Why Christians Should Read (Sing) the Psalms
Last week, Richard Middleton (Northeastern Seminary) spoke to our campus about lament and our need to recover it in our lives of discipleship. Lament, Middleton taught us through Jeremiah 20 and the book of Job, is all about our honest and uncensored speech to God in the midst of our pain. Through the example of the Exodus, Middleton explained that lament is ‘the fulcrum between our bondage and deliverance.’ Biblical lament – the kind of lament we see in Jeremiah and Job and in the Psalms – is what God wants from us. God can handle this kind of speech. Even more, God wants this kind of speech from us. And here is why: God wants us to be his friends.
God wants friends, not minions. God wants honest conversation partners. Life is hard. Life is full of disappointment and suffering. And we misunderstand the kind of friendship God wants with us if we think we should always be about singing our praises to God. How can we sing praises when we are in bondage to addiction? or mourning the loss of a parent? or devastated by the doctor’s report of terminal illness? We can’t. And Psalm 137 gives us the song to tell God we’re not at all happy about our circumstances.
The Psalms are the songbook of the church, and have been so since the church’s earliest days. That’s because the Psalms were the songbook of the Jews long before it became the essential songbook of the earliest Christians. But to describe the Psalms as a songbook is not to say that it’s without lament or deep anguish. What could Jesus possibly say from the cross when sin, death, and the devil came crashing down on him like a tidal wave? Psalm 22. Jesus, having sung the Psalms over the course of a lifetime, had just the words for his despair from the cross. And that’s what the Psalms do: they give us the words to have honest dialogue with God.
In the foreword to my forthcoming book, Make the Words Your Own: An Early Christian Guide to the Psalms, Stanley Hauerwas says this: ‘By the singing of the words we become what we sing. We become what we sing because the Psalms do not so much give voice to what we are but rather they make us who we were created to be.’ We were created to have lives that glorify God. By singing the Psalms we become a people who, even in our lament, proclaim the glory of God and so become the kind of friends God has always hoped we would be.
Ben Wayman is an assistant professor of religion at Greenville College. His forthcoming book, Make the Words Your Own: An Early Christian Guide to the Psalms, will be published by Paraclete Press later in 2014.