Where Do We See the Gospel in the Psalms?

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Where Do We See the Gospel in the Psalms?

Asking how we see the gospel in the book of Psalms feels a little like asking, “How do we see the gospel in The Baptist Hymnal.” Isn’t it there in every single song (hopefully)? Of course, the Old Testament is different. But this is a book of music which Old Testament believers would have used to express their faith in the living God. 

In order to see the gospel in Psalms do we need to analyze every single chapter? Are these not individual songs? Or is there a unified theme to the Psalms which also points to the gospel? I will argue that the Psalms not only point us to Jesus individually, the Book of Psalms as a compilation will also point us to the finished work of Christ. 

How Do You Find the Gospel in the Old Testament? 

I suppose before understanding how to find the gospel in the OT, it’d be helpful for us to define the gospel. The simplest definition is one given by JI Packer: God saves sinners. If you’d like to put a bit more meat on your gospel presentation, I use two different frameworks with four points each. The first is God—Man—Christ—Response. The second is more of a story: Creation—Fall—Redemption—Glory. 

The first presentation centers upon God’s character and how humanity fails to meet God’s holy standard, as such the judgment of God is upon us. But the good news is that Jesus Christ fixes this by fulfilling what is required through his life, death and resurrection. Our only fitting response, then, is to respond to Him in repentance and faith. When this happens, we are united to Christ and his record becomes our record. 

The second presentation centers upon the overarching story of the Bible. God lovingly created us to love Him and enjoy Him forever. We were made for rest, rule, and relationship. But we made shipwreck of this, and so rather than having the blessings of obedience we are under the curse of disobedience. Rather than having peace (rest), purpose (ruling), and healthy relationship we often experience the opposite. Ultimately, we are alienated from God. But thankfully God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear our curse and to fulfill what God intended for humanity. As such we now experience the blessings of Jesus’ obedience in our place. He restores the rest, rule, and relationship we were created to enjoy. Someday everything will be ultimately restored and we will live in a new heaven and a new earth. 

We could write entire books focusing on these various themes of the gospel. But every gospel story follows this basic skeleton. No matter where you find yourself in the Old Testament (or the New Testament) you can find one of these various threads. Every place in Scripture is either telling you something about God, something about our rebellion, something about His rescue, or something about our future restoration. If you can spot this, then you can fill out the rest of the story. 

The Gospel in Psalms

Earlier I compared the book of Psalms to a hymnbook. That’s not entirely true. It was a collection of poems throughout the history of Israel, many of which were set to music. Most believe that the Psalms were compiled at some point after the Babylonian exile. How were they compiled? Did an editor just randomly pick a few poems, stick them together willy nilly, and then give them numbers? Or was there an intentional structure? 

The first clue that there is an intentional structure is that many have headings. In fact, we notice that there are five Books of the Psalms. This is likely intentional and connected to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). We also see that each of these books ends with a doxology.

This structure can help us understand the overall theme of the book of Psalms. Taking the first two books as a bit of a thesis, I appreciate the summary given by The Bible Project. They say, it is “the prayer book of God’s people as they strive to be faithful to the Torah as they wait for the Messianic Kingdom.” How do these five books of Psalms support that theme? And more importantly how does the story of the Psalms point to Christ?

Book I

Almost all of the psalms of Book I are attributed to David. They carry a strong theme of fidelity to the Torah and the nature of the Davidic King and kingdom. But they are often set in the middle of distressing situations. Saul’s pursuit of David plays a prominent role throughout these. And yet through this distress, we see a settled disposition to trust in the Lord. The theme here is that of confrontation with the results of the fall. The seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. We see this theme played out through the conflict of Book I.

Book II

In Book II we are introduced to the Sons of Korah (Ps. 42-49), one psalm of Asaph (50), and then another group of psalms attributed to David (51-71). It closes with a psalm of Solomon (72). In this book, the posture towards the world is a bit different. Rather than a confrontation we see more of an invitation. Here the Abrahamic blessing is extended through the reign of the Messiah’s kingdom. But it is still set within a background of lament and longing.

