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, Psalm 22 is actually a powerful lament … one 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.

In the Psalms, we can learn how to pray, how to express our thanksgiving and how to ask for what we need. Here we also learn how to name our doubts and anger; to give language to 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.

The Five Books of Psalms

Much as there are five books of Torah and five books of Wisdom, the 150 hymns that make up the Psalms also are organized into five books.

These psalms/hymns of Israel that sang their faith were 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: it is messy.

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

And then other times, when we are overwhelmed with sorrow, pain and injustice, 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 devastated land and the hard work of rebuilding – the Psalms cycled through the highs and lows of the life of Israel.

In this process, the poems express the wide range of emotions within the human experience. Not only in Israel’s story but in all of our stories.

What is particularly wonderful for us Moderns, is that these hymns express a human response to the shared human reality with 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 always “happy” with the circumstances 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, (sometimes the Psalms say quite clearly) this situation is terrible, unfair, unjust. I feel angry, fearful, alone and confused.

  • 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 steadfast love,

and at night his song is with me.

Praise is a bold, bald act of faith.

Praise is subversive. 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 the 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.

But not only 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 and whistling and rustling with the music of the Creator.

The majestic roaring of the beasts and the contented humming 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.

Mitochondria and Stars

One of my favorite authors is Madeline L’Engle. She was a person of deep faith and soaring imagination. Her most famous book is probably A Wrinkle in Time, but this little story comes from its sequel: A Wind in the Door.

Meg is the central character in this series; she’s 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 and the crisis looks as though it could be fatal.

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

It’s a powerful image.

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

We creatures of creation are designed with The Song of the Creator woven within our very cells.

So when Meg and the cherubim call these disconnected cells back to their core purpose – when they come 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.

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

And I hope we will find all sorts of ways 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 countless Old Testament quotes and allusions and connections woven into the Jesus story by the New Testament “psalmists.” We can see the same ancient witness of faith continued in the faith of the first Christians.

New Testament theologians looked at Jesus and saw in him the perfect embodiment of:

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 the Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

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

whether on earth or in heaven,

by making peace through the blood of his cross.

There it is.

  • The song of the cosmos. Incarnated in Jesus the 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

Living in The Story readings for Week 40

Jeremiah 5-24

Psalm 108

Psalm 112

Mark 2

Revelation 7-9

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

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

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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