A Book We Read That Also Reads Us
A Conversation about the Psalms with Dr. John Goldingay
Photo by Natalie Grainger
"If you open to the middle of the Bible, you'll probably be in Psalms."
"The Psalms are like the worship music of the Old Testament."
Those two sentences summed up my (Jesse’s) knowledge of the Psalms for the first twenty years of my life. I memorized Psalm 23 as a kid, and I knew some of the "Greatest Hits" like Psalm 8 and Psalm 139, but for the most part, they remained a mystery.
Some exploded with happiness and thanksgiving, others with sadness and anger, and many of them had images and words I did not understand.
Maybe you can relate.
But as it turns out, we can understand and experience the Book of Psalms as a wonderful, intricate blessing once we have a little training, and there are few persons better suited for that task than Fuller Seminary's John Goldingay. Dr. Goldingay is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller, and has published extensively on the Old Testament in general and Psalms in particular.
Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Goldingay about the Book of Psalms and how we might mine them in our youth ministries for the treasures they offer. Here are some of his insights:
What is the Book of Psalms, and why is it in the Bible?
One of my starting points for understanding the significance of the Psalms is what Paul says about being filled with the Spirit in Ephesians. In Ephesians 5:18-20 he writes,
Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Then, in Ephesians 6:18,
Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
For Paul, being filled with the Spirit is going to issue in praise, and in thanksgiving, and in prayer. In the course of doing that, you're going to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. He's not just talking about The Psalms. One can see in the New Testament how people's praises are psalm-like; for instance, Mary in the first chapter of Luke. But when Paul starts by saying "speak to one another…", he's at least including the Psalms that we've got in the Book of Psalms, and his assumption as a Jew that that would be the case fits with the nature of the Book of Psalms in itself. That is, the Book of Psalms is in scripture to tell people how to pray and praise. It doesn't work on the assumption that everybody knows that instinctively. It works on the assumption that we need to be taught how to pray and praise.
One of the indications of that in the Book of Psalms itself is the very fact that it is divided into five books. In English translations, it starts with Book 1, and at the beginning of 42 it says Book 2, and at the end of 73 it says Book 3, and so on. What does that make you think of? It makes you think of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch. So, there are five books that tell us about how God created the world and how God got involved with Israel, and what life ought to be like in light of what God has done for God’s people. And there are also five books that model for you what praise and prayer are like.
It's interesting and significant that they don't tell you how to be involved in praise and prayer by giving you a list of principles. What they do is give you a collection of 150 examples of the things you can say to God. That's the way to go about teaching them. The Psalms are there to enable Israelites, and now Christians, to know how to go about praise and prayer. As we want to be able to help people to learn to praise and pray, the model the Psalms suggest is that we show people how to praise and pray by praising and praying, and drawing others into it.
Some psalms seem really joyful, others sad and/or angry, and still others a mix of emotions. How would you explain the differences to a teenager?
Now I would have thought that teenagers are the last people who need the differences explained to them! Teenagers know better than anybody how to move between those kinds of feelings. They are probably less inhibited about doing so than grown-ups. Moving between these emotions is part of being human, both as a teenager and an adult. There will be times when you're joyful, times when you're sad or angry, and times when you're a bit mixed up about things.
The great thing about the Psalms is that they invite us to share those feelings with God. In fact, they set before us several examples of things you might want to say to God along those lines. I sometimes categorize them in three sorts of ways.
- One is a psalm in which we say to God, "You're great! You're great!”
- Another in which we say, "HEEELP!!!"
- And another in which we say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Those three ways of talking to God are the ones that dominate probably something like 135 out of the 150. We're spending some of the time in praise of who God is, the great things that God did for his people, and the great person that God is.
Then, much of the time, what we experience doesn't match that.
We find ourselves going through an experience that shatters the kind of assumptions we've been taught, or acquired, about the kind of person God is— God's power, God's faithfulness, and so on. There are scores of psalms that express sadness and anger about how things are. Both kinds of psalms are there, and they're interwoven.
You might have thought that you'd get fifty psalms of praise, then fifty psalms of protest, and then fifty psalms of thanksgiving. It doesn't work like that. They are all mixed up, which is neat in itself, because life is like that. So there are these many psalms that protest the way things are not working out the way you would have thought, given what you know about God.
And then there are the psalms that come from the other side of that experience, where God has acted in the way you pressed God to do; or where you've come to see things in a different way. Even though the situation hasn't changed, you have. One way or another, you come out the other side, able to say again that God is great, God is powerful, God is faithful, and so on. But now you're able to give thanks to God, and it's praise again.
