From Learning to Love the Psalms
If the psalms are so rich, why is it that many of us today do not treasure and appreciate them as the church did in the past? There are several reasons. The first is the diminished use of the King James Version of the Bible. The movement away from the King James Version has meant that the familiar poetic expressions of that version which had been passed down through many generations have largely been forgotten. With no one Bible translation replacing the King James Version, that poetry has not been effectively replaced for many contemporary Christians.
The second is the failure of many Christians in our time to study and use the psalms. Few Christians sing the psalms anymore. Even if a songbook contains a few psalms, and even if they are used occasionally, most singers will not notice that they are distinctive or particularly important. If we use the Psalter at all, it is probably in a rather superficial devotional way. Our minds and hearts are not saturated with the psalms as the hearts and minds of earlier generations of Christians were.
The third is the complexity of the psalms. They are complicated and sometimes seem obscure in their literary form. An individual psalm may seem difficult to understand, especially in terms of the way in which it develops in thought. A psalm often changes its theme and its mood as it progresses. For example, Psalm 95 begins as a joyous call to worship, (vv. 1-7) and then becomes a solemn warning, (vv. 8-11). Then, too, psalms move unpredictably from declarations to petitions, from speaking about God as “he” to addressing God as “you.” What is going on, we wonder?
The fourth is the character of much of the scholarly work on the psalms. That scholarly work contains much that is profound, but often it is rather inaccessible and not very helpful to the beginner. For example, much scholarly attention has been given to various types of psalms: laments, hymns, thanksgiving, praise, temple songs, etc. While the recognition of these types has some uses, it tends initially to add to the complexity of the psalms and easily becomes confusing.
The fifth is the apparently random arrangement of the Psalter. The Psalter as a whole seems to us to have no structure. At first glance, it seems as if someone took 150 poems and simply shuffled them, putting them together in no particular order. As a result, it is difficult to see any movement or development in the book as a whole. It is also difficult to remember where a particular psalm is in the book in relation to other psalms. It is very hard to know where to turn in the Psalter for any particular type of psalm. The result is that while Christians may come to appreciate a particular verse or a particular psalm, the book as a whole remains more a mystery or puzzle than a coherent expression of the feelings of God’s people. The treasury of the Psalter remains locked for most people.
The aim of this book is to help Christians understand and appreciate the psalms at a new level. To accomplish this, we must engage our heads and our hearts in an adventure of learning to love the psalms. I know the journey will be enjoyable and profitable for those who cherish God’s Word.
The kind of study that I hope to undertake and encourage in others can certainly be aided by commentaries and experts in the Hebrew language. But I do not want to give the impression that only experts or the most diligent students can profit from the psalms. Again, we want to remember that the psalms are like a mine. There is gold in them right on the surface even before we begin to dig. But the more we dig, the more treasure we will find. And a key way of digging is meditating on the psalms: “On his law he meditates day and night,” (Psalm 1:2). Meditation means going over them again and again. It means rolling them around in our minds and mouths. It means thinking about the form of the words as well as about the ideas. And every Christian will find more blessing as more effort is invested in this study.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What are the five reasons mentioned in this chapter that many people today do not treasure and appreciate the psalms as the church did in the past? Do you agree or disagree with these reasons? Why or why not?
- If the aim of this book is to help Christians understand and appreciate the psalms at a new level, what would help you in that regard?
- How are the psalms like a mine? What role does meditation play when studying the psalms?