The Book of Psalms has historically been the single most important book of the Old Testament for Christians. In the gospels, Jesus cites the Psalms more than any other book of scripture. Paul quotes them extensively, especially in the Book of Romans. Medieval monks prayed through all 150 psalms in the course of each week. Most had them memorized. In some Protestant churches following the Reformation psalms set to music were the only hymns sung in worship services. The first book published in North America was the Bay Psalm Book of 1640.
Yet in spite of this long tradition, and even though we chant a psalm every week as part of our regular Sunday worship in my own congregation, I’m not sure how much attention people give to the psalms these days. I have to confess that as a preacher I rarely use the psalm as my sermon text (I usually have a strong preference for the gospel reading). I don’t even usually make reference to the psalm in the way I do with the Old Testament and Epistle (New Testament) readings. The notable exception to that rule is Psalm 23.
I think the reason I have avoided considering the psalms in a consistent way is that I often find them problematic for one reason or another. They sometimes express thoughts and emotions that aren’t my own, that I even sometimes find offensive. Some psalms seem preoccupied with getting revenge on the psalmist’s enemies, using God as the hit man. Other psalms strike me as self-righteous and boastful, and still others as presumptuous. And yes, I know I probably shouldn’t think this way, but some psalms are just downright whiny.
One of the take-away ideas from this year’s Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, which was devoted to the psalms in Christian worship, was that the psalms are valuable in our worship precisely because they don’t necessarily reflect our personal agendas. Worship, after all is not about us – or at least not only about us, as we sometimes seem to assume. The Christian life cannot be simply a personal, me-and-Jesus sort of affair. Worship is a communal act involving not only the immediate congregation, but the whole Christian church on earth, and even, as one of our eucharistic prayers asserts, God’s servants “of every time and every place.” And so the psalms draw us out of ourselves and into the common experience of all humanity. (Let’s remember that the psalms are pre-Christian in origin!) I personally do not think very often of having enemies who are out to oppress or even kill me. I do not often find myself in a pit of despair, or feel abandoned by God. Nor have I been betrayed by my closest friends. But for many of my fellow Christians and fellow humans – over the millennia and throughout the globe – these have been the ever-present realities of life. And so, as I come into the presence of the living God in worship, I come together with those brothers and sisters, sharing both their pain and their joys, praying with and for them. In a sense, then, all of the psalms can be seen as orienting us to the life God calls us to.
I am coming to appreciate the psalms – even the ones I don’t like – more as a resource than an obstacle or annoyance. One of these days I may even preach on one that isn’t Psalm 23!