The Book of Psalms is perhaps the most beloved book in our Christian Bibles. This anthology of prayers and praises is so familiar to us that quotations have found their way onto refrigerator magnets and cross stitch patterns, dedicatory plaques and national monuments, song lyrics and movie scripts, and even Edmond Hall, the philosophy building Harvard. Indeed, the psalms are so familiar to the Christian faith that this OT Book is often published as an appendix to the New Testament!
But even in all that familiarity, the great OT theologian Claus Westermann was absolutely right when he said that “the Psalms belong to a world which is no longer our world.” Think about it, Israel’s religion was a religion of temples and priests; sacrifice, blood, and fire. Theirs was a world in which Church & State were completely intertwined, where on any given holy-day the Commander & Chief (that would be the king) could be seen dancing down main street celebrating the fact that the priests were delivering the ark of God to the temple! Somehow, I don’t think the Democrats OR Republicans would be terribly comfortable with that!
And when was the last time you brought a goat to a worship service? Now it is true that in my new homeland of Southern CA worship is a bit more casual than the staid Congregational Churches of the Massachusetts of my past… but a goat? And if you did indeed decide to bring a goat, an ox, two doves, how many of you would expect your pastor to help you dispatch the creature as an act of worship? Yah … I thought so.
No, that isn’t our covenant and that isn’t our world. But that is the world of the Book of Psalms, the hymnbook of ancient Israel … a world long, long ago and far, far away. A world that ceased to exist more than 2,000 years ago!
But miraculously the faith, reverence, celebration and lament of the ancients preserved in the Book of Psalms … that has not ceased to exist. Rather, the songs and prayers of our forefathers in the faith continue to speak to us today.
Those of you who are seasoned Christ-followers, you so know this. You have lived this. You know the dark night of the soul, when your heart is overcome with fear that has encircled you like the strong bulls of Bashan. When my enemies are pushing hard, attempting to topple me like a mudbrick wall … Psalm 62 reminds me that the hand I hold is that of the Almighty, “He only is my rock and my salvation,” and regardless of the closed doors, the slander, the betrayal that surrounds me, “I will not be shaken” (v. 2). And when the tears won’t stop, when the gaping wound of loss seems like it will never heal, when “darkness is my closest friend,” Psalm 88 cries with me. When I can see no way out, Psalm 124 reminds me “that if the Lord had not been on my side … the raging waters would have swept me away.” But “my help is in the name of Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth“!”
And when the most prized hope of my soul has actually come to pass, when the impossible is in my hands—that acceptance letter from Harvard University, the job offer from Asbury Theological, or the 7lb 6oz miracle—it is Psalm 126 that celebrates with me: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream, our mouths were filled with laughter … the Lord has done great things for me” blessed is His name!
The great 4th century church father Athanasius said it this way: “The Psalms have a unique place in the Bible because
The Psalms speak for us … The Psalms pray for us. What a true and powerful word. When I can’t wrap words around what I’m feeling, when the heavens seem to made of brass, when the hounds of hell are snapping at my heels, when darkness is all I can see, the psalms pray for me. Me.
This is the ONLY book in the Bible that is intended for IMMEDIATE application to the reader. No filter. This book you can flip open and start praying whatever you see. It was designed that way …
For centuries, this book has served as the go-to for Jewish and Christian worship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that in the Psalter is “unsuspected power” and if we lose it, “an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. My goal is to plug you in to that power, this book, gifted to each of us by that great assembly of witnesses who have walked the road ahead of us and who await our arrival at the journey’s end—our ancestors in the faith. My prayer is that you will find the help, the structure, the accountability you need for a deep dive into this sacred testimony of the living faith of our spiritual mothers and fathers. My objective? That we will all find ourselves reconnected with the lived experiences of those who have gone before us, and that through this self-imposed discipleship under their tutelage, we will see and read what honest faith in hard times looks like, we will hear their voices piercing our darkness, and that we will know that we are not alone. Others have journeyed this bumpy road of life and faith before us, they have cried out to the same God for answers, and they got them.
So consider this your invitation to sit with the ancients. Allow their words to sink into your soul. Let them put words to your frustration, your joy, and your despair. Draw strength from their faith—find hope in their confidence, let them pray FOR you. And learn again that the Lord of Heaven and Earth has never ceased and will never cease to hear the cries of His people. Let the adventure begin!
Excerpted from Sandra’s new Bible study, The Epic of Eden: Psalms.
Experience fresh connections to contemporary worship and devotional practices in this eight-session video-based study with well-known scholar Sandra Richter. Indulge in the biblical study of the Psalms, letting Sandra do the heavy lifting of research and translation, which in turn allows you to engage the Bible in a deeply sensitive way. This study will help you answer the ever-present question, “so what does this have to do with me today?”
You will discover:
- How to bridge the gap between the culture and practices of ancient Israel and today
- How you can trust God with all your emotions: grief, anger, praise, fear, and hope
- How and why the people of Israel used the Psalms in worship
- Why the book of Psalms is critical in our devotional lives today
- How the Psalms can empower your prayer life
Sandra L. Richter is Robert H. Gundry Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College and a member of the Committee for Biblical Translation for the NIV. Her scholarly publications include an array of technical studies of the history, society, and economy of the Hebrew Bible, but she is best known in the church for her work The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament and her riveting DVD curriculums designed for those serious about their faith. She is a sought-after speaker and teacher for ministry conferences, retreats, leadership events, and academic events.