Saturday, February 21, 2009

Power of the Psalms

I’ve been asked to teach you how to write a psalm.
In 15 minutes?
So here goes:

a psalm is

a poem sung unto God,

or in praise of
    or about God.

(click on picture to enlarge)
Hand-out: (highlight  Types: Lament,Thanksgiving, etc. Structure of a Lament-type psalm: 1) Statement of distress, 2) Word of trust in God, 3)Appeal for deliverance, 4) Declaration of obedience, 5) Vow to sing a Thanksgiving. Examples of psalms in other places in the scriptures.)
The best way to learn to write a psalm?

Read the psalms – soak up their rhythms, imagery, their spirit of reverence.  Then write from your heart.

And there you have it! – and all under 15 minutes!

I’ll take the next 13 minutes to get you started in reading the psalms. Why psalms anyway?

Deuteronomy 31:19, 21

Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel . . .

And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are befallen them, that this song shall testify against them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed . . .
That’s the power of poetry and song – even little jingles stick in your mind: advertising slogans, rhyming bits of advice:
I before E, except after C,”
When in doubt, throw it out.”

We need to lay claim on our heritage – Read the psalms.

Generations before us knew the psalms well - you’ll probably recognize these sayings even if you don’t recognize them as verses of the psalms:
Lift mine eyes unto the hills . . .

Except the Lord build the house . . .

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee . . .

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion . . .

Make a joyful noise . . .

Create in me a clean heart . . .

God is a very present help in trouble . . .

Be still & know that I am God . . .
One of the most interesting things I learned is that what we call the "Book of Psalms" is really separated into 5 Books – each with its own theme (see hand-out). The psalms build on each other, comment on each other.

Realizing this interaction and realizing that different psalms were sung in different settings (on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, at certain holidays or times of the year, as a Q&A call-and-response during temple worship) makes the psalms even more interesting.

I can’t do justice to the whole book of Psalms so I will focus just on Book 1

(which is a wrench because I’m dying to talk about Psalm 73 which begins Book 3 and Psalm 80 – both very thoughtful, poignant laments. And Psalm 42-43 which begins Book 2 with its beautiful imagery of the deer panting after water and its repeated refrains – gorgeous lines of poetry. And I wanted to read to you Psalm 104 from Book 4 which re-creates the whole creation line after line – Read it yourself! Great stuff here!)

Book 1 of the Book of Psalms focuses on the path of Wisdom and the Law. As in all the “books” of the Psalms, the first psalm of this section sets the tone and establishes the theme:

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man
that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly . . .
but his delight is in the law of the Lord . . .
and he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
his leaf also shall not wither;
and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper . . .
The mood is trusting, hopeful and innocent, and full of childlike awe. Many beautiful passages describe God and humanity at peace together in the wonder of the creation:

Psalm 8

When I consider the heavens,
the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalm 19

The heavens declare the glory of god
and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech and sheweth knowledge . . .

Psalm 23 – we know it as "The Lord is my Shepherd" – is a psalm of pilgrimage sung while travelling to Jerusalem for feast days at Temple. Doesn’t knowing that setting and imagining the dry and rocky terrain the pilgrims had to travel over, the danger of robbers along the way, add to the significance of this psalm?

Psalm 29 – I wish I could hear this is Hebrew, but even in our English translation it is a great thundering poem describing an awesome storm rising over the Mediterranean (“many waters”) rolling ominously over the mountains of Lebanon and spending itself in the desert. Listen to how these lines build and rumble:

Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty,
give unto the Lord glory and strength.
Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name;
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters:
the Lord of glory thundereth:
the Lord is upon many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars;
yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon . . .
This section, Book 1, is full of Wisdom-type psalms. However, even the Laments you find in Book 1 are more hopeful than in later sections. And only in Book 1 do we find standing alone just the more optimistic parts of a lament – for example, a Song of Trust (Psalm 11) and a Vow (Psalm 16). Remember a vow was usually the last part of a lament where the sufferer promises to sing a Thanksgiving psalm in God’s honor in the courts of the temple once he is delivered from suffering.

For the last seven or so minutes I would like to focus on one particular Lament-type psalm in Book 1, Psalm 22, which begins: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? These are, of course, also the words Christ cried out in a loud voice during the depths of His final suffering on the cross (Matthew 27:46).

Knowing this psalm and knowing how psalms function teaches us something. These lines are more than just the cry of His anguish. It is prophecy of what is coming next – indeed when Christ cries out the words of this psalm in Aramaic, Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? those roundabout mock him, “Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him,” just like verses 7 and 8 of the psalm would have led Christ’s disciples to expect:

All they that see me laugh me to scorn:
they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him
let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
After Christ dies the soldiers will cast lots for His clothing – just like the lines of the psalm in verse 18, “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.”

This is the power of a psalm – with a few words Jesus can send a kind of shorthand message to His disciples – to prophesy of what’s coming next and to comfort them and to bear testimony to them. Because the psalm doesn’t just describe great suffering:

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint:
my heart is like wax;
it is melted in the midst of my bowels.

My strength is dried up like a potsherd;
and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws;
and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.

For dogs have compassed me:
the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me:
they pierced my hands and my feet.
But because this psalm is also remarkable among the Book of Psalms for the unshakable trust of the sufferer who knows He is beloved of God and expresses His complete reliance on His Father:

But thou art he that took me out of the womb:
thou didst make me hope
when I was upon my mother’s breasts.
I was cast upon thee from the womb:
thou art my God from my mother’s belly.
So when Christ cries out the opening phrase of a familiar psalm, He starts up a process in His disciples’ minds, that takes them from suffering, through reliance on God, to the victory over death:

Ye that fear the Lord, praise him;
all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him;
and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
neither hath he hid his face from him;
but when he cried unto him, he heard.
And it’s obvious from the way Matthew has structured his account of Christ’s crucifixion, the details that Matthew emphasizes, that Psalm 22 is playing in the background for him as he writes down his testimony of Christ - his testament of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Shortly after He cries out, “My God, my God , why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus gives up the ghost and dies – but if we know the psalm then we know He is also telling us what is really coming next, what comes after the garments are divided among the soldiers, after the apparent victory of the powers of this world.

Remember that the final part of a lament is a vow to sing a Thanksgiving among the congregation at the Temple? Remember that the temple was simply an earthly representation of Heaven? Verses 22 and 25 of the psalm remind us:

I will declare thy name unto my brethren:
in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. . . .
My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation:
I will pay my vows before them that fear him . . . 
The psalm reminds us – and the words of the psalm would have painted a picture in the minds of the disciples mourning there at the foot of that terrible cross – reminding them that Christ would now be ascending to that Great Congregation where He would declare the triumph of His Father’s name in the courts of Heaven and fulfill His vow to sing praise to His Everlasting Father – there amidst all the hosts of heaven.

Christ knew, as the psalmist knew, that “none can keep alive his own soul,” but must submit to the will of the Father. Christ knew that
Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit (John 12:24)
as the psalmist knew, that

A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
The disciples would have echoing in their ears – as we should also have echoing in our ears – a call to now carry forward Christ’s triumphant message to the rest of God's children:
All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord:
and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s:
and he is the governor among the nations. . . .
They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness
unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.
And that is the power of the psalms. Read them and lay claim to the comfort and prophecy and testimony that the psalms have carried – through the years – until our day – for you.

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