Psalms Spirituality in Every Key by Philip Yancey
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “The Bible Jesus Read” published in 1999.
If the Psalms have been a source of spiritual instruction and consolation for many seekers, they also have filled others with discomfort and bewilderment. There is an untidiness, a turbulence, an undertow of mystery in these ancient prayers.
—JOFIN S. MOGABGAB
I have a confession to make. For years I avoided the book of Psalms. I knew that many Christians looked upon it as their favorite biblical book, that the church had incorporated these poems into public worship, and that overtones from the King James Version of Psalms still reverberated beautifully through out the language. To this day many editions of the New Testament include Psalms as well, as if it represents an indispensable core of our faith. Yet, hard as I tried, I could never get excited about actually reading Psalms.
People around me used the book as a spiritual medicine cabinet—”If you feel depressed, read Psalm 37; if your health fails, try Psalm 121”—–an approach that never worked for me. With uncanny consistency I would land on a psalm that aggravated, rather than cured, my problem. Martin Marty judges at least half the psalms to be “wintry” in tone, and when feeling low I would accidentally turn to one of the wintriest and end up frostily depressed. “The length of our days is seventy years—–or eighty, if we have the strength, prayed Moses in one such psalm, “yet their span is but trouble and sorrow.”
Concerned about my bad attitude, I tried an experiment one summer. I was scheduled to spend the month of June in Breckenridge, Colorado, a postcard-perfect town situated almost two miles high in the Rocky Mountains. I decided to rise early each morning, drive a few miles outside town to some pristine wilderness setting, and there read ten psalms in a row. Surely, I thought, mountain sunrises and the magnificent back drop for my meditations would melt the block that had always kept me from reading Psalms.
Each day I listened to birds make their wake-up announcements and watched the sun turn snowcaps pink, then orange, then blazing white. One morning I sat beside a pond as a family of beavers made repairs to an elaborate series of dams. Another time, a ten-point deer wandered directly in front of me and drank from a mountain stream. I would like to report that this experiment transformed my attitude toward Psalms. I came away with stunning visual memories and a renewed spirit of worship, hut, alas, reading the book itself frustrated, rather than inspired, me.
More than anything, I felt confused while reading Psalms, especially because I had committed to ten in a row. Individual psalms seemed to contradict each other violently: psalms of bleak despair abutted psalms of soaring joy, as if the scribes had arranged them with a mockingly Hegelian sense of humor. The first day, for example, my spirits soared as I read Psalm 8:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
The moon, silvery bright against an azure sky, still hung suspended above a 14,000-foot peak. The night before, the Milky Way had stretched across the sky like a highway of lights. Amid the grandeur and huge expanse of Alpine scenery. I found myself marveling along with the psalmist at our favored human role in the creation drama.
The next psalm continued in the same spirit, praising God for his eternal reign, his fairness in judging the world, his mercy to the oppressed, his trustworthiness. Then suddenly with psalm 10 the mood abruptly shifted. Just before ending my meditations I encountered these tarring words:
Why, 0 Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
From these doubts, the psalmist dives into a vicious description of “the wicked man” and demands that God “break the arm of the wicked and evil man.” So much for my state of serenity and worship. To complicate matters, I learned from a study Bible that Psalms 9 and 10 were possibly written as one psalm, the contrary moods tugging against each other within the very same poem.
Every day I faced this same pattern of glaring contradictions. Instead of beginning the day with devotional peace, I felt swept along on an emotional roller-coaster, plummeting to the depths of despair and soaring to heights of praise all in the same one-hour period. That, combined with the thin mountain air and a possible overdose of coffee, left me feeling slightly buzzed for the remainder of the day.
After a week of this practice, I ran into yet another problem. The psalms started to sound boring and repetitious. Why, I wondered, did the Bible need 150 psalms? Wouldn’t fifteen suffice to cover the basic content? I struggled through my ten psalms every day but left Breckenridge with an even worse attitude toward Psalms. My experiment had failed. In guilt-ridden evangelical fashion, I blamed myself, not the Bible, for the failure.
Back in the flatland of Illinois, I tried a new approach, studying the book systematically. I learned to appreciate the poetic craftsmanship involved in Hebrew parallelism and in the acrostic form. I learned to differentiate the types of psalms: imprecatory psalms, psalms of lament, psalms of ascent, royal psalms, thank-offering psalms. I learned the various ways of explaining the problem psalms. After acquiring all this knowledge, I read the psalms with a heightened sense of comprehension but with no heightened sense of enjoyment. As a result, for years I simply avoided the book. You can find a psalm that says anything, I reasoned. Matter of fact, you can find a dozen psalms that say the very same thing. Why bother with them?
Reading Over Someone’s Shoulder
I now realize how impoverished was that view. In my fixation with the details of the psalms categories, interpretive meaning, logical consistency, poetic form—–I had missed the main point, which is that the book of Psalms comprises a sampling of spiritual journals, much like personal letters to God. I had lacked a lens through which to view the hook. I must read them as an “over-the-shoulder” reader since the intended audience was not other people, but God. Even the psalms for public use were designed as corporate prayers: for them too God represented the primary audience.
I suppose I had been trying subconsciously to fit the psalms into the scriptural grid established by the apostle Paul. These, however, are not pronouncements from on high, delivered with full apostolic authority, on matters of faith and practice. They are personal prayers in the form of poetry, written by a variety of people—–peasants, kings, professional musicians, rank amateurs—–in wildly fluctuating moods. Job and Deuteronomy offer the extraordinary cases of two renowned, righteous men trying to relate to God through difficult times. Psalms gives examples of “ordinary” people struggling mightily to align what they believe about God with what they actually experience. Sometimes the authors are vindictive, sometimes self-righteous, sometimes paranoid, sometimes petty.
