Home >> Previous Sermons >> September 23, 2012

The Psalms: More than Wallpaper

Paul's Letter

Jen and I took a trip to Shaker Village last week. One of the better-known sites is the open worship hall. Great building, great room. But the large meeting hall had an open stairwell to the attic that stole the show. In the attic you learn how this large building is standing: Beams. Real beams from pre-Civil War lumber, prepped at a local sawmill powered by a stream. All you can think about when you see these broad verticals and notched, fit horizontal supports is labor. The mark of the carpenters is obvious, and there is little doubt how this building has stood so well so long. This is how a house stands, not by the color of the paint or the choice of wallpaper.

The Psalms have a wallpaper reputation to outsiders. This book of 150 poems or hymns is written as prayer, confession, lament, and celebration. The psalms are the prayer book and song book of the Hebrews and Christians, but because they are generally known for their soft side we might see the psalms as a bit of wallpaper we can all enjoy. But the Psalms are not wallpaper. For the most part, they are hand-hewn beams, notched and fit to frame a house, square the walls, and hold a roof. They are load-bearing beams. I’ll go out on a limb: As far as the practical experience of trusting God is concerned, all of our weight is resting on the Psalms.

Whether you’re reading the psalms in our read-thru of the Bible in a year or simply on your own reading plan, the psalms yield their great value if you approach them strategically.

First, you must read with your hands.

We gain nothing by reading the psalms as if we’re afraid of slivers. The psalms need to be held and handled with our bare hands. Likewise, we gain nothing by being on our best behavior before God when we read the psalms. The psalms need to be read as a human.

On the one hand, you can only hear the psalms if you hear the human voice in the psalms.

A few examples: Psalm 3. These are the words of a human who knows the unique weight of being human: not just enemies but fear of enemies, the cynics talking behind his back, a streak of revenge, fear of God, and hope for God’s intervention. It’s all in one package.

Consider Psalm 32:1-5. These are the words of a forgiven man. These are the words of human who has sinned and recognized the price. This is a voice needing redemption. These are not the words of someone confusing himself with God. This is a man in the dust, a man who knows he is dust, and was delivered from the dust. This is a man comfortable with words like sin, deceit, iniquity, transgression, guilt, and forgiveness.

This is the liberation in the psalms: it is OK to read the psalms as a human. In fact, the psalms do you no good unless you hear, see, and know yourself in the psalms.

This is why people pray the psalms. People have long prayed these psalms word-for-word, converting the psalmist’s words to their words. To pray the psalms is to say words that mark you as uniquely human—with enemies, with needs, with fear, with failure, with sin, and still with hope. These are words you might not want to use of yourself, use around others, even use before God, but you should. It is not a sin to be human, but it is certainly a sin to think of yourself as more than human.

An assignment: Psalm 13. Make it your prayer. Memorize it. Risk it.

Second, read with your imagination.

We’re not in the psalms anytime at all before we realize that the psalmists loved metaphors. This is a common practice for most of us in speech, using a figure of speech to describe something else. Let’s play complete the metaphor: achilles’ heel; apple of my eye; raining cats and dogs; time is money; America is a melting pot. We use metaphors to give a concrete feel to things that may not be so concrete. When we come to the psalms, we see metaphors used to describe what we do not know. Mostly, what psalmists are trying to explain in concrete metaphor is an invisible God. And that is a challenge.

We earlier read Psalm 1. At the heart of that psalm is this nugget describing the righteous man: He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. In the ancient world of Palestine fruit trees were well-known and valued. Can you imagine a better sight in the agricultural world than a tree laden with fruit? In the psalm the righteous man is growing under ideal conditions and under the hand of a skilled gardener who knows where to find fruit in his orchard. It speaks to God’s care for His people and our potential for thriving under His care.

There are many, many metaphors ahead of you: walking as a way to describe life; light as God’s Word; wind and water as God’s Spirit; rock, hiding place, friend, father as God; and incense as your prayers. These are great images to consider as you walk. Or discuss with your children.

Third, you must open the invitation. It’s been said that saying a new word is one of the bravest things we do as humans. We probably all remember breaking the boundaries of childhood language and using the language of adults. There was something extraordinary about saying an adult word. From simple vocabulary in primers to technical language in our vocations, a new word is often an entry into a new world. It is this way with worship. We worship with words, and often the words we need are beyond our ability or vocabulary. And so the psalms. The psalms give us a language for what is happening in our hearts. Here we find the grammar for worship. But they are new words. We must take a step of faith and make them our words.

In that regard, the psalms are an invitation to worship. It is an invitation to use language that may finally give words to what we’ve always felt and believed about God. Or it may be that these are words we’re still growing into.

Consider Psalm 139:1-10. What if this were the words you spoke before God each morning and evening? Consider what it would mean to go through a day knowing you are KNOWN. Consider a life that lives with God’s familiarity with all we think and say, go and do. What if we moved away from thinking that God’s before and behind us, within us and around us was a help and not a police state? What if Where can I go from your Spirit? Became the great point of rest for you and me?

These are the words of worship. But it is up to you. This is work, but it is the work of walls and roof and structure. It will keep the house in place.




    Bulletin Insert

    The Psalms: More than Wallpaper

    U Shaker Village carpentry…

    The Psalms have a wallpaper reputation to outsiders.

    As far as the practical experience of trusting God is concerned, all of our weight is resting on the Psalms.

    The psalms yield their great value if you approach them strategically.

    First, you must read with your hands.

    We gain nothing by reading the psalms as if we’re afraid of slivers. The psalms need to be held and handled with our bare hands. Likewise, we gain nothing by projecting our best side for God when we read the psalms. The psalms need to be read as a human.

    Consider Psalm 3...

    Consider Psalm 32:1-5:

    Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven,

    whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.

    When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.

    Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”—and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

    These are not the words of someone confusing himself with God. This is a man in the dust, a man who knows he is dust, and was delivered from the dust.

    An assignment: Psalm 13. Make it your prayer. Memorize it.

    Second, read with your imagination.

    A love of metaphor: When we come to the psalms, we see metaphors used to describe what we do not know. Mostly, what psalmists are trying to explain in concrete metaphor is an invisible God. And that is a challenge.

    Psalm 1:3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

    Can you imagine a better sight in the ancient agricultural world than a tree laden with fruit?

    There are many, many metaphors ahead of you: walking as a way to describe life; light as God’s Word; wind and water as God’s Spirit; rock, hiding place, friend, father as God; and incense as your prayers.

    Third, you must open the invitation.

    It’s been said that saying a new word is one of the bravest things we do as humans. A new word is often an entry into a new world.

    Consider Psalm 139:1-10.

    What if this were the words you spoke before God each morning and evening? What if Where can I go from your Spirit? Became the great point of rest for you and me?

    What if you opened the Psalms as an invitation to worship?

    What if you made these words your words? What if these words made your heart?




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