How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Psalms

Four Ways to Love the Psalms.

What does this mean?

How long will you people ruin my reputation?
    How long will you make groundless accusations?
    How long will you continue your lies?
You can be sure of this:
    The Lord set apart the godly for himself.
    The Lord will answer when I call to him. (Ps. 4:2-3)

Why the whiplash in these verses? Where is the transition? The justification? Why can I be sure that oppression and evil will end? How will the Lord answer?

Why are the Psalms so scattered? I can take an individual verse and be fine with it: “God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.” Wow! Fantastic. But it is a little dizzying when you read through a whole psalm, like Ps. 4 above. Where is this going? What’s the point?

See, my brain works like this:

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Most of my conscious thoughts are variations on that theme. I’m in touch with my feelings and all, but I expect words on a page to move me along steadily like exhibit A above.

When I read a psalm, it’s like

Untitled 2

Great, but what’s the application here?? What’s the teaching???

[Okay, Bryan. Breathe.]

When I read a psalm like it’s any other chapter of the Bible, I get lost. But it’s funny: when you look at any modern song, you run into basically all the same issues. Here are a few verses from Kendrick Lamar’s “i”:

Everybody looking at you crazy (Crazy)
What you gonna do? (What you gonna do?)
Lift up your head and keep moving (Keep moving)
Or let the paranoia haunt you? (Haunt you)
Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart
On my sleeve let the runway start
You know the miserable do love company
What do you want from me and my scars?

There is no straight line from A to B. He has only the loosest sense of a plot or direction. But if you know the tune, or if you know much about Kendrick Lamar, you kind of follow along. Bob your head a little bit. Feel the sense of growing empowerment, the internal struggles. By and large, it just doesn’t bother you that any single grammatical unit is a dagger in your 10th grade English teacher’s heart. Paragraphs be damned.

The psalms are songs, too (that’s what “psalm” means), whose tunes have been long lost. Unless I’m bobbing my head a little bit, unless I’m letting the pictures hit me, unless I’m forgetting time for now – it’s just indented chicken scratch. But a psalm is more than words on parchment.

Here are a couple of ways I have learned to love the psalms and find the beat:

  1. Chant the psalm. It’s so much easier to understand with music. Have you ever been reading a psalm, and you get to a couple of lines that are in a memorable worship song? It’s like you are walking along, and then you break into dance for a few steps, before continuing on in your walk again. There are lots of great collections of psalm tunes out there to help you extend this rhythm. But the easiest by far is learning a little chant tune. Chant is simply a way to sing just about anything. Usually it works something like this: sing all the syllables on line 1 at one note and then go up on the last two syllables; sing all the syllables on line 2 at that higher note and then come back down on the last 4 syllables. (This is in Swahili, but you can see the kids getting it easily).
  2. Become King David. The Scriptures are not just pop psychology for my own life. They are the story of God’s people and plan. They are the mold that I should fit into. Don’t try first to interpret the psalmnic struggles in terms of your own, but live in the struggles of the original psalmist – running from enemies, falling prostrate at the temple, overwhelmed with pain. Eventually, these will become the categories and movements of your own thoughts – that’s the point!
  3. Read poems. I first began to love psalms when I found some poems that I loved. I admit: I dislike the vast majority of poems I’ve seen. But the ones I like are so good. I find myself saying these short little phrases over and over. “O Soul in whom my thoughts find all repose …” When I began to love the words as words, the images as images, I could dwell among the psalms as friends. Pick up any kind of Greatest Poems of the English Language-type of book and you will find something that makes you grin.

And finally

4.  S L  O   W    .     D      O       W        N         .

Bryan Wandel
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.

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