Do you remember back in the day when the Gideons were allowed to hand out Bibles in school? I do. I think I still have my original copy from the early 90s. Did you ever stop and ask why Psalms and Proverbs were included? The New Testament made sense, but what is the big deal about these two?
Well, turns out a lot. Of all of the books of the Bible, only Psalms can truly be described as "words of God" while simultaneously being "words to God". Every other book in the Bible does something spectacular: they make a way for the holy, infinite, incomprehensible God to be revealed to a limited and frail humanity. The Psalms paint a picture of the Majestic One through metaphor and emotion in a way that prose could never match. And yet, the Psalms also gives us a faithful vehicle for responding back to him. You see, just as the disciples were at a loss for words when it came to prayer and fostering an inner life, we too need to be apprenticed into communicating back up to our holy God. For 2000 years the Church-and the Jews 500 years before them-tutored under the Psalms learning to pray and worship.
When I preach through a psalm I typically use two great commentaries:
-James Mays' Psalms
-Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger's Psalms
In November (2020) I began to read a psalm alongside May's commentary each morning as a devotional practice. What began to happen was amazing, Dallas Willard can sum it up better than I ever could:
“Still today the Old Testament book of Psalms gives great power for faith and life. This is simply because it preserves a conceptually rich language about God and our relationships to him. If you bury yourself in Psalms, you emerge knowing God and understanding life. And that is by no means a matter, as some suggest, of the “poetic effect” of the great language. No mere emotional lift is involved. What makes the language great and provides the emotional lift is chiefly its picture of God and of life. We learn from the Psalms how to think and act in reference to God. We drink in God and God's world from them. They provide a vocabulary for living Godward, one inspired by God himself. They show us who God is, and that expands and lifts and directs our minds and hearts." ― The Divine Conspiracy
If you are interested in trying this, I recommend Derek Kidner's Psalms for a rich devotional experience. Let me know how it changes your whole perception of reality!
If you are interested in going deeper in learning to communicate with God through the Psalms, here are two awesome books on the Psalms that may be worth checking out :
-Answering God- Eugene Peterson
-The Case for the Psalms- NT Wright
The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayers become.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
We'll get to Proverbs and other Wisdom Literature another time. Hopefully this gives us some material to start exploring in the meantime. See below for two different ways to study the Psalms.
These are some podcasts that my professor has graciously allowed me to put on our website. They go through each Psalm giving us a context for understanding.
"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither."
What does this actually look like? When Jesus read and reflected on Psalms what tools were available to him as a Jew that we simply don't know about? How might he have read them different from us? How does reflecting on one psalm deeply affect its meaning?
Let's try unpacking a psalm together! We'll pick one of the psalms from my Rebuilding series; let's say Psalm 95.
In Hebrew poetry there are three things that drive meaning in a psalm:
Identify and interpret all the imagery employed in the psalm
eg. God is our refuge and strength
eg. Dogs have surrounded me, a band of evil men has encircled me.
Typically in the psalms, every two lines work together. The second line interacts with and builds upon the first. There are lots of different types that a psalmist can use.
eg. Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker!
eg. As a doe longs for running streams,
so longs my soul for you, my God.
Note all repetition and its effect on the development of thought. This can be a specific word or phrase, or it can be an idea said differently.
eg. Psalm 46: God as refuge, fortress, etc.
eg. Psalm 121: watch
1.Print off Psalm 95 in a word document. Make it landscape so you have more room to comment, circle, diagram, etc.
2.See Link for my work on Psalm 95.
3. Try it yourself!
1.See how I broke down the psalm into its little sections? Verses 1-2 go with 3-5, verse 6 goes with 7, verses 8-11 go together. We can tell because the theme changes in each of the three sections. Repetition of "Oh come" help us to identify the sections.
2. Look at all the metaphors in the psalm. Did I miss any other figures of speech? How do these images teach? When putting two dissimilar objects together for comparison what insight do we gain? What does it mean that God has "hands"? What about metaphors that are so common we skip over them- "hardening the heart" or "know my ways"? Stop and think about the image presented again. Lastly, honour the limitations of a metaphor. What does the Bible say elsewhere that may hedge in interpretation here? Alternatively, how may it expand my horizons?
3. How does each second line contradict, develop, clarify or illustrate the first line in each verse? Look at verse 3 and 4. The psalmist could just say "all things are in God's realm". But look at the power in phrasing it this way instead. What are the theological implications of the way he chose to say it instead? How does saying the same thing, from a slightly different angle create insight? (BTW, neuro-science is now telling us that when we do this we tap into "break the box" thinking which allows for higher problem solving functions. Forced associations create alternative neurological-pathways allowing greater creativity than patterned pathways.)
Further resources for deeper study
1.Great overview of our tools at work! https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/art-biblical-poetry/
2. Sandra Richter- Old Testament scholar explains how to pray, read and meditate on the Psalms https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_WoFU8LyLA
1. Bible Project- Metaphor in Biblical Poetry https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9W5afjndtU
2. Essay from a biblical scholar-
1. Two videos on how to utilize parallelism
2.Types of Parallelism https://www.olivetree.com/blog/poetry-bible-parallelism/
1. Bible Project- Repetition https://bibleproject.com/blog/biblical-storytelling-repetition-themes/
There is an ancient practice for meditative Scripture reading in the Church that Evangelicals are pretty new to. It's called lectio divina. Just like spaghetti or butter chicken the recipes are endless and pretty broad. For many, this has led to wholesale rejection of the practice in favour of rigorous Bible study (as seen above in our other exercise). There are some highly subjective, individualistic forms of this practice which end up "tickling the itching ears of the listener" like Paul warned in 2 Timothy. However, if a disciple of Christ is also studying Scripture on a regular basis in its original context searching for its intended meaning, lectio divina can be paired up with it to create something powerful. The temptation with study is that knowledge can become the end goal. Both feeling and thinking are not ends in themselves; our will is. God's word needs to get us to the point of forcing a decision or action in us; will we believe and obey or falter and reject?
