I remember, years ago as a teenager, hearing an older lady at the church I attended share something God had been teaching her. She was a simple woman, neither highly educated nor particularly articulate. However, as she spoke, she did it with a surprising (to me at the time) amount of insight and theological depth. The reason was that she shared it in terms of lyrics from old hymns. She wasn't being clever - it was just a description of her lived experience - but by stringing together verses from a half-dozen different songs she had grown up singing, she was able to touch on deep truths of Scripture and how they met her in the midst of life's struggles.
The book of Psalms, as Israel's hymnbook, functions like that. These song-poems have been perhaps more formative than any other Biblical book on the Christian experience. We already see this in the New Testament - the Psalter is quoted and alluded to more than any other Old Testament book. Jesus quotes it regularly, including finding in it the words he spoke at His crucifixion (Psalm 22). The Psalter has also occupied a central place in the history of the church. The church fathers soaked in it. Medieval monks, as they prayed the hours, would recite the entire Psalter each week. Early Protestant churches regularly sang and prayed Psalms. They lie behind some of our most famous hymns (i.e. Our God, Our Help in Ages Past and Joy to the World are paraphrases of Psalms 90 and 98).
I have also found them immensely useful in my own personal devotional life. While I wander in other parts of Scripture, the Psalms remain a near-daily companion. Reading them, praying them, even sometimes chanting them. They have become a refuge and a rhythm of great peace for me.
All of which I say because I want to invite you to spend some time exploring this divinely-given hymnbook for yourself. To make it a part of your daily rhythms. How can this look?
- At its most basic level, it's not hard to read a Psalm per day. Break up Psalm 119 into a few chunks, give yourself a couple weeks' worth of missed days, and you can still cycle through the Psalter twice a year.
- Incorporate it into rhythms of prayer. While originally intended for singing, the personal and devotional nature of a Psalm makes it ideal to pray through, reading a few verses at a time and then talking with God about them.
- Memorize them. Thanks to their poetic nature, Psalms are often easier to memorize than long prose passages of Scripture. It is clear this was the practice of many in the New Testament, probably accounting for part of why the book was quoted so often.
As you do this, there are a couple of things I think you will discover. At least, I have.
- The Psalms give God-ordained language to use in all of life's circumstances. They contain songs of rejoicing and cries of anguish, expressions of gratitude and frustration and trust and struggle, all of which are a part of God's Word. There is an enormous power in having this language burrowed into our hearts. It frees us to express ourselves, giving us permission to explore all these experiences and words when we lack them. More than that, it molds how we experience these things in ways that draw us toward God.
- The Psalms also give a God-ordained shape to our experiences. Many of them take us on journeys through doubt or despair to hope or faith. On the one hand, this allows us to meet with God in life's low places. On the other, it also invites us to move upward as He meets us and draws us to Himself.
- The Psalms give a God-centered perspective on the world. The Psalter has an earthiness, a connecting to creation and history, that both helps us notice the wonders of the world around us and to connect that to a sense of wonder at God and all that He has done.
- The Psalms also offer us a God-given perspective on life. They don't simply tell us what is true or false, good or bad. They seek to shape our hearts, helping us to see the purity and goodness of truth and to recognize the ugliness of sin. We need to see Christianity not just in terms of logic and ethics, of ideas and behaviors, but also as something that touches our aesthetics. Christianity should show itself to be beautiful, and the Psalter is perhaps the best place to find our hearts stirred with that beauty.
- Lastly, the Psalms make us struggle in ways God desires. None of the above means there aren't moments of discomfort I feel sitting with these songs. "Can the Psalmist say that?" I wonder when I see an imprecatory cry of anger. "Can I say that?" I ask myself as I see a full-throated vow to seek the Lord and His ways. I am convinced that this unsettling is important for us, keeping us asking questions and seeking to grow in our faith.
So there's my invitation, as I reflect on the last few months. Let's seek to soak in these songs, and even more, let them soak into us.
For Further Reading:
The Songs of Jesus, Tim Keller
The Case for the Psalms, N.T. Wright