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Definitions and Significance of the Psalms
The Hebrew saints of millenniums past articulated much of their appreciation for Jehovah through psalms — so called in the Greek Septuagint (expressing twitching or twanging with fingers [of a musical instrument]). These poetic and often lyrical expressions of praise (tehillim, in Hebrew, inferring the singing or shouting with rejoicing; see R. Scott Burton, Studies in Scripture: 1 Kings to Malachi, vol. 4:413-14), extolled not only God’s perfect characteristics, but also highlighted His saving acts in national, church, and personal history.
So effective in their teaching are the Psalms that they are the most quoted passages from the Old Testament in the New Testament (see LDS Bible Dictionary, s.v., “Quotations,” 756-59).
One scholar has noted that “the Prophet [Joseph Smith] possessed a keen interest in the Psalms. Except for Genesis and Isaiah, no book of the Old Testament saw a great proportion of its verses altered (7 percent of its verses [approximately 200 verses in 50 different psalms] were changed compared to 10 percent in Isaiah, 5 percent in Exodus, wholesale rewriting of parts of Genesis, and less than 1 percent in nearly every other book in the Old Testament).
After reading the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament, one comes to believe that Isaiah and Psalms saw frequent revisions not because they contain more textual corruptions but because the material in them was of particular interest to the Prophet…. [Psalms] speak to the shared experience of all religious people: to confidence in God and hope in the future, to physical suffering and spiritual trial, to exaltation in the victory of God over all enemies, and to the eventual triumph of all those who accept the rule of God” (R. Scott Burton, Studies in Scripture, vol. 4:408).
Traditionally we understand David to have written seventy-two of the Psalms (which are marked), while the other attributed pieces come from the sons of Korah (10), Asaph (13), Solomon (1), Heman (1), Ethan (1), and Moses (1). The remaining fifty-one psalms remain anonymous. Insights into how the psalms were performed — including the instruments and arrangements, as well as, the places and occasions, remain shrouded behind archeological and literary (not to mention revelatory) veils.
There are some tantalizing possibilities for seeing some of the psalms as having temple significance — “Ancient Jewish sources, such as the Mishnah and Talmud, specify fourteen psalms that were actually sung by the Levites in the temple: Psalms 24, 30, 48, 81, 82, 92-94, 113-118. One scholar, however, estimates that of the 150 psalms, 109, or 84 percent, were likely sung in the temple” (Brian M. Hauglid, “Temple Imagery in the Psalms,” Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament, 263).
The following are three examples of how the psalms speak to me, personally, about the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and my hope in it.
Praising the Lord’s Strength to Deliver
Some of the power of Psalms lies in their ability to evoke images that resonate with everyman. Many of the psalms praise the Lord’s ability to deliver his righteous children from the most trying circumstances.
Consider Psalm 18 (a parallel of 2 Samuel 22), where David describes his experiences of salvation in terms of physical ordeals. “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid. The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me” (Ps. 18:4-5).
But, calling the Lord his “strength” (18:1), and “rock” and “fortress” and “high tower” (Psalm 18:2) the Psalmist invites us into a symbolic world where God’s safety and salvation are depicted in the most dramatic terms. As if the Lord were descending from the heavens on some terrific steed, “there went up smoke out of his mouth” when God “bowed the heavens… and came down… and he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind… He sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them… He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters” (Ps. 18:8-10, 14, 16).
The notions of being saved from the vicissitudes of life as if being lifted out of a flood or plucked from the midst of enemies paint vivid pictures that can resonate and inspire all who hear them.
David declares: “I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies” (Ps. 18:3; cf. D&C 10:5), for “by thee I have run through a troop [of enemy soldiers]; and by my God have I leaped over a wall… he maketh my feet like hind’s [deer] feet, and sitteth me upon my high places… Thou hast enlarged my steps under me, that my feet did not slip… He delivereth me from mine enemies: yea, thou liftest me up above those that rise up against me: thou hast delivered me from the violent man” (Ps.
18:29, 33, 36, 48).
A few years ago I was engaged in a significant personal study of this kind of symbolic language in the scriptures and other ancient sacred writings. I have always been moved by the powerful poetic images that the Lord inspired his prophets to teach with. About this time I had started to make a list of the Godly versus satanic properties that are consistently employed — the Lord always seen as solid, stable, nourishing and protecting, while the adversary is always personified with objects in transience, unstable and insatiable, unfulfilled and unfulfilling.
One night, after pondering the many portrayals I’d been poring over, I began to dream. I found myself in the second story of our nearly one hundred-year-old home. The scene was pleasant — a light summer breeze fluttering through the curtains.
