How We Taught This Lesson in the Past: Lesson 25: “Let Every Thing that Hath Breath Praise the Lord”
Lesson 25: “Let Every Thing that Hath Breath Praise the Lord”
The lesson in our current manual provides for only a taste of the beauty and poetry of the Psalms, suggesting that the class focus on Psalms that testify of the Savior. Additional teaching ideas suggest discussing the Psalms in terms of latter-day hymns and as poetry. Roy A. Welker, Spiritual Values of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: LDS Department of Education, 1952), a work prepared for the seminaries of the church, offers four chapters on the Psalms: an overview, and three chapters examining various themes. (I wish I could reproduce all four chapters here, but the introductory one will have to suffice.)
The Books of Poetry: Psalms
The books that constitute this division of the Old Testament are designated as the Poetical books including Psalms and the Song of Songs, sometimes called the Song of Solomon. By far the most important of the two is Psalms although the Song of Songs has its own worth, too.
The name “Psalms” is a transliteration of the Greek title of the book, and signifies “songs accompanied by stringed instruments.” In Hebrew the word means “praises,” a term fitting it well as so many of the poems are praises to Jehovah.
In treating the Psalms, we are dealing with the finest collection of Hebrew verse. Some writers declare it to be the finest collection of poetry in the world. There is, however, a great deal more poetry scattered throughout the Old Testament than that found in the Psalms; and if this body of poetry were taken out of its context and joined to it, the whole would form an excellent and impressive anthology. Yet standing alone, Psalms has nothing wanting in poetic art. It forms a complete body of poetry – and it is wholly poetry. Other books in the Old Testament are either prose or part prose and fit better into some other classifications than that of poetry only.
The Psalms have always been popular and bid fair to remain so for a long time to come. Reasons for their popularity will appear as we proceed with our study of them.
Division into Books. At quite an early date the book of Psalms, as we know it, was divided into five books, each containing a number of poems. The various books are listed below:
Book I. – Chapters 1-41
Book II. – Chapters 42-72
Book III. – Chapters 73-89
Book IV. – Chapters 90-106
Book V. – Chapters 107-150
The contents of these books vary widely as do the poems comprising each book.
In Book I intensity of feeling toward many experiences of life is to be noted. Sorrow and joy, bitter disappointment, exultation for God’s blessings, sound judgment concerning right and wrong, praise of the glory of God and his handiwork, together with the thoughts of the future life, all are in evidence in various degrees of understanding and appreciation.
The themes of Book II are less well defined than those of Book I, yet a few are clearly discernible. Prayers for God’s help for the person uttering them are quite frequent. Thanksgiving is prevalent. One pleasing feature is the high tone of spirituality revealed here and there. The Messianic hope is in evidence and one poem, the 45th, is a fine ode on marriage.
In the Psalms of Book III, one becomes conscious of the Jew’s thought of God in history and of his love and concern for the Jewish nation. There is also, in some of the poems, an expression of concern regarding the prosperity of the wicked – this especially to be noted in the 73rd Psalm. The justice of God, the character of God, just treatment of the poor, are also ideas expressed in the Psalms of Book III.
A peculiar feature of Book IV is that so many of its Psalms are anonymous. Some, however, are ascribed to David. The Messianic hope is found in this book as in Book II and the spirit of repentance, thanksgiving and worship is found pervading the whole.
Book V is marked by a distinctive characteristic. In it is assembled an array of songs, hymns and doxologies such as are found in no other collection of poetry and the spirit of praise reaches a grand and fitting climax to the whole Book of Psalms.
Authorship, Titles, Time of Writing. The Psalms, themselves, indicate their authorship. One hundred and one are ascribed to seven different writers, leaving forty-nine with no authorship mentioned. These writers are:
1. Moses, “the man of God”: Psalm 90 – One
Psalms 3-9, 11-32, 34-41 in Book I
Psalms 51-65, 68-70 in Book II
Psalm 86 in Book III
Psalms 101, 103 in Book IV
Psalms 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138-145 in Book V
In all, 73 ascribed to David
3. Solomon: Psalms 72, 127 – Two.
4. Asaph: Psalms 50, 73-83 – Twelve in all.
5. Heman, the Ezrahite: Psalm 88 – One (one of two titles).
6. Ethan, the Ezrahite: Psalm 89 – One.
7. The Sons of Korah: Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 88. In all, 11. Those ascribed to the Sons of Korah are among the most beautiful in the Psaltery.
Most, but not all, of the Psalms have titles. The object of these titles seems to be:
1. Partly to define their character.
2. Partly to state the name of the author.
3. Partly to reveal the occasion upon which it is supposed to have been composed.
4. Partly to notify the manner in which the Psalms were performed musically in the public services of the temple.
Such knowledge was, no doubt, of considerable advantage to the Jews of early times to designate this or that Psalm chosen for a specific occasion or circumstance. We do similarly today with some of our classical productions, poems or masterpieces of music. This information is valuable to us now as furnishing some historical background and character of the poems. None of the titles themselves are to be regarded as a part of the Psalm and most of them were formed after the Psalms to which they are attached were written. There are thirty-four Psalms that have no titles and these the Jews called “Orphans.”
