When I was a girl of 7 or 8 years, I laid awake most nights praying to have a friend. There in the darkness, I'd repeat the lament of a lonely child—a small, particular, not especially poetic petition, yet a somewhat common prayer for we, the playground loners. Invariably, my prayers ended with a song learned at Vacation Bible School that I'd sing until the respite of sleep finally came: "When I need a friend to get me through the night, God is there....God is there, always there, with a helping hand to lift my load of care. He'll be faithful to the end, on his promise I'll depend, when I really need a friend, God is there."
This is my earliest memory of prayer. And, though I have since prayed in the face of greater personal and corporate evil and suffering, my prayers rarely possess the desperation and hope I bore to God those sleepless nights. Now when I can't sleep, I do a crossword puzzle, put on Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, or sit on my front porch singing hymns.
We are approaching Advent, the season in which we act out anticipating God incarnate. Though we know the outcome of that story, we are mindful not to jump too quickly ahead to the manger, bypassing the complexity of living in light and darkness. In the hurry to get to Bethlehem, don't ignore the long donkey ride or forget about wandering in the wilderness. Don't lose sight of the trepidation and wondering that comes with not knowing what comes next.
THE PSALMS HAVE much to offer those of us who await the fullness of God's revelation. They provide a vehicle to the heart of God and they do not skip over the waiting or hasten to consummation. The "book" of Psalms is actually an anthology drawn from several collections of separate origin, compiled a few centuries before Christ in the time of the scribes who succeeded Ezra and Nehemiah. The 150 personal prayers, litanies from temple worship, and victory chants bear a style that reflects the influence of the prayers of surrounding cultures:
Hail to thee, Amon-Re,
Lord of what is, enduring in all things
The lord of truth and father of the gods.
—Egyptian hymn (circa 1300 BCE)
I pray to thee, O lady of ladies, goddess of goddesses.
O Ishtar, queen of all peoples, who guides mankind aright...
Righteous, just, I have cried to thee,
suffering, wearied, and distressed, as thy servant.
—Babylonian prayer (circa 600-500 BCE)
Yet the God addressed in the Psalms is distinctively the God of Israel, distinguishable from contemporaries in that this God judges and intervenes in mortal matters—punishing sin, visiting mercy on the righteous—not for whimsy but in response to how God's people uphold, or violate, moral law. Everett Fox, in his commentary in The Five Books of Moses on the flood in Genesis 6:9-8:19, wrote, "[the account] has been placed in Genesis to exemplify a God who judges the world according to human behavior, punishes evil, and rescues the righteous. This is a far cry from the earlier accounts (in the Gilgamesh and Atrahasis epics) where the gods plan the destruction of the world for reasons that are unclear, and where the protagonist, Utnapishtim, is saved as the result of a god's favoritism without any moral judgments being passed."
Moreover, the biblical audience believed that when God endowed humans with the faculty of speech, he bestowed upon us a unique role in creation. "The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being," or, as another translation puts it, "became a speaking spirit" (Genesis 2:7). This capacity for language gave us a means of describing our inner world, providing us with an avenue for identifying and communicating joys and longings.
Seventy-three of the psalms are ascribed "to David." This includes those he wrote as a shepherd and as a king, as well as those written in the literary style he developed. David is also credited with organizing the choral side of Israel's public worship, creating the first temple hymnal, and being a model king. A more psychologized reading of the Psalms and the Book of Samuel renders him moody, depressive, slightly narcissistic, quick to identify injustice outside of himself and slow to recognize his own flaws, occasionally to tragic ends. He was also probably hard to work with.
John Calvin called the Psalms "the anthology of all the parts of the soul." They move from despair to relief, terror to triumph, lament to praise, within a single psalm and from entry to entry. They are vengeful:
They cried, but there was none to save; Even unto the Lord, but he answered them not.
Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind;
I did cast them out as the mire of the streets (18:41-42).
He that sitteth in heaven laugheth,
The Lord hath them in derision.
Then will he speak unto them in his wrath,
And affright them in his sore displeasure (2:4-5).
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb (139:13).
They decry oppression:
The wicked have drawn out the sword,
and have bent their bow;
To cast down the poor and needy,
To slay such as are upright in the way (37:14).
and demand justice:
Their sword shall enter into their own heart,
And their bows shall be broken (37:15).
They are ecstatic, celebratory:
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation (95:1).
O Lord, who ministerest judgment to the peoples,
Judge me, O Lord,
According to my righteousness,
and according to mine integrity that is in me.
Oh that a full measure of evil
might come upon the wicked,
And that thou wouldest establish the righteous;
For the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins (7:8-9).
They speak the relief of forgiveness:
I acknowledge my sin unto thee,
and mine iniquity have I not hid;
I said: ‘I will make confession concerning my transgressions unto the Lord'—
And thou, thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin (32:5).
and are deeply anguished:
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.
Because of my loud groaning
I am reduced to skin and bones (102:3-5).
THE POETRY OF the psalms preserves the immediacy of human experience. Joy is unchecked by the sobering of time. Despair and hope flow freely, void of the broader perspective that we get well after the moment has passed. Yet these prayers do not leave us to our own devices. They bridge us to the Divine; they remind us of God's promises to which they then embolden us to lay claim.