Presently a storm began to roll toward our home from the south. I could see the clouds of a large thunderhead darken and the winds began to pick up. At first I was unconcerned as I anticipated an exciting thunder and lightning show. Yet within just a few moments things turned black and ugly. The curtains began to blow horizontally and I knew this was no ordinary storm. Even so, I reflected, this is but a storm and storms are only so powerful versus a home built on a foundation (cf. Helaman 5:12 for instance).
My rather cavalier reasoning was soon strenuously tested! The winds increased to hurricane force and I could feel the very timbers of our structure strain to their breaking point. I looked about wildly, marveling that this mere storm could have such power. For only a split second I mentally clung to the notes that I’d taken from my scripture study — how could these winds damage my house? Then, my mind’s eye caught upon the title: Jesus Christ, which I’d placed above all my notes on the symbols that represent Him in our scriptural canon. I humbly dropped to my knees and began to pray unto Jesus that he deliver me and my home from this terrible storm. As I did so, I awoke from the dream — shaken and significantly impressed with the power of Satan (symbolized by the storm) and my absolute need for the Lord (the real “Rock”) in order to counter evil’s very real powers.
I have thought about what I should learn from that dream. It was immediately apparent to me upon waking that I had been taking for granted the power behind all the scriptural images of solidity and strength. As Moses, who struggled to ward off Lucifer when the Devil appeared to him (Moses 1), it seemed that I had been presuming I had power over evil that I indeed did not, and do not, have. This is not to say that I don’t have agency — the power to choose between thinking and acting according to evil dictates or following the Lord’s instructions through my own spirit, the light of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. We do have that agency, but in that moment with Moses we learn that it was not until the prophet “called upon God, saying: In the name of the Only Begotten, depart hence, Satan” that the Devil was forced to leave (Moses 1:21; see also vv. 16, 18, and 20).
David and the other psalmists utilize our familiarity with such mundane mortal experiences such as storms, buildings, rocks and rivers, etc., to declare that “thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8, emphasis added; see also the following psalms for similar salvation imagery: Psalm 23, 27, 30, 37, 40, 46, 56, 59, 61-62, 66, 69, 71, 143, and 145 — to name a significant few). Note the JST changes to Psalm 11:1-5 indicate the wicked’s futile attempt at wrecking the foundations of the Lord’s work in us, while their own foundations will be the ones that are broken and will fall in the end.
Praising the Lord’s Rewarding of the Righteous and Punishment of the Wicked
It is not uncommon to hear (and sometimes think!) that the wicked seem to prosper, while the righteous seem to go through life with little but continual trials.
David struggled with this same feeling. Psalm 37 repeats the phrase “fret not thyself” three times (vv. 1, 7, and 8) as he encouraged himself not to be “envious against the workers of iniquity” and feel left out because of “him who prospereth in his way, [and] because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass” (Ps. 37:1, 7).
As I have thought about this seeming disparity between the righteous and the wicked in this telestial-level mortality, the following experience of one LDS family has been instructive.
“When our children were younger and we would be on our way to Sunday church meetings, occasionally we would pass a car pulling a boat. My children would become silent and press their noses against the windows and ask, “Dad, why can’t we go waterskiing today instead of to church?”
“Sometimes I would take the easy but cowardly way out and answer, “It’s simple; we don’t have a boat.” However, on my more conscientious days, I would muster up all the logic and spirituality available to a patriarch of a family and try to explain how much happier our family was because of our Church activity.”
“I first realized I wasn’t getting through when on a subsequent Sunday we saw a family laughing and excited as they loaded their snow skis onto their car. One of my teenage sons said with a sly grin, “They’re not really happy, huh, Dad?” That statement has become a family joke whenever we see someone doing something we cannot do. When I see a teenager driving a beautiful, expensive sports car, I say to my sons, “Now there’s one miserable guy” (Bishop Glen L. Pace, Ensign, November 1987, 39.)
Later, Bishop Pace spoke more directly: “They [those in the great and spacious building of Lehi’s dream] look happy and free, but don’t mistake telestial pleasure for celestial happiness and joy. Don’t mistake lack of self-control for freedom. Complete freedom without appropriate restraint makes us slaves to our appetites. Don’t envy a lesser and lower life… the people in that building have absolutely nothing to offer except instant, short-term gratification inescapably connected to long-term sorrow and suffering. The commandments you observe were not given by a dispassionate God to prevent you from having fun, but by a loving Father in Heaven who wants you to be happy while you are living on this earth as well as in the hereafter” (Ensign, November 1987, 38-39).
Just as in Psalm 37, we may be tempted to join David when he felt “envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:3; see also v. 12). Yet, the gospel teaches plainly that “they that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him… For [we] seeth that the wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others. [While] their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations” (Ps. 49:6-7, 10-11; see also 37:34-40).
