Commentary on Drinking Deeply from the Psalms (Part I)
Notes (and hymns) for a six-part preaching series on the Psalms1
This worship and preaching series on the psalms is meant to move through the psalms in a manner that reflects both how the Psalter progresses, but also in a manner that reflects how we actually experience life. With regard to how the Psalter progresses, this series moves from Psalm 1 (the introduction to the Psalter) to Psalm 150 (the “exclamation mark” on the Psalter — and also from “lament” to “praise.” With regard to how we actually experience life, the series follows Walter Brueggemann’s typology that we move from “orientation” through “disorientation” and then to “reorientation.”
Introduction to the Psalms
The Book of Psalms is filled with images. And the first images in the Psalter are of two “roads” (or a “ways”) and of a “tree.” The roads signal the directions one takes in life — and the roads are characterized not by their geography (“you take the high road and I’ll take the low road”) but rather by who walks on each road and to whom each road belongs. Down one road walk the wicked (those who do not depend on God), sinners (those who rebel against God’s will), and the scoffers (those who mock God). This road belongs to those who tread its path. This road leads nowhere. Those who take this road end up being non-resilient — they cannot take suffering. Down the other road walk the righteous (those who depend on God). This other road belongs not to those who take it, but to God — who watches over it.
The other picture in Psalm 1 is of a tree. Those who depend on God (the righteous) are like a tree, whose roots are sunk deep into the earth next to an irrigation stream. Because of this, the tree can flourish — even when the going gets tough. Like this tree, which drinks deeply from streams of water, the righteous drink daily from God’s Word. They are resilient, but God watches over the paths they walk.
One final comment — Psalm 1 introduces the entire Book of Psalms, and says that the Psalms are “Torah.” Psalm 1 makes a promise about the psalms: Those who drink deeply from the psalms will find a sustainable source of spiritual drink. A source that sustains one on the road of life and a source that will never run dry.
- “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage”
- “Guide Me Ever Great Redeemer”
- “I Shall Not Be Moved”
A Hymn of Praise
Psalm 100 is a typical hymn of praise. This type of psalm recognizable because it has recurring imperative “calls to praise” and “reasons for praise.” There are seven imperative calls to praise: “make a joyful noise,” “worship,” “come,” “know,” “enter,” and “give thanks.” There are two sections that offer “reasons for praise” (v. 3b and v. 5).
Walter Brueggemann has argued that the psalms can be understood as functioning within the life pattern of moving from “orientation” through “disorientation” and then to “new orientation.” According to Brueggemann, the psalms of “orientation” function “to articulate and maintain a ‘sacred canopy’ under which the community of faith can live out its life” (The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984], p. 26). That is to say, that these psalms sing the faith of Israel — and by so singing, they give believers a different imagination than those who sing only the broken songs of Canaan. The psalm says that this world is the loving creation of The Creator — “It is he that made us, and we are his.” This psalm sings that we walk daily through a creation that God loves, and that God loves us (“we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture”). The psalm sings that God’s character is different than those other gods — money, success, youth, etc. — who would seek to rule us. The Lord is a God whose character is marked by “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.”
It is important to note that praise of God is fundamentally “witness.” We do not praise God for God’s personal sake, but for the sake of God’s mission. In praise, we do two things. First, by praising God we give ourselves to God fully — praise is a way of being in relationship with God. Second, by praising God to others, through praise we give God away to our neighbor. Praise is witness to who God is and what God has done.
- “All People That on Earth Do Dwell”
- “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
- “All Things Bright and Beautiful”
A Prayer for Help (also called “a lament psalm”)
Psalm 13 is a prayer for when the bottom drops out. It is a prayer for help — which is the most common type of psalm. Roughly 1/3 of the psalms are prayers for help. These psalms are cried “out of the depths” (130:1) or when “the waters have come up to my neck” (69:1). As such, these psalms give expression to the deepest moments of human pain. But they do so in a way which claims the promise of God’s presence in the midst of our suffering and also the promise that the God-who-is-with-us will preserve us from evil and bring us to a new day when the sun will rise and light will dawn. An important part of these psalms are the expressions of anger, confusion, questioning, and despair: “How long, O Lord?” The heart of this type is “the ask” — the request for help. Here, the ask is “answer me” and “give light to my eyes” (v. 3). These psalm also express trust (“I trusted in your steadfast love”) and they promise to praise God once the crisis has passed (“I will sing to the Lord”). We will come back to these two elements in the next two weeks. Brueggemann calls these poems “psalms of disorientation” — they admit that life is not as well-ordered as a simple Sunday School faith may pretend. They acknowledge that life is really messy, and they protest to heaven that things should not be as they are. And these psalms, through prayer, evoke action from God — they help move the sufferer to a new place.
