The Psalms and Life as We Know It
Blog by Rob Vandeman
The Psalms and the flow of human life can be roughly grouped into three themes: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of new or reorientation.
- Life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessings. Matching this we will consider psalms of orientation, which in a variety of ways articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence and reliability of God, God’s creation and God’s governing law.
- Life also consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death. These evoke rage, resentment, self-pity and hatred. Matching this we will consider psalms of disorientation, poems that match the season in its ragged, painful disarray. This speech, the lament, has a recognizable shape that allows the extravagance, hyperbole and abrasiveness needed for the experience.
- Life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair. Where there has only been darkness, there is light. Corresponding to this season we will consider psalms of new or reorientation, which speak boldly about a new gift from God, a fresh intrusion of grace that makes all things new.
The psalm forms correspond to seasons of life and bring those seasons to speech. And the move of the seasons is never obvious or easy. It is always in pain and surprise. It is a movement from one circumstance to another; changing and being changed; finding ourselves surprised by a new circumstance we did not expect; being resistant to a new place; clinging desperately to the old circumstance. So I will suggest that the life of faith expressed in the Psalms is focused on the two decisive moves of faith that are always underway, the moves by which we are regularly surprised and which we regularly resist.
One move we make is out of a settled orientation into a season of disorientation. This move is experienced partly as changed circumstance, but it is much more a personal awareness and acknowledgment of the changed circumstance. This may be either an abrupt or slowly dawning acknowledgement. It is a dismantling of our old known world and a giving up of safe, reliable confidence in God’s good creation. The movement of dismantling includes a rush of negatives, including rage, resentment, guilt, shame, despair and hostility. The lament characterizes this move. The lament psalm is the painful, anguished speech of the move into disarray and dislocation. The lament is a candid, even an unwilling embrace of a new situation of chaos. The move is experienced as a personal end of the world or it would not generate such passionate poetry. A significant number of the psalms take the form of a lament.
The other move we make is from a context of disorientation to a new orientation – surprised by a new gift from God just when we thought all was lost. This move out of chaos is inexplicable to us and must be credited only to God’s intervention. This move to new life includes a rush of positive responses, including delight, amazement, wonder, awe, gratitude and thanksgiving. This second move is characterized by songs of thanksgiving and hymns that tell of a decisive time, a reversal of fortune, a rescue, deliverance or healing. The hymn is a joyous assertion that God’s way and will prevail, even when we were losing hope.
Psalms of Orientation
The psalms of orientation were created, transmitted, valued and relied upon by a community of faithful people. To these people, their faith was both important and satisfying. These psalms express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues. Some things are settled and beyond doubt, so that one does not live and believe in the midst of overwhelming anxiety. Many of the psalms give expression to that happy settlement, to the reality that God is reliable, and to the decision to stake life on God.
There are several representative types of psalms that reflect well-oriented faith. That is, they are statements that describe a happy, blessed state in which the speakers are grateful for and confident in the reliable gifts of life that are long-standing from time past and will endure for time to come. Life, as reflected in these psalms, is not troubled or threatened, but is seen as the well-ordered world as God intended. The function of this type of psalm is to praise and thank God.
Songs of Creation
The most foundational experience of orientation is the daily experience of life’s regularities, which are experienced as reliable, equitable and generous. The psalms affirm that God sustains our lives and the proper response is gratitude. Our lives seem ordered by God – according to the seasons of the year, according to the seasons of life, according to the needs of the day. In all of these processes, we find ourselves to be safe and free. That comes as no great religious insight, but because that is the way life comes to us. Examples of the Songs of Creation would include Psalm 145, 104, 33, and 8.
Songs of Torah/Wisdom
For the psalmist, Torah (God’s law – better translated as “instruction”) is Israel’s way to respond to and fully honor God’s well-oriented world. That response is undertaken in a posture of gratitude, without calculation or without grudge. The most obvious and best known of the Torah/wisdom psalms are: 1, 14, 15, 19, 24, 37, 119.
Occasions of Well-Being
The goodness of God is know here, not by shattering intrusions but by quiet, unobtrusive sustenance. The regularity of life is experience in all the predictable occurrences of birth, marriage, death, seedtime and harvest. All these experiences testify to the Creator’s regularity and reliability. We may identify a number of psalms as occasional pieces that reflect and affirm God’s goodness in the blessings of creation. In these God is nowhere visible, but is discerned as the guarantor of the critical points through which life is affirmed and enhanced. Examples of these occasions of well-being include Psalm 131 and 133.
