Some psalms are easy to love. It is no mystery why Psalm 23 is a perennial favorite. But it is also no mystery why we cherry-pick the psalms. What do you do with prayers that ask God to let the children of the wicked become vagabonds (Ps. 109:10)? Parts of some psalms can hardly be read in a group setting without explanation (e.g., Ps. 137:9).
Despite their difficulties the Psalms have always been precious to the church; there is a reason why they often accompany pocket New Testaments. Since it might not be immediately clear why, let me give four reasons Christians should love this book of ancient poetry and then introduce a new resource that my family has found helpful in studying the Psalms.
Psalms Teach Us How to Sing
Christians are singers. But what should we sing? Our forefathers help answer that question. The Psalms were Israel’s inspired song book. Fifty-six psalms are dedicated to “the Chief Musician.” At least thirteen designate the tunes to which the poetry is set. The tunes have been lost. But we know that the Psalms were meant to be sung (see Pss. 95:2; 105:2). And this is just what the church has always done. With his disciples Jesus sang the Passover Psalms (113–118; Matt. 26:30). The New Testament churches continued the practice of singing these ancient poems (I Cor. 14:26). Early Christian monks chanted the entire Psalter every week. In Geneva John Calvin commissioned musicians to set each psalm to meter. In Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer the entire Psalter is sung in the course of a month.
In fact, God commands psalm singing. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16; cf. James 5:13). The songs of the modern church should, at least, be psalm-like.
Psalms Personalize the Christian Faith
The Psalms are replete with first- and second-person pronouns (more than two thousand). In psalm reading and singing we do not simply address “the Lord” but “my God” (fifty-seven times). We do not merely affirm the God’s trustworthiness; we declare to him that we trust him (Ps. 25:2). Calvin famously called the Psalms “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” He defended this title by saying that “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” He goes on to say that “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the . . . emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.” The Psalms give us personal language to talk to God in every situation.
Psalms Expand Our Consciousness
Some worship music—old and new—tends to conform to our experiences or to the experiences we would like to have. The Psalms take us places we don’t want to go, but need to. Psalms help us fight when we would rather coast (Ps. 144:1). Psalms help us lament though we would rather rejoice (Ps. 143:3–4). Psalms teach us to repent when we are tempted to cover up (Pss. 51, 32). Psalms help us worship no matter our circumstances (Ps. 95:1). Psalms call timid Christians to be bold with God (Ps. 44:23–26) and haughty Christians to be humble before him (Ps. 18:27). Breathed out by God and evidencing a startling awareness of the human condition, the Psalms are just what we need to be stretched beyond our current preferences and comfort levels.
The Psalms Help Us Know and Love Jesus
In the New Testament, when people didn’t understand who Jesus was, he took them to the Old Testament, and to the Psalms in particular (Luke 24:44). The disciples did the same in their preaching (e.g., Acts 2:34–35; 13:35). The Psalms are Christ’s experiences in prophetic form. In his prayer in the garden he referenced the cup of salvation from Psalm 116 (Mark 14:36). On the cross Jesus voiced his forsakenness (Mark 15:34) and thirst (John 19:28) through Psalm 22.
The Psalms set before us our suffering Savior (Ps. 129:3) and our conquering King (Ps. 47). The Psalms assure us that God sympathizes with us in our suffering, rules over suffering for our good, and will one day fully rescue us from suffering.
One excellent new resource for getting to know the Psalms is Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms: Devotional (LittleANGELS Press, 2018). Editor Peter Holtvlüwer and his team of contributors provide at least two reflections on all 150 psalms. In addition, several appendices apply many of the psalms to important events in Christ’s ministry, as well as to regular seasonal events, and the Lord’s Supper. The contributors are pastors; skilled exegetes and experienced teachers. Their devotionals don’t shy away from the difficult phrases and concepts found in many of the psalms. The Bible isn’t always a pleasant read. But then life itself isn’t always pleasant. The Psalms, like the rest of Scripture, proves that God understands our grief and through his grace is working out a massive rescue for his chosen people. If you are looking for a reliable and engaging guide to the Psalms, one that provides clarity to difficult concepts, asks searching questions, and helps readers—old and young—to use the Psalms the way Jesus did, consider Christ’s Psalms, Our Psalms: Devotional.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI