It’s a brisk Ulster day and the sun shimmers against the cold tempered blades as they sparkle beside the dull carved stones. All is silent until footsteps start along the grass and it cracks like glass under the black brogue shoes of mourning men.
There is one, robed in black, who goes on before the others. He walks through the stones carved with names of those whose stories are now as faded as the details of their lives. This man, robed in black, goes to add another to their silent number. He speaks out the words, not of his own but of His Master, and then a note is struck and what goes up and out from the lips of those gathered is as stark as the cloud of their warm breath against the cold day. In tuneful chorus the words ride on the cold wind:
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want. . . .
In time the words and Crimond tune fade off like the condensed breath that birthed it, and the men walk away to go on about the work of the living in a world still turning.
That scene is not a strange one for the history of our land as by gravesides the preacher would bring a word and then the 23rd Psalm would be sung before the people would depart to go on about their way.
The Psalms have held this inextricable grasp on God’s people like few other parts of Scripture. For most of us in our darkest days we turn to Romans 8, John 10, Revelation 21 and the Psalms to be reminded about the goodness of our God and His gracious kindness towards His children. In the Psalms we are witnesses to how God understands our hearts better than we do ourselves as He lays bare our struggles, our emotions, our hopes, and our failings alongside His great faithfulness. It is that raw honesty of the Psalms that has so drawn God’s people to them over thousands of years so that Sinclair Ferguson can say “in the Bible God speaks to us, but in the Psalms God speaks for us.”
The connection of God’s people to the Psalms is an enduring one most recently demonstrated by the instinctive reaction of many ministers and pastors to preach from the Psalms on the first Sunday of quarantine as COVID-19 closed our places of worship. Over our land and across continents and oceans, multitudes of God’s people found their fingers flicking to Psalm 46 or Psalm 121 for both comfort and challenge in these days of coronavirus chaos.
It is only in recent years that the Psalms have become so dear to me in a way that makes me mourn how often I neglected them. They have unleashed and dried up my tears; they have caused me to stammer and to sing; they have allowed me to grieve and to smile, and they have shown me my self and my Saviour more clearly. And as I regret, I wonder for how many of us have the Psalms been a treasure trove of Scripture that we have feared to grab hold of, worrying that if we reach out and take the treasure in front of us we will need to run from the rolling ball of revelation about ourselves and our God that will undoubtedly follow.
If we have been away from the God’s Word for a while our fear in coming back is that we are waiting to be scolded and rebuked with an ‘I told you so’ and though God necessarily disciplines His children, He does so with grace and love and mercy as our heavenly Father drawing us to Him, not as a disgruntled megalomaniac driving us away. In our first fragile days of gingerly walking the road home, one of the softest, clearest and well worn paths to tread is through the Psalms. That path will introduce us again to God’s great and gracious character and help our hearts find His voice and His words as we fumble with our own. Ligon Duncan sums it up like this:
I would suggest if you’ve been out of the Word, go back to the Psalms because the psalmist so often wrestles with this sense of being far from God. And he’ll give you the words that you need when you don’t have them in your own heart to express the yearnings and the unfulfilled longings of your heart to God.
And then it’ll remind you that God already knows this. God has dealt with those things in his people for thousands of years. You are not the only person to ever go through what you’re going through right now. Suddenly you’ll realize that in the psalmist you have a compatriot, someone who knows what it’s like to live in your shoes, and that God already knows how to deal with his heart and so he knows how to deal with yours. So I’d say get back into the Word and maybe start with the Psalms.
I have heard people jokingly say that a real man can solve any household and mechanical problem with duct tape, WD40 and a pair of vice grips. The Psalms are the equivalent do-it-all tool for the disciple of Jesus and one of the greatest pastoral and personal gifts that any Christian can give to themselves or to others is to open the pages of their Bible and read God’s words in the Psalms as He reads our hearts. So whether sorrow has slithered its way into your life, grief grasped hold of your heart, you feel as if God doesn’t care and isn’t listening, or if praise is so overflowing that you are lost for words, my prescription is the same – start with the Psalms.
The remedy of the psalms also shows off the reason for them. We live in a fallen, broken, messy world which is full of pain and suffering and the Psalms never shy away from that. Their truth in handling that reality is why Don Carson says to “learn the lessons of the Psalms early in life, because you will need them later on” and that is what we are going to try and do together over the next number of blog articles as we look at the reasons as to why we should start with the Psalms and what lessons we can learn from them.
Best and blessings,
Some resources on the Psalms: