Recently I was asked by some
friends not accustomed to using the Psalter, why it might be to their
advantage to take it up in their worship and private devotion. This
should not be too difficult a matter to explain, I thought at first.
Anyone who has listened to Handelís
is aware of the long Christian tradition of reading the Old Testament as
a book of prophecy about Christ. Surely this would be a good place to
Christ in the Psalms
Having studied the history of
Christian worship and prayer, I knew well the traditions that sang the
Psalms in praise of the "Royal Son of David," the Lord Jesus Christ
(e.g., Psalms 2, 109, 131), upon whom had been poured the "oil
of gladness" (Ps 44:8).1
How the heart thrills when the Messianic Psalms are sung, especially
during Advent and Christmastide!
In the Psalms of trouble and
suffering, who could not help but recognize Jesus, the Suffering
Servant? On the Cross, the Psalms of His People provided the words he
needed to cry out to His God (Ps 21), and led Him to commend His
life and labors into the hands of the Father (Ps 30:6).2
No wonder these Psalms occur so often during Lent and Holy Week.
And then, how to hymn His resurrection glory? No
finer song than Ps 117(118) for praising the "stone rejected" become
"the cornerstone," and celebrating every Sunday as the special day "made
by the Lord," on which rejoicing and gladness are the order of the day
(Ps 117:24; see also Mt 21:42, Mk 12:10 and Lk 20:17.; cf. Acts
4:11 and 1 Pt 2:7).
Although He did return to the
Fatherís glory and is now seated at Godís right hand, Jesus did not
forget the loved ones who remained behind. The gift of the Holy Spirit
in wind and fire at Pentecost attested: I am with you evermore. Psalter
in hand, our Christian ancestors took up the chant on Ascension Day,
"God goes up with shouts of joy" (Ps 46:6), and longed for His
Spirit-gift in their own lives, praying, "Send forth your Spirit Ö renew
the face of the earth!" (Ps 102:30).3
Baptism and the Lordís Supper
As I was mulling over these, and various other
possible ways of responding to the request my friends had made, I
noticed, stacked in the corner of my bookcase, some postcards, memories
of student years in Rome. Among them I came across one of the ancient
baptisteries of the city, its walls adorned with dazzling mosaic. There,
on the wall opposite the baptismal pool, situated in such a way that, as
the newly baptized emerged dripping from the waters, their eyes would
immediately fall upon it, was the figure of a youthful shepherd boy. A
little lamb was hoisted upon his broad shoulders. I must show this to my
friends and tell them how those early Christians newly up from the
waters, upon seeing this wonderful work of art, would remember that it
was Jesus who had assured them, "I am the good shepherd" (Jn 10:11), and
would sing of Him to whom their lives were now irrevocably committed:
The Lord is my shepherd Ö
near restful waters he leads me Ö
My head you have anointed with oil Ö
In the Lordís own house shall I dwell,
for ever and ever (Ps 22:1, 2, 5,
I picked up another postcard. This time the scene,
from the catacombs, was that of a tiny cavern deep under the street
level. Perhaps at one time it had been used as a small chapel. Etched on
one of its walls, in red the color of clay, was a table. Near it were
fish, and two baskets filled with loaves marked with crosses. Vines
heavy with clusters of ripe grapes were also near. All was ready for a
meal. "Taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Ps 33:9, cf. 1 Pt
2:3). Perhaps my friends would be interested to know that primitive
Christians found in this Psalm words most suitable to celebrate Christ
present among them in bread broken and a cup shared. Perhaps this
traditional communion Psalm would find a place in their own
commemoration of the Lordís Supper.
The Mirror Image of Life
As I considered the matter, I felt sure that these
points would be helpful to my friends. And yet, something more was
needed. What was it? I began paging through the hymnal they were
accustomed to use, and as I did so, it became more and more evident what
had to be said about the advantage of the Psalter.
