Psalms – A Prayer Book for the Exiles

A lot of people had a virtual Thanksgiving this year.  Thankfully, technology allows us to connect even when we are separated from each other.  We can use Zoom, Skype, Duo, FaceTime, Marco Polo, and other platforms to connect.

During the Exile, that was not possible of course.  Not only were the Exiles cut off from family left behind in Jerusalem, they felt cut off from God because the temple was destroyed.

The Babylonians had surrounded Jerusalem for 120 days and eventually broke into the city and destroyed the city and the temple.

The temple was the wonder of the world for the Jews. The ceiling was 180 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 50 feet high. The highest point on the temple was 20 stories tall.

Much like the 360-degree painting of the cyclorama helped the people after the Civil War see the images, hear the story, and feel the spirit of the men who fought in the battle of Atlanta and the one at Gettysburg, the people who visited the temple also had a multi-sensory experience with God.

Their nostrils were filled with the smells of sacrifices offered by priests. Their ears were filled with prayers and songs being lifted to God. Their eyes focused on the art that depicted the history of Israel and their relationship with God.

The Ark of the Covenant was there. The Ten Commandments of Moses were there.

This was the place where people could feel the presence of God. This was the holiest place on earth.

It was the place where they knew that the Spirit of God was doing battle with the evil spirits of the world and they could leave believing that they were going to overcome the enemy.

There was nothing in all the world like the temple. It was the one place on the earth where the people felt safe and connected to God.

In destroying the temple, in 597 B.C., the Babylonians destroyed the hopes of the Jewish people.

Have you ever had a time when your world was rearranged and the landscape become unfamiliar?

Has there been a time when God felt near but suddenly, God did not seem to be real anymore?

Has there ever been a time when the enemy seemed to be winning and it seemed that you were keeping your faith to no avail?

When the world as we know it is destroyed and all the things you once thought to be true are questioned, we stop and we ask questions about evil, purpose, and the meaning of life.

We try to make sense out of suffering. We ask questions about the nature of God. We wonder how things will turn out in the end. We wonder if trusting God and His word make any difference, both now or for eternity.

These were questions that the people in exile were asking.

To find answers to their questions, people in the exile began collecting poetry from people like David, Asaph, the Sons of Korah, Solomon, Ethan, Herman, and from people that they did not identify by name.

Why poetry? Because poems come from the heart.

They discovered even before the exile, that people like David had asked many of the same questions they were asking as he fled from his enemies.

People began using these poems in their worship. They chanted them, monophonically, i.e., with unharmonized melody.

If you’ve ever heard a Gregorian chant, that might be close to how a Psalm would have been sung.

Eventually, these Psalms were brought together by a redactor and put into one book containing 150 Psalms. They were divided into five sections called Books. You can see these divisions in your Bible in chapters 1, 42, 73, 90, and 103.

What is the purpose of these Psalms?

The Book of Psalms became a prayer book for exiles. It became a sort of ancient virtual temple.

The Psalms became a literary companion that helped and encouraged the Jewish people to connect with God.

The first two chapters emphasize two of the major trajectories of the book.

In chapter one we are introduced to the wisdom of staying connected to God’s word.

In chapter two, we are introduced to the promise of Israel’s future king.

Let’s look at these two themes a little more.
Psalm 1 says:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers. Psalm 1:1-3

The Psalmist then contrasts this way of life with the way that the wicked people live.

4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Throughout the Psalms, the theme of using God’s word as a guide is prevalent.
During the exile, God’s word took the place of the priest.

The function of the priest was to mediate between God and the people. Now, in exile, there was no temple. There were no sacrifices. The people turned to what they had to connect with God—God’s word.

Increasingly, they turned to the poetic literature they were able to collect from various sources.

Here’s a Psalm of David from chapter 19:7-9
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

Words like these reminded the Jews to use God’s Word as their Lighthouse amid the storm.

That’s a word we need to hear. Most of us have a Bible. Most of us have more than one Bible, but how many of us can say that it’s a lamp to our feet and a light to our path?

Light is no good in the darkness unless it is turned on. The people in exile were in darkness. They were lost. Everything about their lives as they had known them was gone. But they found their way because they found God’s word.

If we know the Twenty-Third Psalm, then we understand that the Lord is our Shepherd.
We know that we are going to walk through the valley of the shadow of death at some point in this life.

The exiles knew that better than anyone, but David said that if you had the Shepherd as your guide, you did not have to fear any evil because the Shepherd is with you. He would comfort you with his rod and his staff.

The wisdom of the Psalmist helped bring them through the exile.

But sprinkled through the wisdom poems is the honesty of the Psalmist.

When David faced his enemies, when he had temptations, and struggled to make sense out of the upside-down nature of this world, the Psalmist sang a song of lament.

Perhaps we gravitate to the Psalms as much as we do because of the honesty of his words.
When you have lost all that you have, it is natural to sing a lament.

