In Christian spirituality, the Psalms have always had a special place. In monastic spirituality, the singing of the Psalms forms the heart of the various daily prayer services. In The Episcopal Church, that tradition is reflected in the use of the Psalms in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, which at one time were expected to be held every day in every parish church (I believe that in England, this is still the expectation). But the Psalms can be difficult, for they often confront us with feelings that the post-modern spiritual mind might think are inappropriate. Think, for example, of all those Psalm verses that take delight in the idea that God will smite our enemies, and make us victorious over those who wrong us. Not very religious thoughts, huh?
And yet, we do have those thoughts — if we are very honest with ourselves. That’s where the psalms can become helpful — in forcing us to be honest about ourselves. I doubt that there is a person who has ever lived who has not wished that God would smite his or her enemies. By embracing that idea, the Psalms force us to acknowledge that we have harbored that idea at some time or another. The mistake that people make with the Psalms is to think that this idea of asking God to smite those who are problematic for us is an idea God actually approves of. It’s an idea God certainly understands, but one that God would prefer, I think, we move beyond. After all, Jesus prayed the Psalms and still told us to love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us.
Actually, the Psalms themselves warn us not to misread them. Consider these verses from Pslam 50, appointed to be said this morning (10/29/09) at Morning Prayer:
You have loosed your lips for evil, and harnessed your tongue to a lie.
You are always speaking evil of your brother, and slandering your own mother’s son.
These things you have done, and I kept still, and you thought that I am like you.
If we are really, really honest with ourselves, we will recognize that while we don’t always speak evil, lie and talk badly about our siblings, we have at least from time to time behaved in the spirit of those words. And because, in the beautiful poetry of the psalms, God has “kept still” during our darker moments, we have then sometimes concluded that God is just like us. And that is perhaps what the original human sin really is: thinking that God is like us. I would argue that the greatest sin — or mistake — in the estimation of the Hebrew Scriptures is idolatry: treating as God something or someone who is not God. The Psalms, as we use them in our spiritual practice, can help us come to grips with this tendency in ourselves, and thus can help us acquire the self-honesty that is such an important part of the spiritual journey.
Of course, it would be a mistake to believe that the Psalms only confront us with the parts of ourselves we would rather not look at. And that is part of their genius, as well. For they do give us a break, as they send us off into praising God for life and for creation, as they admire the beauty of nature or the beauty of simply being alive. The whole spectrum of human life is really in there, and if we stick with the Psalms over time, we can begin to appreciate their beauty, their honesty and their power to help us connect with God.
If you want to explore this further, I recommend Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book (all his books are excellent!), entitled “The Message of the Psalms.”