The Psalms: Deep questions, with only hints for answers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 03, 2018

Reading through the first twenty books of the Old Testament, it is fairly easy to highlight particular themes or dominant purposes in each one which can help people understand them better. Such themes and purposes apply not only to each book but to their place in Scripture as a whole, particularly in their relationship to Christ and the Church. This is what I have been doing in my series on the Bible, which began with Genesis, in a piece entitled Scripture is all about connections.

But when we get to the Book of Psalms, we are faced with a long collection of 150* separate poems or songs with a great many themes. This is the longest book in the Bible, and we cannot expect to distill the Psalms into a single essence, unless we are to emphasize first and foremost that it is a book of prayer. The most important point about the Psalms, then, is not that we should study them but that we should pray them. Indeed, many authors have suggested that we should deliberately pray them with Christ (for, after all, He himself prayed them), and that we might even pray them particularly in the light of Christ (for many can be understood on multiple levels, and some point very specifically to the Messiah).

This Christological perspective on the Psalms ties in closely with two other themes which recur throughout: The Jewish understanding of suffering and the closely-related Jewish ambivalence about our eternal end. All three bear on the Scriptural understanding of the last things, or what we might call the problem of eschatology. In this installment, therefore, I will probe the Psalms for clear references to Christ while connecting this emphasis briefly to the other themes, which will be developed later.

Pointing to Christ

A meditative reader—one who prays and reflects spiritually on the Psalms as he goes—might well find intimations of Christ everywhere. Our Lord has a tendency to whisper within us, “That’s me, you know”, or “I fulfilled that yearning in ways they could not have imagined at the time”, or “Be at peace. In praying this you are reaching out through my own words to me.” But in my just-completed reading of the Psalms in preparation for writing about them, I made notes on those which seemed to me to be most obviously Messianic.

Our Lord is spiritually present throughout, and I am sure I have missed something that will be very clear to you, but here is a brief list of verses to get you started in your own discernment of Christ’s literal presence in the text:

  • Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed…. I will tell of the decree of the LORD: ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you…. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’” (2,7-9)
  • Psalm 22: “But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me…; ‘He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him….’ Yes, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (6-8,16-18)
  • Psalm 40: “Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’ I have told the glad news of deliverance…. I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your mercy….” (7-10; cf. 12ff.)
  • Psalm 41: “They say, ‘A deadly thing has fastened upon him; he will not rise again from where he lies.’ Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” (8-9)
  • Psalm 45: “I address my verses to the king…. You are the fairest of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you for ever.” (This entire Psalm is Christological and, within its filial and nuptial themes, Marian: e.g., “The daughter of the king is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes” (12), etc.)
  • Psalm 69: “For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach…. For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me…. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me gall for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (7-9, 20-21)
  • Psalm 91: “For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone…. Because he clings to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name.” (9-16; this Psalm is a good example of how what can be applied to anyone who clings to God can be applied preeminently to Christ Himself)
  • Psalm 118: “This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (20-24)

Suffering and Salvation

It is evident that many of the Messianic psalms—those which speak more or less directly of Christ or which look forward to a time of definitive triumph and joy—are closely united to the two other themes I mentioned. Often, there is an intense personal or national suffering which preoccupies the psalmist, and this leads him to ponder his own end, the end of the Jewish people, and even at times the end of all mankind.

But as I will demonstrate more fully in later installments, there is a remarkable ambivalence in the Psalms about these matters. When the psalmist teaches in Psalm 1 that “the LORD knows the way of the righteous but the way of the wicked perishes” (6), there is surely a hint that the difference between the righteous and the wicked is a matter of living in the LORD. But sometimes the goal seems only to be earthly triumph over enemies, so that the psalmist or the present generation can live a long and secure life before passing away. When considered in the context of persistent suffering, Psalm 39 even goes so far as to plead with God to leave the psalmist alone: “Look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more” (13), and several Psalms—such as Psalm 30—make an argument out of this question: “What profit is there in my death…. Will the dust praise you?” (9).

At other times, salvation seems to be regarded as the survival and prosperity of God’s people as a people, without regard to the distinct persons who have died, or even as simply the ongoing possession of the land. The idea of “posterity” is one way the Psalms reconcile the fleeting life of the individual with the endurance of God (see, for example, Psalm 102). And yet there are many hints of an eternity caught up with God. Otherwise, this verse from Psalm 116 would be sheer nonsense: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (15).

When the Psalms were composed, the definitive salvation by our God through Christ was still far off. To Christians, however, the combination of Christ, suffering, and our final end sounds very like a plan. It will, in any case, provide the plan, or the interpretive key—or, if you prefer, the “hermeneutic”—for my next look at the beauty and consolation of the Psalms.


* A note on variations in the numbering of the Psalms:

Unfortunately, there is a discrepancy in the numbering of the Psalms in the two ancient texts, the Hebrew and the Greek. I use the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, which follows the Hebrew numbering. Some other translations, such as the Douay-Rheims, follow the Vulgate, which follows the Greek.
Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew are conflated into Psalm 9 in the Greek. Similarly, Psalms 114 and 115 in the Hebrew are conflated into Psalm 113 in the Greek. Then, Psalms 114 and 115 in the Greek are conflated into Psalm 116 in the Hebrew. And finally, Pslams 146 and 147 in the Greek are conflated into Psalm 146 of the Hebrew. Therefore, a comparison of the numbering between my citations and the Douay Rheims would look like this:
RSVCE Douay-Rheims
1 – 8 1 – 8 (same)
9 and 10 9
11 – 113 10 – 112 (i.e., DR is one number lower)
114 and 115 113
116 114 and 115
117 – 145 116 – 144 (DR is one number lower)
146 146 and 147
148 – 150 148 – 150 (same)

Scripture Series
Previous: Job’s controversial innocence
Next: Suffering in the Psalms

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - May. 04, 2018 4:34 PM ET USA

    The intimate connection between God and the individual praying the psalms has always seemed to me to be best expressed in the standard French translation, La Bible de Jérusalem. Psalm 22, verse 4, reads: "Et toi, le Saint, qui habites les louanges d'Israël!" Literally, "And you, the Holy One, who live in the praises of Israel!" To me, this has always meant that when we pray the psalms, "the praises of Israel," we become alive with the life of God Himself.