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Go into any bookstore today, and you will find rows and rows of self-help books. Writers of these books will try to tell you who you are, who you think you are, and who you can become. Some promise self-improvement through diet. Others talk about getting hold of your finances. Still others talk about how to find that perfect life partner.
Books like these have become very popular over the past few decades, but did you know that there is a book more than two thousand years old that does the same thing? It’s the Book of Psalms. According to St. Athanasius the psalms can teach us all about ourselves. In this book, he wrote, “you find depicted all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries” (Letter to Marcellinus).
That’s quite a claim—and one worth pursuing. We are so used to the psalms that perhaps we need to step back and take a fresh look at them to see just how well they reflect our lives—and how much they can help us live in greater holiness, love, and purity.
A Hymnal for Ancient Israel. The psalms are the most unique book in all of Scripture. Far more than any other book of the Bible, the Psalter is a mosaic of prayers that reflects much of Israel’s history. Scholars believe that it covers a span of nearly one thousand years, in fact. And what’s more, many of the psalms refer to even older events in Israel’s history. For instance, some psalms recall the lives of the ancient patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Others sing of the parting of the Red Sea under Moses or of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Just as tribal African songs recount the great deeds of that tribe’s heroes and heroines, so do the psalms honor the great men and women of Israel’s past—people who loved God and sought to follow him with all their hearts.
In that same letter when he spoke about the psalms reflecting our own lives, Athanasius also compared this book to other books of the Bible. “Each of these books,” he wrote, “is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest.” In other words, the psalms embody the whole of Scripture as they compel and inspire God’s people to give him praise.
What was the basis for the calls to praise that resound throughout the Book of Psalms? We touched on it earlier: The psalms called the Israelites to praise God for everything that he had done for them from the very beginning of creation. They called for praise as an affirmation of the people’s trust in God (Psalms 4, 23, 146), hope in God (33, 90), or thanksgiving to God (18, 118). The psalms proclaimed the wisdom of God (37, 119) and the majesty of God (8, 29). They called Israel to ponder the glorious house of the Lord (48, 84, 87), as well as their own history from the creation to the moment of that psalm’s composition (78, 105, 106). They even praised God for the way he remained with them through their most demanding trials and difficulties (9, 10, 12).
Singing a New Song. While the psalms recount God’s work in Israel’s history, they also call the people to sing a “new song” to the Lord (Psalms 96, 98, 144). God’s people were not to sing only about the past; they were to compose new songs that looked forward to what God would do in the future as well. Through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, the Israelites sensed that God wasn’t done working in the world yet, and they longed to see him continue his plan of salvation.
Some of these psalms were written while the people were rebuilding their lives and their Temple after the Babylonian Exile (147). Others were written as it became clear that their near future did not look half as bright as their glorious past—and they sought to maintain their hope and trust in the Lord (60). In fact, if we were to look at all of the psalms together—even the ones in which Israel is weeping over some national or personal setback—we would find that hope in the Lord is the one sentiment that runs through nearly every one of them.
Isn’t it amazing? No matter how much God had already done for them, the Israelites had a sense that something more was coming. Through all of their own ups and downs, they remained convinced that God was working with them, always seeking to bring his people closer and closer to him. And this is where the psalms act as one of the most beautiful bridges between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Just as Israel looked forward to a time when God’s kingdom would reign over all the earth, we in the church can look backward to see how Jesus is the fulfillment of that hope—and of every other hope and dream contained in the psalms.
What Should We Sing? What’s more, just like our elder brothers and sisters in faith, we do more than look to our past. We too sing a “new song” about the promises Jesus has made. We can sing about the day when he comes again. On that day, we will enter the new Jerusalem, and that new, heavenly home will be beyond our wildest imagination. It will be a place of happiness, peace, unity, and love. All poverty, war, sickness, and death will be defeated, and all God’s promises to his people—Jew and Gentile alike—will be completely fulfilled.
St. Augustine once said that singing praises to the Lord is like praying twice. Is it possible that he learned this lesson as he prayed the psalms himself? Is it possible that he gained new insights into Jesus, into the church, and into his own soul as he sang these new songs to the Lord?
Augustine is not alone. Like him, many others, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, had a special love for the psalms. Saints like Athanasius, Ambrose, Jerome, and Thomas Aquinas all showed deep interest in understanding, praying, and singing the psalms. Musicians like Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Wesley, and Fr. John Foley have put the psalms to song. Gregorian chant—the ancient plainsong setting of the psalms—still holds a special place in our worship.
Why Are the Psalms Attractive? What is the attraction? Why have so many people been inspired and touched by the psalms? One possible reason stems from the notion that we are a spiritual people with a soul and a body. When we come in touch with the presence of God, something inside of our soul is moved, and we are often inspired to respond with our bodies. We may want to bow down in adoration. We may want to sing for joy. We may even be moved to dance, just as David was (2 Samuel 6:11-15). Likewise, when we sing or dance in prayer, our actions can help move us in our souls and bring us closer to God.
So why should we try to sing and dance this way? Why should we seek out the presence of the Lord at all? For the same reason that the ancient Israelites did: so that we can experience God’s holiness, his beauty, and his power. The psalms sing of our longing for, and our experience of, God’s mercy, patience, and wisdom. They are reflections of the life God wants us to experience. And those reflections compel us to seek that life with our souls and our bodies—in our thoughts and prayers and in our decisions and actions.
Because the psalms are all-encompassing, we can find in them just the right guidance and inspiration we need as we go through the joys and challenges, the victories and defeats, of life in this wonderful but imperfect world. They can help us as we pour out our needs to the Lord, ask him for his mercy, rejoice in his love, lament our losses, and seek the protection of his love and power in our lives. The psalms can inspire us, comfort us, and encourage us. They can help convince us that Almighty God knows us intimately, loves us deeply, and is completely committed to us. So as you read and pray the psalms, let the Lord move you to follow the lead of so many others and sing him a new song—a song of awe and a song of love, a song of joy and a song of thanksgiving.