by Ed Gallagher
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.Psalm 51:10
This lesson covers the book of Psalms, with a focus specifically on Psalm 51.
What about the Book of Psalms is different from other books of the Bible? Possible answer, which is not exactly right: it’s all poetry, but there are some other books that are also like that (Proverbs, Song of Songs, most of Job, much of Isaiah and Hosea). But what makes the Book of Psalms different is that even though it is God’s word addressed to humans, it is also a collection of human words addressed to God. It is an anthology of prayers and songs. Do you think this idea has any significance for what we are supposed to do with the Book of Psalms? Perhaps this book is supposed to teach us some things about how to talk to God, help us understand how to praise him, or how to lament, or how to confess sin.
Authorship: Who wrote the psalms? How do we know who wrote them? At the beginning of most psalms (especially in the first half of the book) there are “superscriptions” containing a variety of information, including (apparently) authorship ascriptions. (The interpretation of these superscriptions is sometimes complex. In general, see here, and specifically on authorship, here.) David is mentioned in 73 of these superscriptions, mostly in the first half of the book. Who else is mentioned in the superscriptions? Asaph (Psalms 73–83), the sons of Korah (42–49), Moses (90), Solomon (72, 127), and others.
Poetry: The Psalms are poetry. Read Psalm 1:1–3. Do the lines rhyme? No, neither in English nor in Hebrew. In what way are these verses poetic? We have figurative language in v. 3. But the most prominent feature of Hebrew poetry is repetition of ideas (often called ‘parallelism’). Note how v. 1 contains basically the same idea three times, or v. 2 contains the same idea twice. Verse 6 contains an opposite idea. We see this repetition in much of the poetry in the Bible.
Types of psalms: There are two main types of Psalms in the book. Let’s take a look at an example of each. Read Psalm 117. What is this psalm doing? It is a praise psalm. Now read Psalm 6. What is this psalm doing? The psalmist is in a bad situation and asking for the Lord’s help. It is a lament psalm. The first half of the book is filled with lament psalms, though there are a few praise psalms scattered about. The last part of the book is filled with praise psalms. In general, the book of Psalms moves from lament to praise, and the last 5 or 6 psalms call on all creation to praise God.
Structure of the book: We might already suspect that the book has some sort of intentional structure because of this movement from lament to praise. There are some other signs of structure in the book (rather than the book being just a random assortment of songs). There are actually five “books” of Psalms, and most Bibles have a heading before Psalm 1 that says ‘Book 1’, with other ‘books’ beginning at Psalm 42, 73, 90, and 107. (See the last part of this post.)
Read the superscription to Psalm 51. This gives a very specific background to the psalm, but what we will not see in the psalm itself is any reference to adultery or murder. While the superscription is specific, the psalm itself is very general. The songs we sing in church might be similar—written out of a specific event but using language that addresses everyone. Example: It Is Well With My Soul.
Read vv. 1–5. What does this psalm want its readers to think about sin?
Note especially v. 5, which says that the speaker was conceived in sin. What does this mean? We should remember that the psalm is poetry, which routinely expresses the emotions of the author rather than stating bare facts.
Read vv. 6–12. What do these verses teach us about asking for forgiveness? When God forgives, he does so completely. The psalm recognizes God’s desire to forgive. In reconciliation with God, there is gladness, joy, salvation, and separation from God brings the opposite.
Read vv. 13–15. How does the speaker respond to God’s offer of forgiveness? He wants to praise God, by worshipping and by telling others about this good news. The idea is that believers constantly have in view what their life would be like if they did not have God’s forgiveness. What sometimes (often?) prevents us from personally reflecting on this idea? Perhaps many things, perhaps simply the pace of life. Would reflection on this idea change our life of faith, our relationship with God, or our relationship with others?
Read vv. 16–19. What does the psalmist mean that God does not like sacrifice? God is the one who commanded sacrifice in Lev 1–7. There are other passages that say something similar to Psa 51:16–17; see Psa 40:6–8; Isa 1:11–15; Amos 5:21–24. Though some of these passages speak more strongly than others, the idea is that God disapproves of the mindless (or heartless) ritual. Sacrifice that comes from a pure and grateful heart would be a delight to God, but otherwise sacrifice is an abomination. For the concept of spiritual sacrifice (Psa 51:17), see also Rom 12:1–2.
The psalm concludes by calling on God to protect Jerusalem, which would result in grateful sacrifices from its inhabitants.
The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of ancient Israel, and early Christians obviously read it regularly, since it is quoted in the New Testament more than any other book. Through study of its prayers, we might also learn to pray to God.
Additional Questions for Discussion
What is the purpose of the Book of Psalms for the Christian? Read Ephesians 5:15–21; Colossians 3:16–17.
Read Psalm 51. All of the psalms are poetry. What are some of the poetic elements you find in this psalm?
Compare Psalm 51 to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:17–24. What features do you find that the psalm and Ephesians have in common? See also Matthew 23:25–28.
Consider Psalm 51:16–17 in light of Romans 12:1–2 and Hebrews 13:10–16. How do each of these New Testament passages reflect the teaching of the psalm? What other biblical passages about sacrifice share similar themes?
Based on your reading of Psalm 51 and other psalms, what do you think the Book of Psalms can teach the Christian about prayer?