Introducing the Bible

Part 8 - by Craig Bartholomew

Editorís Note:

The Contemporary English Version was published in the UK by Bible Society under the title Into the Light. Craig Bartholomew has written the extensive Bible helps in the English edition. By kind permission of the Bible Society they are reproduced in The Big Picture.


All of life is there:

the Psalms


People often sing as a way of expressing how they feel, or to put into words what is important to them. In everyday life, many people find that a pop song fits just how they feel at the time, whether they are sad or happy. When we were children, we often learnt songs which described an event from history (for example, "London's Burning" recalls the great Fire of London in 1666). And many Christians down the centuries have found that they can learn about - and express - their faith through hymns and choruses.


Old Testament Israel did not have weekly services as we do today, but they did have regular festivals and worship gatherings. The book of Psalms is the song-book of Israel for those occasions. It contains songs of joy, hope, and sadness. Some are personal, while others come from the experience of the whole community. Some look at how God acted in past events, while others have important things to say about trusting in God, our way of life, and our responsibility in the world.


The Psalms are poems for singing, but poems with a difference. In the Western world, writers have often used poetry to say things in subtler, less direct ways. We are even tempted to be indirect in our praying, hoping that God will "read between the lines" and understand what we really mean. This would have seemed very strange to the Israelite people who put together the book of Psalms. This is why we are sometimes shocked at how very direct the Psalms can be. Both individuals and communities were not afraid to tell God exactly how they felt. They question God, give him orders (for example, Psalm 74.18-23), and even curse those who had wronged them or call on God to destroy their enemies (for example, Psalm 58). There's never any sense of escaping from the reality of life. Every possible human emotion is expressed.


One important aspect of the Psalms is the element of praise. For the people of Israel, to praise God was much more than expressing their happiness or whistling in the dark when things were going badly. It was to show that, even in the face of personal and national disaster, they knew that God is in charge of the world and its people. That is why a number of psalms (for example, 54; 57) which seem, at first, to be songs of sorrow, end on a note of praise and thanksgiving. In our own century, which has seen the persecution and mass murder of six million members of the Jewish race during the Second World War, many moving stories have been told about events in Nazi death camps. They recall how Jewish people, before being sent to the gas chambers, would sing psalms of praise. This was their way of expressing the goodness of God over all the evil that this world could inflict upon them. It was an act of protest, a refusal to believe that evil could ever triumph over good.


Here are some examples of the different types of psalms:

Psalms of praise

Psalm 33; 96; 97; 98; 100; 113; 117; 145; 147; 148; 149; 150

Personal songs of sorrow

Psalms 22; 51; 64; 69

National songs of sorrow

Psalms 60; 137

Psalms which recall past events

Psalms 78; 105; 106; 114; 126; 136

Psalms associated with festivals

Psalms 24; 47; 65; 67; 81; 121; 122

Psalms to use as prayers for guidance and strength

Psalms 23; 46; 130 



The Big Picture Volume 1 Lent 1999