Recent events have left many of us reeling. A pandemic that has taken more than 100,000 American lives. Soaring unemployment. Footage of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s brutal murders. National and local leaders who seem unable to bring unity when we need it most.
Worry may be a natural response to the crises facing our nation. It’s also an ancient response. “Fear not” is the most repeated command in Scripture. Yet as I hear newscasters’ predictions of a “second wave” of the coronavirus, or see yet another violent image, it’s a difficult one to obey. The charge to “be anxious for nothing” (Phil. 4:6) may orient me to the goal, but it doesn’t always help me achieve it.
In such moments I need the Psalms.
All of Scripture is helpful for life (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Yet some passages prove especially fitting for particular circumstances. “Like apples of gold in settings of silver,” Proverbs 25:11 says, “is a word spoken at the right time.” The songbook of God’s people is uniquely designed to transform our fears into vivid prayers that lead us into the presence and peace of God.
The songbook of God’s people is uniquely designed to transform our fears into vivid prayers that lead us into the presence and peace of God.
Language for Our Distress
Many psalms were written in distressing situations far more dire than mine. I’ve never hidden from wicked men bent on killing me, a common theme running through many psalms. I’ve never suited up for war. But I have experienced other crises—some potentially life-threatening, some emotionally devastating.
Though the context in which the Psalms were composed may seem remote from us, their desperation is not. They often capture precisely what we feel. They give us language to address God when our own words fail us. Like familiar liturgy, the psalmists’ cries for deliverance lend their voice when we’ve lost ours.
Like familiar liturgy, the psalmists’ cries for deliverance lend their voice when we’ve lost ours.
Prayer for Our Complaint
Many psalms were composed as prayers. They not only give words to our distress; they become vessels of deep human emotion oriented toward God. They not only validate our emotional response to crisis; they help us direct that response vertically, maintaining a posture of prayer as we utter our complaint or cry.
Prayer is not the typical human response to pain. It’s easier to suppress our pain, or turn inward in self-pity or self-loathing, or channel it outward in anger toward those around us. But the Psalms teach us to bring all our emotions to God—who created them, after all.
Imagery That Leads to Truth
Psalms are poems. Their form—with its imagery, repetition, and even the rhythm sometimes found in an English translation—moves us differently than prose does. Poetry, like music and art, engages our right brain—the hemisphere responsible for our imagination, emotional intelligence, and creative expression.
When anxiety overwhelms, other Scriptures—particularly linear, direct prose passages—may not always soothe us. The din of our own fears may drown out their voice. When our pulse is racing, our hands trembling, and our breath shallow, we need poetic beauty to slow us down, take us by the hand, and gently lead us to truth.
When our pulse is racing, our hands trembling, and our breath shallow, we need poetic beauty to slow us down, take us by the hand, and gently lead us to truth.
In a moment of distress I repeat: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns” (Ps. 46:4–5).
I picture an ancient, walled city with a wide, cobblestone street leading through its gate, giving way to a meadow with thick grass, towering oaks, and a lush, wending river. Here is a place of life, rest, and peace. Far from mere fantasy or escape, this image points to a transcendent reality: lasting security is found only in the presence of God.
The psalmist frames his contrasting images—of cataclysmic disaster (Ps. 46:2–3, 6), then of urban prosperity and peace (Ps. 46:4–5)—with doctrinal truth. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. . . . The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Ps. 46:1, 11).
As I linger here in this secure city of God—fertile and green, a place of healing and shalom—my vision lifts from myself and my fear to the God of Jacob, who is indeed my refuge and my fortress. The psalm’s poetic imagery anchors me in the steadfast character of God, even as it reveals dimensions of his being not conveyed by more literal language.
Consider other images evoked in familiar psalms: “He leads me beside still waters” (Ps. 23:2); “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Ps. 91:4); “My soul waits for the LORD more than watchmen for the morning” (Ps. 130: 6).
Way Out of Ourselves
Deep human emotion clad in vivid imagery and offered to God in prayer—this is what the Psalms offer us when we’re afraid. As a mother whispers words of consolation to her weeping child, so the Psalms’ poetry whispers consolation to us, helping us obey Paul’s charge to “be anxious for nothing” (Phil. 4:6).
“In all their bracing reality,” Laura Fabrycky writes, “the Psalms offer companionship in suffering and an instructive mirror that shows us who we are and points the way out of ourselves and back into life.”
The events of the past few weeks have reminded me how fear takes me deep into myself. It fills my vision with me. In a time of collective fear and anxiety, believers need a “way out of ourselves and back into life.”
We need an expansive vision. One that reveals this broken world as our Father’s world, which will someday be made new. One that sees Christ seated victorious on his throne at God’s right hand. The Psalms don’t just gesture to this reality; they usher us into it. We need them now more than ever before.