Psalms of Disorientation
The problem with psalms that focus on equilibrium, coherence and symmetry (as in psalms of orientation) is that they may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is messy and marked by disequilibrium, incoherence and unrelieved asymmetry.
It is a curious fact that the Church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented. It could be that this is a defiant act in which the psalms of orientation are flung in the face of the disorder. In that way they insist that nothing shall separate us from the love of God. Such a mismatch between our “life experience of disorientation” and our “faith speech of orientation” could be a strong counter statement that insists that God is still in control, regardless of how the data appears. It is possible that the Church uses the psalms of orientation in this way.
But at best, this is only partly true. Perhaps much of it comes from the wishful optimism of our culture. But the lack of use of the psalms of disorientation is strange given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a Church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.
I think that serious use of lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought, maybe even taught, that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control.” The point to be urged here in this: the use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world or the naïve to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community their use is an act of bold faith. It is a bold faith because it insists that life must be experienced as it really is and not is some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for conversation with God. There is noting out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in the conversation of the heart. To withhold anything from that conversation is to withhold part of life from the rule of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference point for all of life.
Most laments are united by a similar structure. The following seven elements are associated with a lament, though not strictly in the order listed here: invocation; pleas to God for help; complaints; confession of sin or assertion of innocence; curse of enemies (imprecation); confidence in God’s response and a hymn of blessing. Rarely will all seven elements actually occur together, but a number of them will appear in each lament.
The psalmist often begins with an (1) invocation combined with a (2) plea to God for help. There is no one the psalmist can turn to but God himself. Occasionally the plea is separated from the invocation. The (3) complaint is a focal point of the lament psalm because it is ere that we learn what has motivated the psalmist to pray. Although the mood of lament is basically melancholic, there may be one or two moments when the psalmist makes clear his basic trust in God. Since the lament predominately reflects a downcast mood, it is surprising to note that all laments include some expression of trust in God. The (4) curse on the enemies (imprecation) is perhaps the most difficult part to reconcile with our feelings about God. A particularly hard-hitting example is found in Psalm 109:8,9. Laments may be further divided on the basis of whether the psalmist (5) confesses his sin in the context of suffering, or protests his innocence. Lastly, (6) hymns of praise or confidence in God are common toward the conclusion of a lament as the psalmist realizes what God can and will do for him. It leads him to praise God.
The laments make up a significant portion of the psalms. For a sampling try reading Psalms 13, 22, 26, 35, 42, 43, 69, 73, 74, 79, 88, 109, and 137.
Psalms of New Orientation
I have tried to show that a major move of the Psalms is the move from an ordered, reliable life to an existence that some how has run amok. The Psalms give expression to that new reality of disorientation, when everything in heaven and on earth seems skewed. But the Psalms also speak to a second decisive move from disorientation to new or reorientation. That is, the Psalms regularly bear witness to the surprising gift of a new life just when none had been expected. That new orientation is not a return to the old stable orientation, for there is no such thing as going back. The psalmists know that we can never go home again. Once there has been an exchange of real candor there is no return to the pre-candor situation.
Rather, the psalmist is often surprised, when there emerges in present life a new possibility that is inexplicable, but wrought by the goodness and power of God. That newness cannot be explained, or predicted or programmed. We do not know how such a newness happens any more than we know how a leper is cleansed or how a blind person can suddenly see. But we can tell, narrate, recite, testify, in amazement and gratitude, “lost in wonder, awe and praise.”
A partial listing of these psalms of new orientation reads like this: Psalm 23, 27, 29, 30, 34, 40, 65, 66, 91, 100, 103, 113, 114, 124, 138, and 146-150.
Rob Vandeman serves as executive secretary of the Columbia Union Conference and will blog through the Psalms here in 2017.
Vandeman has always had a special love of the Psalms. As a pastor he occasionally taught and preached from the Psalms and had a real sense of their use in public Worship. While senior pastor of Chesapeake's flagship church at Spencerville, MD he authored the teacher's edition of the adult Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly on the Psalms (3Q90).