Do not misunderstand me: I do not believe Psalms to be any less valuable, or less inspired, than Paul’s letters or the Gospels. Nevertheless, the psalms do use an inherently different approach, not so much representing God to the people as the people representing themselves to God. Yes, Psalms belongs as part of God’s Word, hut in the same way Job or Ecciesiastes belongs. We read the speeches of Jobs friends—accurate records of misguided thinking—–in a different way than we read the Sermon on the Mount. “The psalms do not theologize,” writes Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk “One reason for this is that the psalms are poetry, and poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives.”
Understanding this distinction changed the way I read Psalms. Formerly, I had approached the book as a graduate student might approach a textbook: I skimmed the poetry in search of CORRECT AND IMPORTANT CONCEPTS to be noted and neatly classified. Psalms resists such systematization and will, I think, drive mad anyone who tries to wrest from it a rigid organizational schema. I learned to approach the book in a very different way.
Let me illustrate. My father died when I was thirteen months old. I have no conscious memories of him and very few mementos from his brief life on earth. I cherish a few fuzzy photos of him holding a fat baby with blond curls—–me—as well as a crude statue he had carted as a boy and a handful of books from his library, among them a worn, black Scofield Reference Bible. Even now I can glean something of my father’s relationship with God by reading the notes in the margins of that Bible, for he used the white space to record a kind of spiritual journal. He never had me in mind when he wrote those notes, for I did not yet exist. Yet, years later I can be moved, challenged, and convicted as I read about his own relationship with God.
The psalms are more formal than my father’s scribbled notes, of course. They came out of a common context, God’s covenant relationship with Israel, and the authors expressed themselves in beautiful, sometimes highly structured poetry. Now, as I read them, I begin by trying to project myself back into the minds of those authors—–just as I project myself back into the mind of my father who wrote those fragmentary notes. Could I pray these prayers? I ask myself. Have I felt this peculiar anguish? This outburst of praise? Then I proceed to think through situations in which I might pray the psalm in front of me. Facing temptation, celebrating a success, harboring a grudge, suffering an injustice—–under what circumstances would this psalm best apply in my life?
Any one of the psalms, wrenched from the rest of the book, may mislead. In a thoughtful reflection on Psalm 91 published in Christianity Today, author Neal Plantinga considers its beautiful image of God’s protection, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…. If you make the Most High your dwelling—–even the Lord, who is my refuge—–then no harm will befall you—“ Oh? Plantinga muses. What about Christians arrested by the Nazis in World War II, or by hostile Muslim governments today? How must that psalm sound as they read it on the eve of execution? The psalms’ sweeping promises of safety seem patently untrue.
Plantinga recalls that Satan himself quoted from this psalm, jerking it out of context, in an attempt to get Jesus to jump from a high place. Jesus rebuked him with another passage of Scripture. Says Plantinga.
What Psalm 91 does is express one—–one of the loveliest, one of the most treasured—–but just one of the moods of faith. It’s a mood of exuberant confidence in the sheltering providence of God. Probably the psalmist has been protected by God in some dangerous incident, and he is celebrating.
On other days, and in other moods—–in other and darker seasons of his life—–this same psalmist might have called to God out of despair and a sense of abandonment. [Here Plantinga cites Jesus’ cry of Psalm 22 from the cross.]
Psalm 91 gives us only part of the picture and only one of the moods of faith. With a kind of quiet amazement, the psalmist bears witness that under the wings of God good things happen to bad people. You need another psalm or two to fill in the picture, to cry out that under those same wings bad things sometimes happen to good people.
Psalms, located in the exact center of the Bible, gives us a comprehensive record of life with God through individually fashioned accounts of how the spiritual life works. I come to the psalms not primarily as a student wanting to acquire knowledge, but rather as a fellow pilgrim wanting to acquire relationship. The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our souls and all our minds. More than any other book in the Bible, Psalms reveals what a heartfelt, soul-starved, single-minded relationship with God looks like.
Messy and Disordered, like Life
Poetry works its magic subtly. In modern times, at least, we rarely seek out poetry for didactic purposes to learn something. We turn to it because the poet’s shaping of words and images gives us pleasure and moves our emotions. Yet if the poet succeeds, we may gain something greater than knowledge: a transformed vision. That is the magic the psalms have ultimately worked upon me. They have transformed my spiritual vision and my understanding of relationship with God.
At a basic level, the psalms help me reconcile what I believe about life with what I actually encounter in life. When I was a child, I learned this mealtime prayer: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for this food.” Its cadence has a certain incantatory charm, and indeed the prayer sounds as if it could have come from Psalms. What could be simpler: two foundational assertions of theology and a spirit of thanksgiving, all conveniently expressed in one-syllable words.
Nevertheless, I must tell you that praying this simple prayer with honesty and conviction has been an Abrahamic trial of faith. God is great? Why don’t we see more conspicuous evidence? Why are the scientists, who make their living studying the wonders of natural creation, less likely than an illiterate peasant to attribute those wonders to God? Why has our century been so cursed by a succession of anti-god tyrants: Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot? Why have more Christians died for their faith in this century than in all others combined?
