Podcast episode 006: How reading the Psalms will change your life
In this episode of the CCL podcast, we’re doing things a bit differently: we normally start with an issue of Christian living and ask what the Bible says about it. But this time, we’re starting with a book of the Bible, and asking how it drives and shapes and changes our lives as Christians.
Moore College Old Testament lecturer Andrew Shead takes us on a tour of the magnificently varied anthology of poems we call “Psalms” (or as it is called in the Hebrew, “Praises”). He explains what a “psalm” really is, what the whole collection is about, how the Psalms (like the whole Bible) point to Jesus, and how they help us understand what it means to be truly human.
Links to things mentioned in the podcast:
- Where to book tickets for our next event, The Psalms in the Christian life
- The Matthias Media page where you can find book specials related to this episode:
Runtime: 32:23 min. Subscribe via
Tony Payne: Hello again, it’s Tony Payne, and this is the Centre for Christian Living podcast—the podcast where we bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And usually in our podcasts, we start with an everyday issue and then go back to the Bible to see what it says about it. But today we’re going to do something a little bit different: we’re going to start with a part of the Bible and ask how it shapes and drives the Christian life. And the part of the Bible we’re going to focus on is one that many Christians find particularly relevant and applicable to their lives, but do sometimes struggle with how to apply it to their lives, and that’s the book sometimes called the prayer book of the Bible, sometimes the songbook of the Bible: the Book of Psalms.
TP: Well, this is episode 6 of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. I’m Tony Payne, and as promised, today we’re going to be looking at how the Psalms shape and drive and form our Christian lives. And in order to do so, we’re going to talk to one of those people who, after you’ve finished having a conversation with him, if you haven’t learnt something, you probably weren’t paying attention. It’s this guy:
Andrew Shead: I’m Andrew. Hi. I teach the Old Testament at Moore College, which I’ve been doing for a long time. Moving towards the more significant things, I’m married to Jean, I’ve got three young adult children, and I try and love and serve the Lord Jesus.
TP: Yes, that’s Andrew Shead, Old Testament lecturer at Moore College, and I began by asking Andrew perhaps the most obvious question, and that is, “What is exactly is a psalm?”
AS: A psalm is basically a praise. That’s what the word “psalm” means in Greek. The Hebrew title also means “Praises”. So it is a set of words said by a human being in praise of God.
TP: Which, of course, leads to a second obvious question, and that is, “What is praise?”
AS: It’s weird that the Book of Psalms is called “Praises” because not all of them are happy. In fact, there are a lot of Psalms which are anything but—you know, laments, cries of desperate individuals, and so it’s striking that the authors of the book have called them “Praises”. I think that they count as praise because they tell God and us what God is like in every circumstance of life, and that doesn’t have to be a hard or a happy circumstance. If you recognise the way that God is present and has been present and will be present in life, and say it aloud, it’s praising.
TP: That’s a really interesting definition of praise—probably different from what many people would think of as praise—saying aloud what God is like and what he has done.
AS: And scholars have often subdivided praise along the lines that you’ve just indicated—that is, praise that recounts the acts of God in salvation, and praise that describes the attributes or character traits of God often as revealed by those saving acts.
TP: That’s slightly different from how we think about praise today, generally, in our churches, wouldn’t you say?
AS: Yep, ah, sure, because we associate praise with celebration, and perhaps that’s a little narrower than the way the Bible thinks about it.
TP: So the recounting of God’s deeds that demonstrate his character or his character and who he is—the telling out of that—can be celebratory, but not always celebratory. There are different emotional registers in the Psalms or Praises.
AS: Hmm, of course. When the Psalms have a lot of vertical imagery—a person in trouble who’s in the pit—in the depths—in the underworld—and to recognise God’s presence even from those depths is a—we wouldn’t call it a celebration, but it’s fundamentally doing the same thing: looking up and saying—speaking the presence of God in the same way that we celebrate God’s victory when we are—feel ourselves to be on the high places. We’re doing the same thing from a different location, you might say.
TP: That kind of leads us into talking about different kinds of psalms, then—
TP: —different classifications of psalms, or varieties. What different sorts of psalms are there?
