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How Can We Understand the Psalms? Dr. Jim Johnston

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Johnston on the Psalms.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How the Psalms are arranged
  • How the Psalms are like a Bible, in and of themselves
  • How we see Jesus in the Psalms
  • How we can apply the Psalms to our lives today
  • What God is teaching us through imprecatory Psalms
  • Helpful resources for understanding the Psalms

Dr. Jim Johnston is the pastor of Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and earned a PhD in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dr. Johnston is the author of The Psalms: Rejoice, the Lord is King (Crossway, 2015).


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.


Brian Arnold (00:17):

The book of Psalms is one of the most treasured portions of Christian Scripture. They teach us about God. They give us wisdom for life. They strengthen those who are suffering, and encourage those grieving the dead. Some of the most famous passages of the Bible are Psalms. Think of things like “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” from Psalm 23, or “be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46. “Have mercy on me, oh God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions,” from Psalm 51. Or “oh God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you, my soul thirsts for you,” Psalm 63, or “you formed me in my inward parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” Psalm 139. The psalms are just a beautiful, treasured piece of the Bible, and with us today to talk about the psalms is Dr. Jim Johnston. Dr. Johnston serves as pastor of Camelback Bible Church here in Phoenix. He’s a graduate of Wheaton College and earned his PhD in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He’s the author of the soon-to-be three-volume Psalms commentary in the Preaching the Word series with Crossway. He’s the husband to Lisa, father to four young adults, and a lover of the Bible. Dr. Johnston, welcome to the podcast.


Jim Johnston (01:27):

Hey, thanks for having me.


Brian Arnold (01:28):

So we always ask our guests one big question. Today, the question is this—how can we understand the Psalms? So let me just jump in. The Psalms comprise, you know, a lot of our favorite passages of the Bible, and while some people find great comfort in the Psalms, they read through them without understanding exactly what the Psalms are, and so miss out on some of the meaning. So let’s just start there, who wrote the Psalms? How are they arranged? Are they arranged in any particular order? Is it just kind of a hodgepodge? So take us through kind of at a structural level.


Jim Johnston (01:59):

Yeah, so I think the Psalms can be intimidating, and some people can think of them as hard to understand…well, and they are hard to understand, for a couple of different reasons. For one reason, it’s big. I mean, you’ve got 150 of them, right? And so it’s the largest book in the Bible. Then for another reason, it’s poetry, and some people have trouble with poetry. Another reason why they’re hard to understand is kind of illustrated by your intro a little bit, is that we cherry-pick verses out of the Psalms that are meaningful to us, or that feel especially significant. And because of that, we miss the overall context of the Psalms as a whole. And so, I think the place to begin understanding the book of Psalms is to understand that there actually is a message to the book, and that there is order to the Psalms. And that is the place to start as we want to be thinking about an individual psalm, or even a verse like you were mentioning.


Brian Arnold (03:00):

Yeah, we talk about even author—people would just say, David. David’s the author of Psalms. Well, that’s not quite accurate.


Jim Johnston (03:07):

No, David, Moses, I mean, sons of Korah, et cetera. There are a number of different people who wrote the Psalms. And they were compiled into a specific order for a specific purpose. So Israel had a larger group of literature and these inspired psalms were then put together in their present format for a reason. And that brings us to another reason why it’s sometimes hard to understand the Psalms—for much of the 1900s, 20th century, the way we read the psalms was basically with form critical categories. What I mean by that is that you’re slicing and dicing them up, and selecting some songs and saying—these are royal psalms, you know, this is a harvest psalm, this is a personal thanksgiving, this is a communal thanksgiving, a personal lament, you know? And so we come up with our own categories, and then pick the psalms out and put them into different buckets that we think they belong in. Instead of actually looking at the order of the psalms the way they are. Right? So we miss the context of what the book is trying to tell us, as a book.


Brian Arnold (04:17):

Yeah. And I think that’s part of the cherry-picking, right? It’s not just cherry-picking certain coffee cup Christianity, Psalm verses that we can put on Etsy and get really pretty things to put in our house for, but even the psalms themselves, in their entirety of a psalm, can be taken out of its context, of, you know…think things like the psalms of ascent, which is what Israel would sing together as they ascended to the Temple. So as we continue to kind of think about structure and what the Psalms can teach us as Christians in their totality, Martin Luther once said that the Psalms are like a little Bible unto themselves. Why is that? I mean, even I think about people like the Gideons, who have their New Testaments, and they always have the Psalms and the Proverbs at the end. How are the Psalms like a Bible, in and of themselves?


Jim Johnston (05:12):

A couple of different ways. One way is that, in order to really understand the Psalms, you’ve got to have a good working knowledge of the entire Old Testament, because the Psalms reach back and they talk about creation. They talk about Israel in the wilderness, their sin, they talk about Abraham. They talk about the monarchy, they talk about the exile, they talk about the return from exile. So really if you’re going to understand the Psalms, you’ve got to have a good grip on Genesis through Malachi, right? But not only that, you need to have a good grip on the New Testament too, because fundamentally the Psalms are about Christ. I mean, we often say that the Bible, from beginning to end, is focused on Jesus. And so wouldn’t it be odd if the largest book in the Old Testament was not focused on Christ? Right? So the Psalms are really prophecy, actually, pointing forward to Jesus.


Brian Arnold (06:10):

And most-quoted book of the New Testament?


Jim Johnston (06:11):



Brian Arnold (06:12):

Yeah. So…and we can just talk about some of those. Things like Psalm 110, which talks about Christ being seated…you know, “the Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool,” is the most frequently-cited verse in the New Testament. Or, you know, if you think about the words of Jesus on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is Psalm 22. And it’s very likely that those gathered at the cross, as soon as Jesus said those beginning words of Psalm 22, it triggers for them the entirety of Psalm 22, which talks about the crucifixion and people dividing his garments.


Jim Johnston (06:48):

Yeah. Although the irony in Mark, of course, is they thought he was calling for Elijah, but yeah. So…


Brian Arnold (06:53):

But no, you’re right. Christians always interpreted…they understood—this is about the cross.


Jim Johnston (06:58):

Yeah. Well, along those lines, I mean, when Jesus says, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we have no trouble imagining the Psalm there speaking prophetically for Christ, right? And actually Peter, at Pentecost, he quotes Psalm 16. And then he makes the point that—Peter—that David was a prophet, and that in Psalm 16 he was writing about the Messiah, about the Christ. And he argues and says, look, I mean, how could he say that you will not abandon your Holy One to corruption, to Sheol? Because here we have David’s tomb right here. I mean, his bones did turn to dust. And so he must have been talking about someone else, and he was speaking for the Christ. Now here’s the interesting question, Brian. David was a prophet. How did David prophesy in the first person? Let that sink in for a minute.


Jim Johnston (08:01):

Because oftentimes we want to place ourselves in the psalms. So when we see I, or my, we automatically think, oh, that’s talking about Jim, that’s talking about Brian. I’m reading this about myself. We have no problem hearing the voice of Christ in Psalm 22, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But then we turn to the very next psalm, Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And all of a sudden, no, that’s me. But what if that’s the voice of Christ, too? And that Christ himself, in his humanity, is trusting God, just the way Peter says in first Peter, chapter two, “he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” What if we’re actually hearing in Psalm 23 our Lord Jesus, in his humanity, trusting God as he went to the cross? And in fact, in Psalm 23, when it says “you restore my soul,” you could very legitimately translate that “you revive my life.” Resurrection, right?


Jim Johnston (08:58):

In fact, resurrection is throughout the Psalms. But in order to really understand how the Psalms are the voice of Christ, and how we are hearing Christ, you have to actually start at the beginning of the Psalms. Because Psalm one and Psalm two are the introduction that help us understand what this book is about. It introduces us to the main character. And so they’ve often been called the doorposts of the Psalms, like the pillars on the side of the gate that you walk through, that you have to walk through, in order to enter the Psalms. And so book one introduces us to some…so Psalm one introduces us to this ideal, perfect man. And then Psalm two tells us that this ideal, perfect man is the son of God, right? These two Psalms are linked together by a bunch of different words that link them together, that are repeated.


Jim Johnston (09:49):

For instance, when it says “on his law he meditates, day and night,” that’s the exact same word in Hebrew as when it says in chapter two, in Psalm two, verse one, “the peoples plot in vain.” So you have a lot of repeated words between Psalm one and two. And then you have bookends, an inclusio, a blessing at the beginning, “blessed is the man.” And then at the end of Psalm two, “blessed is the one who trusts and takes refuge in him,” right? So you meet this perfect man in Psalm one, it says, “blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” And Delitzsch, in his commentary, and VanGemeren in his, also, make the point that the grammar of those qal perfect verbs suggest that this person never has, or never does do these things. Meaning, a perfect man.


Brian Arnold (10:40):

Absolutely. And then in Christ, and Psalm two is very clear.


