< What I Learned Teaching Sunday School: Psalms Part 1

Monday, December 15, 2008

Psalms Part 1

The church uses Psalms in worship all the time. A look at the church hymnal will confirm the fact the Psalms significantly contribute to our worship in song.

Worshippers, men and women who, like David, seek after God and yearn to know the heart of God follow the greatest calling of the church and of individual Christians. It is not to be evangelists or teachers or exhorters or comforters, but worshippers. The central focus of our lives should not be ourselves, or even others, but God. Jesus said that is the greatest commandment.

So my primary purpose in this study of the Psalms is to help each of us to gain a fuller appreciation for worship. In order to do this we must first come to appreciate the Psalms for the contribution they have made historically to the church and for what they can do in our lives. We must also approach the Psalms as a particular literary form, one we must become familiar with if we are to properly understand and apply the Psalms to our lives.

So, historically first:

There are several reasons why the Psalms have meant so much to the saints over the years. The following 4 points were written by Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh Th.M.and can be found at http://www.bible.org/

1. The Psalms speak to us. We cannot read very far into the Psalms without drawing the conclusion that the psalmist seems to have been reading our minds. How is it that after centuries have passed we find a man who lived in a different time and culture expressing our innermost feelings, fears and hopes? The answer, of course, is that we are reading the Scriptures, divinely inspired, infallible and inerrant. A word of God to us.

Recognizing this, it was Martin Luther who long ago said, “The Psalter is the favorite book of all the saints. Everyone, whatever his circumstances may be, finds in the Psalms, words which are appropriate to the circumstances in which he finds himself and meet his needs as adequately as if they were composed exclusively for his sake, and in such a way that he himself could not improve on them nor find or desire any better words.”

2. The Psalms speak for us. It was Athanasius, an outstanding church leader in the fourth century, who reportedly declared “the Psalms have a unique place in the Bible because most of the Scripture speaks to us, while the Psalms speak for us.”

Jesus expressed His grief at being separated from His Father on the cross by repeating the words of Psalm 22:1. Jonah’s “psalm” (Jonah 2:2-9), composed when he was inside the great fish, was an original work and yet his words and phrases were borrowed from the Book of Psalms. Countless Christians, down through the ages, have found the Psalms to speak for them, and have prayed the words of a Psalm, finding them to be the best expression of their souls’ desires.

The early Christians, following Jewish tradition, prayed the psalms daily. St. Benedict, in the early 6th Century, explained in His Holy Rule how his monks were to daily pray the psalms. Benedictine monks have continued this practice to the present day. The monks at Blue Cloud Abbey daily pray the psalms at Laude (morning prayer at 6:45 a.m.); Day Prayer at the beginning of midday Mass; Vespers (evening prayer sung at 5:00 pm); and Vigils (prayer preparing for the following day at 7:30 pm.) The psalms and canticles (which are other songs from the Bible), and accompanying prayers change according to the season and the day.

3. The Psalms speak for us “out of the depths.” Bernhard Anderson wrote an excellent book on the Psalms: Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. He said, “It is one thing to be able to praise God when we are having, “a nice day.” It is quite another to praise God when the bottom appears to have fallen out of life. If there is any time when men have turned to the book of Psalms, it is in their hour of deep despair and adversity.

No wonder the church fathers of the early centuries turned to the Psalms. And the Reformers did likewise. In the preface to his book, Bernhard Anderson reminds his readers that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazi regime, was a man deeply influenced by the Psalms. His last publication before his death was The Prayer Book of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms. (1940) On May 15th, 1943, he wrote these words: “I am reading the Psalms daily, as I have done for years. I know them and love them more than any other book in the Bible.”

Since the Psalms speak for us “out of the depths” (this expression comes from the opening words of Psalm 130), we may find comfort, consolation, and the words to praise God in our darkest hours. This, incidentally, explains much of the reason why the Psalms are neglected in preaching and worship in some American congregations. The truth is that we have had it too easy. We, like the Laodicean church of the Book of Revelation, have found Christianity comfortable and we have become complacent. It is when we are suffering and God seems strangely absent that our attention turns to this book.

I might also add that it is noteworthy, that virtually every Psalm, which is attributed to David, is a Psalm of lament. Most if not all, of the Psalms of David were written in the days when he was fleeing from Saul, not when he was sitting on the throne of the nation.

4. The Psalms are not only a “Prayer Book” but also a pattern for worship.

The Psalms provide us not only with a passage to ponder and to pray, but also with a pattern for our prayer and worship. Martin Luther found the Psalms to be a school of prayer. He said, “The Christian can learn to pray in the Psalter, for here he can hear how the saints talk with God. The number of moods, which are expressed here, joy and suffering, hope and care, make it possible for every Christian to find himself in it, and to pray with psalms."

If the Psalms are a pattern for worship, our prayer and our praise, then studying them will make of us better worshippers, more skillful and faithful than we have ever been before in prayer and in praise.

The Psalms greatly influenced the thinking of the apostles and the worship of the early church. The Psalms have been found worth the study and devotion of the greatest men of the centuries, and have brought comfort to those who have suffered for their faith. Any book so revered and read for centuries is worthy of our study.

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