January 22, 2021

Songs in the Wilderness

Psalm 2, Chagall

The Book of Psalms is a wilderness book.

The final composition of Israel’s “hymnal” took place during and after the Babylonian Exile. In its final form, it stands as a book with a unified, coherent message; it is not simply a collection of songs and poems.

The first two psalms introduce the book.

  • Psalm 1 tells us what kind of book this is and instructs us how to read it. It is Torah — God’s fatherly instruction that sets forth “the way of the righteous”. A wise person will meditate on it day and night.
  • Psalm 2 tells us the main message of the book. Though God’s enemies plot and fight against him, he will establish his kingdom through his Son, the Messiah. A wise person will take refuge in him.

The Book of Psalms is the Torah of God’s Messiah. It tells us how God’s kingdom will come, how his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Coming out of the Exile, the most devastating experience of Israel’s history, God’s people were hungry for this message. Having seen their kingdom disintegrate and fall apart, having watched God’s enemies sack their royal city and demolish God’s own palace, the Temple, having lived in foreign lands under the “counsel” of ungodly rulers, they were eager for God to reestablish his rule.

Those who dwelt in the wilderness of Exile longed for a new Exodus and “rest” in the Promised Land. Like their prototypical king, David, they tired of being pursued by their enemies, of mourning “by the rivers of Babylon,” far from their true home in desolate places. They hungered and thirsted to see Zion exalted and God’s Temple rebuilt and filled with glory.

And so the Book of Psalms was put together. In this five-part book (akin to the Torah of Moses), through songs that describe the sufferings and triumphs of David and which celebrate how the God of creation will so oversee history that his new creation will emerge, the message of God’s coming Kingdom is proclaimed.

Psalm 114, Chagall

The Book of Psalms, like the Torah, is a “pentateuch” — a five-part book. You can see this in your Bible: “Book I” is the title over Psalm 1, “Book II” over Psalm 42, and so on.

  • It begins with an introduction (Psalms 1-2).
  • It ends with a conclusion (Psalms 146-150).
  • Each part ends with a benediction (41:13/72:18-19/89:52/106:48/150:6).
  • Books I and II are mostly individual psalms of David (1-41/42-72).
  • Book III has mostly community psalms (73-89).
  • Book IV starts with a psalm of Moses and contains mostly royal and story-telling psalms (90-106).
  • Book V brings back David psalms and is dominated by psalms of wisdom, praise, and ascent to Jerusalem (107-150).

In general, we might say that Books I-III set forth the problems faced by God’s people in Exile: despite God’s election of Israel, the enemies of God are winning and God’s people are in the wilderness.

Books IV-V set forth divine answers to God’s people, giving both hope and instruction. Despite appearances, the Lord reigns and will be vindicated. We must take refuge in him.

• • •

Why is it important to have this perspective on a book like Psalms? Can’t we just read it and appreciate it for its beautiful, heartfelt poetry that depicts the human condition and our relationship with God?

Psalms, of course, has a long history of use as a devotional and liturgical resource, and this is a legitimate use of its materials. However, as good readers we must also note that it has been carefully put together as a book —  a book that teaches, a book upon which we should meditate, a book with a Kingdom message.

Psalm 150, Chagall

Furthermore, if we recognize the background of the book and the purpose for which it was put together in its present form, we will see that it is really a book that anticipates Christ, the son of David who has been “set on Zion,” God’s holy hill (Ps. 2:6). The prayers of David, the anointed one who ascends his throne through suffering, reveal the depths of the heart of God’s King.

For the most part, the psalms were not written from the perspective of the ordinary believer in Israel. The headings and contents show us that most were composed to reflect David’s experiences or the perspectives of those who served and supported the kings in the temple worship at Jerusalem.

Therefore, knowing the stories of David and the kingdom is a key to meditating on the psalms. In the historical books, we see the outward circumstances of David’s life, but in the Book of Psalms we gain insight into the king’s mind and spirit. By laying bare David’s heart, Psalms gives the returned exiles a picture of the kind of leadership God desired for them. The books of Samuel and Kings teach that the Exile happened because of leadership failure. The kings failed to walk in the ways of David, and therefore the people broke the covenant. They did not have his heart for God. As the exiles look for the restoration of God’s kingdom in their midst, the Book of Psalms shows them what kind of king they should follow — an ideal king with David’s heart.

However, even after they returned from the Exile, Israel did not have a king. They remained under foreign domination and had only God’s promise that he would establish the kingdom in David’s house (2Sam 7, Isa 9:6-7, Jer 23:5-6, Ezek 34:22-24, Hosea 3:4-5, Amos 9:11, Zechariah 12:7-9). The ruler portrayed in the Book of Psalms is the ideal King, someone for whom they were waiting, looking, and hoping: the son of David, the ultimate king.

The pages of the New Testament begin with this: “The book of the family tree of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…”

And so begins the story — anticipated in the Book of Psalms — that N.T. Wright calls, “How God Became King.”


  1. petrushka1611 says

    Thanks for this; I’ve stayed out of the Psalms for a couple of turbulent years, because I had no idea how to read them. This will help, I believe.

  2. David Cornwell says

    “It tells us how God’s kingdom will come, how his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. ”

    This is so important it seems to me. Here is the precursor of the prayer, “Thy kingdom come…” When we pray this prayer, after our Lord, and with the Psalms, do we understand that we also are in the line of David? Do we realize the importance and power of that for which we are praying?

    • If only we did, David. I don’t think any of us can truly fathom what the coming of the kingdom will be like…the power and majesty…

      CM, this reminds me of John Stott’s “The Incomparable Christ”. Have you ever read this?

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