I’ve been reading a lot about the Psalms lately, going through NT Wright’s The Case for the Psalms with a a couple friends at Grace Point. It’s been an illuminating opportunity to dive into the history and themes of the Psalter, what we can consider the founding document of our approach worship. Wright describes the Psalms with flair, highlighting the mountains and the valleys, the sorrow and the joy, the grief and the hope of human experience as poetically illustrated in the Psalms.
There’s so much to consider and to study, and I confess that I’ve left so much of this cherished book of the Bible to gather dust on my shelf. But now, as I take a closer look at these songs, I find myself seeing how they echo through what we play and sing in today’s corporate gatherings.
Much of the emotion of the Psalms arises from what Wright calls the tension of the “now and not yet.” As the Israelites found themselves burdened by the weight of their own sin and the schemes of their enemies, they looked back to the experience of the past to find hope for the future. Psalm 89 provides a great example of this. After thirty-plus verses proclaiming God’s power, the Psalm turns to a lament, as the speaker cries out in pain.
How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, with which your enemies mock, O LORD, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed. (Psalm 89:46-51, ESV)
The Psalms endure because they express deep grief even as they point God’s people to great hope. The writers of these cherished songs don’t turn away from the human experience. They sing of the greatness of God but also express the impatience of a grieving people.
It’s hard to read the Psalms and ignore an unfortunate truth. Much of our worship music today seems afraid to go to the places the Psalms do, to plunge to the depths of despair. We express the jubilation of the freed, but in some ways, the sweetness of salvation is taken for granted, as we sweep aside the shared experience of bitterness away from God.
For this reason, I am drawn to songs of worship like Josh White’s “Enclosed by You.” It’s an honest and even painful look at a soul embroiled in doubt and fear. “Will you stay with me when I forget you’re there?” White asks. “Will you still love me when my love lingers elsewhere?” That feeling of distance from God, the darkness that fills the space we create as we push him away - these are shared experiences. Who among us hasn’t felt this before?
But like the Psalms, White’s song responds with hope, both from the experiences of the past and with a promise for the future. In the chorus, the narration changes, as God speaks (with a three-part harmony perhaps in reference to the Trinity).
I will never leave you
Leave you waiting ‘round
I’m the one who’s been waiting
For you to turn around
There’s nothing wrong with expressing our grief. Indeed, deep, sincere expressions to God is what He desires. The Psalms, and song’s like White’s, remind us that this tension between the “now and not yet” is a part of our earthly existence, but they also point us to the knowledge that the God we serve is faithful. He has rescued us from death, and He is sure to rescue us again and again and again. His mercies are new every morning. As Wright sums it up, “Past, present, and future belong to Him. We are called to live, joyfully and painfully, in the story that is both His and ours. Our times are in His hand.” In your deepest of emotions, God is faithful to answer. Just like He has before. Just like He always will. Our worship should be a reflection of our experience and a dedication of our faith.