Last month month, I began a six-week study of the first thirty psalms, using the book Delight by The Daily Grace Co. After the first week, I paused my Bible study, feeling a little lost and uncertain.
Before I get into the details, I want to preface with this:
Understanding the Bible is not supposed to be easy. Biblical interpretation challenges faithful readers, especially those of us (most of us) relying on translations. If the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was easy to translate and even easier to understand, Jews and Christians wouldn’t have so many English translations available. (Plus the countless other translations!)
Note: This blog post includes affiliate links. However, I’m honestly sharing materials I have purchased myself.
My Bible Study Struggle
Now that I’ve set the background for mutual understanding, let’s turn back to my own Bible study. Each day, I read a psalm in my study Bible with the New Revised Standard Version, my preferred translation. I then read through the accompanying devotion and study questions in Delight.
My Bible’s commentary didn’t align with the interpretation set forth in Delight. While that’s not necessarily a big picture problem–see the note above–one particular difference concerned me.
The authors of Delight routinely connect the psalms to Jesus. This particular connection felt completely wrong to me.
Psalm 2 shows us the Righteous One and the wickedness of the world but also the blessing for those that trust in Jesus.Delight
While my subsequent research indicates this interpretation is common, I felt unsettled reading this. Context matters when interpreting the Bible. Even though I’m a devout Christian, I also respect Jewish history and scholarship. Should Christians read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of Jesus?
I turned to Facebook for help. Friends and family pointed me to different resources. Based on their recommendations, I purchased:
- The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter
- A Book of Psalms: Selected and Adapted from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell
Two weeks ago, I began my Bible study anew.
My Bible Study Discovery
Each day, I first read the daily psalm in my Bible. Then I read my Bible’s commentary, going back to each relevant verse. Then I read the translation by Alter, along with his commentary. As applicable, I read the translation by Mitchell. Verse by verse, I went back and forth between the translations. Finally, I read the devotion and the study questions in Delight.
By doing all of this, I truly delighted in the tension of different interpretations. I distinctly felt the lively debates of biblical scholars, biblical translators, and just regular students like me, all trying to figure out God’s glory.
In the book Inspired by Rachel Held Evans, she explains the Jewish tradition of joyful debate. In her introduction, Evans writes:
From the rich history of Jewish interpretation, I learned the mysteries and contradictions of Scripture weren’t meant to be fought against, but courageously engaged, and that the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine and debate.Rachel Held Evans, Inspired, p. xix
What could I learn from a psalm if I imagined it truly written by David? How did the meaning change if I read the psalm as written for David vs. about David?
With two translations and commentaries, plus a devotion written with a distinct perspective, I’m able to wrestle with the text. Instead of trying to pinpoint a single true interpretation, I’m discovering the freedom of multiple interpretations.
My first week of studying psalms has been fruitful! In addition to reading the first five psalms, I also read all of the background information. My study Bible includes an introduction, as does Alter’s translation. I learned quite a bit about the overall context of Psalms!
The History of Psalms
- The Psalms are divided into five books, paralleling the five books of the Torah.
- The first three books were assembled before the fourth and fifth books.
- Dating the creation of individual psalms is near-impossible, but they were most likely written over many centuries. The latest psalms were written no later than the fifth or fourth century BCE.
- David probably didn’t write many (or any) of the psalms himself.
The Poetry of Psalms
As someone who struggled to understand French poetry in my French literature classes, I’m delighted to learn more about the literary form of psalms. Alter’s translations balance both meaning and form. His introduction and commentary alert readers to literary devices that I never noticed before.
I cannot neatly summarize pages of poetic analysis, but this quote explains what I’m personally discovering for the first time. (And the quote actually quotes another writer).
Hrushovski calls the system “semantic-syntactic-accentual parallelism.” That is to say, between the two halves of the line there may be some equivalence of meaning (“semantic”), an equivalent number of stressed syllables (“accentual”), and a parallelism of syntax. Some lines may manifest a neat parallelism in all three categories, but that is not obligatory.Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, p. xxi
Alter also talks about the rhythm of Hebrew, and his challenges with the translations.
What I aimed at in this translation… is to represent Psalms in a kind of English verse that is readable as poetry yet sounds something like Hebrew–emulating its rhythms wherever feasible, reproducing many of the effects of its expressive poetic syntax, seeking equivalents for the combination of homespun directness and archaizing in the original, hewing to the lexical concreteness of the Hebrew, and making more palpable the force of parallelism that is at the heart of biblical poetry.Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, p. xxxi
The Categories of Psalms
While Alter warns against relying too much on “the form criticism that identifies distinct genres of psalms,” I find this helpful as a newbie. Plus both my study Bible and my devotion refer to these categories… And they sometimes disagree! This is just another way for me to wrestle with the text and the history of interpretation.
- Songs of praise of hymn
- Prayer for help
- Song of thanksgiving
- Royal psalms
- Wisdom/Torah psalms
- Messianic psalms
Of course, many psalms defy categorization. Either they demonstrate unique qualities that don’t match a category, they fit into multiple categories, or scholars just can’t agree on the best category. Again, this discussion isn’t about being right or wrong in biblical interpretation. For me, this is an opportunity to learn the different ways people understand the psalms.
What I Learned About Psalms 1-5
I learned so much just from studying the first five psalms. For example, while Psalms is divided into five books, the first two psalms are more of an introduction or prologue to the entire collection, not just the first book.
Psalm 1 contrasts God’s followers with the wicked. This is a wisdom psalm.
Psalm 2 proclaims God’s universal reign. My devotion describes Psalm 2 as a messianic psalm whereas my Bible describes it as a royal psalm.
Together, these psalms set the stage for the “big picture” themes of God’s universal sovereignty and God’s relationship with Her people. These themes recur throughout the psalms.
The conclusion of Psalm 2 also reflects the opening of Psalm 1: “Happy are…”
Psalm 3 is a prayer for help. Psalms 4 and 5 are laments. All three of them show trust in the Lord, reliance on God, unwavering faith even in the face of adversity.
I am glad that I decided to study Psalms. My combination of resources make this Bible study and devotion an enriching experience for me. I already feel closer to God.
If you’re interested in what else I learn about the psalms, let me know! I can write more blog posts, or I can share thoughts on social media.