The book Psalms is the praise book of God’s covenant people. Yes, the Psalms contain prayers (Pss 17, 86, and 142), laments (Pss 3–7, 9–10, 12–14, 17, 22, 25–28, and many more), wisdom psalms (Pss 1, 19, 37, 49, 50, 73, 78, 112, and 119), royal psalms (Ps 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, and 144), processional hymns (Pss 15, 24, and 120–134), psalms of trust (Pss 11, 16, 23, 27, 62–63, and 91), thanksgiving songs (Pss 30, 32, 34, 40, 75, 107, 116, and 118) and much more. Collectively, however, the book of Psalms is a book of praise. This is evident in the Hebrew title of the book tehillîm, which means “songs of praise.”[1] This means that even the other genres within the book are ultimately classified as worship as they are part of the collective tehillîm.

But what does worship have to do with holiness? Everything. Worship is the fulfillment of holiness as it is confessional. Someone once said, “If you want to know what someone believes, tell me what they sing, and I’ll tell you what they believe.” Through the Psalms, worshippers proclaim their alliance and faithfulness to Yahweh as the one who is worthy of their worship as the One True God. As set forth in the Torah and affirmed again and again in the historical books and prophets, Yahweh is the One True God who is entirely sovereign, transcendent, and immanent. None compete with him and nothing restricts him. As such, Yahweh alone merits worship. He is the only one to whom people submit themselves in a posture of awe as a response to the mysterium tremendum and majesty of God. Worship is the recognition that God is the One True God; the One who is set apart from all others; the Holy One. When the creation, and humans in particular, confess in worship the exclusive lordship of Yahweh the world is as it was meant to be from the very beginning. Worship is the ultimate expression of exclusive monotheism as it affirms the holiness, the uniqueness of God as God. James L. Mays sums it up brilliantly with this: 

The One Hundredth Psalm says, “Know that the Lord is God.” That is, by the acclamation of your joyous praise, acknowledge and declare that the one who has named himself by the sacred tetragrammaton, whom the scriptures pronounce Adonai and our versions translate as Lord, that one is God, the only God, the one of whom alone the predicate of God may be used, the one who in his identity defines and preempts the noun “god.” And the confession is completed by declaring, “Adonai made us and we are his, his people and the sheep of his nature.” That is, the psalm adds to the confession the most central activity which gives content to the name, the salvation-story.[2]

Recalling Genesis 3, the purpose of humanity is to fill the creation with the glory of God. When Adam and Eve fell, they abdicated this responsibility as image-bearing vice-regents over the creation. As rebels against God, they no longer glorified him. They failed to recognize God as the One True God. They became morally relative, pluralistic polytheists. They created for themselves a world in which everything is the same. No one and nothing are set a part. Everything is continuous and common. When humans worship Yahweh, however, the human vocation as the God-glorifying image bearers is restored. The people of God are the ones who confess their exclusive allegiance to Yahweh in worship. The outworking of holiness in people is worship. When people praise, the human vocation is fulfilled. This means that the saints—those who are sanctified—are those who worship. 

Prayer, the Presence of God, and Holiness

There is yet a further connection between the Psalms and holiness that is revealed in the historical context and literary shape of the Psalter. The book of Psalms is divided into five sub “books”:

  • Book 1: 1–41
  • Book 2: 42–72
  • Book 3: 73–89
  • Book 4: 90–106
  • Book 5: 107–150 

These five books of the Psalter reflect the five books of the Torah (Gen–Deut).

As tradition attributes responsibility of the Psalter to David, it is understood that while the Torah is a book of instruction given to Israel by Moses, the Psalter is a book of instruction given to Israel by David. The Midrash on the Psalms states:

As Moses gave five books of laws to Israel, so David gave five Books of Psalms to Israel, the Book of Psalms entitled Blessed is the man (Ps. 1:1), the Book entitled For the leader: Maschil (Ps. 41:1), the Book, A Psalm of Asaph (Ps. 73:1), the Book, A Prayer of Moses (Ps. 90:1), and the Book, Let the redeemed of the Lord say (Ps. 107:2). Finally, as Moses blessed Israel with the words Blessed art thou, O Israel (Deut. 33:29), so David blessed Israel with the words Blessed is the man.[3]

The significance of this and its impact on understanding holiness is wrapped up in the broader story of Israel. Many of the Psalms were written, sung, or prayed during a time in which there was no temple in Israel. This would be true of the psalms of David and the psalms composed during and after the exile as the temple was destroyed in the 6th century B.C.[4] Psalms that were written during a time in which there was no temple make up a large portion of the psalms.[5] How does this reality reconcile the fact that the temple is a major controlling theme that spans the book of Psalms?[6] More specifically, what happens when there is no temple? How can David worship God in his presence when there is no temple? How can Israel access the presence of Yahweh after the temple has been destroyed? Could God truly be with them without the temple, and if so, how? The Psalter’s answer to that question is prayer.

