A Summer with the Psalms

The Literature in the Psalms

     Two years ago, I spent a summer with books.  Notice I did not say I spent a summer with the psalms.  

     For over 12 years, I had read almost nothing except seminary resources, followed the lectionary readings at least three times which is really nine years, and of course the Bible. 

     Even as I finished up my teaching career and continued in ministry, virtually all my reading was centered on preparing for sermons and course of study assignments.  Leisure reading just did not fit into my cramped calendar.

     As I stepped away from the pulpit, I started reading again.  I think I was starved.  During that summer, I think I read something like a dozen books.  I read fiction primarily.  I was starved.

     Among my reading choices were a series about the Yada Yada Prayer Group in which one character repeatedly referenced the praying the Psalms.  I also read a fiction book about the biblical character Sarah–fascinating.  But I also added in the Chronicles of Narnia which I had never read

     C. S. Lewis captured me and after conversations with others, I read his book Mere Christianity.  I became hooked on his thinking so as we began preparing for this summer’s series on the psalms, I searched out another of his books, Reflections on the Psalms.  In his introduction, he writes: 

Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.  They must be read as poems if they are to be understood. . . “(p.3)

     As we begin today’s reflection on the Psalms, I hope you have your Bible handy and are ready to take notes.  We are students of God’s words and today we study the Psalms.  Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord, you are our teacher, and you have gifted your faithful with words to guide us in our life journeys.  Open our minds today through the words of the psalms so we may understand your grace, your love, and your promises.  Amen.

     Throughout my own educational experience, I never understood the significance of reading the introductions, the preface, or the forwards of books.  Oddly enough, one of the first instructors in the Course of Study through St. Paul’s School of Theology, emphasized that reading these introductory words to the texts was important in order for us to begin understanding the context that follows.

     Since then, I have made an effort to do just that.  Sometimes it seems pretty tedious, other times it reveals insights that crack open the mind to a completely new concept or author’s point of view that deeply affects the understanding of the material found in the text.  

     Reading C. S. Lewis’s introductions provides a frame of reference from which he writes.  For instance, in his introductions he explains not only who he is, but how he hopes to share his understanding of scripture:

“This is not a work of scholarship.  I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.  I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. . . . (p. 1)”

What Lewis does not say about who he is can be found in the biographical information on the book’s flap:

He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. . .” 

Lewis was gifted, but he chose to write humbly in an effort to explain what many might say is unexplainable–God is real and is part of our daily lives.

     This week’s scripture readings began with Psalm 62 which is subtitled “A Song of Trust in God Alone.”  For those familiar with our hymns, that triggers a recognition of an often-repeated phrase, “God alone is . . . “  

     Even last week as we talked about Psalm 42 and how it was transformed into the contemporary hymn, “As the Deer” written by Martin Nystrom, we can find the repetition of these phrases:   

You alone are my heart’s desire. . . 

You alone are my strength, my shield. . . 

The psalms we read and learn are deep inside our memory to rely on in difficult times or when we are under stress:  

     For God alone my soul waits in silence;

         from him comes my salvation.

     He alone is my rock and my salvation,

        my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalms 62:1-2)

These words lead Katharina von Schlegel, in 1752, to write another hymn we often turn to in difficult times:  

Be still, my soul:  the Lord is on your side.

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;        

Leave to your God to order and provide;

In every change God faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul:  your best, your heavenly friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.  (UMH #534)

We need these words.  We need to know that as difficult as times can get, we are not in this journey alone.  We are accompanied by God.

     This summer we are experiencing challenges that we think no one else has ever had to experience before.  But, the parallels are there in history.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew of infectious outbreaks that changed the lives of many.  In the earliest years of the 20th century there was the Spanish Flu, during the mid-1900s there was polio, and now we have COVID-19

     Circumstances that surround the pandemic are creating additional havoc in our lives.  Families deal with the loss of their loved ones.  Jobs are lost.  Incomes are lost.  Future plans are put on hold.  And no one can predict how the effects are going to impact their lives physically, financially, emotionally or even spiritually.   We need God.  We need the words of the psalms.

     Do you remember that Lewis was a literature professor?  Well, in his introduction he shares a couple of insights into studying the psalms as literature.  One point he makes is repetition is a way to emphasize a point the author/poet wants to make.  As we read the psalms this is one truth that develops very clearly.  

