Introducing the Psalms – 11/23/08 — The Psalms

This Thanksgiving we have chosen to focus on the Psalms as a way of offering thanks to God.  We’ll hear from three different people who have taken the time to write their own Psalms to express whatever is on their heart to express.  Before we hear from them, I’ll give a brief introduction to the Psalms.  There are 150 Psalms.  I have seven minutes to introduce them.  That’s 420 seconds, which is less than three seconds per Psalm.  I’ll not be covering every one.   

There are many types of Psalms – Psalms of thanksgiving, lament, praise, and they cover a full range of human emotions from desperation – Save me, O God —  to tranquility – The Lord is my shepherd —  to exultation – Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord.        

The diversity of the Psalms is evident from the very beginning.  Psalm 1 reads like a beatitude.  “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, but delight in the law of the Lord.  They are like trees planted by streams of water.”  Psalm 2 is a royal Psalm, perhaps used for the coronation of an Israelite king, when the king became God’s representative ruler over the people and from that time on was known as God’s son.  “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.” Ask of me, and I will make the nations of the earth your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”  Psalms 3 and 4 are both laments, the most common type of Psalm.  They give voice to an individual surrounded by trouble and enemies on all sides, crying out to God for deliverance.  Psalm 4 begins with a reminder that these served as more than just poetry.  The superscription reads “To the leader: with stringed instruments.”  Psalm 5 begins, “To the leader: for the flutes.”  This would have let Hal and Chris, and Rod and Mary, and Keith, and Greta know how the Psalm was meant to be sung.  And for Psalm 5 we would need Tim and Erins’s accompaniment on the flute.

The importance of the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible is indicated by the way they are structured.  The core of the Jewish tradition comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah.  The first five books of the Bible – Genesis through Deuteronomy.  These tell how a people were created, called by God, and led through trials toward salvation.  The Psalms are also intentionally divided into five books, and contain elements that tell how a people were created, called by God, and led through trials toward salvation.  

For the people of Israel, the Psalms served as a prayer book, an instruction book, and a hymnal.  I have three different books that represent what those things are for us.  The Psalms were a prayer book and this is the Anabaptist Prayer book that was written recently that we have been using during the times of evening song and prayer on Sunday evenings.  They were an instruction book, and here is a book called God’s Story, Our Story, which is the book that I have been using with the youth this fall during our catechism classes.  And the Psalms were also a hymnal – simple enough, this is our hymnal, we sing from it regularly, and this is one of the main ways that we worship as a community.  Our two other song books are called “Sing the Journey,” and “Sing the Story,” and this is certainly the way that the Psalms functioned in the community.  The journey was meant to be sung, together.  So the Psalms function as all three of these books combined.

When the writers of the New Testament were telling the story of Jesus as a continuation of the story of the calling of Israel, they often used lines and passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.  In doing this, they drew from the Psalms more than any other Old Testament book.  They are cited 93 different times in the New Testament, drawing from over 60 of the Psalms.  You can almost tell the full story of the last week of Jesus life just by the words that come from the Psalms.  From his entry into Jerusalem, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” Psalm 118, to his confrontation with the religious leaders in the temple, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” also Psalm 118.  To the betrayal by Judas, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me,” Psalm 41.  And when Jesus is suffering on the cross, his cries are those of the Psalmist.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22.  “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Psalm  31.  

The language covering the depth of human experience is already there in the Psalms, pieced together like a patchwork quilt to tell the story of Jesus.

There is not set formula for what makes a Psalm a Psalm, but part of what makes Psalm sound like a Psalm is the parallelism of Hebrew poetry.  Hebrew poetry is composed primarily of couplets, two statements, one right after the other, that support and reaffirm each other.  This occurs all throughout the Psalms.  Psalm 27 is a good example of this.  “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;  O my God, in you I trust”  The first statement is echoed in the second and the second serves to strengthen and expand the first.  It goes on.  “do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.     Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.”  Two ways of saying the same thing, alongside each other.  A common feature of Hebrew poetry and the Psalms.    

A final thing to mention: With the Psalms a part of our Scripture, they do something very important.  They give us permission to be where we are at and to voice whatever it is we are feeling and experiencing.  To voice it loud, and directly to God, because God can handle it.  Feeling ridiculously small and insignificant in a universe that’s huge beyond imagination, and expanding?  Lift up your voice.  Feeling full of gratitude for the gifts of life?  Lift up your voice.  Feeling utterly isolated and forsaken by God, friends, and family?  Lift up your voice.  Feeling like you know you should forgive but rather are overcome with bitterness and vindictiveness?  Trust me, you have plenty of company in the Psalms.  Lift up your voice.  But in any situation, know that lifting up your voice like a Psalm will also serve to lift you beyond your own circumstances.  The very act of praying, singing, shouting, crying a Psalm takes one beyond the confines of one’s own limited perspective into the reach of the One who hears.  If there’s one thing that the Psalms hold in common it is that they take the Psalmist on a journey where they are led to release whatever it was, praise or lament, that was pent up inside them, and connect to a transcendent reality beyond themselves.

Before we hear from those who have written their own Psalms we’ll sing a song from the hymnal that is an example of a Psalm put to music.  It’s Hymn #169 and contains the words of Psalm 121.  “I lift up my eyes to the hills, From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.”  And then after the Psalms are shared the choir will get the last word by singing the last Psalm, Psalm 150.