Coming to love the Psalms

by Angie Allport.

I have previously had a love-hate relationship with the Psalms; all those references to smiting enemies being at odds with my pacifist sensibilities.  Yet if, like me, your heart has been broken by the violence and tragedy we have seen over recent months, reading the psalmists’ complaints can give us the freedom to express ours.

All of life can be found in the Psalms.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann[1] breaks down the psalms into three categories: what he calls psalms of orientation when all feels right; psalms of disorientation lamenting before God hurt, injustice, alienation, suffering and death, and psalms of re-orientation when God delivers us from our disorientation.  Real life is about movement between orientation, disorientation and re-orientation.

Our western culture struggles to cope with grief and suffering, but they cannot be avoided.  They are part of the human experience, regardless of whether one is a Christian or not.  The psalms allow us to express negative emotion to God: honest feelings of grief, sadness, doubt, confusion, anger, frustration and questioning, but they also point to healing.  There is something cathartic in the way that we get a sense of healing just by being honest about our suffering, even if the situation does not change.  The lament psalms, before they ever sound a note of hope, spend a long time lamenting in pain, anger and tears.  This should teach us that even though we certainly do have great hope in Christ, we must not move to hope too quickly.  Whilst Christ does have the victory, we must not forget the necessity of lament if we are to avoid letting our anger, hurt or fear fester and paralyse us or, worse, undermine or destroy our faith.

I have recently returned from a Benedictine retreat at Worth Abbey.  Most of the daily offices are taken up with reciting the Psalms, such that they are all recited during the course of the week.  I found this emphasis on the psalms a little odd at first, until it was explained to me that it is seen as sharing in the words of Christ because Jesus would have recited the psalms.

Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:43; Matthew 27:46) is a quotation from Psalm 22:1.  There are seven reported sayings of Jesus from the cross, two more of which can be related directly to the Psalms.  When Jesus is reported as saying, ‘I thirst’ (John 19:28), he could be saying ‘my throat is parched’ from Psalm 69:3.  His ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23:46) is to be found in Psalm 31:5.  It is feasible, therefore, that Jesus was using selected psalms to contend with God.  Rabbi Anson Laytner[2] includes Psalm 22 in his list of examples of laments and explains that they have a prayer-like quality in that they are uttered in the expectation that God will respond because God is a just and compassionate judge.  Whilst much has been made of Jesus’ sayings from the cross, I think that there is a credible case for arguing that he was doing no more than reciting the psalms as a devout Jew and that we only have snatches because of his state of delirium.

Most of the lament psalms follow a general pattern: they begin with a short cry for God to listen, they have an extended period of lament, they plead with God for deliverance and they often, though not always, end in praise.  In the psalms, there is something that Michael Card[3] calls the “Vav adversative”.  “Vav” functions almost as a “but”, but is better understood as an “and” “though” moment, or a point of turning and praising.  Whatever besets us, we must remember the “Vav”.  Through the Psalms, we can be honest with God about the pain of life because we know God loves us, welcomes hearing our struggles and cries, and will reach out to us in mercy.

Whilst some of the psalms are challenging, many of them are reassuring.  Psalm 62 is one of the reassuring ones.  Try and find time today to say Psalm 62 (or another Psalm) as a prayer.

[1] Brueggemann, W. The Message of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.

[2] Laytner, A. Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2004, p. 27

[3] Card, M. A Sacred Sorrow, Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005.

3 thoughts on “Coming to love the Psalms

  1. 22, 44, 55, 77, 88 are easy numbers to remember and are Psalms where things go wrong and, apart from 88 which is unmitigated despair, things turn out OKish in the end. I once thought that Psalms were not much use but ate my words and for many years followed a pattern that I have returned to this year – a Psalm a day from Jan 1, skip 119 until after 150 and then take it in 16 verse blocks and then use the days until the end of June reflecting on the Psalm of one’s age. Begin again on July 1 and today I’m on Ps 46 which I have to say is one of my favourites


  2. I like and understand the meaningfulness of the psalms and appreciate the categorising of them in terms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation In particular I find psalms of lament and disorientation are of inestimable value in a society where we are not supposed to protest, and if we do we are accused of being “woke”. Like you, I have difficulty with the psalms that talk of smiting our enemies or excluding them from the love of God – thinking particularly about Psalm 23 and having a table set before me in the presence of my enemies. Where is the love in that! And surely this would be in direct contradiction with Jesus’ admonishment that we love our enemies and “turn the other cheek”. Could it be that David threw in that line to justify the ethnic cleansing and empire building he was engaged in at the time?


  3. I can see the value in getting things off your chest and I’m sure God can take any amount of moaning and complaining, but I do think some of the psalms sound a bit too self-pitying and vengeful.
    Trying to cultivate an attitude of gratitude is far healthier for our own well-being and for the world around us. If we are thankful for our food, we will want others to be fed. If we are thankful for our good health, we will want to tend the sick. If we are thankful for our prosperity, we will be more generous to those less fortunate.
    I like to count my blessings not my stressings. Psalm 100 says it all for me!


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