One of the things I love about the Psalms is the intentionality of their arrangement. The ordering of the psalms is purposeful. Unfortunately, many people will simply grab a psalm here or there, assuming they are disjointed poems. However, like the rest of the biblical books, they are arranged this way for a reason.
For example, let’s consider Psalm 50 and Psalm 51.
Psalm 50 is a psalm about God’s justice and our sinfulness, and there are three primary parties described: God (vv.1-6), his people (vv.7-15), and the wicked (vv.16-21).
God is the mighty one (v.1), a great tempest and devouring fire (v.3) who is declared righteous by the heavens (v.6). As the only one righteous, God is the only one able to judge justly.
The other two parties are distinctly different but can be dealt with together under the heading of ‘sinner.’ In this way, David beautifully and holistically shows that no one can find themselves excluded from God’s just rebuke.
As God speaks to his people (v.7ff), his charge isn’t that they’ve not been obedient law-keepers (v.8), it’s that they’re trying to avoid him with their obedience. They know they owe God something, but they’re trying to pay him back with money from his own wallet (vv.9-13). Instead, what he desires is their gratitude (v.14a).
They know they owe God something, but they’re trying to pay him back with money from his own wallet.Tweet
If they only offer sacrifices from a place of duty and not delight, then they’re missing the point. Everything is God’s already. He doesn’t need their stuff; he wants their hearts. And his command for them to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving shows they’ve been attempting to buy him off by only going through the motions. Therefore, it’s God’s positive assertion that his people will be delivered when they sacrifice to him from the heart (vv.14-15) that shows us there is no salvation in with God through sheer diligence.
Next, God turns his attention to “the wicked “(v.16ff). This group is the “everyone else” category. The first group dealt with his people, Israel—those people who bear his name to the world. But now his focus is on those who hate discipline and God’s instruction (v.17), take pleasure in evildoers (v.18), and leverage their words to tear down those closest to them (vv.19-20).
These people assume there is no God. Or, maybe, if there is a God he doesn’t really care. However, God does care, and he lays these charges before them. By doing this, he lets them know he sees it all. From the thoughtless word to the intentional casting off of restraint, God sees it all, and will judge it justly.
The beauty here is that we all fall into one category or the other. We all either lean toward avoiding God by keeping his commands or avoiding him by breaking them. But in either case, we’re trying to be the rulers of our own lives. For further study on this, I would highly recommend Prodigal God, by Tim Keller, or The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson. Both books point out that while these seem like opposites of one another, they’re actually just fraternal twins. They look different, but they come from the same womb. Instead, the real thing that God is after is gospel obedience.
So, after an honest reading of Psalm 50, we will come to realize that none of us can find ourselves (of ourselves) in the camp of the righteous. That belongs only to God. We’ve either tried to avoid God by staying close to him or by throwing off his rule in our lives altogether. Either way, we’re sinners in need of a savior.
THEN, Psalm 51
It’s at this point that the beauty of the arrangement comes into full view. If you’re reading the psalms consecutively, after being confronted with the inescapable fact of your sin in Psalm 50, you turn the page, and your heart is prepared to pray Psalm 51—David’s famous psalm of repentance.
In praying Psalm 51, you realize you bring nothing to the table but your sin, dependence, and need. After being shown in the previous psalm that you’re either trying and getting tired or just tired of trying, you’re ready to receive. You’re ready to desperately beckon God to be merciful, and our God, being rich in mercy, is eager to do it. God does it all.
According to Psalm 51, it’s God that: has mercy (v.1), blots out (v.1, 9), washes (v.2, 7), cleanses (v.2), delights and teaches (v.6), purges (v.7), breaks and brings joy (v.8), creates and renews (v.10), casts not and takes not (v.11), restores & upholds (v.12), delivers (v.14), opens (v.15), and does good (v.18).
The only thing intrinsic to us in Psalm 51 is our sin, and therefore our need for God to be merciful (vv.1-4). Psalm 51 even ends on a note of gospel obedience (v.19) which is what God truly wants from us. He wants us to obey his commands because they’re for our good.
Therefore, by reading the Psalms consecutively and meditating on Psalm 50 before Psalm 51, we are adequately prepared to confess our need and receive, again, God’s grace.