When the various poems were written is not clear, and authorities differ in their conclusions upon the question. The date of their production is of little consequence when compared with their spiritual and religious values. However, it can reasonably be said that some are of very early date, going back to 1,000 B.C. or perhaps earlier, while others give evidence of having been written as late as the fourth or third century B.C. This means that several centuries witnessed their production. For that reason they are varied in character and rich in their record and expression of human experience. There must have been many, many more fine utterances than have comedown to us during those long years, but because they were not representative of the common life of the race or of the ages, they fell out somewhere along the road. Only the best ones survived. These we are grateful to have. Like gold that is purged by the heat of the furnace fires, so our Psalms have been purged in the furnace of time from the dross that cluttered them.
Classification According to Subjects. There are but few of life’s experiences that are not recorded in Psalms. For that reason one may think it would be difficult carefully to classify them according to subject matter. Nevertheless a classification is possible and profitable. The following outline is given as a guide to the reader who wishes to enjoy their rich content:
1. Meditations of the providence of God: 8, 19, 33, 36. 65, 103, 104, 107, 145, 147.
2. Contemplation of God’s orderly government of the world: 1, 34, 37, 49, 73, 75, 77, 90, 92, 112.
3. Revealing faith, appreciation of God, etc.: 11, 16, 23, 24, 26, 27, 62, 63, 84, 91, 121, 127, 128, 130, 131, 133, 139.
4. Expressing praise of God’s law: 19, 119.
5. Prayers or petitions for help, as in persecution, sickness, remittance of sin through forgiveness, etc.: 3-7, 9, 12, 17, 22.
6. National Psalms: 14, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 82, 83, 85, 94, 102, 108, 123, 137.
7. Psalms historical in character: 78, 81, 105, 106, 114.
8. Psalms that show relation to the king: 2, 18, 20, 28, 45, 61, 63, 72, 89, 101, 132.
Other classifications have been made in which the Psalms have been designated as those of Adoration, Reflection, Thanksgiving, Worship, Imprecatory, Penitential, Petition, Royal Psalms, those concerning the universal reign of the Lord, Messianic Psalms, etc.
All this indicates the tremendous scope of experience covered by this challenging book.
Forms of Poetry. Every age has some kind of measured forms, such as meter, verse, feet, etc., used to express its ideas and emotions. These forms, rigid or free, are found in all art – poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture. In some of these arts of expression, modern folk excel; in others they seem to lag. In literary art, no people have surpassed the Hebrews; in some respects not even equalled them. They used the same forms of poetry that we use, but frequently with greater power and effectiveness. Their songs, which must have been almost numberless, for there are so many preserved for us, are among the world’s finest. Their hymns are not only pregnant with worship but possess a dignity that invites a sense of awe as they direct our minds toward God. Their anthems are deeply impressive. Their doxologies are models for all that have ever been produced. This is particularly true of the 150th, the grand finale of the whole book.
Many lyrics of the book almost sing themselves, as all good lyrics should, yet there are few outside this grand selection that so stir the soul’s desire to sing as these do. Odes occur less frequently than the lyrics but when they do, they mount to heights of emotion from which they invited others up to their standards. Elegies are comparatively few but some are impressive as we shall see in a succeeding chapter.
A quality of all these forms of poetry, that deserves mention, is freedom from restricting rules that bind ready expression of thought such as, for instance, are found in the heroic couplet of the classical school of Alexander Pope and his contemporaries. To read the Psalms, therefore, is not so wearisome as to read poems shaped in moulds of rigid rule. Let this fact, too, be noted in a later chapter.
Use of the Psalms. The book does not indicate all the uses made of the one hundred fifty poems composing it. We can infer, however, with a measure of certainty, some of their uses. Without doubt the greatest number were utilized for public worship. Public worship was practiced from wilderness times and the fervent character of the Hebrew devotion demanded a medium that would adequately express that devotion. The Psalms provided the medium. Such as were used for public worship, therefore, may be regarded as the product of that religious life that inspired them.
Another use to which some of them was put was that of celebrating national events and other matters of local interest. The inauguration of a king or the triumph over an enemy or the sorrow resulting from some disaster, all have their appropriate Psalms. One who reads them cannot miss those that fit such circumstances.
While the Psalms used for public worship or for celebrating national or historical events embrace the greatest number, there are others that do not fit into these two groups. They are more appropriate for private reading and contemplation. They provide comfort for those in distress; they stir appreciation for God’s concern for His children or His abundant blessings; they inspire a desire for better living; they create a vision of a future better day. The uses of this third group are perhaps as important to us today as they were in those distant days of Israel. They represent and deal with truths that know no alteration in any of the social or economic or political changes of the ages.
