Posts Tagged 'Affliction'

Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

fergusonA week ago, I heard an extremely unusual commencement address. Although I’ve only graduated twice, I’m fairly familiar with the genre of commencement speeches: usually a motivational talk that congratulates students on surviving four years of high school or college while spurring them on to pursue their dreams. Even in a Christian context, a typical graduation speech might focus on discovering God’s grand plan for your life and serving him with your utmost potential.

My graduation ceremony featured Dr. Sinclair Ferguson as guest speaker. As soon as I saw the title of Dr. Ferguson’s address, I realized this speech was going to be different. It was entitled, “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?” Yes, the text Dr. Ferguson had chosen to unfold for us in the last minutes of our college career was from one of the most abject laments of the Bible, Psalm 137.

Although a warm and engaging speaker, Dr. Ferguson was not interested in the personal hopes and dreams of us college graduates. His main question was this: “Has your education prepared you to sing the Lord’s song, the song of your Lord Jesus Christ, in the land in which you are being called to serve him?” Pointing us to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as four “college graduates” who sang the Lord’s song in a strange land, Dr. Ferguson enjoined the graduating class of 2017 to follow their examples.

These young men were able to remain strong in the face of opposition because they knew God’s sovereignty, they knew God’s truth, and they knew God’s presence. Their faith in God allowed them to sing. Their faith was tested in the fires of persecution and affliction—and not merely metaphorical fires.

Dr. Ferguson also pointed us to the example of David, the author of the beloved 23rd Psalm. David was not a cherubic shepherd boy when he wrote this psalm. He could speak about the valley of the shadow of death because he had been through it himself, numerous times.

Two thoughts pressed themselves upon me as I heard Dr. Ferguson’s words. First, the Psalms were written in real life. The author of Psalm 137 was not trying to tune into his “bluesy” side any more than the author of Psalm 23 was inspired by a Thomas Kinkade painting. No, the contents of the Psalter were written by real people suffering through real trials, and determined to seek the face of God nonetheless. As such, the psalms are for us. We ought not to shy away from the full spectrum of emotions and situations in the Psalter. Days that call for Psalm 137 will come, and when they do, we must have the courage to take this psalm and others upon our lips.

The second thought is that Dr. Ferguson’s message resonates especially at a place like Geneva College, where the psalms are regularly sung. Geneva has taught me to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, not just by training me to be a truthful communicator in a world of deceit, but actually by teaching me to sing the Lord’s songs. To cite just one example, Psalm 117 is sung at the end of every chapel service at Geneva. When it was announced as the closing song at Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the graduates stood unbidden, recognizing the gravity and joy of the occasion. By teaching the psalms, Geneva has given to me and others a spiritual vocabulary that we can turn to when we encounter those trials and temptations. For that I am exceedingly grateful.

A memorable commencement address to conclude a memorable college career. I go forth rejoicing, with Dr. Ferguson’s charge still resounding in my soul: “Go and sing the Lord’s song in what is becoming an increasingly strange land, and trust his power and trust his truth and trust his presence, and he will be with you to the end of your life, and then by his grace for all eternity.”

–MRK

(The entire commencement ceremony, including Dr. Ferguson’s remarks, can be viewed here.)

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Psalm 25: The College of Grace

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To you, O LORD, I lift my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.

–Psalm 25:1,2 (ESV)

The new school year brings with it a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Students of all ages worry whether they will make new friends in a new school, whether their coursework will be manageable, or whether their teachers or professors will be gentle or tyrannical. College freshmen wonder how they will survive living away from the comforts of home and school. Eagerness and dread blend together in a classic combination so unique to this time of year.

Poised to enter my senior year of college, I sympathize with all students who have an intimidating course of study to return to next month, but I think particularly of the incoming college freshmen. Three short years ago I was in their shoes, losing sleep over hundreds of questions (both important and totally unimportant) about what my life would look like. If I could travel back those three years, I often wonder what words of wisdom I might have for my freshman self. I think it would be a relatively short list: avoid the fish tacos, take more communication classes, and don’t expect hot water on the third floor of the dorm at 6 a.m. But above all these practical tips, there would certainly be one piece of advice in bold print: Study Psalm 25.

