Each Summer we have a short preaching series looking at the Psalms, to help us learn how to pray in all seasons of life. Do check back on our 2015 and 2016 series to learn more. To help set up our 2017 series I asked Danny Daley to help us understand why the Psalms are still so important for the church today.
Here is what he said…
In interpretation, there is a method of understanding that many call “reader-response.” This method suggests that reading texts should be far less about the intention of the author and far more about the experience of the reader when engaging with a text and its ideas. The author and their intention in writing become limited in their importance. The texts are seen to be alive, and to belong to the reader, not the author. When interpreting the Bible, this is almost always a very, very bad way to read. The Bible belongs to God, and was delivered to us. Certainly, we must apply the texts of the Bible to our modern lives and the situations we encounter, but the Bible does not allow us to invent our understanding of God through what we want the text to mean. God is communicating something very specific to his people through the texts of Scripture, and it is our job as interpreters to find out what that is. Asking the question “What does this passage mean TO ME?” is often a very bad idea. However, the Psalms are the one place in all of Scripture where this “reader-response” method of interpretation is not only valid; it may be the best way to allow the Psalms to fulfil their purpose.
Among all texts of Scripture, the Psalms are among the most ambiguous in terms of discovering background information. We know very little about the background of most of them, including who wrote them. Why were these words recorded? What was happening to the writer at the moment that this poem was composed? We have some educated guesses, and some of the more historical Psalms tip us off as to their background more than others, but by and large we are guessing. To some interpreters this is frustrating; however, I think this is beautiful. To know too much about the circumstances behind the Psalms would be to rob them of their power and effect on us as modern readers.
The Psalms are not primarily about information, they are about the stirring of the soul. Even for the writers of the Psalms, they were about emotional expressions of their relationship with God. The Psalms are outbursts, expressions of anger, feelings of lostness; they are full of remarkable tension and anguish, alternating between pronouncements of hope and abandonment; one moment God is the answer to our pain, the next moment we wonder where God is in our greatest trials. The Psalms, in a powerful way, are not just about the writer’s relationship and experience with God, they are about your relationship and experience with God as well. They are relevant both to the individual child of God and the community that follows God together. Their circumstances are ambiguous because they are universal – they are about all of us.
They were written during the Old Testament era, but Psalms were used as poems, prayers, and songs into the early church. Jesus, Paul, Peter, and other prominent figures in the New Testament would have memorised many of the Psalms and recited them regularly. They would have sung them with others and based a considerable amount of their thinking about God on them. To read most of the Psalms out loud, to pray them to God as if we had written them ourselves, to apply a melody and sing them as music – this is why they are in the Bible. They are not just the song and prayer book of the early church; they are the song and prayer book of every Christian.
Many writings in the Bible, such as Paul’s letters, can be called “propositional” writings. They are meant to be felt to a point, but more importantly they are meant to be understood. I would argue that the Psalms are unique in the Bible as writings that need to be understood, but more importantly, they are meant to be felt. The Psalms are rich in theological insight and they contain much important information about God and his people, but, uniquely for the Psalms, what is most important about them is the way they communicate the relationship between God and his people through emotion, experience, tension, and struggle.
The Psalms are poems that are meant to be read, but more importantly, they are meant to be experienced. The Psalms contain a rhythm; they are not merely expressive of faith, they are their own literary expression of the faith. As commentators Rolf and Karl Jacobson have noted, the psalms do not simply describe emotion, the reading of them is meant to be its own emotional experience. The Psalms are the very sound of love.
The Psalms are recital. They are a recital of our own collision with God on a daily basis; but at the same time they are not the final word on that experience, they are an entry point. They are an ice breaker, a way to open ourselves to God and relay to him our struggles, but also our affections. The Psalms open new ways of interaction with God and allow us to take words in entirely new directions. There is always more to say and hear.
As we live our lives as Christians, we experience joy and pain, inclusion and exile, hope and confusion; we live in a world where we collide with both the extraordinary and the mundane, the remarkable and the impossible. These experiences can be difficult to describe, and even in prayer, even in the way we seek to encounter God through the lives we lead, we are often at a loss for words. This is where the Psalms are often at their most precious and beneficial. There are Psalms for every emotion and experience, and to know them, and to pray them, is to find words for our experience with God. Come with us over the month of August as we learn together how to pray the Psalms and encounter God in a new way.
Summer 2017 Series
So for our four Sundays in August and the first Sunday in September we’re going to look at four psalms to help us learn how to pray in all seasons and through all our emotions.
- 6th August – Psalm 13: Praying when you’re depressed
- 13th August – Psalm 138: Praying to give thanks and praise God
- 20th August -Psalm 104: Praying to give thanks to the Creator
- 27th August – Psalm 74: Praying when God feels distant
- 3rd September – Psalm 87: Praying when your country’s in a mess
Do join us at Synge Street at 4.15pm as we learn together
If you want to pursue some personal study/devotion alongside the series I suggest you look at one of these 4 books
- My Rock, My Refuge by Tim and Kathy Keller
- God’s Prayer Book – the power and pleasure of praying the Psalms by Ben Patterson
- Favourite Psalms – growing closer to God by John Stott
- Finding God in the Psalms – sing, pray, live by Tom Wright
- Answering God: The Psalms as a tool for prayer by Eugene Petersen
- Praying with the Psalms: a year of daily prayers by Eugene Petersen