An Introduction To The Psalter On The Law And The Gospel: Psalms 1–2

I remember being in a record store when I was younger (if you are of the younger stripe, a record store is like if your favorite streaming service was a building where music was for sale on discs that you took home to insert in your player), and I accidentally eavesdropped on a conversation between another customer and a salesperson. The customer was ranting about how greatest hits collections should not exist because they are not real albums. In their view, an album has a unity to it, representing a degree of harmonized musical focuses, concerns, themes, and perhaps even a story from a specific period in the artist’s career. In other words, they thought that albums are about something. By contrast, greatest hits collections cherry-pick what has been popular without giving attention to what those songs mean in the context of the artist’s life and discography.

Assuming there was anything to that person’s opinion, when we come to the book of Psalms, we might easily assume it is more like a greatest hits collection than an album. If we use the psalms in church or in private devotions, we often dip into them somewhat at random. We read them as occasional writings, looking for what fits our situation. We treat them mostly like standalone tracks.

We need a balanced assessment of that strategy. From one angle, there is nothing wrong with that approach. The various writers of all the psalms composed them individually, sometimes for specific purposes and sometimes for general use. Each psalm is certainly fit and ripe for consideration in moments where the words of a particular psalm might be the apt comfort, encouragement, or help that we need. From another angle, we should also realize that the Psalter is a book that begins somewhere, goes somewhere, and ends somewhere. It is like an album in the sense that all its parts belong together. It is a book like all books in Scripture in that it has inner consistency and communicates a point to address God’s people.

This article starts a series about Psalm 2 with an introductory consideration about how Psalm 2 fits into the Psalter. Sean Morris did a great series on Psalm 1, where his first installment raised the critical point that Psalms 1–2 form “the great preface of the Psalter.”1 I do not want to rehash his excellent treatment of Psalm 1, but I do want to pull at another thread to show how Psalms 1–2 work together to introduce the whole of the book of Psalms.

The main point we want to consider is that Psalm 2 and Psalm 1 together establish the Psalter as being holistically about the law and the gospel.

Situating Psalm 2 Within God’s Songbook

Although this series is about Psalm 2, we need to locate it within the context of the whole Psalter. Since ancient times, Christians have understood that Psalms 1 and 2 form an introduction to the whole book, so we will likewise consider how these two psalms work in conjunction to that end.2

We should keep a few things in mind. First, many writers, under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, composed the individual psalms across several centuries. Some psalms are by Moses. David wrote more than any other one author. In that way, each psalm rightly stands on its own. Second, at some point during and/or after Israel’s exile under Babylon, those individual psalms as they stood were gathered and edited into the collection we have. To say that they were edited is not to say that the editors changed any words in any psalm itself. It is to say they organized the collection in a particular way. Third, that work of collecting and editing took place under the Spirit’s guidance too, so that not only the individual psalms but also the arrangement of the book is part of the God-given canon. The Psalms contain five books which can each be tied to a predominant theme. Even within those books, there are groupings of psalms that hang together.3 Within that scope, Psalms 1–2 frame everything that occurs in the Psalter.

Psalm 1 Sets Up Psalm 2 As the Law Leads Us To The Gospel

Psalm 1 reflects upon the blessed life. What characterizes it? What makes it blessed? Why does this reflection on the blessed life serve as a fitting introduction to this whole divinely inspired songbook? Psalm 1 teaches us that worship is for our instruction in the Christian life. The contrast between the blessed and the ungodly plays out across this psalm as it uses a revolving set of differences between these groups. There is an intensifying order to the actions that mark the godly as distinct from the ungodly. We see a decline into a settled life of sin. Even as you walk along your way, you must avoid the passing counsel of the ungodly. Things are worse if you stop to stand and linger in the path that sinners take. Things are worst if you sit down without plans to leave the dwelling place of those who scoff at righteousness. In verse 2, the blessed life differs from the ungodly by delighting in God’s law.4

That sets up the climatic difference: the blessed life is as stable as a tree firmly planted, but the wicked life is like chaff that blows away. Even the pleasures the wicked might enjoy in this life—things like worldly success—are like dust in the wind. The satisfaction is never real; it is like a mist hanging in the air that is blown away on a whim.

In terms of applying these realities to the blessed life, Psalm 1 grounds them in the fact that we are to delight in the law of the LORD, and on his law to meditate day and night (Ps 1:2). There are a few aspects to pull from that. First, as part one of the introduction to the whole book, Psalm 1 reveals that the Psalter is about instruction.5 In that sense, Psalm 1 wants us to see that all of the psalms are meant to teach us about this blessed life. The whole book is meant to shape us in how we live that righteous life of the blessed person.

How does this songbook shape us in living that sort of life? After all, it contains songs about a kingdom in many ways completely foreign to us, or about lament, praise, and joy in contexts that are often very different from ours. What ways do the psalms shape us in our godly character?

