Although a few of the psalms survey the history of God’s people, most of the psalms describe an individual’s relationship with God.
We might think a Psalm was just for the particular person who wrote it, and not necessarily a promise for anyone else. However, these poems were included in the song-book of ancient Israel to invite us to participate in the relationship that was described in these songs. They indicate that God’s relationship was not just with the nation as a whole, but also with individuals in that nation. Everyone could take part.
The relationship, however, was not always as smooth as we might like. The most common type of psalm was the lament—almost a third of the psalms bring some sort of complaint to God. The singers described a problem, and asked God to solve it. The psalm was often exaggerated, full of emotion. Psalm 13 is an example:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
People knew the tune because it was sung frequently. Even those who were not personally distressed were invited to join the lament, perhaps as a reminder that some of God’s people were in distress. They looked to him for intervention, but they did not know when it would come.
This still describes our relationship with God today. Although God has acted decisively in Jesus Christ to defeat our worst enemies (sin and death), he does not always take care of our physical problems as quickly as we might like. The songs of lament remind us that we may experience difficulties for a long time, and yet we continue to look to God to resolve the problem.
Some psalms even accuse God of being asleep:
Awake, and rise to my defense!
Contend for me, my God and Lord.
Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God;
do not let them gloat over me.
Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!”
or say, “We have swallowed him up.” (Psalm 35:22-25)
The singers did not really imagine that God was asleep at the bench of justice. These words are not intended to be an objective explanation of reality. Rather, they are descriptions of the person’s emotions—in this case, frustrations. The national songbook invited people to learn this song, to express the depth of the feelings. Even if they did not currently face enemies like this, the day might come when they would. And so the song cries out for God to take vengeance:
May all who gloat over my distress
be put to shame and confusion;
may all who exalt themselves over me
be clothed with shame and disgrace. (verses 26-27)
In some cases, the words are “over the top”—way beyond what we’d expect to hear in church:
May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever….
May they be blotted out of the book of life
and not be listed with the righteous. (Psalm 69:23, 28)
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks. (Psalm 137:9)
Did the singers mean these words to be taken literally? Perhaps some did. But there is a more gracious way:
We “should understand their extreme language as hyperbole—emotional exaggerations by which the psalmist…wants God to know how strongly he feels about the matter” (William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 285).
The psalms are full of emotive language. In our relationship with God, we are encouraged to acknowledge the depth of our feelings, and to give the matter into God’s hands.
Some of the songs of lament end with promises of praise:
I will thank the Lord because he is just;
I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High. (Psalm 7:17)
It might sound like the person is bargaining with God: If you help me out, then I will praise you. But in reality, the person is already praising God. The request for help is an implied statement that God is able to do what he is asked. The people are already looking to him for the intervention they need. They expect to return to the place of worship on the next festival and sing songs of thanksgiving. They know those tunes, too.
Even those who are grieving are invited to learn the psalms of thanksgiving and praise, because there will come times in their life when these songs express their emotions as well. We are invited to praise God even when we are personally in pain, because other members of the community are in times of joy.
Our relationship with God is not just about us—it’s about us being participants in the people of God. When one person rejoices, we all rejoice, and when one is suffering, we all suffer. The psalms of lament and the psalms of rejoicing are equally appropriate for us. Even when we have many blessings ourselves, we lament that many Christians are being persecuted for their faith. And they sing psalms of joy, too, confident that they will see better days ahead.
Psalm 18 is an example of thanksgiving after God has provided a rescue. The superscription explains that David sang this “on the day the Lord rescued him from all his enemies”:
I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me….
In my distress I called to the Lord….
The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook….
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth,
burning coals blazed out of it. (Psalm 18:3-8)
Here David is using exaggerated language to make a point. Whenever we are saved from our distress—no matter whether our enemies are invaders, neighbors, animals, or drought—we praise God for whatever he does to help us.
Articles in “Exploring the Word of God: Books of Poetry and Wisdom”
The shortest psalm illustrates the basic outline of a hymn: a call to praise, followed by a reason:
Praise the Lord, all you nations;
extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord [in Hebrew, Hallelu Yah]. (Psalm 117:1-2)
God’s people are invited to incorporate these emotions as part of their relationship with God: feelings of awe, admiration, and safety. Do God’s people always have these feelings of safety? No, the songs of lament are a reminder that we do not.
One interesting thing about the book of Psalms is that all these different types of psalms are mixed together. Praise and thanksgiving and lament are all intertwined, reflecting the fact that God’s people experience all of these and God is with us wherever we go.
A few of the psalms concern the kings of Judah, and may have been sung every year at a public pageant. Some of these we now apply to the Messiah as all the psalms find their fulfillment in Jesus. As a human, he experienced our sorrows, our fears, our feelings of abandonment, as well as our faith and praise and joy. We praise him as our King, as the one God uses to bring salvation to us.
The psalms invite our imagination, and our participation as the people of God.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: www.gcs.edu
Photo Credits: 123RF
Author: Michael Morrison