In Hebrew Psalm 25 is an acrostic. In other words, each verse begins with the successive letters of the alphabet. As it turns out, Psalm 25 presents not just a literal alphabet but also a spiritual alphabet, a set of principles for wise living in a foolish world. The more of college I experience, the more I recognize the stores of wisdom this psalm offers to all of us who are students in the lifelong course of the Christian walk.

“Let me not be put to shame.” I can definitely recall times in my college experience when I felt ashamed: maybe it was the disappointing grade I got on a paper, or the conflict I handled poorly, or the times when I failed to meet my own expectations. “Let not my enemies exult over me.” There are enemies in college too—perhaps not actual bullies, most of the time, but the triple evils that attack Christians in their walk: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Whether or not you attend a Christian school, you will feel these pressures at some point, and there will be times when you feel that they have triumphed over you.

The world tries to paper over the shame and disappointment we experience with pep talks about success and self-definition. Be your own person! Rise above your circumstances! Take control of your destiny! Surprisingly, this is the very opposite of the psalmist’s solution. His answer sounds passive, even paralyzing: “None who wait for you shall be put to shame.” Far from blazing his own trail, the psalmist seeks directions to a pre-existing path: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” He describes waiting on God “all the day long,” a discipline that seems thankless and fruitless. Yet it is here, according to this psalm, that the believer will find true success.

In The Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon pictures Psalm 25 as the request of a little child: “Father, first tell me which is the way, and then teach my little trembling feet to walk in it.” If there is one thing college has taught me, it is that I often do not know the way. As a freshman, I loved to picture myself excelling in all my classes, surrounded by groups of great friends, and pressing forward to exciting prospects after graduation. God has provided many of these blessings, and they are blessings indeed. But it is impossible to really enjoy such gifts without a kind of wisdom that no college can impart, a wisdom gained from the humbling experience of waiting upon God through times of doubt and hardship as well as ease and assurance.

While the path may often seem steep or overgrown, Psalm 25 promises that those who wait upon the Lord will receive this heavenly wisdom. “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” If you can take one verse with you through your college education—and through the rest of life’s difficult decisions as well—let this be it. Do you need to confess nagging sin? Do you doubt your strength to follow Jesus all the way to the end? Do you feel lonely and homesick? Psalm 25 offers you a spiritual alphabet to remind you of the wisdom that comes from above. It is a syllabus that will guide you successfully through all the halls and corridors of what Spurgeon called “the college of grace.”

–MRK

Psalm 142: From Prayer to Praise

"The path I take is known to Thee."

“The path I take is known to Thee.”

Why do we need to pray?  The Heidelberg Catechism answers that “prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us.  And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking him for them” (LD 45, Q&A 116).

When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer—a New Testament model for Christian prayer.  For an Old Testament model of prayer, the Psalter excels; and for a model of a believer’s cry for deliverance, we need look no further than Psalm 142.

With my voice I cry out to the LORD;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.

–Psalm 142:1, 2 (ESV)

Why does David need to tell his trouble before the LORD, who he confesses in Psalm 139 to “know when I sit down and when I rise up,” and to “discern my thoughts from afar”?  First, because God commands it, and second, because it is for his benefit.  Charles Spurgeon says, “Note that we do not show our trouble before the Lord that he may see it, but that we may see him.”  There is nothing more comforting than to unburden our souls before our gracious heavenly Father, assured that he already knows and cares.  The psalmist knew this assurance as well: “When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!” (v. 3).

Next David presents a stark contrast between his earthly “refuge” and his heavenly Refuge:

Look to the right and see:
there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O LORD;
I say, ‘You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.’

–vv. 3, 5

Psalm 142 ends with both a sharp cry and a joyous note of praise.

