Keith Hunt - Psalms - Understanding them #2 - Page Two   Restitution of All Things

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Psalms - Understanding Them #2

From the book "The Bible Jesus Read" by Philip Yancey



     For the rest of this study I shall leave the majority as to
what is said to Philip Yancey.  All emphasis in capital letters
is mine.  Quote:

MESSY AND DISTORTED, LIKE LIFE

     ....At a basic level, the psalms help me reconcile what I
believe about life with what I actually encounter in
life......Why have more Christians died for their faith in this
century than in all others combined? 
     God is good? Why did my father, a young man with unlimited
potential as a missionary, die before reaching the age of thirty?
Why did all those Jews and Christians die unjustly in the
Holocaust? Why is the most religious portion of our population,
inner-city African-Americans, the most poverty-stricken and
hopeless?....
     What of the Christians in Sudan or Mozambique, though? How
can they thank God while dying for want of food?
     If reading the last three paragraphs has made you slightly
uncomfortable, perhaps you should read Psalms again. It contains
the ANGUISHED journals of people who want to believe in a loving,
gracious, faithful God while the world keeps FALLING APART
around them......
     
     Why should David, anointed by God to be king, spend a decade
hiding out in caves and dodging the spears of Saul, whom God had
ordered to step down. How can God's people feel thankful when
there seems so little to feel thankful about?
     Many psalms show their authors fiercely struggling with such
questions......
     Psalm 62 boldly, without explanation, insists on two facts
that Job could never put together: 'that you, O God, are strong,
and that you, O Lord, are loving.'  Sometimes, however, the poets
cannot make sense of what they see, and the psalmists end up
sounding exactly like Job:
     ' I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My
eyes fail, looking for my God' (69:3).
     
     At this point the seemingly random ordering of the 150
psalms comes into play, for the SEESAW cycle of INTIMACY and
ABANDONMENT is, in fact, what MOST people experience in their
relationship  with God.....

     Psalm 23, that shepherd song of sweeping promise and
consummate comfort, follows on the heels of Psalm 22, which opens
with the words Jesus cried from the cross, 'My God, my God, why
have you forsaken me?' The two psalms, both attributed to David,
could hardly form a more glaring CONTRAST. True, David does find
some sort of resolution in Psalm 22, by looking ahead to a future
time when God will rule over the nations and the poor will eat
their fill. But he makes clear how he feels at the moment of
writing" 'I cry out by day, but you do not answer....I am a worm
and not a man....Roaring lions tearing their prey open their
mouths wide against me....all my bones are out of joint....my
tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.' Such sentiments seem from
ANOTHER PLANET when you turn the page and read, 'The Lord is my
shepherd, I shall not be in want....Surely goodness and love will
follow me all the days of my life.'

     A similar DISCORD marks Psalm 102 and 103. The first
(subtitled ' A prayer of an afflicted man. When he is faint and
pours out his lament before the Lord.') eloquently expresses the
DESPAIR of an aging, weakened man who feels ABANDONED by all
friends and by GOD. It reads like a catalog of PAIN scratched out
by a hospital patient in a febrile state. The NEXT psalm,
however, a majestic hymn of PRAISE, includes NOT ONE note from
the MINOR key.......

     I have learned to appreciate Psalms precisely because it
does encompass BOTH points of view, often adjoined with no
calming transition. 'Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not
his benefits,' says Psalm 103. The author of its nearest neighbor
is DESPERATELY trying to RECALL God's benefits, no easy task in
his condition, bones burning like glowing embers, on a diet of
ashes and tears.
     I, for one, am glad my Bible includes both kinds of psalms.
A time may come when I feel like the author of Psalm 22 or 102,
and when that time comes I will take comfort in the fact that
spiritual giants - most notably, Jesus himself - have felt that
way too. And although I may groan and cry out and resist the
trial that entangles me in its net, I will also try to recall the
tranquil message of Psalm 23 and 103. By itself, Psalm 23 leads
to an easy-answer faith; by itself Psalm 22 leads to spiritual
despair; TOGETHER, the two offer a bracing mixture of REALISM and
HOPE.
     I have come to see these psalms as calling for different
KINDS of faith. Psalm 23 models CHILDLIKE faith, and Psalm 22
models FIDELITY, a deeper, more mysterious kind of faith. Life
with God may include BOTH. 
     We may experience times of unusual closeness, when prayers
are answered in an  OBVIOUS way and God seems INTIMATE and
CARING. We may also experience DARK times, when God stays SILENT,
when nothing works according to formula and all the Bible's
PROMISES seem GLARINGLY false. Fidelity involves learning to
TRUST that, out BEYOND the perimeter of DARKNESS, God still
REIGNS and has NOT abandoned us, no matter how it MAY appear.
     The 150 psalms are as DIFFICULT, DISORDERED, and MESSY as
life itself, a fact that can bring unexpected comfort. Kathleen
Norris describes in THE CLOISTER WALK how she has learned to
bring the psalms into her current situation by 'praying the
news' :
     
     ' Psalm 74's lament on the violation of sacred space.....has
     become for me a  prayer for the victims and perpetrators of
     domestic violence.....Hearing Psalm 79.....as I read of the
     civil war in the Balkans forces me to reflect on the evil
     that tribalism and violence, often justified by religion,
     continue to inflict on our world.....The psalms mirror our
     world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation
     unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to
     recognize our part in it. They make us re-examine our
     values.'

