Appreciating the Psalms

I am an enormous fan of the Psalms of the Old Testament. I frequently turn to them in my own prayer and often suggest particular psalms for retreatants, those who come to me for spiritual direction, and others. (I’m not the only one: my friend Maria wrote a beautiful blog post last week about the power of the psalms for her, which you can read here.)

I was reminded of the power of the Psalms at UST’s Weekly Manna gathering this week, at which the speaker was my friend and colleague Joel Nichols. He began by talking about the psalms in general terms – mentioning the different categories of psalms (thanksgiving, lamentation, praise, etc.) and spoke about seeing them as songs that “seep into our heart.”

Joel then spent time with Psalms 22. He had begun our session by reading the short account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus’ death, which records Jesus crying out to his father, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” which is, as many people will recognize (but equally as many will not), is the opening line of Psalm 22.

Joel remarked that we often read Jesus’ words from the cross as simply expressing Jesus’ anguish. What if instead, Joel suggested, we understand Jesus to be using the Psalm in its entirety? Not reciting, but perhaps praying.

With that suggestion, Joel took us through the movement of the psalm. The psalm begins with a sense of abandonment. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?…I call by day, but you do not answer.” Yet, even in the feeling of abandonment, the psalmist recalls the trust of the ancestors: “they trusted and you answered them.” But the psalmist is still not encouraged. He records being scorned and mocked, people suggesting “You relied on the Lord – let him deliver you.” The psalmist then remembers that God drew him from the womb and begs for God to be near.

What struck me as I listened to Joel move through the Psalm was that if one understands Jesus as either implicitly or explicitly praying his way through psalm, or at least understands the flow of emotion and thought, it becomes much easier to understand Jesus’ movement from “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” to “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

And, as Joel observed, if I realize that Jesus could say this to God and could go through this movement, then I can understand that I can as well.

Psalm 22 is a valuable psalm for us when not feeling God, when we are not feeling hope.

My hope is that Joel’s talk will encourage more people to pray with the Psalms and to find ones, like this one, that they can go to in times of need.