Attend to my cry,
for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors,
for they are too strong for me!
Bring me out of prison,
that I may give thanks to your name!
The righteous will surround me,
for you will deal bountifully with me.

–vv. 6, 7

Of all the nuances of this closing passage, the one I love most is David’s reaction to his imminent deliverance.  The salvation the Lord has wrought for him finds immediate expression in his worship with God’s people.  It is there that he praises his Savior and proclaims to his brothers his wondrous works.  How can we, who have been delivered from such great depths of misery, fail to unite with Christ’s church to give him thankful praise?

293, “To God My Earnest Voice I Raise” (Psalm 142)

(Sung by the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir)

To God my earnest voice I raise,
To God my voice imploring prays;
Before His face my grief I show
And tell my trouble and my woe.

The Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 142 reads more like a paraphrase than like the original text, yet it preserves the tone and flow of thought of the psalm quite well.  I think the most powerful words are found in the last three stanzas.

The tune, of course, is instantly recognizable as HAMBURG, sung so often to the words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  The plaintive chant-like qualities of this tune (indeed, it was arranged from a Gregorian chant by Lowell Mason) make it perfectly suited for this prayer of supplication.  Yet its broadness also provides for a bold and confident final verse, as the delivered singer unites with the congregation in praise.  The Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir renders the nuances of Psalm 142 exceptionally well in their arrangement, even mirroring David’s response by having the congregation join them on the last stanza.

And so we find in Psalm 142 a surpassingly beautiful summary of a believer’s prayer in affliction.  As Spurgeon puts it, “When we can begin a Psalm with crying, we may hope to close it with singing.  The voice of prayer soon awakens the voice of praise.”

The righteous then shall gather round
To share the blessing I found,
Their hearts made glad because they see
How richly God has dealt with me.

–MRK

Sing a New Song, Chapter 11: An Incomparable Treasure

Although it’s hard to believe, it was exactly three months ago that we began our chapter-by-chapter discussion of Reformation Heritage Books’s 2010 title Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio.  Over the past thirteen weeks, despite a few interruptions, we’ve progressed steadily through the three thorough sections of this book: “Psalm Singing in History,” “Psalm Singing in Scripture,” and “Psalm Singing and the Twenty-First Century.”  Today we’ve finally reached the end of Sing a New Song with Chapter 11, entitled “Psalmody and Prayer.”

JDO: J. V. Fesko wraps up this collection of essays with a contemplative chapter on the relationship between psalmody and prayer.  He introduces his chapter by musing on the question, “Why do we sing in worship?”  Our modern church culture, he muses, would answer that our music serves as entertainment and a way to keep visitors interested.  Fesko challenges this entertainment-centric model of worship and posits an older, oft-ignored dimension of singing: our corporate music in worship serves as “a form of congregational prayer” (p. 173).

MRK: Succinctly, Fesko explains that his purpose is firstly to show the relationship between song and prayer; secondly to explore the Psalter as an all-season school of prayer; and finally to explain how psalm-singing teaches us both to worship and to pray.

The author to whom Fesko first turns is John Calvin, whose thoughts on the psalms are some of the richest in Reformed literature.  According to Calvin, prayer is the means by which we confirm and receive the blessings God has promised us.  He further shows that singing is our primary means of corporate prayer, as well as a means of edifying our fellow believers.  How does this compare to the typical modern view of worship?

JDO: I think that the idea of singing as corporate prayer probably doesn’t enter into too many people’s minds.  But singing is really one of the most convenient ways to get everyone saying the same thing at the same time.  Fesko points out that many in churches today have an “individual” rather than a “corporate” view of what happens when we sing.  One hears comments like, “Oh, I didn’t get anything out of that song,” or, “That style of music just doesn’t do it for me.”  We approach the singing (if we think about it at all) hoping to get something out of it for ourselves.  Very rarely is this corporate prayer element developed or even realized.