AS: There’s a bit of arbitrariness or randomness about the process. But we can say that there are psalms spoken by individuals, there are psalms spoken by groups of people. “I praise you”; “we praise you”. There are psalms which address God directly in—from a place of trouble; psalms that address God directly from a place of having just been in trouble, but been delivered from it; and there are psalms that address God with great celebration with no sign of trouble really on the horizon at all. And often we’ll think about those in terms of lament (when I’m still hoping for rescue), thanksgiving (when the difficult times have been very close, but I’ve just been rescued), or just straight praise.
On the other hand, of course, there are plenty of psalms that don’t address God directly in quite such a simple way. There might be psalms in which a wise speaker addresses a listening congregation about God’s law, for example, and what it looks like to be shaped ethically into that community by the reality of God. And there are psalms that are addressed not to the whole community, but perhaps focus on the king, in which we think about the role of God’s king in his plans for the world. And so on and so forth.
TP: So this would affect the way we—the way we read and utilise the Psalms, then. We often think it—in our prayer times or in our devotional life of reading or praying the Psalms almost as if we were the Psalmist.
TP: It’s a natural way to kind of read them as literature. But sometimes that’s difficult, because we don’t find themselves in those situations, or don’t envisage ourselves in those situations.
AS: Yes, that’s true. Often, I think, people feel a similar tension if they’re going to church and being asked to a sing really happy praise song but they’re not feeling happy or like praising. Are there times when we just don’t want to say or perform particular types of psalms? So that’s one issue. The other issue, of course, is the issue of whether it’s correct to assume that because a psalm says, “I”, I should read that psalm thinking that it’s about me. And I think those two things are somewhat related to one another. We need to recognise obviously that the psalms weren’t initially written about me. And importantly, that before I said the Psalms, Jesus said the Psalms. And so there’s a sense in which I am speaking Jesus’ words after him. And I think that is significant as well. One of the things it means is that whether I’m saying “I” or “we”—whether I’m speaking words of lament or praise—I should always be aware that I’m speaking them alongside other people—principally alongside Jesus. And sometimes I’m sharing in an act of praise or an act of lament wholeheartedly because I’m doing it alongside of as more than because I’m feeling happy or sad myself. I don’t know if that makes sense, but …
TP: Well, some of the psalms themselves are like that—
TP: —where you have an individual who expresses his situation: he’s in a dire situation, he yearns for deliverance, God delivers him, and the very next thing he does is go to the congregation and say, “Let me tell you about this so that you can join in the praise—join in the declaration of what God has done.”
AS: Yeah. And there’s a movement from the individual to the many—not only explicitly, where the psalmist says, “Come praise the Lord with me,” for example, but simply by the fact that a psalm made it into the Book of Psalms: even though there’s an individual speaking, it’s been collected into a book so that many can say it—both individually and together.
TP: That leads me to ask about how we use the Psalms corporately—about how we say them together. How do you think we should be saying them together and using them corporately?
AS: There’s the short answer and the long answer. The short answer is that we speak, I think, the Psalms as an expression of our corporate experience as the body of Christ. Just as when I go to church and pray a confession, it’s natural for me to think of my own sins and to confess those sins, which is right, but often I have to step back and say, “Hopefully I’ve been confessing those sins at home as well,” and there’s a sense in which, gathered together, we are confessing our sins as a community, and church is a good place for my minister to remind me that that’s what I’m doing as well.
So I think singing the Psalms or saying the Psalms together in church is a bit of a “both and”. And it’s good to remember that the Psalms are giving expression to our joys and sorrows as a community as well, and to find practical ways of doing that. That was pretty long for a short answer!
TP: Oh, that’s the short answer?
AS: It is.
TP: Well, it turns out that the longer answer is even more interesting than the short one, because it has to do with what the whole Book of Psalms is about. Because each individual psalm, really like any individual chapter of the Bible, makes sense on its own—at least some sense on its own. But it makes much more sense when we consider that it’s part of a book—that there are other chapters, or, in the case of Psalms, other psalms, all around it.
Now, we’re not used to thinking of Psalms as being part of a book—part of a progression, or even of the whole book having some sort of integrity or even plot. But it turns out that the Psalms is much more like this than we might think. And it turns out that the Book of Psalms is indeed about something. And I asked Andrew what that was.
