Reading Psalms in context

Each Psalm is set in Israel’s story, within the macro-story of God’s kingdom.

I love the Psalms. They help me voice my hopes and struggles to God. It’s so personal: the word I is there some 800 times, about 5 times a Psalm.

But there’s a bigger story in the Psalms too. I miss that global scope of God’s activity if I treat every I as me, the reader. The very first I in Psalms is God, and he says, I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain (2:6).

In the Psalms we discover ourselves as the human community in God’s care. We present our struggles to the sovereign Lord who leads us. We celebrate his power over us, his enduring sovereign authority. At the heart of the Psalms is the declaration, The Lord reigns!

Hearing Psalms in context is crucial. That’s harder with songs than stories, so the compilers stepped in to help us. Three quarters of the Psalms (116 of 150) provide some context before verse 1. (We call this the title; in the Hebrew text this is verse 1.)

Whose voice?

Psalm 3 is the first to provide this context. The title reads:
A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.

That means the I in Psalm 3 is the Davidic king’s voice. He’s responding to God’s declaration in the previous Psalm:

  • The Lord said, I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain (2:6).
  • The king says, I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain (3:4).

It revolutionizes how you read the Psalms when you realize they’re not primarily about me fighting off my enemies. We’re hearing the voice of the God-anointed king as he intercedes for his people. This doesn’t make the Psalms less personal; it makes them more interpersonal. We’re connected to each other with a shared identity as God’s people — the kingdom of God’s Anointed who leads his people and intercedes for us to know the life his Father has decreed.

But despite God’s amazing decree (3:1-6), David was in trouble, crying out for God to rescue him (3:7-8). Foreign enemies are bad enough, but here it’s his own people, his own family, his own son.

God anointed David, but Absalom stole the kingship and exiled his father from Jerusalem. The tragedy of David’s collapsing family dominates the last half of 2 Samuel. The title of Psalm 3 provides the context: the apparent failure of David’s kingdom.

Because God does not force his decrees on the world, the rulers of the nations grasp power that is not theirs, and God’s kingdom can fall from within. That’s our struggle in the short term, though we’re convinced that the God whose power is expressed in weakness knows how to save his world. It’s what our king relies on: From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people (3:8).

Isn’t this thrilling? The I of Psalm 3 isn’t just me calling out to God for help. We’re living a shared identity as the people of God, the kingdom of God’s anointed who prays for his people, leads us, and ultimately rescues God’s world.

The kingdom narrative

Each Psalm is a complete song with its own context, but they’re also arranged to tell a story. We saw how Psalm 3 responds to Psalm 2. Our prayers on earth (Psalm 3) rely on what God decreed in heaven (Psalm 2). Because the Lord reigns and has raised up his anointed to lead us, we live as his kingdom on earth, the community in his care.

But as Psalm 3 (and 2 Samuel) make clear, living in God’s unforced reign is nothing like the kingdoms of the world. Israel included all the highs and lows of that experience, and they arranged the Psalms as five books to tell their story:

  • Book I introduces the kingdom established under David’s kingship (Psalms 1–41).
  • Book II leads us further under the Davidic dynasty (Psalms 42–72).
  • Book III sees the kingdom break apart, and both parts fall (Psalms 73–89).
  • Book IV declares that, despite their failure, the Lord still reigns (Psalms 90–106).
  • Book V calls the Lord’s people to praise the one who is cosmic king forever (Psalms 107–150).

As you’d expect, Davidic Psalms dominate the first two books (56 of 72). As the kingdom falls, they almost disappear from the next two books (3 of 34). Unexpectedly, Davidic Psalms reappear in the story of return from exile, Book V (15 of 44).

So perhaps of David doesn’t mean from “the pen of David” as we might expect. In our culture, we’re interested in the individual who wrote the song and should collect the royalty, but Hebrew collectivist culture focused on royalty of a different kind. Of David meant: to do with the kingship, the Davidic dynasty appointed by God to rule for ever as the earthly agency of his heavenly reign (compare 2 Samuel 7:11-16).

If that’s right, the voice we hear in the Davidic Psalms is not limited to the individual in the tenth century BC who was the fountainhead of the kings of Judah. The Davidic voice persisted in his descendants as the house of David continued to express the divinely appointed kingship in each generation. It’s more like of Windsor than of Charles III, but in a culture that didn’t use surnames.