One key consideration is that the psalms train us to respond in the godly way to the full spectrum of experiences and emotions we encounter in the Christian life. The psalms instruct us in what to do as we walk with the Lord amidst all that this world throws at us.

That means the psalms teach us about God’s law.6 Since the Psalter is God’s inspired songbook for his people’s use in worship, the law’s sharpest edge in the psalms is likely the law’s third use. We are to delight in the law of the Lord. As Calvin put it, it is a study of law and how they are blessed who “apply their hearts to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom.”7 The Psalter instructs us in how to delight in God’s law by teaching us how to bring our lives before God in prayer no matter what circumstances we face in this fallen age. It is not idealistic; it shows lament and repentance. The Psalter instructs sinners how to sing to God in prayer with a real reckoning about how to delight in God’s righteous commands in our setting of redemptive history.

The consideration that we are to delight in God’s law signals that there are different ways we relate to the law. We see those relations even in how this psalm distinguishes two groups—the righteous and the ungodly—by their relation to God’s law.8 The blessed do not walk in wicked paths, but rather they delight in God’s law. The wicked will not withstand God’s judgment since God’s law condemns them.

Thus, if we think about the law apart from our standing in Christ, the law is determinative of our relationship and reward with God. Sinners, however, cannot come out on the good side of that condition of works, because we have all broken God’s law. As we can see, Psalm 1 does prompt us to consider God’s law from this angle as it describes the fragility and liability to judgment that belongs to the wicked life.

From another perspective, as those in Christ, the law is not a condition to earn life but a guide for how to live the life we have in Christ by grace. Saint Augustine drew out this relationship from verse 2: “Whoever is in the law acts according to the law; whoever is under the law is acted upon according to the law. The former, therefore, is free, the latter a slave.”9 In Romans 6:14, Paul confirms this state under which a Christian lives: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” We are not condemned by the law, because we are not under it. We still live in light of it, however, because we are not to go on sinning. Thus, the psalms teach us about the law as instruction for the Christian life.

God’s Songbook About The Law And The Gospel

We obviously must explain the change we undergo, from experiencing the law as condemnation to delighting in it. The Psalter itself, even in its introductory psalms, explains how that change is possible. The answer is found in the truly righteous man who has perfectly avoided sin and perfectly delighted in God’s law—and he did so for us. As is the case with every single psalm, Psalm 1 is ultimately about Christ. Inasmuch as Psalm 1 describes the life of delighting in God’s law, it is about how Christ fulfilled the law for us so that in gratitude we can delight in the law.

The combination of Psalm 1 with Psalm 2 as the two-part introduction to the Psalter grounds this point in the biblical text. If Psalm 1 is about the man who delights in God’s law, why does Psalm 2 about God’s king so quickly follow it? Because the king in Psalm 2 is ultimately the man who perfectly delighted in God’s law on behalf of his people.

Psalm 2 is about the king who crushes the nations and brings deliverance. The redemptive role is clear in the bookend statements of blessing in Psalm 1 and Psalm 2. Psalm 1 begins, “Blessed is the man” who avoids sin and delights in God’s law (Ps 1:1). Psalm 2 ends: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps 2:12).10 That is the all-encompassing shape of the law-gospel distinction as confessed in the Reformed tradition. We can delight in the Christian life because we are in Christ. As the introduction to the Psalter, Psalm 1 and 2 together show us that the psalms are about the law and the gospel.

The psalms are then about the whole of Christian teaching. They are about living for God and about Christ as the reason we can live for God. So, we take delight in the psalms as they tell us about the law and the gospel, as they teach us about how to thrive in the Christian life, and as we find our delight in Christ. It is helpful then for us to recognize that the songbook of the psalms is a cohesive album, teaching us the two main themes of doctrine—the law and the gospel—and instructing us how to live in light of both as we encounter the full spectrum of experiences of this life. As we soak in these truths, the psalms teach us to sing about how we belong to Christ.

Notes

  1. For Sean Morris’s series on Psalm 1, see “Resources on Psalm 1” on the Heidelblog. For the first article in that series, see, “Saturday Psalm Series: The Blessed Man, The Blessed Life, The Blessed Word—Psalm 1 (Part 1).”
  2. Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston with Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 118–19.
  3. Waltke, Houston, and Moore, Psalms as Christian Worship, 101.
  4. Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic Press, 2011–16), 1:185–87; John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 4.2:2–3; John Goldingay, Psalms, vol. 1 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006–8), 1:82–83.
  5. O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 55; Ross, Psalms, 1:182.
  6. Robertson, Flow of the Psalms, 54; Goldingay, Psalms, 1:80; Calvin, Commentaries, 4.1:1–2, 4.
  7. Calvin, Commentaries, 4.2:1.
  8. Robertson, Flow of the Psalms, 55; Ross, Psalms, 1:182.
  9. Saint Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms Volume 1, trans. Maria Boulding OSB (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 68. Emphasis added.
  10. Waltke, Houston, Moore, 160. Emphasis added.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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