MRK: This is abundantly true. Worship is popularly viewed as either a service of works (“I’ve got to sing harder in order to please God”) or self-entertainment (“I’m not truly worshiping unless I’m happy”).  Either way, the Christian church has missed the point: Singing is primarily a means by which we communicate with God, and as Fesko will go on to point out, we ought to do so in His language.

JDO: One of the Christian’s greatest needs throughout life according to Fesko is to know “how or what to pray in a given situation on circumstance” (p. 175). And just like children learn to speak and converse from their parents, we learn to pray by listening to God’s own Word and repeating it back to Him.

MRK: Fesko describes a wall that most Christians have experienced, and that most of us are, frankly, embarrassed to talk about: We struggle with finding the words to pray.  Often under the false assumption that prayer should just come naturally to our sinful minds, we stumble through private prayer and shudder at the thought of praying in public.  Add to this ineptitude the burden of affliction or temptation, and we often find our prayers reduced to a mere “Lord, please!”  Many of us, I’m sure, are desperate to find a source for renewed strength in our prayer lives.  But thanks be to God!  Such a source does exist—right under our noses.  Fesko describes it this way:

God has spoken to His children primarily through His Word, and so as His children, we learn to speak to God by repeating His own words back to Him.  In doing so, we learn how to pray.  In such Scripture-filled prayers, we learn how to speak to God using His words, dialect, and manner of speech, not the false, confused language of our sin-burdened hearts or of the idolatrous world around us.  If we want to pray in all assurance and joy, then the Word of God must be our foundation in prayer as well as in our song-prayers.  Through Jesus Christ and the Word, we learn how to pray and even how to sing.  (p. 176)

Specifically, of course, Fesko points to the psalms as the “Prayer-Songbook of the Bible.”  “Through a steady diet of the Psalms,” he says, “we can learn how to pray.”

JDO: Having introduced us to the importance of the psalms as a guide for prayer, Fesko proceeds to walk us through several key themes in the psalms, using the same outline as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic commentary on the Psalms, Prayerbook of the Bible.  The three themes Fesko illuminates are (1) creation, (2) the suffering Messiah, and (3) our own suffering.

MRK: The first theme deals with another sticky matter pertaining to our prayer lives.  One popular model for prayer is summarized by the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  Now, I don’t know about you, Jim, but while the last three items flow readily, I often have tremendous trouble praying in adoration to God.  Focusing on him rather than myself is extremely difficult for my sin-stained heart.  The psalms can help to fix this, however!  Fesko says, “Meditating upon and singing psalms about the creation can certainly tune our hearts not only to sing praises about God’s work of creation, but also fill our prayer lives with a wealth of things for which we can praise our Creator” (p. 177).

JDO: One method that’s been suggested to me is to use a notebook to jot down every name, metaphor, title, or characteristic that’s used to describe God as I read through the psalms, and then to pray my way through that list.  This can easily keep the “adoration” part of my prayer from running dry, especially with psalms like Psalm 18 that just pile on the names of praise for God.

MRK: Right.  As a side note, the Psalter Hymnal can help in this regard as well with its easily-memorized poetic expressions.  For instance, we just sang #288 (Psalm 139, “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me And Dost Know”) this past Sunday night, and the vivid expressions of the second stanza have stuck with me all week:

My words from Thee I cannot hide,
I feel thy power on every side;
O wondrous knowledge, awful might,
Unfathomed depth, unmeasured height!

Finally, our adoration of God remains closely connected to the other aspects of our prayer, because “if we praise God and reflect upon His wonderful work as Creator, we will inevitably be drawn to His outpouring of mercy in redemption.”  All in all, Fesko points us to the recurring theme of this book: “We must remember when we read, pray, or sing the psalms, that they are primarily about Christ” (p. 178).

JDO: The second theme to help us in our prayers is “The Suffering Messiah.”  Fesko draws our attention especially to Psalms 22 and 69, “the fifth gospel account of the crucifixion.”  Singing and praying psalms that focus on Christ’s suffering rather than our own drives us “out of ourselves, away from the introspective gaze on our own souls.”  Through such psalms “our faith looks extraspectively to Christ, His suffering, and His work on our behalf” (p. 179).  Such a focus gives us hope and courage “in our own persecutions, great or small, for the sake of Christ.”

