BY BLAKE ZIMMERMAN
Have you ever gone to church before and thought, “I wish I could bottle this feeling up and take it home with me”? Whether it was the tangible presence of the Lord during the bridge of your favorite song, the insightful preaching of the biblical text, or the encouragement that comes from gathering together with other believers, we can often leave church with a tinge of sadness, knowing that such an experience comes only once every seven days.
This coming and going, gathering and then dispersing, has always been the rhythm of the people of God. We gather together weekly to rehearse the gospel and then go back out into our communities as carriers of the gospel message.
That feeling you have walking out of the church auditorium—the beautiful mix of gratitude because of what you’ve just experienced and the intense longing to experience it even more—is a completely natural response (I would argue the right response) to the presence of God. There’s a reason the psalmist uses the language of whetting the spiritual appetite when he exhorts us, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34v8). But how do we “taste” the LORD when we’re not at church? How can I feel the presence of God when so-and-so isn’t leading me in worship? If you were to ask an ancient Israelite those questions after having spent time at their local synagogue or after one of their many trips to the Jerusalem temple, they would have undoubtedly responded with, “Ah! That’s what the Psalms are for!”
WHAT IS THE BOOK OF PSALMS?
The Book of Psalms was not composed the way I am composing this blog post. Whereas these words were all written within a couple of days of each other and by one author, the Book of Psalms is a diverse collection of poems, songs, and prayers written by a variety of Israelite authors over the course of her national history. At some point (many scholars believe during the Babylonian exile) these poems, songs, and prayers were compiled by a group of scribes and then meticulously arranged into a fivefold structure that together tells one coherent story.
Book One: Psalms 1-41
Book Two: Psalms 42-72
Book Three: Psalms 73-89
Book Four: Psalms 90-106
Book Five: Psalms 107-150
What’s the coherent story you ask? This may surprise you… but nothing the Israelites didn’t already know. If you read carefully enough, you’ll notice that the story the Book of Psalms is telling is one that started in Genesis and continued on in Israel’s history: The Creator God had chosen a people (Israel) through whom the world was to be blessed, and those people anxiously awaited a Messiah (a Spirit-filled king from the line of David) who was to come and establish the kingdom of God on earth as it was in heaven.
It’s precisely at this point where the Psalms come in.
The Psalms enabled the people of Israel to take this future hope and embed it in their daily patterns of living. It helped them to take a potentially abstract idea—a coming King—and work that idea into their imaginations through poetic language. The Psalms, in other words, helped Israel learn how to live by learning how to pray.
NO PRAYER IS OFF LIMITS
“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137v8-9).
Yes, you read that right. That’s a literal psalm in your Bible—the inspired Word of God. Which begs the question: Did the scribes pull a fast one on God and slip it in there when He wasn’t looking? Did God do a facepalm when He read Psalm 137 for the first time? My point in bringing up this psalm is not to say, “Here’s a template for how to pray against your political enemies!” My point is that prayer is about congruence. It’s about the outside matching the inside, your words harmonizing with your life. And in order to help with this harmonization, the Book of Psalms provides several types of prayers, by and large falling into two big categories: lament and praise.
Prayers of lament are about crying out to God in the midst of pain, confusion, and even anger. It’s asking, “How long, O LORD?” (Ps. 13) or “Why do you hide yourself?” (Ps. 10) It’s the type of honest prayer that seeks understanding when our lived experience—like exile in Babylon or when a loved one gets cancer—falls short of God’s promised redemption.
Prayers of praise, on the other hand, are given to remind us that one of the most important things the people of God can do is to remind ourselves of God’s character—His very being—by remembering His actions. That’s one of the unique things about the God of the Bible: He reveals Himself in time and space through real, concrete events. For example, if you were to ask an ancient Israelite about their God, do you know what they would have said?
“Oh, Yahweh? That’s who brought us out of Egypt.”
Psalms of praise give language to the ongoing reality that God is good because He has shown Himself to be good. It’s like looking up at the replay screen at a basketball game to watch an alley-oop that has already happened from a different angle. It’s elbowing your friend to say, “Hey, put your phone away! Don’t miss this!” Prayers of praise are about kneading the mighty acts of God deep into our muscle memory so that when trials come our way, we know that the God of the exodus and the God of resurrection always gets the last word.
THE BOOK OF PSALMS FOR TODAY
So, as you leave church this next week, when you wish you could bottle up that time of worship, know that you can. It’s called prayer. With the Psalms as our guide, we can begin to pray as a way of collaborating with God’s good work in the world the other six days of the week. It may not look like it sometimes, but make no mistake, there’s good work going on. Because the coming king that Israel hoped for did eventually come, and while his death at first seemed like an absence of the Kingdom, it was proved through the resurrection to be its appointed inauguration.
Now to the question, “What is your God like?” we can respond with, “Oh, He’s the one that raised Jesus from the dead.”
The Israelites used the Psalms to pray to the God of the exodus that He might do it again.
Likewise, we now use the same book to pray to the God of resurrection in joyful anticipation that our worst days are not our last days and our best days are just a taste of what’s to come.