Reflections on the Psalms

The Lord sits enthroned upon the praises of his people.

Isn’t that a lovely thought ?!

It comes from Psalm 22. But interestingly, this Psalm is a powerful lament. One that we associate with Jesus’ passion.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me….?

Yet you are holy,

enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted;

they trusted, and you delivered them.

So this raises an important question:

How can we praise when we are in the midst of pain and trouble?

The Psalms teach us how.

The Psalms can be a very good teacher. Here we can learn how to pray, how to express our thanksgiving and to ask for what we need. Here we even learn how to name our doubts and anger, our disappointment and grief. And here – in the Psalms – we grow to understand how praise is absolutely crucial to the life of faith.

The Lord sits enthroned upon the praises of his people.

Do you know that there are five books within the Psalms? There are five books of Torah, five books of Wisdom, and the 150 hymns of the Psalms seem also to be organized into five books. And each of those collections concludes with a hymn of praise.

These hymns of Israel that sang their faith had been gathered and edited and organized into the Psalter that Jews and Christians still use to this day. And the arrangement of hymns seems to speak to the cycles of our lives with the poetry of our faith.

One thing we all know about life is that it is messy.

Sometimes we are overwhelmed with goodness and beauty and our hearts overflow with gratitude and thanksgiving.

And then other times we are overwhelmed with sorrow, pain and injustice and our broken hearts cry out in complaint and lament.

This was the experience of Israel as well. From the Golden Age of King David, into the long painful spiral of unfaithfulness, through the desolation of the Exile, then back to the land and the hard work of rebuilding.

The Psalms cycled through the highs and lows of the life of Israel and, in this process, express the emotions of a wide range of human experience. And what is particularly wonderful for us Moderns, is that these hymns express a human response to our human reality with a bold, bald honesty.

Part of the honesty, part of the clarity of the Psalms is that – even the most bitter cry of a broken heart almost always cycles back around to praise. Praise is a key part of the bold, bald honesty of the Psalms.

But understand – praise doesn’t mean we are required to be happy with the circumstance of sin or betrayal or injustice.

The Psalmists didn’t thank God FOR the situation in which they found themselves. Rather they praised God IN THE MIDST of that circumstance.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Yet you are holy,

enthroned on the praises of Israel.

Yes, (the Psalms say) this situation may be terrible and I am pouring my heart out as honestly as I can, naming my pain and fear and confusion.

And yet. YOU are God. YOU are holy.

Even so, I will choose to put my trust in you.

Nevertheless, I will entrust myself to you.

Against all reason, I will praise you.

I will praise God because…

You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

I will praise God because…

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;

steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

Because…

The earth is full of your steadfast love.

Because…

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,

and at night his song is with me.

Praise is a bold, bald act of faith.

It is subversive (Walter Brueggemann says). Countercultural. An act of faith that flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

Praise says – no matter what is going on in my life or in my family’s life or in my church or in my nation or in the world – nevertheless, we proclaim that God is on the throne.

We will watch for God’s presence.

We will wait for God’s movement.

We will trust in God’s faithfulness.

No matter what – we will practice praise.

The Lord sits enthroned upon the praises of his people.

And not only God’s people; Psalm 148 suggests that the Creator is enthroned upon the praises of all creation.

Praise him, sun and moon.

Praise him, all you shining stars!

Praise him, fire and hail, snow and frost.

Praise him, mountains and hills, wild animals and cattle.

Can you hear it?

The rain, both wild and gentle, singing the Creator’s song.

The trees dancing with praise, whistling and rustling with the song of the Creator.

The majestic roaring of the beasts and the contented lowing of the herds, praising the Creator.

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth!

All the earth worships you!

They sing praises to your name.

Stars and Mitochondria

One of my favorite authors is Madeline L’Engle. She was a person of deep faith and soaring imagination. Her most famous story is probably A Wrinkle in Time. Its sequel is entitled A Wind in the Door.

Meg is the central character in this story, a moody but courageous teenager who is desperately worried about her little brother, Charles Wallace. It seems that something is seriously amiss within his mitochondria; this crisis looks like it could be fatal.

Oddly, Meg meets a cherubim in the back meadow and learns that they have been assigned to be transported deep into Charles Wallace’s cells in order to find out what is wrong. What they find out is that the mitochondria have forgotten the song of the cosmos. They have lost touch with the stars and have stopped singing.

It’s a powerful image.

We humans, made of stardust, connected to the stars.

We creatures of creation with the song of the Creator embedded within our very cells.

So when Meg and the cherubim call them back to their core purpose, call them back to the song – the cosmos is set right. And the galaxy that is Charles Wallace is healed.

Created for Praise

I love the notion that we are created to be people of praise. That praise is our core purpose, woven into our very cells. I love the idea that all creation is empowered to sing the song of the Creator in unity and in harmony.

And I hold onto the hope that the church will come to understand that our core purpose is to be people of praise. To continue to discover this song, to know it in our bones, to embody it.

And to sing God’s song of praise with joy and confidence into the cacophony of our world.

The New Testament Psalmists

Whenever we read the New Testament we will surely recognize that the New Testament writers were all immersed in the Psalms. There are so many Old Testament quotes and allusions and connections woven into the Jesus story, we can see the same ancient witness of faith continued in the first Christians.

New Testament theologians looked at Jesus and in him they saw perfectly embodied:

a God merciful and gracious…

a God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Listen to this psalm of praise from the writer to the Colossians:

Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;

for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,

things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—

all things have been created through him and for him.

He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

He is the head of the body, the church;

he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,

so that he might come to have first place in everything.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,

whether on earth or in heaven,

by making peace through the blood of his cross.

There.

The song of the cosmos. Incarnated in Jesus Christ.

The song of praise to the Creator.

The song that binds all creation together.

There it is: the gospel.

May our lives also become this song,

enflesh this poem

and incarnate God’s praise.

Amen

 

Psalm 148 (adapted)

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from the heavens:

Praise him, all his angels!

Praise him, all his host!

Praise the Lord, sun and moon!

Praise the Lord, you shining stars!

God commanded and they were created.

God established them forever.

Praise the Lord from the earth:

Fire and hail, snow and frost,

Mountains and hills,

Wild animals and cattle.

Kings of the earth and all you peoples,

Princes and rulers of the earth!

Young men and women alike,

Old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the Lord

for God’s name alone is exalted.

God’s glory is above earth and heaven!

Praise the Lord!

 

Madeline L’Engle, A Wind in the Door (1973).

Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, edited by Patrick Miller (1995).

Published by

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a graduate of Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth.

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