Martin Luther called the Psalter “a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.”1
If Luther’s claim is even half accurate, then for many years I have underappreciated an important book of Scripture.
I have attended churches that rarely mention the psalms; and I have attended others that incorporate psalms into worship regularly but without any explanation regarding the selection or meaning of any particular psalm. Therefore, I have decided to test Luther’s claim and perhaps discover what I have missed from the Psalter for many years.
So that my studies might also benefit others who are interested in, or curious about, the psalms, I intend to share what I am learning from the psalms in a series of articles, drawing on the many topics which we find addressed in them.
To orient our look into the psalms, I have incorporated into this first article the following introductory remarks concerning the psalms generally:
“The book of Psalms expresses the whole range of emotions that God’s people experience in this life. Nowhere will you find words expressing greater joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Nowhere will you find words expressing deeper sorrow than in the psalms of repentance. Nowhere will you find more fervent expression of both the sorrows and the joys that life brings. The book of Psalms is a book for every occasion and for every season of life.”2
Like all of Scripture, the Psalter transcends time. It is a worship book within the Bible inspired by the Holy Spirit for the people of God in every generation. Summarizing Luther’s usage of the psalms:
“The psalmists asked for blessings and gave thanks for blessings as members of the covenant people of God, relying on God’s grace, trusting His promises, worshiping in His temple, receiving His forgiveness. Yet all of these – covenant, grace, promise, temple, forgiveness – found their fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Christ [says Luther] ‘is Himself the God whom we are exhorted to worship.’ When the psalmist exults that God’s ‘love endures forever,’ Luther responds that Christ ‘stands hidden’ in that phrase.”3
Luther divided the psalms into five groups: prophesy; instruction; comfort; prayer; and thanks.4 I will select psalms from each of these groups for upcoming articles.
With these introductory remarks in mind, let us begin our look into the psalms with one of the great psalms of praise:
Psalm 145: Praise to God, the King!
Psalm 145 is a psalm of thanksgiving for the kingdom of Christ, which was to come. This psalm belongs to the First Commandment with undivided worship of God the King who is above all things; the Second Commandment by using His name properly in praise and proclamation; and the Third Commandment by hallowing the genuine Sabbath with true worship and gladly hearing God’s Word. This psalm also belongs to the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, which prays for the hallowing of God’s name; and the second petition, which prays for His kingdom.
“A Song of Praise. Of David.
1 I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
2 Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.”
David, whom the Prophet Samuel anointed as king of an earthly monarchy, recognized that his God is the King over all creation. We cannot “extol” (i.e., exalt, praise, magnify, worship) Christ the King enough because it is His work as Redeemer which alone avails us before God. In this way we join in David’s vow to bless and praise the name of Christ the King both “forever and ever” and “every day.” “For David says about [Christ], ‘I saw the Lord always in front of me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced; my body also will live in hope, because you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor permit your Holy One to experience decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of joy with your presence.’ ” (Acts 2:25-28)
“3 Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.”
In Psalm 145, David alternates between sections of praise and sections of proclamation. Verse 3 is a burst of proclamation. We might ask why proclamation? St. Paul rhetorically asked: “And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of?” (Rom 10:14b)
God’s “greatness is unsearchable” (i.e., unfathomable, inscrutable). To an unbeliever, this attribute of God is only terrifying. Mankind is endowed with some natural knowledge of God: “For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made” (Rom 1:20); but knowledge of His power and divine nature, without reconciliation through Christ the Mediator, only brings into sharp relief the contrast between the holy God and sinful man. In such a circumstance, man only fears God’s wrath, as, for example, Isaiah experienced in his vision: “And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ ” (Isa 6:5)
The problem is that man cannot reason or observe our way from the unsearchable God to the Lord God, from sinner before a Holy God to adopted child before the Father in heaven. The only move fallen man, left to ourselves, is capable of making is to the cult of sacrifice in the hope of placating an unsearchable deity. Here Luther answers aptly:
“If the cross were not extolled through preaching, teaching, and confession, who could have ever thought of it, to say nothing of knowing it? But such is His kingdom and power, that He aided the fallen, called the needy to Himself, made sinners godly, and brought the dead to life.”5
Thus the Gospel of Christ and His kingdom must be preached, from one generation to the next. When one hears the grace of God proclaimed for him or her, e.g. – Christ “was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification” (Rom 4:25), the Holy Spirit teaches us about the grace of God, who through faith makes us His children, and turns our focus away from the “unsearchable” God to “the Lord” who is “great.” In Christ, God’s “greatness” is now for us and becomes the source of great comfort, rather than a source of fear and trepidation about God’s unsearchable providential works in creation. Amen.
Thank you for reading. Next week, we will pick up Psalm 145 at verse 4 where David begins his second section of praise for the wondrous works of his God the King. Amen.
1 Ngien, Dennis. Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. Print. p. xviii.
2 Brug, John F. The People’s Bible Commentary: Psalms 1. rev. ed., St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1992. Print. p. 2-3.
3 Concordia Publishing House. Reading the Psalms with Luther. 2007. Print. p. 10.
4 Ibid. p. 14.
5 Ibid. p. 344.