Jim Johnston (10:45):

Right away, it’s pointing forward to Jesus. And he is the one who delighted in the law of the Lord, supremely. And then he’s described in these pictures that remind us of the garden of Eden, “he’s like a tree, planted by rivers of water,” well, where have I heard that language before? Hello? Genesis two.


Brian Arnold (11:03):

And then Revelation 22.


Jim Johnston (11:04):

And then Revelation 22, right. So you’ve got this perfect man, who never sins, whose blessing is described in terms of the garden of Eden. That’s Psalm one—you meet the ideal man. And then Psalm two, he’s then described as the Son of God, enthroned on Mount Zion, over all things.


Brian Arnold (11:25):

So I think that’s the exact right orientations, we come to the Psalms, recognizing—they’re about Jesus. And they’re about as explicitly about Jesus as any portion in the Bible. And the New Testament authors saw that writ large over the book of Psalms, right? So it is Jesus. It is David, right? I mean, we do see David’s experiences, even as he’s running from his sons, and he’s hiding in caves, and he’s embroiled in controversy with Saul, or, you know, whatever is kind of playing out in his life. But what ways do the Psalms even talk about us, today? So how do we see them, maybe first Christologically, second in like a historical kind of context, but third, how does that trickle down into my life, so that I can stand at a graveside, hear Psalm 23, not only think about the person who’s died, who’s now with Christ, but also think about the fact that I will also pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death at some point?


Jim Johnston (12:15):

Well, yeah. So let’s take Psalm one. We’ve been talking about that. So, okay. You look at someone, and if you say, well, this is actually about Christ—he is the blessed man that we meet in verse one. What does that have to do with me? I mean, of what benefit is that to me? If he’s the blessed man and it’s not me, right? Well, a couple of different ways. First of all, he is a blessed man, but we are saved by being joined together with him, union with Christ. We are made one with him in our salvation. And so the blessings that he achieved for us, through his perfect life and death and resurrection, become ours when we are saved. Right? So the blessings of Psalm one are ours through Christ.


Brian Arnold (13:00):

I think that’s a really important point for people to really see. Like, Paul’s language of union with Christ is foundational to his theology.


Jim Johnston (13:08):



Brian Arnold (13:09):

So what belongs to Jesus belongs to us, by nature of the Spirit’s indwelling presence within us.


Jim Johnston (13:14):

And think of what happens if you don’t go that direction. Typically what you’re going to do, is you’re going to read this, you’re going to preach this Psalm or something on the first Sunday of the year, and you’re going to say—hey, it’s 2022 starting, and, you know, let’s be sure we’re really going to read our Bibles this week, this year. And so we’ve got, you know, the M’Cheyne’s reading calendars for you, and we’re going to be looking at Psalm one today. “His delight is in the law of the Lord, on his law he meditates day and night.” So this year we’re going to be really…to resolve to reading our Bibles. That’s the application you’re going to make. And basically, what you’re doing is you’re pointing people to the law, to legalism, to obedience, for God’s blessing. You will be blessed, if you meditate on the law. Right? If you understand this through Christ, all of a sudden, now, when you’re teaching and preaching Psalm one, and reading Psalm one, all of a sudden, now you’re teaching, preaching gospel. Because he’s the one that did that. And we’re saved through our obedience…through our faith in him. He’s the one who obeyed. So you really…you end up teaching law, if you’re not reading this with Christ. But you end up preaching gospel, if you’re reading this with Christ.


Brian Arnold (14:22):

Which is not good for those on January 8th, who have abandoned their reading plan.


Jim Johnston (14:28):

Let me just be transparent here. I’m not, you know, some…I’m not one of those guys that’s really good with these Bible reading calendars. I do terrible with those. The farthest I’ve made it is probably early March, and I just can’t do it. I mean, I can’t. I mean, I read my Bible, obviously, but I end up…these calendars that keep you moving, I end up drilling down too much on a particular paragraph, or verse, or something like that. And I’ll spend an hour like chasing something down in my Bible, and then it’s like—well, I don’t have time to read the other three readings I’m supposed to do today. So they always drive me crazy. So. But, you were asking earlier about what are we going to say at the graveside of someone, you know, if we’re reading Psalm 23. What do we mean by that, if that’s really about Jesus? Well, it’s the same thing. You know, the Lord is his shepherd, and he walked with Christ through the Valley of Death, and now he rose again. And all of a sudden, I’ve got this great confidence to know that the One who walked through death is actually my shepherd too, right?


