The Gift of the Psalms
May 14, 2020 | by: AJ Harbison | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
Guest article by AJ Harbison, Director of Worship Music
Something I’ve heard repeatedly from my friends throughout the pandemic is that they are experiencing an overwhelming range of emotions. I’ve felt the same way. We can feel grief, and fear, and relief, and anger, and anxiety, and even joy, in successive days, successive hours or even all at the same time.
Into this confusion and these feelings of being overwhelmed, our God gives us the gift of the book of Psalms.
He knows what we need, and in his goodness and grace he provides for us. Psalms is one of God’s answers to the pandemic and to any crisis we face in our lives, because the psalms span the full spectrum of human emotion. Consider how varied the opening lines of Psalms 5 through 10 are:
“Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning.” (Psalm 5:1)
“O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.” (Psalm 6:1)
“O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge.” (Psalm 7:1)
“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1)
“I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.” (Psalm 9:1)
“Why, O LORD, do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)
The Psalms are a gift, especially right now, because they 1) help us to express our emotions to God and 2) provide perspective for us.
- The Psalms help us express our emotions (all our emotions!) to God.
We often have a tendency to want to express only positive emotions to God in prayer and worship. Most of the time, we’re comfortable singing about God as our refuge (Psalm 7:1) or praying a prayer of thanksgiving (Psalm 9:1).
But God created us to be emotional creatures, and he knows all of our feelings, not just the positive ones. The psalms teach us that God wants us to express all our emotions to him, even when they’re negative, intense or even despairing.
Consider Psalm 10:1 again: “Why, O LORD, do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Or Psalm 13:1: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” We know, in our minds, that God in truth is not far off, and has not forgotten us, and has not deserted us when we’re in trouble; but in our hearts, it can feel that way. These psalms assure us that God is not surprised or offended by these emotions in us.
Most psalms of lament, including Psalms 10 and 13, include or end with glimmers of hope (10:17) or even expressions of thanksgiving (13:5-6). But there is one psalm in the book, 88, that is all darkness. Through the whole psalm there is no light or hope or even certainty that God is listening. We know these things are true from the rest of Scripture. But the fact that Psalm 88 is included in the canon should itself be a comfort to us. As Tim Keller says of it, “God knows how men speak when they’re desperate.”
The psalms teach us we need not be afraid to bring both the best and the worst of our feelings before our good and gracious King.
- The Psalms provide perspective for us.
While individual psalms can help us express the emotions we feel at a particular time, the rest of the book helps to provide perspective. After praying Psalm 88 and feeling despair, we can turn to Psalm 136 and be reminded that no matter how we feel we can rest assured that God’s steadfast love endures forever. After grieving over our sin through Psalm 51, we can turn to Psalm 103 and read “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.... As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (verses 8 and 12).
Some psalms provide both expression and perspective in one. Psalm 73 speaks of envying the prosperity of those opposed to God, and even says “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence” (verse 13). But then the psalmist goes to church and gains a new perspective: “I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.... You make them fall to ruin.... But for me it is good to be near God” (verses 17, 18, 28).
I encourage you during this time, and at all times, to pray and worship using the psalms.
I want to close by directing you to some of my favorite contemporary musical settings of the psalms, to use in devotions or family worship or just for listening.
- Wendell Kimbrough has two albums of psalms, Psalms We Sing Together and Come To Me. He is also doing a livestream psalm singalong every Sunday night on his Facebook page. We sing two of Wendell’s songs at Oak Hills: “I’ll Not Be Shaken (Psalm 62)” and “Rejoice In All Your Works (Psalm 104)”.
- Indelible Grace Music has a number of psalms sprinkled throughout their seven albums; you can see them in the Indelible Grace hymnbook here. We sing a lot of Indelible Grace’s music at Oak Hills as well, including several of their psalms!
- Sandra McCracken, one of my personal favorite singer/songwriters, turned to the psalms at the most difficult time in her life, and recorded an album of psalm settings entitled simply Psalms.
May the Lord bless the reading, praying, singing and hearing of his psalms to us, his people.