Psalms: An Ancient Hymnal

“He who sings prays twice”

For many years I’ve made it a practice to read the Bible all the way through, from Genesis to Revelation, each year. I hate to admit it, but Psalms is one of those places where I always get bogged down when reading straight through. (Psalm 119, in particular, seems to go on forever!) I seem to appreciate it best when taken in small doses, as in daily liturgical readings comprised of a short psalm or portions of the longer ones.

I feel a little less guilty about my reaction when I think of Psalms as a hymn book. Hymnals contain hundreds of songs, written by different people in different time periods, and expressing different thoughts and feelings, and I find myself drawn to different ones at different times based on what I am thinking and feeling. Some of them have better theologies than others, too. “In the Garden” resonates with many people, but it doesn’t have very much in the way of theological content. I’ve found myself appreciating it much more when I learned the song was written in an attempt to describe Mary Magdalene’s feelings on the first Easter morning. It’s not meant to be theological, but experiential.

The book of Psalms is really a hymnal, a collection of songs used in public and private worship, spanning several centuries. Many psalms are attributed to David, some to other recognizable Biblical figures, and some to unfamiliar songwriters.  Many times they include musical notations referencing tunes that must have been familiar to ancient peoples, but are completely lost to us today. We have only the words, not the melodies or the rhythmic structures, and even the poetry of the original words is not the same in translation. Sometimes there are introductory notes giving the background of the song, but often there are not, and so the context is another unknown.

Like modern hymns, the ancient psalms are diverse in content.  Some tell stories, such as those recalling God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Some express feelings of joy, gratitude, confidence, guilt, sorrow, anxiety, despair or anger, often using grand poetic metaphors. Some seem to have highly developed theologies, while others are best described as the venting of raw emotions. In some psalms, the composer is in ecstatic communion with the presence of God, while in others God seems to be distant, unhearing, and uncaring to the psalmist’s deep distress.

I think that diversity is one of the reasons the psalms continue to speak to people many centuries after they were written, who find themselves in many different circumstances. No matter what you are thinking or feeling, you can probably find a psalm that fits those thoughts and feelings. My favorite psalm is the first one I learned, Psalm 23, which reminds me that even when my life leads me through unknown pathways in dark and dangerous times, God is with me. And that’s good news.

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