The Amazing, Mysterious Psalms

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Psalms in the last few years, and every time I study them I see more. That’s the basis of these seven studies, which have been field-tested in my own small group. They start with thoroughly unmodern topics we usually gloss over, such as the king, or the absolute difference between the righteous and the wicked. They go on to Anne Lamott’s three types of prayer (I love this list): Thanks, Help, and Wow! And they end with two psalms that, though adjacent in the psalmbook, take opposite approaches to the assessment of trouble.

Feel free to spread these…. You should be able to copy them and print at home.

Seven Studies on the Psalms

Study 1: The Righteous and the Wicked

We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?

Psalm 1
1. What does the blessed person not do? Why?
2. What does the blessed person do? Why?
3. What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
4. The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
5. How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
6. According to v. 6 what is God’s role?

Psalm 10
7. According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
8. The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
9. Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
10. Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
11. What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
12. According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?

Psalm 11
13. Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
14. What is God actually doing?
15. What will God do?
16. What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
17. Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
18. What is the reward for the righteous?

Study 2: Who Are These People?

Even when the psalms focus on an individual’s relationship to God, they do so in the context of the nation of Israel. When the past is described, it is less likely to be about a personal decision to follow God, than about God’s act of claiming his people in the exodus. In the present, not only individuals are called to worship God, the congregation of Israel is urged to worship. The future, as we shall see, belongs to the people of God.

Psalm 47
1. Verses 1-4 call on the nations of the world to joyfully celebrate God’s greatness, which is expressed in his special treatment of Israel, putting the nations under their feet. What kind of people want the rest of the world to celebrate their own subjugation?
2. What else should the nations celebrate? (v.4)
3. Why did God love Jacob (v. 4)? Why does he treat Israel so well?
4. Verses 4-6 accelerate the praise for God as King over all the earth. What circumstances would make people find this a source of such extravagant delight?
5. Verses 8-9 describe the great apocalyptic throne scene, where the king is surrounded by all those who serve him. What is the great surprise? What does this say about Israel’s understanding of the pride expressed in verses 1-4? What are the dangers of this mindset? What are the strengths?
6. Note the final line of the poem. What is the significance of that?
7. If the church is the renewed Israel, how can we apply this poem to ourselves? Can we really take joy in God’s favoring of us? Can we joyfully appreciate the kind of future assembly that is described?

Psalm 50
1. As with psalm 47, this poem begins with a summons of the whole earth. What is the purpose of this assembly?
2. On what basis does God judge his people?
4. Why would God clarify that he has no charges to make against Israel for their sacrifices? What kind of mindset is he correcting?
5. What kind of behavior does he want to see? What kind of relationship? (v. 14,15)
6. The psalm seems to turn to a different category of people–the wicked. Are these Israelites? How do you know? (v. 16, 17)
7. What behavior is condemned?
7. What is the thought behind these actions? (verse 21)
8. What, exactly, do Israelites need to know? What do they need to do? What does this tell us about Israel’s self-understanding?
9. If we are the renewed Israel, how does this scolding apply to us?

Study 3: The King

The psalms that translate easily into our modern life are personal cries: “help,” “thanks,” “praise God.” Others are not so easy to relate to–for example, those that call for judgment on enemies, those that remember the history of Israel, those that revere Jerusalem and the Temple, and those that revere the king.

The king is crucial to Israel’s hopes. The psalms make it obvious that Israelites think not only individually, as we do, but as a nation. The king embodies their national identity. In that simple fact, you have the kernel of the expectation of the messiah. For “messiah” is simply another way to say, “king.”

Psalm 132
1. In 1-9, what is David (the great king) remembered for? Why is this significant?
2. From the prayer of verse 10, what can you speculate about the situation that propels this psalm?
3. What promises of God are remembered in 11-18? Which are for the king? Which are for the nation?
4. How is the king’s welfare related to the nation’s welfare?
5. If Jesus is the promised Messiah, how does this relate to us?

