The Psalms in Daily Life
Here I want to introduce you to the psalms, explaining a little about their purpose and history. But more importantly, I want to show you why many of us have overlooked the psalms, neglecting their power for our daily lives, and what you can do about it.
What are the Psalms?
A psalm is, first of all, a liturgy, meant to guide people in a worship service. The ancient Israelites used the psalms when they met together to worship God, whether during Temple services, sacred festivals, or other gatherings for corporate worship. The worshippers sung the psalms, as people sing hymns and worship songs today in church.
Not appreciating this fact is one reason I’ve neglected the psalms in my life. I’d always wrongly thought that people like David had written the psalms as a reaction to something personal in their life, and that the psalms were mainly about the writer’s personal experience, e.g., “David seems to be talking about running from Saul here, so that’s why he says…etc.”
But the psalms are not meant to be used like this, merely as windows into someone else’s personal or religious experience, or as clues about what that person’s life was like. Rather, the psalms are “model prayers and praises,” and “we should read and appreciate the psalms as vehicles for expressing our own voice to God, not as records of a historical individual” (Craig Broyles; Psalms, in New International Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, 1999, p.4).
Yes, it’s true that the psalms do sometimes reflect the writer’s own life circumstances and that the poet’s words come out of real lived heartache, joy, indignation, or fear. But here’s the point: the psalms are first of all liturgies written for God’s people to sing and pray.
The Psalms’ Power
The psalms have had a minor role in my life, up until this year. But then I taught a church history course at Three Fourteen, and, with my students, I went back to the old masters and looked afresh at their lives and example: Paul the Apostle, Anthony the Great, Benedict of Nursia and Scholastica, and many other men and women who lived every day praying the psalms. Hear one of these saints, Basil of Caesarea, talk about the psalms’ power:
“A psalm drives away demons, summons the help of angels, furnishes arms against nightly terrors, and gives respite from daily toil; to little children it is safety, to men in their prime an adornment, to the old a solace, to women their most fitting ornament. It peoples solitude, it brings agreement to market places. To novices it is a beginning; to those who are advancing, an increase; to those who are concluding, a confirmation. A psalm is the voice of the Church.”
Looking to these saints’ encouragement and example, I took up a new habit: I would walk in the morning (already my custom) and take with me a copy of the Psalter, praying the psalms of that day. Years ago I bought a small red book with a thin gold cross on the cover called The Book of Common Prayer; it is the prayer book used by Anglicans/Episcopalians, and it includes the whole Psalter, broken down into thirty days. So, I’ve been praying through the psalms every month for six months now.
I have noticed two big shifts since I took up this habit.
First, I’ve started speaking and singing the psalms aloud instead of reading silently, and this small change has been powerful. Speaking/singing the psalms connects me back to the original purpose of the psalms: corporate worship. I’m teleported back to the “congregation” praising God in his temple. Something about this makes me feel more present, more involved–like I’m not just a bystander, reading the psalms as an outsider looking in, but a participant.
There’s a difference between reading an ancient poem silently and singing/speaking a liturgy as one of the voices raised before Yahweh. As different, maybe, as watching two people play catch, and playing catch. Or watching a performance in the audience, and performing on stage.
There are benefits to both; “watching” or reading the psalms is a kind of participation, and you can derive knowledge, encouragement, and pleasure from meditating on them. The psalms are literature for personal meditation, teaching us how to talk with God, how to talk with him about ourselves, and how to talk with him about others.
But they are also liturgies: they lead us in worship, giving us words composed by someone else, but sung/spoken by us. The extra benefit of singing the psalms, or speaking them aloud, is that you enter the sacred space of God’s presence in prayer and praise, lament and complaint, adoration and advocacy.
The second thing I’ve noticed since using the psalms daily is that sometimes I relate easily to the words of the psalms, but often they feel foreign to me. For example, I feel like I could have written this line from Psalm 67, because of the Covid19 pandemic: “May God be merciful to us…. Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.” But when I read Psalm 3, it’s not so easy to identify with “Yahweh, how many adversaries I have! How many there are who rise up against me! How many there are who say of me, ‘there is no help for him in his God.'” It may be that I do indeed have many adversaries like this that I’m not aware of (human as well as demonic). But it’s not my current conscious experience or awareness.
Nevertheless, I am given these words to pray, these lyrics to sing, because the psalms are not just for me, but for “the congregation.” Even if I can’t individually relate to the words, certainly many of the saints can: Christians in China and North Korea, the Sudan and Nigeria, or Christians of another skin color or gender (I’m a white male). In such instances of praying/singing the psalms, I’m invited to sing not for myself or others like me, but for and with saints who are living a different experience. Standing in others’ shoes may feel uncomfortable, but maybe that’s good.
There’s much about the psalms I’m learning, and much more left to learn.
I invite you to learn, too. Here are a few steps you can take to get started:
- Get a copy of the Psalter that’s divided up into “days,” i.e., days 1-30, for each day of the month. I prefer a hard copy, but digital versions are available. Sing the psalms, or read them aloud, daily. Don’t worry about covering every psalm in each day’s set; one or two is fine. Focus instead on getting into the habit of using the psalms daily as a liturgy.
- Experiment with singing or chanting the psalms. There’s no “right way,” and voice lessons aren’t required.
- Read a book about the psalms: