What Is a Psalm?1
C.S. Lewis opens “A Preface to Paradise Lost” with these words:
“The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.”
Tissues are great for a runny nose, because that’s what they were intended for, but only a fool would complain to Kleenex after they tried using a tissue to get across a zip line. It makes no sense to criticize a cookbook for not having enough suspense. A cookbook is meant to contain recipes – a list of ingredients, instructions, the occasional suggestion, and maybe even a picture. The lack of suspense is not a failure on the part of the recipe nor its author; the failure comes from the reader expecting something out of the cookbook it was never meant to deliver.
When we read the Psalms, we can sometimes be guilty of the same misinformed expectations. We may read the book of Psalms as a private devotional book, but is that its only purpose? We may judge the Psalms of lament with the same criteria we use to examine the Psalms of praise, but is that fair? If we are to use the Psalms the way they are meant to be used, we must follow Lewis’ lead and ask the all-important question:
What is a psalm? That is, what is it intended to do, and how is it meant to be used?
First, as Luke 24:44 and Acts 1:20 explicitly state, the Psalms are part of Scripture, and as such, we must apply 2 Tim. 3:16-17: the Psalms are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” If you as a Christian want to “be complete,” the Psalms must be a part of your life, including Sunday morning worship. Put another way, we are incomplete if we neglect the Psalms.
So how can we mine the rich caverns that are the Psalms? Do we read them in our private quiet times by ourselves? Sure. As Psalm 1 notes, blessed is the man who meditates on God’s law day and night. Should we also discuss what we read in the Psalms with others? That certainly couldn’t hurt. Proverbs repeatedly presents the wise person as one who listens to the counsel of others and learns from their insights and experiences.
But above all, if we truly are to understand the beauty of God and how he has made us to relate to Him, we must understand one thing: the book of Psalms is the official hymnbook of the bible.
Consider with me the Hebrew title for the book of Psalms – Sefer Tehilim – which is translated “Book of [public] Praises.” While other portions of the bible contain hymns, no other book is exclusively dedicated to it. Further, the word “psalm” by itself means “songs” and comes from a word meaning “to sing” or “to pluck an instrument.”
So why the word study? Why go through all this effort to advocate for the singing of the Psalms?
Imagine Sunday morning worship beginning with a reading of the following hymn:
“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made”
[No singing this in your head! Remember, you’re only supposed to read.]
“I see the stars. I hear the rolling thunder. Thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed”
Nothing wrong with reading these words. They’re beautiful. I dare say one could worship by reading these words. But now imagine a whole congregation of God’s people singing in beautiful harmony with one voice:
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee/How great Thou art, How great Thou art!”
What’s the difference? In a word, music.
Music has a certain power mere words do not. As Leo Tolstoy so eloquently wrote,
“Music is the shorthand of emotion. Emotions, which let themselves be described in words with such difficulty, are directly conveyed to man in music, and in that is its power and significance”
One of the functions of the Psalms is to help us express our emotions in worship. And whether we feel unfathomable pain or indescribable joy, pairing the Psalms with music (as was intended) allows those emotions to come forth with greater clarity.
But the power of music is nothing compared to the power of Scripture. While the musical Psalms help us to express emotions we already feel, maybe the greater power of the Psalms is in guiding our emotions – leading us in how we should feel, not simply providing an outlet for the emotions we already have. In other words, the Psalms shape our emotions, teaching the singer not only that they should lament, but also how to properly express that sorrow. Not only that they ought to rejoice, but also how to rejoice in a broken world.
As we begin this study of the Psalms, I urge you, the reader, to listen to the Psalms. Listen beyond the words to the message. What truth is the Psalmist communicating? What emotions are you being taught to feel? And how does the fact that each Psalm was meant for public, corporate worship change how you understand them? These are the questions we’ll explore in the following posts.