Chapter 4, Signposts for the Journey. 1, The Psalms

If you have studied the Bible for a while—if, like me, you’ve tried to build Bible reading into the whole of your warts-and-all-life—- you realize at some point that the Bible has provided, in small and large ways, a framework for your life.  The book has provides the words, warnings, promises, and stories that guided and taught and accompanied you. You can trace the beginnings of your spiritual journey by recalling the Bible stories and passages that were important to you when you began a life of faith—even of childhood faith. You browse the book, and certain passages and verses stand out; divine promises gave you new insights; your spiritual journey can be traced among a variety of Bible passages. Your acquaintance with the Bible is like signposts on your journey; you can pick out the ones at the “center,” your home base as it were, and also the places that indicated a difficult time, or an increase in understanding, or a particular period of your life.  You search the book and think … Oh sure, I remember that verse … That psalm was read at my grandmother’s funeral … Boy, did that passage help me when I needed it most! … That was a fun study group (what year was that?) when we spent months going through Matthew (and our preacher loved to talk!) … I remember when I discovered something interesting about that verse, after I’d read it for the tenth time or more … I can’t find that verse about forgiveness, and I need it!… I used to have this passage taped on my bathroom mirror during a time of trouble … That verse reminds me of a preacher I liked a lot, who helped me with a problem…. That’s the passage I read when I think I can’t go on….

Why do we read the Bible? Gaining a sense of peace and comfort is one motive. We are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), are fallible yet chosen receptacles of nothing less than God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20) and (if we may apply Jeremiah’s words to our own experience) we are recipients of God’s plans (Jer. 29:11). For all our needs and for the forgiveness of all our sins, we have advocacy with God through Christ and the Spirit (John 14:15-17; Heb. 4:14-6). We are given a wonderful responsibility, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to help others be disciples (the word means “students”) of the Lord (Matt. 28:19-20).

But … we need the Bible to help us know and remember these things. Martin Luther once called scripture the “servant” of God for our benefit.[1] So many texts function well for guidance, consolation, assurance, responsibility, and strength. Although “comfortable” and “comfort zones” can have negative connotations, a person can’t function well without renewal, reminder, and assurance.

I flip first to the Psalms.  Not too long ago, the Gideons visited my campus. I chatted with one fellow as he and his buddy distributed little green Bibles containing the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs.  I had a cup of coffee and he joked that they could witness better if I’d buy them coffee, too.

I don’t like the thought of abbreviated Bibles, but on the other hand, if you’d distribute any other 2000-page book to a passerby and say, “Oh, you should read this, it will help you,” he or she would probably say, “Yeah, right.” Or, the 2000-page book would be cheerfully accepted and placed unread upon the shelves. The “little green Bibles,” as I call them, concede to the reading habits of many of us: we love the New Testament and the Psalms. (For my reading habits, I need larger print, but that’s another issue …)

Many of us do, indeed, turn frequently to the psalms. Think of times of your life when you needed the psalms: 77 or 143 for help amid distress, 23 and 121 for peace, 150 for joy. Read Psalm 3 or 46 when you’re afraid; 38 when you feel weak; 109 when you feel accused; 38 when you need mercy; and 142 when you’re overwhelmed. Psalm 25, which I’ve yellow-highlighted, is a good all-around prayer. Psalm 19 and 104 are wonderful praises for the natural world. Psalm 88 is for someone close to death, 130 for someone deeply burdened, 90 for someone in “existential” anxiety, 40 for a person thankful for deliverance, and … many more!  Recently a friend quoted Psalm 55:6 for her father’s obituary notice.  Psalm 51 is a classic of bitter regret for sin:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you. (vss. 10-13)

I wouldn’t want to say that you haven’t really experienced the amazing peace of forgiveness if you haven’t first felt in your heart the awful ache of sin—the sin that has hurt people, made a mess of things, and made you afraid for your eternal destiny. I won’t want to make such an equation. Nor would I, for obvious reasons, recommend sin as a prelude for a relationship to God (Romans 6:1-2). But Psalm 51 is a wonderful assurance when you’ve stumbled. (Sometimes we stumble publicly, as did David, sometimes our failures are comparatively private but our consciences dog us.) What the psalm may lack, though, is a very strong assurance of God’s forgiveness, which, after all, hard to see if you’re troubled.

Psalm 73, a poem about doubts and struggles rather than a moral sin, provides that needed assurance.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand…
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever  (vss. 21-23, 26).

That “nevertheless” might be one of the best single words in the Bible. The word affirms God’s continual presence regardless of our human feelings, in this case, bitterness about the apparent unfairness of life. Similarly, 1 John affirms in a lovely way, And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything (3:19-20). We have confidence because God’s initiative and care are greater than the spiritually difficult places in which we sometimes find ourselves.

The psalms also remind us of people and places.  Number 100: I think of a church where I served as a student pastor in Connecticut. I remember the interior—so typical of turn of the century Romanesque churches—and the wide fellowship hall, where parishioners actually smoked together.

Psalm 23 … I walked home way too late one night. I was fourteen or fifteen. The road’s darkness exacerbated my anxieties of being in trouble. A streetlight caused the old Illinois Central railroad sign to cast a long, creepy X-shaped shadow along my path.  It was SONY DSChardly the “shadow of death,” but I did pray the twenty-third psalm, memorized in Sunday school a few years before.

The same psalm … A don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss it country lane near Brownstown, Illinois, leads along the wooded banks of small Sand Run creek. When my family owned that property, I loved walking back there, sometimes barefoot. I loved the “still waters” of the winding creek and did, indeed, feel that God restored my sense of well-being.

Psalm 45: song for a royal wedding.  I took two college classes with an excellent writing teacher, Elva McAllaster, who significantly inspired my career. I found her grave recently in Greenville, Illinois, and saw “Ps. 45:1” carved by her life dates.  I didn’t remember that psalm, but later I found the verse, which seemed perfect:

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Psalm 8: that song reminds of several beautiful places where the stars on clear nights were gorgeous.  Over time, I came to prefer Psalm 104 for its greater specificity, the beauty of nature that God preserves and guides. But Psalm 8 captures the awe in fewer verses.

Psalm 50?

I will accept no bull from your house (verse 9: RSV).

I’m being lighthearted now, but the verse reminds me of a time, at my divinity school, when a graduate assistant wrote that verse on a student’s wordy paper.

Nearly all the psalms contain words of praise, and even the bleaker psalms, like 90, do not fall into total despair, since the psalm remains a prayer to God. How the psalms reflect our own experiences: trouble and panic followed by relief, sickness followed by health, doubts followed by faith, lack of understanding followed by clarity. The psalms range among joy, despair, panic, childlike thankfulness, noble emotions, and revenge. What might happen if our church prayers, or even our private prayers, were as forthright as these?

When I wrote an article about the psalms years ago, I found two lovely quotes. Martin Luther writes, “Where does one find finer words of joy… where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness … everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake.”[2]  And John Calvin writes, “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the grief, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”[3]

Link to next section

[1]  Luther’s Works: Lectures on Galatians (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963); Volume 26, 295.

[2] Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960); Volume 35, 255-256.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Eerdmans, 1949), I, xxxvii. I first used both this and the Luther quotations in my article “The Psalms: An Overview,” Adult Bible Studies, June-July-August 1996 (Nashville: Cokesbury), 5-8 (quotations on page 5)


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