God is good? Why did my father, a young man with unlimited potential as a missionary, die before reaching the age of thirty? Why did all those Jews and Christians die unjustly in the Holocaust? Why is the most religious portion of our population, inner-city African-Americans, the most poverty-stricken and hopeless?
Thank him for this food?. I kept up that practice even through smart-alecky days of adolescence, when I attributed more credit to the abundance of American rivers and the wizardry of farmers. What of the Christians in Sudan or Mozambique, though? How can they thank God while dying for want of food?
If reading the last three paragraphs has made you slightly uncomfortable, perhaps you should read Psalms again. It contains the anguished journals of people who want to believe in a loving, gracious, faithful God while the world keeps falling apart around them.
The psalmists often expressed variations on the themes I have mentioned. Why should those nasty Amalekites, Hittites, Philistines and Canaanites, not to mention the juggernaut empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, take turns crushing God’s chosen people? Why should David, anointed by God to be king, spend a decade hiding out in caves and dodging the spears of Saul, whom God had ordered to step down? How can God’s people feel thankful when there seems so little to feel thankful about?
Many psalms show their authors fiercely struggling with such questions. Sometimes the poets find a way to align the emotion of faith with the doctrines of faith in the very course of writing the psalm. Like Moses giving the speeches of Deuteronomy, they review God’s involvement in Israel’s history, forcing themselves to remember the good times.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced.(105:4—5)
Psalm 62 boldly, without explanation, insists on two facts that Job could never put together: “that you, 0 God, are strong, and that you, 0 Lord, are loving.” Sometimes, however, the poets cannot make sense of what they see, and the psalmists end up sounding exactly like Job:
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God. (69:3)
At this point the seemingly random ordering of the 150 psalms comes into play, for the seesaw cycle of intimacy and abandonment is, in fact, what most people experience in their relationship with God.
The most startling juxtaposition of psalms occurs early on. Psalm 23, that shepherd song of sweeping promise and consummate comfort, follows on the heels of Psalm 22, which opens with the words Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The two psalms, both attributed to David, could hardly form a more glaring contrast. True, David does find some sort of resolution in Psalm 22, by looking ahead to a future time when God will rule over the nations and the poor will eat their fill. But he makes clear how he feels at the moment of writing: “I cry out by day, but you do not answer…. I am a worm and not a man…. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me…. all my bones are out of joint…, my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” Such sentiments seem from another planet when you turn the page and read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”
A similar discord marks Psalms 102 and 103. The first (subtitled “A prayer of an afflicted man. When he is faint and pours out his lament before the Lord.”) eloquently expresses the despair of an aging, weakened man who feels abandoned by all friends and by God. It reads like a catalog of pain scratched out by a hospital patient in a febrile state. The next psalm, however, a majestic hymn of praise, includes not one note in the minor key.
I doubt many pastors choose to preach on either pairing of those consecutive psalms—–one or the other, maybe, but not both. I have learned to appreciate Psalms precisely because it does encompass both points of view, often adjoined with no calming transition. “Praise the Lord, 0 my soul, and forget not his benefits,” says Psalm 103. The author of its nearest neighbor is desperately trying to recall God’s benefits, no easy task in his condition, bones burning like glowing embers, on a diet of ashes and tears.
I, for one, am glad my Bible includes both kinds of psalms.
A time may come when I feel like the author of Psalm 22 or 102, and when that time comes I will take comfort in the fact that spiritual giants—most notably, Jesus himself—–have felt that way too. And although I may groan and cry out and resist the trial that entangles me in its net, I will also try to recall the tranquil message of Psalms 23 and 103. By itself, Psalm 23 leads to an easy faith; by itself Psalm 22 leads to spiritual despair; together, the two offer a bracing mixture of realism and hope.
I have come to see these psalms as calling for different kinds of faith. Psalm 23 models childlike faith, and Psalm 22 models fidelity, a deeper, more mysterious kind of faith. Life with God may include both. We may experience times of unusual closeness, when prayers are answered in an obvious way and God seems intimate and caring. We may also experience dark times, when God stays silent, when nothing works according to formula and all the Bible’s promises seem glaringly false. Fidelity involves learning to trust that, out beyond the perimeter of darkness, God still reigns and has not abandoned us, no matter how it may appear.
The 150 psalms are as difficult, disordered, and messy as life itself, a fact that can bring unexpected comfort. Kathleen Norris describes in The Cloister Walk how she has learned to bring the psalms into her current situation by “praying the news”:
Psalm 74’s lament on the violation of sacred space—“Every cave in the land is a place where violence has made its home”—has become for me a prayer for the victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Watching television footage of the Los Angeles riots of early 1992 gave me a new context for the words of Psalm 55 that I encountered the next morning in the monastic choir: “I see nothing but violence and strife in the city. Hearing Psalm 79 (“They have poured out blood like water in Jerusalem/ there is no one left to bury the dead”) as I read of civil war in the Balkans forces me to reflect on the evil that tribalism and violence, often justified by religion, continue to inflict on our world.
But the relentless realism of the psalms is not depressing in the way that television news can be, although many of the same events are reported: massacres, injustices to those who have no one to defend them, people tried in public by malicious tongues. As a book of praises, meant to be sung, the Psalter contains a hope that “human interest” stories tacked onto the end of a news broadcast cannot provide. The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us re-examine our values.
