We are considering and riffing a bit on N. T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. The Psalms and Jesus Wright points out that the Psalms formed the core of the early church’s scriptural proof for Jesus as Messiah. The early gospel sermons recorded in Acts frequently cite the Psalms, because the Psalms speak so eloquently about Jesus.
The reason the Psalms do this, however, is not simply so that a few verses here and there point forward across a void to events in the life of Jesus (Psalm 2 to his baptism, Psalm 22 to his crucifixion, Psalm 47 to his ascension, Psalm 72 to his rule of justice and peace over the whole world, and so on). No: they resonate with Jesus because he was the one who stood, by divine appointment, precisely at the intersection of God’s time and ours, of God’s space and ours, and God’s matter and ours.
The Psalms and pain
Many of us find ourselves drawn to the Psalms in time of loss or suffering. Why?
Part of the strange work of the Psalms is to draw the terror and shame of all the ages together to a point where it becomes intense and unbearable, turning itself into a great scream of pain, the pain of Israel, the pain of Adam and Eve, the pain that shouts out, in the most paradoxical act of worship, to ask why God has abandoned it. And then of course the Psalms tell the story of the strange vindication, of dramatic reversal, of wondrous rescue, comfort, and restoration.
The Psalms and the grand narrative of Scripture
The Postmodernists teach that cultures and societies are formed by stories — big framing stories that define our reality. And this is very often true. Our surrounding culture tells us that making a lot of money and being financially secure leads to happiness — especially accomplished by buying consumer goods. The Republicans try to sell one story (the superiority of individualism and the dangers of big government), whereas the Democrats tell another (the superiority of collectively solving problems and the benefits of government solutions), because both sides know that whoever creates the most convincing narrative for America will gain power. And the Bible tells its own story. And the problem isn’t that there’s a narrative in the Scriptures. The problem is that we rarely see it for what it is, and so we are often more shaped by Obama’s or Carl Rove’s stories, or Madison Avenue’s stories, rather than the only true story, the one written by the hand of God.
Scripture is, at its heart, the great story that we sing in order not just to learn it with our heads but to become part of it through and through, the story that in turn becomes part of us. And if that is true of scripture as a whole (and, in the New Testament, of the Gospels as a whole), we might say that the very heart of scripture, working properly like this, is the book of Psalms.
Wright points out that in Eph 2:10, normally translated as saying we are “God’s workmanship,” the Greek word is poiēma, the very word from which we get “poem.” And so we are God’s poetry, God’s artwork.
God gives us these poems, the Psalms, as a gift, in order that through our praying and singing of them he may give us as a gift to his world. We are called to be living, breathing, praying, singing poems.