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Introduction to the Psalms

Ryan Joy


February 4, 2024

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“Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” (Ps. 3:7).

One of my favorite bands sings a song called “Heart Songs” that lists the songs that “never feel wrong,” the songs he keeps with him, a soundtrack of his life. Some songs get inside you and become part of you. They express things within you better than you could say it yourself. This year, we’re reading through the Psalms, and if you’ve ever spent much time with the book, you’ve probably felt that way about some of those inspired hymns. But maybe you’ve also noticed that some do “feel wrong,” or at least uncomfortable as worship songs. Most Psalms have a hard edge that challenges our worldview; even as they invite us to consider parts of ourselves, we don’t bump into very often (or prefer to avoid). Have you ever picked a favorite psalm to read and then realized you’d rather leave out a few verses — maybe the violent bits about throwing down your enemies or the uncomfortable part about how righteous you are?

We need to learn to lament as the psalmists do. We need access to the cries for justice from such pain you wince just reading them. And we need the boisterous praise!

But God gave us this whole book, and I believe we need to engage the whole of it. We need to learn to lament as the psalmists do. We need access to the cries for justice from such pain you wince just reading them. And we need the boisterous praise! This book can give us a map of our souls, leading us to healing before God as we bring the stuff inside us before him in prayer. For the last few years, I’ve made a practice of singing through the psalms, using various metrical psalters. That’s where someone has set the book of Psalms to the meter of familiar hymns so you can sing them. (Lately, I’ve enjoyed Matt Bassford’s Worshiping with the Psalms). Singing these words makes the juxtaposition of my outlook and the psalmists even more jarring, as it’s a first-person act of worship that removes any comfortable academic distance and places me in the starring role of the Psalm. Here are a few observations from singing and praying the Psalms.

The Struggle Is Real

The Psalms force me to acknowledge my trials. I usually have fewer problems than David or the other psalmists, but as I sing and pray these psalms, I realize that my life has struggles that I need to bring before God. Far from how the world sometimes paints the “good life” — where the wisest and best people have it all together, and life goes relatively well for them — the Psalms remind me that my life is a story of ups and downs, just as David’s was. It is normal and right for troubles to appear and for me to bring them before God.

The Enemy is Real

The Psalms force me to recognize my enemies. It’s easy to close my eyes to the reality that I am in the midst of an all-out war with an adversary who wants nothing more than my humiliation, pain, death, and eternal oppression. We may have human enemies who oppose us, but Jesus teaches us to love them, and the rest of Scripture teaches us that they’re pawns of our true enemies who have enslaved them as well. That enemy needs to be utterly crushed, and I’m learning to pray that God’s justice will bring about that kind of devastation of Satan and the forces of darkness. Because I love the people under his power, I hate Satan’s dark goals, his opposition to God, and everything about him and what he has become. Scripture is clear about the horrible fate that awaits him (Rev. 20:10), and with God and all the saints, through the Psalms, I’m learning to rejoice in the justice God will bring on that day.

The Difference Is Real

The Psalms force me to distinguish righteousness from wickedness. They show me the distinction between the good life I aim to live each day and the evil life of so many around me. We’ve learned to humbly think of ourselves as sinners like all the rest, except that God’s mercy has saved us. It’s true; we’ve sinned, and God’s grace has saved us. We have no cause for arrogantly exalting ourselves. But now we’re saints. Don’t limit your view of the difference between us and the wicked to the day of our salvation. The righteous need to see the difference in the WAY we live so we can mourn the evil around us, shuddering, baffled, and praying for a change.

When you’re stuck in Verse One, you’re stuck thinking, “Why, Lord?” “How long, Lord?” “O my troubles!”

The Answer Is Real

The Psalms force me out of my despair. The Psalms lead me to move past my troubles and reflect on God’s goodness. He alone can save me. We can’t stop reading midway through the Psalm. If we do, we’ll get stuck pondering our troubles, enemies, and the wickedness around us. Don’t get caught in a loop we could call “Verse One.” When you’re stuck in Verse One, you’re stuck thinking, “Why, Lord?” “How long, Lord?” “O my troubles!” “O, the awfulness around me!” That’s not where the Psalm ends. Some will move beyond Verse One’s lament into the prayer of the middle of the Psalm, “Lord deliver me.” But still, we’ve not gone far enough until we get to the end: to the worship of God! We have to get to the point where we can affirm, like so many psalmists, “Nevertheless, you have dealt with me abundantly! You are great and good and full of lovingkindness. You are reliable to get me out of this. I trust you, my shield and my rock.” The first gift of the Psalms is that they start there where we are. The second gift of the Psalms is that they take us before God to leave with a renewed trust and joy in the worship of the one who is magnificent enough to overcome all awfulness of life.

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