      Consider the symbolism of the rock that we find in the palms as well as in other scripture.  In Psalm 62, rock is mentioned four times.  The rock is salvation and refuge.  The rock is mighty.  God is our rock.  Repetition of one word can impress on the reader/listener the value of that symbol.

     Now look at Psalm 40:2, also from this week’s readings: 

He drew me up from the desolate pit,

      out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock,

     making my steps secure.

The repetition cannot be ignored, and of course these words trigger the recognition of another favorite hymn,s My Hope Is Built: [

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.  (UMH #368)

Even though this hymn is not based on the psalms, it is based on the same symbolism.  It is an image, a literary device, that is carried throughout scripture.  It becomes the rock foundation for our faith.

     Lewis’ second literature lesson is about parallelism.  As a language teacher, my first reaction is to think about teaching students how to write sentence with parallel structure, but Lewis is analyzing literature and defines parallelism as “. . . the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.” (p.4)

     Lewis uses other examples to explain parallelism as he continues to share:

“. . . ‘Parallelism’ is the characteristically Hebrew form [of creating a pattern as in the arts, painting, dance, music, literature.  . . . Parallelism] is either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” (p.4-5)

Lewis saw the repetition and the parallelism that remained as a means of emphasizing God’s message through scripture–despite translations.

                  Each of the psalms we read strengthens us.  We find ourselves facing the same human challenges as those in the ancient scriptures. We hear God in the words that have translated into the words we sing even today.  The psalms are meant to be sung and/or to be prayed in as many ways as we want as we confront the reality of our earthly challenges.

                  One of the contemporary hymns that speaks to me is titled, “10,000 Reasons.”  The lyrics were written by Matt Redman and the music was written by his friend Jonas Myrin.  Redman says he takes inspiration from Psalm 103: 

Bless the Lord, oh my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul

and do not forget all his benefits–

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.(v.1-5)

Written in 2011, within one hour, the psalm echoes through the words.  The literature of the hymn keeps the listener centered on God through repetition and parallelism.  The theme of the psalms never waivers regardless of the translation: 

                  Bless the Lord, oh my soul

                  Oh my soul, worship his holy name

                  Sing like never before,

                  Oh my soul I’ll worship your holy name.

                  The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning.

                  It’s time to sing your song again

                  Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me

                  Let me be singing when the evening comes. . . . 

                  You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger

                  Your name is great and your heart is kind

For all your goodness, I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore. . . .

     Today we close with the words of the ancient psalms echoing in the lyrics of our hymns today.  We join in worship and include them in our liturgy as a way to learn, to remember, and to grow in our faith.  

     The reality is that we need the repetition the poets, the artists, the lyricists use to seal in our long-term memory and our inner soul, the words of God.  We hear the prayers for help, the hymns of praise and thanksgiving, the wisdom of the faithful guiding us to a solid foundation, a rock foundation in our faith.

     There are indeed 10,000 reasons to read the psalms this summer and then reread them in the seasons ahead.  Reread them in various translations and discover the solid, rock foundation of God’s words.

     Eugene Peterson shares two pieces of Psalm 62 in his devotional, Praying with the Psalms.  

For God alone my soul waits in silence; 

                  from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

                  my fortress; I shall never be shaken.”  (Psalms 62:1-2, MSG)

In his second daily devotion he selects one more verse from the psalm:

Trust in him at all times, O people;

pour out your heart before him;

                  God is a refuge for us.  (Psalms 62:8, MSG)

He adds to these scriptures these two brief statements: 

Silence sinks a shaft to bedrock.  It is the soul’s means for descending through the gravel of rebellion and doubt to the solid, quiet reality of God’s word.  . . . The soul careens from side to side seeking a way to completion.  On one side is the anarchic freedom of lawless. . .on the other the secure wealth of the rich.  But the alternatives are ditches, not highways.  The Lord himself is the way to wholeness. (May 2-3)

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father, 

You are our rock, our foundation, our refuge.

In the words you give your faithful

We find reassurance, solace, and strength.

Thank you for all those who know you

And find ways to share your message

 So others can be strengthened

In their relationship with you,

Assuring them of salvation

And life eternal in your kingdom.  

–Selah, forever, amen.

A Summer with the Psalms:

The Literature in the Psalms

     Two years ago, I spent a summer with books.  Notice I did not say I spent a summer with the psalms.  

