Notes on the Psalms

Small Group Material: 
Week Commencing: 
24 May 2010
Bible Base: 

Introduction to the Psalms [1]
The Psalms are in the Bible to show us how to speak to God in worship and prayer. “Most scripture speaks to us, Psalms speak for us”. This means that the Psalms are God’s Word for us in a different way to other portions of scripture. They give us permission to be honest with God; but we need to remember that we are not required to agree with everything expressed in a Psalm!
There are several sorts of psalms:-
·         Praise. These describe what God has done in general terms eg in creation, in delivering Israel from Egypt, in giving Israel the law.
·         Thanksgiving/Testimony. These describe more specific instances of God’s goodness eg in answering specific prayer
·         Prophecy/Wisdom. Teaching psalms. These can be seen more as God speaking to us. Eg Ps 37
·         Protest/Lament. These psalms express hurt and pleading for help, and often protest at how things are. They often express a sense of abandonment, of God not listening or answering, even of being let down by God. Sometimes the Psalmist speaks of his own experience (“I am a worm...); sometimes of the attitudes of others (“all who see me mock at me”); sometimes directly to God (“Why did you abandon me...You do not answer). Protest psalms often contrast the present experience with what they know about the character of God and God’s faithful actions in the past. They say more about what is wrong than about the details of what God should do about it. These psalms are about provoking God to take action, but leave the nature of the action up to God. They urge God to listen not to abandon; to deliver; to act against the people causing the trouble; and to put the world right. They often also contain shocking emotions of anger and sometimes hatred.
·         Confession
·         Trust
·         Intercession especially for the King
Many psalms contain several of these elements. Many psalms move from protest/lament to recognition of who God is to trust and then to praise. “The praise has power to transform the pain. But conversely, the present pain keeps the praise honest” (Brueggemann).
                                                                Obedience                                          Protest
                                                                Thanksgiving                                      Plea
This cycle can be entered anywhere; each time we go round it, “each element has more depth. The praise can be more nuanced. The protest can be more urgent. The trust can be deeper. The testimony can be more fervent.”
Week 1 Psalms of Praise about creation
For Week 1 I have chosen 3 of my favourite psalms, each of them having the wonder of creation at their centre
Psalm 8
1)      This psalm is particularly looking at the night sky, which declares the glory of God. Share your own experiences of sensing the glory of God through the night sky or through other aspects of creation.
2)      Verse 2 is beautiful poetry – but what does it mean or suggest? The Universe is an amazing result of God’s creative power – but are God’s values just about power and strength?
3)      What are verses 3 and 4 trying to express? Is this a feeling you share when looking at the night sky?
4)      How does the Psalmist respond in verses 5ff to the sense of human insignificance in verse 4? What other scriptures does this Psalm connect with?
5)       The word ‘dominion’ (v 6) is often misunderstood. It means ‘exercising lordship’ – but our example of lordship is our Lord Jesus himself. How does he exercise lordship? How therefore should we exercise our dominion over creation?
Psalm 19
1)      This psalm again begins with the glory of the night sky. The nations around Israel often worshipped the stars or the sun. How does the Psalmist avoid this?
2)      From verse 7, the subject of the psalm changes. In the second half of the psalm, what activity of God is being praised?
3)      What aspects of God’s ways make us praise him most? Which teachings of God do you find the most wonderful?
4)      What is being said in the prayer of verses 12 to 14?
Psalm 104
1)      This is a wonderful psalm celebrating the goodness of God in creation. After reading the Psalm, try to identify all the things that this Psalm says about God’s activity in creation.
2)      How does this Psalm encourage us to enjoy creation? Give some examples.
3)      How does this psalm help us in our thinking about some of the things about nature that we find difficult?
4)      How (if at all) does verse 35 fit with the rest of the Psalm?
Week 2   Psalms of trust in a sinful and/or violent world
Psalm 37
1)      What sort of situation is being addressed in this Psalm? In what ways have we faced similar experiences?
2)      What does it mean to ‘fret yourself’?
3)      What does the Psalmist say we should do instead of ‘fretting ourselves’? There are several things suggested throughout the Psalm. You could divide into groups and ask each group to look at part of the Psalm eg verses 1-13; verses 14-26; verses 27-40.
