I wonder what kind of relationship you have with the psalms?
You may be able to remember them being sung in church. You might even be picturing the choir chanting a psalm at evensong. Or you may be able to recite psalm 23, or sing it, it you are confident enough to do so. The psalms are an important part of our bible, yet they can often be missed. They can be consigned to a favourite few, or a sung chant. I want to suggest that in doing this we miss a rich tapestry of our faith which can help draw us closer to God.
The psalter includes some 150 psalms, split into five books. These 150 psalms span the breadth and width of human emotions; there are songs of praise, psalms of lament and everything in between. Rather than being intimately connected these psalms offer both a breadth of emotion as well as a variety of composition. The poetical style does not match, each psalms is different and within that difference we can see the beautiful expanse of God.
If they are stylistically different they are also written for different purposes. There are psalms which are intimately personal. That speak of the troubles “I” have faced, whether that be from the perspective of David or some other author. But, there are also psalms which are communal. Psalms which call us to come together as a collective and sing or weep. It is important to be reminded that in the psalms we find our collective, and our individual, emotions expressed. They can be used both to connect individually but also to pray corporately. Their purpose vary and yet they all seem to draw us closer to God.
It could be easy to think that if the psalms being stylistically different and vast in number and breadth lacks any structure or way of categorisation. No way to connect to them bar their numerical order. This is not the case, many academics have attempted to categorise the psalms. The easiest set of categories, I think, is offered by Walter Brueggemann, who divides the psalms into three basic types:
Psalms of orientation.
Psalms of disorientation.
Psalms of reorientations.
As I have said there are other ways of categorising the psalms, the German scholar Weiser, offers another robust division. For this blog however I want to focus on Brueggemann’s division for I think it can help us deepen our use, and understanding, of the psalms. What follows is a brief exploration of the three types of psalms and a look at how this can relate to our every day life.
Psalms of orientation.
In the rawness of life, it is often this group of psalms that help orientate our struggles. In this group of psalms we find the ‘articulation of our deep human experience’ (Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 4). Think about the last time you were disorientated, or in need of refuge. Think about the last time you went for a walk alone, without a map, and got lost. It is at those moments, the moments of deep panic that we reach out and ask for help, or yell depending on the situation. We can take a similar stance in our daily lives as well. When something rocks us or happens that we did not expect we reach out to find orientation. After a recent difficult situation a friend reached out to me not looking for an answer but to help orientate their experience. To simply be heard and to know that life is hard for all of us. Psalm 57 verse 1 puts it like this:
Be merciful to me, O God…
for in you my soul takes refuge,
in the shadow of your wings
I will take refuge.
In our moments of distress the psalms, I want to suggest, offer us a way to find orientation in God. They offer us security, and refuge, when we are struggling. They remind us to look beyond ourselves and trust in God. These psalms of orientation open up new possibilities and create new relationships. They promise that God’s refuge is open to all who believe in him.
Psalms of disorientation.
The most common question I get as a vicar is “why does God allow us to suffer” and although I am not going to answer such a question here it is a good way to frame psalms of disorientation. Brueggemann write: ‘These psalms attest us that the life of faith does not protect us from the pit. Rather, the power of God brings us out of the pit to new life which is not the same as pre-pit existence’ (Praying the Psalms, 35). When God rescues us it does not come with the promise that life will be easy, but instead that our lives will be changed. That our reality will shift from where we were to where we now are. God does not promise a life free of suffering but instead a life lived in relationship. Yet, the psalms of disorientation speak of not the a life lived in relationship but a life lived in the pit. Psalm 30:9, for example, speaks of the pit as a place which is void from God:
What profit is there in my death,
if I descend into the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness.
These psalms are often the hardest to read, but they are also often the easiest to relate to. They are the psalms we often turn to when life is hard. They give us a vocabulary for our pain. They show us that life is not always simple and that people of faith have walked the same path that we have.
In lent these psalms act as a reminder that the life of faith is not one of “perfection” but has trials and tribulations within it. There are psalms which vocalise pain, not just physical pain but mental anguish too, loneliness, oppression, bereavement. Yet, this is not a bad thing. It gives us a language to use. A language which we often fail to use in worship, but a language which can connect us to God in the hardest of times. The next time you face suffering I recommend you look at the psalms for in them you will find a voice. In them you will find struggle and hardship and, I pray, you will find a reminder that God is with you even in the darkest of moments.
Psalms of reorientation.
If we return, for a moment, to our analogy of being lost there is a great joy when we are found or reorientated. If we think of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: 11 – 32 the father throws the greatest banquet when his son returns. These psalms of reorientation are similar. They are the moments when the people of Israel celebrate. They include words of thanksgiving and praise:
Yahweh is king! Let the earth rejoice!
Let the many coastlands be glad.
Yahweh is king!
Let the peoples trembler!
He sits enthroned between the cherubim!
Let the earth quake!
The psalms can help us to celebrate the very experiences of our re-orientation. They give language to our moving out of the pit into the new life of God. The papal preacher His Eminence Raniero Cantalamessa speaks of a deep sense of joy that new believers can experience. This is what these psalms evoke as well. There is a deep sense of celebration that what was lost is now found, what was dead is now alive. John Bell describes this as deep praise. Not simply a buttering up of God for our gain but a deeper sense of gratitude of simply being in God’s presence (John Bell, Living With the Psalms, 144). Not singing for the sake of singing but a deeper reverence that God is good no matter how hard life may get. This is what reorientation is about it is a sense of thanksgiving which is not based on the ups and downs of life but is much deeper. It is a reorientation into the very experience of knowing the love of God, of being welcomed home by the loving father.
It is easy to simply dismiss the psalms as something that are too difficult to read, or not relevant to our day to day lives and yet they are filled with so much depth. This lent our church has met each week to discuss different psalms brought by a member of the group. It has been fascinating. There have been moments of praise and moments of lament. Psalms which orientate and psalms of disorientation. Through it all I have been reminded how important the psalms can be in our everyday lives. How often in the psalms we can find words which not only reflect our mood but offer a deeper sense of revelation. Psalms which speak not just to our day-to-day lives but to our very soul as well. If you have not read the psalms I encourage you to use them more. Pray with them, meditate on them, use them to help connect you with God. I encourage you to use them not just because they are part of our Holy text but because they cut through the thousands of years between us and them and speak to our very souls today. They meet us where we are at and minister to us in a way that very little else can. They help remind us that our orientation is not in the world but in the arms of God, and they give us a way to express that even when we are too weary to speak. These are the words of faithful followers of God who have grappled just like us and have trusted in God even when life has been hard. These beautiful prayers offer us a deeper sense of connection to God than many worship songs, or hymns, can today. I urge you therefore not to abandon the psalms but to pray them. Not to ignore them but to engage with them. So that in creating a relationship with them you may deepen your relationship with God.
John Bell, Living the Psalms, (SPCK, 2020)
Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms 2nd Edition, (Cascade Books, 2007)
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