Excerpt from Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life

THE PSALMS OF JOY

Dur­ing my years as a pas­tor in Austin, there was a young man whom I will nev­er for­get. His name was Tim. At the time, he was an MBA stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas and had joined our con­gre­ga­tion dur­ing his sojourn in col­lege. As I remem­ber him, Tim was the per­fect image of the con­ser­v­a­tive busi­ness stu­dent: kha­ki pants, but­ton down dress shirt (either white or blue), soft spo­ken, polite, gen­tle, mea­sured, a clean hair­cut and smart as a whip. 

But Tim was also a com­plete sur­prise of a human being. While our church was the­o­log­i­cal­ly charis­mat­ic, we were prac­ti­cal­ly a mod­er­ate charis­mat­ic bunch. Hand rais­ing and the occa­sion­al holler of praise to God would not be uncom­mon. We were not, how­ev­er, the typ­i­cal non­stop tongues-speak­ing, mir­a­cle- gen­er­at­ing, Spir­it-slay­ing, pen­te­costal-two-step hop­ping con­gre­ga­tion. Peo­ple rarely, if ever, danced extrav­a­gant­ly. Tim did. 

At a cer­tain point dur­ing our extend­ed time of con­gre­ga­tion­al song, Tim, stand­ing usu­al­ly at the end of a pew, would launch out into what can only be described as part hop­scotch, part hand wind­mill- move­ment, part Maria von Trapp-singing-her-heart-out-at-the-hills-that-were-alive-with-the-sound-of-music. It was an utter­ly un-self-con­scious and pure-heart­ed expression. 

I would often watch Tim with a com­bi­na­tion of delight and envy. I thought to myself, That’s how praise goes, unin­hib­it­ed by oth­ers’ judg­ment; that’s its free and full-heart­ed spir­it.” I nev­er once joined him, much to my regret today. But I did even­tu­al­ly ask him why he danced. His answer hum­bled me. He danced, he said, out of obe­di­ence. Danc­ing this way did not come nat­u­ral­ly” to him. It was instead his sac­ri­fice of praise to God. 

In singing praise,” writes Wal­ter Bruegge­mann, all claims for the self are giv­en up as the self is ced­ed over to God.” This is why in the psalms the sea roars,” the field exults,” and the trees sing” (Ps. 96:11- 12). Such is the nature of self-aban­don­ment, as the unqual­i­fied response of our lives to God. Tim under­stood this fact well. And it is why, with the psalmist, that he laughed often, because the good­ness of God over­whelmed him. 

The entire Psalter is called the Tehillim, the Book of Prais­es,” for a rea­son. For it is here that we see what praise looks like, what praise sounds like and what praise says to God. It says what crea­tures need to say to God. It embraces the praise of saints and sin­ners. It starts in praise and it yearns towards praise. 

Three obser­va­tions are worth not­ing about the psalms of praise.

First, joy is what the whole cre­ation does. All through­out the psalter, cre­ation rais­es its joy­ful praise to God. The rivers clap their hands and the moun­tains sing for joy (Ps. 98:8). Both sun­rise and sun­down ring out with songs of joy (Ps. 65:8). The pas­tures and the mead­ows and the val­leys shout for joy (Ps. 65:12 – 13), the trees sing and the fields make mer­ry (Ps. 96:10 – 13). 

In the Psalter it is not just heav­en­ly and earth­ly bod­ies that rejoice in God, how­ev­er; it is also human bod­ies that rejoice in God: the mouth, the throat, the lungs, the hands, and the feet. All through­out we find the lan­guage of shout­ing,” burst­ing,” rev­el­ing,” resound­ing,” clap­ping,” thun­der­ing,” cry­ing,” exult­ing” and danc­ing.”

From the per­spec­tive of the Psalter, both hearts and bod­ies get to leap for joy. At times our bod­ies may need to lead the heart and mind in acts of joy­ful praise. At oth­er times our bod­ies will need the heart and mind to lead it. 

