Many people love to read the psalms. They say that the psalms are their favourite part of the Bible. I couldn’t relate. I was someone who avoided the psalms. I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. They don’t contain great stories like the narrative parts of the Bible. They don’t contain many commands, principles or warnings like Paul’s letters, for example. And there’s lots of repetition and emotion that feels like it gets in the way while you’re reading. Because of that, I was intrigued when I first read an old Christianity Today article entitled, “How I Learned to Stop Hating and Start Loving the Psalms.” It got me started on that journey but it would take several more books to actually get me there. Now I can say that I love the psalms. Let me share three things that helped me along the way.
1. Take them to prayer. My biggest mistake in reading the psalms was in not recognizing that they were written to sing. The psalms are a collection of hymns and prayers. Reading a prayer has to be different than reading a novel. There are some churches that exclusively sing the psalms and many worship songs borrow lines, phrases and imagery from them. The psalms came alive for me as I learned to pray them, however. My own words often felt weak and shallow when I prayed. I didn’t know how to pray or what to pray for. As I began to read a verse from the psalms and then pray back a personalized version to God, it changed how I spoke with Him. I would pray line by line down through a psalm and, as I did, it was as if David’s prayers became the guide and inspiration for my own. He helped me find words for the desires I wanted to express. And the themes of his prayers helped me to think about the kinds of prayers God wants us to lift up before Him.
2. Enjoy the poetry. When I first started reading the psalms, I felt that the repetition got in the way. I learned that the repetition was part of the beauty of the poetry. When we write today, we bold some words and italicize others. We change the font size, underline words and add numbers and bullet points. Hebrew poetry uses different strategies. The most obvious is repetition. There’s a reason, for instance, that Psalm 103 begins (vv. 1-2) and ends (vv. 20-22) with “Bless … bless … bless.” Praise dominates the beginning and end of David’s prayer. Bookending the theme of a psalm with the same words, phrases or thoughts at the beginning and end is a common feature of Hebrew poetry. The psalm is also filled with reasons to bless and praise God. The repetition in vv. 3-5, for example shows this: “who forgives … who heals … who redeems … who crowns … who satisfies you.” The psalms are also filled with what’s called parallelism. This is the main reason that the psalms are broken out in lines rather than just wrapped around into paragraphs. Parallelism takes a single idea and looks at it from two different angles. You can see this in v. 13 for example.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
Here, the first line explains the second. In other verses, the same idea is repeated but with slightly different nuance. One line expands the sense of the other like two lenses in a pair of 3-D glasses. Other times the first line is a contrast with the second. As you’re reading the psalms, it’s often interesting to slow down and compare the two parallel halves of a verse and ask how they relate and whether one half helps explain or add to the meaning of the other.
3. Let them search you. I struggled with the emotions in the psalms, at first. Now, I realize the point of the emotions. Some psalms are filled with praise, others are marked by complaint, and still others focus on the world and our place in it. There’s a psalm for every emotion we’re feeling. The emotion of the psalms can draw out the emotions that we might otherwise ignore. And ignoring our emotions is a problem if we’re commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
Like others before me, I learned to stop hating and start loving the psalms. I hope you’ll do the same.
In awe of Him,