How a Christian Reads the Psalms
Sometimes the Bible irritates me. There, I said it. And now, before you call me a blasphemer, keep reading and let me explain…
The Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to say. More to the point, it doesn’t always say what I want it to say. (I hope that’s true in your life, too. If it’s not, you’ve either died and gone to heaven and been glorified, or you aren’t reading closely enough.)
Like this morning… I was finishing up Psalm 119, and that writer just kept on saying things that I could never say—things that made me really uncomfortable because of what I believe about our depravity and sinfulness and need for grace. I wanted to pull him aside and offer a little friendly counsel on how he could improve his inspired Bible writing, especially on verses like these:
Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law. (v 153)It sounds like this guy really thinks he’s got it going. “I do not forget your law. I love your precepts. I’m all that...” And when I started thinking about it a little more, I remembered that this isn’t the only Psalm that talks that way. Psalm 15 can make me feel like I never should attend a worship gathering again. Psalm 26 reads like a flavor of Christianity I’ve never tasted. And so on…
Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, but I do not swerve from your testimonies. (v 157)
Consider how I love your precepts! Give me life according to your steadfast love. (v 159)
My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly. (v 167)
So what do we do with Psalms like that? Ignore them? Explain them away, like we're some dusty, liberal theology professor? “This particular selection from the psalter furnishes us with an undisputable example of hyperbole as the author writes of things he himself knows not literally but rather exaggerates the claims of his religious experience…” Spare me. If that’s what is happening here, how can we tell when the author means it and when he doesn’t? Is God really a rock and a fortress who can protect us from all our troubles, or is that just exaggerated language, too?
No, I think there’s a better way to understand the Psalms when they talk like that.
First, it’s helpful to remember that the Psalms were written during an age when God’s arrangement with His people emphasized due punishment and/or reward. He had given laws; their responsibility was to keep them. (Of course, it’s both true and very important to recognize that grace was very much at work in this period as well. I’m just suggesting that the emphasis was somewhere else.) Thus, it’s only natural that a follower of God would want to point out his efforts and successes at abiding by the arrangement.
Second, it’s helpful to adjust our expectations about the self-awareness of these OT writers. As one of my seminary profs pointed out to me a few years ago, these men and women didn’t have Romans 7 or Ephesians 2 to help them understand how truly awful they are without Jesus. Thus, we should not expect them to have the same level of intimacy with the wretchedness in their own heart as we have, viewing it through the lens of these later Scriptures.
Finally, it’s critical to remember that the Psalms are part of what the New Testament writers sometimes call “the Law.” That doesn’t mean it no longer applies to us. It just means that when we feel convicted by it like I was this morning, we need to remember how the Law is supposed to function in our life, namely, to convict us and lead us to Christ.
To say it a different way, all of these Psalms that sound so far out of reach for us actually are… and are not. They ARE out of reach in ourselves, but they ARE NOT out of reach if we are in Christ. In other words, Jesus did live like this. He could actually say these things and mean it. He could take verses like this on His own lips and talk to God like that! I love how Dietrich Bonhoffer puts it:
The psalms that will not cross our lips as prayers, those that make us falter and offend us, make us suspect that here someone else is praying, not we—that the one who is here affirming his innocence, who is calling for God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. It is he who is praying here, and not only here, but in the whole Psalter. (Life Together)This is what Bonhoffer calls “the secret of the Psalter,” and I think it’s probably the single most important thing I’ve ever learned about how to read the Psalms. These are Jesus’ prayers before they are mine, and I must pray them and read them through Him. In other words, the right way to read the Psalms is with a heart of repentance and faith—repentance for not being like this and faith that, thankfully, He is.