No doubt, there are significant elements of subjectivity involved in our experience of the written word. A myriad of factors influence how we receive a piece of literature, including (but not limited to) our worldview, educational background, past experiences, cultural context, and maturity. A work may be experienced quite differently at various stages of one’s life. The Psalms are a perfect example of how true this has been for me.
In the greenness of childhood, with little life experience and zero knowledge of the character and purpose of Hebrew poetry, the book of Psalms seemed mostly irrelevant to my life. I viewed it as one more book of ancient Jewish writing, buried somewhere near the middle of the Bible, perhaps mildly interesting because of its poetic structure and mention of musical instruments. Later, as a teenager, the descriptions of God’s attitude towards the sinful exemplified my perception of Him as a harsh master whose eagle-eye remained fixed upon me day and night, waiting for me to fail so that he could unleash His retributive wrath:
11:5-7 His eyes watch; He examines everyone. The LORD examines the righteous and the wicked. He hates the lover of violence. He will rain burning coals and sulfur on the wicked; a scorching wind will be their portion. For the LORD is righteous; He loves righteous deeds. The upright will see His face.
Later in life, still woefully unlearned on the literary character, purpose, and context of the Psalms, my family and I experienced a difficult two-year season in which misfortune seemed to rain down incessantly. A parent was terminally ill, a housing crash crippled us financially, my husband’s job was miserable—the list went on. I felt genuine anger towards God, and I was drawn to passages such as:
10:1 LORD, why do You stand so far away? Why do You hide in times of trouble?
Where was the life of bounty spoken of in Psalm 25:12-13, which seems to guarantee a good life to those fear the LORD? Was I not being good enough to earn God’s blessings? I read the chapters that spoke of kindness and prosperity surrounding those who trust in the Lord (such as Psalm 32:10) and felt jilted, because I took all such verses as absolute promises rather than the reflective words of a lyricist. My relationship to the Book of Psalms, to be honest, was one of confusion, sadness, and bitterness.
Ten years have passed since that painful and discouraging period, and as I read the Psalms in this phase of life, I do so, I believe, with much more spiritual and theological maturity, born of that suffering. I now appreciate them for the sometimes gritty expressions of our humanity that they are. In other words, I’m able to read Psalms as humane poetry and appreciate the various perspectives of the psalmists, who wrote these verses during times of great joy, confusion, or even utter sorrow. I, like the psalmists, have at times felt far from God, but also like them, I’ve seen how God beautifully redeems excruciating circumstances and how our souls are enriched through hardship.
Two types of psalms have become especially dear to me: those that celebrate the visible wonders of creation, and those that express deep lamentation and repentance for personal sinfulness.
The creation psalms speak strongly to my intellectual passion for natural theology. Paul’s words in Romans 1:20 about man being without excuse because of the visibility of God’s wisdom and power exhibited in the created order are enhanced by the far more ancient passages, such as Psalm 19:
19:1-4 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.
In my dissertation research, I’m particularly concerned with the mysterious resonance between the creation, the mind of the Maker, and the mind of man; Psalm 8 applies:
8:3-5 When I observe Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You set in place, what is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him? You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honor.
God has instilled His image within us! What a gracious and glorious gift to be able to commune with Him through reflection upon His creation, our place in it, and our ability to discover its secrets with our God-given rationality.
To some it may seem odd that I also find great depths of spiritual richness in the psalms that express grievous lament over sin. While it is true that Christ has set the believer free from the bonds of sin, we must also recognize that we still fail and are called to a life of ongoing repentance.
My ecclesiastical journey has brought me to a liturgical/sacramental tradition that emphasizes both the importance of continual repentance and the unmerited gift of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. The Psalms are part of our Daily Office and our Sunday worship liturgy. Particularly during the season of Lent, I experience the paradoxical joy that results from the practice of genuine, focused remorse over my sin alongside thankfulness for the redeeming work Christ did on my behalf. Psalm 51 is one of my favorite verses about repentance, and I quote it in prayer often:
51:10 God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
I encourage you to take a fresh look at the Psalms and contemplate their timeless truths and quintessential humanity.