The Psalms: Reflecting and Forming

Crosslands Seminary students are currently working through an introduction to the Old Testament. Here you can enjoy the first of two extracts from the unit on Psalms, exploring the function of the Psalms.

The Function of the Psalms, part 1: Reflecting and Forming

Many Christians throughout the ages have found the Psalms to be the most profoundly personal book of the Bible, often giving them words through which they may express to God their deepest emotions. The very ease with which we can find the words of the Psalms becoming our own words can be both a help and a hindrance in interpreting them richly in the context of the whole of Scripture.
How were the psalms used? How did they function in ancient Israelite life? In a word: worship. More particularly, the psalms played a double role within Israel’s worship, both public and private: both reflective and formative.

They were reflective in that they provide set, God-given forms in which worshippers could express a wide variety of personal and corporate reactions to the ups and downs, victories and apparent set-backs within God’s purposes in his people. Someone wanting to lament over Israel’s sin, rejoice in God’s universal sovereignty, express an emotional desire that God act decisively against his enemies, could find in the psalms that God had given to them words through which they could confidently express such things back to him.

Yet the psalms did not simply reflect what worshippers already felt and wanted to say. They also formed the worshippers. This formation is multi-layered. At the most straight-forward level, the psalms formed worshippers by disciplining them to express what they were already feeling in godly forms of expression that God had himself given to them. Thus, in inspiring the psalm-writers to write, for example, psalms of lament, God was implicitly saying, “When you want to lament over the nation’s sin, here is how to express it in a way which keeps you walking faithfully with me. You want to lament? Good. This is what godly lamenting sounds like.” The psalms, therefore, formed worshippers by bringing to express what was already in them in healthy ways.

At a second level of formation, the variety of psalms that God had inspired to be within the Psalter as a whole revealed to the worshippers the range of responses that they ought to have to the realities, both good and bad, within their own lives and within the nation. To take the example again of psalms of lament: through the presence of such psalms in the Psalter, God in effect says to worshippers who do not feel the need to lament over sin, “You should; it is part and parcel of how God requires his faithful people to feel and to respond to him.”

Third, formation can also happen within a particular psalm, as we follow with the psalmist the path that he walks through the psalm, leading us out of some spiritual malaise and into an appreciation of truths and insights that provide discipling and healing. Psalm 73 provides a wonderful example. It begins by expressing solid conviction in God’s goodness to his faithful people in general terms (v.1), but then the writer, Asaph, immediately and openly acknowledges that he had personally nearly fallen away from truly believing what he has just said: “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold” (v.2). He unashamedly tells us why: godless people seem to thrive in life, and God even seems to let them mock him and get away unpunished (v.2-11). This gets very personal for Asaph, for it led him to feel that all his own efforts to remain godly had been an awful waste of time and effort: why bother, if the life of the wicked seems to be a bed of roses anyway and if the faithful are often the ones who suffer (v.12-14)?

Then comes the turning-point, when he sees things differently: “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply / till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (v.16-17). He is recounting how a visit to the temple gave him a broader perspective – in particular, a broader temporal perspective. Something about that helps him to see that, though right now the wicked may thrive and the faithful suffer, it will not always be so. A final and definitive time will come when God will cause the wicked to perish (v.27). Moreover, as he struggles in waiting for that time to come, even in his struggles God has not abandoned him, but holds him tenderly and guides him (v.23-24).

We can say that a worshipper who experiences for themselves just what the psalmist describes in verses 2-15 can be taken through a process of spiritual formation as they pray their way through to the end of this psalm. It may not have occurred to them that the solution to their predicament is to gain the kind of perspective that Asaph did, and to do so in the way he did it, but in the psalm God, as it were, takes them by the hand and leads them through the same discipling process that Asaph went through. We might even say that there is a sense in which, for future worshippers, this very psalm becomes one of the instruments through which God does the very thing that Asaph comes to say about him: holding us by his right hand and guiding us by his counsel (v.23-24). This psalm becomes part of the divine ‘counsel’ through which he holds worshippers like Asaph fast in distressing circumstances.

Thus, there are at least these three ways in which the psalms functioned formationally, as well as reflectively, in the lives of Israelite worshippers, and continue to do so for us. Many Christians through history have recognised all this. The fourth-century church father Athansasius wrote about it eloquently in his Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms, and he is worth quoting at some length:

‘And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.’

‘And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.’

‘It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction.’

‘For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.’

Thus, for Athanasius, the Psalter is much more than a book that tells us simply about God. It is also a God-given mirror that reflects our humanity; it is an emotional symphony that plays melodies that capture our creatureliness; and it is a lexicon that gives expression to our deepest feelings. In short, as the most introspective book in the Old Testament, the Psalter provides us with a profound vision of who we are. And in so doing, the book provides us with a rich theological anthropology.