Psalms for the New Year

The Christian life has many challenges. One of the common problems encountered, in our devotional life, is a lack of passion and enthusiasm for finding time to spend in prayer and Bible reading. This malaise rarely appears overnight. More usually it is a slow process helped by a self-deception that does not want to admit that all is not right in our relationship with God.

One way of addressing such a problem is to attempt something new. I cannot claim that the Psalms are in any sense a panacea to address spiritual malaise, but they are a sensible choice. If is not without reason that so many believers have found comfort and sustenance in these songs, prayers and poems.

This New Year why not try something new with the Psalms? It might be worth making the psalms the centre of your devotions, or simply to supplement a more established devotional pattern. The attraction of the Psalms is that they can just as well be used for a season or for a longer period.

Some might find it refreshing to read and reflect on the whole Psalter in a month, or so. This is perhaps rather demanding and not to be undertaken unless a serious amount of time can be given over each day. Others might want to take a more leisurely 150 day pilgrimage. A psalm a day for 5 months. It sounds like a long haul, but it passes with surprising speed. I am strongly of the opinion that reading the Psalms in canonical order has a number of advantages, not least because it seems that there is some purpose in their order (see some previous posts here). The slow journey of a psalm a day is perhaps too slow for those unfamiliar with the Psalms. If you are new to the Psalms then three a day might be better.

My experience with the Psalms has been that ongoing cycling through them is rewarding. Rather than ‘familiarity breeding contempt’ they become a world, a series of familiar prayers and poems. They also retain vitality; frequently a fresh insight is gained or a new depth encountered.

The advantage of starting out with the Psalms afresh in the New Year is of course the simplicity of keeping an eye on ones progress. Whilst legalism is not the normal recipe for escaping the spiritual doldrums, self-deception and a lack of personal accountability are no friends to spiritual recovery either.

Psalms 1 and 2 are both, in very different ways, marvellous prayers to start the New Year. They are arguably nothing less than central parts of the worldview of the Psalter. This worldview will stretch our mind, heart and spirit so that we might learn to see freshly and aright this creation in which we dwell before our gracious creator who imparts life through His word.

‘The Case for the Psalms: Why they are essential’ by Tom Wright

Tom Wright is well known as a prolific author of Christian books. For example, he is working on a massive scholarly project, of which three volumes are in print and a fourth is imminent, on nothing less than the whole of the New Testament and its implications for Christian doctrine. Thus his academic expertise includes first-century Jewish history, the Gospels, the Pauline corpus and biblical hermeneutics. So some might be surprised that a New Testament scholar should publish a book on the Psalms.

The book is not meant to be a piece of Psalms’ scholarship, although Wright is clearly informed regarding diverse recent work on the Psalms. Rather this book is aimed at a popular audience. For this we should be grateful, because Wright’s central plea is a correct one. He argues, as the title indicates most clearly, that much of contemporary Christianity has, to its detriment, neglected the Psalms. I found the book to be both convincing and compelling. His thesis needs to be heard by the Christian community and there is a real need for Christians to champion the Psalms in their local Church setting.

The sheer clarity of the title might seem to indicate that the book’s argument be too clear cut, either in attacking the contemporary Christian songwriting ‘industry’ or promoting a monolithic approach to singing and using the Psalms. I am delighted to say that any such claims are groundless. For sure, Wright has some concerns (in my view entirely legitimate) about today’s Christian songwriting, however, Wright warmly acknowledges the genuine life and vitality in this movement and hopes that there is potential therein to champion the Psalms. Wright’s biographical material, which is presented as a helpful Afterword, recognises the traditional Anglican experience of the Psalms that Wright has enjoyed for his whole life. Having experienced this only to a very limited extent myself, I found this intriguing. I was also pleased to see Wright’s openness to, and recognition of, diverse ways in which the Psalms can be imbibed by the individual and the worshipping community.

If you’ve read this far you can tell I am rather appreciative of this book. The best, however, is yet to come. I expected to find myself broadly in agreement with Wright’s agenda – of, putting it bluntly, promoting the use of the Psalms. What I had not expected was the insightful way in which Wright made his case for what the Psalms contain and teach. I have read a lot about the Psalms over the last few years and have found them rewarding on a daily basis, as a central part of my personal devotions during this period. I have not previously met such a concise yet helpful overarching statement of the Psalter’s content which does justice to both their Jewish origin and use by followers of the risen Jesus Christ.

The heart of Wright’s book are three chapters, which account for around two-thirds of the content, the rest being essentially introductory and concluding material. Don’t get me wrong these parts are helpful, and indeed necessary, too. Yet it’s the three key chapters, and their overall thesis, that make this book not only compelling in its claim but an ideal way into understanding the Psalms. It’s helpful to outline the argument of these three chapters:

At the Threshold of God’s Time
Wright opens with the claim that the ‘Psalms invite us, first, to stand at the intersection of the different layers of time’. He reflects on how our mortality compares rather starkly with Yahweh’s time, and how this connects with the Psalter’s strong eschatological flavour. This is then developed into another key concern found throughout the Psalter: the kingship of God. This theme in turn explains the present context of the reader/singer of the Psalms in terms of the past, and God’s people Israel, and the future restoration of creation. This is what makes the Psalms such a powerful resource. They remind us that whatever is going on here-and-now, Yahweh is a faithful God who started a restorative work long ago in ancient Israel and will bring that work to fruition in the future restoration of all things. Or, as Wright says: ‘Past, present, and future belong to him. We are called to live joyfully and painfully, in the story that is both his and ours’.

