Many of us feel that we live in a world that is beyond our control, and life is in a constant flux of change. The implication of that is that we have to decide whether we want to keep trying to control a storm that is not going to go away, or whether we are going to start learning how to live within the rain.
This, I think, is what the psalms are all about. Real people, facing the same questions and situations that we face, and trying to respond through more poetic turns of phrase than people like me can manage. I think it was probably for this reason that John Calvin called the Book of Psalms ‘an anatomy of all parts of the soul.’ In it you find all the range of emotions expressed. I suppose you might say that the Psalms weave an emotional fabric for the human soul, that these are inspired lyrics which take us by the hand and train us in proper emotion, that is that they lead us to emotional maturity. I’ve also heard it said that when a church stops reading or singing or praying the psalms, it’s an early indicator of the church beginning to lose its faith.
Suppose the Psalms had been lost and had never been printed in any Bibles or prayer books? Suppose they then turned up in a faded but still legible scroll, discovered by archaeologists in the sands of Jordan or Egypt? What would happen? When deciphered and translated, I reckon they would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world! Many scholars from many disciplines would marvel at the beauty and content of these ancient worship songs and poems.
The Psalms are among the oldest poems in the world, and they still rank with any poetry in any culture, ancient or modern, from anywhere in the world. They are full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul – anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here. And astonishingly, it doesn’t get lost in translation. Most poetry suffers when translated into other languages because it relies for its effect on the sound and rhythm of the original words, but the psalms still seem to work rather well in translation.
Another way of thinking of the Psalms is that they represent the Bible’s own spiritual root system for the great tree we call Christianity. You don’t have to be a horticultural genius to know what will happen to the fruit on the tree if the roots are not in good condition. I’m not simply saying psalms are important and we should use them and try to understand them. That is true, but it puts the emphasis the wrong way round – as though the Psalms are the problem, and we should try to fit them into our world. Again and again it is we, muddled and puzzled and half-believing, who are the problem; and the question is more how we can find our way into their world, into the faith and hope that shine out in one psalm after another.
There is a humility about this approach. Helpful worship, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate upsurge of emotion, however ‘Christian’, but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing worship that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. The Psalms offer us a way of joining in that chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to bother with them at all, while continuing to invent worship based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoilt child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before them, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his phone.
Entering into the psalms is transformative. It changes the way we understand some of the deepest elements of who we are, or rather, who, where, when, and what we are: we are creatures of space, time, and matter, and though we take our normal understandings of these for granted, I suggest that the psalms will gently but firmly transform our understandings of all of them. They do this in order that we may be changed, transformed, so that we look at the world, one another, and ourselves in a radically different way, which we believe to be God’s way.
I’m not really bothered about who wrote the psalms or when. Nor am I bothered about the theories as to how they have been shaped and edited into their present format. Those are important questions, but not for today. In the troubles through which God’s ancient people went, singing and praying the psalms was what kept them sane and gave them hope. That they formed the basic hymnbook of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as of the thousands of local Jewish gatherings in synagogues. They almost certainly had more of a sense of corporate solidarity than is common today in modern Western individualism. Their worship was that of the whole people of God, even if some people were set apart, trained, and equipped to offer it publicly.
Flowing from that, what Jesus believed and understood about his own identity and vocation, and what Paul came to believe and understand about Jesus’s unique achievement, they believed and understood from within a psalm-shaped world. That same shaping, remarkably, is open to us today. I don’t want to offer you an intellectual argument, I want to draw you into an experience.
The Psalms draw out the experiences of life, come what may, be it rough or smooth, in a conversation with God. The experience of God which they share with us is fragmentary, earthy, and human, but that means it’s much easier to feel them, sing them, sigh them, even. We may sometimes found ourselves knitting our brows in puzzlement or shaking our heads in doubt. The Psalms are distillations of life: its joy, its wonder, its laughter, its pain, its loneliness, and its fear. They’re about living and about dying. No wonder they’ve lasted so long. They’ve never worn out and they never will. Be patient with them, be nourished by them, allow them sharpen and deepen your awareness of the real presence of God in the bitter-sweet knocking about which we know as life. This is praying with the psalms.