First let me state “I LOVE THE PSALMS!” It never ceases to amaze me that when I need comfort, feel sad and overwhelmed, or find myself filled with joy, I can open the Bible to Psalms and God leads me to just the right passage that fits my need. He always says the right thing!*
Psalms is one of the most widely read books of the Bible. The beautiful poems (or songs) are included in both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles. The Psalms can be generally categorized: hymns of praise, songs of thanksgiving, individual laments, communal laments, royal psalms honoring God or the earthly king, and wisdom psalms. These songs formed the basis of Israelite worship and run the entire gamut of the human condition and emotion. Although they are ancient, the Psalms continue to be relevant to Christians as they cover a wide variety of topics for living a God-honoring life.
Today, we tend to focus on the joy and hope found in the Psalms; however, the Psalms also invite us to cry out to God in times of distress. We need to acknowledge life’s hurts and disappointments. The Psalms invite us to do just that and bring those things that burden our souls to God and lay them at his feet. He is a God who constantly invites his people into conversation and relationship with him. This is what sets our God, the God of Israel and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, apart from all others. He is the God of all, yet a close, intimate friend.
The early Christian community found in the pages of the Psalter the ultimate expression of their experience with God and found no need to recreate the wheel and develop a hymnal of their own. In fact, the Psalms remain a part of our modern-day lectionary cycle. Unfortunately for me, the appointed Psalm is read, not sung, responsively at the Traditional Service. During the Blended Service, the Psalm is read by the lector and the Contemporary Service omits the Psalm altogether. This saddens me greatly as the richness of these songs of praise, thanksgiving and lament are being lost to the largest segment of my faith community. It is my hope that my congregation’s handling of the Psalms is the exception, not the rule.
Lutheran Worship also tends to side-step the Psalms of Lament in favor of Psalms of penitence. According to Lawrence Boadt, “In Christian tradition, special place has been given to the so-called ‘Penitential Psalms’ … which express a strong personal note of penitence for sins and a heart-felt plea for mercy. Psalm 51 … reaches a particularly high note of humility in which God’s mercy is readily praised as totally and freely given.” (1) Here is where we find the reasoning behind the focus on Psalms of penitence over those of lament. Our Lutheran understanding of the gift of grace we have received in Christ Jesus gives us hope in all circumstances. Because of this unending hope, we need not spend a lot of time and energy in lament. We have complete faith and trust in God’s promises of grace and mercy; however, this should not deter us from bringing our sorrows to him. Jesus became flesh and dwelled among us – he knew fully well the pain and suffering of human existence. In the last moments of his earthly life, Jesus cried out to God “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) God has provided us a way to do just that. Simply open your Bible to the middle and there you will find the Psalms: The Original Hymnal.
Gracious God, we lay all that we are, all that we have, all that we experience, at your feet trusting in your grace and mercy to guide us, love us, and bring us into your loving presence. Amen
*Special note: I recommend Psalms Now by Leslie F. Brandt. I received a copy from a dear friend several years ago and find it a wonderful expression of the Psalms. The Amazon.com review says: “This book restates, in today’s language, the psalmists honest prayers of praise, love, compassion, sorrow, fatigue, and countless other emotions encountered by those who truly experience life. These pages encourage us to approach God with honesty, as the psalmists did; to rid ourselves of superficiality; to share our joys, sorrows, praises, and confusion with our creator.”
Photo of The Bay Psalm Book licensed under Creative Commons.