Throughout most of Christian history, the Psalms were easily the most-read part of the Bible, read at every liturgical gathering and forming the basis of personal prayer. They have been called the Hymnbook of the People of God, and have marked the hours, days, and seasons for generations of monastics and other Christians. But, what exactly are they? How did they work? And how did they take on the importance they did?
First of all, the Psalms are a collection of ancient Hebrew poems, so everything that was said in the post on biblical poetry holds true for them. In other words, they make abundant use of things like parallelism, repetition, alliteration, sound symbolism, rhythm, metre, and stylistic devices such as acrostic and call-and-response. But beyond this general unifying fact of being poetry, the Psalms are perhaps best understood through their diversity, since different psalms had different themes or functions, and did different things accordingly. Some of the major types of Psalm include:
- Songs of Praise (e.g., Psalms 146-150) : Poems praising God for creation or general goodness
- Songs of Thanksgiving (e.g., Psalms 105-106): Poems expressing thanksgiving for specific acts in the life of the community or psalmist
- Lamentations, both community (e.g., Psalm 44, 80 ) and individual (e.g., Psalms 3-5): Poems expressing disappointment, frustration, or anger at the psalmist’s circumstances
- Royal (e.g., Psalm 2, 18): Poems for the occasion of the coronation of a new king
- Songs of Ascent (e.g., Psalms 120-134): Poems sung by pilgrims on their way to the Temple
- Wisdom Poems (e.g., Psalm 1, 119): Poems exploring moral or philosophical themes, or reflecting on the goodness of the Torah.
This is helpful to keep in mind because different types of Psalm have different functions and therefore use different symbols, or the same symbols differently. The language used in a personal lament, for example, is very different from that of liturgical praise. So, it’s helpful to know what we’re dealing with.
But, what is by far the most important and unique characteristic of the Psalms is their personal, often emotional, character. Looking in the stories of the Torah, Deuteronomistic History, or even the Gospels, we see little in the way of the characters’ interior life — motivations, feelings about what was happening, or general psychology. The Psalms offer a refreshing — sometimes shocking — alternative to this. Here, emotions are expressed in lively, visceral ways, without any attempt at shying away from them or putting on a ‘holy’ face (what people today call ‘spiritual bypassing’). Psalm 137 comes immediately to mind with its heartbreaking lament, “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”, and its horrific (but very human) concluding wish: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
More common than Psalm 137’s disturbing endnote, however, are Psalms in which we see emotional growth or processing happening within them, for example, moving from a place of anxiety to one of trust in God’s faithfulness. As such, in the past I’ve compared some Psalms to what Brene Brown has called “shitty first drafts,” where we tell a story in a certain way to get the emotion out, allowing us to move through our feelings and into a more well-rounded perspective on what’s happening. Perhaps the best example of this is Psalm 22, which begins with an expression of desolation and abandonment (”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, with fifteen more verses describing this state of foresakenness), moves through an expression of prayer and hope that God will act (”But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!”), before finishing with an expression of complete trust in God (”Future generations will be told about the LORD, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it”).
This intense feeling is one of the most remarkable features of the Psalms, and is likely why they have stood the test of time and been sung by Israelites, Jews, and Christians without ceasing. But it also means we have to be careful how we approach them as Scripture. “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock” is not a case of “thus saith the LORD.” It is an expression of a human rage and has nothing to do with God. Similarly, the feeling of God-forsakenness expressed in Psalm 22 is not the last word — it isn’t even the last word of the Psalm itself! It’s never a good idea to take individual lines of Scripture out of their immediate contexts, but this is particularly true of the Psalms. Reading the Psalms should give us comfort that our emotions and feelings are real and valid — at times they can even give us words through which to voice them. But, as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy rightly teaches, feelings may be valid, but feelings aren’t facts. We feel our feelings, express our feelings, and learn from our feelings, but aren’t to be taken in by them. To be faithful means to go through the whole process and out the other side, not to stay in our feelings forever. And like our feelings, the Psalms need to be questioned; we need to ask what exactly is ‘sacred’ about the poem before us, lest we confuse unsanctified feelings for sacred truth.