How to Read the Psalms for All They’re Worth

I grew up when MTV actually played music videos.  MTV was so culturally pervasive that it was darn near impossible to hear a song without thinking of the video that went along with it.  Heck. I still can’t hear Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” without picturing Tawny Kitaen and a couple of Jaguars…give me a moment.

The thing about music before and after MTV is that it relies not on visuals but on piercing the heart via the mind.  Even though I was a teenage metal head, I still loved The Eagles’ “Hotel California” especially after living in Hollywood because it so perfectly encapsulated the experience.  I was walking down the Sunset Strip one day at age 18 when I looked up to cardboard cutouts of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and John Belushi when the line “you can check out but you can never leave” suddenly made perfect sense.

Music is a powerful tool to move people BUT it must be taken on its own terms. If you try to interpret a song too literally, it loses its power and the Psalms are the same.

The Psalms were songs written to God by the people of God several thousands of years ago, which means that in order to truly understand them you have to do a little historical investigation. But the investigation can be too much of an academic exercise if it robs the Psalms of their emotional power.  One can turn the study of the Psalms into the “How to Measure Poetry” essay from the beginning of Dead Poet’s Society.

The Psalms are an oddity because they are the people of God’s words to the Lord which He has used to become HIs words to us! Why did God do such thing? Because they serve as wonderful poetic phrases that serve to express feelings we cannot find the right words to state ourselves and we should use them as such.

There are so many different kinds of Psalms.  For example, in the words of scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, laments “either express or presuppose deep trust in Yahweh, help a person to express struggles, suffering, or disappointment to the Lord.” (e.g., Psalm 88) but there are also Thanksgiving Psalms (e.g., Psalm 65); Praise Psalms (e.g., Psalm 8); Salvation History Psalms (e.g., Psalm 78); Celebration or Affirmation Psalms, which, among other things, include enthronement Psalms (e.g., Psalm 24); Wisdom Psalms (e.g., Psalm 36); and Psalms of Trust (e.g., Psalm 11).

The best way to read the Psalms is to study them carefully and separate them into the above categories and then use them in prayer depending on your mood and spiritual need.  I become quickly irritated with Christians who feel the need to fake happiness all the time.  Let’s face it, sometimes life sucks and God knows when we are full of it because He is God! Do you think you can fool God?

Use the Psalms to pray to God when you don’t feel you have the right words to pray to God.  I get that if you are constantly praying Psalms of lament that you may need a little counseling but those days will come. If David had them, so will we. The Psalms are honest expressions and we Christians need to express ourselves honestly to God.  We tend to lapse into a silly state of mind that seems to think God is a virgin eared old man who is easily offended.  We forget that our Lord sees every sin including every murder, rape. molestation, etc. He also sees every sin we commit. We aren’t fooling Him even if we pray in King James English!

The Psalms are honest and we need to be honest as well.  We need to read, study and use the Psalms to help us praise God and be brutally honest with God.  We cannot have a healthy relationship with our Lord when we try to lie to Him.  The Psalms are grace upon grace because they can so powerfully help us pray.  Do yourself a favor and engage them every day.