Can you let it all hang out and tell God your true thoughts and feelings? Are you free to get angry at God? Do you have that kind of personal relationship with God? That’s what we find in the Book of Psalms. Real. Raw. Emotional relating.
Most of us know a few by heart, such as,”The Lord is my shepherd,” Psalm 23. Often, we Christians forget that Jesus and his contemporaries knew the psalms, backwards and forwards. The Book of Psalms is actually an ancient prayer anthology which can be divided into five books: Psalm 1-41, 42-72, 73-89. 90-106 and 107-150. While many are attributed to David, scholars agree that like much of the Hebrew Bible, the authors are anonymous. Still, Tehillim, as the book is called in Hebrew, is a gathering of songs, poems that can be sung with stringed instruments.
A real challenge is to slow our reading of Psalms down, so the words can truly sink in. Letting my heart inform my head I read a psalm or two, and then stop mid phrase because that is usually enough to ponder. Closing my eyes and sitting in silence, the words can drop within me. At times, one line is all I need. Psalms were used for worship then, as they are now. “This is the day the Lord has made.” (Ps 118). They help us access our deepest emotions and our need to know we are not alone. Each psalm presents it’s own formula, but there are often desperate demands, “Hear, my prayer, O Lord, let my cry come to you.” (Ps 102) or as Jesus said on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me.” (Ps 22) The need for protection or rescue, “Guard me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…from my enemies who surround me.” (Ps 17) There is also desire, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs, for you O God.” (Ps 42) Praise, promise, and thanksgiving are throughout, especially if God helps the petitioner. It could be me speaking — my emotional landscape fully exposed to God. I am singing praises and dancing for joy one moment and lamenting in deep sorrow the next. Anne Lamott put similar thoughts in a small volume, Help, Thanks, Wow; Three Essential Prayers (Penguin Books, 2013).
Recently, I officiated a funeral for a veteran of the Korean conflict, a man who had seen hand-to-hand combat for many months. His widow came prepared with several psalms to include in the service. Though sad, her eyes sparkled as she expressed her joy to God for having given her 62 years with a great guy.
His brother tearfully shared with me his brother’s selflessness. In Korea, his brother had volunteered so many times to be in the scouting party that his commanding officer refused to let him go again, stating, “You have put your life on the line enough.”
Reading Psalm 121 during the service, I envisioned a young man throwing himself into whatever came his way. “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (verses 5-6)
Lest we think psalms are just for private use or public worship, there is a universal purpose in these great poems. Beyond our desire to have enemies slain or boundaries protected, the Psalms inform of us of the very nature of God. God, is for everyone — even our enemies, all people, every where. As politicians and the media target people’s worst fears and propose stronger borders and travel bans, psalms call us to remember the very nature of the one who is truly in charge. “Be Still and know that I am God” (Ps 46 verse 10).
Rev. Patricia Stout is part-time pastor at Iberia Presbyterian Church in Iberia, Ohio, and an active member of the Delaware Ministerial Association.