Psalm 2
1. What is the problem presented in vv. 1-2? Does this have any contemporary reality?
2. What are the kings of the earth calling for?
3. What is God’s response?
4. What has God done? What will he do?
5. What is his relationship to the king of Israel?
6. What should the kings of the earth do? (Note that they can maintain a continued existence.)
7. Has anything changed from the time this psalm was written to today?

Psalm 45
1. What is the occasion of this psalm?
2. In the description of the king (vv. 2-9) what strikes you most?
3. Does it seem odd that the king is addressed as God and that his throne is said to last forever? (v. 6a) Is this just highfalutin’ rhetoric?
4. If the description of the king is climbing higher and higher, why does it end with the gold-decked bride? (v. 9)
5. What advice for the bride on her wedding day? (vv. 10-11) Given that the situation for women in those days is very different from today, is this good advice for her situation? Why or why not?
6. What is the bride told her future is like? What has she done to deserve this?
7. What New Testament passages does this illuminate for you? In particular, what does it say about the church as the bride of the messiah?

Study 4: Praising God

The psalms teach us how to pray–both how to lament and how to rejoice, for they speak about the highs and lows of life, always very actively involved with God as a real and personal presence.

Psalm 33
1. The psalm starts with six imperatives. What are they? Do you do this? When and how?
2. What is the place of music in prayer? Do you use music in your prayers? How?
4. In giving reasons for praise, verses 4,5 speak of God’s character: what he is, how he does what he does, what he loves, how he “fills the earth” as someone (we might say) fills a room. Which of these attributes strikes you most, and why?
5. Verses 6-9–on what do they focus? Why should this make us fear God and revere him? (verse 8)
6. Why does God want to thwart the plans of nations? (v. 10)
7. Why are God’s plans superior? What quality of those plans does the psalmist point out, and why is it valuable. (v. 11)
8. Who is blessed, and why?
9. Verses 13-19 portray God as watching or observing everything on earth. How does he differentiate those he loves and protects and blesses? What does he see in them?
10. The psalmist claims that there is no salvation in great armies, personal strength, or horse power. This goes against everything known in the annals of warfare. How would he justify it?
11. What is the psalmist’s closing petition and how does it relate to what he has previously said?
12. How would you sum up the psalmist’s vision of God? Does it seem to be a good reason to praise him exuberantly, as in verses 1-3? Does this accord with your vision of God?
13 Do you learn anything about prayer from this psalm?

Study 5: Prayers from Desperation

Anne Lamott’s book on prayer is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Last week we did Thanks, and now we turn to Help!

Psalm 17
1. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? (v. 1-5) What is he actually claiming about himself?
2. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
3. What kind of help does the psalmist want for himself? What does he want for his enemies?
4. How does he describe his enemies? Can you relate? Where does one encounter such enmity today?
5. What is the psalmist’s ultimate hope? What does this have to do with his situation?

Psalm 25
1. The fear of shame preoccupies this psalm. (v. 1-3, 20) What is shame and why is it so terrible?
2. On what basis does the psalmist appeal for help? What is he actually claiming about himself?
3. Do you ever pray this way? Why or why not?
4. What kind of help does the psalmist ask for to begin with? (v. 4-5)
5. What are God’s “ways?” What exactly is he asking God to do for him?
6. From a consideration of help in the future, the psalmist turns to the past. (v. 6,7) What does he want God to remember? What does he want him to forget? What does it mean to ask God “not to remember?”
7. The psalmist returns to considering the future (mostly) in verses 8-14. What more do you learn about God’s ways?
8. What are some characteristics of those who benefit from knowing God’s ways?
9. In the final section (v 15-21) the psalmist sticks to the present. What do you learn about his situation? Do you identify?
10. What does he want God to do for him? Do you identify? On what basis does he appeal?
11. Why is v. 22 stuck on there?

Study 6: From “Thanks” and “Help” we turn to “Wow.”

