In this excerpt from Psalms: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, James M. Hamilton Jr. examines the connected themes of faithfulness and a fear of God that run through the Psalms.
Life will triumph over death. Good will overcome evil. The defiled will be cleansed, the broken mended, the wicked judged, the faithful rewarded, and God’s creation purposes will be accomplished. All these realities play into biblical hope. From this perspective the psalmists write.
The psalmists have come to understand that Israel will be exiled from the land, but they also believe that Yahweh will keep his promises to show mercy in the form of a new exodus and return from exile (see Deut 4:25–31, and esp. the quotation of Deut 32:36 in Ps 135:14). They know that though the Davidic king may be dethroned (Ps 89), ultimately God will keep his 2 Sam 7 promises to David (Ps 110). Gary Millar concludes, “To pray in the psalter, then, is to call on the name of Yahweh, as the psalms fill out the conviction that has shaped the other material in the Old Testament.”
The Fear of God
The most important thing that can happen to anyone who studies the Psalms is precisely what their authors intended for their audience: an encounter with God. The reality that God should be feared cannot be limited to the occurrences of the word. The terrifying majesty of the living God pervades the Psalms and the Old Testament.
Recently my family visited a frozen lake in South Dakota, and we climbed up on a large rock that cropped out in the middle of the solid ice. Our youngest child was five years old at the time, and he was not altogether stable in his snow-boots. He had repeatedly slipped and fallen on the lake as we made our way across it to the rock. We began to scramble up the rock, and I noticed that toward the ledge on the backside of the rock there were patches of ice and snow, and the gentle slope fell away to a sheer face with nothing but the unforgiving granite-like surface of the lake below. As I earnestly held to my five-year old and steered him away from the ledge, my friend who had taken us there noticed me looking at the ledge and holding my son close and said: “Yeah, if he goes over he dies.” The fear I felt for my son’s safety was healthy and good. The delight I felt to be off that rock, and then off that frozen lake, was even better. This is the logic of the delight in Yahweh’s Torah the blessed man feels in Ps 1.
The undergirding assumption that informs the fear of God is God himself in all his tremendous majesty. He is not an unpredictable terror like the so-called gods, but he is altogether holy and pure in his justice. He has graciously revealed himself in his word, and those who value their lives recognize their need for that word. Those who disregard God care little for his word. They are fools. The ledge is slippery. The ice below will break them.
The perspective of Ps 1 is that life and death depend upon being in right relationship to Yahweh, and the fear of not being in right relationship with him is precisely what makes God’s word so delightful, so nourishing, and so preoccupying. When Ps 1:4 says “Not so the wicked,” it could as well say that the wicked do not fear God, and as a result they take no delight in his revelation of himself, of what pleases him, and of where his boundaries are.
And so it is with Ps 2. The raging nations and plotting peoples do not fear God, so they do not want to be constrained by God’s warnings that the foot can easily slip on the gentle slope where the ice lurks beneath the snow. God has, so to speak, given fair warning that the human body cannot survive a fall from that height, and God has given good instructions on where and how to tread the high places that the glorious views might be relished and the crashing falls avoided. The rebels do not fear God, so they attack his anointed (Ps 2:3). The declaration that Yahweh’s messiah, the king from David’s line, will execute his judgment on the insurrectionists (Ps 2:7–9) comes with a warning that they should learn wisdom (Ps 2:10), that is, that they should serve Yahweh with fear (Ps 2:11). That fear is precisely to avoid the anger in which the enemies will perish (Ps 2:12a), for the righteous king’s wrath falls quickly on those who deserve it, while those who take refuge in him will be blessed (Ps 2:12b), blessed like the man who treasures God’s word (Ps 1:1).
In earlier Scripture, the word of God built the psalmists’ worldview, and their songs in turn sang truths into souls. My purpose here is not to comment on which psalms were sung at which times but to make a broader comment on how the words used in worship, the Psalms, re-tell the story, reinforce the truths, and re-present the promises of consequence and reward for the behaviors encouraged and condemned.
Were it not for the way that so much biblical scholarship obscures this point it might not need to be made, but it must be said: the Psalms are thoroughly biblical, and by them the people of God through the ages have had their understanding of the Bible’s master narrative deepened, their faith in the truths that flow from it strengthened, their behavioral instincts sharpened, and all this comes not through lecture but poetry.
Poetry used in worship has a way of trickling down into our assumptions, building out the things we take for granted, and penetrating to the depths of who we are. As we sing the songs of the faith, our drives and urges, appetites and dispositions are brought into line with the stories and direct instructions of the Torah. With the Psalms we sing the warnings of the prophets and their promises of glory right through the dark nights and busy days. As Millar writes in his discussion of how people began to call on the name of Yahweh, the phrase “is used to depict prayer, but not simply in a generic sense. Rather, the idea of calling on the name of Yahweh is intrinsically related to God’s commitment to rescue his people and deliver on his promises.”
The Psalms reinforce biblical faith. And as Hafemann rightly puts it, “ ‘faith’ is not ‘believing the unbelievable,’ but trusting in God’s word because of the track record of God’s faithfulness.”
This post is adapted from Psalms: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary by James M. Hamilton Jr. (Lexham Press, 2021).