A bit more biblical mind mapping and the resulting talk as part of our E100 series.
In California’s Yosemite National Park a visitor once asked a ranger “What would you do if you had only one day to see Yosemite?” The ranger replied “I’d weep”.
A tour of Psalms in the time we have available this morning and even over the course of this week’s daily readings is just as daunting!
We come in our readings through the E100 series to the Psalms and Proverbs. Right in the middle of the bible – I don’t know about you but if I let the book simply open more-often-than-not it is the Psalms that are before me. And yet in many ways they are very different in style and feel than the rest of the Old Testament if not the rest of the whole Bible.
I remember when I was in middle school being given by the wonderful work of the Gideons a New Testament and Psalms volume. Years later when I became a Christian it took me ages to get the hang of the fact that the Psalms were an Old Testament book and not in the New where I had always encountered them.
It’s curious isn’t it that Psalms (along with Song of Songs!) often doesn’t feature much in our regular worship. The modern liturgical revisions although very good in most ways have evolved the place of the Psalms out of our morning worship. There are good reasons for this in terms of the style and framework of our worship services but it could give the impressions that the Psalms are some how second class scriptures. This of course is not the case!
One way in which the psalms stand-out of course is that unlike the other books of the Bible they are not in a sense one volume of connected materials, in fact they are more akin to a Hymn book than a volume like the histories, the law books or the gospels and letters.
Psalms is a collection of Hymns of Praise and Hymns of Lament but to do justice to the book of Psalms we must also respect the very diverse nature each Psalm represents in the volume. The Psalms stem from a variety of social circles and traditions including The Royal Court, priests, Levites, prophets, well known ‘sages’ and the poor. And each Psalm also represents a variety of purposes: to praise, to pray, teach, crown a new king etc. In many ways there is a liturgical aspect for the life of the Jewish nation represented with these Psalms.
One of the things I found fascinating over the Jubilee weekend was watching the coronation service of 1952. It was utterly enthralling to see how they did what they did and the roll of the liturgical in that ceremony. The same patterns can be identified in some of the psalms.
The thing is that the diversity is so broad to call Psalms merely liturgy or merely hymns or merely laments is to them a huge injustice.
Although they are all broadly poetic in style they represent a number of literary styles including:
- Individual Prayer
- Corporate Prayer
- Royal Psalms
- Wisdom Psalms
They all appear to be generally speaking congregational but more than that they appear to have been written with performance in mind rather than simply reciting.
They are in many ways designed as a way of equipping the people to pray rather than spontaneous acts of praise and lament in response to a specific set of circumstances. Perhaps more akin to a collect or post-communion prayer in our liturgy today or the ‘Prayers for the Church Militant’ of the BCP they were written as a tool for the worshippers of the time. But at the same time so much more than those examples! They are models of prayer for a wide range of circumstances.
So the Psalms are enormously varied; in them exuberant praise, urgent pleas, complaint, and longing can all be found. Although Psalms are a human response to God that does not mean that we cannot hear God speaking in them. It is God who stimulates the praise, who responds to the plea, who acknowledges the complaint. The Psalms give us a model for dialogue with God and words in which we can express our own feelings.
Psalm 23 expresses confidence in a God who watches over and cares for his people.
Psalm 51 is one of the most profound recognitions of failure that we have, recognising that all sin is an offence not simply against others but against God.
Psalm 103 dwells on the character of a just, compassionate and gracious God.
Psalm 111 that we heard read today is a song of praise for the works the Lord has done for the people. Though to us it may read as a more generalised song of praise it contains a number of references that may have been to the Jewish people direct references to the historical works of God. It is also a clever piece of stylistic writing (something we lose in translation) in that in Hebrew each of the 22 verses starts with the successive 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet starting at ‘aleph’ (our A) and so on. It is a praise of his works, his righteousness and goodness to his people. The proof of his works is in the revelation of God through his actions.
And so it is throughout the Psalms.
They teach us to:
- Trust in God
- Praise God
- Confess to God
They are examples of how we come to him when things are good and when things are bad. How even when we are in the toughest times, through our own fault and disobedience or through uncontrollable circumstance, how our lament is a cry to the Lord and how we can in holiness cry out to God ‘WHY?’ and still see him as the loving father he is.
The final Psalm of this collection of praise and lament I feel sums up the way we come to God.
Praise the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
In the good and the bad. Have faith. Trust God. PRAISE THE LORD.