Psalms – the missing jewel of the worshipping church?
It was several decades ago that A. W. Tozer described worship as the ‘missing jewel of the evangelical church’. It was one of the messages that helped to fuel an embryonic worship movement that has since transformed the way millions worship across the world. I hope the late great man will forgive me for adapting his words for today to read: Psalms – the missing jewel of the worshipping church.
I have read them regularly, composed songs from them, and spontaneously sung them straight from the page for many years, but even so I think I am only just beginning to wake up to their immense power and significance. I love to open up a good commentary and learn about them from a scholar, but something remarkable starts to happen when I open up my mouth and wrap my lips, tongue and heart around the words and pray them aloud.
We should be in awe of the Psalms, they have lasted thousands of years, translate into multiple languages, and were a staple diet for our spiritual ancestors. Ninety Psalms are quoted in the New Testament, and short quotes are like headlines that say ‘go back and read the whole thing’. Augustine called the Psalms a school for people learning to pray. Ambrose called them a ‘gymnasium’. Athanasius said that whereas most of scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us, they give us a language, a vocabulary of engagement with God for every kind of circumstance and condition.
We would do well to increase their use in public worship, but the setting from which I would suggest the ‘jewel’ is most absent is not so much the public as the private.
I believe that the Psalms are gifted by God to enable every Christian to do much better what most Christians find most difficult – to pray and worship daily with gritty honesty and consistency using words inspired by the Holy Spirit. What if that daily habit became established in every worshipping community?
One of the strongest arguments for using the Psalms is both simple and profound – it was what Jesus did. The Psalms were Jesus’ prayer book, songbook and meditation manual, and if he needed them how much more do we? The Christian community was early convinced that he continues praying them through us as we pray them: “we recite this prayer of the Psalm in Him, and He recites it in us.” [Augustine]. We can take the Psalms on our lips as God’s gift of words to sing or pray back to him, knowing that they are fulfilled in Christ.
How did the ‘jewel’ go missing?
The vital place of the psalms to our spiritual ancestors is beyond question, so why are they sidelined today? There are many historical reasons I am sure, but one very contemporary one is that our media-intensive culture moulds us as spectators rather than participants, looking to screens, stages and platforms to be ‘done to’ and spoon-fed experience rather than learning how to nourish our own spiritual lives. In this atmosphere many Christians have become ‘event-dependant’ and have little idea how to sustain themselves between ‘fixes’. Those who have the job of providing the ‘spectacle’ week by week become exhausted under the demands.
There are many songs today that give us an excellent language for expressing our personal love and thanks to God but the Psalms also give us a language for anger, for frustration that the world is not as it should be, for protesting against injustice and for lamenting the tragedies that we see around us, and a language of hope for the future. We need to rediscover some of this language in our worship today - that allows the Christian community to grieve, protest, lament, and anticipate God’s final victory.
“The Psalter knows that life is dislocated. No cover-up is necessary. The Psalter is a collection over a long period of time of the eloquent, passionate songs and prayers of people who are at the desperate edge of their lives” [Praying the Psalms, Walter Bruggemann, p10, Authentic media.]
Commenting on trends in worship today, Graham Cray has suggested that our real danger is that we separate worship from life – but the Psalms won’t let us. I also believe that many men connect deeply with the Psalms who may not connect so well with some worship songs.
The Psalm-shaped worshipper
How do we pray the psalms? One of the best ways is simply to read them out loud, but not in a detached, cerebral way. The book of Psalms begins with a promise that the person who meditates in the law of the Lord is like ‘a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.’ That is quite a promise. Meditation sounds like a purely mental activity, but according to Eugene Peterson:
“Meditate [hagah] is a bodily action; it involves murmuring and mumbling words, taking a kind of physical pleasure in making the sounds of the words, getting the feel of the meaning as the syllables are shaped by larynx and tongue and lips. Isaiah uses this word “meditate” for the sounds that a lion makes over its prey [Isaiah 31:4].”
[Eugene Peterson, Answering God]
The Psalms spring to life when we engage with them physically – try it!
The Psalm-soaked church
We need to find fresh ways of using the psalms in public worship, but I wonder if the greatest service we could do for our congregations is to teach them to use the psalms in their daily lives, to become self-starters, net givers in the economy of spiritual community. As familiarity with them grows we will find that remembered psalm phrases or fragments become our everyday ‘library’ or ‘database’ to fuel our spontaneous prayer and worship - a rich resource for the Holy Spirit to prompt prayer and praise, as a defence against sin [Ps 119:11], and in crisis moments.
For example, Jonah’s Psalm-like prayer in the belly of the whale [Jonah 2:2-9] was not original, its component parts can be traced back to at least 10 sources in the Psalms. He had been to ‘Psalm-school’, worked out at ‘Psalm-gym’ and so in a moment of desperation, he had a vocabulary of prayer to draw upon.
As Psalm phrases lodge in our memories they reshape our view of God and our circumstances, enabling us to make the connection between our human condition, and God’s priorities, purposes and provisions for us. Whereas my own prayer vocabulary becomes exhausted or narrow or the issue looms so large that my faith falters, for example when praying for a nation in turmoil or persecution on a large scale, we can go to Psalm 2 and very quickly God’s perspective and agenda become ours.
How can a worship leader begin a Psalm ‘revival’ in their congregation? Simply by rediscovering the ‘missing jewel’ themselves and teaching others what they learn.
© Graham Kendrick