Psalm 29
1. What function do verses 1 and 2 accomplish in the poem? Where is God to receive glory?
2. What qualities are deemed pre-eminent in those verses?
3. In Psalm 19 the heavens declare the glory of God. What speaks in verses 3-9? How does it speak?
4. The identification of God’s voice with the sound of thunder treads on the edge of pantheism. Is the storm God? If not, how can it have God’s voice?
5. Why does verse 9b bring the temple into it? What does the human voice add to the picture?
6. What are the implications of God’s magnificent glory for us, according to vv 10 and 11?

Psalm 46
1. In vv 1-3, the shaking of mountains and the roar of water are not a signal of God’s presence, as in Psalm 29. What do they stand for? What do they mean to you?
2. What is God in relation to them? How does that affect us?
3. What do verses 4-5 refer to?
4. How can God be identified with a city?
5. What are the external threats to a city? Can you name some contemporary examples?
6. Verse 7 is repeated in verse 11, and seems to be a significant statement. What does it mean?
7. How would you describe the picture of vv. 9 and 10? Is this present or future?
8. With this psalm in mind, how would you interpret the phrase, “a personal relationship with God?” What is personal?

Study 7: Dealing with Trouble

You may have heard it said that God is both the master of everything that happens, including bad things, and also the one who intervenes to help us with bad things. Thus some Calvinists will say that when a tree falls down and crushes a little girl, we should praise God for his mysterious goodness. Others, horrified, will ask why God didn’t intervene to stop the tree from falling. They can’t believe God would ever want (or even allow) such a terrible thing to happen.
While not exactly confronting such issues, these two psalms show very different sensibilities about trouble that comes into our lives. Lots to think about!

Psalm 90
1. What attributes of God does the psalmist (Moses?) pay attention to?
2. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
3. What is the quality of our lives, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
4. What does the prayer of verse 12 mean?
5. Apart from teaching us to number our days, what does the psalmist ask God to do?
6. Some of the psalmist’s requests have to do with seeing God’s love and splendor. How does this fit with the earlier, bleaker experiences?
6. What is the end result the psalmist asks for? What is God’s place in this?

Psalm 91
1. The psalmist begins with qualifications. What kind of life will experience the benefits that the psalm names?
2. Verses 3-7 use metaphor to convey threats and also protection. Which of these metaphors do you relate to best? What do they specifically convey about danger?
3. Are verses 9-10 truth or hyperbole? Why do you think so?
4. Satan quoted verse 11-12 to Jesus. (Luke 4:10-11) How did he distort its meaning? (Or did he?)
5. How does this God interact with our lives? with our sins? with our troubles?
5. What kind of experience can we expect if we are faithful, according to this psalm? Do you resonate with this? Why or why not?
6. What is the end result the psalmist says is promised? What is God’s place in this?
General questions: 1. We all pray to God in time of trouble. Which of these psalms do you relate to best? Which is truer to your experience?
2. Why do you think these two psalms are in the Bible together?


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One Response to “The Amazing, Mysterious Psalms”

  1. Andy Rowell Says:

    Tim, this is good stuff. I am teaching “Leading Congregational Worship” this fall at Bethel Seminary and using Eugene Peterson’s Answering God–having students be formed by the Psalms as an example of how worship works–and will come back to this.

    I see your blog posts in my RSS feeder but I think you would enjoy Twitter. I know it is known popularly for being superficial but actually it is where writers and thoughtful people like yourself thrive it is where sharp people share what they are reading and interesting links to read on the internet.

    It is pretty easy to set up an account. It is free. Just your name, brief description of yourself, photo of yourself. I follow quite a few of your Christianity Today friends so you might start “following” some of the people I follow: I recommend: Andy Crouch, Alan Jacobs, Dan Reid, and John Wilson. Just pick the people you already know and like to follow. With Twitter, you really don’t need to check it unless you want to. Nor should you follow everyone who follows you. Nor do you need to post to it. But when you do post something on your blog, it makes sense to summarize it briefly and post the link in a tweet. Twitter is more simple than Facebook. Facebook only shows other people what its logarithm wants to show them. In Twitter, you see everything those who you follow post. It is straightforward. Not much downside and it is hard to beat seeing what people you respect are reading and recommendation. Just an invitation!

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