There is one book in the Bible that perhaps more than any other is about the emotion and experience of living a life of faith. It’s been called the heart of the Old Testament and for many it gives them words of hope and joy, of anger and sorrow at times when it’s difficult to express the words ourselves.
It’s of course Psalms, a book that continues to be of real comfort to Christians throughout life’s journey. Sue and I had the honour of spending time with Gordon, Sue’s father, in the last few months of his life. We would read some of his favourite psalms to him, and although his body and mind were failing, he’d always give a firm Amen at the end of each psalm reading.
Today we’re going to look very briefly at three ways that you can experience these psalms for yourself, taking a less well-known psalm, psalm 15, as an example. And experience is important, for the psalms were designed not just to be read but to be lived out. They can express a deep joy in life and faith. As CS Lewis put it: ‘The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.’
But they can also be brutally honest, dealing with emotions of deep depression, violence and cries for vengeance.
Poetry of the Psalms: Reading in Pictures
So first of all, how do we read the psalms? Part of the difficulty is that these are actually song lyrics, gathered into one songbook over hundreds of years. When we think about the words of songs, we may think about ones like the following. See if you can recognise what song they might come from:
Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
Looking back on when we first met… I cannot escape it, I cannot forget.
Southgate, you’re the one. You still turn me. You can bring it home again.
We’re going where the sun shines brightly
We’re going where the sea is blue.
We’ve seen it in the movies,
Now let’s see if it’s true.
Often these songs have a certain rhythm and rhyme to them. The psalms use a very different approach to grab our attention. Look at the first two lines of Psalm 15:
‘O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?’
Do you see the repetition here and how they almost say the same thing twice?
This is called parallelism and is often used in the psalms not only to reinforce a point but to help stop people in their tracks and to think about what is being said. The lines don’t exactly repeat, but lead us further into the meaning of the song.
Parallelism is often used at the beginning of a psalm and used as a repeated chorus throughout the song. For example, here is the famous cry for help at the beginning of Psalm 22:
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?’
Or in Psalm 27:
‘The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life: of whom shall I be afraid?’
Do you also see how the writer uses picture language to bring these words to life in Psalm 15? He doesn’t really believe God lives up in a tent somewhere in the mountains! Poetic language is not always meant to be taken literally. Instead, the songwriter uses vivid images to help us imagine a place of safety and rest, where we are welcomed into God’s presence, a place we can call home.
And this verse raises the single most important question that the rest of the psalm revolves around: ‘How can I know God’s peace in my life?’ or simply ‘How should I live as God wants me to live?’
Psalms as songs
And of course, Psalms are designed to be sung, rather than just read on a page. The word ‘psalms’ itself means an old sacred hymn from the Greek word ‘psalmos’, a song sung to a harp. For many centuries here in England, the only instrument that could be used in worship was the voice itself. Within this limitation, the songwriters created a unique language of worship, where music becomes their theology: the way they interpret and experience the psalms.
On this sheet, I’ve taken a setting of Psalm 15 from a thousand-year-old manuscript. The language used for worship at that time was Latin, but can you see the squiggles above the Latin words? These are called neumes and pre-date any musical notation. They give an indication of how each word is to be sung. Do you see how these work on the first two verses of the psalm? The squiggles or neumes seem to go crazy at certain parts of the manuscript. The final line ‘et operator iustitiam’ has numerous squiggles above it. The songwriter is not only emphasising how important is the act of doing God’s justice, but also that the practice of doing what is right is something we should practise habitually again and again.
Psalms are meant to be sung and there are literally dozens of recordings of most psalms in different styles. So do explore Youtube or other similar sites to discover what moves you to worship. Listen to how they use music to emphasise the mood of the psalm and compare the words to the original psalm to see what they have included and omitted from the original. Enjoy singing and even dancing along to the version that you like as part of your worship.
Latin Plainsong might not be your style, so we’ve included three other musical versions of psalm 15 in today’s service. Our offertory hymn uses a very well known tune, whilst the two songs in Communion are newer songs. The first is a brand new Celtic version, whilst the second is by a group called Soul among Lions – a folk group who are using crowdfunding to support their vision of creating new folk versions of all 150 psalms. They have only recorded the first 30, so at this rate it will take them over 15 years before their vision is complete!
Praying the Psalms
The final way to experience the psalms is of course to pray them for ourselves, to make them part of our own conversation with God.
Let’s look at how we might do it with the words of this psalm.
We’ve looked at the first two verses of the psalm and how they pose this basic question:
‘How should we live as God intended us to live?’
Psalm 15 doesn’t answer it as we might perhaps expect. It doesn’t tell us we should be going to church, praying three times a day, singing worship songs or anything spiritual like that. Instead, it lists ways about how we should live with others.
It challenges us to consider how we should live a life of integrity, try to do what is right, not to slander others, not to spread rumours about our neighbours, not to charge loans with interest or be someone that can be bribed.
The Christian writer Walter Breuggermann says the psalms are often, but not always, about disorientation. They deliberately disorient us by turning what we assume upside down in order to re-orientate us towards a new way of thinking and praying. Here the psalmist isn’t trying to give us the whole picture about God’s grace and forgiveness, but challenging us with this single question: How then should we live as God intended? Do I treat others with respect, or am I quick to slander or spread rumours about them? Do I really care for others, or am I out for a quick gain from them?
To live at peace with God, I need to live at peace with others. It’s about how I can become the salt and light that Jesus mentions in Matthew’s gospel.