Continuing with our study of biblical interpretation, let us think of the Psalms. The Psalms are clearly a primary example of Wisdom Literature. They are a cornerstone of the genre. There are also a variety of psalm types. So, upon reflection, we have at least five interpretative tasks when we read any psalm.
1. We need to interpret any psalm as example of wisdom literature—its primary purpose in this regard is to instill in the believer practical wisdom that he or she can then apply to concrete situations in everyday life.
2. We need to determine what type of psalm we are reading. If we read an historical psalm about national, ancient Israel as some type of symbolic foreshadowing of the crucifixion experience of Jesus Christ we will come to the wrong conclusion.
3. We need to be conscious of, and remove, our personal “interpretive sunglasses”. By that I mean we may not begin by asking the question “What does this mean to me?” The psalms weren’t written for you, nor for me; they were written in specific situations. We must first seek to discover, as best as we can, the intent of the author. What was he trying to convey to the original hearers?
4. Once we have learned what the author’s intent was, then the question of “What does this mean to me?” fades into obscurity. Why is that? Because what the original point of the psalm was is still the point for you and me!
5. Then, and only then, may we proceed to practical application. Too many contemporary Christians begin with personal application. This is an improper reading strategy. Application follows meaning, not vice versa. Memorize this saying— A Text Cannot Mean What It Never Meant. Yes, it’s a tongue twister.
One of the chief literary types we find in the Psalter are called Lament Psalms. In our modern day parlance these would be referred to as “complaints”. Psalm 13 is a good example:
To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and hear me, O Lord my God; Enlighten my eyes, Lest I sleep the sleep of death; Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed against him”; Lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved. But I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
Without going into an elaborate discussion of the psalm’s background let’s see what we can gain just by paying attention to the words of the psalm.
What can we learn from the epigram? The epigram is the brief inscription that in our English bibles is offset at the beginning of the psalm. In the original Hebrew these epigrams are considered part of the psalm. So we must start there.
To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
If the epigram informs us that David wrote the psalm to someone called Chief Musician then we can reasonably say that the psalm was originally to be sung. Why else would it be addressed to a musician? So, if it was meant to be sung in the Hebrew, but you don’t know Hebrew, does that mean the psalm has no application for you? Of course not, the psalm is meant to be used in worship. So we may use this in worshipping God.
Here’s the first section of the psalm:
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
We can readily understand that David wrote this when he was feeling deserted by God, that he was alone, that his circumstances were against him. We can also determine that complaining to God is not necessarily a sin. It might be in a specific circumstance, but it is not always. So David wrote the psalm as a hymn to be set to music for corporate worship. This means that David wanted people to understand that these desperate feelings should be expressed to God as a form of worship. Did you ever think that complaining to God could be (in the proper frame of mind) an acceptable aspect of worship? It is. Psalm 13 alone proves that.
Here’s the second section:
Enlighten my eyes, Lest I sleep the sleep of death; Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed against him”; Lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved.
Here we have specific requests. The first is that he be enlightened. He’s asking God for wisdom, and he wants us to ask God for wisdom. He also doesn’t want his enemies to have the chance of gloating. He’s asking for victory–but indirectly. The essential request is for wisdom. So that must be our essential request.
We come to the third section:
But I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
This is a resolution passage. First we have the past tense– But I have trusted in Your mercy– so this psalm is encouraging us to trust God in the midst of harsh situations. Second, we come to two uses of the future tense–My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord– here David is resolving to act in a certain way, he’s resolved in his heart to praise the Lord despite his situation. We do not do enough of this in our day. And we need to move in this direction. Third, David gives us the reason for his trust and praise– Because He has dealt bountifully with me– this might seem like a contradiction to the first section but it is not.
The foundation of the Christian life is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. You can do this even during rough times. In fact, the rough times are when we most need to do this. Read this psalm slowly two or three times and see if you can’t find some additional details. We’ve done the basic broad strokes. Then ask God how you can apply its truth to your life.