Read the Psalms for Life

In Read the Bible for Life, Donald Guthrie and David Howard hold a conversation that may be helpful for us when reading the Psalms. The following quote serves as an introduction to their discussion. “These are human words praising God, or lamenting some event or situation, or even questioning God in a reverent way. So the psalms draw us in because we recognize in them our own experiences and feelings, and they, in a sense, express for us those feelings about God or to God.”

We do not want to forget, as with other parts of the bible, that the Psalms were also “crafted in specific cultural contexts.” Most of the psalms were written “for a corporate context, to be quoted or sung in large group settings.” In fact, they refer to these psalms as hymns. The titles will sometimes include lines like “for the choirmaster, with stringed instruments.” These are psalms “that praise God for who He is and how He has revealed Himself in the world, and they are done in a corporate setting.” In contrast, some psalms are more individual, “where David or someone is speaking in the first person.” These they label as “thanksgiving psalms.”

The conversation turns from psalms of thanksgiving to psalms of lament. “Laments are the psalms where David or the other psalmists are pouring out their hearts to God, being honest about the fact that life, at times, stinks!” These psalms become important for us and are able to “open up new avenues of approaching God in times of great stress and sadness in our lives.” This may, in fact be the genius of the psalms. “They are balanced, encouraging us to be honest about how hard life can be but also encouraging us to hope in God.” The psalmist knows struggle. We know struggle. The psalms of lament give voice to our struggles.

The conversation then turns to the imprecatory psalms. It is important to put these in context with a core promise that God has made with His people. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” So in these psalms the psalmist is saying “God, I am your person. Your enemies are persecuting me, but I believe your promises. Do something!” So in some ways these psalms become “a confession that God will be faithful to His promises, faithful to His people, and faithful to His own agenda.” (For the record, these are sung at the top of one’s voice without need of a choirmaster. Instead of strings, a sword appears to be the instrument of choice).

The psalmists put feelings into words. This makes poetry an appropriate means of expression. And important for us to remember “if we are going to read the psalms well.” He describes similar situations as a kind of “newspaper account” in narrative but exaggerated metaphor in the psalms. It is not unusual for psalms to use graphic language or exaggeration to express feeling.

Other psalms are labeled as royal/messianic psalms. These do not primarily express emotion, instead they let us in on what God has planned for the world. A “big, cosmic-sized picture of God in control and bringing all things to His desired end is an important aspect of the worldview represented by the psalms.” These psalms emphasize “God’s appointed king as His coworker in ruling God’s people.” These become for us “songs of worship, celebrating what God has accomplished in Christ.” Let us sing.

The Reality of the Promise

We find an interesting picture as the Joseph narrative is nearly finished and Joseph introduces his father Jacob to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Here Genesis gives a clash of world views. Two different histories. Two different ways of life. One appears secure, the other appears to have nothing. In fact, these two have only one thing in common – Joseph. Pharaoh is settled, safe and prosperous. Jacob is a nomad with nothing but a promise. Yet he believes this promise more than any of the Egyptian realities.

“Then Joseph brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.” Pharaoh asks a question, Jacob responds, but Genesis seems more interested in telling us again “And Jacob blessed Pharaoh.”

This conversation does not go the way we might expect. This meeting between Jacob of the promise and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Of all people to bless – Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Not only am I predisposed to think that Pharaoh does not merit a blessing. But, it seems that if there is a blessing to be made between these two players, it would be the other way around. Jacob appears needy, he is dependent on Pharaoh for resources. He sent his sons to beg Egypt for food. Pharaoh has everything at his disposal. Yet, Genesis is clear. Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Israel blesses Egypt.

Jacob is not alone in having an audience that may be looking elsewhere for stability. We are not the first to share blessing with people trusting in a more visible reality. As Pharaoh, people who hear our words of blessing may not be expecting a word from God. In fact, they may, as Pharaoh may have been, be thinking that they are ok with the way things are. Yet, God is not. So He sends a word.

I am struck by the fact that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that it is not necessary to have more than those we speak to. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that God is interested in people that we may find undeserving. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we realize the success of preaching is not in our hands. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded to believe in the reality of the promise more than the reality of the prevailing worldview.

A Text to Deal With

I fear that many sermons today attempt to answer questions that we may be curious about instead of questions that the text may be asking. While a sermon might comfort the listener, I fear that some are intended to make the hearer comfortable. I fear that some preaching tames the text until it becomes something usable for the listener. Something that adds value to what the listener is already doing. And while some sermons may be seeking conversion, I fear that it is the text that is being converted instead of the listener.

In Telling God’s Story, John W. Wright forms a contrast between sermons that simply reinforce the worldview of the hearer vs. those that introduce the worldview of the text.

In the first, Wright claims that the text is used to reassure rather than disturb. The convictions of the hearer remain intact and are even reinforced. The sermon is delivered as an answer to a question that already exists in the mind of the hearer. In contrast, Wright proposes that preaching should be an invitation to the biblical worldview. Preaching invites hearers into a different narrative in which they can live their lives. Into something different from the standard story. Something different from the story of an autonomous individual searching for their own happiness.

Wright calls for preaching that presents a new experience. Something unsettling. Something we do not choose. Something that happens to us. Something that must be dealt with. In this way, the text comes on us like weather. We do not ask for the weather. We simply receive the weather that is in store. The same with the biblical text. Here it is – deal with it.

Instead of reassuring or reinforcing our lives as they are, the text challenges us and demands that we leave the narrative of society and join this new narrative. Preaching calls our present lifestyle into question. Preaching asks the question “what are you going to do with this?”

Preaching as Story and Adventure

Some friends of mine and I have been reading A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.  Miller is brilliant in print.  While reading his books I often find myself laughing out loud.  But this book is not simply comedy.  Miller is reminding the reader of something important.  That we all live as part of a story, we all have a role to play.

Miller knows that the dominant culture puts in a great deal of effort to train us to think about our story without God.  That is clear from his opening illustration about the movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo.  He questions why people “spend years living those kinds of stories and expect them to feel meaningful.”  And he responds “we are all being robbed.”

I am quite certain that A Million Miles is not intended as a book about preaching and I don’t think that Donald Miller considers himself a preacher.  Yet he is encouraging the very thing that preachers ought to encourage.  Preachers should be inviting listeners into an adventure that is unlike the unimaginative stories with the prescriptions that culture dishes out.

Preaching should not be self-help from a pulpit.  It should not suggest that Jesus is the way for you to get what you want.  It should not convey the same wisdom that folks are already getting in other areas of their lives.  It should not suggest that the listener can play their part in this adventure without the body or without God.  Preaching is an announcement of an adventure with God.

One of the things I like most about A Million Miles is how Miller attributes the story to God, even the parts of the story he does not like. He recognizes that the story does not change just because we do not enjoy our role.  It doesn’t go away if we try to avoid it.  I suspect that Miller likes the fact that Bilbo is hand-picked by the wizard, that Alice does not fall into the rabbit hole on purpose, that Dorothy does not volunteer to go to Oz.  We do not choose our stories, we are just in them.  This is the story and we are part of it.  The bible is full of stories like this.  No one enters the story on their own terms.

To be Christian is to narrate our story differently.  As one written by God.  To be a Christian preacher is to call others into God’s story.  Preaching is an attempt to help others understand that God is the author of their story.  Every day we are told to narrate our lives without God as a significant character.  Preaching interrupts that worldview and insists that God is the significant character.  Anything less and we are being robbed.