Brian Arnold (15:18):

Because his life was restored, as you said before, my life will be restored.


Jim Johnston (15:22):

That’s exactly right. And you find resurrection all through the Psalms. You really do. I mean, it’s all over the place. Starting in Psalm three.


Brian Arnold (15:28):

Which it is important for people to know. I don’t know how many Christians who are not on our side of theology, know these things, but resurrection is not talked about a ton in the Old Testament, really, outside of the Psalms. You see it in Job, some, you catch whispers of it. But the Psalms are saturated with it. And so people say, well, they did not conceive of the resurrection in the Old Testament. That’s simply not true. Especially just from the book of Psalms alone.


Jim Johnston (15:55):

Yeah. Well, you just mentioned the Psalms and Job, and those two come together, actually, in Psalm three, when he says, “I laid down and slept, and woke again, for the Lord sustained me.” He’s not talking about taking a nap, right? That’s quoting…that’s the same language that you have, the same words that you have, in Job 14, verse 12, which is clearly talking about resurrection. You know? So here he’s using language that’s used elsewhere in the Old Testament for resurrection. Psalm 30, “Oh Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol, you restored me to life from among those who go down the pit.” I mean, typically when we read these things, what we’ll do is we’ll say—oh, well, you know, he was…he’s talking metaphorically. Like he was sick unto death. He was close to dying. It reminds me of that old eighties movie, Princess Bride.


Jim Johnston (16:39):

You remember, they bring Wesley to Miracle Max, and there’s like the—who is Billy Crystal, you know—and, “is there anything you could do for him? He’s dead.” “Oh, so look who knows everything now! Well, he’s only mostly dead!” You know? And so we actually read the Psalms, and when it’s talking about, you know, resurrection of the Psalms—like Miracle Max—he’s “mostly dead.” But no, actually, what…if you take them on face value, unless you have a predisposition, and you’ve decided ahead of time that you can’t find resurrection there, then it’s pretty clear. “Oh Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol, you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” I was with everyone down in the pit, and I’ve been restored to life. Which is exactly what happened with Christ.


Brian Arnold (17:26):

So, yes. Absolutely. Seeing the resurrection through that, that’s why the Psalms bring so much comfort, because there’s so much Christian hope laced through that, especially when you see Christ as the blessed man, the main character of the story of the Psalms. It revolutionizes the way that people can read these, and not rush to the back and say, I need some help on anxiety, and I’m going to go to the Psalms and read this one psalm. And not saying that that’s always bad or wrong, I mean, like, God’s Word is there to help us in those ways. But really, when we see it in Christ, that he is our righteousness, he is our shepherd. He is all those things to us. Well, I’m going to shift gears and talk about some of the more challenging aspects of the Psalms. We call these imprecatory psalms. So the imprecatory psalms. Well, let me just read a verse from Psalm 137, verse nine.


Jim Johnston (18:24):

How did I know you were going to turn there?


Brian Arnold (18:25):

Because that’s the classic standby, right? I wish we had Dr. Meade with us today, because he spends a lot of time explaining who he thinks this is talking about. But here we go, verse nine, Psalm 137, “Blessed shall he be, who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” So there’s some times that…we really see the full gamut of the human psyche, if you will, playing through the Psalms—anguish, despair, frustration, happiness, joy, expectation, hope. So what is happening in imprecatory psalms? What is God teaching us in these passages of Scripture?


Jim Johnston (19:03):

Yeah. Well, first of all, I think we need to be reading this in terms of the flow of the Psalms, and notice that this is one of the last psalms. And so, by taking a form critical category like imprecatory…well, it could be an imprecatory psalm, and then pulling that from the very end—you’re not going through the entire flow of the Psalter up to this point. Right? And so, you know, you’ve got to be…you’re in book five of the Psalms here at this point, which is talking about the return of the king. You know, books one and two…book one is Psalm one through 41, and then book two is Psalm 42 through 72. Those really are from the time of the monarchy. And they’re focused on the time…they’re focused on David and the kingdom. Book three, starting with Psalm 73, all of a sudden the people are in exile.


Jim Johnston (19:51):

So it’s from a different period in Israel’s history. How do we know that? Well, because Psalm 74 pretty clearly describes the destruction of the temple, right? So book three was compiled, put together—not written, but compiled—while Israel was in exile. Scribes like Ezra, maybe. Something like that. So was book four. How do we know book four is an exilic compilation? Well, because it ends in Psalm 106, saying…asking God to bring the people back from exile, and to restore them, and to bring them back. Book five, now, the people are back. And so you get this restoration, it’s the return of the king. And we can’t go into all the details of how all those flow, but by the time you get to Psalm 137, this imprecatory psalm, you’ve gone through the flow of Israel’s sin and then restoration through the Messiah.