Book III

In Book III it is as if the wheels come off. The psalms further darken until they reach their climax in Psalm 88. That is the psalm of lament where there is no positive turn. It is only darkness. But the book ends with a bit of a higher note in Psalm 89 as it points toward the promise of a messianic kingdom, but now it does so in light of the exile and the collapse of the Davidic Kingdom. How can the Messiah come through this? How can a king sit on David’s throne when the people are scattered?

Book IV

Book IV, opening with Psalm 90, seems like a response to the questions and the problems which the fall of the Davidic kingdom brings. Psalm 90 goes back to Moses and his call of repentance after the incident of the golden calf. This is likely where the people are during the time when these psalms are compiled. There is a theme here of the truth that “the Lord reigns.” That is the answer to the exile. God is still able to bring that which He promised.

Book V

Book V has within it two sub-books: the Hallel and the Songs of Ascent. These point to the promise of a new Exodus. Positioned within the middle of these sub-books is Psalm 119 — that really long psalm all about delight in the Torah. Once again, we see the original theme of the book of the Psalms. The whole thing concludes with five Hallelu-Yah’s (Praise the Lord) — pointing to God’s coming rule and reign. 

The Psalms are a recasting of the history of Israel (and really of all of humanity). It tells the story of the gospel. God has decisively crushed the head of the serpent, but we are not yet there. We do not yet fully live in this redemption. Therefore, we have some of the same struggles as the psalmist did. We have seasons of lament, where we are honest with God about our grief. And we also have times of praise — when the kingdom appears to be vividly breaking into our here and now. 

The gospel is in the structure of the Psalms through pointing to the coming Rescuer. Each of the Psalms point to Jesus. He is the long awaited for King. He is the hope of the nations.

The Gospel in Psalm 88

Psalm 88 is horribly depressing. Unlike the other psalms of lament, there is not a glimmer of hope here. I believe this is an expression of what happens when the curses of Deuteronomy 28 fall upon a people. It is precisely the situation which the exilic community is facing. And with all of this pain comes deep questions. 

There are two questions which are crying out during an exile. If the curse of the Law has fallen upon them, has their sin cut them off from God forever? How can an unholy people ever expect to return to a right relationship with God? Could they ever come back to the land? (That’s all one question, but trauma tends to ask the same question in multiple says). 

But these questions are cast against the background of God’s promises. How can this be? Has God cut them off forever? Will they ever again be recipients of these great promises? What does this mean for God’s name throughout the world? Does this now mean that Babylon is more powerful? Are they the victors? Did the serpent win? 

Ever feel this way yourself? 

I know I’ve had very dark nights of the soul. I have felt in my bones the pain of Psalm 88. On one particularly low occasion I found myself praying Psalm 88. I felt like the psalm was written for me. This is my situation. This embodies my hurt. But then I started to think of Christ. Wait…Psalm 88 isn’t my psalm, it’s His. If anyone can pray Psalm 88 it is Christ who drank the curse on our behalf. 

Jesus truly did bear in His body the full weight of the Deuteronomic curse. Even though I’ve felt Psalm 88, and even though I may go through seasons where I can pray this and identify with it, I haven’t experienced it as deeply as Christ. He has gone deeper into the pit than I will ever go.

This is good news because the story doesn’t end with Psalm 88. We’re meant to read it with Psalm 89. And Psalm 89 invites us to hope in the coming Messiah. That coming Messiah is Jesus — the resurrected One. As He shares in the death of Psalm 88, which our sin has brought about, He ultimately conquered death. He doesn’t stay in the grave. And through our union with Him, we don’t either.

Related podcast: The founder of Moe Mountains (a unique backpacking tour for Christian women in Montana) walks us through some of the best advice she has received, reads Psalm 23, and shares why she started her organization. 

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Photo credit: Unsplash/milk-tea

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.