One aspect of this heritage is the Book of Psalms, which is one of our richest spiritual resources. They have, however, even among believers, divided opinion. The eighteenth century hymn writer Isaac Watts described them as sub-Christian and unworthy of use in Christian worship because of the anger and vindictiveness they are marked by. In contrast, Bono has described them as the original Blues, and cited them as the greatest single inspiration for the lyrics of rock band U2. So who is right? In this case I incline to the rock star, not the hymn writer. In a world dulled by drab, clumsy management speak and toe-curling cliché, the Psalms speak of God, his character and the world he has made in terms which inspire faith and awe.
God is beyond human imagining, but the Psalms give voice to the human aspiration to worship. Psalm 8 begins:
O lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.
You have set your glory above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise
Scripture praises God with these words:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
The Book of Psalms may loosely be said to divide into four categories, which sometimes overlap. There are songs of praise and thanksgiving; cries of bewilderment; wails of lament; and prayers of reconciliation. In these we find human need and aspiration entirely described.
Isaac Watts might have thought the psalms unspiritual, but they are full of praise and gratitude – virtues in short supply today. We are created to worship God, and suppression of this urge is harmful, leading us to worship things we should not, and which cannot satisfy us in the end. If we feel that we struggle to find the words to worship God when we pray, we should try reading a few of the psalms – they will put the words into our mouths. And the sense of thanksgiving which pervades them is a marvellous antidote to the culture of complaint which dominates our restless and dissatisfied world.
There are psalms which express bewilderment, where everything seems to be going wrong in life. I suspect there is a tendency for every generation to think it faces problems unique to itself, when in truth there are few changes in the substance of human emotion. The ancient psalmists knew, in their own way, what it was like to have a bad hair day; for life to go pear shaped; to have to handle sleaze-balls and mood swings, even if, thankfully, they didn’t express them as such. Once we recognise our common humanity, and use our imagination to translate what we are reading, these psalms become an amazing untapped resource for expressing our deepest feelings.
There has been something of a loss of protest in Christian worship. We appear to be failing to express appropriate anger to God at the evil injustices of our world - unless, of course, they touch us. Too much worship in hymns, songs and prayers is insipid and safe, tiptoeing round uncomfortable facts which might upset our faith. The psalms show no such inhibition, approaching God rather like an investigative journalist door-stepping a company boss and looking for some answers. Isaac Watts condemned this kind of language as unworthy where it is simply honest. If we are angry with God but conceal it, we are only hiding it from ourselves, for he knows our hearts better than we do. Spiritual development is built on a foundation of honesty and integrity. We should tell God what we think – we might find he returns the compliment.
And then there are the psalms of reconciliation. If we find despair in the Bible, we also find resolution. Many psalms begin with a crippling sense of hopelessness, but move towards reconciliation, where the author makes his peace with God after railing at him. As we read psalms like this, we should resist the temptation to think that the resolution took only as long as it takes to read the psalm – in other words about two minutes. Most psalms would have been the fruit of many months, even years, of doubt, conflict and, finally, reconciliation with God. They really do represent a peace process. And so, to make the most of them, we should return to them regularly to make sense of who we are, who God is, why we are here, what has gone wrong, and what can be done about it.
Meditating on the psalms quietly allows us to live the experience with the author. Where modern jargon is prosaic and uninspiring, lacking transcendence, the wording of the psalms is poetic and enervating. This is language at the frontier between heaven and earth, and it is quite unlike anything in human literature.