Once upon a time a sower went out to sow . . . Once upon a time, there was a man who had two sons . . . Once upon a time ten bridesmaids were waiting for the bridegroom . . .
Jesus told stories; we call them parables – simple stories that illustrate a moral or spiritual truth.
Of course Jesus told stories; he was raised with storytelling. It was the stories the Hebrews told to their children, and their children’s children, by which they both remembered and celebrated the acts of God that made them a people: “Once upon a time we were slaves in Egypt,” the narrative went, “but our mighty God brought us out of oppression. He parted the waters of the Red Sea so we could walk across on dry land, then closed the waters over Pharaoh’s army. He threw the horse and rider into the sea” (told in the first 15 chapters of Exodus).
The Exodus event shapes the very DNA of the Hebrew faith, and they told it and retold it in their psalms. Anderson and Bishop, in Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, suggest that in order to fully appreciate Israel’s understanding of God’s actions in history, one should read Psalms 105, 106, 78, 135, and 136 in that order. These are the teaching psalms, an oral history book for a culture that had few opportunities to read.
But the psalms do more than tell the story; they speak to the very nature of God. What is God like?
God is the one who called us to be His people:
He remembers his covenant forever,
the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac (psalm 105:8-9).
God is the one who rescued us:
He brought out his people with rejoicing,
his chosen ones with shouts of joy;
he gave them the lands of the nations,
and they fell heir to what others had toiled for (psalm 105:43-44).
God made covenant with us:
that they might keep his precepts
and observe his laws (psalm 105:45).
God forgives and calls us back to Himself:
We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly (psalm 106:6).
Yet he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented (psalm 106:44-45).
And, therefore, children, our God is to be praised:
Praise the Lord.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever (psalm 106:1).
When Christians ask, “What is God like?” we look at Jesus, at what he said and did. John reminds us that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen God (1:18).
That first revelation of God known by the Hebrews finds completion in the Christ story – God calls all people to Himself and opens the Kingdom to everyone through His grace. We too can say, “This is what it was like; this is how God intervened; this is how it is in my life now.”
Our story is both universal and particular – it is the story of all of us and each of us. The Church tells the story, and we nod and say, “Yes, yes, that is my story too.” And we know it not merely by reading about it or learning about it but by living it. Experience is our coach and tutor.
As we read and meditate on the psalms of Israel’s history, we are invited to recount our own stories – to ourselves, to our families, and to those who cross our paths seeking a way to make sense of the world.
In the retelling, perhaps we will come to say repeatedly with the Hebrew psalmists, “His steadfast love endures forever” (psalm 136).
For study and practice this week
Read these psalms and consider how God has acted in parallel in your life:
As you read through other psalms, look for incidents of storytelling that recall God’s intervention in history.
Write a psalm of your own history, reflecting on specific events in your timeline. Share it with someone.
For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here.
Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at email@example.com. Or leave a comment below.