Sec­ond, in the psalms, joy is not just a ton­ic for the embat­tled soul, joy is also a response to the expe­ri­ence of God’s res­cue. When God offers the psalmist refuge in the storm, the response is joy (Ps. 5:11). When God gives vic­to­ry in the face of defeat, the psalmist shouts for joy (Ps. 20:5). When God for­gives sin, joys wells up in the heart (Ps. 51:8). When God con­soles the anx­ious heart, joy slow­ly but sure­ly takes its place (Ps. 94:19)

The move­ment in Psalm 126:4 – 6 is significant: 

  • Sow­ing → reaping 
  • Weep­ing → shout­ing for joy 
  • Going away → com­ing home 

This is where God always seeks to take us: from hard labor to the fruit of our labor, from sor­row to glad­ness, from exile to home. And for the psalmist, there is always a sense in which joy retains a poignant residue of sor­row, of a kind of hap­py-sad­ness that marks our earth­ly pilgrimage. 

Third, through­out the Psalter joy pre­cedes sor­row and fol­lows sor­row, and as often as not, joy exists along­side sor­row. While a song of praise may erupt from a spon­ta­neous out­burst of affec­tion for God, our songs of praise may also require a deci­sion. In Psalm 107, despite the imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of grief and loss (vv. 4 – 28), the psalmist offers to God a sac­ri­fice of praise in the pres­ence of God’s peo­ple (v. 32). In verse 22 he says, let them offer thanks­giv­ing sac­ri­fices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.” The psalmist fre­quent­ly prais­es God despite his feel­ings.

In the psalms of joy, praise aris­es out of con­texts of suf­fer­ing and it does not ignore that suf­fer­ing. It declares itself in hope, not in a denial of real­i­ty. This is why, as the psalms see it, joy always makes space for sor­row, while hap­pi­ness, as it is usu­al­ly under­stood in our soci­ety, can­not. This is why our acts of praise often involve a sac­ri­fice of praise, with our eyes set on the ful­fill­ment of praise. 

In the end, the psalms of joy offer us an anti­dote to all the things that would tempt us to become a joy­less peo­ple. They take our shriv­eled, hard­ened hearts and open them out to God again. And they offer us the grace to become a peo­ple who, like the moun­tains and hills, sing togeth­er for joy so that we may bear wit­ness to the weep­ing that comes in the night and to the joy that comes in the morning.

THE PSALMS OF SADNESS 

On April 17, 2010, my wife and I lost our first baby to a mis­car­riage. For months after­wards we car­ried around a gnaw­ing pain — a pain that slow­ly ate us up from the inside, leav­ing us pro­found­ly dis­ori­ent­ed. On Sep­tem­ber 11, 2011, our daugh­ter Blythe came into the world. Hope again surged in our hearts. Oth­er chil­dren would now come eas­i­ly, we thought. Our dream of a big fam­i­ly — 5 chil­dren! — could still be achieved, our advanc­ing years notwithstanding. 

Two days shy of Christ­mas 2014, after months of fer­til­i­ty treat­ments, we lost our sec­ond child to mis­car­riage. After this our mar­riage suf­fered con­sid­er­ably. Our com­mu­ni­ca­tion repeat­ed­ly broke down, even as our capac­i­ty to meet each other’s needs dis­si­pat­ed. Small hurts flared up into angry con­flict, and each of us resort­ed to sur­ro­gates that we hoped might dull the pain but which only made things worse. 

There are days, still today, when the pain feels almost unbear­able. Nei­ther of us is get­ting younger, our par­ents grow old­er, our friends’ chil­dren reach their col­lege years, and the train, so it feels, pass­es us by. What we have need­ed is lan­guage to say out loud, what our hearts could only grasp at with inar­tic­u­late groans. What we’ve need­ed is a com­mu­ni­ty to whom we could bear wit­ness our sad­ness. What we’ve need­ed is for God to be able to han­dle our bro­ken hearts and our rag­ing words of protest. 

This is what the psalms would pro­vide us. Here were prayers of lament that fur­nished us with lan­guage for the seem­ing­ly unspeak­able. Here were songs to name the sor­row in the com­pa­ny of the faith­ful. Here were poems that gave coher­ent shape to our inco­her­ent feel­ings in the pres­ence of our Mak­er, who had seem­ing­ly aban­doned us to our incon­solable pain. 