Where God Dwells
In this chapter Wright reminds us that all too often we avoid the strangeness of the claims that the Psalms make about where God resides. Many of the Psalms quite unashamedly, without any care for our modern baggage, look to Jerusalem and what might be termed the Temple Mount as the dwelling place for the creator of the space-time universe. To pretend they claim anything else would be dishonest. It is this claim that is so central to other key themes in the Psalter. The nations are referred to many times, from 2:1 through to 149:7, in such a way that only makes sense with reference to Yahweh dwelling in Zion, i.e. Jerusalem (cf. 2:6 and 149:2). Yet despite this central, and vital claim, God can be found in other places too. The same psalms look to heaven as Yahweh’s dwelling place, e.g. 2:4. It is this claim that makes sense of the former. For the story is rich and complex, involving an ‘anointed one’ who is a steward over God’s people (2:6), the departure of God’s presence at the exile and the eschatological hope of his return. It is within this understanding of the divine presence that the frequently misunderstood Jewish understanding of Torah took shape. As Wright puts it: ‘By prayerful and obedient study of the Torah, the blessings that one might have had through the “sacred space” of the Temple could be obtained anywhere by all’. There can be little doubt of this theme in the Psalter when one notes the introductory psalm 1 and the entity that is psalm 119 (see previous blog entries).

All the Trees of the Forest Sing for Joy
In this chapter Wright builds on concerns he has discussed at length elsewhere about Western modernity’s inability to see the physical universe as a creation in which the Creator is living and active. As Wright argues this means that Christians too can miss the biblical affirmation of the essential ‘goodness’ of matter. Despite this chapter’s focus on a key concern for Wright as a theologian and interpreter, there is nothing forced in his claim that the Psalms celebrate creation. Indeed he shows, with ample reference to the Psalms themselves, the beautiful and rich ways in which the Psalter reflects on creation and thereby speaks of the Creator.

Wright’s three-fold use of time, space (place) and matter as a framework for unpacking the Psalms is commendably straightforward and yet doesn’t straight-jacket the Psalter’s rich diversity of form and content. For this insightful approach, as well as the timely message of our need to recover the Psalms, I hope many in the contemporary church will be truly grateful.

Psalms of Ascents as a Devotional Pilgrimage

There are times in the Life of Faith when, for a variety of reasons, our walk with God, and the associated discipline of reading Scripture, becomes a struggle. Once in this situation it can be difficult to find a way out of this bad routine. My personal reading through the Psalms of Ascents recently has made me think that these fifteen psalms, 120–134, might make a great way back into the blessing of reading Scripture. Why did I come to this conclusion?

Well, these psalms are very short and wonderfully straightforward in nature. If things have gone wrong with our daily devotions, setting the bar high to re-engage with the Bible is unlikely to help. Despite their shortness, they are packed with ideas, similes, images and truths worthy of meditation and reflection. Their short length also maximises the chance that we can remember them and take these words with us into our day.

These psalms are also built around the idea of pilgrimage, as explored in the previous post. More than that, as we read them we get a sense that they can be understood to capture a pilgrimage in words. Reading them daily is like a micro-pilgrimage, a journey without moving spatially. These short psalms, taken daily and meditated upon, will still give the experience of moving-on, but this is a moving on with God.

The first three, 120–122, give some sense of connection with a real spatial journey. Psalm 122 is all about the joy of arriving in Jerusalem. They can be used as a gentle way of coming back into the full presence of God as we set apart time to reflect on these words.

Having arrived in God’s presence Psalms 123–126 capture two aspects of the journey of faith: Lament and Confidence. As we go through life we will experience these two different, but related spiritual realities. True lament, crying out to God, comes from a point of trust. It is looking to God in trust and expectation, which transforms complaining into complaint. Complaining is what human beings do so easily and naturally. Whereas complaint is crying out to God, naming and articulating the troubles on our heart, with the knowledge that Yahweh certainly hears us and will intervene into our troubles.

Psalms 127–129 in different ways focus on how Yahweh pours out blessing from Zion. This is of course the consequence of a life of faith, a looking to the God who blesses in the midst of all the experiences of life. Such blessing as is poured on us now are a foretaste of what is ultimately to come when we move from receiving blessing from Zion, where God resides, to residing with God.

Psalms 130–131 focus on penitence and trusting God. If there is a single dominant problem with modern Western spirituality it is a lack of making space for penitence. The Medieval Church frequently over did this, but we have gone to the opposite extreme of cheapening God’s grace and making little or no space to explore what we need to acknowledge as wrong in our daily walk.Some see psalms 132–134 as a departure from Zion. I am not convinced. For me these psalms round off the Ascents but not decisively. The Psalms of Ascents reflect on pilgrimage, and pilgrimages end, but I hope that reading the Psalms of Ascents is the start of something rather than an end.