I have a confession to make. I did not always like the Psalms. I found the book too flowery, poetic, repetitive, and lacking in action scenes. I could relate to Philip Yancey, who mused that at one time in his life, he “wondered why the Bible needed 150 psalms – wouldn’t 15 suffice to cover the basic content?”
In an Old Testament Poetry class in college, I learned something about the structure and poetic craft of the Psalms. I learned that the chief characteristic of Hebrew poetry was parallelism, in which a city might be destroyed in one line, then be turned into a heap of rubble in the next. I studied word pictures such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, and personification. I discovered alphabetic acrostic arrangements and chiasms. I studied the various authors, the major categories (praise, thanksgiving, history, messianic, imprecatory, royal, laments, ascents, etc.), and even the musical terms (selah, maskil, mikhtam, etc.). But I was still impoverished. Again, as Yancey admits, “In my fixation with the details of the psalms – their categories, interpretive meaning, logical consistency, poetic form – I had missed the whole point…”
It was not until I turned my right brain on and entered into the imaginative “thought world” of the Psalms that I began to really appreciate them. As my friend Brian Segers said, “If you really dig into this, it activates the imagination.” Or Yancey, who experienced a similar transformation: “More than any other book in the Bible, Psalms reveals what a heart-felt, soul-starved, single-minded relationship with God looks like.”
The Book of Psalms has the ability to transform our vision. It gives us comfort in trial, peace of mind, and the satisfaction of intense spiritual desire. Most Americans are deficient in the praise gene. We have trouble expressing our praise to God in well-thought-out, articulate words. And, besides, as C. S. Lewis once wondered, why should God in any sense need or want our worship? He likened it to “a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard of him.”
Then he noticed that people spontaneously praise whatever they value. We all do the same thing: “It was a great vacation! You should have been there!” “This is a fantastic film! You have to see it.” “That’s the best book. You’ve got to read it!” Lewis surmised, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.” Then why should we not do with the supremely Valuable – our great God — what we cannot seem to help doing with mundane earthly discoveries and experiences which we value?
The Psalmists teach us how to make God the gravitational center of our lives – and how to give fitting expression to this longing. They instruct us on how to take the full range of human emotions and experiences – our gratitude, our despair, our frustrations, our doubts, our fears, and our sense of wonder and awe – to God’s throne! In fact, the Book of Psalms is the perfect vehicle to transport you to the heart of God.
If you really want to get into this portion of the Bible, let me suggest three simple steps:
- Get into the Psalms – read, study, meditate
- Get the Psalms into you – internalize, memorize
- Get the Psalms out of you – articulate, recite, pray, sing!
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of the final step, “The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength.”