Here is what Psalms can do for a person in distress. In 1977, at the height of the Cold War, Anatoly Shcharansky, a brilliant young mathematician and chess player, was arrested by the KGB for his repeated attempts to emigrate to Israel. He spent thirteen years inside the Soviet Gulag. From morning to evening Shcharansky read and studied all 150 psalms (in Hebrew). “What does this give me?” he asked in a letter: “Gradually, my feeling of great loss and sorrow changes to one of bright hopes.”
Shcharansky so cherished his book of Psalms, in fact, that when guards took it away from him, he lay in the snow, refusing to move, until they returned it. During those thirteen years, his wife traveled around the world campaigning for his release. Accepting an honorary degree on his behalf, she told the university audience, “In a lonely cell in Chistopol prison, locked alone with the Psalms of David, Anatoly found expression for his innermost feelings in the outpourings of the King of Israel thousands of years ago.’
The psalms give me a model of spiritual therapy. I once wrote a book titled Disappointment with God, and my publishers initially worried over the title, proposing instead Overcoming Disappointment with God. It seemed faintly heretical to introduce a book with a negative title into Christian bookstores filled with books on the marvelous Christian life. In the process of writing the book, however, I found that the Bible includes detailed accounts of people sorely disappointed with God—to put it mildly. Not only Job and Moses have it out with God; so do Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and many of the unnamed psalmists. Some psalms merit titles like “Furious with God,” “Betrayed by God,” “Abandoned by God,” “In Despair about God.”
Consider a few lines from Psalm 89:
How long, 0 Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?..,
For what futility you have created all men!
Or these sentiments from Psalm 88:
Why, 0 Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?…
the darkness is my closest friend.
It may seem strange for sacred writings to include such scenes of spiritual failure, but actually their inclusion reflects an important principle of therapy. A marriage therapist will often warn new clients, “Your relationship may get worse before it gets better.” Grudges and resentments that have been buried for years may resurface. Misunderstandings must be nakedly exposed before true understanding can begin to flourish. Indeed, the psalms, like psychoanalysis, may help uncover neurotic elements in us.
Kathleen Norris writes of a Catholic sister who counsels troubled women—–displaced homemakers, abused wives, women returning to college after years away—–and finds that Psalms offers a helpful pattern of expressing rage that the Church often tries to repress. “Bear it up; keep smiling suffering makes you strong,” say some spiritual advisors—–but not the psalmists. They do not rationalize anger away or give abstract advice about pain; rather, they express emotions vividly and loudly, directing their feelings primarily at God.
The 150 psalms present a mosaic of spiritual therapy in process. Doubt, paranoia, giddiness, meanness, delight, hatred, joy, praise, vengefulness, betrayal—–you can find it all in Psalms. Such strewing of emotions, which I once saw as hopeless disarray, I now see as a sign of health. From Psalms I have learned that I can rightfully bring to God whatever I feel about him. I need not paper over my failures and try to clean up my own rottenness; far better to bring those weaknesses to God, who alone has the power to heal.
No psalm demonstrates healing power better than Psalm 51, credited to David after his sordid affair with Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 11 and 12). Even though he had committed murder and adultery, David recognized that in the final analysis, “Against you [God], you only have I sinned.” Although he had nothing to offer God but a broken spirit and a contrite heart, that very admission led him down the path toward healing. David confessed, in tears and grief, and the psalm became a public guide for others’ confession.
Walter Brueggemann has coined the term “psalms of disorientation” to describe those psalms that express confusion, confession, and doubt. Typically, the writer begins by begging God to rescue him from his desperate straits. He may weave poetic images of how he has been wronged, appeal to God’s sense of justice, even taunt God: “What good can I do you when I’m dead? How can I praise you then?” The very act of venting these feelings allows the author to attain a better perspective. He reflects on better times, remembers answered prayers of the past, concedes favors that he may have over looked. By the end of the psalm, he moves toward praise and thanksgiving. He feels heard and cleansed. The psalm, or prayer, works out the transformation.
Psalm 71 gives an example of how this “spiritual reality therapy” may work. The stanzas move from urgent pleas for God’s help to tentative declarations of faith to new fears for the future. By the end, the poet is praising God for his faithfulness. Forced memory, of God’s miracles for Israel and God’s past intimacy in his own life, has put to rest, for the present, some of the poet’s fundamental doubts. Many psalms convey this spirit of “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” a way of talking oneself into faith when emotions are wavering.
The odd mixture of psalms of cursing, psalms of praise, and psalms of confession no longer jars me as it once did. Instead, I am continually amazed by the spiritual wholeness of the Hebrew poets, who sought to include God in every area of life by bringing to God every emotion experienced in daily activity. One need not “dress up” or “put on a face” to meet God. There are no walled-off areas; God can be trusted with reality.
For the Hebrew poets, God represented a reality more solid than their own whipsaw emotions or the checkered history of their people. They wrestled with God over every facet of their lives, and in the end it was the very act of wrestling that proved their faith.
I have a friend, Harold Fickett, who retires for days at a time to a nearby monastery. Many monastic orders recite the psalms aloud morning, noon, and evening. It takes them several weeks to go through the entire cycle, at which point they begin again with Psalm 1. Harold tells me that sometimes his voice is describing “coming into the Lord’s gates with thanks giving” while his mind is replaying some offensive remark he heard yesterday or wondering when the fog will lift from Sa Francisco Bay. Day by day he picks up the rhythm of the psalms. Not all apply to his current spiritual state. Gradually, though, he enters into the reality conveyed in the psalms, rather than trying to force them into his own mundane world.
