How do Psalms work? Several ways, of course. My friend Jason Byassee reminded me that when St. Augustine preached on Psalm 102, he teased his congregation, “Who could this afflicted one be?” He reads further, asking again, “What is the identity of this poor man?” Finally the punchline: It is Jesus. Jesus prayed Psalms. Jesus taught us how to pray Psalms. Jesus joins us into himself, into the Body of Christ, so we pray with him, he prays with us. We pray through him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out that children learn to talk by hearing and then mimicking the language of their parents. And so we learn to talk with God by hearing Psalms, uttering them ourselves. Human words to God become God’s Word to us, which then are again our words to God.
A second way Psalms work is right there in Psalm 102. I’d known it, but hadn’t thought too much about it – until September 11, 2001. Numbing catastrophe. There must be a Psalm that speaks. And there it was. A prayer from a person in ancient times, in intense agony, that suffering made far worse because of the crumbling of the nation, Jerusalem, God’s holy city, reduced to rubble by the Babylonians.
Think about what you felt and saw that week of 9/11 as you read this vivid, aching Psalm: “Hear my cry, O Lord. Do not hide your face. For my days pass away like smoke. My bones burn like a furnace. My heart is smitten like grass. I forget to eat my bread. I am like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake. I am like a lonely bird on the housetop. All day my enemies taunt me. I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink.”
As if written for me, for us, for that week. I could not sleep, or eat. Enemies taunting. Images of smoke and ruin. I paused as my mind rifled through history. Jews at Auschwitz would have recited these very words, in far worse straits than we were.
Psalms seem to lie in wait, hidden treasure in the basement of the soul, waiting their turn to be the one to articulate where we are, where the world is, providing the words when we have no words.
Notice, after the bleak verses 1 through 11, a radical turn in verse 12: “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever. You will arise and have pity. You will favor Zion when the appointed time has come.” Stunning, inspiring, almost unbelievable, the way the Psalms hold us by the hand, guiding us from the depths of hopelessness to full confidence in God’s ultimate triumph, and our ultimate redemption.
Let’s learn the Psalms. All of them. It’s a lifetime quest. But you never know when one will climb the stairs and say I’m the one you’re looking for just now. How good of God.← See All