By Kimberly Constant
The book of Psalms stands at the heart of Scripture as a unique offering in the biblical canon. Whereas the other books of the Bible contain the divinely inspired words of human beings written for the benefit of other human beings, Israel’s ancient book of worship holds the words of human beings written for the benefit of God – words that continue to offer profound insight to modern day believers. The psalms serve as a key to tapping into the deep intimacy inherent in an authentic relationship with God.
When I think of the psalms, immediately Psalm 139 springs to mind. It begins with a beautifully phrased exploration of God’s intimate knowledge and love of the psalmist. Anywhere he goes, there the psalmist finds God. But the psalmist’s words quickly take a dark turn in verse 19 with a call for vengeance against the enemies of the Lord. So stark is the contrast in content and tone that we rightly wonder about its origins. How can such a violent expression of hatred have a place in the Bible? How can these words constitute worship? What do they mean for Christians? Aren’t we called to love? Aren’t we called to make peace? Do such expressions of anger really have a place in our relationship with God?
Surprisingly, the candor of Psalm 139 is not an anomaly. Within the psalter we discover similar calls for vengeance, as well as cries of deepest distress and expressions of anger so vivid that we recoil in shock. These are interposed with more palatable words which speak of green pastures and wings of refuge, or shouts of praise springing forth from all creation, imagery that appears more aligned with Jesus’ call to love God and others. Yet the book of Psalms tells us a story that challenges us to let go of any illusions that such love must only be bright and sunny or that our worship must be sanitized. Instead, the book of Psalms offers us an unflinching representation of the full range of human emotions extended to God as authentic worship.
Truthfully, this is the kind of worship we need at this moment in history in which our collective anger and pain threatens to rip society apart. The book of Psalms offers believers a way through this quagmire, a way to give voice to our deepest feelings as an act of release to God.
The words of the psalms encourage us to rightly rail against the injustices of a fallen and broken world, to genuinely grieve amidst the deep sorrows of life, and to joyously celebrate the victories of faith when they come, but to do so with humility, recognizing our limitations and putting our trust not in ourselves to right these wrongs, but in God. We make room in our hearts so that God can fill us with his divine strength. The very act of reading the Psalms, as words directed to God, allows us to become participants in this kind of genuine worship and relationship.
As we read these ancient prayers and praises, we join with them our own and a holy conversation ensues. So perhaps now is the time to heed the invitation offered by the psalmists – as individuals, but also as a larger community of believers, to commit to incorporating reading the psalms into the daily rhythm of our spiritual practices.
But where to begin? How to make sense of these ancient words? First, with a pledge to engage in a diligent and respectful reading of each psalm on its own terms. To do so we need a general understanding of some features of the psalter. The book contains 150 psalms, which are poems or hymns of worship, divided into five smaller books.
• Book 1 (Psalms 1–41)
• Book 2 (Psalms 42–72)
• Book 3 (Psalms 73–89)
• Book 4 (Psalms 90–106)
• Book 5 (Psalms 107–150)
Although each psalm is unique, we can trace a subtle overarching message in the book of Psalms – a trajectory representative of the evolution of the faith of the Israelites, and hopefully we readers as well.
The psalter begins with two psalms which serve as an introduction for its entirety. They are bookended with the Hebrew word we translate as happy or blessed. Psalm 1:1 attests that the person who delights in God’s ways and is obedient to them will be happy, and Psalm 2:12 closes with the statement that happiness comes when we take refuge in God. These two concepts of obedience and refuge become the means by which the Israelites ultimately will navigate the difficulties that lie ahead. Books One through Three of the psalms thus generally trace the erosion of faith that occurred in Israel during the time of the monarchy, culminating in the somber final verses of Psalm 89, which reflect on the devastation of Israel’s exile and the seeming withdrawal of God’s presence. The response to this national sorrow occurs in books Four and Five, which turn the focus to God as the true king.
Book Four opens with a psalm that is attributed to Moses. The mention of his name mirrors the words of the psalmist in recalling a time in which Israel did not have a human king but instead relied on God alone. Hence the final two books of psalms encourage the people to trust and take refuge in God, rather than any human king or leader, through obedience to God’s law.