For a step by step walkthrough on lectio divina see https://intervarsity.org/blog/study-bible-through-lectio-divina
A few notes I would add:
1. Psalms are meant to be felt as much as thought. When we read a Psalm listen to the emotion, and the imagery present in the psalmist's expression. Can you empathetically experience what he is feeling? What does this teach about God, what does it teach about you?
2. Be a Berean. Is what I am hearing actually God or did I get it wrong? Let Bible verses flood in from all over the Scriptures to confirm or correct your perspective. Part of the journey inward with Scripture means that we are learning to hear God's voice. Our own psychology and the world's influence will always be hoping to get a word in.
3. Your imagination can become a tool for God too. God has and continues to use dreams and visions to bring people to Christ all over the world. In narrative sections of Scripture, can you imagine the scene with all five senses? What could you miss by only reading it like a reporter describing the news or a scientist dissecting a specimen?
4. Journal your experience and compare it over time to see trends on what God may be telling you but still waiting for a response from you. On the flip-side if you are always hearing the same thing, it may be a sign that you need to grow in your breadth and depth of biblical knowledge.
For a critique on lectio divina see:
And a very thoughtful response:
Kolb's theory of learning is very helpful here. Think both/and not either/or. We will be invariably drawn to a more logical or more experiential form of spirituality based on our personality, life experience, faith tradition, etc. The key is to strive to become proficient at both.
Dr. Keith Bodner's 8 part "Bodcast" where he travels through the Psalter painting a powerful portrait of God's journey with Israel.
Worship is our grateful response to a gracious King!
In the ancient world, to live in a kingdom under a king or queen required three basic things: obedience, honour or reverence and service. As Christians we believe that God is the King above all kings and we desire to gratefully and fully respond!
Sometimes we tend toward the sphere where we most naturally feel comfortable, either the tradition we were raised in, or maybe the one that corresponds with our personality. But if God is our king, worship needs to be a reflection of our gratitude in all areas of our life! If you feel stuck in your walk with God, maybe it would be helpful to stop and reflect on how you are living in his kingdom. Worship in its many forms is the channel we communicate to our God.
I tend toward the red sphere, as I am more analytical. I value knowledge and keeping God's commands. Sometimes God pushes me to put my knowledge into service for him or others. Most often though, God calls me into more heartfelt praise even though it is not as comfortable for me as an intellectual faith. Becoming a balanced Christian is God's will for our lives.
Check out all three verses above for examples of people who were over-focused on a form of response toward God. Jesus wanted them to move into a fuller response to his rule and corrected them in their imbalance. What is God asking you to move into?
"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."
We all go through hard times in life. What is God's will for our lives during and after these times?
How to not waste a hard time:
-In a journal describe the present struggle and all of the dangers against you. Pour out your emotions and all of your painful prayers in present tense, in the moment. Do you have people who can walk with you through this valley (2 Cor. 1)?
-After the struggle is over, and God has rescued you, write down your present emotions, prayers, etc. Compare them alongside your journal entry from the event.
-Reflect on Scripture and note the promises of God’s covenant to you a Child of God. Compare it to his rescue. Note how different you are before and after the rescue.
-Describe the change before Christians and non-Christians.
-Transfer your faith and hope into their situation (2 Cor. 1).
-Corporately give thanks for your rescue, pray for theirs. In this way you are able to faith and hope for them. You are able to carry them through and suffer alongside them as a fellow traveller.
"Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High." Psalm 50:14
In the Psalms we actually find a powerful template on how to "sacrifice" an offering of thanksgiving.
HOW TO GIVE A TESTIMONY
1. Life Before Meeting Jesus (or a Recent Hard Time as a Christian) (ie.Verses 1-5)
2. Jesus’ Intervention and Rescue
3. Reflection Leading to Thanksgiving (ie.Verses 6-7)
4. Individually Give Him Praise Before Others (ie.Verses 8-9)
5. Invite the Hearers to Join in Praising God (Present) and to Trust in Him (Future) (ie. Verses 8-9)
Like a spark that ignites an entire pile of kindling, God can use us to encourage each other.
Giving a testimony of God’s past or present rescue is a form of worship!
*Taken from the Thanksgiving Service 2021
"Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about," . . . Remember that line from A Charlie Brown Christmas? What is the big deal about Christmas anyway (well, I mean besides presents, eggnog and Nat King Cole)? Why did Christmas ever become such an important date on the calendar?
One Word. . . The Incarnation.
Here is the modernized audiobook- On The Incarnation- the classic book on the true meaning of Christmas, written over 1600 years ago by the famous church father, Athanasius the Great! It explains why the Son came to earth, and why it really matters that God and man have been bonded together forever in Jesus! We look back on Jesus' birth as a special event: unrepeatable, in some ways inexplicable and yet always awe inspiring. "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"- 2 Corinthians 9:15
"There's something about Christmas time
Something about Christmas time
That makes you wish it was Christmas every day
To see the joy in the children's eyes
The way that the old folks smile
Says that Christmas will never go away"
Maybe the Incarnation is something to enjoy, not just at a Christmas Eve service but all through the year!
P.S. Put your thinking caps on for this one, its worth the effort! If you ever want to discuss this amazing book I'd love to chat about it over a coffee!
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