The book of Psalms is like no other book in the Bible. The literature consists of intimate prayers, as personal as found in any human diary. The book shows us how to worship God.
Psalms, the longest book in the Bible by chapter with one hundred and fifty chapters/psalms is divided into five sections. Jeremiah is the largest book. There is a repeated ending phrase “Amen and Amen” (Amen means “so be it”) after each Psalms section: at 41, 72, 89. 106, and 150. The five-book arrangement is in the same pattern of the first five books of the Bible. Amen is also said a lot in the New Testament by Jesus however it is translated as “verily”, “truly” or “solemnly” and holds similar meaning for His catchphrases “Believe me” and “I tell you this” says Douglas Groothuis, according to philosopher and Christian apologist, from G.F. Hawthorne’s book Amen.
The biblical meaning of the number five symbolizes God’s grace, goodness, and favor toward humans. Psalms has five kinds of literary themes: praise, wisdom, majesty (89 references to Jesus), thanksgiving, and lament. There are four kinds of prayers/songs: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and petition. Tim Keller says Psalms is about deliverance and it is impossible for Christians to not think of Jesus in these verses. I read somewhere that the address of God is through prayers of praise.
Its theme is living life through authentic prayer in a real world, where two dimensions operate simultaneously: horizontal (temporal reality) and vertical (transcendent reality). Although thousands of years old, virtually all the psalms mirror timeless common struggles and joys of humanity. Whatever the subject, there is a psalm to give voice to it when grappling with life’s issues. The word Sheol ( meaning hell or the underworld) is mentioned in the Psalms thirteen times. It means nonexistence, darkness no communion with God.
This Wisdom book shifts our interpretive stance in communication with God from trying to discern his responses or desires to how to talk to God who speaks to me. The geographical or cultural setting for Psalms is not as important as is our interior soul work. John Calvin, the French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation, describes the Psalms “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”
According to Pastor Kevin Swanson, all the range of emotions is expressed in the Psalms. They are the emotional fabric of the human soul. The inspired lyrics take us by the hand and train us in the proper emotion. They lead us to emotional maturity.
I enjoy memorizing prayers that beautifully convey or capture the essence of my heart, from those prominent leaders of the Church of days goneby. I ask in assurance for the Holy Spirit to fill in my gaps for me (Rom. 8:26). The Psalms is carte blanche to all types of prayers to God. It grants permission to be angry, sad, joyful and insecure when talking to God.
Pausing in prayer to listen for a response is a discipline. Religious tones or words aren’t always necessary for prayer. Psalm 62:8 tells us to “pour out your hearts to God.”
Priest Henri Nouwen’s book Out of Solitude, he paraphrases,
“From our worried, overfilled lives, we are usually surrounded by so much external noise that it is hard but worth the effort to truly hear our God when he is speaking to us. We become deaf, unable to know when God calls us and unable to understand in which direction he calls us. Lives become absurd from the Latin words urdus, which means ‘deaf.’ When, however, we learn to listen to God, our lives become obedient from the Latin word audire, which means ‘listening.’ A spiritual discipline is necessary to move slowly from an absurdly busy life to an obedient one, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space to hear God.”
It is almost wasted breath to nudge my grown children to slow down during the startup in their adult life. There are only so many times I can make them listen to Harry Chapin’s folk-rock song “Cats in the Cradle.” With its warning refrain “when you comin’ home?…I don’t know when but we’ll get together then yeah ya know we’ll have a good time then.”
Later in life when the startup process is satisfied, perhaps they will appreciate the luxury of more free time. It is when life starts to slow down and the moments have passed, that it is realized some things weren’t savored enough particularly relationships. One of the joys of being Nana to help create moments of slowing things down so the g-kids can dawdle, discover, investigate and contemplate the wonders of life. It is my déjà vu to see again through their eyes their first-time discoveries. Moments of slowing down, living in the moment or reliving a one with a g-kid, or like sitting on the porch watching the rain, are blessed kairos moments. Judith Viorst, in her book Necessary Losses, wrote the first half of life is about acquisition and the second half is about letting go.
My go-to Halloween costume is the “Cat in the Hat” character created by Dr. Seuss (pseudonym for Theodor Geisel). The Cat speaks of wisdom about going through life too fast “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness, how the time has flown. How did get so late so soon?”
King David writes most of Psalms (seventy-three verses), and Asaph is attributed for 12. Asaph was a poet and singer. Legend has it there was a society later mention in the New Testament called the Sons of Asaph. You could call today’s church musicians “Children of Asaph.” Psalms is an ancient hymnal that keeps on singing. It tells us He is the song and the reason to sing. When I look forward to an upcoming year on what Bible study I may do, I usually try to include the book of Proverbs in January (a chapter a day) and stretch reading Psalms through the weekends of Memorial Day to Labor Day. For a new believer approaching the Bible, it’s recommended to read the Gospel of John first then go to the Psalms. The former describes the mystery of the identity of Jesus and the latter gets the conversation with God started. Psalm 62:8 says just tells us to “pour out your hearts to God.” Later in life, it got so that I enjoyed reading (and listening to) Psalms, particularly in the King James Version. Old King James English sounds more poetic, lyrical to me, like reading the words of William Shakespeare.