Turn to me and be gra­cious to me,
For I am lone­ly and afflict­ed. (Ps. 25:16)

What the lament psalms offered us in our hour of need, they offer also to all who find them­selves in need: edit­ed lan­guage to give expres­sion to our un-edit­ed emotions. 

One of the most strik­ing things about these lament psalms is that they include the inter­ro­ga­tion of God. This, as it turns out, is a divine­ly approved form of address. The psalmist dares to say, Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse your­self! Do not reject us for­ev­er!” While Psalm 121:4 con­fess­es that the Lord is the one who nei­ther sleeps nor slum­bers, but watch­es over us, here, in 44:23, the psalmist sounds like Eli­jah, in 1 Kings 18:27 (in the NIV), who taunts the priests of the god Baal: 

Shout loud­er! Sure­ly he is a god!
Per­haps he is deep in thought — or busy! — or trav­el­ing!
Maybe he is sleep­ing and must be awakened! 

Is this the way one speaks to the Mak­er of heav­en and earth? Is this how you talk to the Holy One? Is this how we ought to address the Sov­er­eign God? Accord­ing to the psalmist, the answer is, at times, yes. 

This is no faith-less cry against the Almighty, how­ev­er. Nor is it the attack of an athe­ist. This is the wrestling-out of faith in the pres­ence of the Lord. For the psalmist, there is no civ­i­lized” speech; there is no stiff upper lip or qui­et res­ig­na­tion. There is only more intense address before the face of God. 

It is not only the psalmist’s life that is at stake; it is also, and more impor­tant­ly, the Lord’s name that is at stake. It is God’s rep­u­ta­tion that is in ques­tion. It is God’s char­ac­ter and capac­i­ty to ful­fill his promis­es that are at issue. Deliv­er us for your name’s sake,” the psalmist exclaims in 79:9. Bruegge­mann com­ments that while such prayers may trou­ble us, and that while we may resist pray­ing this way often, they are thor­ough­ly bib­li­cal: The speak­er is hon­est enough to know that yearn­ing, and the speak­ing is faith­ful enough to sub­mit the yearn­ing to God.” 

The psalms offer us yet anoth­er gift. In the face of inco­her­ent expe­ri­ences, the psalms offer us a coher­ent poem. This may seem like an odd gift. Who needs a poem when you need jus­tice or a liveli­hood? Who wants a rhyme when we want a fam­i­ly mem­ber back from the dead? But when noth­ing makes sense, the lament psalms give coher­ence to the inco­her­ence of our world. 

They offer a begin­ning, a mid­dle, and an end instead of a seem­ing­ly mean­ing­less nar­ra­tive. The present a rhythm of sounds instead of a cacoph­o­ny of noise. They sug­gest an order­ly world of metaphors instead of a dis­or­dered mess of thoughts and feel­ings. In offer­ing these things, the psalms re-frame our sense of life. 

In the end, to ignore these words, or to choose more polite” words, is to believe that God can­not han­dle our bro­ken human­i­ty. It is to believe that God has for­got­ten how we are made. But God has not for­got­ten. God has not run out of com­pas­sion. In Christ he suf­fers with us. In Christ he shares our bro­ken­ness. He, too, knows what it is like to pray with loud cries (Heb. 5). He, too, grieves and feels dis­tress (Mark 13). He, too, weeps (Luke 19). He, too, has felt aban­doned and for­sak­en (Mark 14 – 15). 

John Calvin sums up well these psalms of lament: here we have per­mis­sion giv­en us to lay open before [God] our infir­mi­ties, which we would be ashamed to con­fess before men.” This is an incal­cu­la­ble gift. It is a gift that Phae­dra and I have received, as we mourn all the small and big things in our life, along­side a com­mu­ni­ty of those who seek to walk with Jesus, trust­ing that these psalms are God’s cho­sen vehi­cle for mak­ing us not just whole and holy, but by the Spir­it more deeply com­pas­sion­ate to our suf­fer­ing neighbor. 

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Excerpt­ed from Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, by W. David O. Tay­lor. Copy­right © 2020 by W. David O. Tay­lor. Pub­lished by Thomas N www​.thomas​nel​son​.com

Originally published March 2020

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