MRK: Indeed.  Teaching us from the example of the suffering Messiah, the psalms allow us to pray “for our deliverance from persecution in a God-honoring way.”

In the third theme, Fesko points to a topic we discussed at length last week in Chapter 10.  He says, “Intense personal suffering is something with which many in the church are intimately familiar.  But the problem with many contemporary forms of worship music is that there is no place given for an expression of such suffering.”  The psalms are the solution here too.  Many of the psalmists endured suffering in doses of which we can’t even conceive.  Yet “the Psalter knows nothing of trite answers but instead offers shelter beneath the mighty wings of God in Christ” (p. 180).

JDO: Many modern Christians assume that suffering means we’ve failed at “living right.”  Suffering means we need a vacation, a pill, or a shopping trip.

MRK: Or—another popular catch-all phrase to explain away suffering—“Well, you must have some unconfessed sin in your life!”  This isn’t at all the proper view of affliction, nor is it the view expressed in the psalms.

JDO: Suffering is what shapes us.  A life without suffering is a life without sanctification.  Suffering drives us again and again to our Lord, as we “admit we are unable to carry the burden and cast it upon Christ.”

MRK: After this helpful journey through some of the spiritual riches of the psalms, Fesko concludes this final chapter with a few practical thoughts on psalm-singing.  These statements are so important, I wish we could broadcast them in ticker tape across the home page of URC Psalmody.

First, “Pastors and elders should make a concerted effort to explain what congregational singing is. Most every church sings in worship, but few actually understand why they sing” (p. 181).  We need to start by understanding the importance of singing as prayer; this will lead to a greater appreciation of the words and less focus on how much the music “moves” us.  Reflecting on his own spiritual walk, Augustine wrote that he was properly affected “not by the change but by the words being sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and entirely appropriate modulation.”  Similarly, Psalter Hymnal #204 (Psalm 103, “O Come, My Soul”) moves me to tears not simply because of the music (which is rather ordinary by technical standards), but because of the music’s powerful interaction with the text—“He knows that we are dust, He knows our frame.”

JDO: Second, we need to sing the psalms in the name of Christ. We pray “in Jesus’ name” not just as some ritual, but in recognition of the fact that he is our Mediator.  Each psalm (and thus each prayer) is about Christ.  Every psalm is messianic and can be prayed only in and through Jesus Christ.  The way to articulate this, says Fesko, is not simplistically to end each song with the phrase “in Jesus’ name, amen,” but to regularly preach from the psalms and consistently point through them to Christ.

MRK: Third, we need to use the psalms as the groundwork for our own private worship as well as public worship.  Our Lord’s Day worship “should always be supplemented with a steady diet of private worship, reading and studying the Scriptures, and prayer.  If one looks to the Psalter as part of that diet, then his prayer life can be greatly enriched.”  And “just as the Psalms were a source of comfort for David, Solomon, faithful Israelites, and even Christ Himself, they can be a wealth of blessing and comfort to us in our own day-to-day lives” (p. 183).

JDO: Fesko closes his chapter by summarizing three reasons to sing the psalms.  “In pray-singing the Psalms, we sing the Word of God, learn to pray by speaking the words of our heavenly Father back to him, and find a source of joy, consolation, and encouragement, as well as a food source for our sanctification and growth in grace.”

MRK: His final challenge pricks to the heart: “If we do not know how to pray, could it be that we know not because we sing not the Psalms?”  When our worship becomes saccharine, our prayers sincere, or our churches stagnant, we must return again and again to this question.

As a conclusion to this chapter as well as the entirety of Sing a New Song, it’s hard to find more fitting words than those of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom Fesko quotes here:

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church.  With its recovery will come unexpected power.

Although this marks the end of our chapter reviews, we plan to return to Sing a New Song once more next Thursday to revisit our favorite spots and share our overall responses to this book.  Join us then, won’t you?