4)      Why should not we ‘fret ourselves’? What brings lasting blessing? Again you could divide into 3 groups as in question 3.
5)      Is the optimism of this Psalm always right, generally right, seldom right or never right? Where does Jesus teach something similar? How does this Psalm help us when it doesn’t seem to be working out?
Psalm 46
1)      A bit of fun (I have a strange sense of humour!). If anyone has an Authorised (King James) Version trying counting 46 words from the start of the Psalm, and 46 words from the end of
the Psalm (excluding the ‘Selah’). What do you get? You can now write your Dan Brown novel about who translated this Psalm in the late 16th century.....
2)      What different sorts of violent events are being suggested in this Psalm? What sort of violent events impact upon us?
3)      What sort of response to violent events does this Psalm suggest?
4)      Verse 10 is a much loved verse – but what is its context here? Can you think of examples of where you have put it into practice?
5)      John Goldingay writes of this Psalm that it “makes clear that the city of God is not a mere heavenly community ...but an earthly reality. But in this city, it is not for us to fix things. It is for us to expect God to fix things.” (Goldingay Psalms Vol 2 (Baker Academic 2007) p 73. Discuss.
6)      How does this Psalm connect with Psalm 37?
At the end of this session it would be good to spend time in prayer.
We will look at some more Psalms in the next couple of weeks. At the end of this series, it would be good for each member of the group to bring their favourite Psalm and say something about what it means to them.)
Week 3 onwards Psalms in difficult times; Psalms of protest/lament/plea/trust
I have put in several psalms here; don’t rush them ! You may just want to do one a week and then spend time in prayer together. But do more if you would like to!
When you have finished these you might want to spend a week or two asking people to bring their favourite psalm and looking at them.
This should take you up to the summer holidays!
Psalm 22
1)      In verses 1-21 the Psalmist describes his situation in 3 different ways. In verses 1-2 he speaks of the sense of being abandoned by God.  Has that ever been part of anyone’s experience? How does the Psalmist try to get through this experience in vv 3-4?
2)      In verses 6-8 the Psalmist is being mocked by others for God’s lack of response to him. Again, has that ever been part of our experience? How does the Psalmist try to deal with this experience in verses 9-11?
3)      In verses 12-18 the Psalmist is being attacked from all sides; the language of v 14 suggests a sense of being overwhelmed, of falling apart. Do we recognise that experience, and how does the Psalmist try to deal with it?
4)      What do we learn from verses 1-21 about prayer in difficult situations?
5)      In verses 22-31 the Psalmist gives thanks for his deliverance. Has it actually happened yet? What do we learn from this?
6)      Where does the Psalmist give thanks , and who will be told of this deliverance? What do we learn from this and how can we do this?
7)      Look at verse 26 – what example does this give us about praying for others?
8)      This Psalm could be used by any Christian (or Jew!) in trouble. But it is a Psalm that was very close to Jesus heart in his Passion, and is much used by the Gospel writers. What echoes are there in this Psalm of the Passion of Jesus? Think about verses cited in the Gospels but also think beyond them. When did Jesus’ deliverance come?
Psalm 35 A psalm when being attacked
1)      Read this psalm aloud – in 3 sections ; vv 1-10; vv 11-18; vv 19-28
2)      What is your initial reaction to this psalm?
3)      What common pattern(s) do you see in these sections?
4)      Is this psalm about despair or hope? Discuss.
5)      Has anyone been in a situation like this psalm? How would this psalm help in such a situation?
6)      How does this psalm make us feel about using it? Should we feel uncomfortable about using it? (See John 15:18-25)
7)      Some wisdom from John Goldingay:-
The psalm is an expression of fear and rage that urges God to take action to remove the causes of fear and rage. Christians are rather inclined to ask God to remove the fear and rage from their hearts, but the psalm invites the inference that this would be inappropriate (or at least a second best). The fear and rage can be deep and proper responses to ways other people are behaving. The fear and rage are designed to do something with, not to be evaded. They are not designed to drive the people under attack to action, but they are designed to drive them to prayer. Perhaps if that happens, the anxiety and rage will calm; but this is the route to such calming, not some supernatural act that takes away these proper feelings before they have done their work. (Psalms Vol 1 p 504).
