Whether you feel like rejoicing, crying or venting your anger, the psalmists have already been there before you.
Praising, sing out when you’ve blessings to spare;
Sorrowing, cry out from the depths of despair;
Angry, storm Heaven when nothing seems fair;
Life can be carefree or too much to bear;
Mourning or laughing, a psalm speaks your prayer.
The Book of Psalms runs the gamut of human emotions. Broadly speaking, a psalm will focus on praise, lament, thanksgiving, grateful remembrance, kingship, wisdom, confidence or pilgrimage (songs of ascent). Some commentators suggest more categories, others fewer. Across the centuries, psalms have helped people pray and praise through their depth and diversity. They have a message for every occasion.
For many people, the beauty of psalms lies in their depiction of God. For others, they stimulate prayer or praise. For me – and I know many others – it is the writer who packs the punch: whatever the situation, a psalmist has ‘been there, done it, got the T-shirt’.
This is true for when we’re feeling happy and close to God. The psalmist has plenty to say about joy and thankfulness. But, practically speaking, it’s even more profoundly true for when we’re feeling dispirited and far from God. Here, I find it invaluable to sit with a psalmist who has gone through the difficult times, whose faith has helped them, and who has emerged stronger and with their faith intact.
Have you ever felt you’re in a minority of one and everybody’s against you? So has the psalmist – Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” (Psalm 3:1-2).
Are you in physical or mental pain and wonder why God lets you suffer? The psalmist has been there too – I am faint… my bones are in agony…My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? (Psalm 6:2-3). For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.. (Psalm 102: 3-4).
Does God seem distant? The psalmist was not afraid to admit this – How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Psalm 22:1)
Have you been bullied or browbeaten? So has the psalmist – In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises. (Psalm 10:2)
Do you sometimes feel like you’re the only person of faith in a sea of unbelievers and yearn for the days when everybody believed in God? It really was never like that, as the psalmist knew – They are corrupt…God looks down from heaven… to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, there is no one who does good. (Psalm 53:1-3) All have turned away… there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:3)
Have you been betrayed? Join the psalmist – Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me. (Psalm 41:9) For people who are wicked and deceitful … repay me evil for good, and hatred for my friendship. (Psalm 109: 2,5)
Have you ever just wanted to run away from it all? The psalmist wanted to take flight – “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest… I would flee far away …to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.” (Psalm 55:6-8)
Do things seem unfair and unjust? They seemed equally bad to the psalmist – Do you judge people with equity? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. (Psalm 58:1-2) They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.” (Psalm 94:6-7)
Have you been tempted to envy and covet? The psalmist was certainly not immune – But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:2-3)
The list could go on.
God needs people who have come through hardship and can empathise with others. Have you ever tried to console someone, or offer them advice on how to face an intractable situation? We might try to reassure them with an encouraging word or verse, but sometimes this can feel inadequate or glib. Whereas speaking, comforting, advising, supporting from a position of painful first-hand experience can be far more helpful.
Time and again, the psalmist comes to our rescue by doing this. In turn, perhaps, we can do it for someone else?
(The Psalm acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).