Visiting the Psalms
by Pastor George Van Alstine
Pastor Connie and I have decided to preach a series of sermons during the next few weeks from the Biblical Book of Psalms. The Psalms have been a great source of comfort for many generations of Jewish and Christian believers. They are also accepted as part of the holy writings of Islam.
We’re not going to preach on every psalm, back to back, week after week. One reason is that there are 150 of them, and, with time out for Christmas and Easter, that would take over three years. A more important reason is that, while some psalms are so lofty and inspiring that they almost preach themselves, others seem too harsh and judgmental to make a good sermon text. In fact, some psalms seem to go from grand praise to grousing complaining within a few lines.
To understand this unevenness we need to take a look at the origin of the psalms. King David, “the sweet singer of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1), is recognized as the fountainhead of the psalm tradition. His name appears at the top of 73 of the psalms; some of these he may have actually authored, while others are credited to his indirect influence. Of the remaining 77 psalms, many are attributed to other authors (Asaph, Jeduthun, the sons of Korah), while 34 “orphan psalms” have no identifying source. The evidence indicates that the psalms were written over as much as 800 years, from the time of David (1000 BC) until after the Babylonian Exile (as late as 200 BC). During this span, the people of Israel, whose religious journey is reflected in the psalms, experienced everything from the largest extent of their power and influence in the days of David and Solomon, to the woeful days of their defeat, deportation and slavery under the Assyrians and the Babylonians. No wonder the psalms contain extreme emotional highs and lows.
Many of the psalms were meant to celebrate important events in the life of ancient Israel, such as the coronation of a king, or to be part of the fabric of the elaborate worship in the Temple. We may have trouble identifying with these or finding personal spiritual edification in them. Other psalms, however, are among the loftiest expressions of praise to the one true God of the universe that have ever been written, and these can transform the mind and heart of any person from any culture in any age.
We speak of the Bible as THE WORD OF GOD. And most of the Bible is just that: the Law given through Moses (the first five books) teaching us God’s way of righteousness, the Prophets proclamations of “Thus says the Lord,” the Gospels announcement of the coming of the WORD in Jesus Christ, the apostles’ letters to the early church instructing them how to live as God’s children in a dark and alien world. These are all ways in which God is speaking to people. But the Psalms uniquely turn this around; most of them are about the feeble, yet heartfelt attempts of people speaking to God!
What makes this even more striking is that the people speaking from the Psalms are not speaking to a manageable pet god of their own creation – idolaters of every age have been good at this. They are speaking to the one true God, awesome in majesty, who can wipe them out by lifting his eyebrow. With full acknowledgment of the God who named himself “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), who is later described as “The Alpha and Omega” (Revelation 1:8), without minimizing him or shrinking back, they speak to him in the Psalms – praising, adoring, asking, thanking, questioning, even complaining!
We need to learn from the psalmists how to speak to God.