Today we launch an 11-week series on Psalm 119 and I couldn’t be more thrilled. My own doctoral work is in the Psalms and Psalm 119 is one of my favorite chapters in all of the Bible. And I thought for the grand opening of our summer series on Psalm 119, it would be most appropriate to write an article on how to actually read the Psalms.
While I know you already know how to read, the question is: do you know how Scripture is to be read? And even more particularly, do you know how to read the Psalms? A different reading strategy is required for reading Scripture than for reading a blog article. And there is even a particular way the Psalms are to be read that is a bit different than other portions of Scripture (e.g., historical narrative like Judges, Samuel or Kings).
Scripture as a whole and the Psalms in particular demand that you don’t merely read Scripture, but that you slow way down and ingest it, absorb it, internalize it and ponder it. In other words, the nature of Scripture requires the soul-stirring work called meditation—and that is especially true with the Psalms.
“Careful, rigorous thinking about Scripture is God’s means of awakening and increasing glad-hearted affections for God”
My aim in this article is to help you a) learn what Scripture meditation is, how to do it and why it is so unbelievably significant, and b) learn how to meditate on the Psalms in particular. And I am persuaded that learning how to master the art of Scripture meditation will do nothing but provide pleasure, power and perseverance to live the Christian life.
Increasingly I am persuaded the secret to pleasurable, passionate and persistent holiness is meditation on who God is. Authentic life-change and transformation is produced in the furnace of the soul by the fuel of truth, revealed in the pages of Scripture. And this conviction is from the Bible itself!
For instance, Yahweh’s opening words of encouragement to Joshua after the death of Moses were not about the principles of good leadership, but about mediation on Scripture. In Joshua 1:8 Yahweh says: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.”
In Psalm 1:2-3 the righteous person is described as having their pleasure in the “law of Yahweh” and that on His law they would “meditate day and night.” And what is the result of such meditation on Scripture? Verse 3 says: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.” Without meditation there is no pleasure, power or perseverance in the Christian life.
So, the question is, what does “Scripture meditation” mean? And the answer is: as opposed to skimming a text message, meditation is reading a text of Scripture again and again and again until your soul is awakened to the beauty of what you see in the text. It is intense, rigorous thinking about a text in Scripture where you savor the texture, enjoy the seasoning and cherish the flavor. Meditation is like a crock pot meal, a Rubik’s cube and a crossword puzzle all at the same time.
It is slow and steady, turning over a text from every angle until you master it—or perhaps I should say, until it masters you. Careful, rigorous thinking about Scripture is God’s means of awakening and increasing glad-hearted affections for God above all other things!
God gave you a mind so that you could discover who He is from the pages of Scripture. Meditation doesn’t entail emptying our minds, but rather filling them with Biblical and theological substance—truth outside of ourselves, and then thinking deeply about that content.
If you want to be holy, then you must ransack the Word of God in long meditation upon who Jesus Christ is from the pages of Scripture! And if you read the Bible that aggressively and consistently for long enough, eventually you will see your life begin to change.
The Psalms being Hebrew poetry means that they were designed to be pondered and contemplated with great care and deliberation. You see, the main feature of Hebrew poetry is not rhyme and meter, but repetition and parallelism.
Repetition is, of course, the same or similar words, phrases or lines repeated for emphasis. The repetition alerts you to the author’s focus. Think of Psalm 8, for instance. Verse 1 says: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” And the final verse ends with, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” The majesty of God is clearly the focus, and everything in between explains why God is so majestic.
Or consider Psalm 42. Halfway down the Psalm the writer asks: “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God!” (v. 5). And then the very last verse repeats the same thing. Why did he do that? What is it surrounding those verses that explains the repetition?
For each Psalm you must look for repeated themes, words, phrases or even verses and then ask the question: “Why did the author choose to repeat this in particular? What does the repetition tell me about the intended message of the author?”
The second feature of Hebrew poetry is that of “parallelism.” Parallelism is two halves of a verse or even two verses that have some kind of relationship to one another. The key is asking the question: “What is the relationship between the two phrases or lines?” The tricky part is, however, the relationship between the two phrases or verses is not always obvious—that’s your job! That is what parallelism is designed to do, namely, to be like little speed bumps that get you to slow way down and contemplate the relationship between the two phrases or verses.
Take Psalm 119:1 for instance. The author declares: “How blessed are those whose way is blameless.” The question is, however, what does he mean by “blameless”? What does it mean to be blameless? How do you become this way? And it is the second half of the verse that answers the question: “…who walk in the law of Yahweh.” A “blameless” life is one in which you walk in obedience to God’s Word.
Or consider Psalm 46:11: “Yahweh of hosts is with us / the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” You can see how “Yahweh of hosts” corresponds with “God of Jacob” and how “with us” corresponds to “our stronghold.” These parallel phrases complement each other—they play off of one another to make a fuller, deeper impact.
And what you must do as the reader is slow way down and read the verse again, and again, and again, as if solving a Rubik’s cube, or cooking a stew in a crock pot, until you can see the author’s intention behind the parallelism. The connection between the two phrases or verses can only be discovered through persistent wrestling and contemplation.
This is how you meditate on the Psalms: slow, steady, painstaking and methodical. Sure, if you read the Bible in this way, you might not finish the Bible in a year. But if you spend a year reading the Bible like this, I guarantee that neither you, nor the people in your life will be sorry that you did.
For further reading on how to study the Psalms, check out Interpreting the Psalms by Mark Futato