In the tradition in which I was raised, the Christian Reformed Church, a predominantly Dutch Calvinist denomination headquartered in western Michigan, the psalms played a prominent role in worship. In fact, the Psalter Hymnal, the official hymnal of the denomination in which I grew up, gave about two-thirds of its pages to the words of the psalms set to music. In the tradition in which I now practice my Christian faith – the (Anglican) monastic tradition – psalms are a mainstay of worship as well. We Brothers sing and pray the psalms several times a day, moving again and again through a cycle which covers the entire Psalter.
There are a number of reasons for granting the psalms such a prominent place in our worship. One is that the psalms played a key role in the worship of ancient Israel and were therefore integral to the spirituality of Jesus himself. We can presume that Jesus and his disciples were well familiar with them. But even more, we value them because they reveal to us essential truths – about God, about ourselves, and about the realities of human existence. As one Jewish Rabbi, Amy Scheinerman, has written, “Herein lies the magic of the psalms: they speak to the individual soul, to an entire people, indeed to all souls in all times and places. While time and situations may change, human nature does not, and the psalms speak from and to the essence of being human and in search of God in our lives.”
What can we learn about God from the psalms? The God we encounter in the psalms is not radically different from the God we see elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, also called “the Old Testament.” In the psalms, God is revealed to us both as Creator and Savior. As Creator, God is the One who brings order out of chaos; he is the One who has created, and now rules, all that is. The psalms praise the God of Creation, underscoring his supreme status among all gods and revealing his fatherly kindness and goodness. God is the ‘Lord’ and ‘King’ who reigns in both the divine and human realms, but who is also our ‘Shepherd,’ our ‘Rock,’ and our ‘Refuge.’ We are safe in God’s care.
God is also the source of salvation. God is the Savior of the people of Israel, the One who delivered them from Egypt, sustained them in the wilderness, and brought them safely into the Promised Land. Not only is God the Savior of the nation, he is also the One who saves each of us – from sickness, from death, and from our enemies. Salvation and deliverance come from God; in God alone is our hope.
The psalms reveal to us the nature of God, but they also reveal to us the heights and depths of human experience. At times we see the psalmists caught up in wonder, love and praise at the power and goodness of God (e.g. Psalms 8, 103, 150); or longing passionately to draw closer to God (Psalms 42, 63). At other times, the psalmist cries out from the depths of suffering and pain for God to rescue him (Psalms 88, 137). The psalmists hold nothing back; they are brutally honest about themselves and their circumstances. In the psalms we find the full range of human emotions: fear, envy, hatred, and despair, as well as joy, wonder, love, and trust.
The most powerful and transformative way to pray the psalms is to enter into the mindset of the writer. At times this is easy, when we can readily recognize similar emotions within our own hearts. At other times the psalmist is expressing an emotion which is not immediately accessible to us, and we will need to lay aside our present mood or concern in order to identify with that dimension of human experience that is being expressed in the words of the psalm. Thus, praying the psalms often requires a freedom and generosity to rise above our own experience in order to extend our empathy and our prayerful intentions towards others for whom the words may ring more true. Perhaps I do not feel persecuted or tormented by enemies, but this may be exactly what a brother or sister in another part of the world is experiencing. Because it is real for them, it can be real for me as well.
We come to the psalms, then, to encounter God and to know more fully the depths of our humanness. The psalms expand our hearts and enlarge our horizons. When we come to them with openness and a desire to serve, they draw us into something that is greater than ourselves. Approaching the psalms with vulnerability and honesty allows them to form and transform us.
I urge you to make the psalms your own. Study them, read and ponder them, memorize them, savor them, sing them and pray them. When we study them, we come to appreciate the time and circumstances in which they were written, and some of the “strangeness” of that culture and time fall away. But we must also remember that they are first of all songs and poetry, and so must be careful to analyze them as such, rather than as theological discourses. If we take time to recognize the category to which a particular psalm belongs (praise, thanksgiving, lament, penitence, etc.), we can enter more fully into the emotion or experience being expressed. Then we can use them as intercessory prayers for others, as well as for our own comfort, guidance, and edification. We can be sure that whatever effort we expend in appropriating their wisdom will be repaid many times over.
Allowing the psalms to be relegated solely to the liturgy will rob them of their potential richness. To be fully effective, they must be appropriated in the heart by prayerful and thoughtful recollection.