AS: And the whole Book of Psalms is about—well, Psalm 2 tells us. Right at the beginning, Psalm 2 sets up the character and the plot of the book. It is a book about the universal reign of God and his Messiah over all the nations—from suffering to triumph. If you like: from lament to praise, which is a journey that prophetically anticipates the journey of the Lord Jesus from suffering to triumph. And for that reason, every time I read an individual psalm, I am following not just in the footsteps of Jesus’ experience of somebody who said the psalm before me, but I’m taking part in that journey, which Christ has gone and travelled on my behalf, but which it’s our role as his disciples to follow after him.
So that’s, I think, a slightly more complex way of reading a psalm. And in the heat of moment, or in the short space of a meeting or a celebration together, I may not be thinking all of those thoughts, but the Psalms are for meditating on and thinking hard about, not just for having experiences of the moment.
TP: This all makes quite a bit of sense, when you think about it, because the Psalms, like any other part of the Old Testament, really only make sense in light of the great event and person that they point forward to: the Lord Jesus Christ. And as the whole Old Testament looks forward to and promises what is about to come in Christ, the great Messiah King, so too the Psalms are all focused on this question, as it turns out.
But having said that, the Psalms still are different from every other Old Testament book, because they’re an anthology of poems, and you don’t expect an anthology of poems to have a plot.
AS: Maybe a helpful way to think about how a collection or anthology of poems can still convey a plot or a story is to think about the way in which this book has come together. So when you read through the Book of Psalms, you see that the editors have put—divided it into five smaller books: Book 1, the first 40 or so psalms; Book 2 to about Psalm 72; Book 3 to Psalm 89; Book 4 to Psalm 106/107; then you get a transition until the final book. Each of those books contains a great diversity of psalms. They don’t have an obvious plot, and yet they do have a distinctive feel to them. Book 1 is largely laments of King David that often have their original setting in the Books of Samuel when David was going through his very interesting life story. Book 3 is often communal laments and triumphs as we imagine the nation of Israel during the monarchy experiencing the various attacks from its enemies and turning towards God.
It’s possible in a very rough way to locate the various books of the Psalms as we move through in different points of Israel’s history, because this was a book that grew over the whole period of Israel’s history. But also to notice that laments dominate the beginning; praise dominates the end. Psalms that focus on the theme of the reign of God and his Messiah punctuate key moments of the Psalms: at these seams between the books, we will find psalms that draw our focus back onto the theme of the Messiah’s reign. And so in the—if we step back and blur our eyes a little bit, we see this picture coming out—of the sufferings of God’s king—David, in the first place—leading to the terrible crisis of a nation that has fallen under judgement and its monarchy has been destroyed because of its unfaithfulness, raising the question of how God can keep his promise to his king, and then we see God of his own sovereign power and goodness raising up a ruler above the heavens and the earth to bring about his purposes in spite of the failure of the Davidic kings. There’s a plot there. But it’s a plot that is created out of a collection of collections that arose just organically, and so you’ve got this very complex collection that, by God’s providence, is more than the sum of its parts.
TP: I’m struck by the way you describe the Psalms as having this constant complex movement from suffering and lament to glory and praise—how that is the picture of the—of what the Messiah does on our behalf. But in a sense, that’s—that’s also how our journey and our discipleship connects with that, in that the Christian life is the same shape: it’s a journey from suffering to glory. It’s a taking up of the cross and a denial of the self leading to salvation and glory: that same shape permeates our lives.
AS: Absolutely. And when I was speaking about the Psalms as a sort of a book with a sort of a plot, I began with Psalm 2. But the first psalm is obviously Psalm 1 and it’s a wisdom psalm in which there’s no speech addressed directly to God, a human speaker advises the reader of the book about what they should do with this material. It should be meditated on. And those who soak themselves in the words that they find in this book will be those who have deep roots put down by springs of living water and will thrive. There’s something about immersing ourselves in this story which is life-giving.