Jim Johnston (20:44):

And now, all of a sudden, you’re coming to a final conclusion of judgment. So the question is, it’s a broader question. It’s not just imprecatory psalms. What do we do with God’s judgment altogether in the Scriptures? For instance, in Revelation chapter 19, you’ve got something that’s equally shocking. Revelation chapter 19—”a great multitude in heaven crying out, hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” What are we to do with God’s judgment, whether it’s in poetic language that’s very visceral—like we see in Psalm 137—or when we see Revelation 19? And I think we don’t understand the glory of God well enough. We don’t see the horror of sin most clearly enough. We don’t understand the rightness and goodness and beauty of God’s judgment on sin, a) for it’s dishonor to him, and b) for the damage and destruction it brings on his creation, on fellow human beings.


Jim Johnston (21:46):

And because we don’t see that, the judgment seems overly harsh, right? But to actually know that God judges sin and that he is angry at sin is really an important comfort. I mean, if your child has been murdered and the suspect is never caught, what hope do you have, except for that there’s a final judgment when everything will be made right? And that judgment is going to be writ large over this entire world.


Brian Arnold (22:18):

And so even when we see that in places like the Psalms, it’s actually part of God’s goodness.


Jim Johnston (22:22):

That’s exactly right.


Brian Arnold (22:23):

And recognizing that he is a good judge. You know, Genesis 18—”will the judges of the earth not do what is right?” Because he always does what’s right. And yeah, I would start in the same place. If people don’t get that, they don’t understand sin.


Jim Johnston (22:34):

Well, and love implies…love, implies hatred. Can I say that? Yeah, I think I can probably say that. Here’s the thing. So if I love my family, if I love my daughter—I’ve got three daughters—if I love my daughters, and God forbid someone attacks and rapes and kills one of my daughters, would I be a good, loving father if I was not furious and angry at the person who did that?


Brian Arnold (22:59):

Yeah. To love your daughter…


Jim Johnston (23:01):

To love my daughter means to hate the things that hurt her. And yeah, that’s right.


Brian Arnold (23:05):

So even, as Christians, we have this paradox, right? Because we can still forgive. We can still love. But there is going to be a righteousness that boils up, that’s there from God, because we’re created in his image, and those things must be there. And we see that. And I think that’s the point of the Psalms, right? In that imprecatory piece is—God is a good God. God is a just God. God is wise. God is patient. God is kind. And it’s an expression of his goodness. That’s right. That’s right. Well, that’s helpful. So maybe in our last minute or so, why don’t you give some helpful resources for somebody diving into the Psalms? I will say, because you’re not going to, probably, your commentaries on Psalms…one is out, right?


Jim Johnston (23:47):

I’ve got volume two, which is books two, three, and four—Psalms 42 through 106. I have them preached, now I just have to turn them into chapters.


Brian Arnold (23:58):

Well, it’s excellent. And it’s something that I’ve benefited from. And I think anybody could pick it up and really benefit from reading, understanding, applying the Psalms in their life. What else has been helpful for you?


Jim Johnston (24:08):

Okay. So helpful resources, probably somebody to read if you want to start getting into this, is a guy named Gerald Wilson, he was a student of Brevard Childs. And so he brought a canonical approach to the Psalter, kind of reading it as a book that’s actually put together with a purpose. And so he started his work in the mid-1980s. His commentary, he did Volume One of the NIV Life Application Bible Series. And so he’s a…that’s a really good one to look at. And I would look at, I would especially read the introduction to get his sense. A guy named Robert Cole, he’s got some monographs, he teaches at Southeastern. He’s got something on Psalms one and two, and then he also did book three of the Psalms. And then finally, if you’re just jumping into the Psalms, a great place to start would be the old Tyndale Series, the little paperbacks by Derek Kidner. Those are beautiful.


Brian Arnold (25:02):

Those are all really helpful resources. Well, there’s a reason why this section of the Bible has been studied so much, brought so much comfort, so much hope. And if we see them Christologically, and understand them rightly, we can continue to place our hope in the God of the Psalms. And it’s a beautiful thing. Thanks for preaching them faithfully, and writing on them as well. And thanks for joining us today.


Jim Johnston (25:21):

Oh, thanks for having me.


Outro (25:23):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at



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