The Psalms themselves are as often addressing other people as addressing God. What they're doing is urging other people to join in praise, and not least urging other people to join in praise for what God did for me last week. Because what God did for me last week is important for everybody else. It builds up everybody else's faith.
Based on the Psalms, what is okay to say to God, and what is not okay? What are some helpful examples of honest communication from scripture?
As far as I can tell, you can say anything to God!
Now, it's a kind of strange thing that in the Old Testament, and the Psalms in particular, people don't address God as “Father” the way that we do. But you can tell from the Psalms that they have a child's understanding about the way in which you can come to God. You can come to God and batter on God's chest in a way that a child does.
Now, maybe they don't talk about God as “Father” because it was too cheap and easy, and many other cultures in that time assumed that their god was “Father.” But they evidently related to God as father. Now as a father, I hope it's the case that my kids could have said anything to me. And the Psalms assume that it's like that with God.
Now, the fact that you beat on the chest of God doesn't mean that eventually, sometimes, God may answer back. A great thing about the story of Job is that Job beats on God’s chest for ages and ages, and eventually God answers back. Job perhaps slightly wishes he hadn't said some of those things, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a real relationship. Real things go on between Job and God. When we do speak to God like that, we risk hearing back from God, but that's great because there's reality there about a relationship! Nobody has to mince words. We don't have to mince words with God, and God doesn't have to mince words with us. So I don't think there's anything that you can't say to God. But when you speak to God, you may find there are no limits to what God may say back!
You once wrote, “As we read the Psalms, they read us.” What do you mean by that?
In a number of the Psalms, one can't be quite sure what the backstory is behind the words. No matter how hard you try to understand it, you still can't get to the answer. It’s in connection with that aspect of the Psalms that I say the Psalms read us. If the text can be read in two sorts of ways – for instance, is the fact that things have gone wrong in my life my fault because I've sinned, or is it something totally inexplicable, and it's simply God's fault? – the Psalms won't tell the answer to that question. The psalm you’re reading tests you. It works as the Word of God on you, by the fact of you having to examine yourself, and ask the question, If I were to say that psalm, what would I mean?
What the writer of the psalm meant, and the background of the psalmist's life, are irrelevant to the question, “What's going on in your life that means you need to pray one way or the other way?" That’s what I mean when I talk about the Psalms reading us. They reveal what’s going on in our hearts and minds.
An example is Psalm 139 that talks about God having access to us anywhere, and nowhere we go will we be out of God's reach. Is that good news or bad news? The psalm doesn't make it clear. You have to ask yourself, “Do I think that's good news or bad news for me right now, and why?”
What are some ways that leaders can help young people connect with God through the Psalms?
In any psalm, there are things you don't quite know the meaning of, but that’s okay. A problem for pastors is the fear to utter the words, “I don't know.” Many pastors and leaders think they ought to have the answer to every question.
I don't think it's that difficult to understand nine verses out of ten in the Psalms, and if there's one verse you don't understand, that’s okay, we don't know the answer to that, that in itself says something. One of the most important things I say to students when they ask a question is, "Oh, I don't know the answer to that, I'll go and look it up and try to find out, and tell you next week."
If leaders can help young people read the Psalms in a way that allows the Psalms to read us and what we are going through, that is a great place to start. Also, if you want to know how to pray for other people, especially for justice, psalms of protest are the answer. We don't just pray them for ourselves. We pray them for other people.
- Choose some verses from the Psalms and ask students to identify a time when those verses may have described their feelings. For instance, Psalm 59:17 (I will sing praises to you, my strength, because God is my stronghold, my loving God) might remind them of an answered prayer, or a big “aha” moment on a missions project or at a camp. Psalm 88:9 (My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering. I’ve been calling out to you every day, LORD—I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!) might describe a time of loss or disappointment.
- Invite students to start reading through a few psalms and then to stop once they find a verse that describes something in their lives right now. You might have students start with different psalms, or have everyone read the same ones.
- As a leader, find a psalm that describes you right now, or might have described a significant moment in your life, and then share the psalm and why it connected with you. That will model for students how you want them to engage the Psalms.
- Try to tease out any taboo or hesitance your students might feel about speaking from the heart to God. Questions like, “When have you had words you wanted to say to God but didn’t say them?” or “What words aren’t okay to use with God?” might help get the discussion started. Then look to the psalms of lament to find examples of using bold language with God.
- Commit as a group to reading a particular psalm throughout the week, and then let that kick off discussion next week. This might work especially well in small groups.
- Encourage students to write an original psalm. Many of the Psalms leave out specific names and details, and focus instead on the feelings and experience of the author or on the character and works of God. A modern day psalm might start something like, “Today you reminded me how much you sacrificed for us, because you love us,” or “I prayed to you every day this week and asked for help, but you have been silent.”