Reflecting on his time with the monks, Harold wrote that:
the Psalms supply me with the words that I need and sometimes want to say to my God. Words that celebrate his reality: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Words that confess his action in my life: “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” Words that express my utter dependence: “In my mother’s womb, you formed me.” Words that convey my hoped-for intimacy: “This one thing I desire, that I might dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The Psalms tutor my soul in my love for God.
On a different note, the psalms also teach how to adore and how to praise, activities that Americans perform with notorious awkwardness. We have not the tradition of British subjects, who curtsy to the queen and never interrupt her. We feel more comfortable roasting politicians in comedy revues than bowing to them.
Frankly, the whole notion of God asking us to sit around saying nice things about him can seem rather alien. Why does God need our praise anyway? Somerset Maugham had a devout relative who went through the Book of Common Prayer and crossed out everything on praise. People are uncomfortable with compliments to their face, he reasoned, so surely God would not want them either. Similarly, C. S. Lewis remarked in his Reflections on the Psalms, “I don’t want my dog to bark approval of my books.” Why would God desire praise?
Lewis went on to suggest that we might best imagine praise by thinking of our instinctive response to a great work of art or a symphony or extraordinary beauty in any form. The natural response is, first, to pause and enjoy the surpassing beauty—–almost as if kneeling before it—–and then to announce it to others. Such a response of shared enjoyment works on many levels: “A gray whale swam right up to our boat off California—–I could have touched her!” “Oh, I wish you could he here to see the snow fall. It makes everything so beautiful.” “Weren’t the Broncos devastating yesterday?”
I see this kind of praise, approaching worship, whenever I attend a professional sporting event. I was fortunate enough to live in Chicago during Michael Jordan’s peak years, and several times I attended Chicago Bulls games. Hours before the game, despite the freezing Chicago weather, fans would line the team parking lot for a glimpse of the superstar. When his Blazer turned in, they would scream, jump up and down, call out his name, beg for an autograph, a wave, a touch, any token of connection with The Great One. How odd that a culture that readily gives adulation to Michael Jordan, or even to naughty role models such as Dennis Rodman or Madonna, finds praise to God so alien.
Praise takes the instinctive response of shared enjoyment (ever try keeping a great joke to yourself, or the fact that you just got engaged?) and raises it a few notches. “Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,” says one old gospel song, and praise is partly that. Just as sports fans or Army veterans or high school classmates love to recount the same stories over and over again, praise offers that same nostalgic opportunity.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote an essay about her peacocks and the reactions they would get as they unfurled their feathers to present “a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns.” One truck driver yelled. “Get a load of that!” and braked to a halt. Most People would fall silent. Her favorite response came from an old black woman who simply cried, “Amen! Amen!” That woman understood praise.
In praise, the creature happily acknowledges that everything good and true and beautiful in the universe comes from the Creator. The affirmation works on us as well as on God, by reminding us of our proper position before God. To develop praise, I have found it helps to hang around children. They have no problem bursting out in spontaneous praise when something impresses them, perhaps because they have no pretension to rise above their assigned state—–as children.
Authors of the psalms, especially David, had an advantage in praise because of their closer tie to the natural world. David began life outdoors as a shepherd, then spent years hiding from Saul in the rocky terrain of Israel. Not surprisingly, a great love, even reverence, for the natural world shines through many of his poems. Psalms presents a world that fits together as a whole, with everything upheld by a personal God watching over it.
This message, above all, leaped out at me during my frustrating attempts to read the psalms in Colorado. I could not fit together all the contradictory messages I was reading, but the magnificent wilderness setting at least affirmed the message of Gods grandeur, his worthiness. Wilderness brings us down a level, reminding us of something we’d prefer to forget: our creatureliness. It announces to own senses the splendor of an invisible, untamable God. How could I not offer praise to the One who dreamed up porcupines and elk, who splashed bright-green aspen trees across hillsides of gray rock, who transforms that same landscape into a new work of art with every blizzard?
According to the psalms, praise need not be sober and reflective. The psalmists praised God with sensuous abandon, and as a result their worship services may well have resembled a modern pep rally more than a sedate symphony concert. “Sing for joy! Shout aloud!” they command. Musical instruments in those days included cymbals, tambourines, trumpets, rams’ horns, harps, and lyres. Sometimes dancing erupted. The world, in the psalmist’s imagination, cannot contain the delight God inspires. A new song breaks out: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song” (98:4). Nature itself joins in: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy” (98:8).
The psalms wonderfully solve the problem of a praise-deficient culture by providing the necessary words. We merely need to enter into those words, letting the content of the psalms realign our inner attitudes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that the psalms are God’s language course. Just as infants learn the mother tongue from their parents, Christians can learn the language of prayer from Psalms.
“Worship,” says Eugene Peterson,
is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. Worship is the time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God—–not because he’s confined to time and place but because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt our selves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.—Leap Over a Wall
When the ancient Hebrews encountered something beautiful or majestic, their natural response was not to contemplate the scene or to analyze it, but rather to praise God for it and maybe write a poem. Their fingers itched for the harp; their vocal cords longed for the hymn. Praise, for them, was joy expressing itself in song and speech, an “inner health made audible,” in C. S. Lewis’s phrase. Because of them, we too can enter into that health.
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Only to Man thou hast made known thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
And made him Secretary of thy praise.——George Herbert
Eugene Peterson, recent translator of Psalms, admits that only a minority focus on praise and thanksgiving; perhaps as many as seventy percent take the form of laments. These two categories, says Peterson, correspond to the two large conditions in which we find ourselves: distress and well-being. I have never conducted a survey, but I have a hunch that the average Christian bookstore reverses the proportions: at least seventy percent of the hooks, plaques, and gift items speak to our well-being, while a much smaller percentage speak to our distress.
