Studying the Psalms? Read and Respond.

The Book of Psalms is the longest book of our Bible; it is the most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament (over 400); it contains the longest chapter (119) and the shortest chapter (117); and, the middle verse is Psalm 118:8 which reflects the theme of God’s Word, “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.” The Psalms have been called many things: Praises, Songs of the Soul, Wise Worship, the Anatomy of the Soul, Israel’s Hymnbook, etc. We have learned that the Psalms are poetry with a literary form and images that give layers, depth, and richness to our understanding of spiritual things. So what does one do with them?

There are several biblical texts that tell us the purpose and use of the Holy Scriptures:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the (wo)man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Romans 15:4

And “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16

My personal reading and study times in the Psalms are of immense pleasure. I have had to stop and ponder, for quite a while, to understand how and why I feel this way about the Psalms. A significant portion of their value is that they represent a God breathed – inspired – response from man to God; to the work and revelation of God Himself; they teach an acceptable way to appreciate God’s creation, creatures and earth; and they give patterns of appropriate expression of the full range of the emotions of our souls. While much of the Bible is received as instruction, reproof, training, and wisdom, the Psalms are a collection of man’s outpouring of worship, praise, expressions of need, and articulations of emotions to God.

Studying the Psalms has taught me to see the deliberateness of this kind of communication with God. There are any number of Psalms that begin with vivid descriptions of the dangers that one of God’s own is facing – hiding in dark caves, being pursued by a powerful enemy, the pain of slander and deceit, wickedness, death, sickness, and even God’s own judgments. God has impressed upon me the remarkable honesty and specificity present in these petitions towards God. There have been times, that while I knew a feeling of anxiety, I only found the words to express those feelings in the rich words of the Psalms. The very intentional expression of a situation and the poetic use of the parallel verse and metaphors lead one to the reality of Psalm 118:8, “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.” Wonder of wonders, the power, love and work of God comes into focus out of the cloud of emotion and fog of fear.

Our emotions are real and they are a part of how we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God. I’m sure that Jesus experienced every non-sinful emotion known to mankind when he appeared and lived among us. Emotions can be a reaction to a stimulus or event, but I have to wonder if the pattern in the Psalms is more self-control than simply a reaction. The pattern in the Psalms is to express the fear, difficulty, worship, or praise to God and as this is done God is glorified and known. The catalyst for the problem or praise does not necessarily go away, but God’s power, glory, and care becomes our refuge.

Consider:

“… for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” 2 Timothy 1:7

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Galatians 5:22-23

Studying the Psalms illustrates many opportunities for the working of this form of Scripture towards self-control even in our emotions. The poetic form is easier to memorize and ‘hidden in the heart’ to work day and night. Parallel verse requires the writer and a reader to continue thinking through one thought until it is rich with meaning. There are Psalms that follow an acrostic formula where each verse or section begins with each character of the Hebrew alphabet. This is a good model to follow when worried – just sit down and list out attributes of God for each letter of our alphabet! We wouldn’t get all the way through before realizing that God is able! The careful selections of metaphors – those described images that represent for us an indescribable thing – carry over to us today. Who doesn’t understand the metaphor of the Good Shepherd and Peter’s declaration, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:25) Finally, the intentional construction of the Psalms occurs in praise or laments that are connected to events preserved and identified for us in the titles of the songs. They give us a record of the events and the responses of the people as they happened.

In our Cofradia lesson, we will explicate a Psalm that is connected to an event that involved great emotions and passions – Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 11-12. I don’t expect to teach the full range of thoughts as in this post. The goal of this lesson is to teach us that many of the Psalms are a biblical record of a response to a real event of great emotions. We are made with emotions and God has graciously provided us tools to train that part of our heart too. We can use the Psalms for this training and for the words to express a response to God. Jesus spoke the Psalms while in deepest sorrow on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Do you have a response to His sorrow?

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