The Psalms are the songs that accompany the people of God
on their journey through history. –B. W. Anderson
For the better part of the past 3000 years, the book of Psalms has nurtured the faith, worship, and prayers of Jewish and Christian believers. While most of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us, providing training on how to pray, sing, and worship God. Along with Isaiah, the Psalms are the most quoted book in the New Testament, by a wide margin. In the gospels, the Psalms are quoted at Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion. Depending on how you count them, Jesus referenced the Psalms on at least 11 occasions during his ministry.
In Hebrew, the book of Psalms is called tehillim, which means “praises.” The Hebrew verb for praise, hallel, is in both the first word of the psalms and the final word of Psalm 150, hallelujah. You might assume that such bookends would imply a book brimming with joyful praises and happy thoughts. But just as many psalms cry out and complain to God as render heartfelt praise. The Psalms express virtually every emotion of life, bringing the full range of the human heart before God in prayer and worship, often within a single Psalm.
So what gives? Are the Psalms guilty of false advertising, baiting us with visions of joyous prayers and then switching to weepy laments and guilty confessions? How could these prayers be called praises? Eugene Peterson reflects, “All prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise.” Consider Psalm 13. After questioning God five times, David makes three demanding petitions punctuated by three desperate pleas. But in the final verses, praise unexpectedly erupts. Peterson observes that “In the act of praying the worst of things, praise springs forth.”
Annie Lamott makes the case that when you boil it all down, we have three essential prayers: “Help, Thanks, Wow!” James 5:13 famously advises: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Somehow, when we trust the Lord of all creation through the valley of the shadow of death, we discover that God is with us in a way that transforms our sufferings. As Psalm 30 reminds us, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
This fall, our sermons will focus on the Psalms in a series titled “Songs in the Key of Life.” For thousands of years, the book of Psalms has sustained and enriched faith, shaping communal and personal worship, deepening our prayers, expanding the breadth of “conversations” we have with God, and forming believers who pray honestly yet reliantly. The Psalms express virtually every emotion of life, from gratitude to sorrow, from grief to thanksgiving, from penitence to fury, modeling for us a surprisingly wide array of prayer and worship. My prayer for us this fall is that we may become more fully formed as believers who entrust the messy fullness of our lives before God as we pray and worship.