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We have a four-quart, hand-crank, ice-cream freezer stored in our garage. Some friends gave it to us some years ago, and we put it to use. But the effort in making one’s own ice cream means that one only does so occasionally, and the expense makes it prohibitive on a regular basis. When one tallies all the ingredients and collateral supplies needed for that gallon of ice cream—well, it’s a relatively costly affair. It’s much cheaper and convenient, if not tastier, to buy ice cream from the grocery. So the ice cream freezer sits on the shelf, nearly antiquated and solitary.
One wonders if Christians tend to treat the Psalms that way. After all, we have such a plethora of fine, up-to-date, bite-size devotional aids and helps. It’s understandable—why should contemporary Christians still give time to these clearly ancient, often unruly, sometimes alarming, frequently perplexing prayers and praises of Israel from more than 2,500 years ago?
So, do we really still need the Psalms? And if so, why?
One could come up with multiple reasons, but let’s simply zero in on one: we need the Psalms because we need to know the range and pattern of believing experience.
Lament, Paradox, and Blessedness
Let’s embark on a brief tour of the Psalms.
Psalm 3: Lament
Think of the significance of Psalm 3. It came out of the time when David fled from his son Absalom. It’s a prayer in trouble. Psalm 3 implies that prayer is the way we slug it through our troubles. The placing of Psalm 3 is telling. You first go through the double doors of the Psalms, where Psalm 1 tells you to settle your commitment, and Psalm 2 tells you to get a clear view of the kingdom—and then you walk straight into trouble (Ps. 3).
Scholars call this kind of Psalm a “lament.” Reading it, you realize that it isn’t without hope and confidence. But it is first of all about trouble. Is it not telling that more than a third and near to a half of the Psalms are laments? Are the Psalms not telling us that it is through many tribulations we enter into the kingdom of God? But today, even when believers do use Psalms in worship, they usually choose the praise selections. We seldom sing laments in our services. There’s one in our church hymnal, “My God, My God, O Why Have You Forsaken Me?”—based on Psalm 22—but I don’t think I’ve heard it used in worship. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t fit the upbeat, bouncy ambience praise bands want to create.
Psalm 27: Paradox
Or consider Psalm 27. In verses 1–6, David speaks of the confidence he has, and then in verses 7–12 of the trouble he faces. He begins with “Whom should I fear?” (v. 1b) but soon pleads, “Don’t leave me and don’t forsake me” (v. 9). The usual scholarly tack is to say these sections (vv. 1–6 and 7–12) were originally two distinct psalms because their tone is so different they could’ve never been a unity. (Of course, if that’s so, why did some doofus join them together?) But no, there’s a deliberate rub, and we must leave the “rub” of verses 1–6 side by side with verses 7–12. Then it’s not disturbing, but a paradox; two things, seemingly contradictory, yet simultaneously true. For now we see that a confident faith can become a battered faith, that an assured faith can also be an assaulted faith—the two sometimes go together. The one can soon turn into the other. This psalm implies it’s a short step from “blessed assurance” to “fightings and fears, within, without.” Cocksure scholarly pronouncements that there are two distinct psalms ruin the complexity of believing experience that Psalm 27 wants to depict.
Confidence doesn’t mean you’re beyond trouble, but equipped for it.
It’s something like the fifth game of the 1956 World Series. Yankees pitcher Don Larsen had a perfect game into the sixth and seventh innings. That was a splendid achievement—what if he could extend that through all nine? But it made for problems. No one wanted to talk to Larsen in the dugout while the Yankees were batting lest they jinx him. In the ninth inning Mickey Mantle, playing in the outfield, said he couldn’t remember being so nervous—afraid that he might commit an error and wreck Larsen’s perfect game. So there’s something wonderful (for the Yankees), a perfect game, and yet that means that there is at the same time all this nerve-wracking angst and tension that grips everyone. The grandeur of a perfect game and all the concurrent distress. That’s the sort of paradox Psalm 27 gives us—there is confidence yet conflict, often the true nature of believing experience. Confidence (vv. 1–6) doesn’t mean you’re beyond trouble (vv. 7–12), but equipped for it.
