"These commands I give to you today are to be upon your hearts" (Deut 6:4).
"Hear, my son, your father's instructions" (Proverbs 1:8).
"It seemed good...to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:3).
"To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi" (Philippians 1:1).
Every book of the Bible is written to an audience like you or me - with the exception of the Psalms. I mentioned Sunday to all the saints in Christ Jesus at the the Harquail Theater, Seven Mile Beach: To have read your sister's diary when you were younger is to better understand the psalms. The psalms weren't addressed primarily to you or me - they were addressed to God. We look over-the-shoulder of an author as he pours out his heart (and ink) to God. It's like peeking into someone's private journals.
What we find when we peek into these journals is nothing short of tumultuous. Every conceivable emotion known to mankind seems find expression through these prayer-songs. Sometimes these mood swings are from psalm-to-psalm, but often times they occur, inexplicably, mid-psalm. At one moment, the psalmist is basking in God's radiant love, the next: Exasperated from crying out in cold isolation. At one moment celebrating fellowship when brothers dwell in unity, in another asking God to contend with those who contend against me (even visiting violence on their family).
Yesterday morning, our elders were reading through Psalm 139, where we found expression of God's nearness until, as one elder put it: "the bizarre bit in the middle" (which it seemed we might go ahead & skip over).
These are cries of those wishing to trust a good God yet do so from a world that is falling apart around them. For psalmists living in B.C., it seems every victory is momentary and every promise of hope a bit hazy.
Momentary & Hazy - that is until one gets to know Jesus. Only in a relationship with Jesus (praying the psalms through Christ as it were) does the unresolved tension between trust in God and a world falling apart find certain victory and a concrete hope. Through Jesus, the psalms are opened wide! Apart from Jesus, the psalms are incomplete, an unfinished journal. When the famous novelist Charles Dickens died in June of 1870, he had been working his final literary work: The Mystery of Erwin Drood. The work was considered to be quite complex - beautiful in prose, a soaring treatment of mankind's complexities, authentic in displaying more of Dickens himself (a man otherwise unknown and rarely autobiographical). He had masterfully created a classic whodunit mystery...without an ending! Since then many have been inspired to take up the pen and finish the tale. It's been adapted into everything from a staple BBC period drama to a Broadway Play. To read the psalms apart from Jesus' finishing work is to agree, as with Dickens' unfinished work, the psalter is beautiful, soaring, authentic and yet cries out to be completed.
Through his life, death, resurrection & reign, Jesus finalizes every hope in the psalms and finishes every victory. Thus, Jesus finishes these otherwise unfinished journals. Indeed, the psalms can be best understood, prayed and sung as Jesus' journals. Let's take a look as to how Jesus of Nazareth finishes and then restores to us these amazing prayer-songs.
Jesus finishes the psalms through His life. In the gospel accounts, Jesus quotes from eight different psalms (Psalm 8:2; Ps. 118:22-23; Psalm 110:1; Ps. 118:26; Psalm 22:1; Ps. 82:6; Ps. 41:9; Ps. 35:19) . Based on this alone, one can imagine how often he used the psalms to pray when he was alone with his Father (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; Luke 6:12, Matthew 14:23). Why did Jesus so often pray and quote the psalms? Jesus, fully man, experienced and thus needed to express the full range of human emotions yet, fully God, never sinned in doing so. Consider how astounding that is compared to our expression of emotion, which is typically self-centered. When I weep: It is usually for my loss. Jesus wept for Lazarus, over the tragic effects of sin and death in this world, over Jerusalem. His sadness was utterly other-centered. When I get angry: It is usually because I am being deprived. When Jesus got angry (see temple courts), it is because everyday worshippers people were being subtly deceived by religious priests into temple-worship versus God-worship. So Jesus got angry on behalf of people deprived of genuine worship and on behalf of His Father being deprived of genuine worship. So when a Christian now prays-sings a psalm, he or she does so through a human who also experienced the very same emotion yet offers it to the Father free from the stain of self-centeredness because He prayed it purely while on earth. The Father thus hears our prayers through the sanctifying work of Christ and can both justly and generously respond.