Finally, the psalter concludes with five psalms of praise pointing to an ultimate victory for those who remain faithful. Although not every psalm will fit this overarching pattern, determining a psalm’s location within this grand narrative provides a helpful starting point.
Next, the reader might consider the genre of each psalm. Most frequently we encounter laments, often thought of as the backbone of the psalter. Typically, a lament begins with an address, followed by a complaint, a plea for God’s help, an assertion of the psalmist’s trust in God, and a concluding vow of praise. We also find psalms of praise, thanksgiving, psalms which focus on the human king of Israel, psalms which focus on God as king, and wisdom psalms. Some appear to fit into more than one of these categories. Further, some of the identifying features of these psalms are missing or truncated, making categorization difficult at times. Nonetheless, an attempt to identify the genre of an individual psalm helps us understand potentially challenging aspects. For instance, the deep anger in Psalm 139 represents the complaint aspect of a psalm of lament. It is followed by a plea and implied assertion of trust in God in verses 23-24. Having rightly expressed anger at the deep injustice of his world, the psalmist ultimately puts his trust in God and focuses not on his pain, but on his relationship with the Lord.
Finally, as with all poetry, modern or ancient, the form and the function of the psalms also contribute to their meaning. Difficulties abound in this type of analysis due to the elements lost in translation from the original biblical Hebrew. But there are a few features worth noting. One of the more common elements in the psalter is the use of parallelism in which one line of the psalm corresponds in some way with the line that follows. Repeated words or phrases often accompany this device. In addition, the psalms make use of metaphor and simile, hyperbole, and personification. These mechanisms can be a means to capture the reader’s attention, while also allowing the writer a measure of artistry. Often, they highlight the mood and the emotions of the psalmist.
Thus, a conscientious reader can begin a study of a psalm by asking a few basic questions:
1. Where is this psalm located within the overarching narrative of the psalter?
2. What type of psalm am I reading?
3. What stands out in terms of the form, function, or language of this psalm?
4. What mood and emotions does the author invoke in this psalm? Does the psalmist experience a shift in these or does the tone remain the same?
5. Finally, how do all of these illumine the meaning of the psalm?
Lastly, we engage with the psalms through the process of applying our interpretation. Asking ourselves questions such as, “What do I learn about God and God’s work in the world from this psalm?” Or, “How does this psalm lend insight to my role in serving God?” Since the psalms are words directed to God, we might engage in the practice of praying the psalms also, substituting our own prayers and praises when appropriate. Or replacing the psalmist’s “I” or “we” with our own names or the names of those on our prayer lists as we read.
Finally, we would do well to recognize that reading the psalms as a spiritual discipline involves taking the time to savor each psalm. Perhaps reading one psalm in the morning, and one in the evening – as a prayer or devotional exercise, or even listening to it via a Bible app and allowing the words to wash over us. If all of us readers of Good News magazine were to commit to such an exercise, we would read the entire book of Psalms in 75 days. That would be two-and-a-half months of committed reflection, prayer, and worship done in concert with one another and with all the voices of those who have walked the path of faith before us. One can only imagine what God might do, the transformations that might occur, with such an offering of time and commitment.
Ultimately, the psalms encourage us to cultivate a genuine relationship with God, reassuring us that our deepest cries will be met by a God who loves us unconditionally. The God who, according to the psalmist, formed us together in the secret place. The God who spoke the universe into existence. The God who rescued the enslaved Israelites from Egypt and against all odds formed them into a priesthood of believers. The God who continued to extend grace and mercy even when those same people turned from him to pursue their own desires. And as we who live on this side of the cross know, the God who sent us Jesus Christ that we might be free from the chains of sin and death forever.
The world seems on the verge of exploding with anger, confusion, and despair. But we as believers need not meet that fate. Our God beckons us to bring all our feelings to the foot of God’s throne. To offer them up as an act of worship so raw and authentic that all pretense falls away. That in the place of such vulnerability, God might meet us and strengthen us, cultivating within us the deep trust and obedience necessary to genuinely love God and others.
Kimberly Constant is a Bible teacher, author, and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. You can find out more about Rev. Constant at kimberlyconstantministries. Image: Shutterstock.