In the Psalms we see and hear the ways God nurtures the nation of Israel and continues to form an all-inclusive community through the development of liturgical praise and prayer.
Psalms is a book of praise and prayer. The psalmist sings to us that God is “enthroned on the praises of Israel” and addresses God as “you who answers prayer” (22:3; 65:2). Praise and prayer–these two spiritual practices articulate our most fundamental relationship to God. The Psalter expresses, with more immediacy and completeness than any other part of the Bible, how the People of God are formed spiritually. This is because it gathers up the historical and corporate experiences of the Israelites–as well as very intimate, personal experiences of individuals–and then expresses those experiences in the full depth and richness of poetry, classically understood as public reading and remembrance.
Ideally, the Psalms were performed in suitable architectural and liturgical settings, beginning with the tabernacle in the wilderness and continuing up through the glorious Temple of Jesus’ day. Undoubtedly they were simply read or chanted without any accompaniment, but indications are that their performance was at times replete with musical instruments, choir, and dance. The Psalms are works of art that skillfully and vigorously embody what cannot simply be stated or said. No doubt their primary use was in public worship, but individuals also utilized them frequently, and both of these practices continue up to our own day. The language and images conveyed by the Psalms are unsurpassed for powerfully forming our spiritual life.
The Psalms are primary instruments for forming the inner life of the faithful, but much of their effectiveness derives from the fact that they are also about how this formation occurs. They speak forth, in suitable poetic tones, how God and human beings interact to shape the inner and outer life of individuals and groups. Though the Psalms do teach, most of their power for forming our inner life and character lies in their beauty and capacity to penetrate our emotions, our body, our social relations–indeed, our entire life.
Praise and prayer are the pulse beat of the Psalms. The praise or adulation often looks like proclamation (Pss 1; 23; the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exod 15), but poetic proclamation is our natural response when we have entered into surpassing magnificence–the Person and the Creation of the LORD God, the Almighty. We simply must bear witness to it, proclaim it, shout it from the rooftops as an essential part of engaging, enjoying, and being faithful to it.
With regard to content, the Psalms move between two poles; on the one hand is the desperate condition of human beings when left to stand on their own, and, on the other, the unlimited greatness and goodness of God. From those two poles there emerges, strangely but beautifully, the greatness of humanity under God and within God’s life and cosmic plan. This is the result of God’s salvation or deliverance, which in psalm after psalm is remembered, praised, and anticipated. “God-with-us” is the essence of deliverance regardless of the specific circumstance.
The book of Psalms graphically depicts the desperate human condition: our natural weakness, transience, insignificance, isolation, foolishness, inner and outer wickedness, oppression of others, oppression by others–indeed, our overall hopelessness. Now, this is raw realism about human existence wherever it may be. Who can deny it?
Yet, at the same time, the goodness and greatness of God are seen and celebrated: in God’s covenant with Israel, in the lives of Israel’s great ones, in the beauty and strength of Torah, in the great historical acts of national and individual deliverance, in magnificent Jerusalem and the glorious Temple, in the unsurpassed works of nature, in righteous judgment, in the searching of the inmost heart, and in God’s majestic rule over all–including all the nations of the earth. All this, and more, is held before the faithful in poetic performance to impress upon them what life with God is like and to lead them ever more deeply into that life. And finally, the practices and the character of the godly person are described, illustrated, and glorified.
The attraction of the Psalter is great and obvious. It is a “natural” form for expressing the drama of life: our precarious human condition and God’s gracious offer of life-giving relationship with himself. The combination of poetic form, historical narrative, and profound insight makes the Psalms attractive even to unbelievers. Their sweeping vision and accurate reflection of the common experiences of human life provide a framework for the interpretation of human existence that has few, if any, rivals.
In the individual and corporate enactment of the Psalms a public form of life takes shape. In reality, the Psalter is a prayer book–or, better, a soul-book–that correctly represents God and the life that we can have in him. This explains the huge role that the book of Psalms actually played in the Jewish religion and, later, in the life of the Church. In the Christian era the Apostle Paul’s emphasis upon singing is genuinely remarkable: “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph 5:19). And more recently, from the Protestant Reformation on, great advances and renewals in Christendom have often been times of great singing. Beyond all doubt, singing is a most powerful force in our spiritual formation.
