“If you bury yourself in Psalms, you emerge knowing God and understanding life…We learn from the Psalms how to think and act in reference to God. We drink in God and God’s world from them. They provide a vocabulary for living Godward, are inspired by God himself. They show us who God is, and that expands and lifts and directs our minds and hearts.”
—Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
Ever written a poem or a song? There’s something unique about a lyric. You’re not trying to communicate facts or data. It’s all about feeling and emotion. It’s art. It’s just the right words in just the right order. And so we find in the Pslams imaginative metaphors, and we find dramatic hyperbole that inspires our emotions.
The Book of Psalms just might be the most important book in the whole Bible. Like the anchors of a mountain climber that keep their line attached to the rock face, the psalms keep us anchored to the heart of God and God’s mission in the world. Without them, we float away in the churn of our own self-centered chatter and busyness.
I grew up in a tradition where prayer was something that happened spontaneously. Authenticity was key, and so, it mattered deeply that it be off the cuff, not rehearsed, top of mind. Hear me that it’s not wrong to pray this way. It’s not bad. But there’s more.
Imagine the churn of things floating in a stream or creek—leaves, sticks, trash. That’s just the surface. There’s so much more happening beneath. We can pray from the churn of our mind and heart, but those things are so temporary. They come and go. We can find those thoughts and emotions aren’t nearly as important to us as we begin to give them space. Psalms provide us an on-ramp for diving beneath the surface of our hearts and minds.
The psalms help us understand both the Old and New Testaments.
We find the entire story of God in the Old Testament throughout the Psalms: creation, sin, wickedness, righteousness, salvation, the law that brings life, the hope for Messiah (the “Christ” or the “Good King”). Then, along with Isaiah and Deuteronomy, Psalms is one of the most quoted Old Testament books by the writers of the New Testament. The psalms helped them make sense of Jesus.
The psalms are not a random collection, but rather an ordered manual of prayer. There are five “books” (they would have originally been scrolls) that parallel the five books of Moses, the Torah:
- Book I: 1–41
- Book II: 42–72
- Book III: 73–89
- Book IV: 90–105
- Book V: 106–150
John Goldingay notes, “The five Moses books teach people how to live; the five David books teach them how to pray and praise.”
In this way they call back to God’s story with Israel, but they also look forward. In Acts 4, we see the early church gathered together in prayer and interpreting their situation in the words of Psalm 2. The first Christians were soaked in the worldview of the psalms.
The psalms help us understand corporate worship.
From the time that the Psalms were first complied, they came to be the structure for the corporate worship of God’s people. They weren’t for individual devotional reading, but for praying together.
Anne Lamott suggests there are really only three prayers that we come back to again and again: Thanks, Wow, and Help. This is evident as we make our way through the psalter. There are psalms of praise. There are psalms of lament. We do well to make space for the whole gamut of these emotions in our worship gatherings. Not only this, but as we pray these prayers we find ourselves praying with the universal Church throughout history, rightly centering our lives together around God.
The psalms help us understand spiritual disciplines.
The psalms are our teacher for prayer. They give us a vocabulary for talking to and about God. They aren’t magic words, but they are words that generations after generations of God’s people have used as good and true words about God. When we pray, we pray like the psalms. They are time-tested, almost like a collection of “greatest hits.” It’s good to pray these prayers.
Prayer is easy and natural enough for children to do it. Prayer is also a skill we hone and craft over time. The psalms teach us to pay better attention to state of our own emotions and the emotions of others over time. I can submit myself to the rhythm of the daily office and find that the psalm for the day gives me words my state that I didn’t know I needed. Or the daily psalms may lead me to pray in solidarity with a someone I know who may be in crisis.
The psalms help us understand theology.
We can find the entire continuum of human emotion—joy, despair, fear, celebration—in the psalms, but in the end, they always come back to the character of God. God is king. God can be trusted. God is faithful. God is with us. These prayers are always about God, first and foremost.
There are several key words to be on the look out for as you read Psalms. Depending on your translation, these are “unfailing love” (or lovingkindness) and “faithfulness.” Often they show up together as defining marks of what kind of deity the psalmist experiences Yahweh to be.
“Let your unfailing love and faithfulness always protect me” (40:11).
“I praise your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness” (138:2).
This is who God is. This is true, good theology.
It helps us understand God’s mission in the world
Through the psalms we come to understand God’s hopes and dreams for the world, for our neighborhoods. Psalms, like 146, highlight God’s desire for justice, for God’s presence with the poor. In addition, Psalms like 2 and 138 illustrate God’s sovereignty over the rulers of the nations, even in the most unexpected places.
Psalm 1 functions as a lens through which we can understand the rest of the book. This is God’s vision for all the people of the world—thriving, flourishing trees, whose life is rooted in God’s goodness and beauty. God is present with us and our neighbors in our ordinary day-to-day affairs. The psalms keep us anchored in the ordinary everyday goings-on between our neighbors. To draw near to the heart of God, leads us to the hearts of our neighbors.
We can more fully become people of God, people of Jesus, by becoming people of the Psalms.
“Praise Yahweh forever! Amen and amen!” (89:52)
If you want to go deeper in Job, be sure to check out:
Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer by Eugene Peterson
Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today by Scot McKnight
Psalms by James Luther Mays
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