     Here is what Psalms can do for a person in DISTRESS. In
1977, at the height of the Cold War, Anatoly Shcharansky, a
brilliant young mathematician and chess player, was arrested by
the KGB for his repeated attempts to emigrate to Israel. He spent
thirteen years inside the Soviet Gulag. From morning to evening
Shcharansky read and studied all 150 psalms (in Hebrew). 'What
does this give me?' he asked in a letter: 'Gradually, my feeling
of great loss and sorrow changed to one of bright hopes.'
     Shcharansky so cherished his book of Psalms, in fact, that
when the guards took it away from him, he lay in the snow,
refusing to move, until they returned it.
     During those thirteen years, his wife travelled around the
world campaigning for his release. Accepting an honorary degree
on his behalf, she told the university audience, 'In a lonely
cell in Chistopol prison, locked alone with the Psalms of David,
Anatoly found expression for his innermost feelings in the
outpourings of the King of Israel thousands of years ago.'

SOUL THERAPY

     The psalms give me a model of spiritual therapy. I once
wrote a book titled DISAPPOINTMENT WITH GOD, and my publishers
initially worried over the title......It seemed faintly heretical
to introduce a book with a negative title.....
     I the process of writing the book, however, I found that the
Bible includes detailed accounts of people sorely DISAPPOINTED
with God - to put it mildly. Not only Job and Moses have it out
with God; so do Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and many of the unnamed
psalmists. Some psalms merit titles like 'Furious with God,'
'Betrayed by God,' 'Abandoned by God.' 'In despair with God.'
     Consider a few lines from Psalm 89:

     'How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
     How long will your wrath burn like fire?
     For what futility you have created men?'

     O these sentiments from Psalm 88:

     'Why, O Lord, do you reject me
     and hide your face from me?....
     the darkness is my closest friend.'

     It may seem strange for sacred writings to include such
scenes of spiritual failure, but actually their inclusion
reflects an important principle of therapy......

     Kathleen Norris writes of a Catholic sister who counsels
troubled women - displaced homemakers, abused wives, women
returning to college after years away - and finds that Psalms
offers a helpful pattern of expressing rage that the church often
tries to repress. 'Bear it up; keep smiling; suffering makes you
strong,' say some spiritual advisors - but not the psalmists
.......rather, they express emotions vividly and loudly,
directing their feelings primarily at God.
     The 150 psalms present a mosaic of spiritual therapy in
progress. Doubt, paranoia, giddiness, meanness, delight hatred.
Such stewings of emotions, which I once saw as hopeless disarray,
I now see as a sign of health. 
     From Psalms I have learned that I can rightfully bring to
God WHATEVER I feel about him. I need not paper over my failures
and try to clean up my own rottenness; far better to bring those
weaknesses to God, who alone has the power to heal.
     No psalm demonstrates healing power better than Psalm 51,
credited to David after his sordid affair with Bathsheba (see 2
Samuel 11 and 12)......

     Walter Brueggemann has coined the term 'psalms of
disorientation' to describe those psalms that express confusion,
confession, and doubt. 
     Typically, the writer begins by begging God to rescue him
from his desperate straits. He may weave poetic images of how he
has been wronged, appeal to God's sense of justice, even taunt
God: 'What good can I do you when I'm dead? How can I praise you
there?' The very act of venting these feelings allows the author
to attain a better perspective. He reflects on better times,
remembers answered prayers of the past, concedes favors that he
may have overlooked. By the end of the psalm, he moves towards
praise and thanksgiving. He feels heard and cleansed. The psalm,
or prayer, works out the transformation.

     Psalm 71 gives an example of how this 'spiritual reality
therapy' may work. The stanzas move from URGENT PLEAS for God's
HELP to tentative DECLARATIONS OF FAITH to NEW FEARS for the
future. By the END the poet is praising God for his FAITHFULNESS.
     Forced memory, of God's MIRACLES for Israel and God's PAST
INTIMACY in his own life, has put to rest, for the present, some
of the poet's fundamental DOUBTS. 
     
     Many psalms convey this spirit of 'Lord, I believe, help my
unbelief,' a way of talking oneself into FAITH when EMOTIONS are
WAVERING.

     The odd mixture of psalms of CURSING, psalms of PRAISE, and
psalms of CONFESSION no longer jars me as it once did. Instead, I
am continually amazed by the spiritual wholeness of the Hebrew
poets, who sought to INCLUDE GOD in EVERY area of life by
bringing to God EVERY EMOTION experienced in DAILY activity. One
need not 'dress up' or 'put on a face' to meet God/ There are no
walled-off areas; God can be TRUSTED with REALITY.
     For the Hebrew poets, God represented a reality MORE SOLID
than their own WHIPSAW EMOTIONS or the checkered history of their
people. They WRESTLED with God over EVERY FACET of their lives,
and in the end it was the very act of wrestling that proved their
FAITH......

     I have a friend, Harold Fickett, who retires for days at a
time to a nearby monastery. Many monastic orders recite the
psalms aloud morning, noon, and evening......Reflecting on this
time with the monks, Harold wrote that:

     The Psalms supply me with the words that I need and
     sometimes want to say to my God. Words that celebrate his
     reality: 'The heavens declare the glory of God.' Words
     that confess his action in my life: 'You have turned my
     mourning into dancing.' Words that express my utter
     dependence: 'In my mother's womb, you formed me.' Words that
     convey my hoped-for intimacy: 'This one thing I desire, that
     I might dwell in the house of the Lord forever.' The Psalms
     tutor my soul in my love for God.                    

End of quotes from the book "The Bible Jesus Read" by Philip
Yancey. To be continued with a final third section.

                 ..........................

Compiled October 2001


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