How to Study a Psalm: 4 Keys to Interpretation

interpret psalms

You and I live in a modern city, but imagine that across the river is another town very different from ours: an ancient one. We drive cars, they ride animals. We chat over coffee at a cafe; they chat over water at the community well. We suffer from a divisive and polarizing political situation; they—well, they do too. Not everything has changed in the last few thousand years. But our two towns are indeed separated by a river of differences in culture, language, and history.

two towns

Image courtesy Zondervan.

Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays tell a version of this story in their popular textbook on biblical hermeneutics, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. They use it as an illustration to help Christians go beyond merely reading the Bible to studying it.

And that’s what we’re doing with Psalm 44 in this series on Observation, Interpretation, and Application. This week: Interpretation.

In order to cross the bridge and come back with gold for our own spiritual lives, Duvall and Hays suggest we use the following four steps (a final step, grasping the text in our town, will be saved for our final post in the series):

1. Grasp the text in their town

Our first job is to seek God’s intended meaning in the original historical-cultural situation. What did the author of Psalm 44 mean when, as it were, he spoke in and to his own “town”?

The nation of Israel at the time of this psalm was perplexed and near despair. Was their intense suffering a sign God had rejected them? Psalm 44 puts words to the nation’s spiritual distress. The author clearly trusted and honored the Lord: the first eight verses prove that. But he could not understand why the Lord had disgraced the Israelites and abandoned them to their enemies. “This isn’t divine judgment for our sins; so what is it?” He never directly challenges God with wrongdoing; he only asks why—“Why are you sleeping?,” “Why do you hide your face?” And he ends the psalm with an appeal to God’s steadfast love. This is a believer saying “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Psalm 44 doesn’t just express the nation’s feelings of frustration; it expresses their faith. They still instinctively reached out to Yahweh and not to other gods. They recognized that it was for his sake that they were “killed all the day long” (v.22). And they appealed to him as their covenant Lord in the final line: “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” This is not something worshipers of Baal could pray; only the Jews could. They could appeal to statements in their law such as this one: “the Lord set his love on you and chose you . . . because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers” (Deut 7:7-8). Psalm 44 is just such an appeal.

“Steadfast love”—as a Bible Word Study on the Hebrew term here, chesed, will show you—is the loyal love of covenant faithfulness. (Except perhaps in Esther 2:9.) The psalmist is appealing to the covenant God made with Israel.

2. Measure the width of the river

The most significant difference between the two towns—the widest point in the river separating them—is not technological or linguistic. It’s covenantal. It’s B.C. and A.D. One stands before Jesus, the centerpoint of history, the other after him—and after the institution of his “New Covenant.”

Christians believe different things about the level of continuity between the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant, but we all agree that the two covenants are not the same. There are elements of the old covenant, the Mosaic, to which Psalm 44 appeals; and there is, therefore, a certain distance between us and the psalm.

No other nation on earth can say to the Lord what the psalmist does in his opening lines. It’s Israel whom God planted in the land, Israel in whom God delighted. When American, Turkish, Chinese, or Djiboutian Christians read this psalm, we must be clear in our minds that God never promised to go out with our respective armies, nor to plant us in our respective lands. Political leaders of any nation are always wont to claim divine sanction for their actions (even secular leaders claim to be on “the right side of history,” as if the future itself is a transcendent source of norms).

Although it’s possible for Americans or Kazaks or Djiboutians to responsibly use this psalm in a time of national turmoil, certain phrases won’t directly apply. We can’t refer to ourselves while praying to God as “your people” (v.12). Most importantly—and this is particularly crucial for American Christians, who have often viewed themselves as the new Israel—we cannot appeal to God’s “steadfast love” (v.26), his covenant faithfulness, to our nation. No doubt God has shed his grace on us, from sea to shining sea, but there’s an ocean of difference between God’s explicit national promises to Israel and his international promises to the church. It is a dangerous compromise with American civil religion to commandeer God’s promises to Israel and keep them for ourselves.

I beg your indulgence for my moment on the soapbox here; my major point is not about America in particular but about differences between the two major covenants of the Bible in particular. We must keep them as distinct as the Bible does.

3. Cross the bridge

If the river is so wide, why bother making the arduous trek across the bridge at all? Because the character of God is still evident in Psalm 44, and that character does not change even if God’s steadfast love is manifested differently today in our town than it was in theirs. Psalm 44 is a way for the divine author to acknowledge that it’s not always possible for his people to see his purposes behind their pain; it’s divine permission for believers to ask why the Lord appears to be asleep. And the rest of the Bible shows that this is a message, a principle, that is still fully valid.

Think about the dynamics here: God inspired an ancient Israelite to levy hard questions at his Lord. What does this imply? That it’s not inherently wrong to ask God, “Why?!” It need not (though I think it can; it depends on your heart motives) be faithless and blaspheming to ask God why it looks like he’s asleep. We Christians don’t have the same covenant with God that Israel did; we have a better one, enacted on better promises (Heb 8:6–7)! The basic (and literarily artful) structure of the psalmist’s argument is one we can still use; when we’re undergoing trials we can appeal to God’s steadfast love—his covenant faithfulness in the New Covenant.

4. Consult the biblical map

You could come up with erroneous “principles” from Psalm 44, such as, “When I don’t like my circumstances it’s because God is being faithless to his covenant with me,” or “God sometimes punishes people for being good.” These errors would be major stretches even if all you knew of the Bible was Psalm 44. But the Bible is a lot bigger than this one medium-sized psalm. You’ve got to keep it all in mind.

