Ep.294: What Have We Learned from the Psalms?

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Three years ago in January I prayed Psalm 1, the beginning of a project to pray each of the psalms. Last week I arrived at the end, Psalm 150. That makes three years praying a psalm a week, with time off for holidays, vacations, and other excuses. 

Now that I’m done, let’s reflect. What have we seen in the psalms? How have they impacted us?

The first thing I notice is that these ancient poems are as current as Google News.Three thousand years ago the poets were writing headlines for today, complete with chaos, violence, disaster, corrupt politicians, war, and pandemics. The genius of the psalms translates human experience into poetry rather than focusing on specific events. Google News supplies the details of today’s disasters, but the psalms describe the experiences and emotions that disasters and successes evoke whenever they occur. The names and faces change, but the news stays the same.

Another striking feature of the psalms is the backdrop of darkness and evil. When I started this project in 2019, I expected to find more praise, more optimism. But the psalms give as much attention to darkness as to light, to difficulty as to ease, to complaint as to praise. But they don’t paint a static picture of gloom. Usually, the poet pushes through the darkness to light. Perhaps then, as now, joy and hope are hard-won attitudes, rewards for struggling against doubt and despair. 

The Harper-Collins Book of Prayers is 400 pages of prayers by 200 authors spanning 3000 years. (Robert Van de Weyer, ed. Castle Books: Edison, New Jersey, 1997) One small section of prayers stands out to me above all the others. It is a selection of psalms. When I read Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I was taken aback by its rawness, its power, and eloquence. I thought, “That’s why the psalms are in the Bible. They speak more simply and powerfully than thousands of prayers from lifetimes of experience.” 

The psalms also tap into my emotions. I tend to live stoically, soldiering on through thick and thin, consulting my will, not my emotions. When I am tense and annoyed, my family knows it long before I do. The psalms teach me that emotions are crucial in my relationship with God and others. Love is not just behavior, it is a feeling. It is affection, it wishes others well, it informs our relationships, it desires the best for others. 

But the scary part of emotions is that I don’t get to choose what I want to feel. If I lift the trap door and peer into the root cellar of my feelings—the whole crowd of them come jostling to the light, threatening to overwhelm me. What can I do with all that anger and love, the sadness and gladness, the feeling that God has abandoned me or the feeling that he is present? The psalms teach me to receive and feel and express each emotion to God. Perhaps when the psalms have done their work in me, I will be transformed from a soldier trudging through endless twilight to a dancer and singer greeting dawn in the mountains, singing dirges in the valleys, awake to the full range of human emotion. 

And finally, I have been surprised at how often the psalms criticize God–he’s not listening, he’s not helping, he’s sleeping. He’s not living up to his reputation for love and faithfulness, he’s abandoning the righteous, he’s not punishing evil. The poets have many complaints and they deal with them by complaining–complaining to God! This is faith at work, bringing all of life to God, reminding him of our need, calling him to exercise his love and faithfulness, waiting to see what he will do.  

In Hebrew, the Book of Psalms is titled “Songs of Praise.” I have wondered about that title, since so much of the book is anything but praise. But now, I like it. The poems and prayers and songs lead me from darkness to light, through despair to hope, through doubt into joyous faith. They are songs of praise.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, in our need, in our pain and joy, you are there for us in the psalms. You shelter us under your wings. You lead us to green pastures. You walk with us through the valley of shadows. You are our king, bringing justice and righteousness. 

Thank you for the psalms, for the images they furnish our imagination and the words they teach us to pray. Thank you for the journey they take us on, from fear to courage, from isolation to community, from darkness to the light of your presence. Hallelujah.


I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.