TP: Well, we’ll get back to our conversation with Andrew in just a moment. But I just want to break in to tell you that if you’re finding all this as stimulating as I did in talking with Andrew, you will not want to miss our next Centre for Christian Living public event, which features Andrew Shead speaking on the Psalms in the Christian life. It’s being held on the 30th of August, starting at 7:30pm, at St Cuthbert’s Anglican Church in Naremburn, just over the bridge here in Sydney. And for all the details of the event and to order your tickets, just go to our website, which is ccl.moore.edu.au. That’s ccl.moore.edu.au. And of course, while you’re there, check out all the articles and essays that are contained on the site on various topics connected with Christian living and our extensive archive of video and audio from past events.
Also, as usual this month, we’re featuring some specials from our friends from Matthias Media that relate to the subject at hand. And the book I particularly want to commend to you is Ray Galea’s book God is Enough, which does a superb job of doing what Andrew is really talking about in this episode, and that is reflecting on the Psalms and seeing how the message of the Psalms focused through Jesus has so much to tell us about the nature of the Christian life. Ray’s book is just like Ray: it’s warm and humourous and well written, and especially if you’re feeling a little bit middle aged in the Christian life and like you’re running out of steam, get hold of God is Enough: it’s a tremendous shot in the arm as it reflects on a number of the Psalms.
The second book on our specials page that I’d like to commend is a newer book by Mike Raiter and Rob Smith called The Songs of the Saints. And it’s really about how the songs of Scripture should inform the way we think about singing and how we sing in church. It’s a punchy, very well written book full of Scripture that will provide a great deal of encouragement not just for church music teams and church musicians (if you’re one of those, you should definitely read this book!), but for all of us, because, let’s face it, we all sing in church, or at least we should. For these specials as usual, go to matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl and you’ll see a special page there with these books on it at a special price. Do take advantage of that offer while it lasts.
But back to our conversation with Andrew Shead about the Psalms and how they shape the Christian life. And as it turns out, there is one particular Psalm that is especially helpful in connecting the message of the whole Book of Psalms with our lives as Christians.
AS: And the second psalm that I think gives us a hint about how as Christian readers we enter into the story of the Messiah is Psalm 8: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” In the middle of that, the famous lines, “What is a human being that you remember him?” What is this? It then goes on to celebrate human dominion over creation. Now, it’s very interesting that after all these psalms of often the sufferings of the Messiah, but very much focused on the royal figure, you have this one psalm about human beings in general. And this—in this psalm, we actually see that God’s king is not just some exalted figure; he is a human being, and in fact, in some ways, God’s ideal king is a model of an ideal human. And there’s a very close identity—almost even a redefining of what it means to be human—by looking at the example of God’s king, and that’s where, of course, the epistle to the Hebrews takes Psalm 8 in its second chapter.
And so that sense of solidarity with God’s king is brought very much to the surface, I think, by Psalm 8. There’s a sense in which by following in the footsteps of the Messiah—of the Lord Jesus—I do not merely have a blueprint for living well as his disciple. I actually have a blueprint for living a fully human life that, otherwise, I could never have lived.
TP: When you think about it, the Psalms in all their variety do reflect that richness of human experience, don’t they. And what you’re saying is that it’s not just an observational experience of human suffering and all the varieties of human life; it’s the human life lived by the Messiah—spoken by the Messiah—that gives a certain shape to our lives and forms us as we live those lives.
I’m not sure there’s a question coming. I’m just reflecting what you’re saying—that that’s—it’s quite profound, so that the … It’s almost like the—that if discipleship means learning Christ and putting on Christ—
TP: —not just as our master and Lord, but as the true man—as the true human that we were meant and always should have been. But the Psalms are this rich complex collection of poems that express so many facets of that true human life as seen in the Messiah.
AS: Yeah. Going back to Psalm 1, there’s a interesting little word. I don’t have a Bible with me, but in about the second verse of the Psalm, talks about “blessed is the one who does not sit, stand, or walk with the ungodly—the unrighteousness—but who meditates on the law of the Lord”. That word “meditate” doesn’t mean “to read silently”; silent reading is an invention of a thousand years later. It actually means “to mutter—to speak aloud”. And it’s the same word used in Psalm 2 of the enemies of God and his Messiah, who rise up and mutter against the Lord and his anointed.
