Does it matter what order you read psalms? Would it matter if Psalm 22 were really Psalm 122 instead?
Most folks would answer “no” to those questions. The book of Psalms is usually treated as a semi-random anthology of poetry and prayer. Individual psalms may differ from one another (some are laments, some are praise, some praise the king, etc) but those genres run throughout the Psalter.
Read it front to back →
back to front ←
from the middle outwards ← →
It really doesn’t matter.
These folks point out lots of ways that individual pieces of liturgical poetry (as the psalms originally may have been) have been modified for later use.
- the adding of liturgical instructions and labels (as in Pss. 4-8; 30)
- the adding of superscriptions (the information at the beginning of a psalm) that set the psalm within the life of David. These help shift the psalm from public performance contexts to devotional literature. If I can imagine the psalm being prayed by David as an individual, then I might imagine myself using it in an analogous situation.
- the structuring of the Psalter into 5 books, each with a doxological ending
- the placement of Psalm 1 as introduction to the Psalter. Defined as a “wisdom” psalm because of its similarity with the wisdom materials in Proverbs and elsewhere, this psalm lays out the 2 paths available to humans: the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked. When this psalm comes first, it invites the reader to interpret the rest of the psalms within this framework. The praise of the king in other psalms takes a backseat to this guidance for everyone, and the “enemies” that psalms rail against become those who have chosen the path of the wicked.
- In Ps. 2 (Book I), the Davidic king is described in exalted terms, as an adopted son of God: “you are my son, today have I begotten you.”
- In Ps. 72 (Book II), the human king is also lauded, though his role in carrying out justice is underscored.
- Psalm 89 (Book III) starts out in support of the Davidic monarchy, repeating the promises God made to David, but the mood shifts dramatically in 89:38 (Eng. versing). God is accused of abandoning the Davidic king: “you have removed the scepter from his hand and hurled his throne to the ground” (89:44), and the psalmist moans, “How long, O LORD?”
- After this anguished claim that the Davidic covenant has been abandoned, psalms increasingly describe God as king. In Ps. 93 (Book IV), the LORD is the one called king and described as robed in majesty. In Ps. 145 (Book V), the LORD is the king who executes justice.
Based on these examples, the Psalter progressively transfers kingship from the Davidic monarchy to the LORD. Human kings become increasingly less integral to God’s rule. I find that movement fascinating and compelling.
When I did my own search of “king” in the Psalter, the results didn’t turn out quite that obvious. God is called king long before Books IV and V, with some frequency. But, I didn’t find any case, apart from a historical recitation, in which the human king is talked about after the “crisis” of Ps. 89.
If the Psalter was edited to be read sequentially as a book, what does that mean for contemporary usage? Should churches quit selecting psalms by theme for use in liturgy and instead start preaching from the Psalms? Should we not read Psalms randomly but instead look for how themes such as kingship change over the course of the Psalter?