Take Psalm 73, for example. It begins Book 3 of the Psalms and is almost the exact center of the collection. It starts as a lament before it resolves into a psalm of praise.

12 This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
Have you ever tried to do the right thing only to be reprimanded by those who were not trying a moral life and they ended up getting rewarded, or so it seemed?

The Psalmist understands your pain.
He said none of it made sense to him. There is a lot in this world that doesn’t make sense.

The people in exile had a lot of things that didn’t make sense to them.
Sure, as a people they had lived lives that were disobedient to God. But the Babylonians were no better than they were.

A Psalm like this was important to them. They needed to hear the Psalmist say, “Even when nothing makes sense, you need to keep your faith and put yourself in the presence of Almighty God.”

In Psalm 73, it wasn’t until the Psalmist entered into the sanctuary of God that he came to understand that God was the one that would determine the final destiny of every individual.

It was not the job of the Psalmist to understanding everything about how the world played out.

He concluded that he was to be a person that placed his faith in the One who would bring this world to a conclusion.

The Psalmist affirmed God’s presence:

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart.
and my portion forever.

The exiles needed that word. They needed to hear someone say, “You don’t have to have all the answers. You do need to hold on to your faith. God is still with you. God is still your strength.”

Perhaps that’s a word you need this morning. If you have all the answers, then maybe we all need to come to see you.

I certainly don’t have them all.

God’s not revealed them all to me or to anyone I know. But I do have faith that God is the answer and that I continue to find my strength and my portion in God.

I certainly do not have enough strength to find it in myself. While I find strength in others, others are not enough. Others let me down. I need to hold onto my faith in God.

We can now go back and briefly talk about chapter 2.

Chapter two lays out the hope of a coming king, an Anointed One, one who laughs at kings who take their stand.

The Jews needed to hear that God was in control of the big picture. Despite being exiled, they needed to hear that God would get the last laugh and would vindicate those who were faithful.

So, throughout the book, there are Psalms called Royal Psalms that celebrated God as King.
Psalm 47:5-7 says:

God has ascended amid shouts of joy,
the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.
This poem of Solomon says:
Then all nations will be blessed through him,[d]
and they will call him blessed.
18 Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel,
who alone does marvelous deeds.
19 Praise be to his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen and Amen. (Psalm 72)

So, in the Psalms, the laments turned into praise because the Jewish people determined that despite their experience of exile, God had not abandoned them, but instead, God was with them.

They came to understand that while their condition was less than ideal, God’s position had not changed. God was still God. God was still Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

It’s easy to think that when our position is weakened in some way, that God’s position is somehow compromised, too.

We wonder if God is listening. Does God care? Does God know we are suffering?
By using the virtual temple, the Jews found their song again and their praise to God returned.

Throughout the Psalms, there are Psalms of praise to God. The last five Psalms of the book are Psalms of Praise.

It’s very important to remember that the Psalms of praise were collected and developed with the people of Israel while they were in exile.

It is not by accident that the redactor chose to end the book with psalms of praise. It is a resounding testimony that the overwhelming witness of the exiles as they began to emerge from captivity in Babylon was one of praise and thanksgiving to God.

From Psalm 146 the Psalmist says, “I will praise him with all my life” (v. 2)

From Psalm 147 the Psalmist says, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem, he gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (v. 2)

From Psalm 148 the Psalmist insists that everything in the heavens and on earth should praise the one responsible for making them.

From Psalm 149, the Psalmist says that we should sing to the Lord a new song. We should rejoice and dance because the Lord delights in his people.

The last Psalm of the Psalter says that we should praise God with all kinds of musical instruments and that we should do it in His sanctuary.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” the Psalmist said.

Next time you read something from the Psalms, I want you to remember that they were collected during Israel’s deepest and darkest days.

A man asked me recently, “How would things look if you put on a pair of yellow-tinted glasses?”
I said, “Well, everything would look yellow.”

He said, “We tend to see the world through whatever lens we choose to wear. If you are an angry person, you will find something to be angry about. But if you are a grateful person, you can always find something to be thankful for.”

When the exiles began looking at life through God’s word, they saw things differently.

The Word of God became a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their path. They saw that God was still the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. They believed that God had a future for them. They lived in exile but they lived with hope.

This book of poems helped reconnect them to a God of hope and reminded them that they were not forgotten, but they needed to reconnect with God through His word and prayer.

Perhaps life has carried you away from God. Perhaps you have run away from God.

I pray that you will hear the message of this book.

The Psalms were gathered to remind the Jewish people that God had not left them. God was still in control. God was still guiding them through his word.

This morning, I want to challenge you to use the book of Psalms this week.

Open it up and read several chapters. Allow God to speak to you.

All the book to be a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path.

Read it to find wisdom for your day and hope for your tomorrow.

You will find ways to praise God even if you are singing a lament.

You will find strength in the Lord and assurance of His love and mercy.

You will find ways to praise God even if you are singing a lament.

Read the Psalms and find strength in the Lord and assurance in his love and mercy.  

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