The psalms are known as the prayer book of the bible. I love the psalms to dip into, or to study. In them we find such a range of human emotion. I love their honesty. Their place in the bible indicates that we too can say anything to God. They express hurt, hope, joy, wonder, depression, anger, thanksgiving, complaint and much more!
Some of the sentiments are extreme, even expressing prejudice and hatred. To my mind they are there precisely to let us know that you can say anything to God. But we do have to use them wisely and carefully. We read them in a very different time and culture from their original setting.
Being honest, I often skip through, or skip over, the daily psalms. Not because they don’t have something to say, but because they often take such time and effort to engage with, to unravel. And, to be blunt, I often struggle with how ethnocentric they are. (Ethnocentric = evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture)
The two psalms set for this morning (as I write) are Psalm 88 and Psalm 95.
Psalm 88 is the most continuous unremitting complaint to God in all the psalms. Abandoned and hated by his/her friends, the psalmist feels not only rejected by God but attacked by him without cause, he/she is trapped, imprisoned and God is ignoring his/her persistent calls for help.
Your wrath sweeps over me;
Your horrors are come to destroy me;
All day long they come about me like water;
They close me in on every side.
To some extent, all of the psalms of lament contain some glimmers of hope but not this one. Except…
Psalm 88 is talking to God – as if he is really there. Talking straight. Telling it to him how it is. I see in that more than a glimmer of light. We can to pour out our heart to God for our own situation, or for victims of war, prejudice and suffering of every type. We can blame God when that’s how we see it..
Psalm 88 could be a circular prayer – start at verse one through to verse twenty and back to the beginning again. A prayer on endless repeat – until something changes. Bleak, yes. But behind this prayer is an absolute belief that God can change things, perhaps a belief that God will change things. The flame of hope will never be snuffed out. It’s very different from turning your back on God.
The second set psalm is 95. You’ll be more familiar with this one. It opens with:
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
Let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving
And be glad in him with psalms.
For the Lord is a great God…
This psalm is known as the Venite (Latin for the opening words “O Come”). I regularly find the challenge to “come into his presence with thanksgiving” helpful but demanding. Sometimes I have to work hard to remember all the things for which I am thankful and begin to FEEL thankful. Sometimes I need to confess my wrong attitudes and behaviour before I can feel free to offer up thanksgiving. But usually it’s do-able!!
So how does one move from the bleak complaint of Psalm 88 to the thanksgiving of Psalm 95?
The normal way is not to linger too long! We can experience some identification with the pain of Psalm 88, and then are reminded by Psalm 95 that we have much to be thankful for. Joys and sorrows are two sides of the one coin of life.
But it is rewarding to linger longer too. Psalm 95 calls us to worship, thanksgiving and praise but then comes the awesome challenge to hear God’s word or face the very exclusion from God’s presence which is at the heart of Psalm 88.
O that today you would listen to his voice:
Harden not your hearts…
Whichever way around you read them, they interpret each other. Psalm 95 reminds us to be thankful, and to listen to God’s voice. Psalm 88 reminds us to be honest and to hear God’s word through a suffering person. Both seem to me to be important today.
With my love and prayers,