A Case for the Psalms

–By Bill R.
In The Case for the Psalms, N. T. Wright writes, “For me to think about the Psalms is like thinking about breathing. I breathe all the time but seldom stop to think about it or what might happen if I tried to stop.”

It’s not like that for me. I wish it were. But it’s not.

Wright is in good company. The writers of the New Testament were so steeped in the Psalms that quotations seem to spatter all over the text. This wasn’t so exceptional, either. The Psalms have provided a heart-tongue for prayer and praise for Christians and Jews across the centuries. It is only recently that the Psalms ceased to be a major part of Christian worship – and that largely among Protestants. Thankfully, our liturgies preserve the saying of psalms on Sundays, but that’s hardly enough to write the psalms on our hearts.

And we should want to have the Psalms written on our hearts. The Psalms are unique in the canon. Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna writes, “In the Law and the Prophets, God reaches out to man… In the Psalms, human beings reach out to God. The initiative is human. The language is human.”

In the book of Psalms, God set his seal on an ancient compilation of human communication with God – one simultaneously honest and aspirational. Complaints, praise, confession, laments, thanks, all are directed to God in faith and hope that he hears us when we pray. And, if we grant that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then so too are these deeply human prayers. However good our praise songs, hymns, and The Book of Common Prayer are, they can’t claim this distinction.

To write the Psalms on our hearts is to transform our lives. It is not just claiming solidarity with Christians and Jews across the ages – it is to be discipled by them. It is not just to know the Psalms, but to have the Psalms change the way we see our everyday lives. It is to learn how to take a setback and plead for help – or to even see in it cause for praise. It is to learn the habit of spontaneously giving thanks for God’s good gifts. It is learning that one can be filled with pain, grief, the deepest heartache, and still be a holy and prayerful Christian. It is learning words for new patterns of God-directed emotion that we may yet experience.

Praying the psalms is not second nature to me like it is for Wright and for many other Christians. But I’d like them to be – so I’m reading five psalms a day so that I can read through the whole book of Psalms in a month – a habit I hope to keep up so that I read through the book in cycles. That may be more than you can do right now – but consider finding a cycle that you can do – maybe one or two a day so that you get through the Psalms two to four times a year. The key is to find a sustainable pace.

This desire to know the Psalms better – not only with our minds, but to have them in our hearts – is why this Summer’s Zoom Bible Study is going to focus on the book of Psalms. I hope that members of St. John’s Episcopal Church will join us as we approach the Psalms with minds and hearts open to learn.

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