Reading Psalms


Prepared by SLin 2/4/2011

The Psalms, when we allow them to speak with their full range of voices, from outrage to joy, possess this potential to draw us into a praise of God that includes our full humanity under the reign of a God who hears us as we pray.

Let us listen to the words of the Psalms, and then as we listen, ask: What would it require to locate ourselves in the world of the Psalms?

We shall begin with the two psalms which open the Psalter. They stand like sentinels guarding our approach to the entire psalmist canon. They demand us to reorient our entire way of thinking about life, about right and wrong, about behavior and power, in light of the Lord’s reign.

Read psalm one and two together…..

Then, ask: What would it mean for us to enter into this world in which the Torah of God nourishes as the rich, wet earth nourishes a tree, in which the power of God over the world is recognized not merely as an unreachable ideal, but as an enduring reality?

Psalm one reminds the listener that while the wicked seem to flourish, they will not long endure. There is a reckoning, a judgment that remains tenaciously unimpressed by the subtle maneuvers of the wicked. The Lord who reigns watches over the righteous, but the wicked, those who scoff at goodness; blow away on the wind like chaff.

This psalm stands at the opening of the book Psalms as a marker, a boundary stone , mindful that within the psalms there will be many who cry out in accusation against the God who reigns, asking why the righteous are persecuted while the ways of the seem to prevail.

Psalm one does not express naivete; it does not tell us that everything will work out in favor of those who delight in God’ love and walk according to God’s commandments. But it does tell us that we are all accountable for our lives. What we do, for good and evil, has consequences.

Every kingdom has its king: the king who rules in this kingdom ultimately stands for justice and righteousness, and this king bows to high king of heaven and earth.

“While psalm 1 informs the reader that the whole collection is to be approached and appropriated as instruction, Psalm 2 introduces the essential content of that instruction---the Lord reigns! Nothing about God, the world, humanity, or the life of faith will be properly learned and understood apart from this basic affirmation.” McCann observes.

Psalms 1 and 2 together invite trust on the part of those who submit to the Lord’s reign, “for the Lord watches over the way of righteous” (1:6a), and “happy are all who take refuge in him” (2:11b), while warning those who would subvert the rule of the Lord, “but the way of the wicked will ‘perish’ and ‘be warned, O rulers of the earth...” (2:10-11a). These psalms reflect a divine reign that calls into question all earthly authority and power, prestige and honor. The psalms reverberate with the presence of the sovereign Lord majestic and awful, gracious and merciful, fearful and long-suffering. The psalms of lament cry out in complaint, in sorrow, anguish and pain, to the God who reigns over all that is, whose justice calls into question the cruelty of the wicked.

The theological and social themes prayed and sung in these psalms run through the prophets of Israel emerging in Christian worship in the Magnificent (Lk. 1: 49-53).The entire life of Jesus Christ, from his ministry of healing to the parables of kingdom, becomes a living exposition of the psalms. In the Gospels we see the Lord’s reign in its incarnational fulfillment, a fulfillment for which the psalmist hopes and yearns, as it is in heaven, may it be on earth.

The world of the psalms is not some distant, abstract, fantasy land; nor is it a Golden Age which existed long age, the ways of which have long died out. The world of the psalms, like our world, is a world in which deals were cut, where military powers conspired to conquer neighbors, where parents fretted over children, where leaders ( political and religious ) failed to lead and unfaithful followers.

There is not a shred of idealism in the psalms. They are shot through and through with realism. But they hold true to an allegiance to the LORD WHO REIGNS. And it is these facts we must first grasp in order to enter the world of the psalms and learn to inhabit that world as a way of living in our own world. To inhabit the world of the psalms is to exchange the various loyalties which conditions and relativists all others.

Listen to how a world emerges in the way the psalmist speaks of the reign of the Lord, and, again, imagine what it requires of us to inhabit the world of the psalms:

“Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing.

Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray” ( ps. 5: 1-2 ).

Finally, I suggest, in a simple schematic fashion, that our life of faith consists in moving with God in term of:

What might have been (Ps. One cf.Gen. 1-2) -> orientation; Being securely oriented What is (ps. 2 and Gen. 3 ff) ---> disorientation; being painfully disoriented

What might be (ps.150 Rev.20ff) ---> reorientation. Being surprisingly reoriented.

This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relation to significant others, our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of “passage”, the life-cycle, stage of growth, and identity crises. It can permit us to be honest about what is happening to us. Most of all, it may provide us a way to think about the psalms in relation to our common experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation (W. Bruggemann ).