Blessings and Benefits for Our Formation
In the Psalter the language of praise, adoration, thanksgiving, intercession, petition, complaint, disappointment, remembrance, anger, relinquishment, and repentance is beautifully and memorably available. Ordinary persons like ourselves simply cannot come up with such language on our own, but we can enter into it if it is presented in a suitable context. And these inspired poetic expressions can, under God, be the locus of great joy and character transformation as we allow them to sink deep into our heart.
If we enter into the Psalms honestly and faithfully, they can induce experiences and actions within us that truly reflect the words expressed. This, in turn, will reshape our inner being and character into the state God would have it. And maintain it! The testimony of the People of God throughout the ages, even up to our day, confirms this. Nothing on earth matches the Psalter as a public exercise for cultivating a right heart in relation toward God.
Limits and Liabilities for Our Formation
But for all the glory and power of the Psalms, our response to them can have serious limitations. Any activity can become mere performance. As we have seen with the Law, the limitation of liturgical language and ritual is that it can remain external and not touch the heart. This is true even though the content of the Psalms themselves flatly opposes it. We can sing “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (139:23), and even enjoy the thought expressed, but avoid the reality like the plague. Merely singing about God searching our heart can also leave us with the mistaken impression that by virtue of the singing we have participated in its reality. The same is true for all the great expressions of the Psalter.
When the practices of praise and worship remain external, they can also bind our devotion to God to specific times and places (“church work”), to legalism, or to culture (ethnicity). When this happens our religion becomes a performance–or worse yet, turns us into being merely spectators of a performance. Worship of God can be replaced by worship of beauty or merely “propriety,” and even become simply entertainment.
Worship without heart is what the prophetic witness had to combat during the heyday of religious practices in the First Temple and in Samaria: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates. . . . Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isa 1:13-15).
In addition, merely external worship leaves us incapable of devotion when the “props” are taken away. We then are at a loss as to how we can “sing the LORD’s song in a strange land” (Psalm 137:4). By contrast, Paul and Silas in a Philippian jail pray and sing hymns at midnight and bring God’s life to their fellow prisoners, indeed, to the jail keeper himself (Acts 16:25-34).
Externalization is not inevitable. By being aware of it and guarding against it we can appropriate the richness of the Psalms for great benefit to our inner life. Moving from the surface experience into the depths of our mind, will, and heart, we reach the place of true formation and begin the transformation of character that God intends.
The danger of substituting ritual behavior for heartfelt devotion to God, for moral integrity, and for justice is always close at hand in those public practices that foster group solidarity and depend upon social approval. This is why the prophetic witness, reaffirmed by Jesus, always emphasizes mercy over sacrifice (Matt 9:13, 12:7). Mercy, you see, is of the heart, while sacrifice may or may not be. Sadly, there seems no limit to the perversion of heart that can exist alongside the reciting of creeds and the singing of hymns in sacred settings. What the great prophets relentlessly condemned–pious ritual without inward and outward transformation–was perhaps even worse in the days of Jesus, and it remains a terrible problem today. Just think of how different our life would be if we actually lived the words we mouth in religious services. What a tremendous step forward in spiritual formation that would be!
Insights and Instructions for Our Formation
Liturgical and ritual performance can be a source of great strength and direction in our spiritual formation, but it must be used and used well. Frankly, there is no such thing as purely inward religion. That would defy the reality of our embodied selves and the significance of the body and behavior in our godly formation. The contribution of poetry and ritual to the formation of the heart and life in corporate as well as individual worship is indispensable to all robust formation in Christlikeness. The Psalms and the forms of life they represent are a great gift to the people of God–really, to all humanity. We are to read and sing them from the heart. And the Psalms themselves show us in exquisite detail just how we can do exactly that–how we can “with gratitude in [our] hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Col 3:16).