Psalm 88: Blessedness
But the Psalms will take us further—to the depths of our souls. Take Psalm 88.
Here’s a lament with no “confidence” section, no moment of recovery (e.g., Ps. 13:5–6); it ends in darkness. (Of course, that doesn’t mean the psalmist never came into the light but that, in this slice of his experience, up to and through the time of this testimony, he had found none.) Psalm 88, Derek Kidner suggests, testifies to the possibility of unrelieved suffering as a believer’s earthly lot. No one wants to hear that; but if it’s true, we need to. And yet, though the psalm ends in such sheer bleakness, it discloses the faithfulness of the psalmist, for we must not miss the obvious—that in that “darkness” at the end of the psalm he’s still praying, still speaking to the God who has not answered him. We have a word for that: faith.
But there’s more. Note the title: “A song. A psalm of the sons of Korah. For the music director. Upon Mahalath Leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.” This implies that however hopeless the psalm appears, the Psalms’ collectors thought this dark witness had its place in public worship, that God’s people needed to ingest and digest and sing, or hear sung, this testimony.
But believing experience also enjoys the blessedness of the Lord, and the Psalms reflect that. In Psalm 128, for instance. It depicts the blessing of Yahweh on the believer in fulfillment (v. 2), family (vv. 3–4), and future (vv. 5–6). This psalm surely aggravates the cultural correctness of our day, speaking of the wife as a “fruitful vine” and children as “olive shoots” around one’s table. So patriarchal! What about women in “power roles”? Let the cultural police bluster all they want. Psalm 128 is telling us that we enjoy Yahweh’s blessing in the routine and the ordinary, in work and family, at kitchen table and supper. This is part of the scope of believing experience as well—and it’s to be, as Paul says, “received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4).
Psalm 128 is telling us that we enjoy Yahweh’s blessing in the routine and the ordinary, in work and family, at kitchen table and supper.
I have a friend who at one time was a member of a large church that had a number of seminary interns working in it. These seminary students would be called on at various times to “share their testimony,” and it seemed to my friend that most of them spoke of having been converted out of a life of drug addiction, prompting my friend to ask, cynically, if having a drug problem was a prerequisite for a call to the ministry. Does such a call always come out of crisis and upheaval and trauma? Obviously not. That’s where Psalm 128 helps us. Does all believing experience have to do with conflict and trouble and darkness? No, some of it simply involves enjoying your spouse and kids and picking up your paycheck and having supper together. Ordinary joys.
Picture of the Christian Life
I’ve dragged you through this little exercise only to underscore how the Psalms present such a multifaceted scope of believing experience. In some Christian circles one can miss either the realism or the balance the Psalms provide. The Psalms tell us that trouble is normal, darkness is possible, reverses are likely, and ordinariness is celebrated. There is a herky-jerky pattern to believing life in the Psalms, covering the waterfront of conditions. The Psalms make clear that we do not get to some “higher ground,” a sort of experiential plateau where we mostly live above life’s crud-line. Rather, there is only this ground where we stand, this frequently troubled, always changing, God-present ground. In short, the Psalms tell us believing experience is kaleidoscopic, and we shouldn’t try to pretend it is any other way.
The Psalms tell us that trouble is normal, darkness is possible, reverses are likely, and ordinariness is celebrated.
But that means that experience can all be complex, and we may wonder how such complexity can really be true. So, it may help to consider a statement: North is southeast of Due West. It sounds ridiculous but it’s true nevertheless—if you live in South Carolina. Due West is a small town in the western part of the state, and North is a town a few miles south of Columbia in the center of the state, but it’s southeast of Due West. Hence what appears nonsensical in one sense is strictly true geographically.
I suggest that that is the case with believing experience depicted in the Psalms—it seems diverse and even contradictory, but is, after all, completely accurate.