Jesus finishes the psalms through His death. In his suffering and death, Jesus endured every sinful emotion so the righteous anger expressed in the psalms wouldn't be expressed towards us. I admit that when I try to pray: "Oh God, slay the wicked" (Ps. 139:19) or "I loathe those who rise against you" (Ps. 139:21), I sometimes pray it sheepishly - wait a minute: "I art the man." Some Sundays I've preached on selflessness only to be short with my family the rest of that Sunday, telling myself: "You deserve to rest and be pampered." Wicked! "God, I think I'll do this project, meeting, relationship my way." Rising against You and Your ways! On the one hand, it is right to vent about the injustices we witness in this world trusting our Father to justly make right all the wrongs. On the other hand, I am one of the wrongs! So Jesus endured the mocking, the flogging, the anger, the humiliation, the grief in his suffering and death - saying "Father forgive them" - to demonstrate that he likewise endured both our sinful emotions and the righteous anger of the Father toward them. So recognizing am no longer the object of what would be just anger, I am liberated to authentically and without shame express frustration, impatience, even anger in the right way - to the Father, through the psalms, because of Jesus.
Jesus finishes the psalms through His resurrection. Take a moment to briefly read and maybe even say out (or whisper if in a public space) Psalm 43.
After you pray the end (verse 5) and then rewind, you recognize the psalmist has previously experienced God as his hope and salvation. Now however history seems to be repeating itself. He's the victim of deceit and injustice (v.1). He feels rejected by God (v.2a). Takes about a 90-degree turn: Wait why am I so sad? Because of another human?! (v.2b). Please deliver me again (v.3). I know this will end with me filled with overflowing joy that results in praise to You (v.4). So in summary: Why am I so sad? (v.5a). God will again save (v.5b).
This resembles how many relate to God. Things are bad, woe is me, I better pray so God will make the bad things go away, I'm happy and back in church. Having hoped in God for a little while, rinse & repeat.
When Jesus rose from the dead - he vindicated us with finality! Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:38-39), whether it be the accusations of others, ourselves, or even the threat of death. He is not a temporary refuge from which we and our souls can escape but through simple faith our lives are "hidden with Christ" on high (Colossians 3:3). No matter what we do or anyone else does, He will surely bring us to His Holy hill and to His dwelling - "that where I am there you may also be" (John 14:3). Jesus pioneered the path to heaven through his resurrection that we might follow in his footsteps. So now when we pray the psalms: All the wondering, questions and shifts in mood caused by a hazy hope and changes in circumstances (does this mean God is no longer for me?) are answered with finality through the resurrection of Jesus. The penalty of sin is paid, the power of sin is daily lessening, the presence of sin will one day be eradicated - because Jesus has risen finalizing all the deliverances & joys of the psalms. The risen Jesus is the AMEN at the end of every psalm!
Jesus finishes the psalms through His reign. Many of the psalms celebrate God as king, yet it seems difficult to recognize his kingdom on earth "as it is in heaven." Psalm 24 captures this tension well: "The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof" (v.1). It's his world and yet: "Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?" (v.2). The kingly line of God's people certainly did not demonstrate "the clean hands" or "pure heart" required but for anyone that did there remained: "blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation" (vv.4-5). This psalm concludes with a question repeated in such a way that the psalmist expects God to one day answer it:
Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke notes that the songs in the book of Psalms that celebrate the king are like "royal robes." They are like the robes "with which Israel drapes each successive son of David at his coronation." But none of Israel's kings has shoulders broad enough to wear them. "The Psalter's giant robes hang loosely" until in the fullness of time - King Jesus comes. "Here was a son of David with shoulders broad enough to wear the Psalters magnificent robes."
These who first prayed the Psalms looked forward to the day when the King of glory might walk through the doors of this earth to reveal Himself. He has in Christ Jesus. So every time Christians pray about the majesty, royal rule, kingly authority, we can picture what true majesty, rule, authority looks like. And so as every psalm eventually meanders - twisting and turning - to its finish line, the finish line of the psalms is King Jesus. When we pray from the psalms to further witness and experience his majesty, rule, and authority, we can trust that we will - in-breaking spheres of His rule and reign through salvation, healing, and justice today even as one day we see all these things in full.
Oh may your kingdom come and will be done!