     For over 12 years, I had read almost nothing except seminary resources, followed the lectionary readings at least three times which is really nine years, and of course the Bible. 

     Even as I finished up my teaching career and continued in ministry, virtually all my reading was centered on preparing for sermons and course of study assignments.  Leisure reading just did not fit into my cramped calendar.

     As I stepped away from the pulpit, I started reading again.  I think I was starved.  During that summer, I think I read something like a dozen books.  I read fiction primarily.  I was starved.

     Among my reading choices were a series about the Yada Yada Prayer Group in which one character repeatedly referenced the praying the Psalms.  I also read a fiction book about the biblical character Sarah–fascinating.  But I also added in the Chronicles of Narnia which I had never read

     C. S. Lewis captured me and after conversations with others, I read his book Mere Christianity.  I became hooked on his thinking so as we began preparing for this summer’s series on the psalms, I searched out another of his books, Reflections on the Psalms.  In his introduction, he writes: 

Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.  They must be read as poems if they are to be understood. . . “(p.3)

     As we begin today’s reflection on the Psalms, I hope you have your Bible handy and are ready to take notes.  We are students of God’s words and today we study the Psalms.  Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord, you are our teacher, and you have gifted your faithful with words to guide us in our life journeys.  Open our minds today through the words of the psalms so we may understand your grace, your love, and your promises.  Amen.

     Throughout my own educational experience, I never understood the significance of reading the introductions, the preface, or the forwards of books.  Oddly enough, one of the first instructors in the Course of Study through St. Paul’s School of Theology, emphasized that reading these introductory words to the texts was important in order for us to begin understanding the context that follows.

     Since then, I have made an effort to do just that.  Sometimes it seems pretty tedious, other times it reveals insights that crack open the mind to a completely new concept or author’s point of view that deeply affects the understanding of the material found in the text.  

     Reading C. S. Lewis’s introductions provides a frame of reference from which he writes.  For instance, in his introductions he explains not only who he is, but how he hopes to share his understanding of scripture:

“This is not a work of scholarship.  I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.  I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself. . . . (p. 1)”

What Lewis does not say about who he is can be found in the biographical information on the book’s flap:

He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. . .” 

Lewis was gifted, but he chose to write humbly in an effort to explain what many might say is unexplainable–God is real and is part of our daily lives.

     This week’s scripture readings began with Psalm 62 which is subtitled “A Song of Trust in God Alone.”  For those familiar with our hymns, that triggers a recognition of an often-repeated phrase, “God alone is . . . “  

     Even last week as we talked about Psalm 42 and how it was transformed into the contemporary hymn, “As the Deer” written by Martin Nystrom, we can find the repetition of these phrases:   

You alone are my heart’s desire. . . 

You alone are my strength, my shield. . . 

The psalms we read and learn are deep inside our memory to rely on in difficult times or when we are under stress:  

     For God alone my soul waits in silence;

         from him comes my salvation.

     He alone is my rock and my salvation,

        my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalms 62:1-2)

These words lead Katharina von Schlegel, in 1752, to write another hymn we often turn to in difficult times:  

Be still, my soul:  the Lord is on your side.

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;        

Leave to your God to order and provide;

In every change God faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul:  your best, your heavenly friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.  (UMH #534)

We need these words.  We need to know that as difficult as times can get, we are not in this journey alone.  We are accompanied by God.

     This summer we are experiencing challenges that we think no one else has ever had to experience before.  But, the parallels are there in history.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew of infectious outbreaks that changed the lives of many.  In the earliest years of the 20th century there was the Spanish Flu, during the mid-1900s there was polio, and now we have COVID-19

     Circumstances that surround the pandemic are creating additional havoc in our lives.  Families deal with the loss of their loved ones.  Jobs are lost.  Incomes are lost.  Future plans are put on hold.  And no one can predict how the effects are going to impact their lives physically, financially, emotionally or even spiritually.   We need God.  We need the words of the psalms.

     Do you remember that Lewis was a literature professor?  Well, in his introduction he shares a couple of insights into studying the psalms as literature.  One point he makes is repetition is a way to emphasize a point the author/poet wants to make.  As we read the psalms this is one truth that develops very clearly.  

      Consider the symbolism of the rock that we find in the palms as well as in other scripture.  In Psalm 62, rock is mentioned four times.  The rock is salvation and refuge.  The rock is mighty.  God is our rock.  Repetition of one word can impress on the reader/listener the value of that symbol.