Accompanying Musical Instruments. It is, of course, evident that the music originally used with the Psalms was not so good as the music of today, yet when the great choruses of men or of women, or both, “sang out their glad refrain,” it must have been impressive nonetheless; or when solo was balanced against solo, as seems frequently to have been the case, listeners were without doubt thrilled.
Then, as now, musical instruments were used to accentuate the effect of singing. Several of these are mentioned frequently throughout the book and some in such a way as to reveal their importance. The names of these instruments are familiar to us now, but considerable changes have occurred in their structure with the passing of time. They are as follows:
1. Strings: harp (the lyre), psaltery (the harp).
2. Wind: the flute, the horn, the trumpet.
3. Percussion: drums (or timbrels) and cymbals.
Of the stringed instrument, the harp is most frequently mentioned. But it was not the harp of today. It was quite simple in construction and resembled our present lyre. The psaltery resembled our present harp but it, too, was much more simple than our present-day beautiful harp.
Of the wind instruments the horn apparently attracted the most attention, not so much for the quality of its music as the shrillness and sometimes harshness of its tones. It was first made of ram’s horn, but later of metal, nevertheless retaining the name, horn. It could be heard at great distances. It was used on festal occasions and in battle, perhaps somewhat as the bugle of our day.
The trumpet was a long, straight, metal instrument, shrill in tone, used much as the horn, in battle and for calling the people to assemblages of different kinds.
Less is known of the flute than of either the horn or trumpet, but it was no doubt of milder tone and used for occasions less pretentious than those requiring other instruments.
The drums, called timbrels, and the cymbals, seem to have been used to quite an extent, particularly to accompany great choruses, as may be gleaned from reference to them in the 150th Psalm.
Character. Fully to discuss the character of the Psalms would require space far beyond the scope of this book. Yet to ignore recognition of their character altogether would be a violation of that which is their desert. Some features must receive attention in order to appreciate their beauty and their truths. No one would expect to find them perfect in all respects; there is enough of human element present to prevent that. On the contrary, they possess such an array of virtues as to compel our deepest admiration.
Because some of them come out of circumstances of stress, violence, oppression, exile and war, we must expect them to reflect such conditions. others, of course, reflect the circumstances, conditions, and times from which they arose – prosperity, independence, freedom and peace. All this means that elements both transient and permanent are discoverable as the Psalms are perused.
Another element, helping to make up their character, is the tremendous range of human experience the cover. (Reference has been made to this matter earlier in this chapter.) Perhaps no single work, compilation or otherwise, ever produced, can compare with the Psalms in this respect. Emotions and reflections from the depths and dregs of mental, spiritual and physical anguish, to the most exalted joys, are of record in the amazing work.
Rich in imagination and imagery, they hold an appeal to one’s interest as they picture the beauties and glories of nature, the good fortune of human life and the excellency of God’s goodness and providential kindness.
An element quite unique to the Psalms, and for that matter to most of the Old Testament writings, is that they are at once concrete, or objective, and subjective. If logical, logic was not intended to be used as such. Rather, their messages are directly and concretely expressed, while, at the same time, exposing the inner state of the soul – the subjective phase of life. This is what we term their unique element.
Another of their significant elements is, of course, that they are so deeply religious throughout. In none of them can one forget this fact or fail to recognize its presence. God and his constant relationship to or concern for His children is ever present in some way in every Psalm.
Not only is the religious element constantly present, but it manifests itself in a devotion to God as simple and trusting as that of a child, yet prompted by high intelligence and a supreme religious faith.
Nor is this all, for they reveal the highest concepts of God known to antiquity and not excelled by any in modern times for they conform to the revelations of Himself to “His servants, the prophets in all ages.”
Reference has already been made to the prophetic element in a number of Old Testament books. When we reach our study of the prophets, that feature must occupy a large part of our attention. Yet even in Psalms, not a book of the prophets, prophecy occurs not infrequently. The phase of the meaning of the term known as “forth-telling” is very prominent for in so much of Psalms the writers are speaking forth the word or will of God as they apprehend it. But the other phase is also present – that of prediction or foretelling of events, though in considerably smaller measure. The prediction deserving mention is the one concerned with the coming of the messiah for which an ardent yearning is expressed.
From what has been related above it may be inferred that the sentiment of the Psalms is highly spiritual – and that is true. It could hardly be otherwise with such a basic theme as God and His care for His children running throughout. It is also, no doubt, one of the big reasons why it is a book, not for a specific era or period of time but for all time, or has been aptly said, “it is timeless” in its nature.
Questions and Problems
Project: Consult as many hymn books as you can, of various Christian denominations, and determine how many of them are Psalms set to music or are Psalms paraphrased. Note the variety of sentiments expressed in them.