Folk Psalms

One of my favorite folk songs is The Lonesome Death of Poor Hattie Carroll by Bob Dylan. It is written about an injustice that took place in 1963. Supposedly, Dylan read about the event in the newspaper and wrote the song in a diner. It’s a beautiful song written about real life and it changed a lot of people’s views on some social justice issues.

One of the great things about reading David’s Psalms is that many times they are real stories that we know about. One professor called these the “psalms of experience.” Though they are full of doctrine, the Psalms are not primarily a textbook on theology. Many of them are real songs David wrote while on the run. In the Psalms, truths become part of us as we engage in the stories and then read the songs. When we see someone else take God at His word and come out on the other side of trust, it can encourage us to do the same. We can read Psalms of hope, of fear, of doubt, of intense joy, of forgiveness, of disappointment, of danger, of despair, of solitude, of contemplation. There are so many Psalms that cover all ranges of emotions and plunge from one mood to another.

Look at Psalm 57 for example. The superscription says this Psalm was written when David had “fled from Saul in to the cave” (I Samuel 22:1; 24:3). This was a time when King Saul and his army were chasing David to put him to death. The Psalm cries out that this is the story of a man who was one step away from death. This is real drama. Seems like a country song I know called “El Paso.”

As David cries out to God for mercy, he expresses strong confidence in God’s ability to deliver him. He trusts in his faithful God, “I cry out to God Most High, to God, who fulfills his purpose for me” (vs. 2). There is a mixture of humble pleading and quiet trust in God’s power. It is reminiscent of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). These prayers teach us in a deep way, that following Jesus will take us through valleys and allow us to come out on the other side changing us into a Christ like character.

One more thing about this Psalm before I am done. If you notice the chorus in vs.5 and vs.11, “Be exalted, O God, about the heaven; let your glory be over all the earth,” David is not only praising God, but teaching us a very important thing to remember when we are going through tough times. The ultimate story of the world is not just about God’s power to rescue, or His faithful love that guides, but it’s also about His supreme importance. This is more important to David than whether he gets out of the cave or not. And when our perspective lines up with this truth - that this is God’s story not ours and It’s not about us, it’s all about Him - then hitting “pots in the road” will no longer knock us off of the path He has laid before us.

Tips for Reading- (Interpretation tip #12)

Note: This section is help for Bible Reading in general. It has been building throughout the year under the topics of Observation (what the Scripture says), Interpretation (what it means) and Application (what it means to your life). Feel free to look back over past weeks to get the whole picture.

For the next few weeks we are going to look at how to decipher figurative terms, which of course are all over the Psalms. First of all, what’s the difference between “literal” and “figurative?” This is important because sometimes cults take real teachings in the scripture and say they are just figurative. So how can you know? When you are looking for literal interpretation it means taking the language in its normal sense. This means accepting it at face value as if the writer is communicating in ways that people normally communicate. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the door,” you don’t need to look for hinges and a doorknob it simply means he is the pathway into a new place. When he says, “render to Caesars the things that are Caesar’s,” you don’t have to look for hidden meaning. He is simply telling us to pay our taxes.

But when plain sense doesn’t make common sense here’s a rule to follow (The rest will follow in the next weeks). Don’t assume there is a deeper spiritual meaning than the one that is obvious. We have to assume that the writers were normal, rational people who communicated in the same basic way that we do today. So many people “spiritualize” the text, trying to make it say everything but what is plainly says. Like for example, the book Song of Solomon. It has been taken to symbolize Christ and the Church and other things. But there is a very simple interpretation, that gets a lot closer to what is was intended to mean - it is a book that celebrates love in a marriage. This principle will help you so much as you continue listening to God as you read through His word.

Notes from David’s Journal

Instead of this week commenting on the Psalms, let's do something different. As you read through the Psalms, please remember they weren't meant to be read, but instead sung. They are hymns, mostly written by David, a few by Asaph and one from Moses! Notice their lyrics. Hold the pages like you'd hold a hymnal, Israel's 150 different hymns that express the greatness of God, His love for His covenant people and their response to His love. Some of these Psalms have been put to music. In fact, look for a few of them and start singing along! It's how they were meant to be read, uh, sung...all for God's glory in worship!

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AuthorAlexander Vijay Smith
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