Tim Keller made a resolution. He would read through the Book of Psalms—all 150 chapters—each month. That was 20 years ago.
In their new 365-day devotional, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (Viking, 2015) [excerpt], Keller and his wife, Kathy, walk us through each verse in the Book of Psalms over the course of 365 days. With scriptural reflections and sample prayers on every page, this is a profoundly helpful resource for any believer. (And it’s not a bad Christmas gift, either.)
“The other Scriptures speak to us,” observed Athanasius (AD 296–373), “but the Psalms speak for us.” For 3,000 years the Psalter has been the prayer book and songbook of God’s people. It was also the prayer book and songbook of God’s Son. Our Savior quoted from the Psalms more than any other biblical book—even while breathing his last (Matt. 27:46; Luke 23:46).
I asked Keller why The Songs of Jesus is his “most personal and intimate” book, what to do with imprecatory prayers, how the psalms have shaped him, and more.
In what sense is The Songs of Jesus (in Kathy’s words) “the most personal and intimate of all Tim’s books”?
For each of the 365 portions of the Psalter, Kathy and I wrote a reflection—based on a diligent study of the passage—that shows how God has used these texts in our lives over the years, and especially in times of difficulty and sorrow. So many of the meditations come right out of our walk with God. When I wrote the prayers at the end of each page, they came from my own heart and life. These are the ways I pray these psalms now, shaped by years of working through the Book of Psalms every month.
You contend that the psalms are “the divinely ordained way to learn devotion to our God.” That’s a big statement. Why is a 3,000-year-old Old Testament songbook so relevant to 21st-century Christians?
That’s indeed a big statement but not a controversial one. There are other prayers in the Bible but no other place where you have an entire course of theology in prayer form, and no other place where you have every possible heart condition represented, along with the way to process that situation before God. Even the Lord’s Prayer is more a summary of what we must pray—while the Psalms are a comprehensive program in how to pray it.
How should Christians make sense of and pray the imprecatory psalms?
While Christians rightly conclude that, on this side of the cross, believers will respond to wrongs and persecution differently, we must not be too quick to recoil from these psalms and miss what we should learn. One lesson is that God does indeed hate injustice. Most Western Christians haven’t experienced much in the way of violent mistreatment, and we should let these psalms help us feel the desperation and helplessness of those who have. We shouldn’t close our ears to the cries of the oppressed.
Second, we should realize that virtually always (unless David is speaking as king and civil magistrate) the psalmist leaves the justice and vengeance to God, and does not personally take revenge, as the New Testament commands (Rom. 12:19).
Finally, when we are wronged we should put the cross before our eyes, remembering that what our enemies deserve we deserve too, and that it fell on Jesus Christ so we can be pardoned. This is our powerful New Testament resource for forgiveness. Remember that, as Alec Motyer has written, the inspired psalmists knew less about God than Christians do, but they loved him a lot more than we do. Motyer thinks that being rightfully angry without falling into sin is extremely difficult (Eph. 4:26) and, while the psalmists never do, we shouldn’t try it. Rather we should cling to the cross and love our enemies.
Chris Wright has observed, “Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled in abundance. God seems to want to give us as many words with which to fill out our complaint forms as to write our thank-you notes.” How can grieving Christians engage in God-honoring lament rather than mere cathartic venting?
The answer, of course, is to let the psalms of lament shape your prayer of lament. The psalmists, despite their intensity and shocking candor, always pour out their white-hot feelings to God. No matter how angry and despondent you may be, if you use the psalms of lament to give you words for your prayers, you will in no sense feel stifled or “bottled up.” Rather, the language of the laments are so startling that they will probably help you to be more honest about your emotions than you would have been.
But the laments don’t just help you to be emotionally honest; they also bring you to the real God. Our great danger is that in the midst of our pain we forget or deny that God is a God of wisdom, power, and goodness. The psalmists, struggling as much as any of us, will nevertheless draw us back toward that reality and anchor us in it.
Do any preachers or teachers stand out to you in their treatment of the Psalms? If so, why?
Certainly. Derek Kidner’s commentary on the Psalms, though too brief, is tremendous for its insight and elegance. Alec Motyer and Tremper Longman have also written great popular-level commentaries. Tremper’s volume is the best for helping you see every psalm as pointing to Christ. Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God is filled with great helps for understanding and praying the psalms. Peterson convinced me years ago I had to immerse myself deeply in the Psalms if I was going to know God.
Two decades ago, Tim, you began reading the entire Book of Psalms each month. How has this experience shaped you as a Christian and as a pastor?
First, I’ve learned that I have to read them as a Christian if they are going to shape me as a Christian. That is, I need to see Christ in the Psalms, as he did himself. Jesus saw himself as the priest-king of Psalm 110, as the cornerstone of Psalm 118, and as the sufferer of Psalm 22. If I am to follow my Lord, I must see him in the Psalms.
When I do that, the Psalms teach me to do the things the psalmists do: (1) commit myself to God; (2) depend on God; (3) seek solace in God; (4) find mercy and grace in God; and (5) get perspective and wisdom from God—all through Jesus Christ.
Finally, the Psalms give me as a pastor a “medicine chest” to help people do all these things, too. I don’t have to only exhort others to seek God in their situation. I can find that situation represented in the Psalter and then read (and pray) the psalm with them, which shows them how to live before God in their condition.