Unique Aspects of Pslams
Poetry is used often in prophetic literature, wisdom literature, and in the Psalms. Prophetic literature and wisdom literature are discussed later in the unit. They reflect distinct genre types and require specific interpretive approaches. These approaches will build on the discussion of poetry presented here. Likewise, the Psalms are also unique, and interpreting them involves some special aspects that we will discuss here.
First of all, we agree with Fee and Stuart that the Psalms “do not function primarily for the teaching of doctrine or moral behavior.”We caution you strongly against interpreting Psalms in the same fashion as one would the book of Romans, which does focus on the teaching of doctrine and moral behavior. The Psalms definitely have doctrinal components, and they also speak to moral behavior (Ps. 1), but those elements are corollaries or subpoints and not generally the intended focal point. Fee and Stuart write:
The difficulty with interpreting the psalms arises primarily from their nature—what they are. Because the Bible is God’s Word, many Christians automatically assume that all it contains are words from God to people. Thus they fail to recognize that the Bible also contains words spoken to God or about God—which is what the psalms do—and that these words, too, are God’s Word.
The function of the Psalms, therefore, is to “give us inspired models of how to talk and sing to God.” In addition, the Psalms provide us with inspired models of how to meditate about God—that is, how to think reflectively about God and what he has done for us. This interactive communication in Psalms between people and God can take place in numerous different contexts, reflecting the wide variety of life experiences from which people encounter God. Brueggemann has suggested that the Psalms can be categorized roughly into three main contexts of human life: (1) “seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing,” (2) “anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death,” and (3) seasons of “surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair.”
So we see that even though Psalms is God’s Word to us, it does not present specific doctrinal guidelines to us, but rather examples of how to communicate our deepest emotions and needs to God. When a psalmist cries out in anguish and despair, for example, the point or lesson is not that we also should cry out in despair. Rather, the lesson is that when we find ourselves in despair, it is right and proper for us, like the psalmist, to cry out in anguish and pain to God. As we do so, we can begin to experience his comfort and indeed be lifted “out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire” (Ps. 40:2).
Honesty with God is an important lesson that we can learn from the Psalms. The psalmists tell God exactly how they feel, and it often does not sound very spiritual or mature. Christians today tend to pressure each other into suppressing any emotional outpouring about God. The Christian model for many is that of a hard Stoic, like Spock on Star Trek. The Psalms shatter this false image of Christian behavior and provide us with wonderful models of frank, honest communication with God, full of emotion, bubbling up out of good and bad times alike. To summarize, the Psalms help us in our Christian lives in several areas. First, they give us a guide to serious worship. Second, they help us to relate honestly to God. Finally, they lead us into reflection and meditation on what God has done for us.