This is what I noticed. Like the Psalter, the hymnal
contained numerous hymns that praised and thanked God, and many others
that recalled the beauty of His creation and extolled His unceasing
providence. Faith, and hope in His promises were duly expressed, and the
fellowship of Christian believers extolled. Hymns celebrating the
mystery of Christ in the Church Year were not lacking either. Indeed, a
number of them were beautiful paraphrases of the great Christological
Unlike the Psalter,
however, there was not one
angry hymn in the entire
collection. So often we feel the need to pour out our rage to God in
prayer. How will the hymnal help us then? Perhaps this is precisely the
point at which the Psalter is most valuable for our needs today, and the
point at which our current worship books and hymnals fall short. The
Psalter is true to life; it accords so accurately with the rawness of
human experience. It leaves nothing unsaid, no emotion unexpressed.
I knew then that I would have to tell my friends the
whole truth about the Psalter, and what might happen to them if they
took it up.
First of all, the Psalms would
pain of living,
and demand that they face squarely every condition of human suffering.
Betrayal by friends (Ps 54), attacks of enemies (Ps 55), the
unfairness of a world in which the wicked seem to get rewards, and the
just, for all their devoted piety, seem afflicted with endless trouble
(Ps 72) Ė it is all there, in graphic detail. The ultimate issues of
sickness and death receive particular attention:
Spent and utterly crushed,
I cry aloud in anguish of heart. (Ps
You have given me a short span of
my life is as nothing in your sight
Take away your scourge from me.
I am crushed by the blows of your
hand. (Ps 37:11)
This sort of prayer disorients life. It threatens
security. It hurts! We are frightened.
But it would not be enough
merely to expose pain. More is needed. There must also be a
response on the part of the
believing heart. It must do something with this pain. It must present it
"Here my voice, O God, as I complain!" (Ps 63:1).
These words were frequently to be found on the lips of some of the
greatest saints! Curses, complaints and laments abound in the Psalter.
And this is good.
Taking up the Psalter makes a
bold statement to the world about the relationship between God and the
human family. God cares how we feel. He cares about
all our feelings,
especially the ones we find so difficult to deal with. Since the Psalter
is His inspired word, it is clear that He expects to hear from us when
we are fed up with the disappointment and suffering of life. Even when
we are fed up with God!
Taking up the Psalter makes a bold statement about
us. When we sincerely join the prayer of our hearts to the words of our
lips, we declare that we have finally decided to stop burying pain deep
within, where neither God nor loved ones can reach to help us. We say
that we are ready to suffer through our pain and, when the time comes,
to get over it and let it go.
Taking up the Psalter holds a promise. Disorientation
is not forever:
When I think: "I have lost my foothold,"
your mercy, Lord, holds me up.
When cares increase in my heart
Your consolation calms my soul. (Ps
We are not alone in our trouble; suffering, sickness
and death do not have the final say. Could this be the reason why so
many Christians have clung tenaciously to the Psalter for so many
centuries? We need desperately to listen to the Psalms, to read them and
to sing them, alone and together. To scream, to delight, to weep, to
play them again and again until
My body and my heart faint for joy;
God is my possession forever. (Ps
I know now how I will answer my friends. I
will tell them, "If you take up the Psalter, prepare for an ordeal. Get
ready to see the mirror image of your own life in the book your hands
hold. Prepare to let the tears flow Ö and the sighs, and the groans. And
that will be good."
The most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New
Testament is the Book of Psalms. Many have found in their
reading of the New Testament a key to a Christian understanding
of the Psalms. For Psalm 2:7, see Hebr 1:5; 5:5, and Acts 13:33.
For Psalm 2:1-2, see Acts 4:25-26. Psalm 109(110) is the more
frequently cited Psalm. In Mt 22:44 (and parallel passages)
Christ applies this Psalm to Himself. Version of the Psalms used
in this article: The Psalms: Singing Version, Paulist Press, 1983.
2 For Psalm 21(22), see Mt 27:46 and Mark 14:34. Psalm 30(31) is
found in Lk 23:46.
3 These Psalms are not specifically cited in the New Testament.
Their use at Ascension and Pentecost belongs too the tradition
of Christian psalm-singing in worship.