The Music of the Psalms alongside the Events of the Old Testament

By David Prairie

Author’s Note: This article is the result of a Bible study I taught to college students at Grace Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN on Sunday, December 5, 2021 as part of their study of the Psalms. Much of my understanding of the nature of the Psalms is informed by Dr. Jim Hamilton, under whom I studied at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and from whose teaching I continue to benefit greatly. Rather than cite every instance where I have been shaped by his influence, I will simply point readers to James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 275-83, where they can see his comments on the role the Psalms play in the overall storyline of Scripture. He also has a new commentary on the Psalms published by Lexham Press that I have not yet accessed.

            My sons and I occasionally play a game where the Lord of the Rings soundtrack is playing in the car, and each of us tries to be the first one to name the scene associated with the music. We’ve seen the movies enough times to recognize certain elements in the music and those sounds conjure up what happens on the screen when those notes are struck. Some tunes elicit joy or exultation, others fear or even sadness.

            The Psalms of the Bible function like a musical soundtrack to a movie. They aren’t included primarily to carry the story forward, but rather to help us know how to feel about what is happening. They are the poetic commentary on the narrative sections of Scripture.

            Some Psalms give us textual clues to show us which narratives are being sung about. For example, Psalm 18 (written by David) matches 2 Samuel 22, showing that the Psalm is meant to help us think about that point in David’s life.

            In Psalm 18, David frequently identifies God as his “rock” (vv. 2, 31, 46) who delivers and rescues him (vv. 2-3, 16-19, 43, 46-48, 50). In Psalm 19, David says that Yahweh is “my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14). These two Psalms are bracketed with that description of God as a rock. Psalm 18 shows that God is the rock who rescues. Psalm 19 shows that God is the rock who reveals himself through the world (vv. 1-6) and through his Word (vv. 7-12).

            Psalms 20-21 also comprise a unit because they are battle songs. Psalm 20 would be sung by the armies of Israel as they marched toward battle with their enemies, and Psalm 21 would be sung as a victory song after defeating their enemies in battle. Notice how Psalm 21 celebrates the answers to the requests made in Psalm 20.

“May he grant you your heart’s desire” (20:4).“You have given him his heart’s desire” (21:2).
“Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand” (20:6).“Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you” (21:8).
“We trust in the name of the LORD our God” (20:7).“The king trusts in the LORD” (21:7).
“O LORD, save the king!” (20:9).“O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices, and in your salvation how greatly he exults!” (21:1)

            The order of these Psalms (18-21) seems to follow the order of the events in David’s life as described in 2 Samuel. After David’s song in 2 Samuel 22, his “last words” are recorded in which David is presented as both an anointed and exalted king and as a psalmist (23:1). God is shown to be the “Rock of Israel” who reveals himself through words given by his Spirit (23:2-3). Chapter 23 concludes with accounts of battles won by David and his “mighty men” as the Lord worked to bring about great victories for them (23:8-39).

            When viewed together, we can see how the poetry of Psalms 18-21 corresponds to the prose of 2 Samuel 22-23.

2 Sam 22 – God, the Rock, delivers DavidPsalm 18 – God, the Rock, delivers David
2 Sam 23:1-7 – God, the Rock, reveals himself through his WordPsalm 19 – God, the Rock, reveals himself through his Word.
2 Sam 23:8-39 – Stories from battlePsalms 20-21 – Songs from battle

It’s possible that the parallels expand beyond these sections. For example, 2 Samuel 24 records David’s sin against the Lord in taking an unauthorized census and the ensuing judgment and death that resulted in Israel. David intervenes for the people by purchasing offerings to the Lord so that the people are spared from God’s wrath (24:18-25). This event may correspond to Psalm 22, where David speaks as one who has been forsaken to death (22:1, 15), and to Psalm 23 where David describes how the Lord shepherds him “through the valley of the shadow of death” (23:4). While 2 Samuel ends with chapter 24, those who continue to read encounter David’s final instructions and his own physical death in 1 Kings 1-2, thus continuing the theme in the larger narrative.

This small sample shows the intentionality with which the individual Psalms were structured and arranged into the Psalter as a whole. There may even be a discernable flow throughout the entire Psalter. At the very least, there seem to be self-contained sections that make up a unit, similar to the way that many modern hymnals are arranged categorically. It could be that Psalms 18-21 fit into such a unit comprised of Psalms 15-24. This unit begins and concludes with Psalms that ask questions about those who can stand on the hill of the Lord, where he dwells. The material contained within the unit also aligns with other themes in a chiastic formula. If this structure is present, it intentionally places God’s self-revelation at the center.

Who shall dwell on the Lord’s holy hill? (Psalm 15)

            The Lord does not abandon to Sheol, but makes known the path of life (Psalm 16)

                        Soul delivered from the wicked by the Lord’s sword (Psalm 17)

                                    God delivers David from Saul and other enemies (Psalm 18)

                                                God reveals himself through the world and his Word (Psalm 19)

                                    God delivers Israel from battle with their enemies (Psalm 20-21)

                        Soul delivered from the sword of the wicked (Psalm 22)

            The Lord shepherds in paths of righteousness through the shadow of death (Psalm 23)

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? (Psalm 24)

            There is much more that could be said about the content of these Psalms, particularly the way they point forward to Christ and are fulfilled in him. For now, let the combined sounds of the Psalms and the images from Samuel (and others) enhance the beauty of the poetry and the One of whom they ultimately speak.

Author: David Prairie

Husband. Father. International Theological Education for Live Global and ABWE. Doctoral Graduate from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Twitter user: @DavidPrairie

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