Why Study Psalms?

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Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
~Psalm 139:23 (NIV)

The book of Psalms is easily one of the most well-known and well-loved in the whole of Scripture. A collection of ancient praise songs, it has inspired poets and musicians to produce their own works of art in praise to God. Most recently, Bono, the lead singer of U2, shared his own love of the Psalms in a conversation with author and biblical commentator Eugene Peterson. They have been chanted, sung, and read devotionally by countless Christians down through the ages.

Yet, if I’m honest, very rarely have I heard the Psalms preached. And I think that this is to our detriment, because of all the books, the Psalms give us a unique window into how God meets us when we are at our most raw and our most vulnerable. You see, the Psalms are not just songs or prayers. They are cries of the heart. They often express emotions in ways that aren’t seen elsewhere in the Bible. The Psalms are where emotions are raw, unrelenting, and messy. 

And, as such, they are the perfect resource for exploring, more deeply, our inner worlds. They provide us with a mirror into our own lives and how we handle (or fail to handle) emotions. But more than this, they are prayers, they are songs sung to God. And as such, they teach us what it means to be fully human before God.

In their book The Cry of the Soul Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III write:

Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality. Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God…Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice… However, we often turn a deaf ear – through emotional denial, distortion, or disengagement. We strain out anything disturbing in order to gain tenuous control of our inner world. We are frightened and ashamed of what leaks into our consciousness. In neglecting our intense emotions, we are false to ourselves and lose a wonderful opportunity to know God. We forget that change comes through brutal honesty and vulnerability before God.

And this is why we need to take time to study the Psalms. We live in a world where people often express what is on their minds and in their hearts, but too many of us do so in ways that are harmful and poorly handled. We see it in the rants on social media, in the breakdown of relationships, and the everyday outbursts in traffic or in line at the store. Quite simply, we often don’t know how to handle our strongest emotions. The response for many of us is to put on a mask, to bottle it up, or to simply make excuses.

But our faith tells us something different. It tells us that God made us as emotional beings and that our emotions can be signposts pointing us to something real, deep, and authentic about ourselves and what is going on beneath the surface of our well-tended masks. But more than this, they often serve as a great place to meet with God and allow Him to do the deep work that our weary souls require.

The Psalms give us a glimpse of what it looks like to bring our honest and raw selves to God. Tim Keller puts it this way in his book The Songs of Jesus:

Psalms are not just a matchless primer of teaching but a medicine chest for the heart and the best possible guide for practical living…[But more than this] the psalms help us see God – God not as we wish or hope him to be but as he actually reveals himself…The psalms fire our imaginations into new realms yet guide them toward the God who actually exists.

This is part of the reason that our church is going to be taking some time to dwell in the Psalms as Summer comes to a close. But whether you are able to join us or not, my encouragement to you is that you will begin to take some time to really reflect on the Psalms. And my hope is that we won’t just sing the Psalms, but that in them we will allow God to do the deep work that our hearts and souls require. That not only will we see ourselves in their verses, but we will also see the God who actually exists.

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