I’ve had Philip Yancey’s The Bible Jesus Read on my “must read list” for several years now and finally found a copy at a yard sale last summer. I finished reading it several days ago, but I’m still agog and absorbing all of the insights the author shares with regard to the Psalms, Job and the books of the prophets. I’m actually re-reading each section of the book again more in depth because it’s that good. To meditate on the the whole book at once would be overwhelming, not to mention really, really long for blog book review purposes, so I may add more reviews on different sections as I get a fuller understanding through meditation about each part. But for now, I’ll focus on the section on the Psalms.
I love Philip Yancey’s section on the Psalms because I had felt, as he did, that the Psalms seemed to be a jumble of poems that sing praises to God one minute and then all of a sudden you hit a slew of angry or despondent ones that just seem to throw you off and you can’t help but wonder what’s up with that and why are these in the Bible??? What the author points out is that reading the Psalms is like “reading over someone’s shoulder” and that “they are personal prayers in the form of poetry written by a variety of people – peasants, kings, professional musicians, rank amateurs – in wildly fluctuating moods.” Understanding that they were written as “letters to God” and that God alone was the intended audience, not other people, helps. He adds that even “psalms for public use were designed as corporate prayers” with God as the primary audience.
Psalms gives examples of “ordinary” people struggling mightily to align what they believe about God with what they actually experience. Sometimes the authors are vindictive, sometimes self-righteous, sometimes paranoid, sometimes petty.
Also, I found it very helpful that he points out that only a minority of the psalms focus on praise and thanksgiving and that close to seventy percent take the form of laments. Which of course begs for a definition of “lament,” which he explains:
King David specifically ordered that his people be taught how to lament (2 Samuel 1:18). The “lament” in Psalms has little in common with whining or complaining. We whine about things we have little control over; we lament what we believe ought to be changed. Like Job, the psalmists clung to a belief in God’s ultimate goodness, no matter how things appeared at the present, and cried out for justice. They lamented that God’s will was not being done on earth as it was in Heaven; the resulting poetry helped realign their eternal beliefs with their daily experience.
He quotes Christian counselor Dan Allender as follows:
To whom do you vocalize the most intense, irrational – meaning inchoate, inarticulate – anger? Would you do so with someone who could fire you or cast you out of a cherished position or relationship? Not likely. You don’t trust them – you don’t believe they would endure the depths of your disappointment, confusion … The person who hears your lament, and far more bears your lament against them, paradoxically, is someone you deeply, wildly trust .. The language of lament is oddly the shadow side of faith.
Throughout the chapter, Philip speaks of the Psalms as “spiritual therapy” and that:
…[T]he Psalms offers a helpful pattern of expressing rage that the church often tries to repress. “Bear it up; keep smiling; suffering makes you strong,” say some spiritual advisors – but not the psalmists. They do not rationalize anger away or give abstract advice about pains; rather, they express emotions vividly and loudly, directing their feelings primarily at God.
The 150 psalms presents a mosaic of spiritual therapy in process. Doubt, paranoia, giddiness, meanness, delight, hatred, joy, praise, vengefulness, betrayal – you can find it all in Psalms. Such strewing of emotions, which I once saw as hopeless disarray, I now see as a sign of health. From Psalms I have learned that I can rightfully bring to God whatever I feel about Him. I need not paper over my failures and try to clean up my own rottennes; far better to bring those weaknesses to God, Who alone has the power to heal.
Later, he goes on to say:
I am continually amazed by the spiritual wholeness of the Hebrew poets, who sought to include God in every area of life by bringing to God every emotion experienced in daily activitiy. One need not “dress up” or “put on a face” to meet God. There are no walled-off areas; God can be trusted with reality.
Since I was raised rather conservative-“stiff upper lip” this whole concept is kinda new for me. Especially that last sentence there. Radical, even. Blast out at God?? Tell Him how disappointed I am in Him for something?? He doesn’t insist I be polite in prayer time and even methodical, like a three-point essay as to why I would like Him to see things my way and cooperate??? Tell Him how much I want Him to send down fire and brimstone upon the heads of those who curse me??? And He won’t write me off as some whack job??? Seriously??? Woooo…. that’s like, I … um, wow, almost heretical ….. isn’t it??? “But that’s not the way prayer is done!”
But as an explanation of what the psalmists’ poetry is makes the concept of being actually – dare I say it? – totally honest with God about my feelings, whatever and whenever, very enlightening …… liberating ……. and something I’ll be chewing on for awhile, no doubt. ‘Cuz ya know, it’s not like God doesn’t already know what I’m thinking or feeling, right? Still …….. hmmmmm. Wow.