Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
—Psalm 96:1-3

The gospel according to the Psalms is this week’s theme and focus of this reflection. Before exploring the “good news” issuing from this book of the Bible, we need to explore what exactly the Psalms are. Understanding the origin, structure, and use of the Psalms helps tune us in to the good news they deliver.

On the one hand, this book of the Bible is different from every other book in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures because it is not a unified narrative, a prophetic witness, apocalyptic tale, or an epistle. In fact, this book is not even a collection of primarily wise sayings like some of the texts immediately following it. While similar literary forms sporadically appear in other places throughout scripture(s), the book of the Psalms is unique in that in its entirety it is a collection of prayers-in-verse. On the other hand, like most books of the Bible, this book did not originally have a title. Rather, “Psalms” as a title to this particular text is a later addition, a titling that arrived with the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures in the second century BCE. That Greek title psalmoi—not only supplies a name to call this collection of prayers-in-verse but, more importantly, tell us something about how these loosely collected prayers-in-verse were used. The word psalmoi means roughly “accompanied by stringed instruments.” So, this titling tells us that we not only have prayers-in-verse but prayers that are meant to be sung with accompaniment. In the Psalms, we have Israel’s hymnal.

Usefully, this “hymnal” not only offers theological insight into the intellectual and spiritual life of Israel through our having access to read the substance of the intimate and communal requests, complaints, praises, and thanksgivings permeating the Psalms, but in these hymns we, also, gain insight into the existential churnings of God’s people and the liturgical habits that inculcate them. Existentially, songs of praise offered toward God, words of thanksgiving, songs of confidence, claims of trust, petitions of intercession and supplication, words of wisdom, and festival songs are included. Each of these themes in the various sung prayers supplies insight into how Israel understands itself in relationship to its God and how it understands the very character of that relationship. Clearly, given the intimate, honest tone of the Psalms, Israel understood that relationship to be very close, mutual, and influential. Liturgically, imbedded in the texts are liturgical rubrics or superscripts, vestiges not of the words of the prayers themselves but traces of instructions for the priests as they employed the songs to shape the corporate and individual worship of Israel. Like an ancient Book of Common Prayer from the Anglican tradition, the Psalms record primordial instructions that divide the Psalms by category, author, and purpose. In addition, some ancient marginal notes remain in the text that cannot be translated, their instructional purpose lost because we do not know what those ancient directions mean, e.g., “selah.” Yet, the deliberate retention of their presence in the text reminds us that this particular text of scripture is not just any text but a text meant for worship, recording ancient prayers, sung to the God who chose those people to be God’s own people.

What these Psalms disclose about Israel is the very essence of the good news they convey. These prayers-in-verse tell the story of a people intimately connected to their God, assuming that connection will change their lives in this world and the heart of their God who hears them. Or, as Toni Craven and Walter Harrleson distill, the essential import of the Psalms lies in their serving as “poetic discourse between Israel and God, who is said to hear and answer. . . . The psalms present a rich cross section of speech to and about God, and in some cases include speech from God. At their heart is the conviction that God is one to whom all can speak.”

In the end, the good news of the book of the Psalms is a twofold victory, a victory (1) over any assumptions that God is distant, indifferent, or immutable and (2) over any delusion that a robust, vibrant faith acts as an elixir to suffering, doubt, and disappointment. Through the Psalms, life and faith in their messy reality are recorded, giving real people permission to live real lives really connected—above all—to a real God.

Sing a new song. Sing a real song. Sing an honest song. Just sing. God can take it.


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