King David specifically ordered that his people be taught how to lament (2 Samuel 1:18). The lament in Psalms has little in common with whining or complaining. We whine about things we have little control over; we lament what we believe ought to be changed. Like Job, the psalmists clung to a belief in God’s ultimate goodness, no matter how things appeared at the present, and cried out for justice. They lamented that God’s will was not being done on earth as it was in Heaven; the resulting poetry helped realign their eternal beliefs with their daily experience.
Dan Allender, a Christian counselor, asks,
To whom do you vocalize the most intense, irrational—–meaning inchoate, inarticulate—–anger? Would you do so with someone who could fire you or cast you out of a cherished position or relationship? Not likely. You don’t trust them—–you don’t believe they would endure the depths of your disappointment, confusion…. The person who hears your lament and far more bears your lament against them, paradoxically, is someone you deeply, wildly trust…. The language of lament is oddly the shadow side of faith.
Because many psalms were written by Israel’s leaders, the book offers a unique behind-the-scenes view of a people’s emotional history. I know of no comparable collection of private reactions to an ancient history. In Psalms we can read what a king prayed after committing adultery and murder, and what he prayed after escaping an assassination attempt, and after losing a crucial battle, and after dedicating a new capital city to God.
I once did an exercise to try to better understand David. The same king that taught his people to lament also gave them an incomparable hymn of public confession and penned numerous magnificent songs of praise. David was as obviously flawed as anyone in the Old Testament, and yet somehow he became known as “a man after God’s own heart.” John Calvin wrote, “David is like a mirror, in which God sets before us the continued course of his grace.” What was David’s spiritual secret?
The seventy-three psalms attributed to David offer a window into his soul, especially since some of them have introductory comments revealing the actual circumstances in which they were written. I decided to read from David’s spiritual diary of psalms first and then, from the evidence of that “inner” record, try to imagine what “outer” events prompted such words. Afterward I turned to the historical account in the books of Samuel and compared my inventions with what had actually taken place.
In Psalm 56 (which includes the famous words, “In God I trust”) David gratefully credits God for delivering his soul from death and his feet from stumbling. As I read the psalm, it sounded to me as if God had miraculously intervened and rescued David from some predicament. What actually happened? I turned to 1 Samuel 21 and read the story of a scared prisoner who drooled spittle and flung himself about like a madman in a desperate attempt to save his own neck. There was no miracle, so far as I could see, just a canny renegade with strong survival instincts. Perhaps David cried out to God in desperation, and in that moment the idea of faking insanity came to mind—–if so, he gave God all the credit and saved none for himself. Surprisingly, David even used the acrostic form to express his thoughts, beginning each verse with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet; he intended it as a formal, serious reflection on what happened.
Next, I read Psalm 59: ‘0 my Strength, I sing praise to you; you, 0 God, are my fortress, my loving God.” Once again it seemed from the psalm that God had intervened to save David’s life. Yet in 1 Samuel 19, the corresponding passage, I read of a chase scene: David sneaked out through a window while his wife diverted the pursuers by wrapping a statue in goat’s hair. Once more, David’s psalm gave God all the credit for what looked like human ingenuity.
Psalm 57 introduces a new tone, of weakness and trembling. David’s faith must have been wavering when he wrote that psalm, I surmised. Wrong again. When I looked up the historical account in 1 Samuel 24, I found one of the most extraordinary displays of defiant courage in all of history,
Psalm 18 gives a summary of David’s entire military career. Written when he was undisputed king at last, it recalls in incandescent detail the many miracles of deliverance from God. If you read just that psalm, and not the background history, you would think David lived a charmed and sheltered life. The psalm tells nothing of the years on the run, the all-night battles, the chase scenes, and the wily escape plots that fill the pages of 1 and 2 Samuel.
In short, if you read the psalms attributed to David and then try to envision his life, you will fail miserably. You might imagine a pious, other-worldly hermit or a timid, neurotic soul favored by God, but never a giant of strength and valor. What can explain the disparity between the two biblical records of David’s inward and outward journeys?
We all experience both an inner life and an outer life simultaneously. If I attend the same event as you (say, a party), I will take home similar “outer” facts about what happened and who was there but a wholly different “inner” point of view. My memory will dwell on what impression I made. Was I witty or charming? Did I offend someone or embarrass myself? Did I look good to others? Most likely, you will ask the same questions, but about yourself.
David seemed to view life differently. His exploits—–killing wild animals hare-handed, felling Goliath, surviving Saul’s onslaughts, routing the Philistines—–surely earned him a starring role. Nonetheless, as he reflected on those events and wrote poems about them, he found a way to make Jehovah, God of Israel, the one on center stage. Whatever the phrase “practicing the presence of God” means, David experienced it. Whether he expressed that presence in lofty poems of praise or in an earthy harangue, in either case he intentionally involved God in the details of his life.
David had confidence that he mattered to God. After one narrow escape he wrote, “[God] rescued me because he delighted in me” (Psalm 18:19). When David felt betrayed by God, he let God know: it was he, after all, who first said the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He called God into account, insisting that God keep up his end of their special relationship.
Throughout his life David believed, truly believed, that the spiritual world, though invisible to him, was every bit as real as the “natural” world of swords and spears and caves and thrones. His psalms form a record of a conscious effort to reorient his own daily life to the reality of that supernatural world beyond him. Now, centuries later, we can use those very same prayers as steps of faith, a path to lead us from an obsession with ourselves to the actual presence of our God.
