Psalms – Singing from Jesus’s songbook

To me the most inspiring fact about the Psalms, is that they were Jesus’ songbook and prayer book. He knew them inside out, probably by heart, sang them, prayed them and quoted them, appears to have been meditating on them during the agonies of crucifixion, and the early Christian community was convinced that he continues praying them through us as we pray them: “we recite this prayer of the Psalm in Him, and He recites it in us.” [Augustine].

We should be in awe of the Psalms, they have lasted thousands of years, translate into multiple languages, and were a staple diet for our spiritual ancestors. Ninety Psalms are quoted in the New Testament. For centuries our Christian brothers and sisters have lived and died with Psalms on their lips.

What are they for?

If you have ever been in distress or fear or danger you probably know what they are for, you will have found your way there. Augustine called the Psalms a school for people learning to pray. Ambrose called them a ‘gymnasium’. Athanasius said that whereas most of scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us - they give us a language, a vocabulary of engagement with God for every kind of circumstance and condition. The Reformer John Calvin described them as ‘An anatomy of all parts of the soul’. In other words the Psalms know all about us and cater for the best and the worst about our human condition. But they are for much more than emergencies. I believe that the Psalms are gifted by God to enable us to do much better what most of us find difficult – to sustain a consistent walk with God day by day through good times and bad times, to keep going, to not give up. For generations of believers the psalms were the daily habit that they could not imagine living without.

What if that daily habit became established in every worshipping community?

We can take the Psalms on our lips as God’s gift of words to sing or pray back to him, knowing that they are fulfilled in Christ.

What happened to the Psalm habit?

The vital place of the psalms to our spiritual ancestors is beyond question, so why are they sidelined today? There are many historical reasons I am sure, but one very contemporary one is that our media-intensive culture moulds us as spectators rather than participants, looking to screens, stages and platforms to be ‘done to’ and spoon-fed experience rather than learning how to nourish our own spiritual lives. In this atmosphere many Christians have become ‘event-dependant’ and have little idea how to sustain themselves between ‘fixes’. Those who have the job of providing the ‘spectacle’ week by week become exhausted under the demands.

There are many songs today that give us an excellent language for expressing our personal love and thanks to God but the Psalms also give us a language for anger, for frustration that the world is not as it should be, for protesting against injustice and for lamenting the tragedies that we see around us, and a language of hope for the future. We need to rediscover some of this language in our worship today - that allows the Christian community to grieve, protest, lament, and anticipate God’s final victory.

Walter Bruggemann, in his excellent little book Praying The Psalms says “The Psalter knows that life is dislocated. No cover-up is necessary. The Psalter is a collection over a long period of time of the eloquent, passionate songs and prayers of people who are at the desperate edge of their lives” [Praying the Psalms, p10, Authentic media.]

He also describes the psalms as designed for ‘all sorts and conditions’ of people and relevant to our common human experience and suggests that ‘our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of:

  1. being securely oriented
  2. being painfully disoriented
  3. being surprisingly reoriented

How do we pray the psalms?

One of the best ways is simply to read them out loud, but not in a detached, cerebral way. The book of Psalms begins with a promise that the person who meditates in the law of the Lord is like ‘a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.’ That is quite a promise. Meditation sounds like a purely mental activity, but according to Eugene Peterson:

“Meditate [hagah] is a bodily action; it involves murmuring and mumbling words, taking a kind of physical pleasure in making the sounds of the words, getting the feel of the meaning as the syllables are shaped by larynx and tongue and lips. Isaiah uses this word “meditate” for the sounds that a lion makes over its prey [Isaiah 31:4].”
[Eugene Peterson, Answering God]

The Psalms spring to life when we engage with them physically – something remarkable starts to happen when I open up my mouth and wrap my lips, tongue and heart around the words and pray them aloud. Try it!

As familiarity with them grows we will find that remembered psalm phrases or fragments become our everyday ‘database’ to fuel our spontaneous prayer and worship - a rich resource for the Holy Spirit to prompt prayer and praise, as a defence against sin [Ps 119:11], and in crisis moments.

Eugene Peterson makes the fascinating observation that Jonah’s Psalm-like prayer in the belly of the whale [Jonah 2:2-9] was not original, its component parts can be traced back to at least 10 sources in the Psalms.  He had been to ‘Psalm-school’, worked out at ‘Psalm-gym’ and so in a moment of desperation, he had a vocabulary of prayer to draw upon.

As Psalm phrases lodge in our memories they reshape our view of God and our circumstances, enabling us to make the connection between our human condition, and God’s priorities, purposes and provisions for us. Whereas my own prayer vocabulary becomes exhausted or narrow or the issue looms so large that my faith falters, there is always a psalm that starts where I am and lifts me towards God’s perspective.

© Graham Kendrick