Where am I going with this is that there’s an act—there is a significance to the act of saying something aloud or performing it because it has a moral force or shaping power upon the person who says that it’s different from just thinking about something or reading it silently. For example, when we invite guests church who are not believers, we’re very happy for them to sit and listen to a sermon or a Bible reading, but when we say, “We’re going to stand up and say the creed”, we may give them permission not to say that, because to speak something aloud is to make a moral commitment to it in some way. To perform the Psalms is to be shaped by them in a way that is quite powerful, and maybe, just as a final little note, something the—whose power has receded in recent years as we’ve stopped using the Psalms in the way the church historically has used them.
TP: So that in the same way that confessing our sins corporately, saying the creed corporately, reading the Bible, having it read aloud—
TP: —rather than sitting and reading it silently together has some significance: we enact it, we embody it, we own it in some sort of way—
TP: —saying the Psalms regularly together has the same effect.
AS: I think so. Just as you reinforce a habit by doing that habit, we can reinforce the hold of the gospel on our lives by performing the gospel in our lives. And I would suggest, Tony, that maybe it’s something that need not be restricted to corporate worship. When we use the Psalms privately, there may be something to be gained by speaking them aloud privately. Shut the door and speak the Psalms.
TP: I’m interested that you say that our reading of the Psalms—perhaps even our reading aloud of the Psalms—is formative for us over time. We tend to think of the—of how we use the Bible as Christians—how we utilise it and employ it in our Christian lives—as being a bit more simple in cause and effect: I read a passage, I learn a particular lesson, I go and put it into effect. Or I understand a new truth and I note that and change my thinking. Are you suggesting that just the fact of reading them and performing them and having them on our lips and in our hearts and in our minds over time shapes and changes us sometimes in intangible ways that aren’t as simple as that: I learnt something and now I’m putting it into practice?
AS: Yes, I think I am saying that.
TP: I hope you do appreciate the brilliance of my interviewing technique at this point, where you ask an incredibly long question that really only has the answer “Yes” or “No”. But thankfully, Andrew was willing to give us a little bit more on the subject.
AS: Let me just go sideways out of the Book of Psalms by way of illustration. The other day, I was reading Jeremiah chapter 7—his famous passage against the people who say, “The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” but don’t live lives that match their faith. And he says to them that to say “The temple of the Lord” is to tell a lie about God. And the reason that Jeremiah says this is not because the statement is false, but because their lifestyle turns their statement into a lie. Just believing something is not enough, and in fact, what it means to believe something is not the same as giving mental agreement to the truth of something.
And so let’s come back into the Psalms or Scripture in general: we need to find a way of connecting the things that our minds agree to or agree about with the things that we choose to do from day to day—that follow out of those things that we technically believe, and then one step further to the things that we value—the things that we love—the things that we hate—once we are shaped at that level—the level of our desires—then, I think the Bible would say, we’ve reached a point where we really believe what we think we believe. And the performance and internalising of the word of God, I think, plays a role in that growth process.
TP: Well, we’re just about at the end of our conversation with Andrew Shead on the Psalms in the Christian life. I do hope you’ve enjoyed this episode as much as I have and that you’ll subscribe to this podcast at iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, and that you’ll leave us a comment or a review, and that you’ll send us any questions or comments, including any topics you’d like us to cover in future episodes. Just contact us at ccl AT moore edu au.
But let’s conclude by giving Andrew one final word on the Psalms.
AS: Yeah, if I had one final thing to say, it would probably be to recognise that outside the narrow confines of this conversation, it’s a lot easier to talk about how great the Psalms are than to actually get into them, because, let’s face it, they are not easy. They’re quite foreign to us culturally, and frankly we don’t always feel the way that Psalms seems to expect that we feel. There is no easy simple solution to the difficulty of the Psalms, apart from practice—like learning an instrument or getting used to a new altitude. The Psalms can train us to love what they love. But we need to work at it, and so we shouldn’t be put off by diffic—by hard times that the Psalms might give us—by challenges that they throw at us. Let’s find ways together of putting the Psalms back into our lives and sticking at it until they start to do their work.