That process of “letting God in” on every detail of life is one I need to learn from. In the busy, industrialized modern world, we tend to compartmentalize our lives. We fill our days with activities—–getting the car repaired, taking vacations, going to work, mowing the lawn, chauffeuring the kids—–and then try to carve out some time for “spiritual” activities such as church, small groups, personal devotions. I see none of that separation in Psalms.
Somehow, David and the other poets managed to make God the gravitational center of their lives so that everything related to God. To them, worship was the central activity in life, not something to get over in order to resume other activity. As C. S. Lewis has said, ideally being a practicing Christian “means that every single act and feeling, every experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, must be referred to God.”
I am learning this daily process of reorientation, and Psalms has become for me a step in the process of recognizing God’s true place at the gravitational center. I am trying to make the prayers first prayed by the Hebrew poets authentically my prayers. The New Testament writers did this, quoting Psalms more than any other book. The Son of God on earth did likewise, relying on them as the language of relationship between a human being and God.
I am sure that making the psalms my own prayers will require a lifelong commitment. I sense in them an urgency, a desire and hunger for God that makes my own look anemic by contrast. The psalmists panted for God with their tongues hanging out, as an exhausted deer pants for water. They lay awake at night dreaming of “the fair beauty of the Lord.” They would rather spend one day in God’s presence than a thousand years elsewhere. It was the advanced school of faith these poets were enrolled in, and often I feel more like a kindergartner. Now that I’ve started to read Psalms again, maybe some of it will rub off.
You don’t have to read far in Psalms before encountering some troubling passages, furious outbursts hidden like landmines in the midst of soothing pastoral poetry. Some seem on the level of “I hope you get hit by a truck!” schoolyard epithets. “Imprecatory psalms” these are called, or sometimes “vindictive psalms,” or, more bluntly, “cursing psalms” because of the curses they rain down on opponents.
The cursing psalms present a major obstacle to most readers. “How in the world can we read, let alone pray, these angry and often violent poems from an ancient warrior culture?” asks Kathleen Norris. “At a glance, they seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill-tempered, moralistic, vengeful, and often seem to reflect precisely what is wrong with our world.”
Why are such outbursts lurking in the midst of sacred scriptures? Readers have proposed various explanations.
1. The cursing psalms express an appropriate “righteous anger” over evil.
The late Professor Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of The American Mind, told about asking his undergraduate class at the University of Chicago to identify an evil person. Not one student could do so. “Evil” simply did not exist as a category in their minds. The inability to recognize and identify evil, said Bloom, is a perilous sign in our society.
I have received great help on this issue from my wife, Janet, who for several years worked near an inner-city housing project. She saw pervasive evil every day: the gangs who sniped at sidewalk pedestrians with automatic rifles, the policemen who roughed up innocent people because of skin color, the thieves who knocked down senior citizens outside the currency exchange where they cashed their Social Security checks.
One evening Janet came home boiling with anger. A janitor was tyrannizing the residents of one senior citizens’ building. He would use his master key to enter widows’ apartments, then beat them up and steal their money. Everyone knew the culprit, but because he wore a mask and could not be positively identified, the city housing authority was stalling on his transfer or dismissal. If Allan Bloom had asked my wife to describe an evil person that day, he would have gotten a graphic description.
It was precisely that kind of structural evil—–corrupt judges, slave owners, robbers, oppressors of the poor, racists, terrorists–—that the psalmists were responding to. Psalm 109 calls down curses on a man who “hounded to death the poor and the needy and the brokenhearted. He loved to pronounce a curse—–may it come on him.”
In reading the cursing psalms, think of the testimony from victims’ families that sometimes gets air play on television news. The father of a daughter killed by a drunk driver stands before the court and, physically shaking, tells of the wound that will never be healed. Or think of the Goldman family’s statements against 0. J. Simpson during the civil trial against him. In his reflections on Psalms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had no trouble understanding the sentiments behind the cursing psalms; they precisely expressed the anguish of the entire Christian community living under Nazi rule.
The “righteous anger” explanation may illuminate the motives behind the cursing psalms, but it does not remove all the problems they present. Although furious, Janet did not stalk around the house muttering threats like, “May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes” (109:10), or, “Happy is he … who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (137:9).
2. The cursing psalms express a spiritual immaturity corrected by the New Testament.
C. S. Lewis, genuinely chagrined by the cursing psalms, discussed this approach in his book Reflections on the Psalms. He contrasted the psalmists’ spirit of vengefulness with another spirit ”Love your enemies” “Forgive them for they know not what they do”—–exemplified in the New Testament. “The reaction of the Psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong,” Lewis concluded. He used words like “diabolical,” “contemptible,” “ferocious”, “barbaric,” and “self-pitying” to describe these sentiments.
Observing nothing comparable to the psalmists’ vindictive spirit in pagan literature, Lewis developed a rather complicated argument related to the election of the Jews. “Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst,” he said. The Jews’ “higher calling” had led to a snobbery and self-righteousness that came out in such inappropriate ways as the cursing psalms. These arguments did not endear Lewis to the Jewish community; not long ago The Christian Century published an article by a rabbi taking umbrage at Lewis’s remarks.
