Somewhat recently a large group of believers were taken from their homes. Their capital city was attacked and those who weren’t killed were taken captive. They were allowed to live but provided with minimal rations and put under hard labor. We would consider them only a level above being prisoners of war.
What did they do to keep their faith alive while in exile? How would they stir up hope among themselves that God would return them to their homeland? Would they compromise and lose their distinctions and blend in with the culture? Or would they be known as a group within their captivity? What would identify them?
The nation of Israel was taken captive a few times in its national history, a history that is “somewhat recent” to us in light of eternity. The book of Psalms was collected and collated around some of these disasters.
Book 1 (1-41) emphasizes David’s kingship and troubles. Book 2 (42-72) is Israel’s troubles in general. Book 3 (73-89) is Israel in exile, the darkest of the five sections. Book 4 (90-106) is end of the exile and looking to the heavenly King. Book 5 (107-150) is exaltation. It’s a pattern of problems, prayer, and praise found not only in individual songs, but the whole hymnbook leads through the same process.
Many of the Psalms were written in the middle of trouble. The songs were certainly sung in the middle of trouble. These songs were weapons for the soul, in good and bad times.
For example, what if your captors made you sing your praise songs to taunt you? What would you sing? You’d get a psalm.
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
(Psalm 137:6, see verses 1-3 for the context)
We have a variety of strategies for dealing with low tides of the soul, but singing is not usually one of them. Singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs even less.
I didn’t grow up as a psalm singer. In my childhood at church, we only sang hymns and we only sang out of a hymnal. If you can imagine it, we didn’t have projectors putting lyrics up on a screen for all to read. I think we read from the book of Psalms, probably, or at least some of them such as Psalm 23. The Gideons included it in the back of their New Testament copies so we probably gave Psalms at least a little more attention than Leviticus.
I attended a variety of churches while in college and stuck with one throughout seminary. This is the second congregation I’ve been a part of since graduating seminary. And this is the first church I’ve ever been a member of where we’re actually attempting to sing any actual Psalms.
Some churches I attended just didn’t have a high appreciation for the Bible. The leadership wanted visitors to feel comfortable more than they wanted the truth to be clear. Of those churches that did esteem the truth, most were Epistolary Evangelicals, the truth-tube believers that live almost entirely in the New Testament letters. Ain’t nobody got time for the Old Testament mess.
And why bother? The Old Testament is a mess. Besides, aren’t there issues with New Testament Christians looking to Old Testament contexts for help? As for songs, aren’t there plenty of good, new sources today? And don’t Psalm-people tend to be pretentious people? A few of you may have grown up around gold-plattered snot-fests where patriarchs looked down on anyone who even mentioned the name Sandi Patty or Twila Paris.
I get the resistance. I am a notoriously slow processor. It can take me hundreds of pages and sometimes hundreds of days to think over and work out my responses to certain issues, let alone maybe change my mind. I am also a career contrarian. I do not like to be persuaded; I like to argue. I resist being led (sometimes a strength) and am hard to edify (always a weakness). But I have been persuaded that the chasm between us and the Psalms is worth crossing. It is work, but it is worth it. So, yes, I am trying to persuade us to believe in Christ, to die like Christ, and to know the Psalms just as Jesus did.
In the next couple of posts I want to address reasons that we might not utilize the Psalms in our personal and corporate worship, along with reasons that we should.