With Psalm 41, we come to the close of the first book of the psalms. The psalms are arranged into five books. Thus, we have five books of psalms for the singing and liturgy of worship for the congregation, just as we have five books of law, the Torah or Pentateuch. This first book of psalms has been filled, as we have already seen, with many psalms of David. Some of these were, no doubt, written by the great king. Others were written in tribute to him. Still others became associated with David for reasons we can no longer discern.
As is the case with other psalms of David, so too with Psalm 41, it is a messianic psalm. We see the specific connection with Jesus in verse 9: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” The astute Christian reader might see the connection of this verse with Jesus and Judas, even if the New Testament did not make the connection for us. Was David, or whoever wrote this psalm aware that he was writing a prophecy of the Messiah to come? No. However, just as there are layers of meaning in other pieces of literature of which the author was unaware, we should not be surprised that there are layers of meaning in the psalms and other books of the Bible. Perhaps some of these layers of meaning were not “planned by God,” whatever that means. It should make no difference to our faith if these layers of meaning, these prophecies, were only detected after the fact. It seems natural to me that the early Christians, who were steeped in the psalms and other books of Hebrew Scripture, would see prophecies of Christ in their sacred books. After encountering and knowing Jesus for three years, it seems natural that the first Christians would look to their sacred books for explanation and elucidation of Jesus’ words and deeds.
Psalm 42 begins the second book of psalms. Michael Wilcock has this to say about the structure of Psalms….
There were presumably methods and principles by which the compilers of the book of Psalms arranged its contents. They did not think it important to explain in any detail what these were. We do however have three clues to the Psalter’s architecture, and all of them are noticeable as we arrive at this point. The first and most obvious is the basic division into five books which is built into the text itself; it is here with Psalm 42 that the second book begins.
Then we have the headings of the psalms. It has been questioned whether they are an accurate guide to authorship or background, but they can at the very least act as labels. Thus 42 is one of the many psalms collected by or for the ‘director of music’, one of the several maskils of which 32 was the first, and in particular one of the psalms ‘of the Sons of Korah’, about whom more in a moment.
Thirdly, the content of each psalm and its connections with the rest of Scripture help us to see also its connections with other psalms, and reasons why they may have been grouped as they were. We have only to read 42 and 43 to see why they belong together; other links will be less obvious but no less real.
The Korah label is particularly to be noted because it relates to the way the Psalter as a whole has been compiled. The psalms bearing it are grouped together as subsections of Books II and III. To appreciate what it means we need to recall some family history….
Of Israel’s original family, Levi and the tribe descended from him were chosen for a special destiny. From the descendants of his three sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, came the nation’s spiritual leadership. Of Kohath’s line came Moses, his brother Aaron (and through him the hereditary priesthood), and their relative Korah, who rebelled against their leadership during the journey from Egypt to Canaan (Num. 16). Korah and his people died because of this, but at least one of his sons survived, and later generations of the family were installed as ‘worship leaders’ in Jerusalem by David….
The Sons of Korah seem to have formed a guild of musicians, who composed or edited another collection, most of which is also here in Book II….
One other feature should be noted about the first Korah Collection. Together with the second David Collection and the Asaph Collection, in other words the whole of Book II and the greater part of Book III, it forms what is known as the ‘Elohistic Psalter’. These forty-two psalms are so called because they regularly address their prayers and praises to Elohim (God) rather than to Yahweh (the Lord)….
In this also the combined Psalms 42 and 43 are representative of the whole group. In them the uses of Elohim outnumber those of Yahweh by twenty to one.
We saw in our study of the first five books of the Bible how there were similar strands to what we find here in the Psalms. That is to say, there stands behind the present formation of the Pentateuch a Yahwist strand and and Elohist strand. Obviously, the influence of these two “schools” continued to make an impact on the work of the psalmists.
I would like to say just one other thing about the psalms in our reading for today. That is that here I find that some of the objectionable aspects of the earlier psalms drop out, at least for me. Here I can almost completely identify with the struggles and sorrows of the psalmists. In this, I think there is a lesson. We often learn more from another’s experience than we do from someone trying to preach to us. Another way to say this is that: in the author of these particular psalms I find an appropriate companion for my spiritual journey, one with whom I identify, especially in the beautiful words of Psalm 42. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”