Certainly Jesus introduced a new spirit (“You have heard it said …but I say unto you …“), But as Lewis himself notes, the Bible does not present such a clear-cut progression from the Old Testament to the New. Commands to love your enemies appear in the Old Testament as well. To complicate matters even further, New Testament authors quote approvingly some of the most problematic of the cursing psalms. For example, Peter applied one of the curses of Psalm 69 directly to Judas (Acts 1:20); Paul applied another (“May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever”) to unbelieving Israel. Cursing psalms are not so easily dismissed.
In fact, the British scholar Deryck Sheriffs points out that C. S. Lewis himself changed as he underwent a personal trial late in life. Read The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed back to hack, and the change is obvious. The first book deals with suffering in the abstract and gives much philosophical insight into the role that pain plays in life. The second book, written after his wife died an excruciating death of bone cancer, reads in part like an extended imprecatory psalm. Lewis toyed with the notion of God as Cosmic Sadist, a torturer who slams a door in the faces of those who need him most. Lewis reflects in that journal,
All that stuff about the Cosmic Sadist was not so much the expression of thought as of hatred. I was getting from it the only pleasure a man in anguish can get; the pleasure of hitting back. It was really just Billingsgate—–mere abuse; “telling God what I thought of him.”
I wonder what Lewis would have written about the cursing psalms after going through that personal ordeal.
3. The cursing psalms are best understood as prayers.
The cursing psalms appear in a considerably different light when we remember their literary context: We readers are “over hearing” prayers addressed to God. Seen in this way, the cursing psalms demonstrate what I have called “spiritual therapy” taken to its limits. As Dorothy Sayers once remarked, we all have diabolical thoughts, but there’s a world of difference in responding with words instead of deeds, whether, say, we write a murder mystery or commit murder.
If a person wrongs me unjustly, I have several options. I can seek personal revenge, a response condemned by the Bible. I can deny or suppress my feelings of hurt and anger. Or I can take those feelings to God, entrusting God with the task of “retributive justice.” The cursing psalms are vivid examples of that last option. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord—–prayers like the cursing psalms place vengeance in the proper hands. Significantly, the cursing psalms express their outrage to God, not to the enemy.
Kathleen Norris, who struggled with the cursing psalms in her book The Cloister Walk, came to an accommodation with them in her later Amazing Grace. There she tells of inviting students in parochial schools to compose their own cursing psalms. Those who are picked on by their big brothers and sisters have a natural talent for imprecation, she found:
One little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, I shouldn’t have done all that.”
If that boy had been a religious novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, adds Norris, his elders might have judged him well on the way toward repentance. Already he had become aware of the renovations necessary in the “messy house” before it became a place where God might dwell.
Instinctively, we want to “clean up” our feelings in our prayers, but perhaps we have it all backwards. Perhaps we should strive to take all our worst feelings to God. After all, what would be gossip when addressed to anyone else is petition when addressed to God. What is a vengeful curse when spoken about someone (“Damn those people!”) is a plea of helpless dependence when spoken directly to God (“It’s up to you to damn those people, since you only are a just judge”).
I have made it a weekly practice, on a long walk on the hill behind my home, to present to God my anger against people who have wronged me. I recount all my reasons for feeling unfairly treated or misunderstood; forcing myself to open up deep feelings to God (does God not know them anyway?). I can testify that the outpouring itself has a therapeutic effect. Usually I come away feeling as if I have just released a huge burden. The unfairness no longer sticks like a thorn inside me, as it once did; I have expressed it aloud to someone—–to God. Sometimes I find that in the process of expression, I grow in compassion. God’s Spirit speaks to me of my own selfishness, my judgmental spirit, my own flaws that others have treated with grace and forgiveness, my pitifully limited viewpoint.
Miroslav Volf—a native Croatian who taught theology there during the war in the former Yugoslavia and who learned to identify with the cursing psalms very personally—–explains in Exclusion and Embrace how those psalms may in fact lead toward forgiveness:
For the followers of the crucified Messiah, the main message of the imprecatory Psalms is this: rage belongs before God…. This is no mere cathartic discharge of pent up aggression before the Almighty who ought to care. Much more significantly, by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice. Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. In the light of the justice and love of God, however, hate recedes and the seed is planted for the miracle of forgiveness.
Gradually, my weekly practice has expanded from a focus on myself to a sensitivity to others around me. Some weeks, I have no surface feelings of vengeance or resentment. Can I, though, use these psalms as insights into others who are suffering? What of countries that just got hit by hurricanes, floods, or droughts? Might Christians there be praying the psalms of desolation? What of my friends battling cancer? A woman living with an abusive husband? An alcoholic who cannot quite triumph? Can the difficult psalms help me enter into their struggles and perhaps pray the prayer on their behalf?
One reason I lean toward this way of understanding the cursing psalms is that I have read the end of the story in the book of Revelation. In that book we see a preview of a time when the most extreme of the cursing psalms will come true. Even the most notorious, Psalm 137, finds fulfillment: “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again” (Revelation 18:21). Justice will reign absolutely someday, and accomplishing that will require a time of cataclysmic violence against evil.
I see the cursing psalms as an important model for how to deal with evil and injustice. I should not try to suppress my reaction of horror and outrage at evil. Nor should I try to take justice in my own hands. Rather, I should deliver those feelings, stripped bare, to God. As the books of Job, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk clearly show, God has a high threshold of tolerance for what is appropriate to say in a prayer. God can “handle” my unsuppressed rage. I may well find that my vindictive feelings need God’s correction—–but only by taking those feelings to God will I have that opportunity for correction and healing. (109-139)