitting response.
Enrich Your Life
After spending a year getting to know the Psalms better, I couldn’t agree more with N. T. Wright’s conclusion that, while we should compose new hymns and songs, “to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy.”
If you don’t know the Psalter well, try spending a month or two or 12 in the Psalms. To read the Psalms in a month you’ll need to read about five per day. Most are pretty short, which should leave time for prayer, reflection, and reading elsewhere in the Scriptures.
Even on the day you read the 176 verses of Psalm 119, it won’t kill you.
Let’s join with God’s people through the millennia and again learn to sing the songs of the Messiah.