Psalms: The heart of the matter

Jan 7, 2016 by

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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — Psalm 22:1

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his love endures for ever.” — Palm 107:1

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” — Psalm 23:1

Never have we experienced such memorable, diverse and poetic lines in all of Christian Scripture than we find most readily through the Psalms. These lines have inspired poets, artists, writers and hymnodists throughout the centuries to create and re-create pastoral images of comfort, hope and peace. Yet, sadly, over the years, the Psalms have decreased in their importance to the life of the Christian church. No longer are they the pillars and cornerstones of jubilation, but they have been relegated to canned expressions of the Christian faith — no more than rote memorization.

Since I study theology and am a very strong practicing Christian, I find myself being asked quite frequently, “What is your favorite book of the Bible? What is your favorite passage? What is your life verse?” When I share that all three of these answers come from the Psalms, people often seem surprised. They generally make comments such as “well, I guess the Psalms are good for praying” or “yes, the Psalms sound nice.”

However, few theologians (whether academic or lay) truly give the Psalms the attention and prominence they deserve. The Psalms are read as part of virtually every liturgical service, but less than 10 percent of the sermons I have ever heard relate to this book. We prefer to find shelter in the Gospels, or even better in one of Paul’s many letters. We prefer to touch on issues of life, morality and Christian practice, but we shy away from discussing emotions and life transitions. We have become a culture too closely tied to the head and less in tune with the heart of the matter.

Yet the Psalms provide not only wonderful imagery, but also a rich and vibrant theological awareness keenly rooted in love and endurance. In the Psalms we journey with David and many others both as they experience the depths of depression (“My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?” — Psalm 42:3), the seeming injustice of the wicked thriving while the good are passed over (“fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!” — Psalm 37:7), and the brilliance of complete trust in God (“All you people: Trust in him at all times! Pour out your hearts before him! God is our refuge!” — Psalm 62:8).

We experience a sense of real closeness to God (“But as for me, I get as close to him as I can! I have chosen him, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful ways he rescues me” — Psalm 73:28), but also an utter sense of hopelessness and belief that God has abandoned us during the times in our lives when we felt we needed him the most (“Long enough, God — you’ve ignored me long enough.” — Psalm 13:1).

We discover magnificent terms for referencing God (“I love you, God — you make me strong. God is bedrock under my feet, the castle in which I live, my rescuing knight. My God—the high crag where I run for dear life, hiding behind the boulders, safe in the granite hideout,” — Psalm 18:1-2), but we also experience a certain sense of let down and disbelief (“Will the Lord cast off forever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy gone forever? Does his word fail from generation to generation? Has God forgotten to have mercy? Has he in anger shut up his tender mercies?” — Psalm 77:7-9).

What I love about the Psalms is that they so accurately display a wide range of human thoughts, emotions and attitudes toward life. Often in our churches, certain attitudes are encouraged while certain others show a seeming lack of faith. Many churches thrive on what is known as “happy clappy” worship. They love to sing upbeat songs and want us to talk about rainbows and unicorns. They present a type of belief that faith in God cures all ills and solves all worldly woes. This is great so long as you aren’t in the process of getting a divorce, your love one has not recently passed away, you have not been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you are not battling with dark depression, or you are not wondering how you are going to pay off your student loan — you know, stuff that really happens in everyday life.

This type of belief system is faulty, and not at all what we see displayed in scripture. Instead we see no better example of deep depression, no more accurate description of bitterness, and no more acute sense of loss as what we read and experience through the Psalms. Here we are forced to wrestle with the meaning of life, death and everything in between. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that there is no life query, problem, demand or situation that the Psalms do not address, and moreover, well to the point of descriptive and gut-wrenching honest reactions.

This is why the Psalms should not just be read at weddings and funerals, but throughout our lives. I have read at least one Psalm every day since I was a child, and this is a practice I will continue throughout my life. The Psalms have such a profound place in my heart and life that they are the passages I turn to the most when all other strength is gone, when I am facing trials and tribulations, and when I am questioning my faith.

In Romans 8:26 the Apostle Paul writes, “when we cannot pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit intercedes with grunts and groans which words cannot comprehend.” While I believe this largely means through tongues and the heavenly language, I also believe that God has given us the best prayer book available: the Psalms. When words fail us, we simply have to read out what already has been written. Often, there need be nothing more to add than what is already there.

The Psalms have not only had an impact in my own life, but also the life of my grandmother, who was a strong and valiant woman of God. Her life was so deeply entrenched in prayer that she had sticky notes around her apartment on her radio and television with questions such as “Lord, have I remembered to thank you today?” I do not doubt for an instant that her prayer life developed as a result of years reading and praying through the Psalms. It was for this reason that even as she lay dying, she constantly called her family to her side, asking them to read to her from the Bible, but in particular, the Psalms. She loved the Psalms so deeply that the last passage she would hear on this earth came from this glorious book.

If you have never developed this close relationship and friendship with the Psalms, then I ask you to consider doing so. Use them as a way to call out to God and also to hear from him. Use them as your comfort and strength. Best of all, use them to gain wisdom and to glorify God. Once you start reading the Psalms on a regular basis, I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. In fact, you probably will never be able to stop studying them.

Deborah-Ruth Ferber studied religious education at Tyndale University College in Toronto, and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared at Zwiebach and Peace, her personal blog.

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