I was kind of surprised when I turned the page after the 94th Psalm in Nahum Sarna’s On the Book of Psalms and found that I had already reached the Afterword. When I read an electronic book I do not have the same kind of sense that I am nearing the end as in a dead-tree book. I know there is an indicator of what percentage of the book is left. I guess I just didn’t look at it in this case. But the book of Psalms is far from over with the 94th, so I was expecting more.
Anyway, Sarna made three observations in his Afterword.
1. These songs show as a distinctive feature a direct, personal approach to God. The singers sing prayers that go through no intermediaries, but rise straight to God.
2. They take for granted that history has a meaning, and that a sovereign God rules from an ethical perspective. Evil behavior must have consequences. Those who pervert justice must come to a bad end. So to pray for these things, especially when evil seems strong, is to be on the right side of events.
3. Although the psalmists express very human emotions and desires, they never pray for personal wealth or power. This contrasts with some other songs and prayers from the Ancient Near East.
In reflecting on this, I have to say that I join Nahum Sarna in a love for the Book of Psalms. He said the Psalms have nourished him and many others. I find myself among that company.
The thing that troubles some people about the Psalms is that they cry out for destruction of enemies, sometimes even of innocent enemies (Psalm 137:9). In cases like the 94th Psalm, the cry is for justice against murderers. Everybody who enjoys mystery novels feels this kind of desire for justice. When the true killer gets caught it is a cause for satisfaction. But sometimes we also enjoy the pain of enemies even when that pain involves the suffering of the innocent. It is a human emotion. And the Psalms find no human emotion foreign.
But, if you think the Psalms are giving a divine stamp of approval to every thing they express, I think you have misunderstood them. Because of the tendency to use the Bible as a source of divine authority, many people think anything you find in the Bible has God’s endorsement or the force of a command. This is why it is important to grasp the kinds of literature in the Bible.
The book of Psalms contains hymns and prayers. Part of their spiritual significance is that they do not censure or restrict the kind of emotion you can express to God. Occasionally, they express something that is honest, human, and wrong. Once you understand who God is, then you can open up completely and honestly in your spiritual life. This is especially important when you have just suffered a blow or a grief and want to shake your fist at heaven or throw your Bible against the wall.
When I pray the psalms I find something there for every plight.