The five books of the Torah detailed stipulations for the priesthood and rules for regulating how Israel accessed God’s holy presence. The Torah, then, is a sort of handbook for experiencing God’s presence. With the destruction of the temple, the Psalms offers an alternative solution for experiencing God’s presence through prayer. In short, if you’re in the Psalms, you’re in the temple. The Psalmist says it perfectly in Psalm 22:3, which says, “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”

If the book of Psalms is a means for getting into the holy presence of God, then by extension it is a means of sanctification. If God’s people are going to be transformed by the holy presence of God, and prayer is the door to that presence, then prayer is a means for conforming to the holy image of God. Mays writes,

“Means of Grace” is a term used recurrently in the Christian tradition for regular and established ways in which divine grace is offered and received. The list of means has usually included the sacraments, reading scripture, and prayer. These psalms composed as prayers of need, gratitude, and trust have provided on the most important resources in the disciplined use of means of grace. The prayer psalms are both scripture and prayer. Everything that we know about their role in the life of faith caress the centuries is a record of their significant value.[7]

The Psalms as a means of grace is also what Psalm 1 is all about. Psalm 1 is a contrast between the righteous and the wicked. According to Psalms 1:2b, righteous people meditate on the law of the Lord day and night (Ps 1:2b). The word “law” (Heb. tôrah) here is referencing the book of Psalms in its five-part correspondence to the Torah. This means that Psalm 1 is telling readers that people who are righteous (i.e., faithful to the covenant; holy) meditate on the book of Psalms. In light of the historical context of the compiling of the Psalter, Psalm 1 is telling its exilic or post-exilic audience that even though there is no longer a temple, you can still be faithful to the covenant, and the way is through praying the Psalms

There is yet another, crucial temple-centric dynamic in the Psalter. Each of the five books within the Psalter also corresponds to a particular time during Israel’s history.[8] It is as follows

  • Book 1: United Monarchy Under David
  • Book 2: United Monarchy Under Solomon
  • Book 3: Divided Monarchy 
  • Book 4: The Exile
  • Book 5: Return from Exile and Restoration of the Temple

With this, there is a movement from being far from the temple to gradually moving closer to the temple. This movement climaxes in Psalms 145–150—the so-called “Little Hallel”—which celebrates the final return to the fullness of the presence of God. As the reader progresses through the Psalter there is gradually less lamentation and more praise. This is representative of movement toward the temple and the exuberant joy that results from being in the presence of Yahweh. 

What is the significance of this? In light of what we have said in previous chapters about the temple as a microcosm of the new creation and Israel as the new humanitythe Psalter is subtly telling the story of the restoration of Eden. By returning to the presence of God and a place of unadulterated access to Yahweh and worship in his presence, God’s purposes for the creation are restored. As Israel worships in his presence, they recognize him as the One True God and thereby fulfill the human vocation of glorifying God. 

[1]         Furthermore, many of the psalms contain the title “song” (Heb. šîr; Pss 18; 28:7; 30; 33:3; 40:3; 42:4; 45; 46; 48; 65; 66; 67; 68; 75), “hymn” (Heb. tehillâh; Pss 119:171; 145; 147:1; 148:14), and the book closes with an exuberant shout of praise for the kingship of Yahweh (Pss 145–150).

[2]         James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 65.

[3]         William G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms (Yale Judaica Series 13; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 1:49–50.

[4]         See 2 Kings 24–25; 2 Chronicles 36:15–21. Cf. Psalm 79.

[5]         This is not to say that the majority of the psalms were not used for temple worship. See fn. 6.

[6]         Most if not all of the Psalms are imagined having a place in the life of worship in the temple. This is evidenced in the liturgical nature of many of the psalms (Pss 24, 118, 136), certain psalms being attributed to temple musicians (Pss 42–49, 50, 73–83, 84–85, 87–88), as well as Old Testament references to hymns being sung in the temple (1 Chrn 15:16–19 and 2 Chrn 20:19). This temple is synonymous with motifs in the Psalms related to God as refuge/protection, Zion, and the Holy hill. Also see Ps 5:7; 11:4; 18:6; 27:4; 29:9; 30 48:9; 65:4; 68:29; 79:1; 138:2. 

[7]         Mays, 40.

[8]         For more details on the canonical shape of the Psalter see Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth laNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, ed. E.J. Young, R.K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmands, 2014), 21–38.

Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary


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