–JDO/MRK

Sing a New Song, Chapter 10: Setting the Soul in Tune

“I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately,” said John Calvin famously of the psalms, “‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.’”  Through our discussions of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century over the past several weeks, we’ve seen that the psalms are God’s inspired songbook for his people, why they should be sung in corporate worship, and how they should shape our understanding of Scripture.  Today’s chapter, however, has a different focus.  Diving directly into the soul of the psalms, Chapter 10 by Derek W. H. Thomas explores the relationship between “Psalm Singing and Pastoral Theology.”  Commenting on Calvin’s above description of the psalms, Thomas explains, “Many of the psalms are written from the first-person perspective.  They are, therefore, highly personal, and we read them as descriptive of our own spiritual journey.  They speak of highs and lows, covering the entire range of human experiences—even some that we might find uncomfortable” (p. 162).

MRK: With this understanding of the personal component of the Psalter, can we gain any insight into why the psalms are so seldom sung in today’s churches?

JDO: In his book The Wages of Spin, referenced here in Sing a New Song, Carl Trueman points to our modern culture’s desire for constant happiness.  In today’s “health, wealth, and happiness society,” to admit to feelings of despair, torment, brokenness, and sadness would be “tantamount to admitting that one has failed.”  Our culture is obsessed with a trouble-free, pleasure-driven life.  Sadly, our churches have been influenced by that thinking.  We repress our sense of brokenness and ignore spiritual malaise.  Since we certainly don’t want to talk about such things in church, we naturally gravitate to “feel-good” worship.  I think Trueman and Thomas are right in their diagnosis: the psalms become exceedingly “uncomfortable” amidst our general desire for worship to be cloyingly “happy.”  For the Psalms are real.  They deal with all the mess of human life and spirituality with no holds barred.

MRK: Says Thomas, “Without a regular familiarity with the Psalms in the liturgy of public worship, many Christians find themselves at odds with their experience of what the Christian life means to them.”  In our “frequently too exclusively positive and upbeat” worship culture, a dangerous crevasse develops between what we sing about and how we feel.  “This often leads to cynicism, a loss of assurance, a schizophrenic experience of Christianity, and experiences of guilt that find little or no resolution” (p. 163).

JDO: Churches oriented only toward the “positive and upbeat” pave the way for drastic alienation.  Suppose I’ve had a tough week.  Maybe I’m depressed, or maybe I’ve been persistently hounded by my own sins and temptations and the forces of evil.  Where can I fit in amidst all the disgusting saccharine sweetness in this kind of worship?  The psalms, I think, serve to ground the worship of the church in reality.  There are explosive psalms of praise, but there are also laments.  There are psalms of quiet peace as well as battle cries. The psalms contain something for everyone, regardless of an individual’s situation.

Psalm 23, probably the most familiar psalm, is a case in point.  It’s personal (notice the use of “my” in verse 1), pastoral (the very fact that we use the word “pastoral” to describe the work of the church points to shepherd imagery), and realistic.  Life is full of both green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death.  We’re called to feast at the table of Christ, but we must often do so in the presence of our enemies.  This psalm is not just sentimental feel-goodery; the comfort it gives is grounded in the reality of the Christian struggle.

MRK: Incidentally, I’d like to point out that Psalm 23 must be taken as a whole if it is to impart this genuine comfort.  If its references to the “valley of the shadow of death” and the “presence of my enemies” are removed, it too becomes saccharine, unsubstantial—and void of reassurance for the anxious Christian.  This happens to be a great reason to sing entire psalm versifications as opposed to “hunt-and-peck” paraphrases, but the main point is that we must realize the uncomfortable sincerity of the psalms in order to truly benefit from them.

JDO: The benefit of the psalms is that “they address us at points of need and, more importantly, points of failure,” as Thomas points out (p. 164).

