Last Sunday, we began a new teaching series based on the Psalms that will take us into the summer. Chances are good that when you throw open your Bible at random, you’ll open to the book of Psalms, for these 150 poems (songs, really) are situated majestically in the middle of our Bibles. These are – and my apologies to Stevie Wonder –the original songs in the key of life.
I can just hear some of you grousing, “But I hate poetry! Why do I have to read these things?” Let me sell it to you. Why are the psalms so important for a follower of Christ to know and read and study?
We’ll learn more about God in this book that anywhere else in Scripture.
We’ll learn of his Triune nature – of the tenderness and strength of our heavenly Father, and we’ll read of the royal splendor of the Son of God, the King of Glory (and also of his sufferings), and we’ll read of the Spirit of God (“Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me!” David pleaded.)
Jesus told his disciples point-blank that the Psalms were largely about him. “He said to them, ‘…Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). In the 2,000 years of church history, believers have turned to this book to inform its worship.
The Psalms will speak to us of God’s character. Virtually each psalm is a celebration of some attribute of God, and in writing of these attributes, the authors more often than not will conclude their song by falling down in worship before God. The reader as well, will often feel the strongest pull to do the same.
Which leads to a second reason why every child of God should spend abundant time in this holy book.
Reading the psalms will enlarge my desire and ability to worship God.
This book was after all Israel’s hymnal, its primary liturgy, and the heart of its public worship. Reading the New Testament, we see the same thing taking place in the early church. When Christians gathered to pray and to worship, they quoted this book more than any other.
The psalms give us specific instruction in how to worship God. We’re to use our bodies. “Clap your hands,” the psalms tell us. “Bow before him.” “Dance.” (Insert gasp here.) We’re to use our emotions in worship. “Shout to God with a voice of triumph” we’re told – there are times when that is appropriate. “Be still and know that I am God” – there are times when that is what the moment requires. The psalms also contain numerous ‘song of lament’, where the writer cries out in anguish to God, and there are certainly occasions when that is necessary, and healing.
One commentary I read said, “The book of Psalms is God’s prescription for a complacent church, because through it he reveals how great, wonderful, magnificent, wise, and utterly awe-inspiring he is. If God’s people before the Incarnation [of Christ] could have such a faith in the Lord, how much more should this be true [for us.] The book of Psalms can revolutionize our devotional life, our family patterns, and the fellowship and the witness of the church of Jesus Christ.” Willem VanGemeren)
Talk about revolutionizing your devotional life! A third reason for knowing and mastering the psalms is:
It will deepen your prayer life.
If you’ve ever struggled with prayer, then feed on the psalms, begin to memorize many of its verses, start to weave them into your prayers – and you’ll find that prayer begins to take on new life for you.
As you study the way in which King David (the author of more than half the psalms) approaches God in prayer, you’ll be startled by his full-throated willingness to say to God, “Where are you? Would you wake up? Hello?” With God, David holds nothing back. There’s not a question you could ask God in a moment of doubt or struggle that hasn’t already been asked of God in the book of Psalms.
Back in 2016 Janis and I sold our house, stepped down from our jobs, moved to Los Angeles and all I knew was I was to write. Beyond that, we were to trust God to reinvent our lives and open up new doors for ministry. God opened those doors 40 months later, but in months 10, 20 and 30, I had no idea what would happen. It was difficult to pray the same things everyday.
That’s when I began to memorize entire psalms, which I then began to pray aloud during my daily prayer walks. I memorized Psalm 16, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge”. And 42 and 43, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” Psalm 71, became my personal mission statement from God to get me through all that season of uncertainty. “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth, you will bring me up again.”
Going through those 40 months reminds me of a final reason for studying the psalms:
The psalms will help connect you to God no matter what you are going through.
The book of Psalms is the original smartphone. Whatever you’re feeling today – whatever emotion, whatever joy, whatever turmoil, whatever worry, whatever sorrow – there’s a psalm for that. It’s there to be downloaded into your soul, free of charge from God’s playstore, ready to help strengthen you or comfort you or teach you, to bring you closer to God.
I think this best explains the Psalms’ popularity. The average Bible reader doesn’t have to work quite as hard to understand what the psalms are saying. Not in the same way you have to work to understand the books of Moses, or sometimes scratch your head to figure out what Paul is on about. That’s the beauty and power of music, of poetry. It slips readily past the mind, the way good tasting medicine like Pepto Bismal slides down the throat, and starts bringing relief almost instantly.
Sometimes I’ll be tossing in my sleep, besieged by a nagging thought that refuses to go away. I’ve learned to call to mind in those moments just a single verse of one of the psalms, and it doesn’t take very many recitations to send that dark thought running. And soon I’m sleeping soundly again.
So if you want to dive into the deep with your Savior, then plunge straight into the Psalms. You soul will thank you, and you’ll never be the same again.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.