Of any single book of the Bible, the book of Psalms is perhaps the most quoted, most sung, most prayed, and most memorized. This would be no surprise to its authors. The psalter (the book of “praises” in Hebrew) was the hymnal and book of common prayer for ancient Israel. From Moses straight through to the closing of the Old Testament canon, Israelite believers of all kinds cried out to God through the writing of the psalms.
The psalms contain the full range of the spiritual life of ancient Israel, from overwhelming joy to impassioned sorrow, bristling confidence to crippling insecurity, abandoned worship to withdrawn confusion. No one would call this people Stoic, unemotional, or detached – neither should it ever be said of Christians. The psalmists never thought of the God they worshiped as a distant, irrelevant old man in the sky: he was the center of their universe.
The honesty of the psalms is breathtaking. Sometimes I don’t understand the Bible. Sometimes I get disillusioned with church. Sometimes I feel afraid of God. Sometimes I wonder if everything I believe is just a myth, if I really am the self-deluded hypocrite my culture says I am. The psalms, thank God, give me the freedom and the precedent to present these very fears and doubts to God, and to do so with full disclosure. The psalmists’ heartbroken cries of “how long?” and “where are you?” surface again and again. God does not demand that I clean myself up before I come to him. I am poor and needy for mercy and he knows this. The blood of Jesus alone presents me as acceptable to God. As one redeemed and purchased by this blood, I can, I must, be honest and vulnerable before him. He beckons me to come as I am, simply entrusting myself to his grace – amazing.
The psalms do not deny the deep “valleys” of the believer’s life. Rather, they validate these valleys, these times when life feels dark and dangerous, these “dark nights of the soul.” Are you familiar with the “regions dark and deep,” whether spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise, of which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 88:6? Be comforted. God is familiar with your suffering; he chose to give it a voice in his book some three thousand years ago. He gives it a dignity which no other system of thought quite manages to do.
As amazing and satisfying as the honesty of the psalms is, however, there is something even more. What is truly incredible, and unusual, about these ancient prayers is that there is suffering – with hope. Doubt, with trust. A desperate feeling of abandonment with a resolute confidence in the promise of God’s presence. Over and over the psalmists say: “God, I do not understand what is happening. It looks as if you have abandoned us. I feel lonely, angry, hated, afraid – and yet I know who you are. I know the promises you have made to us. I know you have redeemed my life and I know you are good. Therefore I will praise you still.” That is what living faith looks like. Faith does not deny what it sees and feels or stifle its thoughts and emotions. It does just the opposite. Faith confronts what it sees with what it knows to be true, and decides to find rest in the promises of God.
When the fear and doubt come, which they surely do and surely will, I must also remind myself of the truth I know. I know how Jesus Christ changed my life. I know the testimonies of others. I know that his word alone speaks the words of life and the message of redemption. I remember what God has done for me and I remember what I know of him – and that is enough. I do not need all the answers, as much as I may want them. All I need is to cling to my God, my refuge and my strength. As many times as the cry of “how long” can be heard echoing through its chapters, the true chorus of the psalms is “hallelujah” – praise Yahweh.
If you are not familiar with the book of Psalms, dive in. Read them, pray them, mull them over. Some are not easy to understand, but all of them are wonderfully real. Come to God with empty hands, a broken heart, a guilty conscience; lay these before him and find rest.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. Psalm 43:5
Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. Psalm 116:7