by Marjorie George
Saul was troubled. The spirit of the Lord had left the king, once anointed by Samuel to lead the nation of Israel, and an evil spirit had descended upon him. But Saul’s servant knew of a boy, a son of Jesse of Bethlehem, who was gifted at playing the lyre. So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, saying, “Send me your son me who is with the sheep,” David by name. David came and stayed with Saul, and whenever the evil spirit came upon Saul, David would comfort him by picking up his lyre and playing it, and the evil spirit departed (I Samuel chapter 16).
After Saul’s death, When David himself became king, the lyre continued to be his favored instrument, and he no doubt used it to sing the poems he composed that we know today as psalms.
Nearly half of the 150 psalms are ascribed to David, and many more are believed to have been commissioned by him or written for him by musical guilds or worship leaders such as Korah and Asaph.
The psalms were meant to be sung. “They are not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons,” says C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms. “They are poems, and poems intended to be sung” (pg 2). Indeed, many Episcopalians who were raised on Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer as part of regular church worship can barely recite some psalms without recalling the soulful tunes to which they were sung.
The original setting of the psalms was the worshipping community of ancient Israel, especially as they gathered in the temple or synagogues. An entire category of the poem-songs are the psalms of ascent, sung as people made their way to the temple in Jerusalem.
The early Christian worshipping community read their Jewish scripture, that is, the Old Testament, in the Greek version known as the Septuagint, where the prevailing title for psalms was psalmoi, meaning songs accompanied by stringed instruments.
But the psalms were also used by individuals and families in their daily lives. “In times of trouble, traditional Jewish communities have turned to the recitation of psalms — often the entire book — as a prayerful response,” according to the website My Jewish Learning. “Even now, in some circles the family and community of someone facing a grace illness may ask for psalms to be recited as a collective prayer for the sick person’s health and recovery” (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-psalms/). And we rightly use them both in our worship and in our everyday lives.
The psalms recalled and celebrated the depth and breadth of the life and history of ancient Israel – sometimes in petition, sometimes in lament, often in thanksgiving and praise of a faithful God.
Many psalms focused on a particular aspect of their faith with which the Israelites were all too accustomed – that of waiting on God’s saving power. They echoed the oft-quoted words of their ancestor prophet Isaiah who promised relief for those who wait:
“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run, and not be weary;
and they shall walk, and not faint” (40:31).
Just as the Hebrews waited for the salvation of their people through the promised Messiah (and although many did not recognize him), we Christians wait for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. We live now in liminal time, between Genesis and Revelation – between God’s mighty act of creation and God’s final gathering of the world to himself. For, in the words of the Cursillo movement, the world does not yet belong to Christ.
We are a waiting people right now. We wait for the COVID-19 disease to run its course. We wait for a vaccine. We wait with fear and impatience and dread, for we do not know what is ahead of us. We are in the good company of the Communion of Saints who testify to us that our God has not betrayed us.
As we face into Holy Week, beginning this coming Palm Sunday, we wait for relief from the tomb and look for the resurrection to come.
Our promise is that it will.
This week, read the psalms in an attitude of waiting hopefully. Sing them loudly and with confidence and hope in the God of yesterday, today, and always.
Marjorie George serves the Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or leave a reply below.