Clearly we’re not going to be able to do justice to this huge collection of songs and poems in 600 words, so rather than looking too much at the texts, I want to ask about what the Psalms are, and how we might use them. They contain some of the best-loved and most-neglected words of Scripture: Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd’) forms a great contrast with the desire of the author of Psalm 137 who, in an ideal world, would love to see children dashed against rocks. The Anglican tradition used to be that the entire Psalter was prayed once each month, but many churches now neglect the whole book and barely ever use Psalms in worship.
So what is this book? It has been described as ‘The Hymn Book of the Second Temple’, and that title gives us a great clue as to its nature. With the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which we read about when looking at Ezra and Nehemiah, the Priests began a revival of worship, which probably involved collecting together Hymns Ancient and Modern into a five-volume book. It is certainly not the case that the whole book was written by King David, although some probably were. When the heading of a Psalm says in English ‘Of David’ the Hebrew means ‘To David’, or ‘From a Davidic collection’, so even the great musician-king acted as compiler of a collection without necessarily being the author. You can trace a development in thought, as well as some historical context, in some of the Psalms: Psalm 1, for example, blithely declares that good people will prosper and bad people flounder: The later book of Job gave the lie to that rather naive idea. Psalm 137, to which we have already referred, is clearly written out of the context of exile and slavery, and even tells us about the Israelites in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem. Probably not by David then, that one.
Theologians love to do ‘Form Criticism’ on the Psalms, in other words trying to reconstruct in what setting they may originally have been used. Some is a bit speculative, but there are also some good clues: Psalms 120-133, labelled as ‘Songs of Ascent’ look as though they might have been used in procession as pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem for festivals. Some Psalms belong in the genre of Wisdom Literature, the most notable of which is Psalm 119, a marathon celebration of God’s laws. There are also some delights in form: Psalm 119, again, is an acrostic Psalm, with the eight verses of each stanza all beginning with the same letter (which some versions of the Bible helpfully give us in Hebrew). The subject matter is as varied as it is possible to be: some are the words for an individual while others are corporate or national; there is celebration, lament, teaching, anguished and angry crying out to God for justice, or indeed any action at all on his part, and there is imprecation, the calling down of God’s anger on those who oppress the Jews. And so on …
So what does this collection as a whole teach us? A lot about God, for a start. Psalms like 78, a ‘recital of mighty acts’, rehearses God’s action in the nation’s history, and reminds us of the importance of remembering and counting our blessings. Many explain just why God is worthy of our heartfelt praise. But the book also teaches us about ourselves. In a church culture which is far too often ‘nice’ and which sweeps any kind of negativity under the carpet, it is comforting to know that Israel felt that it was OK, in the context of worship, to weep, lament, get angry, rant à la Stephen Fry against God’s cruelty, as well as to engage in outrageous celebration. Any church which allows us to do less is missing the point, and may well be doing irreparable harm to us too. There will be a Psalm for any mood, for every occasion, and they make great, if at times uncomfortable, spurs into prayer.