At the heart of the Bible lies the book of Psalms. Contained within that book are one hundred and fifty beautiful poems, prayers and hymns. For hundreds of years the Church has placed the reading of the psalms at the heart of its daily prayer life. They are beautiful and they are indispensable. In modern times some clergy and many of the laity have tried to work around the psalms which, I believe, is a gross act of arrogance and folly. The psalms may be misunderstood but we sideline them at our peril.
The book of psalms was gathered from a variety of sources over a long period of time. The collection with which we are familiar dates from the fourth century BC and is a compilation of five distinct books. The subject matter of the psalms is wide-ranging, but never irrelevant. Some of the psalms are very well known indeed. Nearly everyone would recognize the opening of Psalm 23 for example: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. If you spend time with the psalms you will quickly find that the language and the specific words of the psalms dwell richly in our daily lives, even in our modern twenty-first century world.
The psalms were written over a long period of time by countless authors. Some of the psalms are credited, by tradition, to famous authors, such as David, Solomon and Moses. Many of the psalms are the work of anonymous faithful souls who recorded their relationship with God in this poetic form. It is, of course, not possible to be any more precise about authorship because we do know that they were written, honed and collected over a period of around one thousand years. All that work, all that faith, all that love of God surely demands our attention. Is it any wonder that the Church has kept them at the heart of its prayer life for hundreds of years?
So, what should the psalms be to us? When I visit those who are housebound or more temporarily incapacitated I often see, next to their favourite chair, a collection of poetry. It is clear that those people find solace in the imagery and the language of poetry as they live out their restricted daily lives. They know that there is a wider world outside the walls of their houses, and they conjure up memories and images through the linguistic devices of those who are skilled in painting pictures with words. That is exactly what the psalms do for those who come to them seeking a closer relationship with God. Over many, many years – the equivalent of the time span between the Battle of Hastings and today – people (whether famous or anonymous) painted pictures in words about their relationship with God. Sometimes their words were of adoration, sometimes they were words of anger at the human lot; sometimes the words were questioning and full of doubt, sometimes they were simply happy or sad; sometimes the human words were of revenge while the divine words were of hope and love. In the psalms, as in those anthologies of more modern poetry, we see the whole human condition considered and analysed and offered for us to reflect upon.
Every day I read the psalms. Every day, at Morning and Evening Prayer, the psalms are read. On some days it is clear that they are speaking both for and to me; on other days I know that I am supporting others to whom they are speaking directly. On some days I read of negative and dark human emotions; on other days I encounter simple, faithful love of God. Every now and then I encounter the psalm which Jesus prayed as he hung on the cross: Psalm 22. Even Jesus, the Son of God, used the psalms in his prayer life. But, most famously, when the world was at its darkest and it seemed as though the inhumanity of mankind had won, he prayed: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The psalms are powerful; the psalms are relevant; the psalms reassure us that we are not the first to have felt distance between ourselves and our loving Father in heaven.
During the last few months we have lived through confusing and extra-ordinary times. We have been offered much fake news and misinformation; we have struggled to balance the motives of politicians against the ‘wisdom’ of scientists; we have been bamboozled with statistics. We are not the first generation to go through such times of confusion. Read the psalms, not chronologically 1 – 150, but, rather, dip into them and be surprised. These ancient texts will bring you closer to God because they will give you the comfort of knowing you are not alone, and that God’s truth is still alive for us all.
Revd Stephen Buckman