The Psalms preserve the heart's cries in language, images, and movements spacious enough to find our own experiences. Nane Alejandrez of Barrios Unidos tells about giving a copy of the Psalms to gang members, and how they were startled at such accurate descriptions of being hunted down and of having blood on your hands. It was a shock to their systems to find their lives in something they considered so wholly foreign. Little soothes like the balm of another's witness.
However, the Psalms are far more than survivor literature. Regardless of the depth of despair, the hope and belief persists that God can respond and deliver. God's blessings are reiterated, at times with an initial forced cheer, until the energy of remembered deliverance produces calm. It is the pattern of remembering and believing after which we model the Eucharist.
John Calvin considered the Psalms the only suitable source for church music. Early Reformed communities sang only the Psalms, and the Christian Reformed Church's hymnal still contains settings for all 150, many with stanzas enough to include all of the verses.
Human Weakness in the Psalms
Though we dub them "songs of praise," a large portion of the psalms' verses are pleas for action. How long will I be falsely accused? When will I be safe? When will my enemies die by their own hands? When will the world realize how right I am and how wrong it is? Yet aside from the monastics singing the daily Office, and a few Scottish Presbyterians cleaving to the traditions of Calvin and Knox, most Christian communities use the Psalms selectively, lifting out that which is considered acceptable worship from the mess of human experience.
There are certainly times when we need to repeat over and over the wonders of God, so that we don't lose sight in the midst of everything else. But in lifting verses out of their contexts, we risk changing their meaning. For example, the contemporary Taizé praise chorus based on Psalm 42 implies that the psalmist's faith is singular and unshaken, when we sing "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after you, you alone are my heart's desire, and I long to worship you. You alone are my strength, my shield, to you alone may my spirit yield, you alone are my heart's desire and I long to worship you."
However, Psalm 42 actually tells of a very shaken faith, of fearing God's abandonment and indifference and surviving the scorn of one's enemies:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while peoples say to me all day long,
"Where is your God?"
These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
among the festive throng.
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God (42:1-6).
THE PSALMS DEFY our notions of profane and sacred, proving that everything we feel, witness, do unto others, and have done to us is acceptable subject matter for conversing with the Divine. They invite us to bring every part of ourselves into our houses of worship. If we omit expressions of faith lost, of rage, of disdain, and of the desire for revenge, we leave parts of ourselves at the door. Worse, we exclude those mired in these experiences. Prayer has the capacity to invite the healing, judging, transforming power of God to soak into our beings, landing precisely where we most need it, connecting us with the hope that the psalmist is able to gain at the end of his petition.
We need the Psalms in these days of little imagination. In an effort to de-fang the God of vengeance, we render God toothless and babbling, cozy and squishy, rather than eminent and awesome. We have lost our capacity to be shocked, to be humbled and amazed, which undercuts our creativity and leaves our language shallow and sterile. We "share" rather than "tell." We explain rather than show. In the comfort and numbness of our age, we have put our words on Prozac, with sterilizing affect. Given the sensibilities of our age, were the canon being selected today large portions of this collection would likely end up on the cutting room floor. After all, we have turned Noah's ark into a children's toy.
Yet we are called to be awake, not anesthetized. This posture of alertness allows us to enter into God's creation and to create ourselves. To do so requires the profound awe and humility that comes with a deep knowledge of our place in the world. On this Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
The root of any religious faith is a sense of embarrassment, of inadequacy. It would be a great calamity for humanity if the sense of embarrassment disappeared, with an answer to every problem. We have no answer to ultimate problems. We really don't know. In this not knowing, in this sense of embarrassment, lies the key to opening the wells of creativity. Those who have no embarrassment remain sterile.
Without humiliation or judgment, the Psalms allow us to bare our souls to God. Our prayers reflect our finite view of things. Most of us wouldn't want them recorded for posterity's sake. The joy is we can rant about an enemy and our innocence, then move on to love and serve. If, however, all we do is sing about how misunderstood we are, then go home self-satisfied and unchanged, we have missed the point entirely. All humans have the capacity for power and powerlessness. We are the oppressors and oppressed; the abused and abusive. We rail at God not to let the evildoers escape punishment, and just as quickly are the ones facing the judgment seat and crying for mercy. With David, we are the righteous ones forced to hide from jealous Saul. And with him, we are the abusers of power, killing off Uriah, manipulating Bathsheba.
We all need to come to the mercy seat and fervently kneel. When our every cell screams out to God at how unfair it all is, we need to return, sobbing and exhausted, to the steadfast love and grace of God. Because life is not fair. If it were, we would all live in the fullness of our worst thoughts and actions, in ever-deepening separation from God.
The Psalms remind us that our prayers are not simply our own, but that we pray with and through and for the community. Monks who sing the psalm cycle speak of how they allow us to pray the prayers of someone who perhaps at that moment cannot pray themselves. Not praying for someone in this situation, but actually praying that person's prayer.
After catharsis, comes the return of peace, of the blessed assurance that we are in God's hands and that God's faithfulness, holiness, and justice is absolute. This is why Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky would not leave the Soviet gulag without the Psalms that had been his companion during his imprisonment. And why, even though my adult world is just as terrifying as it was when I was 7 or 8,
I sing the mighty power of God,
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad
and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day.
The moon shines full at God's command
and all the stars obey (Psalm 104).
Kari Jo Verhulst was marketing manager at Sojourners when this article appeared.