What are the Psalms? This seems like such a base question, brash almost, stupid, ignorant. Why do we even need to ask such a question? Like most of life, it comes down to expectations.
We all have expectations when we enter into a new world. Going on vacation with a 2-year old requires different expectations than going on a vacation with your significant other. Seriously. Different. Expectations. And when those expectations are misplaced, we are often disappointed and withdrawal — at least that's what I do.
But this is true of the Psalms too. If we try to read the Psalms like we would read the Gospel of Luke, we would be severely disappointed. We would see a lot of language that doesn't make sense to our modern Western eyes and get distracted. "These aren't the uplifting words I was hoping for." So to truly understand the world of the Psalms we have to understand what the Psalms are. We have to set our expectations.
At their core, the Psalms are Hebrew prayers sung to God. The five traditional categories are hymns, laments, thanksgiving, wisdom and royal psalms. Hymns declare the glory of God and who He is. Laments are sung with the hope of God intervening to make His creation right. Thanksgiving psalms sing of what God has done to deliver His people, while wisdom psalms hold proverbs and right living at their core. Royal psalms are sung to praise the king, while looking forward to the Ultimate King who will reign forever.
And the key aspect in each of these categories that they are sung. More so than mere poetry, the psalms have meter, timbre and verse to them. Poetry certainly plays a role as metaphors, simile, word-pictures and non-literal language is used throughout the Psalms. But more so, the Psalms were the Hebrews' and early Christians' song book.
Song goes beyond poetry because it orders language. Meter, timbre and verse brings order to our speech in such a way that it lodges in our memory. How often have you heard a song on the radio once and it's stuck in your head for the rest of the day? Or passively hearing the Paw Patrol theme song your 2-year old watches and you can sing the song with a lot less effort than you'd like it to be!
As an example, here's three different ways to express the words "I love you".
First, you can merely say, "I love you." Many of us do this on a regular basis. Sometimes it strikes at our hearts in ways that overwhelms us; sometimes it's flippant without much meaning behind it.
Secondly, you could say poetically. Shakespeare compares his love interest to a summer's day:
Or you could stand outside your crush's window with a boom box over your head, blasting Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes, to declare your love, like John Cusack's character does in "Say Anything..."
You tell me which is most effective.
I would argue that songs are the highest form of human speech and language, because of how fully they engage our hearts and speaks to our emotions. We watch that clip above and we feel. What instantly know what it means to love and be loved. Music moves us. And the Psalms have a way of moving us too.
But I would go one step further in answering the question, "What are the Psalms?" I believe the Psalms more than anything else are an invitation. An invitation to open our hearts to God. An invitation to say anything — as it were. An invitation to curse, to praise, to invoke condemnation on others, to confess our sin, to acknowledge our need to be rescued, to be exposed and not rejected.
What is so disconcerting and discomforting about the Psalms is the language that is used. "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" "Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are my God my Savior." We good Christians (an oxymoron at best) have serious issues with saying these things to God. And yet, we find them in our Bible in prayers sung to God in praise.
And here's where our expectations get the best of us. If we enter into the Psalms with what words we think should be there, we miss the point. However, God invites us to express these disconcerting thoughts and lay bare our hearts before him. A place where we no longer have to pretend. A place where we don't have to perform. A place where we can set our expectations aside. A place where we can be real. A place where we can be raw. A place where God will heal. A place where God will redeem. A place where God lives.
Where is God inviting you?