Discuss and if appropriate share experience.
8)      Does the praise in this psalm lie in the present or in the future? How does this psalm help us to be real with God?
9)      Goldingay again (still p 504)
Western Christians rarely need the deliverance and reversal the psalm pleads for, ...but we should not therefore refuse this form of prayer to the many people in the world who are in a less fortunate position, not least because of their treatment by Western Christian nations. Further, being ourselves not under attack, we are urged by the psalm to put ourselves into the position of people who are thus under attack. The psalm implies that if we are not incensed by persecution and oppression and do not want to urge God to put down the attackers, there is something wrong with us.
Psalm 31 When we need to keep on praying
1)      Read the psalm aloud.
2)      What are your first reactions to the psalm?
3)      Identify sections of lament; plea; trust; praise
4)      What action does the psalmist urge upon us?
5)      Why does the psalmist trust God? Does the source of the trust lie in the psalmist or in God?
6)      Look at the 2 statements of trust in verses 5 and 15; what do they tell us about trust in God, and are there times we have used them / might use them?
7)      Goldingay comments that this psalm is a prayer prayed twice – why might we need to pray a prayer more than once, and how does this psalm encourage us?
Psalms 42-43 Thirsting for God
The repeated refrain suggests that this was originally one psalm.
1)      Read the psalm(s) aloud – perhaps with everyone joining in the refrain 42:6,11; 43:5
2)      What are our initial reactions to the psalm?
3)      James Sire (Learning to Pray Through the Psalms IVP Downers Grove 2005) says (p 88) that for him this psalm helps him to recognise a paradox that he lives with:-
I long for the presence of God
I do not long for the presence of God
Does that paradox resonate with us?
4)      When we are spiritually dry, part of us longs for God. Does telling ourselves to put our hope in God help? Do memories of past refreshment in God (v4) help? What does help?
5)      V 7 is difficult; Sire thinks that ‘the deep’ in scripture is usually associated with the forces of chaos. When we are down, do we find chaotic and negative thoughts engulfing us?
6)      Are verses 9-10 about trust or lack of trust? Discuss.
7)      Ps 43 is more about unfaithfulness from other people. What does he ask for in these circumstances?
8)      How does the repetition of the refrain help us?
9)      The group might like to bring difficult things in peoples lives to God, using the refrain as a response.
Psalm 27 Prayer based on experience
1)      Read the Psalm aloud.
2)      What are your initial reactions to the psalm?
3)      What does the imagery of v 1 suggest to you about God?
4)      Goldingay thinks that the Hebrew verbs in the early verses of this psalm should be translated as past tense ie v 2 is looking back to when the Psalmist had been delivered by God. V 3 then follows from that memory. Can you give examples of past experience of God which keep you going today?
5)      How is remembering past experience of God’s deliverance reflected in our public worship? (Consider this quote:- “Christian worship is God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and man’s response” Paul Hoon quoted in James White Introduction to Christian Worship [Abingdon 1980] p 17. )
6)      Part of the Psalmist’s experience had been the place of worship in the temple in his times of struggle. Do we find church more or less helpful when we are in difficult times? Why?
7)      Verses 7-8 suggest real hard work in prayerful trust. How can we ‘seek God’s face’ in times of trial?
8)      The sequence of the psalm is interesting:-
Declaration of trust
Remembering past experience of God’s deliverance
Plea for God to listen and to show himself
Then (and only then) statement of the problem (v 12)
Is there hesitancy here to trust God with the problem? Does this connect with our own experience? Is it OK to be real with God?
The meaning of v 13 is unclear; NIV ‘I remain confident of this...’; AV ‘I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’; Goldingay himself translates it ‘Unless I believed in seeing good from YHWH in the land of the living ....’ thereby making v 13 incomplete (the dots are at the end of the verse in his translation). He comments that the Psalmist ‘implies the reality of trust without expressing it’ and says this is “something wistful, threatening and defiantly faithful – a fragmented mixture of anger, regret and loyalty”. What do people think? Could it be that it is OK to pray to God with confused thoughts and motives?!

[1] Much of what follows is influenced by Psalms:Volume 1 by John Goldingay (Baker Academic 2006) pp 21-78