David Taylor, a professor at Fuller Seminary, recalls a class he took in his own seminary years that was led by Eugene Peterson. After a semester of Peterson’s brilliant teaching, Taylor wanted one take-away for daily living. So he approached Peterson, and the professor gave him this response: “Tomorrow read Psalm 1. The next day read Psalm 2, then the next day Psalm 3. When you get to the end, start over.”
And that, says Taylor in a recent interview with Nathan Foster of Renovare, was the start of his lifelong relationship with the psalms. (https://renovare.org/podcast/david-taylor-psalms)
Over the past several weeks in our study of the psalms, we have looked at them in their original contexts. We have categorized them according to their several themes and have attempted to see God at work in our own lives and times through the eyes of the psalmist.
But the psalms also call us to immerse ourselves in their wisdom from a more contemplative stance.
In his own discovery of the psalms, Taylor says, “I allowed myself to read the psalms in a sort of non-anxious way, without feeling that acute need to make sense of them.”
There is indeed a case to be made for engaging the psalms in a meditative posture. Taylor finds in the psalms a call to “the way,” beginning with Psalm 1 (and see Psalm 119). “The ‘way’ is wisdom language,” says Taylor, “and wisdom language is walking language. You go at your own pace and notice things. It is a sense of a prayerful way of being in the world.”
C. S. Lewis insists that the psalms must be read as poetry, “with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, that are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.”
In his book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis muses that poetry is “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible” (pg 5).
Joan Chittister adds the genre of music to her reading of the psalms. “Both music and poetry allow us to bring our own meaning to the work and so enlarge the meaning and the consciousness of others,” she writes in Songs of the Heart. The psalms, says Chittister, “are about life, about what it means to be human, what it is to struggle and laugh, to be confused and depressed, to grapple with self-acceptance and strive for enlightenment. They are about all of us” (pg 1).
No wonder that the psalms are often called “the hymnbook of ancient Israel” or that their primary purpose was as the foundation for Israel’s worship of their God. One of the quintessential images of the psalmist is David singing them as he played the lyre.
For Taylor the psalms as music incorporates an entire orchestra. “All 150 psalms are like 150 musicians all playing this one piece together.” That is part of the deep magic of the psalms, he maintains – they talk to each other. They exist in community. “The psalms are a world you inhabit with others,” says Taylor. “They provide coherence when nothing holds together.” That is why psalms of lament exist alongside psalms of praise and joy. “I find myself attended to by all these sounds and all these spaces that make space for all the parts of my life that I don’t often know how to hold together,” says Taylor.
So this is an invitation to meander. To start at psalm 1 and read a psalm a day through to psalm 150, then do it again. Or to let the book fall open where it will, to snuggle down with it in your favorite chair and your morning coffee, to take it to the patio with a glass of wine in the late afternoon.
If you really need a prompt, start at Psalm 23, the most beloved psalm of all. And let it roll over you. Bring Kleenex.
A Psalm of David
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
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.