Why do we love the Psalms so? One could drop into the Psalter almost at random to illustrate the point I would like to make, but consider for a moment one of our most beloved, Psalm 63:
You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water… (v.1)
It’s hard to read such words and retain any semblance of objectivity. More or less immediately, a transition begins to occur in how we are engaging the text. We move from being detached observers to finding ourselves caught up, involved, even implicated in the poetry. The words on the page mysteriously, and perhaps even without our noticing it, become ours.
On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me… (vv. 6–8).
Before we know it, we find ourselves claiming the words of the psalmist as our own words, as devastatingly accurate statements on the condition of our own souls, as cries emerging from the depths of our own lives. We are the thirsty ones. We are the ones who long for God as in a dry and weary land. We are the ones who remember God on our beds, whose hearts search for him during the long watches of dark and desolate nights. We are the ones clinging to him with all our might, finding therein our lives mysteriously upheld by his righteous right hand.
And so we sit—early in the morning or late at night or during a break in our busy day—with the text of Scripture on our laps, walking the pattern of spiritual devotion that the psalmist many centuries earlier laid out for us, by taking these ancient-yet-living words on our lips. In so doing, deep reservoirs of emotion open up in us. Tears fall. Joy surges. Hope returns. And even more, when our time of devotion is concluded, we discover that the words of the psalmist are (entirely on their own so it seems) burrowing into our souls, creating new patterns of thought and feeling and action. Before long, the deep music of our days and weeks and months and years goes something like: You God, are my God. Earnestly I seek you…
This is the power of the Psalter. It is one of the important reasons it is part of our canon. It speaks to us where we are but refuses to leave us where we are. The book of Psalms, we may say, converts us precisely by involving us—messy, complex, altogether unfinished, and full of contradictions—in the great cogent sweep of God’s redemptive work. It does this by putting words on our lips and inviting us to make them ours. John Goldingay notes that “the Bible assumes that we do not know instinctively how to talk with God, but rather need some help with knowing how to do so.”
The Psalms are instruction. It’s no wonder that many have theorized that the five books of the Psalter are intended to correspond symbolically to the five books of the Pentateuch. When we come to the Psalms, we are entering the school of prayer. Martin Luther commented that the Psalms were given to us in order to help us “adapt and adjust our minds and feelings so that they are in accord with the sense of the Psalms,” which for Luther were a picture into the will of God for his people.
We are not born into this world instinctively knowing what is available to us in covenant relationship with God. But the Psalms can teach us. Goldingay said that they “make it possible to say things that are otherwise unsayable. They have the capacity to free us to talk about things we cannot talk about anywhere else.”
The Book of Psalms dignifies our lives by converting our imaginations to a God-enriched, covenant-shaped world, fraught with challenge and yet shot through everywhere with energetic hope. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?” finds its completion in “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (Ps. 22). The ebb and flow of desolation and exultation, of lament and praise, is the texture of the Psalms, even as it is the texture of our very lives. When we pray the Psalms, we find the music of our little peaks and valleys caught up in the great fugue of God’s historical, redemptive work.
Special thanks to Andrew Arndt, Glenn Packiam and Jason Jackson, and our New Life teaching team for helping write this introduction to the Psalms.
Brady Boyd, an Outreach magazine consulting editor, is the senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the author of several books. This post was originally published on BradyBoyd.org.