The central context for making sense of the psalms is theological not historical. We do not know a lot about the original historical contexts of most of the psalms. They Book of Psalms we have today was composed across about a thousand years of history.
Even though the psalms are brimming over with emotion and experience, their primary context is also not psychological. In our contemporary culture, we work hard at trying to understand our inner selves. It might feel natural for us to try and excavate the inner state of the psalmist. It might also feel empowering for us to use the psalms to try to better understand ourselves. The primary problem with using a psychological approach to understanding the psalms, however, is that they were not written by people trying hard to understand themselves. That might be hard to realize these days, but the psalms were written by people grappling with the meaning of life.
Theologically, the psalms are mainly the responses of people who understood deep in their bones that God had everything to do with their life. Psalmists listen to the word of God and answer it. Israel's neighboring nations studied the stars, mathematics, and philosophy. They wrote predictions and treatises as their responses to that study. The ancient Israelites studied the Word of God. They knew their God well. They knew that He intruded into all of life. The Book of Psalms is their response to that knowledge of and encounter with the LORD.
Another important context for understanding the Book of Psalms is in how they have been used by the people of God. The psalms are embedded within the Bible in a deliberate order. No individual psalm is isolated from any other psalm or any other part of the Bible. For us, this means that the Holy Spirit is at least as much the Author of psalms as their original human author.
The psalms are the prayers of a worshipping community. The psalms have been an integral and often essential element of worship for millenia. Regardless of the circumstances in which they were originally conceived, all of the psalms are communal. They are the songs and prayers of the assembled people of God.
The Book of Psalms is comprised of five smaller psalm books. Each has an opening and a closing.
Additionally, there are at least seven different themes that psalms can be categorized into. There are psalms of lament. Imprecatory and Penitential psalms are special forms of lament. There are thanksgiving psalms. Hymnic psalms are all about praising the LORD. Liturgical psalms are public worship songs, and community psalms focus on instruction and meditation.
The psalms are poems to be sung with musical accompaniment. They teach us how to worship. The psalms train us how to move from fear or lament to praise and hope. Some have instruction for instruments we no longer know about. Some Christian traditions only sing the psalms unaccompanied. Whether done with or without musical instruments, singing together is one of the most important ways we build our bonds within the community of faith. We sing the psalms together in community worship.
Each psalm is a prayer, and the Book of Psalms as a whole is a prayer language. Consider what this implies for prayer. Because we believe that the Holy Spirit is the Author of the Bible, and that the Book of Psalms is not independently isolated from the rest of the Bible, this means that prayer is a received language for the people of God. Christians do not simply make up prayers that happen to suit our whim or genius. We pray as we were taught to pray. For millenia, the people of God have learned to pray from the Book of Psalms.
Moreover, the psalms are all about praying as a worshipping community. Prayer is the principal way we develop our life in community. The psalms train us in community prayer. We pray the psalms together in community worship.
The language of the psalms is one of intimacy and relationship. It is personal and relational. It is not informative, analytical, or persuasive. In other words, this is neither the language of schools or of politics. It is too precious and vulnerable for those types of places. Relational languages are spoken at the kitchen table, within the bedroom, and over tea. This is the language of best friends. It comprises the words used within a family.
As the language of the psalms is a language of love and relationship, accuracy is the primary goal. Of course effort is made at being nice, but that is secondary. For example, if I am telling my wife about my cancer diagnosis, more than anything else, I want to communicate to her as accurately as possible what the doctor said and how I feel about it all. She will not mind at all if I interrupt her reply to cry. Niceness is secondary. Complete disclosure is paramount. The psalms are like this. They are intimate and accurate. They are responses. They are relational.
The language of Psalm 3 is like this. It is not nice, but it is accurate. This psalm opens with a cry to the LORD about the psalmist's enemies. The enemies are felt in three different ways.
This is followed by an anecdote about prayer in the daily rhythm of life for a child of God. "I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill." I did this when "I lay down," when "I slept," and when "I woke again."
After this anecdote about prayer, the psalmist continues praying by issuing two imperatives to the LORD. Imperatives call on someone else to do something that I am unable to do myself.
As ever in the psalms, these cries to the LORD are surrounded by gratitude and praise. Psalm 3 ends by exclaiming about being thankful and being blessed. The LORD is the one who acts. The LORD is the one who gives. We pray. We are blessed. We are delivered.
The language of the psalms is elemental but not elementary. This is not a language of abstractions. This is not a language of cool control. The psalms do not talk about God. They are not informational. This is the language of desperate reality. The psalms talk to God. When we immerse ourselves in the psalms, we learn how to talk to God. We learn how to pray. We learn how to live.