God’s People Speak to God
The early Christian theologian Athanasius noted in the fourth century that while most of scripture speaks to us, the psalms of the Old Testament speak for us. In the psalms we find people complaining to God when in distress and perplexity, thanking God in moods of liberation and joy, praising God for God’s goodness and wonder, and declaring their faithfulness to God even when they do not agree with Him or understand His ways.
These are the same emotions we find ourselves expressing today as we seek to remain faithful to a God who is often beyond our comprehension. Consequently, this psalms study will focus not only on instruction, but also on reflection and how we can live the psalms in our time.
The Psalter is at once a collection of songs, poems, and prayers that were composed and beloved by the Hebrews of the Old Testament. They are, say Bernhard Anderson and Steven Bishop in Out of the Depths – the Psalms Speak for Us Today, “the songs that accompany the people of God on their journey through history.” They were used repeatedly in the worship of Israel in both Temple and synagogue. In the Hebrew Bible, the title for the book of psalms is tehillim, which means “praises.”
But the psalms were also a great part of the worship of early Christians, who considered themselves Jews who had recognized and received the Messiah. The first Christians continued to use the Hebrew Bible, but they would have read it in the Greek version (the Septuagint) where the psalms collection was known as the psalmoi, meaning songs that were sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.
While the psalms were written over hundreds of years, the book of Psalms that has come down to us was likely arranged during the period of the Second Temple, after the Jews had returned from exile and rebuilt the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The association of King David with the psalms is not inconsistent with David’s prowess with the lyre, a harp-like musical instrument. In fact, almost half – 73 – of the psalms are attributed to David. But others composed psalms also, notably Asaph and Korah who were leaders of musical guilds. Moses may have composed psalm 90, and two psalms are attributed to Solomon (72 and 127). Other psalms have no title and are known as “orphan psalms.”
However, as Anderson and Bishop point out, the study of psalms is not merely about the context in which they were written, or who the authors were, or into what categories and types we place them in an effort to analyze them. Rather the psalmists “invite us into a world quite different from the world of ordinary life, in which God is taken seriously as sovereign, judge, and redeemer” ( 18).
The psalms, says C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms, are not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. “The psalms must be read as poems,” Lewis maintains, “as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry” (p 3).
We do well to read the psalms, sing the psalms, recite the psalms, by allowing ourselves to enter into the imagery and metaphor and poetic rhythm of these words and commit ourselves to the generosity and everlasting love of our God.
In this study we will offer eight sessions on different types of psalms as well as links to reflections previously posted during Lent 2020. We also offer an annotated bibliography of print and online resources for your own further study. Each session includes questions for personal or group reflection.
The study is appropriate for individuals, small groups, and congregational settings, either in-person or online.
We invite you to use this study however seems best to you. If you have questions or suggestions, email Marjorie George at email@example.com.
God’s People Speak to God
Week I – Let All the Earth Give Praise
Week 2 – Psalms of Storytelling
Week 3 – The Wise and the Foolish
Reflections from Lent and Holy Week
Living the Psalms
Hard Times in the psalms
Please and Thank You
Songs of Faithful Waiting
Light in the Darkness
An Old Man Talks to God
Praising God in Strange Times
The Lament of Good Friday
A Saturday of Silence
A Psalm for Easter