     Now look at Psalm 40:2, also from this week’s readings: 

He drew me up from the desolate pit,

      out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock,

     making my steps secure.

The repetition cannot be ignored, and of course these words trigger the recognition of another favorite hymn,s My Hope Is Built: [

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.  (UMH #368)

Even though this hymn is not based on the psalms, it is based on the same symbolism.  It is an image, a literary device, that is carried throughout scripture.  It becomes the rock foundation for our faith.

     Lewis’ second literature lesson is about parallelism.  As a language teacher, my first reaction is to think about teaching students how to write sentence with parallel structure, but Lewis is analyzing literature and defines parallelism as “. . . the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.” (p.4)

     Lewis uses other examples to explain parallelism as he continues to share:

“. . . ‘Parallelism’ is the characteristically Hebrew form [of creating a pattern as in the arts, painting, dance, music, literature.  . . . Parallelism] is either a wonderful piece of luck or a wise provision of God’s, that poetry which was to be turned into all languages should have as its chief formal characteristic one that does not disappear (as mere metre does) in translation.” (p.4-5)

Lewis saw the repetition and the parallelism that remained as a means of emphasizing God’s message through scripture–despite translations.

                  Each of the psalms we read strengthens us.  We find ourselves facing the same human challenges as those in the ancient scriptures. We hear God in the words that have translated into the words we sing even today.  The psalms are meant to be sung and/or to be prayed in as many ways as we want as we confront the reality of our earthly challenges.

                  One of the contemporary hymns that speaks to me is titled, “10,000 Reasons.”  The lyrics were written by Matt Redman and the music was written by his friend Jonas Myrin.  Redman says he takes inspiration from Psalm 103: 

Bless the Lord, oh my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul

and do not forget all his benefits–

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.(v.1-5)

Written in 2011, within one hour, the psalm echoes through the words.  The literature of the hymn keeps the listener centered on God through repetition and parallelism.  The theme of the psalms never waivers regardless of the translation: 

                  Bless the Lord, oh my soul

                  Oh my soul, worship his holy name

                  Sing like never before,

                  Oh my soul I’ll worship your holy name.

                  The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning.

                  It’s time to sing your song again

                  Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me

                  Let me be singing when the evening comes. . . . 

                  You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger

                  Your name is great and your heart is kind

For all your goodness, I will keep on singing

Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.

And on that day when my strength is failing

The end draws near and my time has come

Still my soul will sing your praise unending

Ten thousand years and then forevermore. . . .

     Today we close with the words of the ancient psalms echoing in the lyrics of our hymns today.  We join in worship and include them in our liturgy as a way to learn, to remember, and to grow in our faith.  

     The reality is that we need the repetition the poets, the artists, the lyricists use to seal in our long-term memory and our inner soul, the words of God.  We hear the prayers for help, the hymns of praise and thanksgiving, the wisdom of the faithful guiding us to a solid foundation, a rock foundation in our faith.

     There are indeed 10,000 reasons to read the psalms this summer and then reread them in the seasons ahead.  Reread them in various translations and discover the solid, rock foundation of God’s words.

     Eugene Peterson shares two pieces of Psalm 62 in his devotional, Praying with the Psalms.  

For God alone my soul waits in silence; 

                  from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

                  my fortress; I shall never be shaken.”  (Psalms 62:1-2, MSG)

In his second daily devotion he selects one more verse from the psalm:

Trust in him at all times, O people;

pour out your heart before him;

                  God is a refuge for us.  (Psalms 62:8, MSG)

He adds to these scriptures these two brief statements: 

Silence sinks a shaft to bedrock.  It is the soul’s means for descending through the gravel of rebellion and doubt to the solid, quiet reality of God’s word.  . . . The soul careens from side to side seeking a way to completion.  On one side is the anarchic freedom of lawless. . .on the other the secure wealth of the rich.  But the alternatives are ditches, not highways.  The Lord himself is the way to wholeness. (May 2-3)

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father, 

You are our rock, our foundation, our refuge.

In the words you give your faithful

We find reassurance, solace, and strength.

Thank you for all those who know you

And find ways to share your message

 So others can be strengthened

In their relationship with you,

Assuring them of salvation

And life eternal in your kingdom.  

–Selah, forever, amen.

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