The gift of psalms

I had the wonderful privilege of growing up on the beautiful island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides where the psalms played a huge part in both church life and home. We memorised them, sang them, and so they became part of the fabric of my everyday existence.

However, it was not until I was acutely ill as a 9-year-old that I first felt that heart connection with the psalmist’s words. It was then that Psalm 116:1 jumped off the page and hit me:

I love the Lord, because my voice
and prayers he did hear.
I, while I live, will call on him,
who bowed to me his ear.
(Scottish Psalter, 1650)

Was it through singing these words or reading them, or hearing them read? I don’t remember.

But, in that moment, I do remember knowing that I was not alone. It was visceral. The Lord was listening to my childish cry for help, and with that came the realisation that the God I had been learning about and singing to was not a remote and distant deity but was in fact a personal God. These were the words I so needed to hear right there, right then. God’s presence touched me. The words of Psalm 116 had touched somewhere deep inside of me that I hadn’t even known existed.

So, yes, I love the psalms! Their poetic language resonates with that hidden part of our souls, and deepens our relationship with the Lord in ways we can scarcely understand. And I would like to share just a few thoughts on how the Lord ministers to me through the psalmists’ words.

1. The psalms give us space
How vital this is. God is patient with us. He allows us, in fact invites us, to bring our hearts to him; to bare our souls before him.

Psalm 88 expresses the heartbreak and desolation we feel when we think God has forgotten us – “day and night I cry out to you.” The words are hard to hear: “my eyes are dim with grief… Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” – and yet the Lord gives us permission to say them. And say them again. We are invited to cry out from the depths and spend time there calling to the Lord in desperation. It is when we come to the bottom of our wounds and hurts that the true healing can begin. This cannot be rushed.

Psalm 139 tells us “you hem me in behind and before”. The bottom of our wounds is not too dark for our Lord to bring light because “the darkness is as light to you”. How tempted we can be to offer shallow comfort willing our suffering friends, or quick fixes and solutions that skim the surface. The psalms express something quite different. The Lord sits with us in our suffering. We are encouraged to wait and engage patiently hearing even encouraging the expression of sorrow and pain.

2. The psalms move us forward
We sing ourselves into the future. We don’t realise we’re being moved forward until we’re actually there. They carry us. Even as a fearful 9-year-old struggling with an unknown illness that daily robbed me of strength, the Lord used the words of Psalm 116 to fill me with his presence. Before this I’m not sure I knew that I loved the Lord; I wasn’t really aware that he was hearing my prayers or that I should even be praying. These words changed something inside me, helped me to see that a greater power was at work and that that power was a loving Father who deeply cared for me, a young child.

The psalms give us words when we do not know what to say. What an encouragement this is to keep reading the psalms consistently. They shape the way we think, they shape the way we pray. They propel us forward.

3. The psalms bring us in to worship and thankfulness
How many of the psalms, almost out of nowhere, land us in worship and glory? Whether this is through helping us confess as in Psalm 51, “my sin is always before me… Create in me a pure heart, O God”, or bringing who God is into sharper resolution: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens” (Psalm 8).

They give us one place to go with all the longings, grief, struggles and pain, and that is to the Lord who hears and loves us, who asks us to gaze on the beauty of his face (Psalm 27). They ask us to wrestle with our pain before the Lord and come into a place where we can say I love the Lord. The psalms do not diminish or minimise our pain but instead ask us to reveal it to a God who is full of compassion and love (Psalm 145). They welcome us to drink deep of the mercies shown to us through his steadfast love.

The psalms help us reorient ourselves towards gratitude and even towards celebration. Psalm 150 culminates with “Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord.” What unbridled joy! These words give us a taste of what we look forward to even as we live in this space where the creation is still groaning.

So, think, pray, sing and love the psalms and allow the Lord to do the work.