(by: Doug Van Dorn)
In this third installment of “How to Read the Psalms,” we want to understand something very important about this book. What would that be? Psalms is a book. This virtual tautology is something I think many do not understand to the level that it can be helpful. Why is this the case?
I believe that the default way of reading the Psalms is to pick a song and just read it. This is how we often listen to music in this day of “shuffling the iPod.” We ask ourselves, “What psalm do I want to hear this time,” and we become our own D. J. I actually don’t want to poo-poo this too much, as it is true that each song is its own self-contained unit. That is, after all, the way all songs work. So, this is certainly a fine and good way to read the Psalms.
But you can think of the Psalter like you might think of an old-fashioned record. Back in the day, we had to listen to vinyl. That meant, you had to put the needle on the record and let it play until Side A was finished. (Yeah, I know, you can play D. J. even on a record. But it’s a LOT more work, and really only fun when you are scratching!) When you turned it over, you started Side B.
Thing is, a good artist always put the songs on the album in some kind of meaningful way. It might start with a fast song and the side might end with a slow song. Sometimes, as in “concept albums,” the tracks all had a larger meaning and purpose collectively than they did individually. Only by listening to them together and in the order the artist wanted, did you get that message. My personal favorite example of this is Boston’s Third Stage. Concept albums are like symphonies with their various movements that often trade on a basic set of notes, or jazz compositions that improvise a riff for fifteen minutes. Listen to the first and last songs on the Third Stage, and you realize that Amanda and Hollyann are not only the only two girl-named songs on the record, but they have the same basic tune! The songs form a kind of chiasm!
The Psalter is basically the greatest concept album ever written. Here I want to tell you how it works. There are four levels.
- Level 1: An Individual Song. As mentioned above, each song is its own self-contained unit. As such, each song can and should be read by itself. Scholars have labeled the various songs in subjects, including but not limited to songs of lament, praise, thanksgiving, trust, and royal Look for a basic theme like this and it will help you read the psalm better.
- Level 2: Units of songs. As I’ve been preaching through the psalter, I’ve discovered that certain sets of songs are related such that reading them together is very helpful. Some of these are obvious (such as the Hallel song units of Psalm 113-118 or 146-150). Others take more work. For example, quite often, you can pick out and “evening” idea that is followed in the next song as a “morning” idea, and as such were intended to be sung liturgically by Israel, often during feast weeks. When read together this way, the songs complement and deepen the meaning of one another. In the way our church has uploaded our Psalm series, you can see many of these units simply in the way I decided to preach the psalms here. If you are looking for help, just read that list for an introduction (and for more in depth study, click on any of those sermons).
- Level 3: The Five Books. The editor-scribe (perhaps Ezra and his associates) who put the Psalter into its final form wrote the collection on five scrolls, even though it was short enough to fit on just one. Each scroll ended in doxology, thus creating the five “little books” of the Psalter. The Rabbis said that these five books parallel the Torah (the five books of Moses), and their purpose was, like Genesis-Deuteronomy, for different forms of instruction. Thus, each of these five books can be read as their own kind of self-contained unit. Some focus more on suffering. Others on covenant. Still others on life after exile.
- Level 4: The One Psalter. The final level of reading is the psalter as a whole. Much good work has been done on this in the last few decades among scholars, and the idea is that the individual units, the mini-sets, and the five-books all work together to form an almost incomprehensible single story-line that is the Psalter. To me, this is as important a reading activity as any of the other three. Perhaps more so. For, you do not say that you have read a book unless you have finished that book. So also, you can’t really understand the Psalter until you have read it from beginning to end. It is to this last point that we will focus our final installment of this series.
 See Nahum Sarna, Songs of the Heart (New York: Schocken Books, 1993), 17.