Fascinatingly David tells us that he received this eternal perspective when “I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their [the wicked’s] end” (Ps. 73:17). What eternal perspective corrections await us in the Lord’s temples today, as well as, in the Lord’s word to His ancient and modern prophets!
Praising the Lord’s Mercy to Forgive
As we know, David sinned tragically in the case of Uriah and his wife, Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 11). Due to this terrible transgression, as well as, his struggling with earlier weaknesses, many of the Psalms are pleas for forgiveness. In them we learn more about the process by which the Lord will extend his mercies to the repentant.
One of these special insights is found in Psalm 25. David begins by establishing that he trusts in the Lord and “on thee do I wait all the day” (Ps. 25:5). Then David asks for a subtle, but crucial favor: “Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses… Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgression: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord” (Ps. 25:6-7).
What David is asking for is doctrinally correct for one who sincerely repents — he wants the Lord to not see (or think of) David’s sins in the judgment, but to instead see Himself and judge David for the righteousness that the Savior has accomplished.
Note David’s similar language in Psalm 143. “Enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified [for none have lived the law perfectly, hence they are liable to punishment]… Quicken me, O Lord, for thy name’s sake: for thy righteousness’ sake bring my soul out of trouble” (Ps. 143:2, 11). Again, “Hear me, O Lord; for thy lovingkindness is good: turn unto me according to the multitude of thy tender mercies” (Ps. 69:16).
David knows that if any man’s judgment is to be desirable, it is the Lord’s! I mean to say, since non have lived a perfect life free of error and sin, except for Jesus Christ, then, all of our judgments will lead to less than celestial perfection. As sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents can anything less than becoming fully like them be acceptable? What shall we do?
If it were possible, each of us would love to stand at the judgment and be judged as if we were the sinless Son of God! His reward for that perfect mortality will itself be perfect; yet, in this acknowledgment we realize how less than perfect our own ‘reward’ should be, if it is going to be based solely on our own probationary performance.
Therefore, David boldly requests, “Deliver me in thy righteousness, and cause me to escape” (Ps. 71:2).
As stated earlier, this is not only doctrinally appropriate, it is absolutely required if we are to inherit “more than we deserve.” That is exactly how Elder Dallin H. Oaks has defined “mercy.” “To achieve my eternal goals, I need more than I deserve… If justice is exactly [the punishment] one deserves, then mercy is more benefit than one deserves… The Atonement is the means by which justice is served and mercy is extended” (“Sins, Crimes, and Atonement” address to CES, 7 Feb. 1992).
David’s plea* should be our hope — to have the Lord’s righteousness weighing in on our side of the scales of justice. In this way, we can receive all our inheritance as children of God. “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity” (Ps. 32:2). This greatest of miracles is available for all those who are willing to give the Lord the only real thing we can give: “a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17). With this personal sacrifice the Lord can then “blot out my transgressions” and “wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:1-2).
I know that all my hopes for a glorious resurrection and judgment are because I am “relying wholly upon the merits of Him who is mighty to save” even and especially from my own natural man. I add my personal praise to this God and His Son who have so perfectly planned and provided for our salvation with them, if we will but allow their word to be “a lamp unto [our] feet, and a light unto [our] path” (Ps. 109:105).
*David’s sins were of such a terrible nature that the Lord has declared he has lost his original exaltation (see D&C 132:39). He did receive the promise of God that “thou wilt not leave my soul in hell” (Ps. 16:10). Three modern prophets have commented on David’s circumstances as follows:
• “David committed a dreadful crime, and all his life afterwards sought for forgiveness. Some of the Psalms portray the anguish of his soul; yet David is still paying for his sin. He did not receive the resurrection at the time of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peter declared that his body was still in the tomb, and the Prophet Joseph Smith has said, “David sought repentance at the hand of God carefully with tears, for the murder of Uriah; but he could only get it through hell: he got a promise that his soul should not be left in hell.”(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 339.) Again we ask: Who wishes to spend a term in hell with the devil before being cleansed from sin?” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 1:73.)
• “Murderers are forgiven eventually but only in the sense that all sins are forgiven except the sin against the Holy Ghost; they are not forgiven in the sense that celestial salvation is made available to them. (Matt. 12:31-32; Teachings, p. 356-357.) After they have paid the full penalty for their crime, they shall go on to a telestial inheritance.
(Rev. 22:15.)” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 520.)
• “Forgiveness will come eventually to all repentant souls who have not committed the unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:31). Forgiveness does not, however, necessarily assure exaltation, as is the case with David (see D&C 132:38-39; see also Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:25-27; TPJS, 339)” (Elder Boyd K. Packer, “Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, October 1995, 21, footnote #15.)