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Psalms and Proverbs Interpreting the Literary Types

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The book of Psalms is one of the best known and most lost loved books of the OT, and we also find this genre in other books of the Bible (2Sam 22, for example).  Psalms are basically musical poems, hymns and prayers.  In order to express the entire range of human emotions, the language of the psalms is very comprehensive, including high usage of figurative language such as hyperbole and metaphors, and subject to the literary rules governing poetry and wisdom.  We find psalms of salvation, lament, petition, confession, complaints, praises, distress and deliverance, thanksgiving, history, proverbs, celebration, wisdom, creation, trust and others.  The primary purpose for the biblical psalms is to teach us how to express ourselves to God in prayer and worship.

In understanding the Psalms, one of the most important keys is that these scriptures are not primarily commands or moral instructions from God to us, but are of much benefit when we utilize them for their primary intended purpose, which is to teach us how to express ourselves to God in prayer and worship.  We should use the Psalms to help express our thoughts and feelings in prayer, then listen for His answer.  Many psalms contain doctrine, but we must always examine our conclusions in light of the whole of Scripture.  This bring us to a second crucial rule for evaluating a psalm, always interpret individual verses within the full context of the entire psalm.  Most psalms are self-contained musical stories whose ideas develop within the flow before being brought to a conclusion.  Taking verses out of context can easily lead to a wrong conclusion of its purpose and message.

It is also very helpful to recognize the type of each psalm.  We've already listed many types above, but we'll provide some brief notes and descriptions of a few examples (not exhaustive).  Note also that some psalms can fit into more than one type, and can be personal, community, or national.

Praise Psalms:  Sometimes called “Hallelujah” or “Thanksgiving” psalms (Pss 145-150), these songs praise God for His salvation and great works.

Lament Psalms:  These psalms are usually a cry for help during time of distress.  Common elements are an initial plea to God, description of the circumstances of the lament, confession of trust in God, petition for help, and a concluding vow to praise the Lord regardless of deliverance.  Psalms 3 and 22 are examples of individual or personal laments, while Psalms 44 and 83 are examples of national laments.

Imprecatory Psalms:  Sometimes called “Judgment” psalms (the verb “imprecate” means to curse, to damn or bring disaster upon), a portion of these psalms (35, 70, 79, 94, 109, 137 etc) contain a request for God to punish the enemies of the psalmist.  Some have complained that these statements are in contradiction with the remainder of scripture, but see a God’s response to a request of Jeremiah against his enemies (Jer 11:20-23).

Royal or Messianic Psalms (Pss 2, 45, 89, 100), that emphasize the sovereign God as Creator, Savior of Israel, reigning King, often pointing toward the coming of Jesus, Penitential psalms (Pss 6, 32, 51, 102) which contains confession of sin and a request for forgiveness, and Wisdom psalms (Pss 1, 14, 91, 112, 119) that focus on God blessing the righteous vs cursing the wicked, similar to those found in the Book of Proverbs.  In addition, we also find Torah psalms that typically focus on the truth of the Law of God, and Historical psalms that recite the history of Israel with emphasis on their rebellion and God’s continued faithfulness.

Finally, we mention one additional group of psalms.  The Psalms of Ascent (Pss 120-134) are songs that were traditionally sung by Jewish pilgrims as they travelled up (ascended) to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. 

To conclude, the Psalms reveal that we can honestly and openly express our emotions before God.  David, the author of many of the Psalms, could almost simultaneously express anger and praise within the same thought.  He could quickly move from spiritual despair to confident assurance, from deep sorrow to rejoicing.  I think many of us can identify with the Psalms in that the mood changes reflect our own feelings, particularly during times of struggling with our faith.   Finally, the psalms help us to meditate and reflect on the greatness of God and His Word.

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A proverb is short statement, often utilizing metaphorical language, which expresses a general truth and offers practical advice, usually regarding attitudes, behavior and values.  In short, the sayings offer good and wise advice that teach basic realities about life.  Some examples of modern proverbs are “honesty is the best policy”, “Actions speak louder than words”, and “All that glitters is not gold”.  Many of the modern proverbs comes from the best source of all, the Bible.  Turning to the Bible, the number one source for wise proverbs is the Book of Proverbs, but major sections of other wisdom books of the Bible such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and the NT book of James also consist of proverbs.  In fact, we find proverbs scattered throughout the Bible, including the teachings of Jesus.  With respect to literary genre, proverbs are also categorized as wisdom and poetry, so see those sections for additional information.

 In interpreting a proverb, the most important principle that we must understand is that a proverb functions as a general principles of right and wrong as they apply to life.  The statement is true in the majority of cases, but is not an iron-clad guarantee.  For example, Proverbs 22:6 states, Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.  In general, a child of Christian parents has a much better chance of becoming a committed follower of Christ than those from non-Christian families, but we all know exceptions to this rule.  The larger truth is that children, in most cases, tend to follow in their parents footsteps regarding spiritual matters.  In addition, a proverb, being a general principle, may not apply uniformly in all cases (see Prv 26:4–5 for example).

Another principle is that proverbs are phrased to be catchy, usually for ease of memory.  Writers of proverbs are more concerned with the reader retaining the message than with being technically precise.  They don't state a truth exhaustively, frequently only pointing toward or suggesting a broader truth, often figuratively.  Thus, proverbs should be balanced with other proverbs and interpreted in context with the rest of Scripture.

Finally, we must be cautious not to use proverbs related to health or wealth to support a “name it and claim it” philosophy or a selfish materialistic lifestyle.  Proverbs, rightly used, are meant to provide practical advise for leading a life pleasing to God.

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