There is a whimsical, nonsensical urban legend about Psalms 46. It is that Shakespeare, during service to King James and during the preparation for this Bible version, helped translate it to English. Shakespeare lived from 1564-1616. The translating of the King James Bible began in the year 1611 when Shakespeare turned forty-six.
As the story goes, Psalm 46, in the King James Bible, count exactly forty-six words into the psalm and you will find the word “shake” (other translations changed shake to quake, swelling, or surging). Now count forty-six words back from the end of that psalm, you will find the word “spear.” What a coincidence that the 46th Psalm would be translated around the time of Shakespeare’s 46th birthday followed by the 46th word from the start and the 46th word from the end of the chapter would be “shake” and “spear.” Did he slip in a secret byline to prove it was his work?
The confirmation verse given to me to mark that day is “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Ps. 23:6). It is arguably the most popular chapter of the Psalms.
When reading line by line (working out to be seventeen statements) each has a meaning applying to a relationship, supplied provisions, rest, refreshment, healing, guidance, purpose, testing, protection, discipline, hope, consecration, abundance, blessing security and eternity. The shepherd who wrote this describes a portrait of Jesus with one in six of the Psalms being messianic.
I use the Psalms during my “when” prayers.
When praying over one of the twenty-five or so verses declaring God’s promises, I infer David’s word “enemy” to whatever is threatening at that moment for me. In darkness or when nobody’s is witnessing or watching actions defines you. Psalm 139:11-12 says what you do in your private reality reflects who you truly are in the heart, what it is done in the dark is like being done in light to God.
When I am at a loss as to what to do or which way to go; “I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated, and my spirit asked, “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again” (Ps. 77:6-7)? It assures me God fights my battles for me if not alongside. I remember God knitted me together in my mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). Psalms 18:9 (in the Message Bible) shows God as my great protector and champion when there is no one else around who has my back.
In planning my day’s agenda, my usual prayer includes Psalms 90:12 (“Teach us to number the days aright so that we may gain a heart of wisdom”). In life, there is more than just the gaining of knowledge (the root word being “know”). There is wisdom (the root word “do”) which is the ultimate objective of what to do with knowledge.
When I backslide to the wrong direction, I can go to seven of the psalms used in praying for repentance: Ps. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Chapter 51:1 probably is my most prayed: “Have mercy on me, O God.”
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible. It has 176 verses divided into twenty-two stanzas, it’s an acrostic with the first letter of each stanza from the Hebrew alphabet. It perfectly captures aspects of depression. and despondency. My Pastor’s wife rewrote its theme into a comparable acrostic version using the English alphabet.
Anxiety races through my body with every beat of my heart.
Bewildered I search for answers.
Confusion captures my brain and
Discouragement suffocates my spirit.
Embarrassed, I hide from my loved ones,
Frightened by events that I cannot control.
Gloom envelopes me like a cloud.
Hopeless, I cry out, and no one answers.
Isolated by pain, I am
Jealous of evil men whose cunning has made them
Knowledge eludes me.
Loneliness is my only friend.
Mountains loom before me, too high to climb.
No one cares – no
One. I am
Powerless to change, and my
Questions go unanswered.
Repulsed by my pain, people look away.
Suffering surrounds me.
Tired and weak, I lay in bed day after day
Uncertain as to my future,
Voiceless to tell my story,
Worthless to friend or foe.
Xanax offers escape. I
Yearn to die,
Zealous to be buried.
At the risk of sounding like I am in denial over painful moments in life, I break up the worry by turning to gratitude and reflecting on His promises that are eternally thoroughgoing. A poem God Knows by Minnie Louise Haskins has caught public attention in a speech and subsequent movie. A young Princess Elizabeth handed a copy to her father, King George VI, who quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast when the war was declared on the British Empire by Germany.
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and
put your hand into the hand of
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”
The essence of this poem captures Psalms 16:11: You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
I think the goal of striving to be happy is overrated. To me, being happy is fleeting and based on externals. It can easily slip into becoming hedonistic. I am not a bubbly person although I can get silly at times. For my part, I prefer a deep abiding joy as opposed to happiness based on temporal material things, or of dependent on another deemed to create own happiness. I don’t want to dwell obsessively by asking or wondering if “Am I happy?”
Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, reported a few years ago, that people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed.
Contrary to the worldview, life’s purpose is not happiness. I find that demand to always be happy too shallow and fleeting. Instead, life’s purpose is the knowledge of God in faith and strength to endure, a deeper dependency and trust in Him. Sometimes, mankind chooses how to respond to unhappiness with anger and bitterness, sometimes blaming God.
Two phrases included in my prayers are the one thing God always answers (Thy will be done) with the other is instead of always asking for something (“God, make it better”) when things don’t better I try to remember to pray “God, make it count. Turn this bad around for your good (for the greater good).