These psalms are important for several reasons. First, they give us words for the deepest, darkest nights of our lives — when the bottom drops out, when the pain seems too much to bear. Second, the tell us that God is big enough for everything we’ve got — our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. They even suggest that genuine biblical faith is comfortable challenging God. And that God is present with us precisely when it feels like God isn’t there.
- “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
- “Create in Me a Clean Heart O God”
- “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord Have Mercy)
- “Lord Teach Us How to Pray Aright”
A Psalm of Trust
Very similar to the prayers for help, the psalms of trust are prayed from a situation of severe crisis: “the valley of the shadow of death” (23:4), the times when “evildoers assail me” (27:2), or when the “waters roar and foam” and the “mountains tremble” (46:3). The major difference between the prayers for help and the psalms of trust is the dominant mood. Both types of psalm depend on God. Both types of psalm at least imply a request for help. And both types of psalm include expressions of trust. But whereas the prayers for help strike the dominant note of fear and desperation, the psalms of trust hit the chord of trust. They confess “I fear not, for you are with me.” Or, “the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge” (46:7, 11). As such, one might imagine the prayers for help the prayer of those who are younger, who are going through their first times of crisis. The psalms of trust are the words of those who aren’t riding in their first rodeo. They have been through dark valley before, they’ve experienced God’s steadfast love in the midst of suffering before, and they so trust — even though the dangers are very real. That is to say, these are not naïve psalms. They clearly and powerfully express the very real dangers and threats in life. And — in the midst of those dangers — the confidently express trust by means of a series of powerful metaphorical images for God: Shepherd and Table Host, Light and Salvation, Fortress and Refuge, Guard and Guide, etc. In the end, these psalms know that “you are with me, your rod and staff they comfort me.”
- “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”
- “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want”
- “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
- “Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow”
- “Day by Day (Your Mercies Lord Attend Me)”
A Song of Thanks
Psalm 30 is a song of thanks, which would was composed for moment when the person of faith has made it through the time of crisis — when one has climbed out of the darkest vale of Psalm 23, and now can now look back from a place and time of safety. As such, Brueggemann calls these poems “psalms of reorientation (or new orientation).” These psalms “bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected” (Message of the Psalms, pp. 123-4). They recognize that the ship has sailed through the storm and a new shore has been reached. But — and this is crucial — there is no going back to a naïve “orientation.” These psalms speak for those who have been brought through a deep crisis. As such, they know that faith that speaks the truth can never pretend that all will always be well and that all is as it should be. And yet, they have experienced new life and grace — so they know that despair is not all powerful and evil does not have the last word.
Psalm 30 is typical of the song of thanks because it
- Calls for praise (that is, it bears witness to who God is and what God has done; vv. 1-5)
- Describes the time of crisis and how the psalmist asked God for help (vv. 6-10)
- Describes the help that God gave (vv. 11-12)
In this sense, the song of thanksgiving is related to the prayer help. In the prayer for help, which we saw earlier in this series, the psalmist asks God for help and promises to praise God after that help has been received. Now, the help having been received, the song gives the praise that was promised earlier and also recalls both the initial “ask” and also describes the help that was received.
In regard to Psalm 30, special attention should be drawn to the elegant beauty the language: “his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping my linger for the night, but joy comes with morning” (v. 5). And also, “you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (v. 11).
- “My God How Wonderful Thou Art”
- “Crown Him with Many Crowns”
- “How Great Thou Art”
- “I’m So Glad Jesus Lifted Me”
A Call to Praise
The Psalter ends with an extended call to praise. The psalm can be considered the exclamation point on the psalter. But the form of the “call to praise” should not be missed. A call to praise is normally one part of the hymn of praise (the other part is the “reason for praise”).
Why is it significant that the Psalter ends with an extended all to praise, with no reasons for praise given? Because it means that the Psalter closes by inviting the reader to join in singing the songs of the Psalter — out there, in daily life, in the real world. In Hebrew, the Book of Psalms is called “Praises.” So do the math: the book of “praises” ends by inviting you to join in the praise.
The psalms as a whole are not meant primarily to be sung in worship. Rather, we are invited to come to worship in order that we might sing the songs in daily life. So, when we are wallowing neck deep in the mire of life, we are invited to sing the songs of lament: O Lord, have mercy. When we are experiencing the grace and joy of life, we are invited to sing the songs of praise: Thank you God! When we are in a tough spot, but remember God’s presence, we are invited to say, “I trust you O God, you are with me.” And when we see God at work in the world, we are invited to point to God’s invisible hand at work and say, “Praise the Lord!”
Let everything that lives praise the Lord.
- “Let All Things Now Living”
- “We Praise You, O God”
- “Let the Whole Creation Cry”
- “For the Beauty of the Earth”
1. Part II of this series was published on this site in May 2015.