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February 06, 2005

Berkhof on Reading the Psalms

"Lyric poetry contains, in the first place, an individual element. The poets sing of their own historical circumstances and of their personal experiences. This is quite evident from the superscriptions of the psalms. Cf. Pss. 3, 6, 7, 18, 30, etc. It is also apparent from the contents of many psalms. But these experiences, though personal, yet have a representative character. In the innermost recesses of his soul, the poet is conscious of his solidarity with mankind as a whole, and feels the pulse of the communal life of man. And the song that is born of this consciousness is a song which, in its crescendos and diminuendos, interprets the joy and sorrow, not only of the poet, but of man in general. And in view of the fact that this communal life has its fountain-head in God, the lyrical poet descends to still greater depths, or mounts to ever loftier heights, until he rests in God, in whom the life of humanity originates and who controls its joy and sorrow. Arising out of these depths, his song is, as it were, born of God.

"This general principle must be borne in mind in the interpretation of the psalms. They are in a sense universal, and transcend the personal and historical. The sacred singers are living members of the Church of God, and so are conscious of their unity with the Church as a whole that their songs also embody the praises and lamentations of the Church. And, as members of the church, they also feel that they are united to Him Who is its glorious Head, Who suffers for and with it, and is the author of its joy. This explains the fact that Christ is sometimes heard in the psalms, now singing a plaintive song, and anon raising up his voice in a paean of victory. Again, the life of the poet in union with Christ also has its fountain in God. Hence his song, which is also the song of the Church, finds its mainspring in God. The result of it all is that in some of the psalms, the personal experiences of the poet are most prominent; that in others the communal life of Israel and of the Church finds expression; and in still others, the humiliated and exalted Christ is heard. In all the psalms we have the deep background to which we referred, and the interpreter must beware of viewing them superficially. He should never rest satisfied until he hears in them the voice of his God. And the fact that, in Godís sight, the antithesis between sin and holiness is absolute, that He loves his Church but hates whatsoever opposes his Kingdom, will also explain the strong expressions of love and hatred that are found in the psalms."

From Louis Berkhof's Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Italics from the original. Posted especially for Kim.


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Oh, you are a sweet woman! I don't know if I should send you cyber hugs, or cyber stones....the temptation to buy another book. I think I may just have to have this one. My birthday is coming up soon.

Thanks for posting this. In my dreams, some day I will write like Berkhof.

Posted by: Kim in ON at February 7, 2005 11:48 PM


About tempting you to buy books. . . If you're going to buy Berkhof, his Systematic Theology is much more worth the money than the book linked above. (Honestly, I wouldn't buy it--I borrowed it from a friend. . .)

But when I read that passage about the Psalms. Wow! (And I thought of you. . .)

Posted by: TulipGirl at February 8, 2005 12:32 AM

I've been enjoying Berkhof's Systematic Theology. Don't like the binding, though. Too tight.

I may just look for the other book at a few online used booksellers I have used. If I find it cheap, I may just consider it.

What I'd REALLY like is a complete set of Calvin's Commentaries. Christian Book Distributors has them, but they're over $250 American, which means I'd been paying close to $400 Canadian by the time I paid shipping and taxes. I can dream.

Posted by: Kim in ON at February 8, 2005 12:51 PM

What I'd REALLY like is a complete set of Calvin's Commentaries.

*L* Hubby and I keep talking about those, and keep putting that purchase off. . . I think they are available on cd-rom for much cheaper, but honestly, it's just not the same. We have them in Russian, though. Too bad my Russian just isn't up for serious study. (And we have a Ukrainian friend who is adamant that he reads commentaries/theology books in English--better to understand than Russian.)

We have a half-dozen of the Crossway Commentaries series that I like, esp. Luther on Galatians and Hodge on Romans. Hubby's still lobbying for the Calvin commentaries, but I think I'd almost rather have the Crossway ones.

Posted by: TulipGirl at February 8, 2005 01:46 PM

Thanks for the scriptural analysis. I'm working through the Psalms now.

But I'm curious about the prominent position of Christ and the Church. Yes, there are verses which seem to have been prophetic descriptions of the life of Christ, but I thought it was a given that even the great believers of the old testament were not certain about the character of Christ.

In other words, people like Moses and Abraham and the prophets relied on God's love and mercy, did good work in response, were given the ability to prophesy by God, but were not fully aware of how God would carry out salvation.

So then how is Christ singing "plaintive songs" and how are the Pslamists "conscious of their unity with the Church"? They aren't fully conscious of Christ, so they cannot be fully conscious of their unity with the Church, because Christ is the most fundamental part of the definition of the Church. Likewise, while Christ could employ their songs of sorrow (most famously on the cross) later, he is not singing here.

Come to that, why is Christ singing plaintive songs? What does he have to be mournful about before his birth?

Posted by: Dan McMinn at February 15, 2005 09:32 AM

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