Consult the biblical map: evaluate whether or not the principles you derived from this psalm really fit with the rest of Scripture. Is it true elsewhere in the Bible that it’s not inherently wrong to ask God, “Why?!” Sure it is: there are plenty of other laments in the psalms. Job also comes to mind. So does Paul and his thorn in the flesh. In these places in Scripture people suffer in ways they don’t understand and appeal to God to change their circumstances. Sometimes, as with Job, God alleviates the negative circumstances. Other times, as with Paul, God explains that he has something to teach through the pain, and Paul accepts this (2 Cor. 12:7). In the case of this psalm, God gives no final answer.

Conclusion

“Observation” and “Interpretation” are not fully distinct. You can’t help interpreting as you observe. You made something of the Psalm 44’s abrupt shift from praise to lament; you couldn’t help it.

But the turn from observation to interpretation is a self-conscious move from questions of substance into questions about meaning. What did the psalmist intend for his readers to do with this psalm? And what did God intend for today’s readers to do with it?

And that means that interpretation itself is not fully distinct from application. As theologian John Frame has pointed out, if you don’t know how to use a given passage of Scripture for God-glorifying ends, you don’t really understand it.

Nonetheless, it’s helpful to distinguish their town (observation), our town (application), and the bridge in between (interpretation).

Next week, we bring the truths of Psalm 44 fully into our town by applying its principles to parallel contemporary situations.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. Really appreciated all this and especially wanted to affirm your “soapbox” comments in the #2 section. I too seek to call out the mixture of nationalistic or militaristic ideals with Christianity, such as

    * mixing the American flag with worship or communion in church gatherings, as in many church halls
    * mixing songs that point to God’s historical acts with nationalism, as in PowerPoint slides and sometimes in Christian school programs
    * mixing Jesus’ worship with country’s war efforts, as in the horrific song “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

    Just today I heard of an Australian Christian band called For King and Country, and the King part they apparently take to refer to King Jesus. No matter how good the intentions are, we need to stop mixing such things. God is a jealous God.

    Lee Camp in Mere Discipleship says this:

    “While biblically informed discipleship requires us to give ourselves in absolute allegiance to the kingdom of God, the Constantinian cataract threatens the purity of that allegiance by mixing it with an allegiance to the empire or nation-state. Or, perhaps more accurately, we begin to believe that the pursuit of the agenda of the empire or nation-state may be placed comfortably alongside our pursuit of the kingdom of God, even though the ends and goals of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are clearly different, and clearly at odds with one another.” (43-44)

    • The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a wonderful hymn speaking of God’s character in enacting justice, and how it leads to humans fighting to uphold justice as well.

      The entire song speaks how transformation is only in Christ, how God is the true arbiter of justice, and how we should answer the call for justice not because of ‘nation’ but because there are real injustices in the world that need addressing.

      “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” – This is the acknowledgement that Christ died so that men would be free from sin (holy), therefore, it’s upholding God’s character to be willing to lay down one’s life for justice and the freedom of others. As God commanded Gideon, and others, sometimes the injustice of the world calls for men of God to lay down their lives to right it.

      “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His Judgement Seat.” – It isn’t the soldiers who are declaring the just from the unjust, but God.

      A similar premise is found in the Star Spangled Banner.

      “Thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
      Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
      Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
      Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
      Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
      And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
      And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
      O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

      I certainly agree that there is a disturbing tendency in modern days for U.S. citizens to read America into the Bible, or start treating our heavenly citizenship as subservient to Earthly citizenship. That form of nationalistic worldliness is a real problem.

      However, scripture is profitable for all ‘life and godliness’, which includes its application in matters of civil justice and in war.

      • It’s interesting that we have radically different takes on the song, but I think the difference has to do more with our respective views on God’s current-day use (or non-use) of military force in order to effect justice. Here is a fairly incisive analysis of the Battle Hymn: https://thejesusquestion.org/2012/07/09/the-battle-hymn-of-the-republic-its-origin-and-meaning/. I do not track with this blogger all the way through, by any means, but I would say it this way: the mixture of a stanza-long focus on Christ, brutal military force, and a couple words of worship are things that do not belong together. If you don’t want to read the entire post, search and skip down to the paragraph that begins “What’s problematic …” and you will find the crux of the issue I decry. (I also think the Star Spangled Banner senselessly glorifies war, and I think most nationalistic songs do the same thing, to one extent or another.) Incidentally, the “Battle Hymn” is not a hymn either a lyrical or musical sense.

        Although concern over the just treatment of people was clearly a key cause of the Civil War, I find abhorrent the idea that God would bless the North (or the South) in bloody routs of the other side. I believe that, after Israel’s theocracy was no longer in existence, militarism is no longer righly connected to God. Whatever we find in Old Covenant history, a radical change occurred as the Messiah brought in a new iteration of God’s Kingdom. No more force. To paraphrase Lee Camp (Mere Discipleship): it is not that men must fight to guarantee freedom for faith. Actually, Jesus died to free us from physical fear, and our faith in his resurrection and in our ultimate hope frees us love even our enemies.

        I agree with you that there are real issues in our world that need addressing (obviously! what a horrific couple of weeks it has been in world news!), and I greatly appreciate your clarification that it should not be “because of nation.” It is clearly appropriate to believe that justice is a major concern of God (through the OT prophets and Matthew, for instance). Governments and military machines will do what they need to do, but for me, trying weakly to be a disciple of Jesus the Messiah, the issues are more manageable if I think about treating justly all those individuals I come into contact with, and teaching my son to do the same.