The collectors and shapers of the book of Psalms saw in Psalms 90-106—thought of as Book Four in the Psalms—the rich and exalted theology taken from various periods of Israel’s history and which addresses some of Israel’s and mankind’s deepest needs. The collection as a whole addresses the problem raised in Psalm 89, a psalm which at once praises God for the wonderful covenant he made with David and the terrible pit into which Israel fell after that Davidic covenant seemed to come to an end.
Psalms 93-100 stand out in particular as an extended series of “Yahweh reigns” psalms. Each of them (with the seeming exception of Psalm 94) exalt Yahweh as the king of Israel, apparently denying the problem seen in Psalm 89 by insisting that although David’s descendants no longer sit on Israel’s throne, in reality it is Yahweh who sits of the throne over Israel. Psalm 100 concludes this small collection of psalms by stitching together small lines and references to the previous psalms into a glorious concluding hymn of praise.
Psalms 101-103 seem to be an odd break from this theme. We can understand them, however, as a move in another direction that will support the previous statements. They take us through a cycle of establishment, brokenness, and reestablishment.
Psalm 101 is attributed to David and sings of the integrity of the psalmist. The psalmist sings in sentence after sentence of the things he will do on behalf of the Lord. “I will sing . . .” “I will pay attention . . .” “I will live . . .” The psalmist also includes negative actions as he details those things he is against. “I will not let . . .” “I hate . . .” “I will not be involved with . . .” From beginning to end, the psalm presents us with the worshiper of Yahweh who sees himself in the best possible light and who separates himself, sometimes with violence, from those who lack his integrity.
Psalm 102 moves quickly into a cry for help. The psalm has been given a title in the Hebrew text that identifies it as “A prayer of a suffering person who is weak and pours out his lament before the Lord.” While the psalmist is unnamed, it is sometimes thought to be from David. The name is not here as an aspect of the message of humility in relation to the previous psalm Gone is the proud integrity of Psalm 101. Gone is the smugness with which the psalmist of Psalm 101 calls down violence on the wicked. Instead, he finds himself in same need of help from God as those he previously separated himself from.
In Psalm 103, the psalmist, here identified as David once again, is singing praise to God. This praise is very different from the praise that opens Psalm 101, however. The praise now is focused on God’s forgiveness of sin and his ability to rescue his people out of trouble. This psalm directly answers the problems faced in Psalm 102. And it perfectly balances the first person vow of integrity found in Psalm 101. All of the first person verbs of Psalm 101 have been replaced by third person statements about God. Psalm 101 is about the goodness of the psalmist. Psalm 103 is about the goodness of God.
So the sequence of Psalms 101-103 takes us from security in ourselves to an utter brokenness, and then from that brokenness to restoration. In other words, Psalms 101-103 give us a small picture of what God is doing for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Humans smug in their own self-secure legalism, confident in their own ability to maintain the righteous life that God desires, find themselves shattered on the rocks of the law of sin and death. In that brokenness, they cry out to God and he heals them and forgives them.
The real import of these psalms might lie in the fact that it is David about whom the psalms speak. It is not a godless pagan who is new to God’s covenant with Israel. Rather it is Israel’s king. And not just Israel’s king, but Israel’s standard-bearing king. It is David against whom every other king of Israel and Judah is judged. He is the quintessential king. Since this is David presented to us in Psalms 101-103, we must see this process of security, brokenness, and restoration happening as a cycle in the life of the believer. We certainly come to Christ once and are saved. The New Testament is clear at this point. Christ will not be crucified again for our sin. At the same time, we are never really settled in our sanctified, righteous life. We fail. We fall into old habits. We settle for less than what God has for us. But when we do, we have a God that is listening for our cry for help and is there to help us when we do.
And when we cry for help and are healed and forgiven, we can cry out with the psalmist, “Bless the Lord, all his angels . . . Bless the Lord, all his armies . . . Bless the Lord, all his works . . . Bless the Lord, O my soul.”