And that’s why the return of the Davidic voice in Book V is so exciting. The Chronicler also collated his story after the return from exile, and he too was preoccupied with the reign of David and his wise son at the time when God’s people were still living under foreign rule.

Ezekiel had expressed the same hope in exile. God would yet provide a “David” to shepherd his people, a Davidic king to lead them as the servant of the heavenly sovereign: my servant David (Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25).


To read the Psalms in context:

  • Benefit from any clues in the title and recognize whose voice we’re hearing.
  • See how the Psalm is structured, the poetic parallels where one line explains another, and how the stanzas (strophes) develop its story of lament and praise.
  • Recognize how a Psalm fits into the book as a whole, the unfolding story of how God’s reign is established even as his kingdom struggles.

The kingdom story is still incomplete at the end of the Old Testament, for the promise of the Davidic king remained unfulfilled. But the hope was very much alive, living on in Book V. Maybe we could take that approach to the final Davidic Psalm (145) in a future post.

In the meantime, the Psalms keep calling us to celebrate YHWH’s reign (hallelujah) in a world where other powers want to take over. What could be more relevant for the people of God who recognize both God’s reign and the struggles we face?

What others are saying

Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 73:

As we read the Psalms as Christians, two errors need to be avoided. The first is that we neglect a psalm’s original setting. Messianic psalms, in an exclusively narrow sense, do not exist.

The second error, though, is to miss the anticipation, the expectation of the Psalms. The New Testament transforms our understanding of the Psalms as we read it in the light of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms, electronic edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013):

[Modernity’s] main assault on the Psalms took the form of discarding the titles. It was argued that the titles were later additions to the text and were therefore worthless as a guide to the authorship of psalms or their content. At a stroke they were no longer the psalms of David or Asaph or the sons of Korah, dating from the time of the early monarchy — i.e., tenth century BC — but anonymous compositions mostly from the postexilic era down to the Maccabean era, roughly 500 to 150 BC. By writing off the titles in this way, skeptics eliminated the clearest marks of order in the Psalter. In the Psalms’ final form the sequence of titles does point to careful arrangement. …

It seems to me probable that the editors of the Psalter did hope for a revival of the Davidic house. They were not expecting just a spiritual reign of God without tangible results. In other words, they read the royal psalms as prophecies, not just as prayers for the old Davidic house that God had failed to answer.

William P. Brown, “The Psalms: An Overview,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4, 7:

Psalms 1–89 were established in their current order prior to the subsequent psalms. The thematic (and dramatic) shift from earthly to divine kingship is facilitated by Psalm 89, which recounts God’s “eternal” promise to David and his dynasty in verses 2–38[1–37] (cf. 2 Sam. 7) but then in a blistering counter testimony charges God with abandoning the earthly monarchy and thereby breaching covenant (vv. 39–52[38–51]). Psalm 89, consequently, paves the way for the subsequent psalms that laud God’s exclusive kingship over Israel, the nations, and the cosmos. …

Fundamentally, as the royal psalms informed Jesus’ messianic lordship through the figure of King David (e.g., Psalms 2; 110), so the lament psalms in particular helped to elucidate the suffering and death of God’s messiah.

Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston, and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 195–196:

The psalmist is an embattled monarch: his numerous foes attack him ([Psa 3] v. 1), are deployed to encircle him (v. 6), and speak disdainful words against him (v. 2; cf. 2 Kings 18:19–35; Pss. 42:3; 44:13–16; 74:18; 79:10; 89:41). But the king, in whose salvation is wrapped up the blessing of the people (v. 8), finds I AM his shield who lifts his head high above the surging foe (v. 3); prays that I AM “arise,” “deliver” him, and “strike” the bestial enemy (v. 7); and proclaims “victory” (v. 8), all of which sound like battle cries. It is gratuitous to suppose that an ordinary, pious Israelite is employing martial language coined from royal battles to express his own situation, which is altogether different.

Michael Barber, Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2001), 85–86:

Book I is clearly dominated by David and seems to end with his death. Books II-III, then, portray the fall of the kingdom and the taking of Israel into exile. This climaxes in Psalm 89, which seems to tell about the fall of the king and the failure of the Davidic covenant.

Following this, therefore, Book IV concentrates on the New Exodus out of exile and the restoration of the kingdom. It concludes with a summary of salvation history up to the return from exile. Finally, Book V represents the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, wherein the restored tribes of Israel are united with the nations on Mount Zion praising the Lord.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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