MRK: At this point, Thomas takes a moment to address the clear “elephant in the room” when it comes to discussions about psalmody: imprecatory psalms.  We’ve treated this topic several times before here on URC Psalmody, so we won’t delve into too much detail here.  Suffice it to say, however, that the imprecatory psalms should form a critical part of our worship, because “every Christian has experienced to some degree or other an example of terrible injustice; in such circumstances, the desire for the wrong to be right must form the basic language of Christian piety and worship.  If it does not, serious pastoral problems ensue that are as difficult as the imprecatory desires” (p. 166).

JDO: The imprecatory psalms provide a model for what to do with the boiling, pent-up feelings that all of us have over injustice and sin. Our response should be the natural recourse of the Christian: taking them to God in prayer.  We don’t just pray when we’re happy, or when we “feel like it,” or when we have our scheduled devotional time.  The psalms teach us to go to God with every feeling, emotion, and situation, drawing us away from bland prayers and teaching us to pray realistically.

MRK: As I read through the psalms, I’ve sometimes been a little shocked by the sheer number of laments. “Why are they here? Why are there so many of them?”  Thus, I especially appreciated the fact that Thomas takes time here to explain the benefit of psalms of lamentation.  In a nutshell, he says, “Because so many psalms fall into the category of lamentation, their use as pastoral guides and templates is particularly fitting.…Such psalms evoke an emotional response that opens the door to some tough questions” (p. 167).  The psalmists never shy away from saying exactly what’s on their minds–questions like “Does life make sense? Is there any real purpose to my pain? Why must every relationship end? Is God good?”

JDO: Unless we are remarkably self-deceived, these are the sorts of questions that we and every single human being will face, constantly and repeatedly.  Instead of denying ourselves the opportunity of wrestling with these questions, instead of ignoring them, instead of answering them wrongly by ourselves, we ought to look to the psalms as templates for our journey through these unavoidable spiritual crises.

MRK: Now, as always, there’s the need for discernment.  Thomas points out that “such emotion-based use of the Psalms may result in an abuse in interpretation.”  Our understanding of the psalms must be framed within the understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence, the fallenness of man and nature, and the process of sanctification.  Nevertheless, the psalms were written and designed to function in some ways “as release valves for pent-up feelings.  They enable the worshiper to engage in, for example, the grief process in a way that honors the integrity of the psalm and a biblical anthropology.”

JDO: Thomas concludes his discussion of the lamentations by commenting on Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 while he was on the cross.  As Hebrews reminds us, Christ has gone through the worst that this earth has to offer.  What words did he use to express his feelings while in the darkest of all experiences?—the words of the psalms.  Following our Head, we too can find expression for our every experience in the words of the psalms.

MRK: In his last section, Thomas references Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, as an example of proper uses of the psalms in pastoral situations.  In every sort of illustration, Bunyan constantly relates Christian’s journey to the psalms, “dealing with issues of assurance, fear, bravery, courage, and faith.”  This, according to Thomas, “demonstrates how the Psalms, though written in specific contexts, can help us too in our own specific circumstances” (p. 171).  Bunyan himself, through the character Mr. Great-Heart, paints a beautiful picture of the role of lamentation in the believer’s life:

Mr. Fearing was one that played upon the bass.  He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other music are: though indeed, some say, the bass is the ground of music.  And for my part, I care not at all for that profession which begins not in heaviness of mind.  The first string that the musician usually touches is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune.  God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself.

In concluding our conversation on this chapter, we can do no better than to quote Thomas’s closing words:

The Psalms, then, are a portion of Scripture with which Christians should be familiar.  Digging from these mines will yield treasures of inestimable value.  Whatever the issue may be—loneliness, bitterness, helplessness, melancholy, anger, frustration, joy, contentment, faithfulness, or a hundred other issues—the Psalms address them all.  Calvin was correct: they are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.

Amen!  One more chapter remains for us to discuss in Sing a New Song: “Psalmody and Prayer” by J. V. Fesko.  We hope you’ll join us next week for the grand finale!

–JDO/MRK


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